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‘Bright Young People’: The 6 Extraordinary Mitford Sisters

‘Bright Young People’: The 6 Extraordinary Mitford Sisters


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The Mitford Sisters are six of the most colourful characters of the 20th century: beautiful, smart and more than a little eccentric, these glamorous sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah – were involved of every aspect of 20th century life. Their lives touched many of the 20th century’s biggest themes and events: fascism, communism, female independence, scientific developments, and the declining British aristocracy to name but a few.

1. Nancy Mitford

Nancy was the eldest of the Mitford sisters. Always a sharp wit, she is best known for her feats as a writer: her first book, Highland Fling, was published in 1931. A member of the Bright Young Things, Nancy had a famously difficult love life, a series of unsuitable attachments and rejections culminated in her relationship with Gaston Palewski, a French colonel and the love of her life. Their affair was short-lived but had a great impact on Nancy’s life and writing.

In December 1945, she published the semi-autobiographical novel, The Pursuit of Love, which was a hit, selling over 200,000 copies in the first year of publication. Her second novel, Love in a Cold Climate (1949), was equally as well received. In the 1950s, Nancy turned her hand to non-fiction, publishing biographies of Madame de Pompadour, Voltaire, and Louis XIV.

After a series of illnesses, and the blow that Palewski had married a rich French divorcee, Nancy died at home in Versailles in 1973.

Anne Glenconner has been at the centre of the royal circle from childhood, when she met and befriended the future Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, the Princess Margaret. Anne spoke to me from the resplendent saloon at Holkham Hall to discuss her truly remarkable life - a story of drama, tragedy and royal secrets. A story she reflects on with a charming sense of humour and true British spirit.

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2. Pamela Mitford

The least-known, and perhaps least remarkable of the Mitford sisters, Pamela lived a relatively quiet life. The poet John Betjeman was in love with her, proposing multiple times, but she eventually married millionaire atomic physicist Derek Jackson, living in Ireland until their divorce in 1951. Some have speculated this was a marriage of convenience: both were almost certainly bisexual.

Pamela spent the rest of her life with her long-term partner, Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tommasi in Gloucestershire, remaining firmly removed from the politics of her sisters.

3. Diana Mitford

Glamorous socialite Diana secretly became engaged to Bryan Guinness, heir to the barony of Moyne, aged 18. After convincing her parents that Guinness was a good match, the pair married in 1929. With a huge fortune and houses in London, Dublin and Wiltshire, the pair were at the heart of the fast-moving, wealthy set known as the Bright Young Things.

In 1933, Diana left Guinness for Sir Oswald Mosley, the new leader of the British Union of Fascists: her family, and several of her sisters, were deeply unhappy at her decision, believing she was ‘living in sin’.

Diana first visited Nazi Germany in 1934, and in the following years was hosted several more times by the regime. In 1936, she and Mosley finally married – in the dining room of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance.

Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford on a black shirt march in London’s East End.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Mosleys were interned and questioned in Holloway Prison as they were considered a threat to the regime. The pair were held without charge until 1943, when they were released and put under house arrest. The pair were denied passports until 1949. Supposedly, Jessica Mitford’s sister petitioned Churchill’s wife, their cousin Clementine, to have her reincarcerated as she believed she was truly dangerous.

Described as an ‘unrepentent Nazi and effortlessly charming’, Diana settled in Orly, Paris for most of the rest of her life, counting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor amongst her friends and permanently unwelcome at the British Embassy. She died in 2003, aged 93.

4. Unity Mitford

Born Unity Valkyrie Mitford, Unity is notorious for her devotion to Adolf Hitler. Accompanying Diana to Germany in 1933, Unity was a Nazi fanatic, recording with absolute precision every time she met Hitler in her diary – 140 times, to be exact. She was a guest of honour at the Nuremberg Rallies, and many speculate Hitler was somewhat enamoured with Unity in return.

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Known to be something of a loose cannon, she never had any real chance at becoming part of Hitler’s inner circle. When England declared war on Germany in September 1939, Unity declared she could not live with her loyalties being so divided, and tried to commit suicide in the English Garden, Munich. The bullet lodged in her brain but did not kill her – she was brought back to England in early 1940, generating large amounts of publicity.

The bullet caused serious damage, reverting her almost to a child-like state. Despite her continued passion for Hitler and the Nazis, she was never viewed as a real threat. She eventually died from meningitis – linked to cerebral swelling around the bullet – in 1948.

5. Jessica Mitford

Nicknamed Decca for most of her life, Jessica Mitford had wildly different politics to the rest of her family. Denouncing her privileged background and turning to communism as a teenager, she eloped with Esmond Romilly, who was recuperating from dysentery caught during the Spanish Civil War, in 1937. The pair’s happiness was short-lived: they moved to New York in 1939, but Romilly was declared missing in action in November 1941 as his plane failed to return from a bombing raid over Hamburg.

Jessica formally joined the Communist Party in 1943 and became an active member: she met her second husband, civil rights lawyer Robert Truehaft through this and the pair married the same year.

Jessica Mitford appearing on After Dark on 20 August 1988.

Best known as a writer and investigative journalist, Jessica is most well known for her book The American Way of Death – an expose of the abuses in the funeral home industry. She also worked closely in the Civil Rights Congress. Both Mitford and Truehaft resigned from the Communist Party following Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ and the revelation of Stalin’s crimes against humanity. She died in 1996, aged 78.

6. Deborah Mitford

The youngest of the Mitford sisters, Deborah (Debo) was often belittled – her oldest sister Nancy used to cruelly nickname her ‘Nine’, saying that was her mental age. Unlike her sisters, Deborah followed the path most expected of her, marrying Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1941. Andrew’s older brother Billy was killed in action in 1944, and so in 1950, Andrew and Deborah became the new Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire.

Deborah is best remembered for her efforts at Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The 10th Duke died at a time when inheritance tax was huge – 80% of the estate, which amounted to £7 million. The family were old money, asset rich but cash poor. After protracted negotiations with the government, the Duke sold vast swathes of land, gave Hardwick Hall (another family property) to the National Trust in lieu of tax, and sold various pieces of art from his family’s collection.

Deborah oversaw the modernisation and rationalisation of Chatsworth’s interior, making it manageable for the mid 20th century, helped transform the gardens, and develop various retail elements to the estate, including a Farm Shop and Chatsworth Design, which sells rights to images and designs from Chatsworth’s collections. It was not unknown to see the Duchess herself selling tickets to visitors in the ticket office.

She died in 2014, aged 94 – despite being a staunch Conservative and a fan of old-fashioned values and traditions, she had Elvis Presley played at her funeral service.


The Mitfords: Six sisters who captured the maelstrom

The death of Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, signals the end of an era. From the birth of the eldest Mitford girl, 110 years ago, this famous family have transfixed us, writes Lyndsy Spence.

Born to Lord and Lady Redesdale, known as Farve and Muv, the six Mitford girls - Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah - experienced an upbringing steeped in eccentricity. Living in genteel poverty in stately homes, the girls variously believed in poltergeists, pre-destination and barmy superstitions.

Their philistine father's loathing of foreigners, Catholics and anywhere "abroad" ended up instilling in his daughters an individualist mindset and the confidence to pursue their own strong-minded opinions. Their vague and domesticated mother - odd in an age where servants exclusively ran aristocratic homes - gave the girls a healthy dose of common sense.

Hens were purchased with the intent of selling eggs to smart London restaurants, linen napkins were abandoned because of the cost of laundering them, and the children were forced to follow a kosher diet. Shellfish, sausages and "the dirty pig" were forbidden. The reason was an odd belief that cancer was less prevalent among Jews.

But medicine was withheld and operations were to be performed only as a last resort. School was frowned upon, in case the girls should develop thick calves from playing hockey. As such, a succession of dotty governesses attempted to educate the girls. And, aside from their beloved nanny, known as Blor, serving as a firm but fair disciplinarian, the girls were left to their own devices.

With brains, beauty and a scathing sense of humour, the press heralded the girls as celebrities before they did anything to merit such praise. On the fringes of the Bright Young Things and writing farcical novels on the upper classes at play, Nancy's earliest literary work was overshadowed by her sisters' political views.

Diana made a splash on British society when she married the brewing heir Bryan Guinness, but it was her affair with the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley, that brought her lifelong infamy. Caring little for social mores, Diana lived openly as Mosley's mistress, followed by a spell in Holloway prison. She became the catalyst for the progression of the Mitford sisters, and how the sisters reacted to the turbulent 1930s.

Unity, the restless middle child, followed Diana's lead and took up with the fascist cause, donning a Black Shirt and parading through Hyde Park, accosting the communists. Moving to Germany at the age of 19, she fulfilled her ambition of meeting Adolf Hitler, worming her way into his inner-circle and plunging head on into Nazi politics. Following a clumsy suicide attempt in 1939, she died a few years later when the bullet-wound became infected. A sad, wasted life - she ignited more fury than pity.

Jessica, known to friends and family as Decca, counteracted Unity's Nazism and became a communist. Eloping with her fellow communist cousin, Esmond Romilly, she ran off to fight the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Shunning her aristocratic upbringing, she moved to the US, where she fought for civil rights and wrote bestselling books, including Hons & Rebels and The American Way of Death. She went on to become a late-blooming pop star, singing with her group Decca & The Dectones.

Nancy was a socialist. At the end of the war, she escaped a dull marriage by moving to Paris, where she wrote her novels. She dressed in Dior and carried on a hopeless affair with Charles de Gaulle's right-hand man, Gaston Palewski.


The Creepy Mitford Sisters

I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the semi-creepy Mitford family (that is, if I’m guessing right, Nancy, Unity, Decca and Diana. The only one I am not sure about is the one whose head is the highest. That is either Unity or Pamela). Two more of the sisters are not in that photo, and brother Tom is out having sex with men somewhere, and then denying it, and then sleeping with 50 women to compensate.

I’m surprised nobody has made a sweeping film about these 6 sisters (with Charlize Theron as Diana – she’d be PERFECT) – it’s hard to believe they even existed – but they did – and there isn’t an un-interesting one among them. Some of them are BARELY likeable – but damn, they are interesting, and they did indeed live in interesting times. I read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family with fascination (but almost like I was picking up a rock to look at the bug life underneath).

There was something about the photos of all of them that compelled me, sucked me in. They were all so gorgeous, so breezy-looking, “bright young things,” with their “vile bodies” (to quote Nancy Mitford’s friend and pen pal Evelyn Waugh), in their wool suits, and two-toned shoes, their marcelled hair and light eyes. But there is something a bit blank in some of their expressions, and that – combined with their intense beauty – always seemed a bit creepy to me. These were strong-willed ferocious women. Add to that the general family love affair with fascism and with Hitler and/or Stalin/socialism … and you get a picture of a fascinating whirlwind of politics and the major destructive ideologies of the 20th century (all appearing in the same family at the same time, the cataclysm of the 1930s). It’s glamorous and ugly and creepy, all at the same time.

Oswald Mosley (who ended up marrying Diana Mitford) has been of interest to me for quite some time, because of his time period and his obvious importance. The Remains of the Day is about that group of fascists in England at that time and the Lord in that book is based on someone like Oswald Mosley. I’ve also been very interested in him because his son was (is) Nicholas Mosley – who has gone on to write one of my favorite novels of all time: Hopeful Monsters (British Literature Series). Not to be too weird but I’ve felt like: If my own spirit could pick up a pen and write a book about its core beliefs – that book would be something like Hopeful Monsters. I’m dead serious. Nicholas Mosley, the son, has written a couple of memoirs – attacking his father’s fascism – and his books (especially Hopeful Monsters) are one long indictment about such totalitarian structures. Quite extraordinary.

The Mitford sisters were all caught up in the enormous upheavals of the mid-20th century, many of them on the wrong side of history. They were ardent fascists and anti-Semites, Hitler-lovers (especially Unity Mitford, who appears to have been truly in love with Hitler. She ended up shooting herself in the head – and SURVIVED. Not for long, she died a couple years later, but still._ Weird weird girls. There are pictures of Unity hanging out with “The Fuhrer” and she has this flat-eyed look of entranced exaltation on her face that seriously gives me the creeps.)

Her sister Diana was no better. She ended up marrying Oswald Mosley (he was her second husband), connecting the fascists in England directly to the Nazis. There are pictures of her and Unity whooping it up with a bunch of SS officers. Found the photo – here it is (Unity on the left, Diana on the right):

Diana and Unity and their brother Tom all attended the 1937 Nuremberg rally – I think Diana had also gone to the first one in 1933 (but the photo above is from the 1937 rally). Tom, despite his fascist beliefs – ended up joining the British army (not joining Oswald Mosley’s ranks of stormtroopers.) He died in Burma shortly before the war ended. He was brilliant, like most of the Mitfords were – HIGHLY intelligent – dauntingly so. He was probably gay. He was a major womanizer – yet he was known to have gay relationships, so the womanizing was (as it so often is) a front. Kind of a tormented guy.

