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The UK’s Most Bizarre Family

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The UK’s Most Bizarre Family


This video is supported by The Great Courses Plus. [DAVID] “I’m normal, my wife is normal, but my daughters are which more foolish than the other. Nancy writes lies about me, Diana’s the most hated woman in the country, Jessica’s missing off the face of the earth, and Unity is in the arms of… Hitler!” The Mitfords were you’re perfectly typical 1920s aristocratic English family. David was a peer in the House of Lords, while Sydney ran the household. Together they had six perfectly atypical daughters; Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. And a son called Tom which everyone forgets. He’s the Rob Kardashian/Branwell Brontë of the family. Growing up in country houses around Oxfordshire, they were cousins of the Churchill’s and only really mixed with children of their own class. Although Tom went to Eton, the girls were homeschooled by revolving set of nannies. Each with their own questionable curriculum. [NANNY] “Today’s lesson is shoplifting. Now in you go children and try a little jiggery-pokery.” Not being allowed to go to school was frustrating for most of them, but agonising for Jessica. She once confronted her father, [JESSICA] “Tom goes to school so why can’t we?” [DAVID] “Tom’s a boy and you’re a girl!” [JESSICA] “Amelia Earhart’s a girl and she just flew across the Atlantic!” [DAVID] “She’s American. That doesn’t count.” So without school they turned to the library. All of them read ferociously and developed an appetite for self learning. There wasn’t much else to do out in the country, they only had each other and animals to play with. They developed their own rules, social norms, and even accent. Nancy was the funny one. Her wit made for an excellent novelist, but a mean older sister. [DEBO] “She was a cosmic teaser. She once told Unity, Jessica, and me that our names came from nit, sic, and bor.” [JESSICA] “Nancy was too sharp tongued to be anyone’s favourite sister.” Pam was the clever one. All the sisters had to raise chickens and pigs for pocket money. They paid rent to David for the land and got to keep any profits. A young Pam contacted local farmers about their finances. Realising she was paying more for the land than the commercial average. She unionised the children and led negotiations for reduced rent. Diana was the beautiful one. At 16 the French artist Paul Helleu drew a series of portraits of her. [DIANA] “He was in love with me, which complicated things.” Even Churchill called her “Diana-mite”. Unity was the strange one. She loved to shock. Instead of a necklace for society balls, she’d wear a snake. [NANCY] “She’d stand there stroking it as if daring young men to speak to her. If she felt the party was boring, she’d let it escape.” Jessica or ‘Decca’ was the rebellious one. At age 9 she’d write to companies pretending to be a shop owner in the hope that sent her free samples. [DECCA] “I particularly enjoyed Benger’s baby food. It was lovely.” But apart from her pet sheep ‘Miranda’, Decca found country life boring and dreamt of running away. Deborah was the nice one. As the youngest she did all she could to keep the peace. Even when Diana, Unity, and Decca were making international headlines and the family were at each other’s throats. Deborah was the bridge between them all. They were all clever, funny, motivated children. But they grew up in isolation and were rarely challenged by anyone except each other. They developed an unreasonable level of self confidence and belief in themselves. As adults this gave them the ability to do whatever they wanted, but not necessarily the perspective to judge the consequences. Their social status and class expected women to marry well, keep their mouth shut, and run a house. Preferably a manor. Even their own father spoke up in the House of Lords to protest women joining the chamber, [DAVID] “It would be a waste of public money if we had to build a women’s bathroom.” So when they turned 18 they each had a debutante ball, to introduce them to society and find a suitable husband. Sydney would sit in a room with the other chaperones, while the sisters usually snuck out the back to a more interesting party. The roaring twenties were London high society’s answer to the Great Depression. For a privileged group of friends there were parties every night; toga parties, Russian parties, clown parties, and treasure hunt parties. [WOMAN] “The winners will be the first team back here with the policeman’s hat, a lamppost, and a duck!” The group were dubbed by the press ‘Bright Young Things’, and nearly all of them would go on to be famous actors, writers, artists, and photographers. Notable members included John Betjeman, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, and Nancy and Diana Mitford. John Betjeman (the future poet laureate) wrote a poem about the Mitford sisters. And once proposed to Pam, [JOHN] “Sophistication blessed dame, Sure they have heard her call, Yes even gentle Pamela, The most rural of them all.” She declined Betjeman, accepting another young man’s proposal, but then he got tuberculosis. In the end the just gave the engagement ring to Unity and went to run a farm. Years later when asked what happened to the ring Unity said, [UNITY] “Oh that, I gave it to Hitler.” Diana married within weeks of a debutante ball to fellow Bright Young Thing, Bryan Guinness. She regularly featured in newspapers as an icon of youth and sophistication – this was an era where journalists would write about the latest dinner party or the colour palette of a woman’s drawing room. To the outside world she had everything; family, beauty, and wealth. Then she met Oswald Mosley. To anyone in Britain today the name Oswald Mosley is associated with fascism, anti-semitism, and the Nazi regime. But in 1930 he was a young charismatic public speaker who had taken British politics by storm. [MOSLEY] “Suppose people had stood on the shores when Drake and Raleigh set out to the new world and told them, ‘No don’t go today the sea looks rough’.” [Applause] Thousands attended his speeches, his ideas had support across the political spectrum, many people regarded him as the next Prime Minister. Diana Mitford fell madly in love with him. They began a not-so-secretive affair, meeting at every opportunity not caring who saw