Deborah, The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

Although The Mitford Society is shocked and saddened by the passing of Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, we feel it is a day for reflection on her long and fascinating life. Our thoughts are with her family, friends and all those who work at Chatsworth. It is truly the end of an era.


This photo belongs to Fiona Guinness. Published by kind permission in The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life. Please do not use without appropriate credit.

This photo belongs to Fiona Guinness. Published by kind permission in The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life. Please do not use without appropriate credit.


Doris Delevingne: The Constant Courtesan

Viscountess Castlerosse

You may think it fun to make love. But if you had to make love to dirty old men as I do, you would think again


The most notorious courtesan of 1930s society, Doris Delevingne boasted that she had reached the height of her profession. Indeed, by the mid ‘thirties, she had risen from humble beginnings in a small terrace house in Beckenham where she lived with her tradesman father, to a swanky address in Mayfair. Advancing on her foundation of beauty, brains and a fancy surname (she fibbed she was descended from a noble Belgian family), Doris set herself up as a one-woman-business, with nothing to trade except her body, and her sparkling wit should her admirer care for conversation. ‘An Englishwoman’s bed is her castle,’ she quipped, quite proud of her achievements. To some it was shameful; but to Doris it was a small price to pay for Rolls Royces, designer shoes, Parisian clothes and baubles from Cartier. She even shortened her name to Delavigne, fearing the original spelling might be too complicated to spell on a cheque. Where most women modestly dismissed their beauty, Doris knew she was beautiful and demanded that her fabulous legs should have a new pair of silk stockings every day, imported from Paris and costing a guinea a pair. She also had a fondness for Italian shoes, buying as many as 250 pairs on a single shopping trip. Anything Doris wanted, she got. Wives of powerful men, and mothers of heirs and spares feared their sons passing Doris’s infamous door on Deanery Street, for they knew one encounter with Doris and they would soon be contributing to her lavish lifestyle. Echoing their qualms, and summing up her scandalous reputation, a society matron snapped: ‘She should write a book and call it around the world in 80 beds.’


Early in her pursuit of riches, Doris met the theatrical actress Gertrude Lawrence who had become the mistress of a Household Cavalry Officer. Becoming flatmates, it soon became clear that both women were intent on climbing to the top. ‘I’m going to be the most celebrated actress in London,’ Gertie announced. ‘And I’m going to marry a Lord,’ Doris replied. An early conquest appeared in the form of Tom Mitford, but this was short-lived and he was not as rich as she had imagined. She soon turned her sights on Cambridge-educated Laddie Sanford, an American multimillionaire known for winning the 1923 Grand National. Setting up home in Park Lane, Doris joined him and found a love-rival in Edwina, Lady Mountbatten. Swiftly moving on from losing her horseman, she snared Sir Edward MacKay Edgar, twenty-five years her senior with enough money and arrogance to buy anything that took his fancy, first a title, and then Doris. But such passing flirtations didn’t last long, and she met the man who would become her husband.


Valentine Castlerosse was working in London as a gossip columnist, but it was his extra-curricular activities that appealed to Doris. He was an heir to an Irish earldom, and he was fat, nasty and broke; though she cared little for his financial status, for she herself had become rich from the money she hoarded off her rich admirers, she set her sights on his title and his castle in County Kerry. The title Lady Castlerosse, she decided, would bring her the type of social acceptance she craved. Quite tellingly, they married in secret, for Castlerosse was too afraid to tell his parents that his wife was a haberdasher’s daughter from Beckenham. Still, marriage meant nothing to Doris and she peddled on with her seduction of rich men – her husband, after all, needed the money. Winston Churchill was so smitten by her charms he painted her portrait three times – or so it was believed. His son, Randolph, too fell under her spell and they began an affair. ‘I hear you’re living with my wife,’ Castlerosse bellowed down the telephone not long after they were married. ‘Yes, I am,’ answered the younger Churchill, ‘which is more than you have the courtesy to do.’ Courtesy did not come into the equation; the couple had tried to live together but to disastrous results. They would kick and punch one another in private, and she would bite and thrash him about in public. Before long, Doris tired of her husband and threw him out of the marital home. Embittered by her rejection, and behaviour, he stood guard across the road, watching well-heeled gentlemen enter and exit the house, often giving them a swat with his blackthorn cane.


