Unity Mitford and her sisters were a fabled sextet of vivacious debutantes whose romances and literary aspirations generated enormous media interest during the 1920s and 1930s. The celebrity siblings included future novelist Nancy Mitford (1904–1973) as well as Pamela Mitford (1907–1994), Diana Mitford (1910–2003), Jessica Mitford (1917–1996), and Deborah Mitford (1920–2014). Although Diana wed the notorious founder of a pro-German Fascist organization, it was Unity's appearances at Nazi Party rallies and her open endorsement of Germany's anti-Semitic policies that generated the greatest outrage. In addition to inspiring angry comments in British newspapers of the time, her actions even provoked harrumphing in parliamentary debates at Westminster. The unclear circumstances surrounding Mitford's return to England in January of 1940, continued to inspire lurid rumors decades after her death at age 33.
Born in London on August 8, 1914, Unity Valkyrie Mitford was the fifth child and fourth of six daughters born to David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford and Sydney Bowles. An aloof and indifferent mother, Sydney was the daughter of 19th-century satirist Thomas Gibson Bowles, founder of Vanity Fair magazine in its first incarnation in the 1860s. Mitford's father was the luckless second son of Baron Redesdale, a diplomat who was elevated to the peerage in 1902 for his service to the British Foreign Office in the Far East. That title had been held previously by earlier notables in the paternal line, which stretched back to prominent Northumberland landowners of the 1300s.
Mitford was said to have been conceived during her father's most determined effort at earning a living, in 1913, when he and Sydney lived briefly in the northern Ontario town of Swastika and attempted to prospect for gold. Their choice of first and middle names for this fourth daughter was slightly off note: their other daughters were all given conventional monikers. In fact, “Valkyrie” was a nod to the operas of German composer Richard Wagner, whom the Mitfords' paternal grandfather had personally known. Sandwiched third in the birth order of the entire Mitford septet was the sisters' adored brother Thomas, born in 1909.
The Mitford family fortunes changed dramatically when their paternal uncle and heir to the Redesdale peerage was killed in action during World War I. Unity's first years were spent at their late grandfather's home, Batsford Park in Gloucestershire, which their father sold in 1919. In the fiction and memoirs that emerged from the Mitford clan, the girls' bohemian parents were characterized as the wellmeaning but emotionally remote “Muv,” a woman who delegated much of the burden of child-rearing to a phalanx of nannies and governesses. Their formidable and frequently apoplectic, anti-intellectual father was known as “Farve.” Although Sydney did partly involve herself in home-schooling her daughters, her chief concern was to ensure that each of them entered into a suitable marriage.
The Mitfords moved into Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire, a Cotswold manor-style property dating back to the 1620s, and resided there until 1926. Thereafter, they lived at Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire and also maintained a home in London at 26 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, where Farve stayed when the House of Lords was in session at Westminster. Despite the man's oft-repeated claim that he had read but one book in his entire life—White Fang by Jack London—his daughters benefited from access to their late grandfather's voluminous library. Led by the imaginative eldest daughter Nancy, who inherited Farve's savage wit, they concocted elaborate games and ongoing fables and reveled in their status as “Hons,” referring to the prefix their father's peerage entitled them to use. As a child, Unity was close to her next-youngest sister Jessica, whom the family called Decca, and the two sometimes used an invented language they referred to as Boudledidge.
By her early teens, Mitford showed a talent for drawing and art and was able to recite long passages of poetry by John Milton and William Blake; she also begged her parents to let her join some of her female cousins at boarding school. Even in the chaotic atmosphere of the Asthall and Swinbrook households, she lived in oppositional defiance of her first name and was described as a sulky adolescent known for rash acts and dark moods. When her parents agreed to let her enroll at St. Margaret's School in Bushey, Hertfordshire, in 1929, she chafed at its rules. Administrators at St. Margaret's judged her a threat to her fellow students' morals when she produced reams of semi-pornographic drawings.