Here’s Diana with one of her greatest admirers:

Hitler loved Diana. Loved her looks. Called her “the perfect Aryan woman”. She took this as a compliment. Diana was imprisoned during the Second World War.

Here’s Diana – who was considered (by certain elements in the British secret service, who kept an eye on them) even more dangerous than Oswald Mosley:

A biography of Diana was just published, actually – I haven’t read it yet, though. I do want to.

Here’s Nancy Mitford, the writer:

Here’s Unity Mitford, surrounded by her treasured memorabilia:

She wanted to marry Hitler. I think, too, that he might have even come close to proposing. At least that’s the rumor. Her love for him was ecstatic, almsot sado-masochistic. Like Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” poem. Longing for the brute black boot to stomp on her face, etc.

The little girl sitting down is Decca (Jessica) Mitford – who eventually became an ardent Communist (imagine the rupture with her fascist family!!) – moved to the United States, became an investigative journalist and also ran a bar in Miami – Unity stands behind Decca:

Here’s Deborah (“Debo”) Mitford – whose main goal in life was to become a Duchess. She did. I believe Debo is still alive. Oh, excuse me. The Duchess of Devonshire!

, Love in a Cold Climate.

Decca, along with her lifetime of muckraking journalism (the most famous one being her book on the funeral parlor/mortuary business in America: The American Way of Death Revisited), also wrote a memoir: Hons and Rebels.

Debo wrote a number of books. Here’s one: Chatsworth: The House.

The Mitfords are intimidatingly gorgeous, especially Diana. Reading The Sisters, I kept finding myself drawn to all those pictures. They are willowy, gorgeous, seemingly breezy girls, born to high ranks of society, and all of them tossed themselves towards their own destinies with ferocity. They had no barriers, nothing held them back. Nobody ever said NO to them. Nancy wanted to write books. She did. Some of them are still taught in college level English today. Diana was a fascist. Unity was a fascist. Unity was in love with Hitler. She spent most of her time fawning on him until finally she snapped and shot herself in the head. That is a kind of destiny. Decca was a communist. She broke with her family and threw herself into Communist Party activities – until the 50s when she became disenchanted and stopped. She then opened up a bar in Florida. Which is basically one way of saying, “Uhm, yeah. I accept capitalism.” (Of all of them, Decca is the most likeable.) Deborah wanted to be a Duchess, and so she married a guy who would eventually become a Duke – and so she became a Duchess. It’s a really interesting thing – despite all of the pain some of them went through (uhm, you know, shooting themselves in the head, being imprisoned, pilloried by their country – to this day, some of them, etc.) … there is this heightened burning sense of destiny in all of them. That sense of fiery destiny could turn them into either monsters, or great artists. And the family did seem to split along those lines. FASCINATING.

The reason I am going on and on about this is because the letters of Decca (Jessica) Mitford (the Communist) have just been published: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford and here’s the review in the Times. I did not realize (or I had forgotten) that when Decca’s father Lord Redesdale died – he bequest all of this stuff to his kids – and he added “except Jessica”. So she was NOT forgiven. By him, anyway).

I think I need to get a copy of that book.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Only a few letters battle directly most report the details to friends. Her activism, though, is only one subject in a collection that deals with virtually every part of her life: her husbands, her children, her writing, her publishers and, more and more as the years pass, the Mitfords.

Each one gets her own treatment. Early on, there was a touching reconciliation with her mother, and as the years pass, this becomes warmer and more solid, though after Lady Redesdale’s death, Decca can’t resist noting to a friend one of her mother’s diary entries: “Heifer born today. Mabel [a servant] two weeks holiday. Decca married. Tea with Führer.” (The Redesdales were visiting Unity in Germany.)

If Decca has forgiven her mother her one-time Hitler sympathies, has nothing but tenderness for the deluded and disabled Unity, is cautiously affectionate with Nancy and warm though prickly with Deborah, she is unbending about Diana’s steely and unrepentant Fascist history. Visiting London with her son, Benjamin Treuhaft, who is half Jewish, she notes Diana’s offer of a meeting: “I thought better not, as I didn’t want Benj turned into a lampshade.”

Just fascinating. I don’t know why I kind of can’t look away from the Mitfords – but I can’t. I’m strangely drawn to all of them. Not like: Ooh, I endorse their beliefs … but in the same way that I am strangely drawn to Stalin and to Charlie Manson and those who were true believers. They never cease to fascinate.


Mad Mad Mitfords | Review of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson — Laura Michele Diener

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. —Laura Michele Diener

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
$29.99, 400 pages

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I.
Thanks to Tolstoy, we know all about happy and unhappy families, and why unhappy families are by far the most interesting. Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” And rarely was it more clear that she found inspiration in her blood kin.

Their charm was collective as well as singular. Men from John Betjeman to Winston Churchill fell in love with one or the other of them or more likely, the whole lot of them, brother Tom included. After reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “So true to life being in love with a whole family, it has happened in mine.” Waugh himself was a lifelong devotee of the Mitfordian charm. He fell in love with Diana for a time but admired Nancy far more. Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were both published in 1945, the year the war ended, and when great families like the fictional Flytes and the real Mitfords wondered where they fit into the new order. Both novels contain a melancholic nostalgia, but Nancy approaches her’s with out-and-out humor and what Thompson terms “a will to joy” that delighted a war-weary English audience.

Thompson identifies herself as a longtime admirer of Nancy Mitford. She has written a biography of her alone, Life in a Cold Climate (2003). “When I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be souffle-light as well as monolithic, and still hold monolithic truths.” It is this tone of truth, delivered with a light and gracious hand that Thompson strives to imitate in The Six. She sparkles, delights, and barbs in the voice of Nancy. In Nancy’s classic style, Thompson peppers her book with epigrammatic gems:

“Feminism notwithstanding—female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type.”

And then there’s that sharp Mitford prickle: “Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story).”

And a choice amount of dry observations:

“She [Nancy] was not especially good at men. In truth all her sisters (but especially Diana and Deborah) were better at handling men than Nancy. When the men in question include Adolf Hitler, one might justifiably say that this was not a gift worth having.”

And just as Nancy could unexpectedly lapse towards the lyrical, Thompson trills out a lovely turn of phrase. She describes the fortune of Diana’s first husband, Brian Guinness (of the brewery), as “the kind of wealth that shrugs off slumps and depressions, like coats falling from one’s shoulders.” Later she refers to “the strange echoing poetry of the Times social pages.”

In addition to Life in a Cold Climate, Thompson has previously written a biography of Agatha Christie—Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007)—and a biography of the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 may or may not have attempted to murder his wife before he may or may not have committed suicide—A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014). Her first book, the history of greyhound racing in England, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She is clearly fascinated with the eccentric, the wealthy, and the lovely (and, why wouldn’t one be? one of her genteel subjects might easily declaim). And while being healthily critical of class, she waxes nostalgic for the confident cleverness that sustained the Mitfords as they sailed through the grimmest years of the last century, writing, fighting, and speaking exactly as they pleased without apology.

Thompson attempts to describe the particularly Mitfordian way of stringing words together as “part-childish, part-posh, part-1920’s exaggeration . . . yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality.” Not to mention an insistent British cheerfulness coupled with a blithe self-confidence. As Nancy wrote reassuringly to Jessica, worried about her daughter on holiday in Mexico, “People like us are never killed in earthquakes.”

Although Nancy’s writing became the most celebrated, all the siblings practiced wordsmithery. As children, they remoulded the English language into something quite thoroughly Mitfordian. Like the Brontës, the sibling pairs invented their own languages—“Boudledidge” and ”“Honnish”—and created an increasingly ludicrous string of nicknames: “Muv and Farve” (Mother and Father), “Boud” (Unity and Jessica), “Honk (Diana), and Stubby (Deborah).

Without doubt the Mitford girls were born into immense privilege. Their family was of fine Saxon stock, dating back to pre-Conquest days. Although Nancy famously described their childhood home as unheated and uncomfortable, the girls occupied a cozy space right in the center of England’s interconnected maze of peerage. They possessed all the connections they would ever need to marry men like their father, David, Lord Redesdale, the first cousin of Clementine Churchill’s cousin (and if rumor was to be believed, potentially her half-brother.) Like other men of his class, he exercised his noblesse oblige in the classic manner, chairing charity committees and decrying the Labour Party in Parliament. In his spare time, he mismanaged his dwindling fortune and prospected for gold whenever he needed spare cash. His daughters later insisted they never had any money, and Nancy “came out” as a debutante wearing a homemade dress at a ball in her living room, with her aging uncles as dancing partners. But of course, Thompson remarks, “as poverty went, it was relative.”

Over the next ten years, three more sisters debuted into society, and the world darkened significantly. When the rumbling currents of Fascism and Communism exploded, the sisters gravitated to all ends of the political spectrum. Thompson pinpoints 1932, the year of Unity’s debut, as the moment when the charmed lives of the Mitfords all went to pieces, the year when Diana, sedately married to the charming if somewhat mousey Lord Brian Guinness, met the odious Lord Oswald, and for better or for worse (the reader can decide, but it’s pretty obvious where Thompson’s sympathies lie) hitched her glorious fortunes to his Fascist wagon. In 1932, Mosley was apparently walking sex, Flynn and Fairbanks combined, and had mesmerized a group of disenfranchised working-class men into believing that Fascism was the cure for a Depression-era Britain. An admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, he had begun the New Party, which then became the British Union of Fascists. His appeal to the unemployed working class was somewhat inexplicable: he dripped money, having married one of the daughters of the immensely wealthy Lord Curzon, all the while blithely sleeping with the other two, their step-mother, along with a dizzy array of chorus girls and peeresses. Despite, or perhaps because of his supreme self-confidence, Diana left her incredibly nice husband and his immense fortune, and set herself up in a little Eaton Square house near Oswald, faster than you could whistle “Lili Marlene.” “From that moment the Mitford family began to fall apart,” Thompson writes, “Unity and Jessica’s actions would be influenced by Diana’s nonpareil act of rebellion.” By the following year, the Black Shirts were promising change and threatening violence, and Diana’s adoration of Mosley led her to Berlin. After the unexpected death of his first wife, Diana and Oswald married in Berlin in 1936, with a begrudging Adolf Hitler by their side (apparently he too nursed a crush on the ethereal Diana.)

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. She struggles to reconcile that utterly gracious soul of her acquaintance with the same Lady Mosley who elegantly heiled Hitler in old photographs. There must have been something to this woman who counted Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington among her closest friends, and it must have been more than beauty (although golly gosh, she was beautiful, with a glamor that only existed between the wars, the kind only captured by black-and-white celluloid. On aesthetic grounds alone, it’s not hard to see why Nancy’s great friend Evelyn Waugh defected to Diana’s side for a few pre-Mosley years, dedicating Vile Bodies to her and adding in her husband Brian Guinness for form’s sake. “She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation,” Waugh wrote besottedly in 1929. Like the rest of his Bright Young generation, he was in line for a great deal of disillusionment.

Diana is a little too clearly Thompson’s favorite Mitford sister, and the number of comparisons she makes between Diana and fine sculpture verges on the excessive, (well-defined cheekbones don’t exactly outweigh a vacuum of human compassion), but Thompson does sincerely investigate her moral complexity. In fact, it is a credit to her biographical endeavor that she doesn’t dismiss Diana out of hand, but rather tries to sift through her paradoxes and view them in the context of her age. For generations, the English upper classes had admired all things Teutonic. Their paternal grandfather had been on intimate terms with Wagner, just as their father had been fast friends with his son Siegfried, hence Unity’s middle name of Valkyrie. Others wanted to simply avoid war at all costs. Even Nancy, the staunch patriot of the family, wrote after the war that everyone had gone to the German embassy in London. “They deny it now, of course.” Yet Thompson returns to the same question: “How, one wonders, did the Mitford love of laughter not cause her to fall about at the sight of Mosley in his black and his boots? Similarly—how could she have watched Hitler, screaming his nonsense at full volume, without the family sense of the ridiculous kicking in?”

In discussions of the sisters, Diana and her younger sister Unity get lumped together as the two who were pals with Hitler, but whereas Diana flirted with evil, Unity muddled merrily into its center. Thompson tackles the unexplainable Unity Valkryie, the artless, clumsy, Mitford giantess, who trounced guilelessly into Hitler’s affections, such as they were. At the very least her milkmaid good looks and childish prattling entertained him, so that before 1939, they met about 140 times, at tea parties, opera boxes, embassy balls, and other extraordinarily civilized settings. For all their Germanophilia, her family was baffled by increasingly unstable behavior and responded in their characteristically unhelpful ways. Her vile brother-in-law Lord Mosley referred to her as “stage-struck.” Nancy sent her mocking poems: “Call me early Goering dear/For I’m to be the Queen of the May.” Her alarmed mother tried to distract her with a cruise. Nothing changed, and Unity attended the Olympic games in Berlin alongside the Goebbelses, with whom she had become fast friends.

