The following is an extract from The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life and is subject to copyright and should not be reproduced elsewhere.
Jessica’s American Life
“We lead an extremely un-Duchessy life here.”-Jessica to Deborah, 1951.
In October 1951, Deborah planned her stateside visit to Jessica. Before the impending visit, Jessica wrote to Deborah, to forewarn her of a few domestic things, mainly highlighting the smallness of their suburban home in contrast to the grandeur of Chatsworth. Deborah, now a duchess, would have to (from a lofty point of view) slum it in America. Jessica specifically alerted Deborah’s attention to:
-The sleeping arrangements: Deborah would have to sleep on a sofa in the dining room because there was no spare room. Deborah could stay in a hotel, but there were some factors standing in her way, mainly the rule that a visitor could not bring more than $25.00 into America. “So you will be at our mercy once here,” Jessica warned her. -Daily life was very uncertain for Jessica. Many of her friends were being arrested and she wasn’t sure if she would be next. “Not that we expect to be, but I’m just warning you,” Jessica confided.
-Jessica worked day and night for civil rights organizations, but naturally she would take one or two weeks off work to entertain Deborah. However, should an emergency arise, she would have to “scram” back to work.
-Deborah must avoid making a serious error like Muv, who before her visit had cabled Jessica: “Am considering smuggling some things into US to sell, please suggest best things to bring.” Jessica was convinced the FBI would send customs to raid her house.
Deborah’s First Impressions
After receiving Jessica’s cautionary tale, Deborah braced herself for the worst, and upon her arrival, immediately penned her feelings to Diana, confiding that the entire first impression had caused her “such a turn.” As soon as she regained her composure, Deborah gathered her thoughts:
-Jessica appeared as a stranger to her, she had “lost all colour, even her eyes look different.” Nonetheless, Deborah quickly concluded that people often physically changed between the ages of twenty and thirty-five.
-The hot Californian climate was “dreadful” and “airless” and “must be bad for people.” It certainly wasn’t Blighty.
-Jessica’s American accent startled her the most. Not only had she adopted an American accent, but she also said “completely American sentences.” When Deborah asked her how old Bob was, she answered, “Pushing forty.”
-Again, Deborah in a state of trauma, added, “It’s the voice I can’t get over.”
-Needless to say, Deborah checked into a hotel.
In Feburary 1952, Debo finally travelled to America by airplane and the stops from London to San Francisco for refueling seemed endless. When Debo landed she felt weary and bemused at the sight of Decca, Bob and their three children; Dinky, Nicholas and Benjamin, waiting for her at the airport.
‘And there was Decca. A new person, trousered, American in appearance and accent – someone I did not recognize. It was the oddest sensation and filled me with a feeling of intense loneliness. What was I doing, thousands of miles from home, meeting a stranger who had once meant more to me than anyone in the world?’
Wait for Me, p. 164
Debo’s engagement book for her week in California read: Tuesday 12th February: dinner with more Communists. It is interesting to note, as Debo wrote in Wait for Me, that King George VI had died a week earlier and the left-wing extremists of California did not miss an opportunity to challenge Debo on her royalist views. Debo was thrown into the deep end, and although she had survived the sparring matches between Nancy and Farve at their dining table, these dinner guests had an intentional sting in their tails. None of the guests, Debo rightly opined, had ever been to England yet they launched into a ‘bitter criticism’ of everything she knew. Whenever Debo attempted to defend herself against their tirades, they laughed in her face and greeted her with, ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you.’ One evening Debo was a spectator in their argument on how to do away with the royal family. ‘Manners were not they priority,’ she said.
Despite the hostility from Decca’s Communist friends, Debo praised her sister and Bob for being generous guests. They treated Debo to a delightful stay in Carmel where she experienced ‘brunch’ for the first time and thought it ‘perfect’ – all of her favourite foods laid out in one meal. As they were leaving Debo was puzzled as to why Decca had packed the hotel towels, she questioned her action and was met with: ‘They are lovely and white and ours are horribly grey.’ When Debo said, ‘Hen, that’s stealing.’ Decca replied, ‘Oh, it’s all right, hotels are insured for that sort of thing.’ Debo, by her own admittance, had turned into the ‘old Conservative policeman’.
The visit, for Debo, had been tense but during the trip glimmers of the old Decca shone through. Decca’s new life, the foreign customs of America, and the unchivalrous behaviour of the dinner guests contributed to a feeling of bewilderment. The ‘bright spot’ was Dinky, who at the age of nine astonished Debo with her practicality, and the trip served to create a lifelong bond between the two.
When Debo returned to England she received a letter from Decca confiding that her friends were delighted in meeting a real life Duchess. Debo, in return, sent Decca a charming photograph of herself and Andrew wearing their ceremonial robes. ‘Being active’ she scribbled underneath.