Posts Tagged ‘interview’

Deborah Devonshire interview: Elvis, Hitler and the Mitford sisters

September 26th, 2014

‘I still go on writing to Diana in my head because she is the person I had a particular affinity with. We understood what one another thought before we thought it.’

People who have met Deborah Mitford have often remarked on the way she talks. How she says ‘lorst’ for ‘lost’ and ‘gorne’ for ‘gone’. Indeed, to read some descriptions you would think she could scarcely utter a vowel without becoming marooned on top of it for several weeks. But what seems more striking is the contrast between the way she speaks and the way she writes. In conversation, she expresses herself with great economy and clarity, albeit punctuated by sudden bursts of flattery – ‘You are so right!’ ‘Absolutely spot-on!’ Yet to read the sisters’ letters is to be plunged into a torrent of gushing adjectives, underlinings and elaborate nicknames. While Unity may have been the champion gusher here – ‘The Führer was heavenly,’ she writes at one point – Deborah doesn’t lag far behind. In a letter to Diana in prison – along with her husband, Oswald Mosley, Diana was locked up for being a Nazi sympathiser – Deborah wrote, ‘I do so long to see your cell.’

The youngest of the Mitford girls, Deborah was brought up at the family home in the Cotswold village of Swinbrook until she was 16. While her sisters couldn’t stand the place, Deborah loved it and was devastated when the family moved out. Almost 40 years later, in 1971, Deborah wrote to Nancy, ‘It broke my heart. Nothing had ever taken its place and nothing ever will … Worse than anything that has happened since, the loss of three babies, my four greatest friends being killed in the war – nothing has saddened me like the going from Swinbrook.’

‘Did I write that?’ she says now, her eyes widening in surprise. ‘That was going very far. But I think there was a sense that it was the end of childhood for me. An air of harmony prevailed at Swinbrook that didn’t prevail afterwards.’

A year later, Jessica Mitford [Decca] – two and a half years older than Deborah – caused a scandal by eloping to Spain with Esmond Romilly. The couple subsequently married, but Romilly was killed in action in 1941. Up to this point, the two youngest Mitfords had been particularly close, but there’s a sense that their relationship never fully recovered from the shock and betrayal Deborah felt at the time.

‘I think that’s true. It nearly did, but not quite. One of the reasons was that Esmond Romilly so hated all of us – and possibly me and Bobo [Unity] above all because we were so close to Decca. I think he saw me as an extra horror. And I really couldn’t stand him,’ she says with uncharacteristic venom. ‘He was one of those people who’s electric, of whom I’ve seen several in my life. But he was electric in a horrible way. Everything seemed so negative. He was dishonest, a liar, all those things … But of course Decca absolutely adored him and it was the great tragedy of her life that he was killed.’

The great irony here, given Deborah’s feelings towards Romilly, is that the Daily Express reported that he had run off with her, not Jessica. As a result, the paper had to pay Deborah £1,000 for ‘compromising her prospects of marriage’.

‘That really was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Just wonderful: £1,000 was a huge sum of money in those days.’

Did she feel that her marriage prospects had been compromised?

‘Oh, I don’t think I considered that very much.’

At almost the same time as Jessica eloped with Romilly, Diana Mitford married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. They married in Goebbels’s living-room with Hitler in attendance – Hitler, with a typically immodest flourish, gave the couple a signed photograph of himself as a wedding present.

Meanwhile Unity had become hopelessly infatuated with Nazism in general and Hitler in particular. While Deborah does not seek to excuse what Unity did, she clearly hopes that publication of the letters might make people see her in a more sympathetic light.

‘She had such qualities: she was totally truthful, totally loyal and she could be very funny. Physically, she was beautiful in a funny sort of way. Everything was too big. She had the most enormous navy-blue eyes, an absolutely straight nose and very bad teeth because she had lived on mashed potato for a year and a half when she was a child. But she was just taken over by this fascination for Germany and all that went with it. I think she had this tremendous naivety which turned into ideological commitment.’

On the day war broke out, Unity tried to commit suicide by shooting herself in the head. She survived, but only just. Hitler arranged for her to be taken to a hospital in Switzerland where Deborah and her mother went to collect her.

‘It was an absolute nightmare. We caught the train from Calais to Bern. I can remember the shock of seeing her very clearly. She had lain unconscious for weeks and the bullet was still inside her. Her hair was completely matted and she couldn’t bear anyone to touch her head. It was as if she had become an enormous child. The journey back was terrible. Every time the train stopped suddenly, she was in agony.’

