Deborah, or Debo as she was known to her friends, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and the last surviving Mitford sister, has died aged 94. This announcement from the BBC news website. She was the last of Paddy’s friends from his younger days left alive. It is the end of an era.
Her son, the Duke of Devonshire, announced the death in a statement from Chatsworth House, her stately home.
The Mitford sisters fascinated – and sometimes scandalised – British society in the 1940s.
Unity was a friend of Hitler, Diana, the second wife of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, and Jessica a left-wing polemicist.
Deborah was more focused on her home life. Listen to the 2010 BBC Radio 4 interview on Woman’s Hour here.
Nicknamed the “housewife duchess”, she made Chatsworth one of the most successful and profitable stately homes in England after marrying Andrew Cavendish in 1941.
But along with her siblings, during her lifetime she moved in the same circles as Sir Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Evelyn Waugh.
She also accompanied her sister Unity to tea with Hitler in 1937, was painted by Lucian Freud, and amassed a collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia.
The statement from her son said: “It is with great sadness that I have to inform you that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, has passed away peacefully this morning.”
Deborah Deborah was the youngest Mitford sister
It added that an announcement about funeral arrangements would be made shortly.
Born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford on 31 March 1920, the duchess was the sixth daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale.
The Mitfords’ childhood at their family home in the Oxfordshire village of Swinbrook was immortalised in her sister Nancy’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
Her parents made a poor job of hiding their disappointment that Deborah had not been born a boy, leaving Thomas their only son.
The Mitfords’ father disapproved of educating girls, famously insisting that hockey would make their ankles fat, and Deborah spent her formative years skating and hunting.
Her sister Unity’s infatuation with Hitler saw the young Deborah invited to tea with the German dictator, although the visit made little impression on her.
“If you sat in a room with Churchill,” she later recalled, “you were aware of this tremendous charisma. Kennedy had it too. But Hitler didn’t – not to me anyway.”
At Chatsworth, the Duchess took on a major role in running the house and its garden, which have been used in a number of film and TV productions.
In July 2002, the duchess and her husband spoke out against the government’s proposed ban on fox hunting.
Made a dame in 1999, she became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2004 after her husband died and their son inherited his title.
She wrote a book about her life, Wait for Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, which was published in 2010.
The Duchess of Devonshire talks about Patrick Leigh Fermor
Our archive of articles about or including Debo
This makes me sad, though I know being 94 years old is no picnic. I’ve been wanting to re-read “In Tearing Haste.” I guess now is the time.
My mother, now aged 91, was lucky enough to be evacuated to Chatsworth during the war while in the sixth form at Penrhos College, North Wales.(She features in a nostalgic postcard currently on sale in the shop there, skating on the frozen lake in front of the house with schoolfriends!) Debo was unfailingly friendly, generous and hospitable during their several reunions at the house, on one occasion giving my mother and two other lucky ‘old girls’ a tour of her private rooms including her bedroom. The letters exchanged between Debo and Paddy make wonderful reading, as do her charmingly humorous autobiographical books. Yes it is the end of an era, very sad. She and Paddy can laugh together again now, wherever they may be…
Debo’s death truly marks the end of an era. While I am immensely sad, I can’t help but smile. She brought me – all of us, I suspect – countless hours of enjoyment and laughter. She contributed greatly not only to her little corner of Derbyshire, but the world as a whole, and for that she will be remembered for posterity. I expect in 200 years, saying “the Duchess of Devonshire” will instantly bring to mind Debo and not Georgiana. Rest in peace, Your Grace.