Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Mitfords

The Mitfords still aren't very famous in America despite making comparable famous American aristocracy like the Kennedys seem irretrievably boring.

It occurred to me today that I need to re-read Nancy Mitford's library of writings because, despite holding distinct impressions of her effortless wit, which often comes off as an afterthought, I've completely forgotten what The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate were about.

I do recall that her father, David Mitford, is hysterically preserved in both books, the Pursuit most distinctly (I think), in which he - a brusque, outdoorsy, irritable man - chafes at the dinner conversation of a visiting family member who wants to discuss books.  

“My dear Lady Kroesig, I have only read one book in my life, and that is ‘White Fang.’ It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”

In an interview, Mitford sister Deborah confirmed the truth of that line, that as an adult, their father really had only read White Fang and was convinced that no other book could live up to it.  Concerned by this, their mother picked another book for him to read, which was Tess of the d'Urbervilles.  When he started to cry during the sad parts, his wife said, "Don't cry, darling, it's only a story."  Furious, David stood up and shouted, "Do you mean to say the damn fellow made it up!?"

The Mitford sisters were all beautiful, spectacularly intelligent and abnormally willful individuals, each of whom did something entirely distinct with her life except sweet Debo and Pam, who just got married.  All born in the beginning of the 20th century, they were part of an upper-class ("U") British family who spent most of their time living in their expansive country house, where the girls were not formally educated, because their mother didn't believe in it.

My favorite sister was Jessica "Decca" Mitford, who married a radical communist in the 1930s and quickly escaped to America to be a writer and journalist of moderate fame.  Her closest-in-age sister, Unity, with whom she shared a rather twinsy relationship, became strangely enthralled with fascism and traveled to Germany where she developed a friendship and one-sided love affair with Adolph Hitler, over which she eventually attempted suicide twice.  Their older sister Diana, incredibly beautiful and referred to by Hitler as the standard of Aryan beauty (don't quote that, but along those lines) married Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists.  Nancy carried on a series of affairs between enjoying financial and critical success for her writing.  Debo became a duchess and is still alive and in her 90s!  Pam farmed in rural quietude.

Fans of the arts of this era, "the time between the wars," will know the Mitfords as their stories are so closely intertwined with other noted British names of the day, like Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, the Churchills, and almost everyone who was anyone at the time.

I thought I read that one of the girls was going to marry Joe Kennedy, Jr., the first Kennedy heir and the one Joe Kennedy, Sr had actually intended for the role JFK took, but I can't find that anywhere, so it must just be a rumor.  

The Unity thing was so bizarre, I feel that there was some kind of mental abnormality with her, so singleminded and strange were her behaviors, although it is worth noting that this was the early 1930s, a time in which Hitler was widely approved of in the British upperclass, and in which antisemitism was so commonplace in the society in which Unity had grown up that it tended to offend only the lefty rebels (her sisters Decca and Nancy included).  She learned German by herself and sought Hitler out like a magazine celebrity, and eventually achieved some level of friendship with him in which he did favors for her, like find her luxe lodging in Berlin near him (evicting the prior Jewish tenant), and take her around with his entourage.  She never got as close as she wanted, and when England and Germany went to war, she couldn't bear having to choose between her home and adopted countries, so she went to the Tiergarten in Berlin and shot herself in the head.  She survived, and was immediately conveyed home to her family.  During that trip, she tried again to kill herself by swallowing a small Nazi medal Hitler had given to her.  Really, if someone wants to die badly enough that they re-try it as soon as they gain consciousness after the first attempt, then maybe you should just let them go.  The brain trauma from the gunshot wound caused Unity to spend the rest of her days in a "simple" mental state, and she died a decade later, the sad and ghoulish ward of her mother.

Unity and Decca had been extremely close as children and teenagers, going so far as to invent their own language, called "boudledidge" (told you I was a fan).  It is ironic that they immediately split apart in the most extreme ideological ways possible as soon as they were old enough to leave home.  Jessica remained a radical leftist for the rest of her life, gaining some fame later on by writing an expose on the American funeral industry called "The American Way of Death".  That was the 1960s, but it was revised and re-released with updates in the late 90s after her death.  I recommend reading it, and I guarantee that, upon doing so, you will instantly call your significant other or next of kin and say, "Write this down: no embalming - burn me - put me in a cardboard takeout box - do whatever you want with it.  But for christ's sake, no mortuary."  The commercialized funerary practices are offensive on all possible levels.  Disgusting and absurd debasement of bodies (painting teeth with clear nail polish and pumping faces full of dye to look "lifelike"), outrageously priced, predatory maneuvers made on people stripped of their reason by grief, etc.  Making a body look like a mannequin and then formally viewing it has always seemed absolutely insane to me.  I know what they looked like!  Why burn this image into my brain?  I remained glued to a pew during my grandmother's viewing, only approaching the casket after a tight-lipped whispered argument when my uncle approached my cousin and I and told us to get our asses up there and view her like everyone else had.  We didn't want to go up.  When we finally did, I turned away instantly.  There she was in a familiar dress, with pictures and mementos placed around her like a dead pharaoh, and glossy pink nail polish on her fingers.  That was the most vulgar to me.  She never wore pink nail polish and I was affronted as one can only be in grief that the mortuary would dare to assume she liked that color.

Decca's stories of being reviled by morticians across the country are very amusing - apparently, they referred to her by first name only in one of their industry papers.  "Jessica has done another interview with..."  Wrecking their grim party.  After her book came out, the cremation rate nearly tripled.

Decca's first husband, Esmond Romilly (Churchill's nephew), had been killed in the war in 1941, leaving her alone with a baby in a foreign country in wartime.  She took on a variety of meager jobs out of necessity, eventually ending up in journalism, and later married ACLU lawyer Bob Treuhaft.  They were both members of the Communist Party until the late 1950s.  Decca was called before the House of Un-American Activities, from which she was dismissed in frustration after refusing to answer questions.  She said she took up writing because she was tired of being fired from jobs for being a Communist.  No one can bar you from writing for a living if you can do it.

I was thrilled recently to find this video in which she is interviewed by Christopher Hitchens in the late 80s.  My two favorites!!!!!!

Really starts at about 5:00.  Worth listening to for both of them, but Jessica is hilarious and charming as hell, as is Hitch's obvious deference to her.

But since this post was inspired by my rediscovery of Nancy Mitford, here is a quote of hers that I recently heard for the first time and which made me laugh out loud.  Complaining of having to pretend to be thrilled by the births of babies, Nancy remarks that it's hard to coo at a newborn because they tend to look "...Like a howling orange in a fright wig."  Perfect, damn it.  

Early days at home in Oxfordshire




Unity Valkyrie - seriously, who gives their infant daughter the middle name of Valkyrie?  Cool, though.

Unity with her fucking boyfriend

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