Thompson refers to her as an innocent, unstable, and generally mad young woman who fell in with the wrong (really the most absolutely wrong possible) crowd. “Perhaps they found the evil in her, as well as the madness.” Had she been born today would no doubt have been diagnosed on one or the other end of a spectrum and heavily medicated. When England declared war with Germany, she shot herself with a Walthur pistol. To her family’s guilty regret, the bullet left her alive but also incontinent and even more childlike (she was said to have the mental age of ten). With “something resembling human emotion,” Hitler returned her to the care of her mother in England, where she chattered away to kindly bewildered strangers about how Adolf would be the perfect name for the eldest of the ten children she knew she would have one day, and bestowed all the lively affection she used to reserve for Hitler on farm animals. “Oh, Boud, I have a Goat!” she wrote ecstatically to her Communist sister Jessica living in America. “In a strange way she had been the happiest of the sisters,” Thompson surmised. “Yet she had not a clue as to how to live.” She died in 1948 at the age of thirty-four from meningitis caused from the bullet wound.

Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler, 1936

Unity and Diana defy easy explanation. It’s too easy to dismiss them as monstrous, without plumbing why they chose to spend their days among monsters. “The times in which this pair lived were terrifying: most people crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and prayed for it all to be over. For reasons that can never quite be explained, these aristocratic young women embraced it instead.” Perhaps with the cushions of youth, family, beauty, and money, they thought they had nothing to lose. Unity may never have understood what was at stake, and Diana (no one could call her cowardly) was always willing to risk it. “I can’t regret it,” she freely admitted in 1989. She was referring to her friendship with Hitler but could have meant the rest of it too—the love affair with Mosley, the break with propriety, and even the vitriol that awaited her in her home country.

After Britain declared war on German, the family fortunes shifted to a new set of extremes. Back in England, Diana and Oswald Moseley spent the war in prison as collaborators. Serves her right. She recalled it as an incredibly happy interlude, as for the first and only time in their marriage her husband was entirely faithful. And for a moment, you feel sympathy for this extraordinary woman and the cost of her choices. Family feeling was running high against her, as the other Mitfords did their bit for the war effort and then some. Tom, the inglorious but beloved Mitford brother, fought first on the North African front and then in Burma, where he died from a bullet wound in 1945. Pamela’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, serving as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down somewhere over the North Sea in 1941. Nancy, experiencing the terror of the Blitz firsthand in London, went so far as to suggest to her friends in the Foreign Office that Diana was “an extremely dangerous person.” She had been throwing herself into war work since 1939, when she traveled to France to help Spanish refugees, and then back in England, where she operated a first aid post, drove an ambulance, and opened her home to Polish Jewish refugees, to the outrage of her mother (Hitler was her favorite son-in-law, Nancy always quipped). She also informed on her sister Pamela, whom she suspected of Fascist tendencies. Intriguingly, neither Jessica nor Nancy ever blamed Unity for her bizarre adulation of the Führer and the three shared gossipy loving letters throughout the war years.

With their vastly different politics and their lifelong rivalry, Nancy and Diana act as the twin poles of The Six. Yet, as Mitford sisters go, it’s hard to resist the obviously spunky Jessica, who ran off during her debutante season to fight with the Spanish Guerrillas, and then married a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco, while her sisters were enjoying tea in Munich with Hitler. She later became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Congress, campaigned to legalize abortion, and basically fell on the right side of every modern feminist cauJese. She makes Lady Sybil Grantham look like a Tory living comfortably in Sloane Square. Yet Thompson cuts Jessica no breaks, portraying her as an extremist, just “more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.” She spends almost no time on Jessica’s acclaimed investigative journalism, including The American Way of Death, an expose of the money-grubbing funeral industry.

Poor old Pamela gets the least amount of space, but she appears less mysterious and controversial than her colorful sisters, spending the bulk of her adult life raising chickens and dairy cows, although apparently she innovated legendary technologies in the field of animal husbandry. Of Pamela, Thompson writes, “She had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses.” Her rebellion may have been quieter. After her divorce from scientist Derek Jackson (himself a Fascist, but with the good grace to keep his beliefs to himself), she lived discreetly with a Giuditta Tommasi, and according to Jessica, “became a you-know-what-bian.” Like all her siblings except for Nancy and Jessica, she lunched with Hitler before the war, but was chiefly impressed by the chicken served.

The youngest sister, Deborah, came of age while her sisters were already making headlines on either side of the Atlantic. She rebelled against her mad mad family by embracing utter normalcy, at least for her rarified context. Two weeks into her successful debut season, she met her husband, a good Cambridge man, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When fate kindly swept him aside and made her Duchess, she resolutely managed her estates, holding up under the impositions of death duties and Labour politics. Despite her sex appeal, “the divine Debo,” as the press nicknamed her, stuck by her first sweetheart till death did them part. Very unMitfdorian, according to the sisters’ general self-assessment. “Debo’s absolutely pure,” Nancy reminded Diana, who had proclaimed, “We’re all adulterers and adulteresses.” While she spent literally three days at school, which she later recalled with self-deprecating horror (“no dog, no pony, no Nanny!”), she clearly inherited her fair share of family wit, publishing her own well-received chatty memoir, Wait for Me! (2010). Her death in 2014 was received with the kind of national outpouring of nostalgia reserved for the Queen Mum.

What with Unity’s antics, Diana and Lord Mosley’s unrepentant Fascism, and Lady Redesdale’s cheerful Teutonism, the Mitford’s were no one’s favorite family by the end of the war, and a prime example of why the average Brit wanted to chuck the class system down the chute along with the rationed coal. Hence the importance Thompson ascribes to the The Pursuit of Love in the creation of the Mitford myth: “Just as Diana led the troops into the darkness of battle by her defection to the Fascist cause in 1932, so Nancy did the same with her shift into the sunlight of public adoration.” The Pursuit of Love was not Nancy’s first book—she had been a successful novelist since 1931—but it was and would remain her most beloved. The delightfully eccentric Radletts are obviously the Mitfords refracted with affectionate nostalgia through Nancy’s effervescent voice. Their story is narrated by kind sensible cousin Fanny, who experienced life at her cousins’ estates at Aconleigh (based on Asthall Manor) during holidays, and later witnessed their multiple marriages and madcap escapades.

Nancy crisply layers the poignant and the hilarious together with a social observation worthy of Austen. On meeting her aunt’s new betrothed Fanny states: “My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle.” Her characters deliver social cuttings, devastating in the innocence of their delivery: “Oh the horror of important people—you are lucky not to know any.” All the elopements and scandals of the Mitfords are played for laughs, as when Linda Radlett leaves her banker husband for a Communist (a playful nod to both Jessica’s elopement and Diana’s affair, although neither appreciated the gesture). Linda innocently laments her new social life:

But I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind so dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.

Despite the ingenuousness of its characters, The Pursuit of Love contains a fair amount of darkness as the war threatens and then explodes around the Radlett children. But like Nancy herself, they cheerfully plunge forward into the new world that awaits them.

After the war, flush with the commercial success of her novels, Nancy moved to Paris, from whence she wrote fantastically funny letters to her family in that same tone of wide-eyed knowingness. She was always on, always entertaining. And even though Nancy was the intellectual of the bunch, the sisters were all clever and witty. As Diana wrote, referring to Jessica’s second marriage: “When all was said and done, Jessica was the only Mitford to ever harm a Jew.”

To be honest, it’s difficult to read Thompson’s book and not fall just a little in love with the intelligent, mysterious, and utterly original Mitford girls. Despite having only about two terms of school between them, they produced over twenty-five books, many of them award-winners and bestsellers, suggesting that childhoods full of animals, reading, and prodigious free time are highly underrated. Somewhere between riding to hounds and debuting, they must have learned something besides not putting the milk in first. They were funny enough and joyful enough that people still read their letters, and not just for the references to famous people who clustered around them. And their upper-class mannerisms, while out of fashion, are laced with just enough self-deprecation to read as charmingly ironic rather than insufferable. “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris,” Deborah declared definitively. “Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

“These girls are prize exhibits in a museum of Englishness,” Thompson insists. “And whatever one’s opinion of what they represent, it is impossible, in truth, to find them boring.” Rather.

Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage, and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine.


Great Books About The Mitford Sisters

Why do we still love reading great books about the Mitford Sisters? Maybe it’s because there were so many of them (six!), they were so extreme in their thoughts and ideals and they mixed with such interesting people of the day. What’s not to be intrigued about?

The Mitford Girls The Biography of an Extraordinary Family by Mary S.Lovell (Abacus) What fun! What larks! What drama! Those ‘mahvellous’, multi-faceted Mitford sisters. Not knowing much about this legendary family, I asked my local bookshop for a recommendation for where to start regarding learning about all things Mitford. With this suggestion I hit the jackpot. Equally fascinating (I am sure) for both Mitford aficionados and those being introduced to the Mitfords (like myself), I just loved it and fell into their world. Really you couldn’t have dreamed up a wider, more bizarre collection of personalities all growing up together. Eccentric parents (Farve and Muv) who had a son and six daughters Diana marries fascist Oswald Mosley, Decca marries a communist, Unity is a very close friend of Nazi Hitler, Debo becomes the Duchess of Devonshire and lives at Chatsworth, Nancy becomes a novelist and ‘whatshername’ keeps chickens and had a blue Aga to match her eyes!

Add crazy antics such as writing to each other in code, bizarre nicknames, quick quips, a lucrative chicken and egg home business, lots of laughs and tears, wondering why post-it notes don’t work when you lick them and stick them down, sending wrinkly British pound notes in to London banks to be exchanged for fresh ones please and mother, Sydney’s, extraordinary remarks, ‘Oh, why do all my daughters fall for dictators?’, this book reads like fiction. Enjoy the energy, joie de vivre and self-confidence that makes them the Mitford sisters.

Wait For Me Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sisterby Deborah Devonshire (John Murray Hachette) Reading other Mitford books there is often a reference to this book, so I had to read it. Written by the late Debo (1920 – 2014), the youngest Mitford sister and last to survive, I loved reading her phrasing and her take on events how as a young adult, her beloved brother Tom, used to actually pay older sister Nancy to argue with him for a whole day at a time to sharpen his legal and debating skills. Can you imagine? Eccentric relations such as the paternal grandmother who took a pig on a lead to church ‘No one thought it a bit odd’ Farve who used to ask Diana to ‘Take your degraded elbows off the table’ her maternal grandfather (who owned The Lady magazine) set up his own Turkish bath in an empty dog kennel at home then was drenched with buckets of cold water by his butler her mothers’ views on health, food and her body stretching exercise at the table her father-in-law who liked to spend time in the bathtub imagining he was a salmon and of her husband attaching a piece of string to the coachman’s coat to communicate with him!

She had her own idiosyncrasies too with her dinner party table decorations were live piglets sleeping in straw beds and she asked for her guest bathroom to be painted the exact shade of the plastic identity bracelet she was given in hospital!

There are wonderful family stories such as Pamela asking Lord Mountbatten who he was house guests with jewel boxes so heavy that they were mistaken for gun cartridges Nancy asking Debo’s son, Stoker, when he was two and a half if he could talk, ‘Not yet’ was his answer.

The family photos in the book were a bonus as were the descriptions of the unspoken rules of staying at someone’s house and the lack of comforts in those grand houses.

Farve and Clementine Churchill were cousins and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was her father-in-law’s brother-in-law seemingly the Mitfords led charmed lives, but also faced great, great tragedies.

Phrases like ’in the swim’, ‘a stampede of dowagers, fighting like mad’, ‘the queen and the rest of her push were there’ and hysterical descriptions of the queen doing something with ‘dressing gown cord’ at the ceremony for knighthood are such great reading!

Did you know that Debo was a huge Elvis fan? Or that she held open houses and was the brainchild behind the shops and farm days at Chatsworth? Please read this book.

The Other Mitford Pamela’s Story by Diana Alexander (The History Press) Written by Pamela’s (1907 – 1994) cleaning lady who later became a dear friend, this was an interesting perspective on the sister who stayed out of the public eye. Pamela became one of the first women to fly across the Atlantic in a commercial aircraft and married a brilliant physicist. Known as one of the most practical sisters, she looked after two of her nephews when their parents went to prison ‘for their championship of fascism’ and later transformed the kitchen gardens in Debo’s Chatsworth Estate.