When Castlerosse finally plucked up the courage to divorce Doris, he chose to name not one of her many dalliances as co-respondent, but one of the best-known homosexuals of London society, Robert Herbert Percy. But this unusual piece of evidence was not entirely unfounded. Percy had been advised to visit Doris as an attempt to cure him of his homosexuality, and up to the impossible task, she produced a female prostitute and ordered the unsuspecting Percy to cane the terrified wench. Too shy, or perhaps too polite to accept the challenge, Doris gruffly picked up the cane and barked, ‘Here, let me show you how.’ Such antics might have amused her, but it appalled even the closest of her friends. The writer Edith Oliver dismissed her as ‘a common little demi-mondaine…why should one put oneself out for her?’ The high-jinxes were no longer funny; no longer the topic of a risque anecdote. This outsider had outstayed her welcome in Mayfair.


Moving to New York City, Doris lived a semi-gilded existence amongst America’s elite, but at the age of forty she was no longer the high-spirited society girl and her ways and means of getting men into bed for money had become sordid. Two years later, in 1942, Churchill summoned her back to Britain, where she took a suite at the Dorchester. Encountering the old Duke of Marlborough one evening in the hotel’s dining room, she was unnerved by his snide comment about people deserting their country in wartime. The acid remark shook her to the core, for she had gotten into trouble with the police for flogging diamonds in New York – a crime during wartime – to fund her homeward trip. She retired to her bedroom and fixed herself a drink, laced with a fatal dose of sleeping pills.





Angela Du Maurier

NPG x138986; Angela Du Maurier by Hay Wrightson

It is a common misconception that all three of the Du Maurier girls; Angela, Daphne and Jeanne, should have been boys. While it is true that Daphne hankered after her make-believe persona Eric Avon ‘the boy in the box’, and Jeanne had the ‘sturdiness’ of the boy-child she should have been, Angela was happy to be a girl. Though, as content with her sex as she was, Angela felt inferior as the ‘plain, unremarkable’ sister – a feeling emphasized by her father’s (the actor-manage Gerald Du Maurier) incessant need to mock and tease her. A gentle, naive child, her innocence lingered long after she was grown up, and it was those qualities in which her sisters and parents tried to extinguish. For example, as imaginative as Daphne could be, she did not believe in the after-life and was exasperated by Angela’s longing to be reunited as spirits in another realm. I suppose Daphne would have agreed to such dreams, so long as the setting of the after-life resembled Cornwall. Holding onto the fantasy of Father Christmas until the age of twelve, and fearful of growing up, Angela recorded in her diary: ‘The finish of security. Doubt lies ahead. Adieu les jours heureux.’


The business of growing older, into ‘double figures’, I disliked. I was unhappy when I was told I was too old to wear my nice white socks in the summertime, and made to wear horrible brown stockings…one was a fish out of water, too young to listen to sophisticated conversation, at the same time not wishing to play cricket on the lawn with younger sisters and their friends…pulled both ways, misunderstood at times by young and old alike, and not always understanding oneself.


Nurturing an ambition to appear on the London stage, Angela played Wendy Darling to Gladys Cooper’s Peter Pan. To her dismay she made a hopeless actress, but she plodded on for two seasons, the unsuitability of her professional becoming clear when she took off her on invisible wire, crashed into the footlights and landed in the orchestra pit. She then turned her attention to politics, having met Peter Macdonald, MP for the Isle of Wight, backstage at a play. Becoming a Young Conservative, Angela threw herself into campaigning for the Conservative Party, travelling to darkest Southwark to campaign for the Tories. Appalled by the sights of poverty and inhumane conditions the people endured, Angela questioned her Tory views. Many doors were slammed in her face, and when a gruff man shouted that he voted Labour and ‘always would’, she sighed and answered: ‘Yes, so should I.’ A converted socialist, Angela argued with Peter, who had become ‘the love of her life,’ about their opposing ideologies, and quite ignoring that he was married, she struck a deal. If the Tories won, all would be well with them; if Labour won, they would be over. Labour won, and the General Election of 1929 became the watershed of her romantic life.