them. Eventually Diana decided to leave Bryan, but Mosley would not leave his wife. Diana knew that divorce alone could be socially damaging, but she was proposing to live openly as another man’s mistress. A man firmly in the public eye with a wife and three children. Nancy begged her to reconsider, [NANCY] “Darling you are so young to be getting in wrong with the world. I believe you have a much worse time in store than you imagine.” Mosley left conventional politics to set up his own party, The British Union of Fascists. He started dressing members in black uniforms and held rallies promoting a totalitarian style of government as the only solution to mass unemployment and the threat of communism. Diana began working at the BUF and wholeheartedly shared his vision for a far-right Europe. At 22 she left Bryan to live closer to Mosley. That same month Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Unity, Decca, and Deborah were still children stuck out in the country. The three youngest sisters were incredibly close, they call each other Boud and created their own language, ‘Boudledidge’. They were so fluent they could talk without being understood by adults. They formed the ‘Society of Hons’, labeling people they didn’t like a ‘Counter-Hon’ and launching propaganda campaigns against them. Decca hadn’t been allowed to visit the homes of other local girls because Sydney did not ‘know their parents’. Even as a child Decca realised this was a euphemism for ‘not the right type of parents’. This experience of class divided deeply affected Decca, especially as the younger sisters were beginning to realise their home life was unusual. [DECCA] “By the time I was 13 major storms were brewing outside The Mitford Fortress. Population centers were designated distressed areas. I read in the papers of the hunger marches, the Great Depression, and the fighting in the streets.” Thanks to Nancy and Diana, ‘The Mitford Girls’ already had a reputation. Deca and Unity both felt the need to forge their own identity. They read books, pamphlets, leaflets, any political literature they could get their hands on. Although best friends, they were drawn to separate ideology. [DECCA] “When Boud became a Fascist, I declared myself a Communist. We had chosen opposite sides in the conflict of the day.” Their room was separated into two halves, pictures of Hitler on one side, Lenin on the other. When the family had guests round Unity would ask, [UNITY] “Are you a fascist or a communist?” One visitor replied, [MAN] “Neither I’m a Democrat.” [UNITY & DECCA] “Oh how wet!” It’s worth remembering that the words ‘fascism’, ‘communism’, ‘Hitler’, and ‘Stalin’ didn’t then carry the historical weight they do today. Their horrors wouldn’t be truly displayed for another few years. In the early 1930s there were many that viewed fascism and communism as legitimate alternatives that wouldn’t necessarily lead to abuses of power. All the Mitford girls had a finishing year in France before coming out to society. [SYDNEY] “No respectable lady is without conversational French.” Except Unity, she requested her year of study be in Germany. In Munich Unity became infatuated, obsessed with Hitler. She befriended guards at the Nazi headquarters to get information on his movements, and then built her timetable around it. She discovered a cafe he visited regularly, [UNITY] “One day I got a telephone call to say that he was there. I jumped straight in a taxi. I sat at the table opposite the Führer, I was shaking so violently I had to put down my cup.” Unity went to the cafe every day while Hitler was in the city. She’d drop her tea spoon in the hopes of being noticed by him. Eventually he began to nod at her and then one day the restaurant owner came over, [MAN] “The Führer would like to speak to you.” [UNITY] “It was the most wonderful, beautiful moment of my life. I went over to him and he stood up and saluted and shook hands and introduced me to all the others. I can’t tell you of all the things we talked about, I told him he ought to come to England and he said he would love to but he was afraid there would be a revolution. Then we spoke of London, films, the new road system being constructed all over Germany. After all that you can imagine what I felt like, I’m so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit dying. I suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world.” According to Unity’s diary she would go on to speak to Hitler 140 times before the war. She was invited to parties and rallies as his esteemed guest. They would talk privately in his apartment for hours. [UNITY] “It was the greatest moment of my life, sitting at the Führer’s feet and having him stroke my hair.” Hitler was clearly captivated by Unity too. She could be funny and had the confidence to engineer those initial meetings. Many of Hitler’s inner circle believed her to be a spy, Hitler would defend her to them time and time again. It was clear they had a unique relationship in every possible way. She called him ‘Wolf’ and he called her ‘Kind Child’. They gave each other gifts, like Pam’s engagement ring, and Unity even claimed he gave her a gun. Saying all women should know how to defend themselves. Although Unity was certainly in love with him, there’s no evidence their relationship was ever sexual. Not that that stopped the British press from speculating. When Unity wrote an open letter urging England to recognise the “Jewish Danger”, newspapers ran the headlines “The Girl Who Adores Hitler” and “Peer’s Daughter is Jew Hater”. This crushed David who was firmly against fascism. He refused to ever meet Hitler or Mosley. Sydney however loved Hitler, dining with him and Unity several times. Pam met him once, describing him as, [PAM] “Very ordinary, like an old farmer in a brown suit.” Diana was the only other sister taken in by him. Hitler was naturally interested in her connections to Mosley. After Mosley’s wife died he and Diana married in secret, at the house of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda). Hitler’s wedding present to the couple was a framed photograph, of himself. Interestingly Diana was perhaps the only person in the world to be close friends with both Churchill and Hitler. She tried to persuade them to meet but both always declined. By now Nancy had written several books and her career had begun to take off. Her novel ‘Wigs on the Green’ is a satire of British