The youngest of the legendary Mitford sisters reminisces about her life and her correspondence with the charismatic Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, considered to be the finest English travel writer of his generation. An evening filled with wit, eccentric characters, and a celebration of courage and friendship. Charlotte Mosley, her niece and editor, joins the Dowager Duchess in conversation.
The Duchess of Devonshire: 'When you are very old, you cry over some things, but not a lot'
The Duchess of Devonshire, youngest of the Mitford sisters, talks about meeting Hitler and why she doesn't like change
Stephen Moss @StephenMossGdn
Fri 12 Sep 2014 14.24 BSTFirst published on Fri 12 Sep 2014 14.24 BST
'Oh, you're punctual – how very unusual," says Deborah Cavendish (AKA the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) as she enters the drawing room. I'm not sure whether I'm being congratulated or castigated; either way, I feel she has the advantage, one she never loses. I was already nervous about this encounter. The duchess has just published her memoirs, and journalists are not spared. She describes how, after she had talked about the deaths of four close friends in the second world war, a particularly dumb interviewer asked her, "So, did the war change you?" She also says in the book that you should never believe anything you read in newspapers. As well as representing the dodgy fourth estate, I'm also wondering whether I'm supposed to call her Your Grace.
The duchess says she embarked on her memoirs because she felt her family, and her parents in particular, had been portrayed unfairly in the media, with journalists working from ancient press cuttings. At 90, she wanted to put her version of her upbringing on record. And what an upbringing it was. Debo, as she is called by people who eschew titled formalities, is the last surviving member of the six Mitford sisters, an afterthought (or so she implies in the book), dismissed because her parents had wanted a second son, patronised by her glittering sister Nancy, overshadowed by the fame (or notoriety) of Jessica, Diana and Unity. Her memoir – called Wait For Me! because she says she was always running to catch up with her older, longer-legged siblings – is a touching, funny memorial to a vanished age of debutantes, balls and young men with fancy titles making the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield. She only started to write in her 60s – first about the ancestral seat of Chatsworth, then more generally – but belatedly she is catching her writerly sisters up.
Her life has been remarkable, and only her languid, laconic, matter-of-fact style allows her to shoehorn it into 370 pages. There is enough here for a dozen books. She must be one of the few people to have met both Adolf Hitler and John Kennedy, has been a familiar of the Queen for her entire reign, and was related by marriage to Harold Macmillan and used to go shooting with him. "When he became prime minister [in 1957, having previously been chancellor]," she tells me apropos of nothing in particular, "he told me it was wonderful because at last he had time to read." She laughs. Her sense of humour and recognition of the absurdities of life are apparent throughout both her book and our conversation, bearing out her friend Alan Bennett's remark: "Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say, 'Joking apart . . .' Joking never is apart: with her it's of the essence, even at the most serious and indeed saddest moments."
She may have deemed my punctuality worthy of remark because she lives in the middle of nowhere, in a hamlet called Edensor on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. The duchess occupied Chatsworth itself, perhaps England's finest country house, until the death of the 11th duke in 2004. Soon afterwards she moved about a mile away, to a vicarage on the edge of the estate, far enough from the house to give her son Stoker (nicknames are important in these circles – his real name is Peregrine), the 12th duke, and his wife Amanda, the new duchess, room to breathe. Dowagers have to know their place, and recognise their moment in the sun has passed. Nothing, she emphasises, belongs to the person; it all goes with the title. "I've lived in furnished rooms all my life since I was married."
Her final set of rooms are in the Old Vicarage at Edensor, which she occupies with her butler Henry, who has been with the Devonshires for almost 50 years, an ultra-efficient secretary called Helen, who has been with her for almost 25, and large numbers of chickens, pictured on the cover of her book. She enumerates the several breeds she keeps, and seems a little disappointed that I am unaware of the differences. Another dumb journalist who will probably confuse a Derbyshire redcap with a Scots dumpy.
We talk in the drawing room, silent save for the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. Her piercing blue eyes unnerve me, though she tells me towards the end that, because of macular degeneration, she can barely make out my face. That also makes reading virtually impossible, and it is remarkable that she has managed to write this book, scribbled in bed early in the mornings ("I wake up very early – I love the shipping forecast at 5.20"), with Helen typing it up. Her hair is steely grey and voluminous; she is elegantly dressed in high-necked blouse, lemon cardigan and sensible skirt; on her left wrist, beside her watch, she has a band with a small red disc that I mistake for a bracelet; she tells me it is an alarm in case she has a fall, but that she likes to pretend the red button she has to activate is a ruby.