The explanation of nicknames, stories of Nanny Blor, the special languages spoken between some of the siblings when they were children and carried into their adult life are all fascinating. Alexander explains that Pamela often spoke about how Farve made them all laugh so much, she expresses how brother Tom died of war wounds in 1945 and the Redesdale title passed on to a cousin, that ‘Diana was probably the only person in the world to be friendly with both Churchill and Hitler’, Nancy as a Bright Young Thing and then as one of the first women to wear Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, of Debo’s father dying fourteen weeks before the inheritance laws’ obligatory five year wait and her dear friendship with her sister-in-law, Kick Kennedy (JFK’s sister).

The sisters’ love of words and humour sparkled through the book a white Christmas to Pamela meant a Christmas with ‘old’ people. Stories with shrieks of laughter can only be imagined! A few family recipes at the back are a treat!.

Take Six Girls The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson (Head of Zeus) As Thompson sums it up ‘The eldest was a razor-sharp novelist of upper-class manners, the second was loved by John Betjeman the third was a fascist who married Oswald Mosley the fourth idolised Hitler and shot herself in the head when Britain declared war on Germany the fifth was a member of the American Communist Party the sixth became Duchess of Devonshire.’ Or as a chant like for Henry VIII’s wives ‘Writer, Countrywoman, Fascist Nazi, Communist, Duchess’.

So good and I do love a book with a family tree!

‘Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time’, Thompson muses. Their jokes, the nicknames, the showmanship, the confidence, the humour, the braveness, the toughness – all times six! Their nursery way of speech (‘oh do be sorry for me’) was intriguing. It was an absolutely fascinating read.

Thompson explains that Nancy’s books celebrated and lamented what life she and others of her elk had lost and the what it was communicated was spellbinding. ‘They had an iron will to happiness’, Thompson writes about the Mitford sisters. Nancy’s creed was, ‘I have decided to be happy, because it is better for my health’, and she held to it firmly. They had such ‘cut-crystal’ voices that when Nancy was giving lectures on the subject of fire-watching during World War II, she was told to stop as ‘her voice annoyed her audience so much’. Scream!

Of course, I also loved reading wartime stories such as a soldier who bought a lemon from Italy home with him and it was placed on the counter of the local post office and people were charged tuppence for the Red Cross to smell it!

A great read. Do yourself a favour and read this one. I’m sure you will love it too!

The Riviera Set 1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess by Mary S. Lovell (Little, Brown Hachette) I loved reading this book all about the set of people that the Mitfords mixed with and more, especially on the Riviera. The Mitford siblings are mentioned throughout and it was wonderful to read who Nancy based some of her fictional characters on.

So intriguing to read about people like Maxine Elliott (whose wartime contributions were feeding, clothing and medically treating an estimated 350,000 people) who was quick to spot a trend, helped made the Riviera popular. This place provided a ‘sanctuary for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, ‘who were emotionally battered by the world. They too found a balm of sorts among this shimmering crowd.’ I loved reading about how house-guests were expected to contribute to the entertainment such as playing the piano, performing impressions and reciting lengthy poems! I had no idea. How about the story of when a ‘nouveau riche’ heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine empire was commented upon by someone haughty with ‘My name is better than yours’, the heiress quipped, ‘Not at the bottom of a cheque it’s not’! Did you know that Spanish Flu killed more people than in the trenches during the war or that Winston Churchill’s comment that after coming out of surgery and during a tumultuous time in politics he found himself ‘without office, seat, party or appendix’? The Duke of Westminster, Coco Chanel’s man, was known as the richest man in the world. I was intrigued to read that the Prince of Wales was also very keen on Coco. Who knew? I loved the story of a husband who had his wife followed by a private detective. When the detective phoned him to tell him that his wife had ben seen entering the house with a man, the husband said ‘You blithering idiot. It’s me. I’m here with my wife!’ I loved reading how even when on holidays, Winston Churchill would wake at 8am and immediately call for his secretary and that he produced so much correspondence output at home that he had a number of shorthand typists who worked in shifts from 8am until 10pm, that he played Mah Jong all afternoon and of his love of sunshine ‘it energised him and enabled him to work at an even higher rate’. Harold Nicolson’s fascinating account of when the Duke of Windsor introduced his wife to a group of house guests as ‘Her (gasp) Royal (shudder) Highness (and not one eye dared to meet another)’. Superb! The reaction on the Riviera of Diana Guinness (née Mitford)’s marriage was an interesting perspective and of Pamela’s relationship with of Aly Khan. When Pamela asked who took precedence, Duff Cooper’s response was, ‘His Highness the Aga Khan is regarded as God on Earth by his many million followers. But an English Duke, of course, takes precedence’. Makes you stop to think. Such a great read.


And the Curzon Daughters

The ultimate spoiler in Cimmie Mosley’s life was Diana Guinness, the acknowledged beauty of the infamous Mitford sisters. Much has been written about the daughters of an unconventional aristocratic pair who raised their six girls and only boy in the beauty and rural isolation of a corner of the Cotswolds and later on an almost inaccessible island off Scotland, which they owned and were the only residents.

Theirs was not an entirely unique upbringing for English children of the era, but the combination of keen intelligence, good looks, creativity and geographical remoteness resulted in a handful of women about whom a biographical cottage industry emerged. Stacks of books and articles have been published describing a family of sisters who delighted in raising chickens and spoke their own language, but whose highly vocal political beliefs — ranging from the outer extremes of the left to Nazism on the right — kept them in the international spotlight for decades.

Five of the six Mitford sisters. From left: Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pam. Missing is the youngest, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who died at 94 in 2014.

Diana was a dazzling, long-legged blonde, who at 18 had become the trophy wife of the immensely rich Bryan Guinness. She wed the handsome and astonishingly unspoiled Guinness not because of the enormous brewery fortune he would inherit but to gain access to his artistic milieu.

Evelyn Waugh’s quintessential “bright young” couple on their wedding day.

The young Guinnesses were so completely the epitome of the “bright young things” celebrated in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, that he dedicated the classic 1930 novel to the pair.

Waugh’s bestselling novel in an American paperback edition.

Throughout his years at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Bryan had been part of a group of aesthetes that included Harold Acton, Brian Howard and John Betjeman, and he represented a world of glittering cultivation that fascinated Diana. During her upbringing within the close-knit circle of one of the nation’s most eccentric families, she had yearned to be immersed in an urbane artistic setting, surrounded by clever, witty and talented people, whom she would entertain in a brilliant salon. Through Bryan, her dream not only became a reality, but soon she was the center of the golden set to which she had aspired.

The always extraordinary Diana.

Now an accomplished young hostess, as well as a great beauty of her time, Diana was growing bored with her adoring husband and was feeling a lack of personal direction. After becoming engaged in a political discussion with Oswald Mosley at a dinner party one evening, she began seeing him for long lunches, and, like so many before her, she was mesmerized by his charisma. But for Diana, it was more than Oswald’s sexual energy that captivated her he assured her of the purity of his political objectives for their country and convinced her that in order to reach them he needed her at his side. Through Mosley, Diana saw that her life of the arts and entertaining, while lovely and rewarding, was insignificant in contrast to Oswald’s intense save-the-world purpose.

Cheyne Walk.

The pivotal point in their relationship came on July 7, 1932, at a warming party the Guinnesses gave for their new house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Diana was radiant in a chiffon dress of silver grey, the shade that best highlighted her luminous beauty and mirrored the almost transparent silver-blue of her eyes. Sometime during that midsummer night, Mosley and Diana pledged to be together for life — not in marriage, however, because both knew that Oswald would never leave Cimmie. The lack of marriage vows was a bourgeois detail meaning little to the free-spirited Mitford in Diana, nor did she mind gossip or even the anguish of her husband and two young sons. Within six months, she left Cheyne Walk and moved to a small house in Eaton Square, around the corner from Oswald’s bachelor flat and lived openly as his mistress.

Eaton Square.

During the time, Cimmie was becoming a national political figure and dealing with the baffling exploits of her husband, her younger sister, “Baba,” had matured into one of England’s most sought-after young women.

Lady Alexandra “Baba” Curzon.

A beautiful, exquisitely dressed brunette, she possessed an unerring sense of style that consistently set fashion for the women around her. Her male admirers ranged from the polo-playing American heir John Hay Whitney to Prince George, youngest son of King George and Queen Mary, and future Duke of Kent.

Jock Whitney would continue to reappear to seek Baba’s favor throughout the years.

Of her many suitors, the man to whom Baba gave most encouragement was Edward Dudley “Fruity” Metcalfe, a tall, handsome Irishman with little money or intellect and no title or pretentions. But he was a splendid horseman and a sweet man with a disarming personal charm. Once Fruity — a bachelor 17 years older than Baba — saw the stunning, exquisitely turned out youngest Curzon daughter, he never considered another woman.

The unassuming “Fruity” Metcalfe charmed those in high places.

While a cavalry officer in India, Fruity had become attached to the staff of the visiting Prince of Wales, who was so delighted by the high-spirited, good-natured Fruity that he brought him back to England and made him an extra equerry. Metcalfe possessed the same remarkable quality that would catapult Wallis Simpson to world fame: He treated the prince as though they were equals — and Fruity, in horsemanship, was clearly Edward’s better. He soon became the prince’s closest friend, bringing Baba more intimately into the palace circle she had known through Prince George.

Thelma Furness with her identical twin sister Gloria Vanderbilt. Gloria was mother of today’s Gloria Vanderbilt (and grandmother of Anderson Cooper).

The royal favorites during those years would vary from Freda Dudley Ward to Thelma Lady Furness and eventually Mrs. Simpson. But those closest to the prince were always Fruity and Baba, along with Edward’s cousin Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, with his fiancée and soon wife, Edwina Ashley, another great heiress with foreign roots.

The Mountbattens would later assume the Curzon position and reign as the last viceroy and vicereine of India.

Onlookers were amazed that Baba, who could have chosen almost any man of her generation as a husband, would agree to marry Fruity Metcalfe, but she did. And the handsome, sweet — but none too bright — Fruity would marvel at his good fortune for years to come.

Lady Alexandra Curzon’s wedding to Mr. Edward Dudley Metcalfe.

Cimmie Mosley’s physical condition was rapidly worsening and her decline soon matched the upward sweep of the very open romance between her husband and Diana Guinness. In May 1933, doctors reacted to severe abdominal pain she was experiencing by removing her appendix, a popular but risky procedure before the development of antibiotics, but surgery merely accelerated Cimmie’s deterioration when peritonitis set in. Of more ominous significance was her refusal to fight for survival even the constant presence of the husband she loved so deeply, sitting at her bedside, pledging love with his persuasive charm throughout night and day, failed to stop her downward spiral.

Cimmie with her children, Vivien, baby Michael and Nicholas, in May 1933, just days before her final illness.

A week after surgery, the disconsolate 34-year-old Lady Cynthia Curzon Mosley died, horrifying her many friends who were correctly convinced that Diana Guinness was responsible.

The sinister Oswald Mosley was becoming more so.

Within five months of Cimmie’s death, Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists, elevating his notoriety beyond aristocratic and political circles to a widespread general visibility that challenged even that of the royal family and the prime minister.

Mosley surrounded by followers.

During the BUF’s first rally in Trafalgar Square on October 15, 1932, Mosley spoke to a crowd from the base of Nelson’s Column flanked by eight men in black shirts. A year later, a larger rally in Manchester — attracting 9,000 participants and featuring 2,000 blackshirts — was disrupted only by a few small fistfights, but the British Union aura was becoming more sinister, with funding coming in from the Mussolini government in Italy. Manchester was followed by a pair of London rallies in 1934 — in April at Albert Hall and at Olympia Hall in June.

Rally after rally drew supporters of “the Leader.”

Mosley’s arrival in any venue was a dramatically staged production of precise timing, theatrical lighting, stirring music and the entrance of the Leader, clothed in a sleek black fencing costume, marching down a spot lit center aisle or prominent outdoor spot. His rousing orations promised a utopian future of “freedom, good wages, short hours, security in employment, good housing and opportunity for leisure and recreation.” Anti-fascist sentiment however was strengthening, producing an acceleration of fights and bloodshed at rallies. Six thousand police were recruited to contain violence at an October 4, 1936 march through London’s East End in which the anti-fascists outnumbered the BUF by more than two to one. The October 4 confrontation, which culminated in overturned trucks, thrown bricks, stones and glass, and widespread bloodshed, has been recorded by history as the Battle of Cable Street.

The Battle of Cable Street.

As usual, there was another Mosley twist on the way. Two days after the Cable Street debacle, he and Diana were in Berlin, conducting life-changing personal business in the drawing room of Mrs. Guinness’ dear friend Magda Goebbels and her husband Joseph, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.

The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.


Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940

I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and informative account of the 1920s British band of pleasure-seeking bohemians and blue blooded socialites that comprised the "Bright Young People". D.J. Taylor&aposs fascinating book explores the main events and the key players, throughout the 1920s, 1930s, World War Two and into the post-WW2 era.