fascism. Stories of Unity, Diana, and Mosley all appear with little done to hide their identity. Nancy was horrified by the rise of fascism in Britain. When Diana invited her to a BUF event, she made a point of declining in Yiddish. Meanwhile Decca began to hear stories of her rebellious cousin, Esmond Romilly. As the nephew of Winston Churchill, his exploits had made the papers. He’d been expelled from school, joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and was now running a left-wing magazine out of a bookshop in London. He was Decca’s hero. [DECCA] “There was a marvelous photo of him at which I used to gaze wistfully.” At a dinner party they eventually met. [DECCA] “I heard you were going back to Spain. I was, well, well I was wondering if you could possibly take me with you?” Esmond immediately agreed and they hatched a plan. Decca would falsify a letter from a friend inviting her on a road trip of Austria, this meant her parents would never be able to verify her location. She emptied her bank account and obtained a visa traveling as Esmond’s secretary. She was about to achieve her childhood dream of leaving the Mitford fortress. With a man she already loved, all while fighting on the front line in the war against fascism. Esmond hid at the other end of platform while Decca said goodbye to her parents. She felt guilty as they gave her spending money. It would be the last time Decca would ever see her father. She was 19 years old. Eventually they arrived in Spain and found work writing news dispatches about the war. Test firing rifles was the closest Decca ever got to fighting. Meanwhile Sydney had contacted the mother of Decca’s friend in Austria and discovered the lie. Given her allegiance to the communist party, they feared she had gone to Russia. [SYDNEY] “She’s probably lying dead in a ditch somewhere.” Esmond wrote to his mother admitting everything, [ESMOND] “Decca and I are in Spain, by the time you read this we shall be married. Any attempt by the Mitfords to get her back and I shall leak to the papers the truth about Unity and Hitler.” When the news made it back to the Mitfords, David sank into his armchair. [SYDNEY] “Good gracious, she didn’t take any clothes fight in.” [DAVID] “It’s worse than I thought. Married to a Romilly.” Through Churchill, the Foreign Secretary got involved and he cabled the British Consul in Spain, [MAN] “FIND JESSICA MITFORD. AND PERSUADE HER TO RETURN. STOP.” However the Consul was out when the message arrived, Esmond intercepted it and forged a reply, [ESMOND] “HAVE FOUND JESSICA MITFORD. IMPOSSIBLE TO PERSUADE HER TO RETURN. STOP.” By now he papers had got hold of the story and thanks to the fame of a Unity and Diana, plus Esmond’s connection to Churchill, it made headlines across Europe. Unity wrote to Decca, [UNITY] “I spoke to Hitler and he has forbidden it to appear in the German papers, which was very nice of him wasn’t it? As for Esmond, I hate communists as much as he hates Nazis, I naturally wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him if it was necessary for my cause and I should expect him to do the same to me. But in the meantime, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be quite good friends.” At this point the British ambassador met with Esmond and Decca. He was coordinating the Royal Navy in the evacuation of refugees. [AMBASSADOR] “If you do not board that ship and leave Spain, I will tell the Press Bureau that Britain will no longer be cooperating in the evacuation of refugees.” This was probably a bluff, but Esmond and Decca agreed to leave as long as they could disembark in France. Deborah was deeply affected by all this. While her three closest sisters were being torn apart by politics and the press, she alone faced the fallout at home. She wrote to Decca, [DEBO] “Farve goes off to the House of Lords and Muv sits around reading books like ‘Stalin, My father’, ‘Mussolini, the Man’ or ‘Hitler, my Great-Aunt’s Brother’s Son-in-law.’ [DECCA] “Oh Debo, your letters do make me roar.” It was now 1939 and war in Europe was seeming more more likely, Decca and Esmond set sail to America. The couple were welcomed by New York society, the war hero nephew of Winston Churchill and his funny posh English wife were a hit at every party. While Decca was happy to denounce the rest of her family as Nazis, she could never bring herself to cut ties with Unity. [DECCA] “Although I hated everything Boud stood for, we had a bond. She was easily my favourite sister.” Unity was becoming increasingly concerned that war would mean disaster for her two favourite countries. [UNITY] “I cannot stand to see England and Germany tear themselves apart.” She made it a personal mission to stop the approaching war, begging Hitler to seek alternatives. In 1939 Hitler gave her Unity her own apartment in Munich and even agreed to help her furnish it. Unity must have known that the Jewish family who owned the apartment before hadn’t “gone abroad” as was claimed. By this point the Nazi treatment of the Jews was clear for all to see. Even if Unity didn’t know their ultimate fate, she still rejoiced at stories of Jewish people being humiliated in the street, or being made to cut grass with their teeth. Unity his innocence and naivety is often cited to explain her actions, but they cannot extend to this. On the 3rd of September she received a telegram that Britain had declared war on Germany. [UNITY] “This is to say goodbye. I send my best love to you all and particularly my Boud when you write. If anything should happen to me and the English press try to make some untrue story out of it against Wolf. You will see to it that the truth is known? Won’t you?” She then walked to the English Gardens, her favourite spot in Munich, and took the gun from her bag. [Gunshot] The bullet had gone through a head and embedded in the back of her skull. Somehow she survived but with severe brain damage. Hitler banned all news or reporting of the incident, so it was two months before the family in England learnt what had happened. The press however, only got half of an incorrect story. This is how Decca (5,000 miles away) read in the newspapers that her favourite sister had died. In some articles she’d been killed during a row with Hitler, and in others she’d been shot by the Nazi High Command and buried in an unmarked grave. Hitler arranged a train to take unity to hospital in Switzerland. This is where Sydney