I begin by asking her to recount her meeting with Hitler in 1937, when she, her mother and her sister Unity (who was besotted with the Führer) took tea with him in Munich. In the book she recalls him noticing they were "grubby" after a journey from Vienna, and showing them to the bathroom, where he had brushes inscribed "AH". She has a passion – and a talent – for details. "I didn't know Hitler," she tells me. "I only went to tea with him once. He was very fond of my sister Unity." She starts recounting the meeting, but soon gets bored. "The story's been told so often I think it's pretty old hat." She would almost certainly rather talk about chickens.
Her sister Unity was an enthusiastic Nazi; her other sister Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, had extreme views on race, and spent part of the second world war in Holloway prison because she was deemed a threat. I suggest that in her memoir, she is a little kind to both, given their views. "Quite kind?" she says incredulously. "I adored them. I really loved them both. When we got old, I liked Diana better than any other person in the world." So she accepted their politics? "Their politics were nothing to do with me. The same with my sister Jessica." Jessica, who spent most of her adult life in the US and is best known for her book The American Way of Death, was a communist and civil rights campaigner. "She was as outlandish as any of them," says the duchess.
I ask her why the Mitfords have exercised such perennial fascination. "I can't imagine," she says in her very deliberate, almost regal drawl. "I know it sounds stupid to say that, because I realise they were good writers. All Nancy's books are in print again. She would have been amazed at me writing this book because she thought I was completely half-witted. She called me 'Nine' [Debo's supposed mental age], and used to introduce me to her smart French friends long after I was married by saying, 'This is my little sister aged nine.'"
The sisters were educated at home, because their mother didn't believe in exams, and Debo spent most of her time hunting, skating – she was good enough to encourage interest from professional coaches – and going fishing with her father Lord Redesdale, an eccentric who only read one book in his life, Jack London's novel White Fang, and enjoyed it so much he didn't believe it could be bettered. Her father – handsome, fearless, irascible – is the central presence in the book, and no doubt the figure who shaped his dangerous, disputatious daughters. "Farve either liked you or he did not," she writes. "There was no middle way. My mother sometimes tried to reason with him, but reason was not part of his makeup."
The deaths of her friends in war are not the only bereavements in the book. She had three children who died within hours of her giving birth. Her first child, who was born 10 weeks premature, died in 1941, the year in which she had married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. "It was in the war and people were thinking of other things, so it was skated over by everyone as a fact of life. But it was an awful blow for Andrew and myself. Then there were two more, but for different reasons. They were just a few hours old." How did she cope? "How can you not? You've got to if you're faced with these things. Life had to go on in an ordinary way."
Reawakening the ghosts of her past for the book gave her no pain. "When you are very old, you accept what has happened. You cry over some things, but not a lot. It's too distant. It's as if part of you gets nearer to it yourself, and then you think the churchyard here [in Edensor] is very handy, whereas Andrew [her husband] had to come all the way from Chatsworth. Paddy Leigh Fermor [the writer and one of her greatest friends, now 95] insisted on walking behind his coffin. Well, he won't have very far to walk for me." Lucian Freud, who has painted her on several occasions, is another close friend. "I see him when I go to London and I leave him eggs on the doorstep. He seems to like that. I really love him and I always have."
She realises she is a survivor, but she doesn't want to be seen as an anachronism, and another journalist gets it in the neck for calling her a "lilac relic of bygone days". But as befits a duchess (and someone who has little interest in politics), she proudly proclaims that she has voted Conservative all her life and inveighs against change. She dislikes the modern obsession with health and safety, and mourns the decline of the English language, the destruction of the postal service and the disappearance of Punch. But she accepts modernity is not all bad, welcoming the advances in dentistry. "You've no idea what it was like when we were children," she says. "It was like going to a torture chamber."