Although she dreamed of marriage and children, Angela was repelled by the biological factor of sex. As a child, when she learned of reproduction, she felt sickened by the details – ‘my father would never do such a thing’ – and betrayed by her parents ‘because the truth was so HORRIBLE that they couldn’t bear to tell it to me’. She never cared for parties, or for her finishing school in Paris, and was content to sit at home, write in her diary, and live off her parents’ allowance of £150 a year. At the age of thirty, she was still child-like, though she felt repressed by the confines of her family-life and the watchful eye of her father – ‘I wanted to be Angela, and not merely Gerald’s daughter.’ When he died, she finally felt free and, engulfed by her feelings of guilt at such a thought, she set off for Italy where she fell in love with her older, married female friend (the relationship remained platonic), and was horrified at Mussolini and his army of fascists.


The onset of World War 2 gave Angela a purpose, and settling in Cornwall she worked the land with Jeanne. Daphne, of course, was reaping the financial rewards that Rebecca had brought her. And, world famous and an in-demand writer, she was pursuing the literary career Angela had dreamed of, but in spite of her younger sister’s success, she was not bitter about it. The Little Less, Angela’s first attempt at a novel, was rejected by several publishers – a bitter pill to swallow given Daphne’s first attempt at fiction, The Loving Spirit, was published around that time. But with the success of Rebecca, Angela’s second novel, The Perplexed Heart, was accepted, thus allowing The Little Less to see the light of day. The latter, when it was first written a decade before, provoked parental outrage that the sheltered Angela should write a novel about a young woman’s love for another. The Du Mauriers sentiments matched those of the publishers’ rejection letters: the lesbian theme was ‘too unpleasant’.


With a literary career of sorts, Angela went on to write eleven books, including two autobiographies, the most well-known of which was It’s Only The Sister, its title inspired by her exchange with admirers of Daphne’s work. ‘It’s only the sister,’ she overheard the admirer say. Somewhat fulfilled with writing her novels, Angela’s close friendships with other women developed into relationships, and for the first time since the infatuations of her youth, she had begun t0 live the life she dreamed of. Interestingly enough, when writing her autobiographies, friends warned Angela to censor her life as to avoid offending readers. Censor it she did, though it was far from dull.


Outliving both of her younger sisters, Angela died a month before her ninety-eighth birthday in 2002.





‘Am I not the last of the Marlborough gems?’


The second wife of Charles ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough was far from conventional. His first marriage to the American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt ended in 1920. Hardly surprising, as it was a marriage doomed from the start. Consuelo’s mother longed for her daughter to have a title, and Sunny was a Duke on the hunt for a rich wife. So, a deal was struck – Mrs. Vanderbilt warned her: ‘I do the thinking, you do as your told’ and Mr. Vanderbilt handed over a dowry of $2.5 million. Consuelo (the reluctant debutante) became the Duchess of Marlborough and chaletline of Blenheim, and Sunny got his cash.

But within months of losing the saintly Consuelo, Sunny found himself another woman…

Gladys Marie Deacon was a society beauty with an unflattering past. Her father, Edward Parker Deacon, shot her mother’s French lover dead in their suite at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes, for which he was arrested, and then he went insane. Grief was not on the agenda for Mrs. Deacon and she soon ran off with an Italian nobleman. An American child brought up in Paris, she spoke with a French accent and was a celebrated beauty wherever she went – Rodin and Proust were among her admirers, with the latter writing: ‘I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.’  At the age of sixteen, when she visited Blenheim with a group of friends, the Crown Prince of Prussia fell madly in love with her, and during an outing to Oxford, the Prince kept turning around to look at her, much to the irritation of those seated next to him. When the Kaiser learned that the Prince had given Gladys a ring, he demanded she give it back. But she did not grumble, for she only had eyes for Sunny.

Gladys was no shrinking violet, and she boasted that she had slept with every Prime Minister in Europe ‘and most kings’, too. Bemoaning her youthfulness and not the marriage status of the Duke, she said: ‘I am too young though mature in the arts of woman’s witchcraft.’ And acting on her statement, Gladys’s childhood dream came true when she became the mistress of Sunny. Though, it would be another twenty-five years until they were married; the bride was forty and the groom was fifty.