and Debora were able to collect her. [DEBO] “She had an odd vacant expression. I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for my mother, seeing her like that. But it wasn’t just her appearance, she was a completely changed person.” The journey back was through a Europe now at war. [DEBO] “Every time the train jolted, stopped, and started it was torture for her. It was a long, dark, and cold journey and Unity was so ill.” Once home David rushed up and kissed her. There began a rare family truce for those early weeks of recovery. Unity kept repeating sentences and asking the same questions, [UNITY] “Where is my Boud? I thought you all hated me, but I don’t remember why?” She would recover physically but remained childlike and in need of care the rest of her life. When a goat gave birth to twins Unity excitedly wrote to Decca. It must have broke Decca’s heart to see the childish scrawl and pictures. Although glad to see Unity alive and happy, the papers were right, the best friend she left behind had died in Munich. During the war Nancy worked in first aid, took in families of Jewish refugees, in the evening wrote her autobiography, and even found time for a relationship with Gaston Palewski – the French politician and close friend of Charles de Gaulle. Nancy fell deeply and madly in love with him. For him it was just another affair. Nancy was furious with Sydney and Diana’s support of Hitler. The authorities even questioned Nancy about Diana’s visits to Germany. [NANCY] “I advised them to examine her passport to see how often she went. I also said I regard her as an extremely dangerous person. Not very sisterly behaviour, but it such times I think it one’s duty.” At the beginning of the war Diana and Mosley were possibly the most hated people in Britain. News of their marriage and Hitler’s attendance had got out. If Germany invaded Britain, many people assumed Mosley would be the Nazi’s puppet dictator. They were both arrested and imprisoned without trial. Diana was taken to Holloway prison and given nothing but a thin mattress in her cell. She slept to the sound of air raid sirens and the bombs falling on London. Once a direct hit burst the main sewer, flooding the cells with sewage for three days. [DIANA] “The only thing that saved me was the thought it was temporary. Had I known I’d be there years, I would have died.” It was Pam who looked after Diana’s children. She and her husband, the world-renowned physicist Derek Jackson, were unable to have their own. [PAM] “I had Derek, the animals, and the children. The war years were busy for me, but not unhappy.” Decca and Esmond were fairly isolated from the war, but when Esmond’s brother was taken prisoner, he felt his duty was to return to England and fight. [ESMOND] “I’ll probably find myself being commanded by one of your ghastly relations.” Their letters to each other during this time are filled with stories of their new baby, how much they love, miss each other, and the horrors of war. [ESMOND] “My four closest friends have been killed. It is a cruel blow from something against which it is impossible to strike back. War is so huge and powerful and at the same time so vague and shadowy. Very much love, darling angel, Esmond.” The next message she received was a telegram, [MAN] “2ND OF DECEMBER 1941.MRS E.M.ROMILLY. REGRET TO INFORM THAT YOUR HUSBAND ESMOND ROMILLY MISSING ON ACTIVE SERVICE. STOP.” 5 days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America joined the war. Churchill was in Washington to meet the President and while there he also met with Decca. Churchill told her that Esmond’s plane had gone down 110 miles from shore, in the freezing North Sea. No one could have survived more than 20 minutes in the water. Trying to comfort Decca but unaware of the family politics, he explained that Diana’s prison cell had been cleaned to make life easier for her. [DECCA] “Why is Diana being pampered by servants, when her precious friends have just killed Esmond? If you want to comfort me, have Diana and Mosley put against a wall and shot!” During the war Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire. [DECCA] “Congratulations Debo, you so very nearly got a Duke.” [DEBO] “Oh Decca, don’t be such a counter-hon.” It was Andrew’s older brother Billy that was heir to the dukedom. He was married to the American Kick Kennedy, sister of the future president. However not long after the ceremony, Billy died in the war and Kick died in a plane crash. The title of Duke passed down to Andrew. At 23 Deborah became heir to a duchy and one of the largest estates in England. After three and a half years in prison Moseley became very ill. The authorities feared that death in prison would only make a martyr of him. Both husband and wife were released under strict supervision. 20,000 people gathered in protest. The Mitford family were once again front-page news. Tom had spent the war fighting across Europe and Africa. With only a few months left, he was hit by a round of machine-gun fire. Tom died aged 36. [DECCA] “It seems like a lifetime since I last saw him. He was one of the few people in England I was really looking forward to seeing again. We are only one family of thousands, all over the world, and what a world it has become, all black and dark.” The end of the war was welcome but it had cost Sydney; Tom, Esmond, Billy, 4 nephews, her relationship with Decca, Diana, and her marriage. And then quite suddenly, Unity became ill. She was rushed to hospital with an infection in her old head wound. 