Why are you a Conservative, I ask her, which later I think may be a stupid question, given that the Devonshires own Chatsworth, thousands of acres of the Derbyshire countryside, a castle in Ireland, and half a dozen other residences. "I like conserving things," she says circularly. "I like people to stay as they are, though I know they can't." Stumblingly, I point out that at the Guardian we do not wholly approve of dukes, duchesses and other feudal throwbacks. How does she justify them? Her answer is characteristically lateral. "There are two retired head gardeners here," she says, "both of whom have done 50 years at Chatsworth, and they are just such extraordinary people that if you could sit and talk to them you would learn some things that you would never have known. They are just wonderful, and it's really the company of them and the people who work on the farms that I like best of all."
She says time-honoured hierarchies are better than faceless modern conglomerates; the 600 or so people employed at Chatsworth know who they should moan at if things go wrong. "There's always been access to the top here. There's a human. You can laugh at them, you can dislike them, but they're there."
When she married Andrew Cavendish, as the second son he did not expect to become duke, but his older brother was killed in the second world war and he inherited. I am intrigued to know whether at some point the duchess, this regal persona, took over from the real person. "I was very unconscious of it, because I've been a duchess for so long, more than half my life. And now it's become rather unfashionable to have a title of any sort. If you are one, how can you tell how other people feel when they meet one?" What did her sister Jessica, the communist, think of her becoming a duchess? "She thought it was very comical. She takes people as she finds them." I like the way she slips into the present tense when describing a sister who has been dead for 14 years.
We have been talking for more than an hour and I fear she may be tiring. Are you OK to carry on, I ask her? "Yes, very happy," she says, "but haven't you had enough?" I laugh at the way she says this, as if the interview is a boxing match. I learn later from the photographer that she was disappointed I failed to floor her with a killer question, which irks me because I thought I had plucked up the courage to ask one.
In the book, she describes her husband's alcoholism and how that almost ended their marriage in the 80s. But she doesn't mention his infidelities, widely hinted at elsewhere. Was he unfaithful, I ask her? "Oh yes, of course," she says. So why didn't you write about his affairs in the book? "It wasn't my aim to write about them," she says. "People are so odd in England about marriage and what it means. It's not something I would dream of writing about, because it seems to happen to everybody, so what of it? Sex and money are all that interest the press." She describes her memoir as "an antidote to Lord Mandelson's" – a book born of loyalty and love.
I don't get a strong sense of her husband in the book, and ask her to describe him. "He was quick and funny and sharp as a razor, and had great love for his friends. He may have been difficult at times, but he was never boring." Not being boring is important to her. A dull marriage would be unthinkable. "You know how you can't listen to someone who is very dull?" she says. "At least I can't." Now my terror is complete. I know I am boring her. "I love you being terrified," she says. "That's so funny."
She would probably go on all afternoon, but we get into a dispute about the date of the Countryside Alliance march in London and consult her secretary, so the drawing-room door is opened and the world intrudes. The contest is over, and I have been soundly defeated by this 90-year-old who retains the grace on the ice she had as a child. She asks Henry to offer me drinks. I hear her telling him he needn't put his jacket on to serve them, but he insists on doing so, not wishing to change the habits of a lifetime. He is about to retire, but will stay on for two days a week at the dowager's request. Not, I suspect, because she needs a butler, but because she is so attached to him as a person. People. Those tricky things that get in the way of political theories. Yes, we must sweep away centuries of privilege, but I do hope Henry, Debo and her chickens survive.
Why the Enduring Fascination with the Mitford Sisters Won’t Die
What explains the endless obsession with six British socialites of a bygone era? Probably their beauty, wit, eccentricity . . . and epic split over Hitler’s rise.
