Sisters Mitford

3 min readMar 26, 2024

Sometime around 1990, I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica (“Decca”) Mitford. She was writing a book on the American Way of Birth — a critique of the pathological US health care system and treatment of birthing people. She was doing research and was meeting with people in Washington. If I remember correctly, she interviewed Senator Ted Kennedy on the topic.

The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict, 2023

She was famous among an older generation, but I didn’t know who she was, so I read up on her an learned about her adventurous life which included growing up as English aristocracy in a famous family, becoming a communist, running off to the Spanish Civil War at age 17 with a rebellious boyfriend, being called back by the Royal Navy. She migrated to the USA with her boyfriend and had a baby. He joined the Canadian Air Force and was lost down over the North Sea. Later, she wrote a muckraking book about the depravities of the US funeral industry and became moderately famous. She married an Jewish American civil rights lawyer and became close to some of the more radical activists, Black Panthers. Her daughter married James Forman.

She was an adventurous, left-wing, and grand. I spent a week with her as a driver, gopher, scheduler, and research assistant. It was fun and I learned a lot. After I picked her up at the airport in my beaten down car and dropped her at a friends’ place in Georgetown, she handed me $20 and told me to bring her a bottle of Scotch.

But she wasn’t the most famous of her family. In fact, her sisters were probably more famous — infamous really — for being English fascists. Her sister Diana was a socialite and married to the heir of the Guinness fortune, but abandoned it to marry Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. She and Mosley were imprisoned during the war and never repented their fascism.

Her closest sister was named Unity after the imagined unity of Germany and Britain. She grew up to adore Adolph Hitler and essentially moved to Munich to be a Nazi acolyte. She managed to meet Hitler and become close to him. On the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, she shot herself in the head in the Englischer Garten. She survived until 1948 in debilitated state.

Other sisters were great aristocratic socialites and a well-known novelist. A brother died fighting in Burma.

I didn’t know much about the fascist sisters, but learned a lot from reading this historical novel, centered on Diana, the British fascist, Unity, the Hitler confidante, and Nancy, the novelist. Really, it’s a very good read and fills in all sorts of historical and emotional detail — some of which must be conjecture, but much is documented in the prolific letters and writings of the sisters. Jessica (“Decca”) plays only a small role in the novel.

The courtly romance between Hitler, Unity, and Diana is interesting. They each had their own reasons to be interested in one another, but observing it in some intimacy is unusual and I wonder if that has been documented or described elsewhere. Unity was very nearly a stalker of Hitler, who was in turn charmed by Unity’s enthusiasm and Diana’s manners, beauty and sophistication. Diana was running an operation to link up the British fascists with Nazi sponsorship and was thrilled with the opportunity. Hitler probably thought being seen and socializing with these famous and glamorous English society ladies might improve his standing in Britain and might possibly helped with diplomacy or conquest. Unity was happy to be a symbolic figure in that cause.

I liked it, and would recommend it. Although, I think a person might need a pre-existing interest in the Mitfords, or that milieu and time, to fully enjoy the novel. They are interesting characters, but the actual plot is probably not enough to fully drive a novel — and especially so since the key historical points are already known.





I'm a human person, working in policy & advocacy in international development, gender rights, economic justice.