9 years after her suicide attempt, she died aged 33. Decca wrote to Sydney, [DECCA] “Of course I’m heartbroken, but I mourned for her when I first realised we could no longer be friends.” [SYDNEY] “She mourned for you too. She knew you’d probably never meet again, but her love for you was quite unchanged. She was always going back in her mind to when she was young, when you were all there. I could never understand my daughters. But I think you understood each other.” Nancy wrote a trilogy of books about an aristocratic English family. The character Uncle Matthew is an irritable Lord at his country house in Oxford. Jassy dreams of running away and her devoted friend Matt leaves school to join the Spanish Civil War. You get the idea. The books were international bestsellers and helped turn the Mitford myth into legend. Nancy became a rich celebrity author and an icon of the English upper-class. She moved to Paris to be closer to Palewski, [SYDNEY] “Oh why do all my daughters fall for dictators?” Nancy had a hugely successful career, but an unhappy personal life. Palewski never gave her his full attention or love. She developed Hodgkin’s disease and so began a long painful illness. She was looked after by two unlikely enemies. Decca and Diana kept vigil by her bedside in Paris. [DECCA] “It is curious meeting Diana again after 34 years. She’s a beautiful aging sculpture. We stayed off politics and only spoke of Nancy.” Nancy died in 1973, a cult figure and hero to many. Pam and Derek divorced in 1951. For the next 40 years she lived with her Italian girlfriend Giuditta Tommasi. Together they smuggled rare breeds of chickens into the UK and were happy to be the favourite aunts of many nieces and nephews. Diana and Mosely could never accept that their association with the Nazis had ruined their political careers. They spent the rest of their lives campaigning for a united Europe. [DIANA] “The British Empire is failing and alone we can no longer rival the USA or the USSR.” Diana eventually denounced the Nazis and anti-semitism, but it was generally seen as too little too late. When she appeared on British radio in 1989 she still spoke of Hitler with fondness, [DIANA] “He was extraordinarily fascinating and clever. He had mesmerising blue eyes.” She knew this would make the papers, and cause massive public outcry – mainly from Decca. To this day Diana is remembered as a figure of controversy, shock, and hate. After the war Decca was furious at the injustices faced by black veterans and she became Secretary of the Civil Rights Congress. In 1951 Decca was personally involved in the case of Willie McGee, a young black man sentenced to death. They were unable to stop the execution but led mass protests in Mississippi, standing off against the Ku Klux Klan. Decca described herself as a ‘professional muckraker’. Causing trouble wherever she saw abuses of power. She spent five years as an investigative journalist in the funeral industry, visiting undertakers in disguise as a soon-to-be widow to see how they talked up from a wooden box to a marble mausoleum, [DECCA, AMERICAN ACCENT] “Well we could use the Redwood, but we’ll have to cut off his feet.” The result was a fantastic exposé in 1963 called ‘The American Way of Death’. The book was number one in the bestseller charts for months, and the reason JFK was buried in a simple coffin. It made Jessica Mitford a celebrity in the United States. She spent the rest of her life lecturing and writing on every topic imaginable. When asked in an interview what she wanted for her own funeral she joked, [DECCA] “Oh nothing fancy, just six black horses with plumes, streets to be closed off, proclamations to be issued, that sort of thing.” When the time came her many friends honoured the joke. 500 people marched through the streets of San Francisco following six black horses attached to an antique glass hearse, filled with her books and articles. Deborah, Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, was the last Mitford. She and Andrew inherited Chatsworth House, a rundown stately home in the Derbyshire countryside. [DEBO] “It’s only slightly larger than Versailles, 178 rooms and not a single bath.” Over 50 years Deborah brought it back to life. It required the largest renovations the house had seen in 200 years. She opened it to the public in the 1980s and is regarded today as one of the UK’s finest country houses. Deborah remained good friends with the Kennedy family, when Howard Macmillan visited the US in 1962, Deborah accompanied him to smooth relations with the president. She and the president got on very well, [NANCY] “Rather too well.” Nancy would tease. He stayed at Chatsworth during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Deborah once rang Decca from the telephone in the Oval Office. When she died in 2014 Deborah was admired by the public in a different way to the others, she represented not only the last of the Mitfords but the end of an era in British history. The story of the Mitfords is one of confidence. They were born in a time that expected them to be the obedient wives of aristocrats – yet they stuck their head above the parapet to make their own mark on the world. Some of those marks were abhorrent and ugly, the same self-assuredness that led them to success also blinded them to ideology. However individually remarkable, they were presented to the world as a group. Their story captured the public imagination like no other. It had sex, money, sibling rivalry, politics, and drama… Times six. My favourite quote to describe the sisters’ relationship comes from Nancy and Decca, [NANCY] “Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity.” [DECCA] “But darling, sisters are life’s cruel adversity.” Apart from already being wealthy members of the aristocracy, the secret to the Mitford’s success was their obsessive self learning. To be insightful and well-rounded people they had to read, enroll in college courses, visit libraries, and do investigative journalism. Why? Because they didn’t have… The Great Courses Plus. The Great Courses Plus is an amazing online learning service with over 11,000 video lectures. You can take courses in history, physics, travel, and music. You can learn to cook, draw, train a dog, or crochet. Anything that interests you. While writing about Decca running away to Spain in this video, I realised I didn’t know anything about the Spanish Civil War. So I searched for it on The Great Courses Plus and watched a lecture about it from a world-leading professor. It was so good I ended up going back through the course and learning about the entire history of Spain. Now The Great Courses Plus are giving viewers of this channel unlimited access to their library of courses, by visiting thegreatcoursesplus.com/human Click the link in the description below to start your free trial today. It’s great being able to learn and study whatever you want without the stress of homework or tests. If school or university kind of put you off studying like it did me, then The Great Courses Plus is perfect for making learning enjoyable again. I want to say a big thank you to all the people who worked really hard to make this video possible. And to Rögnvaldur Tómas and Everett Higginbotham, along with all my other patreon supporters. Thank you for subscribing xx

