Deborah Cavendish died 90 years old and has witnessed the 20th century up close. She has met anybody who's anybody - Churchill, Hitler, JFK. She is also the last survivor of a remarkable set of women - the Mitford sisters: Nancy, who became a writer, Jessica who became a Communist, Unity who became a Fascist - and Diana who married one. In a special edition of Woman's Hour Jenni talks to 'Debo' - the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire about her life, and the times she lived through. In her autobiography 'Wait for Me' she also talks about her own personal challenges; her husband, the Duke, had a long battle with alcohol and three of her children died within hours of their birth. She's also credited with helping to save one of Britain's great country houses, Chatsworth, which is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.
Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famed and beautiful Mitford sisters. When the baby of the family wed Andrew Cavendish, she married into one of the richest and most influential aristocratic families in England. After Andrew's brother was killed in World War ll, he became the Duke of Devonshire, and his family moved into Chatsworth, the renowned country estate.
When Andrew, the 11th Duke, died in 2004, the title passed to Deborah's son and she moved out of Chatsworth into a vicarage nearby; since her son's wife is now the Duchess, she is presently called the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.
All of this is to say that though her life has been very grand, her autobiography is charming and funny so that you feel like you are intimate pals. She has a good, dry sense of humor and a wonderful eye for the telling detail. Her personal stories feature many prominent figures of the twentieth century including John Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (she didn't like the Duchess), Pamela Harriman ("fat and fast"), Aly Khan and Evelyn Waugh. My favorite story so far involves Deborah's lunch with Dame Edith Sitwell, the great English eccentric and poet. Edith Sitwell recalls that the two chief things her mother used to say were, "We must remember to order enough quails for the dance," and "If only I could get your father put into a lunatic asylum."
You may know that Deborah is the grandmother of the model Stella Tennant, pictured below left at Tom Ford's recent fashion show.
Pictured on the right at Tom Ford's show is Daphne Guinness, the great fashion icon. She is an heiress of the Irish Guinness family, and was married to Spyros Niachros, son of the Greek shipping billionaire Stavros Niachros. And Daphne is also a Mitford; her father Jonathan Byron Guinness is the son of Deborah Mitford's sister Diana. So these two gorgeous creatures are second cousins. And that's how it goes with the Mitfords.
The subject of the 2008 movie The Duchess was a previous Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Cavendish who married the 5th Duke and also lived at Chatsworth. The movie starred the beautiful Keira Knightley in the title role.
Parts of this movie were filmed on location at Chatsworth. The film portrayed the lack of rights women had at the time, and I wasn't so crazy about it. Also starring Keira Knightley, and also partly filmed at Chatsworth, was one of my very favorite English movies though, Pride & Prejudice from 2005.