I encountering many names that I was already quite familiar with (e.g. Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Ponsonby, the Jungman sisters, Patrick Balfour, Diana and Nancy Mitford, Bri I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and informative account of the 1920s British band of pleasure-seeking bohemians and blue blooded socialites that comprised the "Bright Young People". D.J. Taylor's fascinating book explores the main events and the key players, throughout the 1920s, 1930s, World War Two and into the post-WW2 era.

I encountering many names that I was already quite familiar with (e.g. Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Ponsonby, the Jungman sisters, Patrick Balfour, Diana and Nancy Mitford, Brian Howard, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Henry Yorke, and many more) having read other excellent accounts of the era. Theses include Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family, The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940, and The Long Week-end: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-39.

Elizabeth Ponsonby's story looms large in this book, as D.J. Taylor had access to her parents' diaries. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was a staple in the gossip columns who seized upon the Bright Young People's adventures and reported them with a mixture of reverence and glee. There was plenty to report: practical jokes, treasure hunts, fancy dress parties, stealing policemen's helmets, dancing all night at the Ritz and so on. In a sense this is what the 1920s is best remembered for, and for some it must have felt right, after the trauma of World War One, and with Victorian values in decline, for young people to enjoy themselves. However, beneath the laughter and the cocktails lurk some less jolly narratives.

D.J. Taylor manages to dig beneath the glittering surface where for every success story (Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton both launched very successful careers via the opportunities the Bright Young People scene afforded them) there were also tales of failure and tragedy. Some Bright Young People managed to adapt and prosper, others either continued their 1920s lifestyles or were forever trapped by their gilded youths.

Elizabeth Ponsonby provides the ultimate cautionary tale. She made a half-hearted attempt at acting, and later took a short-lived job as a dress-shop assistant, but basically drank to excess, gave parties and practically bankrupted her parents, who fretted helplessly. “It hurts us to see you getting coarse in your speech & outlook in life,” her mother wrote to Elizabeth in 1923, suggesting “you ought to enlarge your sphere of enjoyment - not only find happiness in night clubs & London parties & a certain sort of person.” This sounds like any parent’s out-of-touch lament, but the Ponsonbys had genuine cause for concern. The tone of Vile Bodies captures Elizabeth Ponsonby's routines as glimpsed in her parents' diaries. In Vile Bodies Waugh states the Bright Young People "exhibit naïveté, callousness, insensitivity, insincerity, flippancy, a fundamental lack of seriousness and moral equilibrium that sours every relationship and endeavour they are involved in". A harsh and telling view from an eye-witness,and probably closer to the truth than the more hagiographic accounts of the era.

As I state at the outset, I really enjoyed this book, and despite having read a few similar accounts, I discovered plenty of new information and this has added to my understanding of this endlessly fascinating era. I also found it surprisingly moving - the diary entries by Elizabeth Ponsonby's parents are heartbreaking. Recommended for anyone interested in the era of the "Bright Young People".

I would never have thought that anyone could write a book about the Jazz Age that could be so sleep-inducing! The author constantly goes into tedious detail where it is not warranted. The core group of the Bright Young People of London in the 1920&aposs were the first people, via modern media, to be famous for being famous. They had no special talent or skills so how much can you write about them? (There were some people on the edge of this group, such as Evelyn Waugh, who went on to greater accompl I would never have thought that anyone could write a book about the Jazz Age that could be so sleep-inducing! The author constantly goes into tedious detail where it is not warranted. The core group of the Bright Young People of London in the 1920's were the first people, via modern media, to be famous for being famous. They had no special talent or skills so how much can you write about them? (There were some people on the edge of this group, such as Evelyn Waugh, who went on to greater accomplishments.)

In the case of Elizabeth Ponsonby, the author seems to have committed to paper everything he managed to find on her. However, Elizabeth's only claim to fame was that she was great fun at parties. And that's all: she had no special talent or skill and did nothing of social significance. (A Wikipedia article on her has been deleted on this basis.) She did sponge off her long-suffering parents until her premature death from drink in her late thirties, but she's not the first person in history to have done that. Yet the author gives much space to her story, quoting extensively from her father's diary where one or two quotations would have sufficed.

I'd give this 1.5 stars if I could. There is some interesting information here, but it is lost in a morass of insignificant detail. . more

I had very little interest in reading this book, and it took me awhile to get hooked by it, but I do recommend it, flawed though it is. It seems every era of prosperity has its brat pack of flibbertigibbit young people with too much time on their hands, too much cleverness and not enough enduring talent. It’s called, I’m tempted to say, life. The Bright Young People (hereafter referred to as BYP) were a group of aristocratic and/or well-heeled young people (and their hangers on) who started doin I had very little interest in reading this book, and it took me awhile to get hooked by it, but I do recommend it, flawed though it is. It seems every era of prosperity has its brat pack of flibbertigibbit young people with too much time on their hands, too much cleverness and not enough enduring talent. It’s called, I’m tempted to say, life. The Bright Young People (hereafter referred to as BYP) were a group of aristocratic and/or well-heeled young people (and their hangers on) who started doing outrageous things within the confines of a tightly-defined social milieu that pretty much characterizes England during just about any time in history after the Romans left c. 410 AD. Perhaps globalization has put the kibosh on such localized youth phenomenon – was the last outbreak in England was Carnaby Street in the Swingin’ Sixties? Or whatever street that was. I can never keep this straight. But in the 1920s, the BYP were echt-English (with the exception of a few of them who wound up becoming Nazis) and to some extent held the attention of the world, or at least the English tabloids.

Affluent young people doing silly stuff. Paris Hilton comes to mind -- as she should she’d be good at being a BYP, and I mean this as a compliment – BYP status involved a great deal of hard work, shrewd friend-and-enemy-picking, and constant image burnishing. Still, who cares? Such gorgeous waifs add nothing to the culture, nothing to the economy except spending lots in the frou-frou market. Well, when it comes to the BYP of the 1920s, Evelyn Waugh is part of the pack, and Cyril Connolly and Anthony Powell, some attention should be paid. So I slogged on and found the book to have been well worth the effort. But it could have been a much better book…

First off, Taylor couldn’t make up his mind what kind of book he wanted this to be, and in the process missed an opportunity to write something that could’ve been great. Things start out with a pretty clinical sociological-cultural account of the era, with lots of snooty contemporary “Punch” cartoons. This is why it took my 4 months to read this thing, because I found this opening stuff competent but rather underwhelming (and again, my lack of interest in the subject contributed to my lack of enthusiasm). To be honest, except for Waugh and the other literary lights I had trouble keeping the names straight. But the true heart of the story came to my attention about halfway through when I noticed increasing references to elderly MP and diarist Arthur Ponsonby (and his wife Dorothea) and his alcoholic trainwreck BYP daughter Elizabeth and the man she was briefly married Denis Pelly. This story was the heart of the book, and gave it a heft that all those tabloid accounts of ridiculous theme parties couldn’t provide. Astonishingly, here is Taylor in the opening of his “Notes and Further Reading” section (found at the back of the book, after it was far too late to matter):

“The primary source for this book has been the mass of papers accumulated by the Ponsonby family. These include the extensive diaries kept by Arthur and Dorothea, letters sent to them by Elizabeth and the documents and other artifacts discovered in Elizabeth’s flat after her death…” (p. 329)

So if this stuff was the primary source, make the Ponsonby’s the heart of the story and let the other BYP’s enter the orbit! This Ponsonby material, from what I can tell, is significant. Arthur’s diary entries are heartbreaking – there is a talent (often unintentional) involved in writing a diary that anybody else would want to read, and Arthur has it, although so far as I can tell, he did not have an eye on literary posterity he wrote in order to compose his thoughts and to better understand his life and family. The love for his hopeless, helpless, yet charming daughter Elizabeth is very, very moving. Her feckless husband (soon divorced) Denis Pelly is a case of a weak man trying hard to not be a wastrel (I am not exactly sure what happened to Denis – unless I missed it (and I tried the index to refresh my memory), Taylor’s failure to address his fate is unfortunate). And yet the reader will find that Taylor buries the Ponsonbys to the extent that they are just another casualty in BYP-era decade-long on-going catastrophe. There are clues that the Ponsonbys are special – one of the two photo sections has annoyingly truncated captions of the Ponsonby’s, referring to them only by their first names, that left me baffled (and annoyed). It was only halfway through the book before the Ponsonby’s emerged from the swirl of theme parties and car wrecks and hushed-up scandals. Only at the end of the book, when Arthur stops keeping his diary except for occasional anguished and soul-lacerating entries about his dead daughter, did the full extent of Taylor’s missed opportunity come clear.

So the Ponsonby heart of this book is (mostly) lost in a whirl of BYP shenanigans. Matters are not improved by Taylor’s intermittent mean streak and paparazzi mentality. For instance, one of my favorites of the BYP is Brian Howard, a failed writer and poet of substantial but squandered talent. Although Howard’s failures are detailed within the text, Taylor feels compelled to devote an entire, vicious chapter to him called “The Books Brian Never Wrote.” The heartlessness of this inculcated in me a real antipathy towards Taylor – so what’ve you done, Mr. Taylor? Indeed, almost all writers are failures in the big, enduring sense of the word. Howard’s sloth, pusillanimity, mama’s boy skirt-clinging and wishful thinking are easy to savage, but Howard also seemed to be a writer of some scruples and a decent amount of self-awareness. Taylor is far more impressed by forgettable but relentlessly productive hacks such as Robert Bryon. Making sure one establishes a career and stays comfy seems to be the benchmark of literary success for Taylor. Even outside literary matters, Taylor is a meanie. For instance, the pathetic (but rather dazzling, I must say, based on a photo published in the book) morphine addict Brenda Dean Paul comes in for some heavy-handed snarky Lindsay Lohan treatment. But Taylor’s breaking a butterfly on the wheel here, for Brenda Dean Paul’s life was nothing but sad and pitiful and hopeless.

The Bryan Guinness (a key BYP personality) that emerges from Taylor’s book is also blundered. Guinness, the brewery heir, fell in with the BYP’s and married, disastrously (always use the word “disastrously” when describing BTY marriages – it saves time) one of them, the beautiful and vacant Diana Mitford (vacant, but later all too filled up with intransigent Nazi ideology). From Taylor’s depiction, he seemed to be merely a particularly wan, colorless version of the typical BYP male. As it turns out, his wife and his wealth made him party central -- at the end of the book, we are told that Guinness was conservative and conscientious, wanting nothing more than to raise a family (and did so, having a bunch of kids by his second wife) and generally live a responsible life. That I still drink Guinness Stout is a testament to his business acumen. But this information came late, and as a surprise ending but it felt a little cheap – some hint of Guinness’s personality towards the beginning of the narrative would have provided this apparently normal, decent human being with at least some of the heft his character deserved.

And yet Taylor is capable of balance and compassionate good sense. What is strange is the fact he is best at the hard cases. For instance, some of the louche, desperate, and occasionally talented hangers-on orbiting the core of the BYP self-immolating super nova are rendered very deftly by Taylor. Celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton’s frantic social climbing is outlined by Taylor with shrewd good humor without descending into nastiness. Likewise, outsider Inez Holden is also nicely sketched. Furthermore, his take on the Mitford sisters, who I’ve always find loathsome, cloying, quasi-sinister, silly, and generally useless, struck me as very balanced. It would be easy to pile on Diana and Unity, who greatly admired and met and dined with and practically defected to Hitler. But History pretty much takes care of this kind of misguided foolishness and we don’t need somebody 70 years later going on and on about how benighted it all was. The 1930s were very confusing politically and yet it was almost mandatory that everybody be very, very, terribly sure of themselves. As Martin Amis notes, the fascists wind up being universally deplored while the Stalinists of the era are still given an astonishing amount of slack. Left or right, it was, as Auden famously said, a low, dishonest decade and the woozy, substanceless BYP’s did not come particularly well-equipped for the dangers and horrors of the 1930s. But then almost nobody did, except Winston Churchill. But I digress (and grossly over-simplify). Here’s something I didn’t know: when England declared war on Germany in 1939, “Unity (Mitford) walked to the middle of the English Garden in Munich and shot herself in the temple…” (p. 277 or so). But even a bullet to the brain couldn’t kill Unity, which is a testament to the incredible resilience of those awful Mitford girls. The Germans patched her up and shipped her back to England. Even Goebbels had no use for her.