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35 thoughts on “The UK’s Most Bizarre Family”

  1. Human Interests says:

    Sources, Footnotes, & Further Reading/Watching
    There’s so much I left out of this story; 2 husbands, 15 children, several affairs, a couple of major scandals, and hundreds of anecdotes that were funny/interesting but not vital to the overall plot. If you know the story of the Mitford’s already then you know I haven’t really done it justice – they deserve a 10-part Netflix series. Here’s a few of my favourite stories that didn’t make it in (mostly about Decca):

    When out one day as children, David (father) saw a horse he liked and decided to buy it there and then. Unfortunately horses were not (and still not) allowed on passenger trains, but David insisted and the entire family (with horse) took the train back to Oxford anyway. Over the next few weeks this story circulated with shock and horror through the English upper-class – it was unthinkable that a family like the Mitford’s had been made to travel in 3rd class! 

    While Decca was in Spain, Esmond got a job with Reuters translating radio messages from both the Nationalist and Republican sides, these would then be sent to newspapers around the world for publication. The slight problem was that neither Esmond or Decca knew Spanish. He found a local to translate the Republican side but they refused to translate the Nationalist broadcasts. Decca and Esmond really needed the money, so they just made them up. 

    When Churchill visited the USA he initially sent two secret service men to collect Decca and bring her to a church where they would sing hymns with Roosevelt. The two men turned up at the house of her friend Virginia Durr, Virginia’s response was, “It’ll take more than the secret service, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the President of the United States to get our Decca into a church.” Decca visited Churchill in the White House the following morning (20:55), afterwards he gave her $500 to help raise the baby (about $8000 today), but Decca regarded it as blood money and gave it to the Communist Party. 

    Martin Luther King was the only person actually able to get Decca into a church, she once went to hear him speak in Alabama. However they were surrounded by the KKK and trapped in a church overnight while a 1500 strong mob through tear gas in through the windows and torched her car. Here’s the article she wrote for Esquire about the experience https://bit.ly/2QLHX2D 

    When Tom died Decca inherited a sixth of his assets, to ‘repay the damage done by her family’ she donated this to the communist party. In response David cut her out of his will, for fear she’d do the same again (which she admitted she probably would have done.) Decca later got a job in the communist party, though she had lie on the application about her father’s occupation, “Lord and Peer of the Realm hardly seemed appropriate.” For another job that needed a degree she said she was a graduate of The Sorbonne – Paris was under Nazi occupation at the time and she figured nobody would bother checking.