Severely brain-damaged as a result, Unity needed constant care – she died nine years later, in 1948. ‘I don’t think there was ever any realistic expectation that she would make a recovery. The bullet had destroyed quite a lot of the brain. Afterwards, she developed these enthusiasms for various religions. Like her old enthusiasm, but not so violent, of course. She was a Christian Scientist, then a Roman Catholic … everything that came along.”

Nine months after the outbreak of war, in June 1940, Diana and Oswald Mosley were interned. They would almost certainly have been locked up anyway, but their cause wasn’t helped by Nancy Mitford telling an official at the Foreign Office that she thought her sister was ‘an extremely dangerous person’. Diana did not discover this until 10 years after Nancy’s death.

Does Deborah think that Diana would ever have been able to forgive Nancy if she had known?

She gives a long sigh. ‘I wonder … They adored each other underneath, but I just don’t know.’

When Diana was in Holloway Prison, Deborah would visit her every few weeks. ‘She was allowed visitors for half an hour a fortnight. Most of the time she saw her children, but my mother and I used to go sometimes. I did long to see her cell, but instead we saw her in this filthy, dirty, visitors’ room with a wardress always there. Diana absolutely adored one wardress who became a great friend. But the others weren’t so easy. I don’t know if they picked on her. She was certainly an outstanding figure there, so they might have done.’

With one sister imprisoned for being a Nazi sympathiser and another who was so besotted with Hitler that she shot herself, one might assume that some stigma would have stuck to the Mitford name during the war. Deborah, though, insists that she was never aware of any. ‘I mean, I’m sure there must have been, but I certainly never lost any friends as a result. They were just very sad for all the horrible things that had happened.’

‘What did you think of Oswald Mosley?’

‘Oh, I loved him,’ she says without hesitation. ‘He was very ready to be amused and to laugh at whatever was going on. And he had these now non-existent, old-fashioned good manners – just like Uncle Harold [Harold Macmillan]. In fact, I remember a dance here at Chatsworth, not so long after the war. Sir Oswald was here and so was Uncle Harold. At the time there were one or two people who were not prepared to meet Sir Oswald. But Uncle Harold, who of course had been an old adversary, took him by the arm and together they walked round the whole house together. I’ve always thought that was a very nice thing to have done.’

Throughout her life – but especially when she was young – Deborah passed herself off as being less intelligent than her sisters. Not that everyone was convinced; Diana believed that while most people pretend to have read books that they haven’t, Deborah pretended not to have read books that she had.

This diffidence – and her lack of interest in politics – marked her out as a natural peace-keeper in the family. By the mid-1940s, there was plenty of peace-keeping to be done. Her parents had separated, partly as a result of the strain of looking after Unity, while Jessica and Diana were estranged, owing to political differences – Jessica became a member of the American Communist Party in 1944.

‘It wasn’t a role I particularly sought. But I have always hated rows, and there were heaps of them. I used to try to stop them. Very priggish of me, I suppose.’

Why priggish? ‘Well,’ she says wafting a hand. ‘Just trying to stop things from happening.’

As for Nancy, the oldest Mitford sister, her personal fortunes ran in a diametrically opposite direction to her professional ones. A successful novelist and historian, she fell hopelessly in love with a very ugly yet unstintingly unfaithful Frenchman called Gaston Palewski. ‘He was a complete wastrel, really. Very charming, but you’d rather die than say you found him prepossessing.’

Deborah herself was luckier in love. In 1941 she had married Andrew Cavendish – he became the Duke of Devonshire when his father died in 1950. Marriage also brought her very close to the Kennedy family. ‘I knew Jack as a teenager because his parents lived round the corner when his father was the ambassador in London. He was a sort of dancing partner of mine. Then Andrew’s brother married his sister, Kick [Kathleen]. And then Jack suddenly became President. He was the only politician I have ever known, and I’ve known quite a lot, who could laugh at himself. And he did – loudly. That was so attractive.’

She attended Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, then saw a good deal of him a few months later when an exhibition of drawings from Chatsworth was put on in Washington. ‘He came to the opening of the exhibition. Everyone was amazed, especially me. Apart from anything else, it was right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. Besides,’ she adds drily, ‘museums weren’t exactly Jack’s line. I don’t think he’d ever set foot in the place before.’