BY JAMES WOLCOTT
APRIL 29, 2016
In those footloose days when I thought little of popping off to London once or twice a year to pad around Piccadilly and catch the latest shows, I found myself at a new musical called The Mitford Girls. Why I chose that concoction over so many other marquee-blazers remains a muddle and a mystery, my awareness of the Mitford clan and their fabled rap sheet being somewhat sketchy. Perhaps it was the Brideshead Effect that prompted me. The lavish mini-series adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s elegiac postwar romance, Brideshead Revisited—starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, Claire Bloom, and Laurence Olivier—premiered within a week of The Mitford Girls’ opening in 1981, and the sumptuous trappings and muffled intrigues of the landed nobility made for a cultural moment that had everyone abuzz then and has endured, all the way up to Downton Abbey. Anyway, there I was. It was not an evening in the theater to bring Kenneth Tynan springing out of retirement. What I recall through the fogbank of jet lag is that the musical started off on a fishy note with the six sisters (like the Andrews Sisters, times two) greeting the audience onstage with a harmonizing “Thanks for the Memory,” a song so familiar as Bob Hope’s sign-off that planting it here seemed like borderline larceny. Other numbers included piano-bar perennials (such as Cole Porter’s cheeky “Let’s Do It”), the entire score a pastiche of paste diamonds dressing up a script heavy on hubbub and girlish antics until things went darker in Act II, when Adolf Hitler made an appearance. The Mitford Girls ran only a few months, not simply because it was creaky but because not even the Brideshead Effect in lilac bloom could salvage the Mitford mystique from looking spindly, dated, played-out—or so I halfway figured.
Wrong. The Mitford cult not only survived the 20th century but has made a spirited go of it in the 21st with no sign of becoming winded. What was known as the Mitford Industry in its heyday has not slowed production, even after the deaths of the six sisters, as individual and group biographies (coming this September, The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson), docudramas, documentaries, reminiscences, volumes of letters, and even a self-help title (The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life, by Lyndsy Spence) quench an apparently unslakable thirst for Mitford lore. The Mitford sisters have become the stuff of myth, a glittering constellation no matter how much tarnish remains. Why? It can’t be just because the Bloomsbury cult ran out of gas.
For the sake of clarity, not to mention sanity, let’s fill out the lineup card first. Scion of an aristocratic family that traced its heritage back to the Norman Conquest, David Freeman-Mitford, who would become Baron Redesdale, and his wife, Sydney, bestowed upon the world six daughters—in order of birth, Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah—and a son, Tom. They grew up in a series of country houses and cottages where their eccentricities and enthusiasms flowered like orchids. Only the son was formally schooled (owing to finances as much as to male entitlement—the Mitfords were socially privileged but not economically flush); the girls’ education was a more spotty, haphazard affair, with their mother and an array of governesses teaching lessons in reading, arithmetic, and French, leaving big blanks in the curriculum. Left to their own madcap devices, the girls formed a tribal bond, speaking their own slanguage and minting a clattering thicket of nicknames for their parents (Dad was Farve, Mum was Muv), one another (Unity was Bobo, Diana was Honks, Jessica was Decca, Deborah was Debo, and so on), their nannies, governesses, menagerie of pets, and anyone else who strayed across their radar. Although taken to extremes by the Mitfords, with their “shrieks of laughter and floods of tears,” as Nancy would later put it, this sort of upper-class twittering was very common in the pre- and postwar eras among the smart set, as anyone who has waded knee-deep through the footnotes explaining nicknames, barnacled in-jokes, veiled allusions, and genealogical connections (who was whose idiot cousin) in the biographies and journals of the period can wearily attest.
What elevated the Mitfords above the prattle and privileges of their upbringing and put their reputation on a collision course with history was the fissure in the household between the two raging ideologies that would rip apart the 20th century: Fascism and Communism. “When they talked about what they wanted to be when they were grown-ups,” writes Mary S. Lovell in The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, “Unity would say, ‘I’m going to Germany to meet Hitler,’ and Decca would say, ‘I’m going to run away and be a Communist.’ ” And so they did. Flighty as they might have appeared, the Mitford girls did not lack for follow-through.
In 1933, Unity and Diana traveled to Germany as delegation members of the British Union of Fascists, whose chrome-domed leader was Oswald Mosley, with whom Diana was having an affair—both were married to others at the time—and whom she would later secretly marry in the home of Nazi propaganda maestro Joseph Goebbels with Adolf Hitler among the guests. To many, Mosley resembled a knockoff version of Hitler, the black moon to Hitler’s black sun, but he possessed his own magnetic exertion. Decades later, Clive James, writing about a television interview with Mosley, observed, “As always, the streamlined head of Sir Oswald looked simultaneously ageless and out of date, like some Art Deco metal sculpture recently discovered in its original wrappings. Nor have his vocal cords lost anything of their tensile strength.” Where Hitler had his Brownshirts busting chops and smashing glass, Mosley recruited his own paramilitary band of bullyboys, the Blackshirts, which the sainted P. G. Wodehouse would parody as the Black Shorts in The Code of the Woosters. Mosley wasn’t the demonic orator Hitler was. He lacked the infernal throb. Attending the Nuremberg rally on their 1933 visit, Unity and Diana saw Hitler in oratorical action for the first time, and he more than lived up to advance billing. The spectacle was spellbinding, the message drum-pounding. Compared with the maundering walruses running England and Europe downhill, here was a man who had dynamized, industrialized, and mobilized a nation—destiny incarnate.