    For those who wish to fall further down the Mitford rabbit hole or just hear the sisters talk themselves, here’s a playlist of interviews they did https://bit.ly/2DgvZGk 

    Footnotes
    The Mitfords loved nicknames and hardly ever called each other by their real names. To make the video easier to follow I deliberately didn’t use them and edited the quotes accordingly. (Decca and Debo are the exceptions as they were widely used by everyone.) This how I kept track while writing https://bit.ly/2saQfqp 

    Most of the quotes in the video are taken verbatim from either “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family” by Mary S. Lovell or “The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters” by Charlotte Mosley, however a few were changed to help the story along, be less confusing, or shorter. A few examples: In David’s opening speech (00:03), he did say “I’m normal my wife is normal, but my daughters are each more foolish than the other” but he didn’t give a summary of what each of them were doing at the time. When Unity meets Hitler (09:20) her speech then has been significantly shortened, it’s taken from a mix of several long letters to various family members. At (13:42) it was actually a nanny that supposedly said “Good gracious, she didn’t take any clothes to fight in”, but I changed it to Sydney to avoid having to introduce another character. 

    (00:40) They grew up in several houses, moving around quite a lot. The house in the video is Asthall Manor. Decca and Debo described the family’s financial decline with the chant “From Batsford Mansion, to Asthall Manor, to Swinbrook House, to Old Mill Cottage”.
    (01:09) All the sisters were quite obsessed with Emilia Earhart. Following in her footsteps, Pam was one of the first people to fly trans-Atlantic. 
    (01:25) Their accent was legendary. Painfully posh to the point where even other aristocrats thought it sounded ridiculous. For example they would put the letter ‘r’ in words like ‘lost’ and ‘gone’, “I’ve lorst my chauffeur, where has he gorne?” We didn’t even attempt to replicate it for the video as it would have sounded absurd. 
    (02:04) Her relationship with Paul Helleu was deeply questionable. According to Diana’s diary nothing ever happened, but it was widely accepted that Helleu was obsessed with her and Diana enjoyed the attention in turn. There was an age gap of 51 years. 
    (02:16) Unity’s snake ‘Enid’ crops up in a lot of family stories. Decca claims she once scared the Nanny by wrapping it around the lavatory chain, the Nanny fainted when she went to flush and had to be rescued from the toilet with a crowbar. (The other sisters refute this story.)
    (02:42) A quote by Decca cut from the video here, “Oliver Twist was so lucky to live in such a fascinating orphanage.” 
    (04:05) Evelyn Waugh wrote the novel Vile Bodies (https://amzn.to/37Cni72) about the Bright Young Things, turned into a film by Stephen Fry (https://imdb.to/2qHlfOo). Waugh was very close friends with Nancy and in love with Diana, he eventually married someone also called Evelyn. 
    (06:30) Divorce was then impossible without giving a public cause. To save Diana from becoming a social outcast Bryan lied saying it was him who had had an affair. 
    (08:43) Unity’s middle name was Valkyrie and she went by Unity Valkyrie while in Munich. She was also conceived in the Canadian town of Swastika, Ontario. She would tell everyone she could this fact. 
    (10:08) Unity was pretty loose-lipped with Hitler and at one point was a major security concern for the British intelligence agencies. As much as the Germans thought she was a spy, so did the British. She once told Hitler how many anti-aircraft guns London had. 
    (11:50) It was actually Nancy’s husband Peter Rodd who declined on behalf of them. I didn’t mention Peter in the video as I felt there was already too much focus on ‘The Husbands’. Nancy and Peter’s marriage was not a happy one and they had little to do with each other anyway.  
    (14:50) Decca and Esmond got married in the British consulate, described in the papers as “The wedding not even the destroyer could stop.’ Sydney although opposed to marriage did come over to attend. 
    (15:18) Before going to America, Decca and Esmond lived in Rotherhithe, a very poor part of London. They had a baby here (Julia). When a measles outbreak hit, Decca went to the clinic for Julia’s inoculation but was told she would already be immune via Decca’s breast milk. The nurse had assumed Decca had grown up in Rotherhithe, any mother living by the docks of London will have at some point had measles herself. Decca had grown up in the countryside though, mother and child both caught the disease. It nearly killed Decca, and Julia died aged 4 months. 
    (16:01) Hitler never did help her furnish the apartment, but then again, 1939 was a busy year for him.
    (18:37) Nancy also spent some of the war volunteering on the French/Spanish border, helping women and children refugees. 
    (19:30) The prison had many wives of BUF members and Diana became sort of a leader figure. A fellow inmate, a German Jew who had escaped a concentration camp claimed Holloway was dirtier than Dachau.  
    (20:24) Esmond was in the airforce and never actually fought in the trenches. 
    (22:19) Tom was in Burma (Myanmar) when he died. He’d been promoted to an office job but insisted on being allowed to fight.
    (22:45) Unity and Sydney were actually on the family’s Scottish island Inch Kenneth when she became ill. It took a long time to make the crossing back to the mainline where she could be taken to hospital. The only communication with the mainline was via morse code with a lamp. 
    (23:54) Palewski wouldn’t marry Nancy because she was a divorcee. Palewski eventually married someone else, also a divorcee. This destroyed Nancy and she never really recovered from it. 
    (25:47) The picture on the right here is of Decca and Esmond running a bar in Florida. They meant to go to New Orleans but took a wrong turning and stayed there for a couple of years. The irony of two communists running a bar in Florida was not lost on them.
    (26:42) I wish I could have included Decca’s second husband Bob Treuhaft in the video, he was a huge part of her life and a remarkable individual in his own right. He was a lawyer who worked on many of the cases and issues Decca fought for. A lot of her books were co-written with him and together they made a formidable lawyer-activist power couple.

