Updated: Apr 24, 2020
“When she was just a girl she expected the world.”
Coldplay, Paradise, Mylo Xyloto, 2011
From waltzing with evil to marching with King. Celebrated and scandalous. An unrepentant fascist who spent three years in prison. A Communist whose writings inspired J.K. Rowling. A member of Hitler’s inner social circle who attempted suicide in a Munich public park. A novelist. A duchess. A country girl with rumored proclivities married to a millionaire physicist with a certain predisposition. And the origin of the term “Frenemy”.
Imagine six Paris Hiltons, all strikingly beautiful, politically active, highly intelligent, with every move followed breathlessly by the press of their day. Six sisters who entranced an entire nation, set the standard for societal norms, partied with world leaders, participated in civil wars, spent time in prison, wrote novels as well as exposés, battled the Klan, managed a 35,000 acre English estate, and toss in enough scandal to fill multitude volumes. Meet the Mitford sisters who utterly dominated the social news cycle of 1930s England.
Born into an aristocratic family of diminishing means and raised in a series of country houses and cottages, the Mitford sisters were not allowed a formal education, but instead received spotty tutelage under the oversight of various governesses. The girls did have access to an extensive home library containing volumes collected for generations within the family. Due to their relative isolation during childhood, the sisters, owing to their intellect, determination, and curiosity, developed a strong desire to both experience as well as shape the outside world.
Diana Mitford (1910 – 2003), perhaps the most magnetic of the sisters, divorced her first husband to begin an affair with British fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, whom she later married in a civil ceremony in 1936. Hitler, as the guest of honor, attended the union, held in Joseph Goebbels' drawing room in Berlin. Along with her sister, Unity, she met with Hitler numerous times during the 1930s and even arranged financial support for the British fascist cause. During World War II, both she and her husband were interned at Holloway Prison for three years due to their political leanings. Her own sister, Nancy, secretly testified against her at the time saying, “I regard her as an extremely dangerous person.” When she was released, another sister, Jessica, lobbied Churchill to have her put back in. Mary S. Lovell, a biographer of the Mitford sisters, has said Diana "became arguably the most hated woman in England for a while." Throughout her life Diana never displayed any regret for her support of fascism. In 1989 on a BBC radio interview, she said of Hitler, “I admired him very much.”
Unity Mitford (1914 – 1948), conceived in the Canadian town of Swastika, was widely known for her open, enthusiastic support as well as genuine friendship with Adolf Hitler. She was among Hitler’s inner circle of friends and even aroused the jealousy of Eva Braun, Hitler’s girlfriend. Hitler once wrote to her, “I am always with you no matter how far away you may be. You are always next to me. I will never forget you.” Virulently anti-Semitic, she was among the most ardent of Hitler’s English supporters. Perhaps her most infamous act was to sign her full name to a letter to a German paper which concluded, “I want everyone to know I am a Jew-hater.” When Germany and England finally went to war, Unity became so distraught that she attempted suicide in a Munich park with a pearl-handled pistol given to her by Hitler for protection. Her attempt failed, and she returned to England to live out her life in a child-like state. She died from complications due to the bullet lodged in her brain.
Nancy Mitford (1904 – 1973), regarded for her sharp tongue and searing wit, was an English novelist, biographer, and journalist. She was also an ardent anti-fascist. With characteristically subtle humor, one of her writings in the 1950s touched on the concept of “U” (upper) and “non-U” language, which identified a person’s social origins by words used in everyday speech. Even though she had not been serious, many others took this quite literally as Nancy was considered an authority on manners and societal norms. For a glimpse of her wry humor, she once said, "I love children, especially when they cry, for then someone takes them away."
Pamela Mitford (1907 – 1994), who much preferred living in a quiet rural setting, married the millionaire, physicist, playboy Derek Jackson in 1936. Their marriage lasted until 1951 and for the remainder of her life she was the companion of Giudtta Tommasi, an Italian horsewoman. Pamela’s sister, Jessica, referred to her as “a you-know-what-bian”, although most viewed the closeness as strictly platonic. She was also well-known in British poultry circles for importing a “picturesque breed of chicken”. The British, evidently, are quite serious about their chicken breeds.
Deborah Mitford (1920 – 2014) became a duchess through marriage to the Duke of Devonshire and was the main public face of Chatsworth for several decades. She greatly enhanced the 35,000 acre estate with a focus on the gardens and the development of commercial activities such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop with an employment of about one hundred persons. She also ran other associated business lines such as Chatsworth Food and Chatsworth Design. In addition, she wrote several books about Chatsworth. At the time of her death, it was speculated that she was the last living Briton to have personally met Hitler.
Jessica Mitford (1917 – 1996) chose a far different path from her sisters. As a teenager, she etched a hammer and sickle into her bedroom window using her diamond ring. At the age of 19 she fell in love with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill's nephew. She followed him to Spain to fight the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, rebelling against the direction chosen by her older sisters. Her father strongly disapproved of the liaison, and she neither saw nor spoke to him again. While in Spain, she married Mr. Romilly and became a strong adherent to Stalinist Communism which she would not repudiate until 1958. Estranged from her family and her fascist sisters, Diana and Unity, she emigrated to the United States in 1939. Her husband enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and went missing in action in November 1941, leaving her to raise their daughter on her own.
Jessica married again in 1943 to Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights attorney, and participated in a number of civil rights campaigns during the 1950s, including the failed effort to stop the execution of Willie McGee, an African-American convicted of raping a white woman. Both Jessica and her husband were active members of the Communist Party and were summoned to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In May 1961, as a journalist she met the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama. While there she was caught up in a riot when a mob led by the Klan attacked the civil rights activists. After the riot, she attended a rally led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The church where the rally was held was also attacked by the Klan, and the group spent the night barricaded inside until the siege was ended by Alabama National Guard troops.
Jessica authored several books. One was a best-selling muckraking book about the funeral industry. Another was her memoir, Hons and Rebels, which served as inspiration for a certain young J.K. Rowling. In 2002, J.K. Rowling stated, “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. I think I’ve read everything she wrote.”
And, yes, the Mitford sisters make claim to one more credit: the origin of the word “Frenemy”. Jessica Mitford writes that the term Frenemy “was an incredibly useful word . . . coined by one of my sisters when she was a small child to describe a rather dull little girl who lived near us. My sister and the child played together constantly . . . all the time disliking each other heartily.” Whether the Mitford sisters truly conceived the word may be lost to time, but with little doubt it is difficult to argue that any family could lay greater claim to the melodrama intrinsic to "Frenemy".
We should not be surprised that six sisters with such diametrically polar opposite political views, who actively conspired not only to send but to keep one of their own in prison, who cast aspersions on the living arrangements of each other would also be credited with the origination of the English language oxymoron and portmanteau linking “Friend” with “Enemy”. What is remarkable is that even when viewed against the odious backdrop of 1930s Europe, the six highly controversial, unrepentant, iron-willed sisters, raised in little more than a farmhouse without a formal education, would capture the imagination as well as inspire literally millions across generations.