When Andrew’s father died, he and Deborah inherited Chatsworth, with its 175 rooms, 21 kitchens and 17 staircases. Together, they did the house up and transformed it into a hugely successful business – it took them 24 years just to clear the death duties incurred by the estate.

Eighteen months ago, after Andrew’s death, she moved out so that their son, Peregrine, could take over the house. How did she feel leaving Chatsworth? ‘Odd. That’s really the best word to describe it. But it was high time for a change there, and for me. I’d been there for almost 50 years and I was getting jolly old. Fortunately, I had this lovely house to move into, and I can say quite honestly that I adore it here.’

‘You are the last Mitford sister.’


‘Is that a very lonely feeling?’

‘Well, when Diana died it was. Awful … and as I say, I still mentally write letters to her. But you know life goes on. I’m so lucky with my children and grandchildren – I’ve got 15 great-grandchildren – so there’s plenty on, if you know what I mean.’

In the Dowager Duchess’s downstairs lavatory there is a large poster of Elvis Presley gazing down from the shiny silver-papered wall. There are other bits of Elvis memorabilia dotted round the house, too – photographs, a roll of cloth with his image printed on it. Deborah may not have discovered Elvis until she was in her sixties, but once smitten there was no holding her back – another symptom, perhaps, of the Mitford sisters’ tendency towards hero-worship.

‘I turned on the telly one day and there was a programme about him. Suddenly, I saw genius – simple as that. I’ve been to Graceland twice, you know. Wonderful place; I can’t recommend it highly enough.’

If she could choose to have tea with either Elvis or Hitler, which would it be? She looks at me in astonishment. ‘Elvis, of course. What an extraordinary question.’

It’s time for her to go back to her house and be photographed. But rain has started lashing down outside, so hard that it’s pock-marking the lawn. I suggest we stay where we are until the rain has eased off. Deborah is having none of it. ‘Why don’t we run?’ she suggests. And run she does, bounding across the wet grass in great scissoring strides.

‘The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters’, ed Charlotte Mosley (Fourth Estate), is available for £23 plus £1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books (0870 428 4115;

READ: Zoe Heller on the glorious pleasures of reading Nancy Mitford

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Dame Vera Lynn interview: ‘People used me to achieve something. I was just doing my job’

April 6th, 2014

But there is much more on her mind than music. The album is timed to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. She is determined to honour “the boys” as long as she can draw breath. “The memories have nearly all gone now,” she says. “A lot of the boys never used to speak about the war.”

READ: Dame Vera Lynn, 97, to release new album

During wartime they used her songs to express things they could not say, about the longing to be home. “Don’t know where, don’t know when …” Then, as the decades slipped by, the songs became powerfully nostalgic. If they couldn’t tell their children what they had been through, at least they could sing along with Dame Vera together. Now, as the last of her peers begins to slip away, there is a fresh poignancy about We’ll Meet Again.

“Yes, there is that to it,” she says. “The youngsters wouldn’t know about any of this. It is only people of my age who remember the war. Unless you have experienced it, you have no idea what it was all about. There are not many of us left now. Very few.” The important thing to her is that their sacrifice should not be forgotten. “People should still remember the war. They shouldn’t forget. It’s up to the schools to teach the children what it is all about.”

They do, and she features heavily. Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Vera Lynn are the people who stick in the minds of boys and girls studying the war. They don’t think of her like she is today, of course, sharing tea and cake in a parlour full of paintings and old photos.

Vera Lynn with British troops in Burma, 1942 (Bill Lovelace)

“She looks like someone’s granny,” says my son later when I show him a snapshot of her dressed in a blue-green plaid shirt, with a necklace of heavy green beads. He is taken aback because he knows her as a major historical figure. If Florence Nightingale is The Lady of the Lamp, Vera Lynn is “The Woman of the War”, dressed in khaki with a military cap, smiling as she leads the people of Britain in the anthem that will get them through. “We’ll meet again, some sunny day …”

Why does she think that song meant so much to people? “It was optimistic,” she says. “Everyone was separating, going to war. It spoke of hope, you know. Because you never knew what would happen, from one day to another. A bomb could hit any house, any night.” She sang it, time after time, for half a century, whenever people gathered to remember. “Wherever I was, it was always a must.”

The last time was a spontaneous singalong at a charity event in 2010 and she will never sing it in public again now, but her recording of We’ll Meet Again still conveys a powerful sense of longing. Sue Lawley once told Dame Vera on Desert Island Discs that she was the last veteran of the war still on active service. She gave a little laugh and said: “You could say that, yes.”

