Monday, 30 November -0001

The scandalous life of LADY DINA-MITE

At her birth, it was prophesied that she was too beautiful to live long, but no one could have predicted quite how colourful Diana Mitford’s life would become, says Lyndsy Spence

Written by Lyndsy Spence
Tears of gloom greeted Diana Mitford on the day of her birth in 1910. Her mother, Sydney (daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, the founder of The Lady), cried because she wanted a son, and her father, David, agreed it was a bitter disappointment. Adding to the sense of macabre, the nurse predicted, ‘She’s too beautiful; she can’t live long.’ Those words governed Diana’s early life, and convinced that she would die young, she made up her mind to live for pleasure.

However, as the third-born daughter in a succession of six extraordinary girls: Nancy, the author; Pam, the poultry connoisseur; Unity, a friend of Hitler; Jessica, the muckraking Communist; and Deborah, who became the Duchess of Devonshire – life for Diana would not be dull. Growing up, Nanny continuously reminded her, ‘Now, Diana darling, remember nobody’s going to be looking at you.’ As with the nurse’s prophecy on the day of her birth, Nanny’s words carried no substance, for Diana realised that everybody was looking at her.

DianaMitford-Apr03-03-590From left: Diana with her first suitor, James Lees-Milne (c. 1924). Diana Mitford and Bryan Guinness on their wedding day

The first of many suitors appeared in the form of a lovelorn James Lees-Milne. He taught her to read the classics, and inspired by his romantic poetry, they fantasised of running away to Greece where they would reject material things and survive on a handful of grapes by the sea. In private, Diana dreamed that a stranger in a fast car would spy her alongside the road in the sleepy village of Swinbrook, where she lived, and carry her off . This wish almost came true when her 16-year-old cousin, Michael Bowles, asked her to elope with him, but his plan was halted after her father threatened to kill him. Another besotted cousin, Randolph Churchill, the raucous son of Winston, attempted to woo her with trips to the family seat, Chartwell, and he, too, begged her to wait until he could grow up and court her properly. Churchill himself was struck by Diana’s ethereal beauty: tall, blonde and blue-eyed, and he nicknamed her ‘Dina-mite’.

At the age of 16, Diana was sent to Paris for a year to study art at the Cours Fènelon. ‘Wherever I go I am looked on as the eighth wonder of the world, at last,’ she boasted. Taking advantage of her liberation, she cut her hair short and began to wear make-up. Boys became her obsession, and she escaped without a chaperone to meet with a boyfriend for trips to the cinema and kisses in the back of taxis as they drove around the Bois de Boulogne. While in Paris she befriended the ageing artist Paul César Helleu, and smitten by her beauty, he never tired of saying, ‘Cherie, tu es belle.’ His sketch of Diana, published in L’Illustration, turned her into a minor celebrity.

DianaMitford-Apr03-02-590-quote

During the debutante season of 1928, Diana met Bryan Guinness, the brewing heir. It was love at first sight for Bryan and he hoped Diana felt the same, but she destroyed his optimism when she told him, ‘A kiss means nothing. I do it without thinking as I’m used to kissing in my family.’ She did, however, agree to marry him and their wedding became the society event of the year. Bryan promised to love his new bride forever, and was shocked when Diana replied, ‘Well, for a long time anyway.’

As the newlywed Mrs Guinness, Diana’s social life flourished and she was lauded as a leader of the Bright Young Things. She met Evelyn Waugh, who was determined not to like her, but to his horror he fell under her spell. Having used Diana as a source of creativity, he dedicated his most famous novel, Vile Bodies, to the Guinnesses. However, the friendship disintegrated.

DianaMitford-Apr03-04-590From left: Diana is the face of a Tatler young society edition in 1929. Unity Mitford introduced Diana to Adolf Hitler

Diana was not without a chief admirer for long, and the hero from her youth, Lytton Strachey, was charmed by her. Strachey initiated her into his world at Ham Spray, a haven for the Bloomsbury set and his companion, the artist Dora Carrington. Their polyamorous world was beyond anything she had experienced before, though her views on love agreed with their lifestyle: ‘Why on earth should two spirits who are in love a bit have to marry and renounce all other men and women?’ Monogamy, to Diana, was ‘extremely foolish’.

The untimely death of Strachey and the suicide of Carrington marked a watershed moment in Diana’s life, and the economic depression intensified her sorrow. She began to kick against the constraints of marriage, and her growing unrest perplexed Bryan. Politics became the centre of her focus, and she felt a growing contempt for the National Government and its leader, Ramsay MacDonald. The answers she sought came in the guise of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.

DianaMitford-Apr03-05-590-quote

Mosley convinced Diana to believe in his fascist ideology, and she followed his creed in spite of opposition. They began an affair and she soon became his full-time mistress. The fact Mosley was married and a notorious womaniser did not concern Diana who, in an attempt to settle her critics, declared: ‘If you’re going to mind infidelity, you might as well call it a day. Who has ever remained faithful?’ Her parents were outraged, her once loyal friends abandoned her in favour of Bryan, and she was exiled from the upper echelons of society.

In the midst of Diana’s scandal, Unity Mitford had ventured to Germany to study art, to learn the language and to catch a glimpse of her idol, Adolf Hitler. As with Diana, Unity’s determination knew no bounds and she succeeded in becoming a member of Hitler’s inner circle. It was through her sister that Diana became acquainted with the Führer and several high-ranking Nazis, including Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels. During her visits to Munich and Berlin she acted as a channel for Mosley, who was said to have received money from Hitler after Mussolini stopped funding the British Union of Fascists. She secretly married Mosley in 1936 in Goebbels’ drawing room – Hitler was a witness. The latter acts of defiance conspired in building a case for her arrest and in 1940 she was detained in Holloway Prison under Regulation 18B (imprisonment without trial) for three-and-a-half years.

DianaMitford-Apr03-06-590Diana out walking with young Jonathan Guinness

The misguided decisions she made and the friendships she forged transformed her from a society star into a social pariah. ‘After all,’ she reflected on a life that was once so full of promise: ‘It is a cruel world.’ But, for a fleeting moment, Diana Mitford had a gilded world at her feet.

Mrs Guinness: The Rise And Fall Of Diana Mitford, The Thirties Socialite, by Lyndsy Spence, is published by The History Press, priced £17.99.


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