    I've hit the character limit for a YouTube comment, Sources and Further Reading are in the reply.

  2. FT FreddyYT says:

    2nd comment

  3. FT FreddyYT says:

    100th viewer.

  4. Macaroon_Nuggets says:

    I forgot I was subscribed to you!

  5. MistaTwoJeffreyTwenty Yaay says:

    He's back.

  6. Theodóra Tinna Kristínardóttir says:

    Yey new video

  7. Strawberry Jam says:

    This was awesome

  8. Jacob Wagner says:

    Sooooo…. They all were shit except Decca and the Farmer

  9. Nikolaj says:

    I really like this style of video!

  10. Hail Giratina The true god says:

    Well, that was indeed a weird family.

  11. SabotarE9 says:

    I didn’t even know this channel existed and I’m subscribed

  12. Theodóra Tinna Kristínardóttir says:

    Amazing story and a great video

  13. asdsdjf asdjxajiosdqw says:

    Nutcase parents.

  14. xAAQUAA says:

    interesting video well worth watching.

  15. General Lo says:

    David Mitford had it rough…
    Seeing your daughters commit to extremists…

  16. Jake Marchbank says:

    Poor Tom

  17. everett higginbotham says:

    Very interesting story, I knew some of the names but I never knew they weren't related.

  18. Alex Ace says:

    This is why i love youtube. I would have never known or shown any interest towards this kind of knowledge unless i would have been pushed towards it. Now after half an hour, i can say that i am wiser, know more and shook by the fact that you can never be taught enough and school doesnt teach you even 10% of the world you should know.

  19. History.mp4 says:

    This is why you don’t homeschool your kids

  20. Seamusjim says:

    This I am sure; is one of the best videos on YouTube

  21. metalema6 says:

    Mosley was based though

  22. Liam Cosgrove says:

    I knew I subscribed for a reason, that was incredible

  23. Mooooohamsalad says:

    Why does America always get stuck with the losers.

  24. Kurtownia says:

    That was interesting, boring and pointless. Simultaneously. I will never know whether it was worth my time.

  25. Bobby London says:

    This was really well done! Hope you’re proud. Really enjoyed this and never would have learned about it

  26. Freek Middelburg says:

    WOW what an extraordinary story, I enjoyed watching it a lot and I hope you cover more fascinating historical topics. You seem to be very proficient at it.

  27. Bob Maluga says:

    I could have swore that I heard something about the one sister being close to Hitler…… I saw it on the History Channel or The Discovery Channel in a show about Hitler…….I'm pretty sure it mentioned a women dying under "suspicious circumstances" after having an argument with Hitler at her apartment….. I think they were arguing because Hitler was convicted by some of his "advisors" to cut ties with her. Unless the story I saw was about a different women that shot herself over Hitler and thus means that Hitler new multiple crazy women…….And then there was Eva Braun sooooo……..

  28. RoyisDaBEST says:

    this would make a great movie, hella confusing though

  29. nugettisoturi says:

    this was so interesting and in a weird way inspiring. great video!

  30. Adam Sohn says:

    Great video, as always. I'm actually surprised this only has 5000-ish views. More people should know this video exists!
    One thing to point out, I couldn't keep good track of which sister's story was being told. Maybe some more subtitles in the pictures or narration more focused on one character at a time would help.

  31. King Utopus says:

    How this happen to got 5k views
    Like cmon people

  32. will borch says:

    What is this?..

  33. Justinas Slepavicius says:

    I love this video so much. Thank you!

  34. Sarah Noelle says:

    The quality is so good, I love this video. It is better than Santa shark.

  35. Lukáriův Skromný kanál says:

    This video is really good. It's kinda sad that it only got 5000 views. It must have taken atleast a month of work i guess. And you even got 3 subtitles?

    One of the most underrated videos on youtube.

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