A Mitford-Waugh aside: if you want something that will really make your gorge rise, read Waugh’s letters to Nancy Mitford. For decades he was her slave, for reasons having to do with the BYP era (he seems to have been dazzled by her beauty (and her sister Diana’s), mean girl cleverness, elevated social status, and wealth, basically). He just couldn’t shake her, and his catty, viciously gossipy letters to her, decade after decade show just how the 1920s stuck to the bottom of his shoe. The way he gently (oh so gently) tries to goad her into writing well (rather than slovenly) is sometimes funny, sometimes nauseating. In his defense, Nancy was the best of the lot…

A few miscellaneous complaints, etc.:

The only two BYP’s I’ve ever had an enduring interest in is Waugh and Cyril Connolly (I don’t include Powell because I know him only by reputation). Waugh is handled quite well by Taylor, who manages to get in both Waugh’s BYP biography and Waugh’s trenchant commentary on the BYP phenomenon in equal, well-balanced measures (although “Brideshead Revisited,” which is often concerned with the BYP 20-year-long hangover, is mostly absent). Waugh’s first disastrous (that word again!) marriage was to a woman also named Evelyn (He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn as they were known), and Taylor describes its disintegration with a commendable lack of malice. But Connolly is weirdly, inexcusably absent. In a way, he wrote the ultimate textbook on missed opportunities “Enemies of Promise” as well as perhaps the BYP’s most enduring literary work of all “The Unquiet Grave,” which is merely mentioned by Taylor as having been published in 1944.

The photos themselves are terrific in this book, but nonsensically arranged and cropped, and infuriatingly captioned half the time. The bulk of the Ponsonby photos are coyly identified by first name only (see above). This disjointed postmodern approach to printing photos in books seems to have become an editorial trend, one that needs to stop right now. Note to editors, or authors, or whoever the hell is responsible: knock it the hell off! Run the pictures big, clear, and clearly captioned on glossy paper. The virtual universe is already demolishing print, so don’t put books at even more of a disadvantage than they already are with clever collage-mongering and shoddy captioning.

Names: far too many BYP’s had surnames that function as given names or were otherwise confusing – Bryon, Brian and Howard, Brenda Dean Paul (a woman with one girl’s and two boy’s names), the two Evelyns, he and she. Taylor’s rather condescending tendency to refer to people by their given names added to the confusion and sent me to the index a lot to keep things straight.

I fell into this book sort of by accident. It started with reading a couple of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travel books which reminded me that I am fascinated by the period between 1890 and 1939, when we were wrenched (in my opinion) into the modern world -- and the period between WWI and WWII was the new world&aposs childhood. I picked up Robert Graves&apos The Long Weekend, a social history of 1921-1939 which is a terrific, idiosyncratic read and then plunged into Bright Young People.

I am not a bit smar I fell into this book sort of by accident. It started with reading a couple of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travel books which reminded me that I am fascinated by the period between 1890 and 1939, when we were wrenched (in my opinion) into the modern world -- and the period between WWI and WWII was the new world's childhood. I picked up Robert Graves' The Long Weekend, a social history of 1921-1939 which is a terrific, idiosyncratic read and then plunged into Bright Young People.

I am not a bit smarter for having read the book. This is the tale of the young, semi-monied 'smart set' whose parties were the stuff of society sections and scandal. They seem a perfect parallel for the Paris Hiltons and her tribe--not particularly useful, but taking up endless pages of copy. Taylor wrote the book recently (2004?)) and I have to wonder why. He tries hard to draw lessons from them without quite calling them dreadful examples, but the lessons are obvious and, in Taylor's hands, lead to no conclusions. Not counting the escapees like Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, they are the same lost, shallow or frittered lives that for some reason so enchant us in People Magazine or Star or Us --which I absolutely read every time I have my hair done. (Among my friends, it is legal to read them but illegal to buy them.) There is a better book in these stories--more bios would have made interesting reading. I think there may be a pungent, pertinent summation about our interest in the BYP--caught, embarrassed but fascinated by the excesses, sort of sorry we missed some of those type of parties and heartily hoping our kids missed them too.

I can't quite say I didn't like it, but it is now on the stack of books destined to be donated somewhere. . more

Once I arrived at the second or third chapter I found this book difficult to put down for the night. The style of the writing keeps readers moving along at a fast pace, perhaps reminding us of the frenetic pace of the 1920s themselves. Each prominent "Bright Young Person"&aposs life and character is detailed, with portraits drawn clearly. After reading this book one almost feels as though one knows each member of the group personally. Among the members of the group upon whom focus is placed are Nanc Once I arrived at the second or third chapter I found this book difficult to put down for the night. The style of the writing keeps readers moving along at a fast pace, perhaps reminding us of the frenetic pace of the 1920s themselves. Each prominent "Bright Young Person"'s life and character is detailed, with portraits drawn clearly. After reading this book one almost feels as though one knows each member of the group personally. Among the members of the group upon whom focus is placed are Nancy Mitford and her sisters, Unity and Diana - the Fascists among the sisters, Alec and Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Ponsonby, and Brenda Deen Paul. Other, less well-known members of the "Bright Young People" whom we get to know include Patrick Balfour, Brian Howard, Stephen Tennant, and others whose life achievements failed to keep them prominent in the public memory.

I'd recommend this book for readers interested in 20th century American culture, the 1920s in particular, and people who are curious about the small group of rich and boisterous youngsters who had so much influence during their time and yet now seem like falling stars - very bright for a moment and then gone. . more

As someone who has always described myself as an "old soul," I have a natural predisposition to understanding and appreciating the past. Though I recognize the implications and naiveté of such a wish, not a day goes by that I still don&apost pine, yearn, and frankly, tingle at the mere thought of being a young woman alive sometime during the first half of the twentieth century. In my opinion, those first fifty years garnered far more snazzier fashions, thought-provoking art, and interesting people t As someone who has always described myself as an "old soul," I have a natural predisposition to understanding and appreciating the past. Though I recognize the implications and naiveté of such a wish, not a day goes by that I still don't pine, yearn, and frankly, tingle at the mere thought of being a young woman alive sometime during the first half of the twentieth century. In my opinion, those first fifty years garnered far more snazzier fashions, thought-provoking art, and interesting people than just about anything in the latter half.

In order to get my history fix, I often watch movies from the silent era and golden age of Hollywood (Bette Davis, Bette Davis, Bette Davis!), incorporate certain classic elements into my wardrobe and make-up choices (e.g., fishnet stockings, loose fitting tops with belts, wedged heels), and constantly read about the people, places, and things of the various decades. My latest conquest in the last department is a book called Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age, which is a thorough recreation and examination of the life and times of the budding British elite in the roaring '20s. The author, D.J. Taylor, not only provided my fix with his wonderful investigative work, but he also supplied me with the inspiration to find out even more about the people he traces, to read some of the books they wrote, and to finally get my hair waved.

The Bright Young People were a large group of London’s rich and famous young men and women. They’ve been immortalized in literature (Evelyn Waugh being the most prominent author of the period), in movies (Bright Young Things), and in various other types of art. In many ways, they’re immortal beings, which is odd considering they only existed for such a short time span in history. For ten or so years, they ruled the celebrity roost with their charming antics, extravagant parties, and bohemian sensibilities. Gin and tonic, bath and bottle parties, and lighthearted feelings were all the rage with this brood.

In the end, though, their hedonism and the prospect (and eventuality) of war in later years stopped their frolicking and merriment. A number of the Bright Young People failed to escape their hunger for extravagance and succumbed to the effects of alcohol and drugs. Others went to war and perished. Some retired their dancing slippers and hunkered down to a normal life. Many vanished into thin air.

Taylor artfully traces the origins of the Bright Young People with the same effervescent touch the people themselves possess. His language is sassy, sweet, and intelligent. Though he covers a lot of ground in the roughly twenty years, the text never feels heavy or meandering. Instead, it sucks you in like a great novel, or a great piece of gossip. Bright Young People will make you laugh while learning about a group of carefree individuals who, at one point or another, actually lived the life many of us dream of living.

*Special Content only on my blog, Strange and Random Happenstance, during Jazzy July to celebrate the release of Lauren Willig&aposs The Other Daughter, including introductions by Lauren! (July 2015)

The 1920s in England spawned a unique subculture. The Bright Young Things, people who partied every night, always had just the right bon mot, and never failed to make headlines in the newspapers, many written by their own set, swept through the country. While their parents might have thought of them as t *Special Content only on my blog, Strange and Random Happenstance, during Jazzy July to celebrate the release of Lauren Willig's The Other Daughter, including introductions by Lauren! (July 2015)

The 1920s in England spawned a unique subculture. The Bright Young Things, people who partied every night, always had just the right bon mot, and never failed to make headlines in the newspapers, many written by their own set, swept through the country. While their parents might have thought of them as the scourge of the country with their depravity, the public couldn't get enough of reading about the antics of these young partygoers. But the artistic and bohemian lifestyle had a price, most of them wasted their talents and were burned out by their hedonistic lifestyle. Of all the Bright Young People, so few names remain memorable in the artistic community, such as Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. What happened to the rest? They were the symbol of a decade but as that decade grew to a close the world was changing, war started to loom again on the horizon, and decadence wasn't looked on favourably during a time of retrenchment. Though looking back, it is fascinating to examine the beginning of what would become our celebrity obsessed society. It didn't start with Kim and Kanye, it started with Beverly Nichols and Elizabeth Ponsonby!

Biographies written by authors with an overinflated sense of self are hard to read. They don't let their subjects take center stage, being always more concerned with patting themselves on the back then doing justice to their subjects. D.J. Taylor is such a writer, more interested in using obscure words and overblown language to showcase his own "talent" then writing a solid book, whose subject matter I'm not even sure he liked all that much. There is a smugness in the way he assumes that everyone must know who and what he is talking about and that if you don't you are unworthy of this knowledge. This leaves the reader confused in a morass of names and events with only the loosest grasp of who any of the Bright Young People really are. Apparently a simple precise of the cast of characters would sully Taylor's writing and make the book too approachable by the uniformed masses. And the thing is, I'm not uniformed! I know many of the Bright Young People and still I felt like I was futilely trying to catch some meaning out of the fog Taylor creates with his impenetrable text. Bright Young People and authors like Taylor are the exact reason I have problems with biographies and why I so rarely read them. And if he referenced ONE MORE picture that wasn't included in the book I was ready to burn it, library fine or no.

When I read the biography on the Mitford sisters, I faced many of the same problems I faced here. The Sisters just rehashed commonly known facts and oft told stories I had heard in their own books while bringing nothing further to the table. Taylor does the same. He spends copious amounts of time dwelling on repeating plots from books or tales of parties that are better told elsewhere. Why would I be reading this book to read in detail the plot of Vile Bodies? If I wanted to know about Vile Bodies I would read Vile Bodies! Which I am actually planning on doing anyway. But the biggest problem I have with him summarizing these primary sources is he does it so badly. I know it's hard to condense a book's narrative down so that you engage your reader as well as give just enough detail without spoiling the book, heck I do it with every book review I write. So I think I'm a little qualified to pass judgment here. In the book's chapter entitled "Projections" which is near the end of the book, if you make it that far which I don't advise you to do, all Taylor does is badly summarize the literary efforts of the authors this generation spawned. Now I have read all the books Nancy Mitford has written, ALL THE BOOKS, and I could barely recognize Highland Fling from Taylor's description. The same can be said about Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. Therefore I can only assume the books I haven't read were just as atrociously summarized. Plus, why do I want to read this when I could just pick up the original book? You would be better off reading all the primary sources then wading into this pompous and pretentious morass that theoretically attempts to unify the authors lives and works into one book.

What is fascinating about this grouping of authors, photographers, heiresses, and what have you is that they were a very egalitarian group, despite being very clannish. Many people site the first world war as the great equalizer. It was the last war where your status could get you a higher commission. The world started to shift from this Upstairs, Downstairs world to a world more founded on merit. Therefore why should it be any surprise that The Bright Young People were also a more democratic lot. Titled "Hons" rubbed shoulders with "laborers" in their midst. The two most recognizable of these lower orders rising up are Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh. While Beaton was more overtly ambitious, these two men, who ironically hated each other, had humbler beginnings then many of their contemporaries among this glittering society. Waugh's father was an author and literary critic, while Beaton's was a timber merchant. While their beginnings weren't so humble as to be penurious, seeing as they went to the right schools and therefore worked their way into this new social circle, it is just fascinating that they had a-typical backgrounds. When you think of the writer to define this generation, this movement, while Nancy Mitford is a close second, Evelyn Waugh takes the top prize. He immortalized this period for future generations. Likewise if one was to think of a person who captured the images of the age, Cecil Beaton, hands down. Sure he went on to even greater acclaim and Academy Awards, but it is his portraiture of this age the captures it for time in memoriam.