A year later, Unity, reborn in the spirit of fanaticism, alighted in Munich, took a German-language course near the Nazi Party headquarters, and put out her feelers for an opportunity to meet her hero. Didn’t take long. In 1934, Hitler’s movements and routines were well known, and one of the frequent stops was a restaurant, the Osteria Bavaria, which Unity staked out. They soon met—he couldn’t help but notice her—and into his orbit she was drawn. It wasn’t just that she was young, attractive, English, self-possessed, and shared his vision. Hitler was steeped in superstition, susceptible to portents, and here was Unity, who was conceived in a Canadian town called Swastika and whose middle name was Valkyrie, in honor of Richard Wagner. (There was a family connection to Wagner and Bayreuth through her grandfather Bertie.) According to Unity’s careful tabulations, she met Hitler on 140 occasions, their flirty friendliness causing great distress to Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, who attempted suicide to swerve Hitler’s attention back her way, which it did. Braun was probably never in serious danger from Unity as a romantic rival. Unity was too uninhibited and tongue-flapping. Secrets weren’t safe with her, which would never do in the tense, pin-drop deliberations of the Nazi high command.
It’s become somewhat customary to contemporize Unity’s behavior as that of a groupie supplicating herself before a rock deity, a crush gone supernova, but Unity wasn’t content to pay homage offstage. She craved her own stardom. She snapped a Nazi salute before thousands at a Hitler Youth rally (for which Hitler awarded her a gold swastika badge that she swanked around in) and wrote an open letter to Der Stürmer, the scurrilous anti-Semitic propaganda rag edited by the surpassingly odious Julius Streicher, which ended, “We think with joy of the day when we shall be able to say with might and authority: England for the English! Out with the Jews!,” then added a PS in which she asked that her whole name, not her initials, be used. “I want everyone to know I’m a Jew hater.” And as a Jew hater, what befell the Jews didn’t disturb a hair on her head. “We know she thought Streicher’s act in making Jews crop grass with their teeth amusing, and that she approved when a group of Jews were taken to an island in the Danube and left there to starve,” writes Lovell in The Sisters.
Despite Unity’s mad devotion to Hitler, she insisted that if Germany and Britain went to war she would commit suicide. She couldn’t bear the prospect of the two countries she loved shedding each other’s blood. This wasn’t a verbal pose. As I say, the Mitford girls had follow-through. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Unity went to the English Garden in Munich, took the small pistol Hitler had given her for her protection, pressed it to her temple, and fired. The bullet lodged in her brain, but she survived—she had somehow bungled the self-hit. She was spirited off to neutral Switzerland, where her mother and Debo retrieved her and returned to England to an understandable firestorm of flashbulbs and tabloid snoops. Why was this little Fascista given such special, protective treatment? Despite her intimate proximity to Hitler and his trusted lackeys, Unity, brain-stricken, was not searched or questioned, even after her faculties somewhat recovered, thanks to the intervention of her father with the home secretary. She would lead a placid, child-like half-life until the bullet residing in her brain led to meningitis and she died, eight years later.
Sister Diana wasn’t as lucky staying out of the clink. The outbreak of war led to a sweep-up of the Fascists in England, and Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford (who had given birth to her fourth child weeks before) were arrested without charge and interned for security purposes. Interviewed by authorities in prison, Diana was asked if she agreed with the Nazi policy on Jews. “Up to a point,” she replied. “I am not fond of Jews.” There were those who would later try to extenuate this remark. In The House of Mitford, written by Jonathan Guinness with Catherine Guinness, the authors deplore Diana’s statement. “One should never condemn a whole group in this way. Yet we have never seen anyone taken to task for saying they were not fond of, for example, Germans.” Given the context, this is remarkably obtuse, not to mention tasteless.