The new record means she has been in showbusiness for 90 years, having first sung for money in a working men’s club opposite East Ham town hall at the age of seven. She was the daughter of a docker and a dressmaker, and went to work in a factory at 14, but lasted only one day. Talking was banned and she was miserable sewing on buttons. Her father said she would earn more money singing in the clubs, and he was right.

READ: Dame Vera Lynn says national service will fix broken society

Joe Loss recruited her to sing with his Orchestra on the radio, but her first solo recording was released in 1936. It was Up The Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire – a song my nan used to sing to me when I was a boy. Gladys had the same accent: East End posh, the nearly-lost sound of Cockneys who grew up listening to received pronunciation on the radio. She was a fire warden during the Blitz and her husband, Frank, was a Desert Rat; they saw a lot of suffering but never spoke of it. The songs did that for them. The last time I saw Gladys was during a singalong at her care home. We held hands; you can guess what the song was. “We’ll meet again …” Tears prick my eyes when Dame Vera sings.

Her wartime songs were all recorded live, directly on to wax. “If the trumpeter cracked on the last note, you had to do it all over again. You had to make sure your take was perfect.”

She was glad when “the new system” came in allowing them to correct mistakes, but is not impressed by modern singers who break a song down and record it line by line. “It disrupts the thought. I don’t know how they can do a song in bits. You lose the flow, don’t you?” Her performances were all about the feeling, she says. “I don’t think the singers take it as seriously as we used to. The words, the meaning, the phrasing, the feeling of the song. They see the words, they know the tune and they just sing it.”

She is astonished to hear of computer technology that keeps even the most terrible singers in tune. “What? Keeps them in tune?” Yes, it’s called Auto-Tune, and corrects each missed note automatically. “Really? Oh God. We had nothing like that. We never sang out of tune.” She prides herself on that: “They used to call me One Take Lynn.” So she wouldn’t mime if she had the chance, like Beyonce or Britney Spears? “I never mimed,” she says. “I would find it too difficult. I sang the song the way I felt it in that moment.”

What modern music does she listen to? “I don’t listen to music. I never have done.” That’s a startling thing for a legendary singer to say. “The only time I used to listen to it was when we recorded a song, to see if it was OK. I don’t listen to the radio. I’d rather watch the television.”

Vera Lynn, turning heads in Burma (courtesy Virginia Lynn)

The first number-one single in Britain is often said to be Here In My Heart by Al Martino in 1952. But a book released last year detailed sales figures all the way back to the start of January 1940. She had three 78rpm singles in the Top 10 that week, and the first British number one was actually We’ll Meet Again.

The whole country seemed to listen to her radio show, Sincerely Yours, on Sunday nights after the news and Mr Churchill. Abroad, it was the sound of resistance. One Dutchman wrote to say he had hidden with his radio in a haystack, knowing the Germans would shoot him if they found out. She also gave concerts, and received a letter from a Londoner who had spontaneously attended one on the way home from work. “His house was destroyed by a direct hit while he was there. He said I saved his life.”

LISTEN: Vera Lynn presents Sincerely Yours

She usually drove across London on her own in a little Austin 10, hoping to reach the theatre before the next raid began. “It had a soft canvas roof. That’s why I always carried a tin helmet with me, in case the shrapnel came through the roof.” Once, she skidded and the car overturned. “People righted it and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to be on my way.’ But it went de-doyng-de-dong … I’d broken the axle.”

Once there, did they stay on air even if the bombs were falling? “Oh, yes. Nothing stopped if there was a raid on.”

Her most daring act of the war was to go to Burma, where the fighting was fierce. “I was getting letters from the boys and I thought I would like to go and see who I had been singing to on the radio.” After a gruelling 11,000-mile trip via the United States, she performed in a camp near the battle of Kohima. How close was the fighting? “The battle was up the hill. I was at the bottom.”

She smiles at my look of horror. “I knew I was well ­protected, although I did wake up one morning and find four Japanese prisoners leaning against the little grass hut that I was in.” The soldiers had been captured in the night. “They were horrible looking. I had to step over their legs to get by them. The look I got! I was this young girl walking by in khaki shorts. I shouldn’t think they had ever seen a white girl.”

Modern stars require a stylist, a hairdresser, an entourage and a battalion of bodyguards. “I went with a bag slung over my shoulders. That was it,” she says. “Make-up was no good, it would run. All I had was a lipstick. I washed my hair in a bucket and left it like that, because what else could I do? I had a perm before I went, so it was all frizzy.”

