New York Times bestselling author Barbara Leaming talks to The Mitford Society about the special friendship she shared with Debo. Her memories are as follows…
If you are very, very lucky, someone comes into your life out of nowhere and changes everything. Debo Devonshire did that for me. I certainly didn’t deserve her—no one could deserve someone quite that wonderful. Actually it was Andrew Devonshire who first invited me to Chatsworth and it was Andrew who gave me the first incredible gifts I was to receive—and the greatest of those gifts was Debo. I shall always remember Debo that first night: that night she was performing for Andrew as well as for me. Sixty years into their marriage, Andrew was a rapt audience. It was not difficult to see why—though to me, during that first dinner at least, Debo was very scary. That night, it was Andrew who was the gentle one, Debo the one with whom I was sure I could never dare relax. But it changed—not least because that first night I realized that one of Debo’s greatest qualities was that she was interested in everything, really everything. She wanted details; she wanted to know how things worked; she wanted to know EXACTLY what you meant when you said something—and not an iota of that interest was faked. And she would ask questions that no one else would dare to ask. Alone together upstairs in her sitting room late that first night, she made me pull up my trouser leg to see if I had the “great legs all American girls have.” I didn’t, but I did pull up the trousers—actually SHE pulled up the trouser leg. It was an extraordinary night—not least because I fell in love with both Andrew and Debo that night—and completely unexpectedly the seeds of a friendship were planted.
I’m so glad that I had the luck to see Debo with Andrew for no matter how much I was later to hear about the two of them from Debo herself and also from their family and friends, I would not have understood the complexity of that relationship had I not actually watched him watch her and her watch him.
I was in England then to research my biography of President John F. Kennedy. My husband and I had a flat on Eaton Place not far from Debo’s Chatsworth Shop on Elizabeth Street. The little shop was a very special place—pure Debo—and she loved it and was deeply involved with it. My husband used to buy all of his lunches there and I still giggle thinking about how I would come home to find David on the phone with Debo in intense discussion of the merits of her soups and especially detailed reports about the prices of an item she was selling versus the price of a similar item in a supermarket on King’s Road. When the Chatsworth Shop closed later, I had an urgent phone call from her cousin Jean, warning me that Debo was so upset that I must be careful not even to mention the closing for a time.
After Andrew died, by which time Debo and I had become friends—initially, I believe, because Andrew made sure it happened—and by which time we had other deep friendships in common, Debo did not draw back, but rather expanded the wings of her friendship.
She and Andrew had been indispensable to my research for my biography of President John F. Kennedy and to my understanding of the man and the world in which JFK lived. But for the book I wrote next, about Winston Churchill, Debo, now alone, went much further. First she listened to what I hoped to do with Churchill—and then she took charge. Debo never had to be asked to help. She just offered—no rather, she ACTED. Before I knew it, she had made up lists of people I must talk to about Churchill, including her cousin Mary Soames—and then moved on to make sure they talked to me—and then made sure that I asked the right questions. She wrote letters; she made calls; she went over ideas with me. It was endless and she was incredible.
Debo loved to give advice—especially about how to do things cheaply. I still laugh thinking about her voice on the phone the day I moved into the flat I’d rented in Mayfair to do Churchill research. Our flat was not far from the Beau Brummell house she still owned, and she was full of detailed instructions about where to go in Shepherd Market—but better, still, about what to do cheaply. Debo loved the idea of doing things cheaply. “Keep your hands in your pockets!”, as she put it.
When I went up to stay with Debo at Edensor, it was strange at first to think that Andrew was gone—or rather, that he was next door, as she reminded me—in St Peter’s churchyard. But she was so funny, so over the top about everything as usual. So welcoming. There was, I think, more emotion now that Andrew was gone—more sense of time passing. And always, more reminders not to waste a minute—to grab everything you can, while you can.
I can still hear her as we sat on the old-fashioned swing on the lawn in front of the vicarage talking about Andrew; talking about “the cousinhood”; talking about people that both of us knew—people she had somehow miraculously brought into my life—who were now gone. As she talked about all that she missed, suddenly the swing started moving faster because Debo also wanted to talk about the future. What she wanted to do next—and a reminder that I must not just be thinking about what I was doing now, but what came NEXT.
Debo and Andrew are also very much there in my new book on Jackie Kennedy [Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story]—all sorts of things they told me about the aftermath of the assassination—as well as about what was going on during the presidency. And I am going to return in detail to that world which they opened to me with unimaginable generosity in the book I am writing next. So much of what they shared with me has vanished now—but my mind is filled with images of that vanished world—a world that strangely enough has become part of my own future.
I can’t bear to think that there will never be another letter from Debo turning up in the post, that the phone will never ring again with her voice on the other end inviting me to stay with her in Edensor, that there will be no more long talks about the members of “The Set,” and, of course, that there will be no more books from her to treasure forever.
Everything about Debo had to do with life and what’s next, and for that reason it is just impossible to imagine she is not out there plotting some future project.
Barbara Leaming’s book Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: The Untold Story will be published in the UK on January 1st 2015. It is already available in the US.