The Nazi divide made it impossible for the sisters to maintain a united front. As a teenager, Decca had etched a hammer and sickle into her bedroom window with her diamond ring, and her first husband, Esmond Romilly, was the antithesis of Oswald Mosley: “Mosley with a red flag,” as Laura Thompson puts it in The Six. So when Diana was finally released from prison, Decca petitioned Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whose wife Clementine was a cousin to the Mitfords, to have her put back in. “The fact that Diana is my sister doesn’t alter my opinion in the least.” (It was Decca who, when confronted with Nancy’s affirmation that “sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity,” riposted, “But sisters ARE life’s cruel adversity!”) Unlike many who start out on the Communist left only to sag sideways into religion or, worse, neoconservatism, she stayed put as an upright underdog defender. Immigrating to the United States in 1939 and making it her home base, Decca became an opponent of the Red Scare and a crusading reporter on civil rights, but her American reputation rested less on her political writings than on her best-selling muckraking book about the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, and her memoir Hons and Rebels. She became a doyenne of the Old New Left (the 60s radicals who had entered middle age), defying the stereotype of the aging dour lefty by fronting a band called Decca and the Dectones, who I’m sure whipped up quite an earful.
Of all the Mitfords, Nancy is the one who means the most to me. (Pam is the most inconspicuous and hence most uncharacteristic Mitford sister, though The House of Mitford informs us that she would “become well known in the poultry world” for importing “a picturesque breed of chicken” into Britain, and the poultry world doesn’t accept just anybody.) Nancy is the one with the lasting literary eminence—her comic novels (Christmas Pudding, The Blessing, Don’t Tell Alfred, among others) a staircase rising to the twin pillars of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, a conjoined classic of beauty, wisdom, acuity, humor, affection, and bruised worldliness, as close as one could get to Colette without cats underfoot—and her life is in many ways the most poignant in its final punctuation. Unity toyed with evil, but after she put the barrel to her head, her life was a drawn-out anticlimax, her consciousness packed with clouds. Nancy’s romantic disappointment was an extended letdown leading to physical anguish. Falling in love with a French politician of Polish origin named Gaston Palewski, she moved to Paris so that the two of them could be together, and so they were, but they never married, and he was prolifically unfaithful, eventually marrying an aristocrat whose name was an impressive mouthful: Hélène Violette de Talleyrand-Périgord. The Horror of Love, the title of a biographical study of the Mitford-Palewski liaison by Lisa Hilton, smacks of melodrama, but it was a love unfulfilled. Suffering for years from headaches and other ailments, Nancy was diagnosed in 1972 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the final six months of her life were a rack of pain. Diana, unrepentant to the last for her adulation of Hitler, would outlive Nancy by 30 years, proof that health and mortality are the most fickle monsters of all.
Debo, the youngest, would outlive them all and give the real-life roman-fleuve of the Mitfords the closest thing to a happy ending that it deserved. Treated as the runt of the litter by her older, splashier sisters, who nicknamed her “Stubby” because of her legs and “Nine” because that was the mental age Nancy said she was stunted at, Debo would grandly come into her own after years of feeling left behind. (Wait for Me! was the title of her memoir about Growing Up Mitford.) At the age of 21, she married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. “An heir and a spare,” as the saying goes, and when Andrew’s brother, Billy, who was married to John F. Kennedy’s sister Kick, died in action during the Second World War, Andrew would become the 11th Duke of Devonshire, and Debo thereby the mistress of Chatsworth, a stately pile of 126 rooms with gardens covering more than a hundred acres, stables—the works. Quite the emerald spread. (It was used as a location for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.) Debo, who would die at the age of 94, nipping Diana’s longevity record by a year, devoted herself to the preservation and promotion of Chatsworth, writing book after book on the estate, an entrepreneurial Earth Mother who named one of her memoirs Counting My Chickens, its cover showing her holding a big clucker. The buoyant aplomb of her reign at Chatsworth in her last decade as Dowager Duchess (her husband died in 2004) had a healing, redemptive grace, as if the spirit of Demeter moved through her to repair some of the damage done by her sisters’ association with destroyers and restore a portion of paradise. Reichs rise and fall, sisters shriek and sob, beauty fades, famous names come and go, and in the end ain’t nobody here but us chickens.