The Last Mitford Sister Dies At 94

September 25, 2014


Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest and last-surviving of the notorious Mitford sisters, has died at the age of 94. This was confirmed by her son, Peregrine, the current 12th Duke of Devonshire.

Deborah Vivien Cavendish was mistress of 175-roomed Chatsworth House, as she married the 11th Duke of Devonshire in 1941. Chatsworth House is one of the grandest estates in England.

The aristocratic sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, fascinated and appalled the posh British society from the 1930s.

Nancy, the oldest sibling, was a novelist and journalist who lightly fictionalized the siblings’ upbringing in a series of comic novels; Diana married Oswald Mosley at Goebbels’ house with Hitler as a guest of honor, and was interned during the war because of her Nazi sympathies; Unity was a devotee and close friend of the Führer who shot herself in the head, and survived, when war broke out.

Jessica renounced her privileged background to become a lifelong communist, emigrating to the US and becoming a civil rights activist; Pamela, the second-oldest daughter, lived a quiet life largely out of the public eye in the countryside. Their brother, Tom, died during the war.

The Prince of Wales paid tribute to Deborah, as she was fondly called, saying:

“She was a unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality. The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we shall miss her so very much.”

Deborah, a devoted fan of Elvis Presley, was born in 1920, and like all her sisters she was not sent to school because her father disapproved of over educating girls. He also thought that hockey would make their ankles fat. She was very close to John F. Kennedy and knew Churchill, took tea with Hitler at the age of 17, and attended the Queen’s coronation.

From an early age, however, she was more interested in keeping chickens than in politics and managed to stay on good terms with all members of her family, saying that “their politics were nothing to do with me”.

She met her husband, Andrew Cavendish, as a debutante when they were both 18. He was the younger son of the 10th duke of Devonshire, but the death of his older brother during the war led to his inheriting a bunch of estates when his father died in 1950. Deborah became actively involved in the running of the estate, earning the nickname the “housewife duchess.”

However, she did not lose her taste for luxury, retaining the tradition of gold-leafing the exterior window frames because she believed it lasted longer than painting them. She insisted, however, that she hated snobbery, saying: “I think class is the biggest pest that has ever been invented.”

She and the duke had six children, of whom three died at birth. Her husband also suffered from alcoholism, which nearly ended their marriage. She was more relaxed about his many infidelities. Though, saying “He may have been difficult at times, but he was never boring.”