She performed using an old microphone plugged into searchlight batteries, while soldiers stood guard on the edge of the jungle. Her pianist had a pistol. “I had no lady companion or anything. I only had 6,000 men.” Presumably she had to fend them off? “No. They treated me with the greatest respect.”

By now she was married to Harry Lewis, a member of the RAF band the Squadronaires, but he was not on the trip. She dressed in a pair of borrowed khaki shorts. The photographs show the men looking dazed in the company of this 27-year-old, bare-legged beauty. “I was never the glamorous type like Betty Grable,” she says, but in the circumstances she was gorgeous. “Thank you. They behaved like gentlemen.”

By accident she found herself in an operating theatre with a wounded soldier. “The surgeon said, ‘Here’s a souvenir for you.’ He gave me a bullet on a little piece of lint, with all the blood still on it. I kept it for donkey’s years, then lent it to the Imperial War Museum, but I never got it back.” The boys in Burma loved White Cliffs of Dover, a syrupy piece of propaganda written by an American who had never been there. Bluebirds don’t even live in Britain, but Dame Vera is impatient with such talk. “Well, it’s a symbol. Bluebirds of happiness. That’s what it’s all about.”

Vera Lynn pictured with British servicemen in Burma during World War Two

In 2009, she sued the British National Party for using the song, not wanting to be associated with its far-right views. That is not sur­prising when you hear what she did when the war ended. “The day after peace was declared, they phoned up and sent me to Germany.” So she sang for the troops who had liberated the concentration camps. “They took me around the ovens. I saw the gas chambers. They were like a row of garages with steel doors. No birds were flying. They said the gas was still in the air.”

After the war she was the first British performer to top the charts in the US, with Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart in 1952. Her last number one here was My Son, My Son, two years later. As it happens, she and Harry had a daughter, Virginia, who now manages her mother’s affairs. Presumably, she is worth millions? “We wish,” says Virginia. “When mummy was really working hard, the money was thruppence ­compared with now.”

She can’t have done badly, though. For 50 years after the war she made radio and television programmes, recorded albums and toured the world. She also worked for service charities, and was made a dame in 1975. The Queen said, “You’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

LISTEN: Dame Vera Lynn sings Little Bit (exclusive)

Dame Vera’s last major engagement was outside Buckingham Palace in 1995, in a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. The ­celebrations were huge but felt like the end of an era. Dame Vera gave a remarkably strong performance for a woman pushing 80. She kissed some of the boys in Chelsea ­Pensioner red, then headed off into retirement in her East Sussex village. Harry died four years later, after 58 years of marriage. Many of those who sang along with her have gone too.

I have to ask, when she looks around at the world today, is this the future they were fighting for? “We didn’t think about the future,” she says tersely. “We lived from day to day. When you’re young, you think the way things are is going to carry on forever.”

Dame Vera Lynn, at home in Sussex (Decca)

She is sometimes mystified by what she sees on the news. “If my grandparents were to come back now and see how people behave, they would be ­horrified. They would say, ‘How could you live in a world like that?’ All the violence and the problems.’ If anybody was murdered in my young days, it was unheard of. Now it’s the norm. If somebody doesn’t like somebody, they kill ’em.”

The irony is that she lived through the most murderous war in history. But Dame Vera is not one to dwell on the negative. “Every generation has a different way of behaving. The world changes.”

She is tired, understandably. I have one last question, which is delicate. She is 97. Long may she live, but nobody can go on forever. What does she think comes next? “I think there has to be something. What it is, I don’t know,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up to pray.” There is a long pause. “It’s a difficult subject.” I dare to ask because for a singer of sentimental songs, Dame Vera has always been remarkably unsentimental. She’ll face whatever comes next like she faced the Blitz and Burma, by just getting on with it.

“When they write about the war, will they include me in it?” The question comes out of the blue and is rather ­staggering, until a smile suggests that she knows the answer. “I am glad that people will remember. I’m proud to think that they will link me in some way with the epic things of the war.”

Lives and memories fade, but the songs remain. She is captured in time now, as the voice of a generation almost lost. Whatever happens, she will always be a young woman with a bright smile and a strong, clear voice, giving people hope. “Well, that is lovely. I didn’t set out to be anything like that,” she says. “People used me, in a way, to achieve something, and I was glad of it. I was just doing my job.”

READ: Oh, What a Lovely War: why the battle still rages

World War Two

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