One aspect that I found interesting enough to dwell a few minutes on was the idea of the Bright Young "Thing" versus the Bright Young "Person." Because it's an interesting theory I can unequivocally state that Taylor didn't think it up and it's been floating around for awhile, he just doesn't have it in him. While many people refer to the culture of the Bright Young Thing it would be more accurate to replace "Thing" with "Person" or "People" because this was a generation that, while they had an overall vibe, it was the personalities that made this movement important. Which is why little precises of all the movers and shakers would have been so helpful! If this is a movement about the people, it would be helpful to know who all these people are! Name drop all you want Taylor, if I don't know them just reading their names over and over again isn't going to magically enlighten me! This was really the epoch of what we now know as celebrity culture, of the "personality." Sure, there were famous personages prior to the twenties, but their every single detail down to who was at a bridge party at Nancy Mitford's house wasn't published in the press. This was when the exploits of so-called celebrities daily exploits were written up to be consumed by the masses who could barely comprehend living this party lifestyle. We still consume it at probably an even more rapid rate then they did back then. Turn on the television at any time of day and there are some pseudo-celebrities with cameras following them everywhere. And while it is funny to think about what a reality show with Elizabeth Ponsonby or Evelyn Waugh would have been like, in the end would the show be any more captivating then any current reality TV? Probably not. Just more people trying to stay in the spotlight with stunts and parties.

The biggest flaw though, in this overly flawed book, is that Taylor breaks basically the only rule for writing a work of non-fiction, and that is overreliance on one source. When you write non-fiction using only one person's diaries or journals it gives you a skewed view of what really happened. You are only getting one side of the story. You can't provide any kind of faithful narrative with only this one POV. Here the POV is almost strictly that of the Ponsonbys. Taylor must have been so flattered to be allowed unprecedented access to the Ponsonby family archive that it inflated his already inflated ego and turned this book more and more into a platform for the elder Ponsonbys to rail against their daughter, Elizabeth. Firstly, why didn't Taylor just write about them if they were so obviously his pet project, and secondly, the "generational struggle" that the diary entries are supposed to highlight as a typical reaction to children misbehaving don't work. At all. Instead, these diary entries focused on the behavior of their daughter make Elizabeth's parents seem unstable. They appear, quite dramatically, to be psychotically obsessed with their daughter's comings and goings, even onto the point of her sexual activity. If you think OCD helicopter parents are a new trend, I give you the Ponsonbys as proof against that. Seriously, they just give me the creeps. There's a book in their relationship with their daughter, it just shouldn't have been in any part of this one. Also, Norma Bates, you have been outdone, FYI.

The feeling this book leaves you with, beside rage at the author and a desire never to meet the Ponsonbys, is that of overwhelming sadness. The Bright Young People burned bright and fast, falling into ruin and disipation. The book couldn't be bothered with going into the whys and wherefores as to how this generation was formed, aside from quotes from far better authors of the time. But you still get that this generation was lost, not in the typical sense. They didn't disappear, they left their mark, but it was fleeting. They were lost in the wilderness and didn't know how to make a life of parties and treasure hunts and dressing up transition into a real life, with productive work and a future. Of all the personalities profiled, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Harold Acton, John Betjeman, Edward Burra, Edward Gathorne-Hardy, Babe Plunket-Greene, Brian Howard, Beverly Nichols, Brenda Dean Paul, Bryan Guinness, Henry Green, the Sitwells, and the Mitfords, and many more, the average person would probably only know Evelyn Waugh. If they are more of a reader, perhaps Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Anthony Powell. Of the coeterie of personalities, only a small handful are still known. Only these few had any lasting power. Yet all these people wrote or act or were creative and yet there is nothing to remember them by. So maybe they are lost in every since of the word. It's too too sad making. . more


Focus Features

In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, when the singer/actress/woman-about-town Delysia La Fosse pulls a poor, hungry mouse of a governess into her glamorously giddy world, Miss Pettigrew has never seen anything like it. Every where she turns, snappy, oh-so-clever young people are racing to fashion shows and parties, gossiping about who's in the paper and who just landed in prison, who's sleeping with whom and who hasn't slept in days. Whether Winifred Watson, the author of the 1938 novel, had partied with similar folk is doubtful. But more than likely, she, along with most of London, had read about such reckless, rich people running amok through London. The Bright Young People, as newspapers had dubbed them, were routinely featured (and pilloried) in society pages and opinion columns alike as they set the tone for a society teetering on the edge of an abyss.

The Bright Young People (or Bright Young Things, as others called them) are the British incarnation of an international phenomenon that had erupted in the 20s after World War I. "The Lost Generation" of Americans trying to find themselves in Paris gathered around Gertrude Stein in Paris. The swells and flappers of the Roaring Twenties made an appearance in The Great Gatsby. The decadence of the Weimer Republic was chronicled by Christopher Isherwood in The Berlin Stories, part of which was later adapted into Cabaret.

The most famous chronicler of the Bright Young People was Evelyn Waugh, whose 1930 novel Vile Bodies was originally titled "Bright Young Things" until Waugh decided the term had become too widespread and cliché. (Stephen Fry's 2003 film adaptation of Waugh's novel Bright Young Things reclaimed the original title). In one famous passage, Waugh summed up the whole exhausting, exuberant time:

"Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood . . . - all the succession and repetition of massed humanity . . . Those vile bodies."

But the Bright Young Things not only lived for each other and for the day they also lived for the press. The name "Bright Young People" originally appeared as part of a Daily Mail headline on July 26, 1924. Regularly showing up in gossip pages and news reports, the movement was a cultural phenomenon. A 1927 cartoon in Punch magazine, for example, highlights their fame with a middle-aged lady aggressively addressing a society gentleman: "Are you one of the Bright Young People? I am."

One could argue this new Bohemia&mdashpeopled by artists and writers, musicians and actors, journalists and photographers, commoners and aristocrats&mdashgave birth to what we know as celebrity culture. People started becoming famous for being famous, having been made that way by their fellow travelers, like gossip columnist Thomas Driberg and photographer, Cecil Beaton, who worked in the then burgeoning popular media. (You scratch my ass, I'll photograph yours.) In that celebrity culture the lives of the inhabitants&mdashas well as the work they did to earn their living&mdashbecame "news."

For them, all news, be it juicy details on the society page or stern admonitions from an editorial column, only increased their celebrity. Philip Hoare, the author Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (1990), observes, "Driven by a headlong taste for excess, enabled by newly fluid social strata and publicized by new media&mdashone party set the Thames on fire, with the help of 20 gallons of petrol&mdashthey scorned all values but their own." Were they alive today, the Bright Young People would be numerically ranked on the pages of People "The 50 Most Outrageous," or some such title.

While the mad denizens in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are never identified directly as members of the BYP, they were kindred spirits. The film takes place on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany. That day also marked the end of the party for the young revelers. By this time, many had already died from drug overdoses and alcoholism, been killed in car accidents or by suicide, or, worst of all, taken up serious professions. While most were certainly young, not all were that bright. As D.J. Taylor wrote in a review of Hoare's biography of Stephen Tenant, "A Bright Young Person may have been a Bright Young Thing, but not all Bright Young Things were Bright Young People." Taylor, who recently wrote their history in Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940, has come to recognize their worth as well: "Their legacy is still everywhere. Novelists like Waugh, Powell, Henry Green, the beginnings of a celebrity culture, household names like Beaton, Betjeman, Frederick Ashton all have their roots in this youth cult."

So who were these these young folks whose photos plastered in picture magazines like Vogue? They were very much like the people Miss Pettigrew bumps into on her special day. They were stylish, giddy, artistic (even if they never produced art), on the move, extravagant (even if they had no money), and above all sexually adventuresome. Philip Hoare notes in the Independent, "The culture was decidedly gay." True descendents of Oscar Wilde, the gay members of the BYP created a subculture of gay affections and affectations. Hoare describes them: "Brian Howard, tall, languid and dark, striding down the street with a pair of spaniels 'lapping at his feet' Robert Byron, travel writer and abuser of cinema ushers and [Stephan] Tennant himself, whose disastrous relationship with [Siegfried] Sassoon exposed both men to peril. The pair are shouted at in a London street: 'You two revolting bits of filth.'"

Wilde's actual descendant, his niece Dolly Wilde, lived as a lesbian in Paris, but she partied with the BYP when in England. Indeed strong women, both straight and gay, were essential to the Bright Young People. In fact, Delysia La Fosse would have fit right in with such other women as the poet Edith Sitwell, the novelist Nancy Mitford, the actress Tallulah Bankhead, Lady Eleanor Smith, Babe Plunkett Green, and most importantly Elizabeth Ponsonby. In his history, Bright Young People, D.J. Taylor perceives Ponsonby to be the emotional center of the group, the person whose unflappable party spirit pushed others onward.

Here's a roster, in no particular order, of some of those celebrities&mdashthe brightest of the Bright Young People&mdashand some of their more notorious exploits.

Dolly Wilde (1895-1941)

Oscar Wilde's niece was renowned for her wit and her bohemian lifestyle. She was a lover of both men and women, particularly Natalie Clifford Barney, an heiress from Dayton who was famous for Left Bank literary gatherings where the "lost generation" found a home. She was involved with Barney from 1927 until her death. A heavy drinker and heroine addict, she was in and out of treatment facilities.

Elizabeth Ponsonby (1904-1940)

The daughter of a prominent labor politician, Elizabeth Ponsonby, was at the center of all of the fun. Rosemary Hill writes, "Elizabeth Ponsonby's name is no longer one to conjure with but for a time, in the 1920s and 30s, it was all over the papers, for she was one of the 'bright young people'." Ponsonby and her cousin Loelia became notorious for their high-flying vandalism. "Stealing policemen's helmets, dancing all night at the Ritz and, on one occasion at least, breaking into a country house and setting fire to Margot Asquith's nightdress, this was the essence of 'brightness', " continues Hill.

The gossip writer and her personal friend Thomas Driberg wrote of her: "She was a very emphatic and rather pathetic character at the same timeâ&euro¦She was one of the vital sparks who got the parties going, and I liked her tremendously." While Ponsonby came from an established family&mdashher grandfather was Queen Victoria's private secretary, Henry Ponsonby&mdashshe both flaunted and abused her credentials. Not particularly rich, she acted the part nonetheless. Her mother Dorothy Ponsonby wrote of her:

"E's standard of riches angers me. She lives like a person with £3,000 a year who spends £800 on her dress."

Connected to everyone, Ponsonby was repeatedly in the paper, much to her father's chagrin. Indeed she served as the model for Hon Agatha Runcible in Waugh's Vile Bodies. Hill describes how, "After a particularly marvelous weekend bash at the family home, during which Mr. Ponsonby resorted to hiding what little alcohol was left in the toolshed, he decided that 'E is not going to have another party in this house.' " But his efforts had little effect. She died of alcoholism in 1940.

Thomas Driberg aka Baron Bradwell (1905-1976)

An Oxford drop out, the only degree Driberg earned was a P.A.&mdashParty Animal. He was a friend of the poets W.H. Auden and Edith Sitwell. Leaving university he moved to Soho, the Bright Young People hangout, where he got an apartment above a 24 hour café and worked as a waiter.

Sitwell got him a job interview with the Daily Express, which hired him to work on "Talk of London" gossip column that he later took over. In 1933, he was given the control of "These Names Makes News," a more salacious column, which he wrote under the nom de plume William Hickey.

Driberg had what he termed a "life long love hate relationship with lavatories," and was famously described as an "enthusiastic apostle of the doctrine that there is no such thing as a heterosexual male, but some are a bit obstinate."

However, he was not attracted to men with beards, a fact that led the Times Literary Supplement to observe, "This may explain the high incidence of beards on the Labour Left."

In later years he is rumored to have tried to seduce both Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Mick Jagger, but died before completing his autobiography, Ruling Passions.

But it was from his perch as a gossip columnist, in the 20s and 30s, that he made his Soho friends famous. Friends like Brian Howard.

Brian Howard (1905-1958)

Driberg reported to his readers on two parties hosted by Brian Howard, the Swimming Pool Party in 1928 and The Great Urban Dionysia in 1929 (in which guest dressed up like Greek mythological figures).

An Eton-educated American, Howard met Driberg's at Oxford, where he was famous for being openly homosexual and more than a bit flamboyant. His one time friend Evelyn Waugh once described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Sebastian Flyte, the teddy bear-holding character from Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945), was possibly based on Howard.

At Oxford, his friend, the poet Edith Sitwell, introduced Howard to Gertrude Stein, who was the inspiration for his Oxford Portraits of 1925-6 in the Manner of Miss Gertrude Stein. He was also a close friend of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Klaus Mann, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Between 1930 and 1947, Howard wrote more than 70 stories for the New Statesman.

In 1940, he wrote in his diary, "Drink has become the No. 1 Problem." After World War II, alcoholism got the better of him. And he committed suicide in 1958, after the death of his partner Sam.

At a dance party in December 1926, Howard met photographer Cecil Beaton, who chronicled Bright Young People like Noel Coward for Vogue and Tatler.

Noel Coward (1899-1973)

Noel Coward helped teach his friend Cecil Beaton how to dress. "I take ruthless stock of myself in the mirror before going out," he warned the young photographer. "A polo jumper or unfortunate tie exposes one to danger."