Gladys Deacon, a painting by John Sargent

Gladys Deacon, a painting by John Sargent

Years before, at the age of twenty-two, Gladys had attempted to preserve her famous face by injecting paraffin wax into the bridge of her nose. This bizarre treatment proved unsuccessful and the wax slipped from its original place. Diana Mitford remarked that her face resembled ‘a deflated balloon’. But in spite of her botched looks, she had charm in abundance, and she moved at the centre of 1920s society.  In 1923 she was presented at Court ‘wearing a classically draped dress of silver lamé with a ceinture of silver embroidered in diamante’.

A painting by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1901

A painting by Giovanni Boldini, circa 1901

All that glitters is not gold, and Gladys soon became bored with Sunny. She began to breed Blenheim Spaniels, and multiplying at such a rapid speed the dogs overtook the house, driving the Duke to distraction. With her behaviour becoming more and more erratic, the Duke distanced himself from her, especially when she brought a revolver to dinner and when questioned what she intended to do with it, she answered: ‘Oh, I don’t know. I might just shoot Marlborough.’ Needless to say, Sunny fled.

To force his estranged wife from Blenheim, Sunny resorted to cutting off the electricity and dismissing her servants. When the removal vans arrived to ferry her things away, Gladys boldly stood on the steps and photographed the vans as they left. Sunny repeated the same tactics when Gladys moved into their London house in Carlton House Terrace. Diana Mitford, having just divorced Bryan Guinness and wallowing in her Eaton Square house awaiting sporadic visits from Sir Oswald Mosley, formed a friendship with the equally scandalous Gladys. She remembered with a degree of fondness, dining on the balcony overlooking the Mall, their table lit up by the streetlights below. Leaving the house was a hazardous undertaking, with guests moving along the dark landing, holding onto the wall as they negotiated the stairs to the front door.

Sunny died in 1934 before their divorce was final. As the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, Gladys moved to Oxfordshire where she lived as a recluse surrounded by cats. She wore hats and veils to disguise her famous face from curious onlookers and when a journalist became too familiar, she poured a bucket of water over his head. Her Polish helper, Andrei Kwiatkowsky, was her only link to the outside world, and from an upstairs window she would lower a key to the front door. In 1962 she moved against her will to a psycho-geriatric hospital in Northampton where she died in 1977, aged ninety-six.

The Fortune Hunter

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Winterhalter, 1865. Photo: Hofburg Palace, Vienna

The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Winterhalter, 1865. Photo: Hofburg Palace, Vienna

Beautiful, intelligent, melancholic and unconventional; those are familiar adjectives bestowed on The Empress Elisabeth of Austria, or ‘Sisi’ as she was known. Gazing at the famous painting by Winterhalter (circa 1865) it is obvious that Sisi was every inch the regal woman, though it would take a certain type of confidence (or arrogance) and vanity to wear diamond stars in one’s hair. Daisy Goodwin’s article in the Daily Mail describes Sisi’s eye-watering beauty routine and the (often grotesque) steps she took in order to maintain her appearance. This routine began at dawn, with an icy-cold bath followed by a 90 minute work-out in her own gym (installed in her bedroom at Hofburg Palace) doing 20 pull-ups before being laced into a corset. As well as her ice baths, Sisi bathed in goats’ milk, drank five salted eggs whites (she believed it prevented bloating) and washed her ankle-length hair in eggs and cognac. Her days consisted of riding to hounds or hiking and evenings were spent socialising, endless parties, gorgeous clothes and envy-inducing jewellery. She finally crawled into bed at 2Am with cutlets of veal placed on her face. It was said that she slept with her hands tied above her head so the blood drained away, giving her hands a pale, youthful appearance. And when she died aged sixty-eight, she still had a nineteen-inch waist, despite having had four children. But it was not the smoke and mirrors of corsetry that molded her figure. At bedtime she wrapped warm, damp clothes around her waist and food was sparingly consumed, aside from a drink of beef tea and a dry biscuit or two, Sisi ate nothing throughout the day. As Goodwin predicts, Sisi’s unhappy marriage to the Emperor must have been exasperated by her effort to look beautiful… for other men.