Coward was famous for his dressing gowns, and for being photographed in them. He first wore one on stage in The Vortex, his 1924 play about Nicky Lancaster, ravishingly struggling to escape a cocaine addiction and a domineering mother. "If the part requires one, you couldn't keep me out of it, because they're so comfortable to act in. And they've got swing," he said.

Robert Sacheli writes in Dandyism.net: "From then on the actor-playwright was endlessly photographed and caricatured in dressing gowns, which for his fans became a visual shorthand for all that was enviably up-to-the minute in Coward's personal design for living. Coward the actor recognized the robe's onstage allure: Coward the playwright found something even more valuable than swing. By wrapping his works and his performances in high style, he was able to put on stage ideas and characters that might be considered unacceptable if presented in the drab guise of realism: Pleasure, promiscuity and drugs among the indolent society set (The Vortex), the sexual bond of emotional soul mates trumping the dull, conventional bond of marriage (Private Lives), and the bohemian freedom to find fulfillment in more than one lover's&mdashor gender's&mdasharms (Design for Living)."

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964)

Edith Sitwell, along with her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell, were part of the social nexus of the Bright Young People. Born into an aristocratic family, Sitwell divorced herself from an earlier age, choosing instead to live with her governess in a dilapidated 4th-floor walk up in a working-class neighborhood.

She published her first poem in 1913 at age of 26, and soon rose to be arbitrator of modernist English poetry with her two brothers, collectively known as "the Sitwells." While her love was poetry, she wrote several popular histories that were commercial successes, including two histories of Queen Elizabeth (with whom she shares a birthday). While more eccentric than excessive, Sitwell was the close friend and confidant of many of gay artists of the time, including Cecil Beaton, Stephen Spender, Ronald Firbank and her brother Osbert. Indeed her one great&mdashand tragic&mdashlove was with Pavel Tchelitchew, a gay Russian painter.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Heir to a wealthy Baghdad Jewish family, Sassoon early on turned to poetry and cricket to sustain himself. Joining the war effort in 1914, Sasson's life would be deeply changed by this experience. At first a war hero (recognized for single-handedly capturing a machine gun nest), he later became a pacifist, actively protesting against the war effort. Deeply effected by the pain and the death of such friends as the poet Wilfred Owen, Sassoon's future literary work reflected this.

After the war, Sassoon's sexuality opened up as he ran through a series of relationships with well-known men, ending with his most significant one, a four-year affair with Stephan Tennant in the late 1920s. After Tennant unceremoniously broke it off, Sassoon later married and fathered a child.

Stephen Tennant (1906-1987)

Some people maintain that it was Stephen Tennant, not Brian Howard, who was Evelyn Waugh's model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

Tennant, a man, whom it was said spent most of his life in bed, was Siegfried Sassoon's lover for four years.

An aristocrat, he was the youngest son of Lord Glenconner, of Scotland, and Pamela Wyndham, who was a cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde's lover. He was friends of artist Rex Whistler, Lady Diana Manners, the three Sitwell siblings , and the three Mitford girls. Nancy Mitford based Cedric Hampton of Love in a Cold Climate on him.

He was also friends of Cecil Beaton, who often photographed him, and Cecil's sisters, Nancy and Baba, two of the more beautiful Bright Young People.

Nancy and Baba Beaton

The Bright Young People still have their fans. The young woman at "Bright Young Things" blog writes:

"My favorite is Baba Beaton, Cecil's sister and first muse. This is one of his famous photos of her, 'A Symphony in Silver.'??She is awesome, no? When I first read about her, I decided that had to be the greatest name ever. When I get a female cat, she will totally be named Baba Beaton."

Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

Cecil Beaton, the Bright Young People photographer, published his first photo in Vogue in 1924, a portrait of George "Dadie" Rylands, a Shakespeare scholar at Cambridge. Beaton described the photograph this way: "It was a slightly out-of-focus snapshot of him as Webster's Duchess of Malfi standing in the sub-aqueous light outside the men's lavatory of the ADC Theatre at Cambridge."

In a childhood diary, Beaton described himself as a "terrible, terrible homosexualist." While his longest relationship was with art collector Peter Watson, he is also known to have had affairs with Greta Garbo, British socialite Doris Viscountes Castlerosse, American socialite Marjorie Oelrichs, artist Rex Whistler, Gary Cooper (so he claimed) and Stephen Tennent (so it was rumored).

"My pictures became more and more rococo and surrealist," he said, describing his art. "Society women as well as mannequins were photographed in the most flamboyant poses, in ecstatic or mystical states, sometimes with the melodramatic air of a Lady Macbeth caught up in a cocoon of tulle . ladies of the upper crust were to be seen in Vogue fighting their way out of a hat box or breaking through a huge sheet of white paper. Chinese lanterns, doilies or cutlet frills, fly whisks, sporrans, eggbeaters or stars of all shapes found their way into our hysterical and highly ridiculous pictures."

Some of his most famous pictures were of members of the British royal family, for whom he worked as court photographer.

Rex Whistler (1905-1944)

Rex Whistler, a British artist who was killed in World War II, posed for Cecil Beaton and painted Stephen Tennant. It was Tennant who originally pulled Whistler into the Bright Young People's circle, having met him originally at the Slade School of Art. As a painter, he created portraits for many of the Bright Young People. More he was more well known for his graphic designs, producing illustrations and posters for Shell Oil, and creating China designs for Wedgwood. Many know his work for the famous 1927 mural "The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats" in the Tate Restaurant of the Museum. Sexually, Edith Olivier, Laurence's sister, says Whistler liked both men and women.

Rosemary Hill writes: "George Orwell might think they had 'feathers for brains,' but they had Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford to fictionalise them. Cecil Beaton photographed them John Betjeman put them in verse. They reviewed their friends' books, wrote about one another in gossip columns and went to fancy dress balls dressed as each other."

The Bright Lights

These days, the Bright Young People's descendents, or at least their genome, populate Us Weekly and ET. Occasionally, someone crawls out of a Rover without panties or "loses" a boudoir video to the Web or runs out of rehab, and that makes the news.

But what about the stories that don't make the front page? Like when Ryan Seacrest peed into Paris Hilton's handbag during a screening of Epic Movie. When asked if the simple beauty was angry, he told a cohort, "Not really. She probably thought it was what people are doing these days to tan leather."

Of course, that incident didn't get reported. Perhaps because it didn't happen. (Though when has reality constrained Star editor Bonnie Fuller?)

However, in the 1920s in London, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy did urinate into Rosamond Lehmann's purse during the screening of an avant-garde film. When asked if she was angry, he replied, "Not very, my dear. Perhaps she thought it was all part of the surrealist ambience."

Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, whom writer D.J. Taylor describes an "impossibly languid figure," was a toff (a member of the British upper class), who, while a student at Oxford, was propositioned by Anthony Eden. (Eden, the 1st Earl of Avon, was the British PM from 1955 to 1957.)

Gathorne-Hardy&mdashand Eden&mdashand Rosamond Lehmann were what were known in their time as Bright Young People, the characters who populate Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day.

As the urinating-in-a-handbag story demonstrates, celebrity culture is, alas, not what it was. And neither are social circles. Can you imagine a future president of the United States having once propositioned Ryan Seacrest?


Review

In The Mitford Girls, Mary S Lovell cordially brings together the varied personalities of an eccentric British blue-eyed sisterhood that spanned the 20th century. Born of "minor provincial aristocracy", as the late Lord Longford put it, the six Mitford sisters and one brother came to epitomise the Bright Young Thing generation of London society, hosting the extravagant, giddy parties lampooned by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies. Nancy, the literary dry wit, was herself to write several successful novels, most notably Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, which followed the family prescription of fact doused with fiction. Notoriety, though, came elsewhere. Diana, beautiful and strong-willed, left Bryan Guinness the month Hitler came to power in Germany to be with dashing British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, whom she eventually married. A meeting of hearts and beliefs, they stayed together through internment during the war, and the years after. Tragedy came with the manic public fervour of the unfortunately named Unity for Hitler and the German Nazi Party. She met the Führer on 140 occasions between 1935 and 1939, achieving a rare intimacy, but when war broke out she shot herself in a vain bid to end her life, which left her disabled for the rest of her life. Decca was the leftwing antithesis of Unity, who wrote The American Way of Death and Hons and Rebels, the latter every bit as witty as Nancy's work. The other siblings--Pam, wooed by John Betjeman, Debo, who became Duchess of Devonshire, and Tom--receive fairly scant attention in an account understandably dominated by pre-1945 events, when much of the British aristocracy flirted with fascism. In abstaining from judgement, Lovell, who writes fluently and never loses sight of her charges, comes close to underplaying the Mitford s' more unsavoury views and behaviour, though her task is inevitably fraught with negotiation, particularly as Debo and Diana are still alive. The diverse energies of this multi-plumed brood, who in adult life were rarely in the same room, make them hard to contain in one book, and perhaps require more distance to do justice to the themes, and disparities, of their extraordinary lives. (David Vincent, AMAZON.CO.UK )

In the first book devoted to the whole tribe, Lovell does sterling work in revising our Nancy-made image of her parents in her novel THE PURSUIT OF LOVE (Sunday TIMES )


‘Bright Young People’: The 6 Extraordinary Mitford Sisters - History

Nancy Mitford was born on 28 November 1904 in London, the eldest of the six legendary Mitford sisters. Their father, Lord Redesdale, a countryman at heart, worked in London at the office of The Lad y until 1914. After the war he moved his family to Oxfordshire.
Nancy and her sisters were educated at home and relied mainly on one another for company. Her high spirits and funniness lit up the family atmosphere but she was also a remorseless tease. The jokes, rivalries and passions of the Mitford childhood went straight into her highly autobiographical novels.
Nancy grew up partly in the 1920s of The Bright Young Things and partly in the politically polarized 1930s. Her sisters Diana and Unity were drawn to the extreme Right and Jessica to the Left. Nancy wavered between the two but could never take politics – or indeed anything– very seriously.
Nancy started writing for magazines in 1929 and became a regular contributor to The Lady . In 1931, she published her first novel, Highland Fling .
During the war she worked at Heywood Hill, the Mayfair bookshop, which became a meeting place for London literary society and her friends.
Nancy fell in love with three un- satisfactory men. The first, Hamish Erskine, was homosexual but her infatuation with him lasted five years. In 1933 she married Peter Rodd, a clever, delinquent bore. They separated after the war and were divorced in 1958. In London during the war she met Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer and General de Gaulle’s chief of staff, at whose feet she laid all her passion and loyalty for over thirty years. Gaston never returned her love but they remained friends until her death.
‘If one can't be happy one must be amused don't you agree? ' Nancy wrote to a friend. It could stand as the motto for her life. She hid her deepest feelings behind a sparkling flow of jokes and witty turns of phrase, and was the star of any gathering.
Childless and unfulfilled in love she may have been, but Nancy found huge success as a writer. Her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love (1945), was a phenomenal best seller and made her financially independent for the first time.
In 1946 she moved to Paris to be near Gaston Palewski and remained in France for the rest of her life. She adored the country and saw everything French through rose-tinted spectacles. Separation and distance from her various friends and relations produced a flood of marvellous letters that are as important a part of her literary output as her books.
In the late 1950s Nancy started writing about the history of France, describing historical characters as if they were her friends and contemporaries. These biographies were as successful as her
novels. The Sun King , a brilliant evocation of the court of Louis XIV , was a worldwide bestseller.
In the early 1950s Nancy wrote a regular column for the Sunday Times and continued to be in demand as a journalist and reviewer until the end of her life. Her friend Evelyn Waugh said that it was her true metier. A light-hearted article she contributed to Encounter on the English aristocracy in 1954 sparked a hullabaloo over upper-class and non upper-class (U and non-U) speech and was a tease that even she thought went too far.
In 1969 she moved to a house in Versailles and soon afterwards began to suffer from the onset of a rare form of Hodgkin's disease. Except for a few periods of remission, she was in great pain for over four years, which she bore with heroic courage.
Nancy died on 30 June 1973 at home in Versailles. Her ashes are buried at the Church of St. Mary's in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire,
where her parents and her sisters Pamela, Diana and Unity also lie.

BOOKS ABOUT NANCY

NANCY MITFORD: A Memoir (1975)by Harold Acton

THE HOUSE OF MITFORD: Portrait of a Family (1984)
by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness

NANCY MITFORD: A Biography (1985)
by Selina Hastings

THE MITFORD GIRLS:
The Biography of an Extraordinary Family (2001)
by Mary S. Lovell

LIFE IN A COLD CLIMATE, NANCY MITFORD:
A Portrait of a Contradictory Woman (2003)
by Laura Thompson

NANCY MITFORD,
La dame de la rue Monsieur (2019)
By Jean-Noël Liaut


Watch the video: Mitford Mania. Review of The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (July 2022).


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