It was Sisi’s vanity that inspired Daisy Goodwin’s fabulous book, The Fortune Hunter, a fictionalised account of her scandalous affair with Captain Bay Middleton. Unlike her husband, the wealthy and powerful Emperor of Austria, Middleton is penniless and ten years her junior. But luckily for Middleton, Charlotte Baird is twenty-year-old heiress who, like Sisi, possesses beauty, wit, intellect and a hefty fortune. Middleton has struck gold, and the two women fight for his affection. Though he promises to marry Charlotte, it is his infatuation with Sisi that threatens to ruin this gilded love triangle. Goodwin marshals in a mixture grand palaces, royal cameos (Queen Victoria makes a brief appearance), unapologetic vanity and the thrill of the hunt. But who is being hunted, one might ask?

Sybil Connolly: Ireland’s First Lady of Fashion


With her model height, dramatic colouring and natural grace, Sybil Veronica Connolly was fashion personified. From the gentry residing in crumbling castles to waspish ladies-who-lunch, Sybil Connolly’s designs hung in the most famous of wardrobes. She was, without a doubt, the first Irish woman to have the international world of fashion falling at her feet. Coming of age – for lack of a better description – during the golden age of couture, Connolly established her niche early on in her career. As had Chanel (with the boucle suit) and Dior (with the New Look), not to mention Lanvin, Balmain, Yve St. Laurent and his little black dress, Connolly’s use of Irish textiles, including finely pleated linen and Carrickmacross lace, was the staple of her haute couture designs.


Though she is credited with putting Irish fashion on the map, Connolly was not entirely Irish. Born in Swansea, Wales, to an Irish father and an English-Welsh mother, her background was exceedingly ordinary. It was an unfortunate turn of events which brought Connolly to Ireland, arriving after her father’s death, she was placed in a convent school where God and religion were drummed into her, but failed to overshadow her dreamy, creative flair.


Fashion, ironically, took her from Ireland when, in the late 1930s, Connolly arrived in London. Eager to learn from the ground-floor up, she found work at the prestigious firm of Bradley & Co., whose most famous client was Queen Mary. The young apprentice would attend Buckingham Palace fittings, where she was allowed to hold the pins. Returning to Ireland in 1940, she worked for Richard Allan in Dublin, eventually replacing the head designer in 1953. That same year, Connolly’s work was spotted by American buyers.


1953 was the year Connolly held her first major show. Its huge success, covered by Harper’s Bazaar, was attended by the American press, bringing her work to the attention of the coveted American market. Travelling to New York City later in the year, Connolly’s crochet dresses were featured on the cover of Life magazine with the prophetic headline: ‘Irish Invade Fashion World’. Four years later, at the age of thirty-six, Connolly launched her couture label with stars such as Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor wearing her designs. Jacqueline Kennedy, endorsed the designer when she wore a Sybil Connolly creation for an official White House portrait. The First Lady’s outfit of choice was a dress of pleated handkerchief linen, which took nine yards of Irish linen handkerchiefs to create one yard of the uncrushable pleated fabric.


As a nod to her heritage, Connolly pioneered an old-fashioned image of Irish dress, re-designing peasant blouses, flannel petticoats and shawls, to give them a glamorous, contemporary appeal. Designs were created in Dublin, and she employed up to one-hundred women, who mostly worked from home, crocheting and weaving fabric. And, although there was an intricate craft in her designs, Connolly’s prices were lower than European couture.


As her fashion house grew, Connolly turned her Dublin home, number 71 Merrion Square, into a base for her clients, where they were treated to a private viewing of her designs and served jasmine tea by a butler, James. Although she quipped it was ‘the house that linen built’, it was the ‘shop window for Ireland’. In the 1980s, Connolly moved into the luxury goods market, designing pieces for Tiffany & Co., Tipperary Crystal, Brunschwig & Fills and Schumacher.


Although Connolly died at the age of seventy-seven in 1998, her contribution to haute couture and Irish fashion continues to be celebrated in the twenty-first century. Only last year I visited an exhibition of her gowns at Brown Thomas in Dublin and it was a thrill to see the designs, the fabric and a physical example of creativity in person. Connolly’s friend, Desmond Guinness, summed up her appeal: ‘Elegant and wearable, they proved a satisfactory investment, neither dating nor changing from year to year. Connolly always went for beauty and style as opposed to ‘mere’ fashion.’