The social lives of Mitford's three older sisters were much chronicled in the media of the 1920s. Nancy was the first to make her formal debut at Buckingham Palace, a rite of passage that announced that the daughters of earls and lords were of marriageable age. She then dallied for years with suitors her parents deemed objectionable on various grounds, although she became the first sister to attain literary success through the frivolous but commercially successful 1931 novel Highland Fling. The second-eldest Mitford daughter Pamela, who had suffered from polio as a child, had the calmest temperament of the six and was an avid equestrian and livestock breeder. Diana was a renowned beauty and her 1929 marriage to Bryan Guinness, an heir to the Guinness brewery fortune, came as a great relief to her parents.
After her stint at St. Margaret's ended in late 1930, 16-year-old Unity began spending time in London together with Diana, brother Tom, and a circle of friends that intersected with the semi-scandalous Bloomsbury literary set. Her debutante season began in February of 1932, but that same year Diana's marriage imploded when she left Guinness for Sir Oswald Mosley, a World War I veteran and an infamous contrarian member of parliament as well as a married man whose wife was the daughter of the former viceroy of India. Mosley's political allegiances veered over a decade from Labour to Conservative (Tory), but by the early 1930s he was becoming a reliably vociferous foe of communism and the threat allegedly posed by Soviet agents to undermine European democratic institutions. Warning of the dangers posed by high unemployment in Britain during the Great Depression, Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and began to court support from other right-wing movements, including from Italian leader Benito Mussolini and Germany's Adolf Hitler.
The Guinness-Mosley affair was the entry point that drew Unity Mitford into right-wing politics. She and Diana traveled to Germany in August of 1933 to attend that year's Nuremberg Rally, an annual event commemorating the founding of the Nazi Party but which in 1933 also celebrated the Nazis' rise to political power with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany. Eager to return to the rapidly modernizing and prosperous Germany, Mitford convinced her parents to let her enroll in a language school in Munich in early 1934. Her choice of the southern German city was influenced by her growing fascination with Hitler, who had lived there for several years and forged the foundation of his party out of the war-traumatized and disaffected men who gathered in Munich's beer halls. Even after being installed as German chancellor and obligated to maintain a visible base of leadership in the capital city of Berlin, Hitler retained a base of close associates and confidantes to the south. He was also renovating a mountain chalet, the Berghof, in the nearby Bavarian Alps whose peaks spilled over into his Austrian homeland.
For several weeks during 1934, Mitford reportedly made a daily visit to Osteria Bavaria, a restaurant located near Munich's Nazi Party headquarters, in the hope of meeting Germany's new Führer. The gambit worked and Hitler became entranced by the tall blonde Englishwoman. Unity readily adopted the most virulent Nazi Party propaganda against European Jews, although it bears noting that anti-Semitism and a loathing of leftist political sentiments were not uncommon among the British upper classes, nor among aristocrats elsewhere in Europe. Hitler was a fan of Wagner's operas and was delighted by Mitford's middle name, as well as by the fact that, before her birth, her parents lived in an ignoble mining camp town named for the Sanskrit swastika symbol the Nazi Party would soon co-opt as its emblem.
Mitford's involvement in Nazi Party politics dovetailed with events occurring in sister Diana's life. After losing custody of her two young sons by Guinness, Diana traveled to Berlin and there married the conveniently widowed Sir Oswald in a secretive ceremony. At the time of the wedding in October of 1936, both the bride and her younger sister proudly wore Nazi Party badges given to them by Hitler and were photographed raising their right arms in the traditional Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute.
Youngest Mitford sister Deborah recalled a trip taken with their mother the following spring, during which Unity drove them from Salzburg, Austria, to Munich, where they were entertained by the Führer at his apartment. In her 2010 memoir Wait for Me!, Deborah included her diary entry for June 2, 1937, in which she jotted down details of the visit with Bobo—the sisters' pet name for Unity—and the meeting with Hitler that Unity had arranged. “Bobo & I went up & she was shaking all over & the door of his room was opened & there he was standing there,” Deborah Mitford recalled. “He seemed very pleased to see Bobo.”
While Oswald Mosley envisioned a union of England and Germany, the increasingly anti-Semitic climate in the latter sparked fears of religious persecution across Europe. Mitford's father was warned by British consular officials that Unity's actions were viewed as increasingly objectionable while such tensions escalated. Once, on a visit home in the spring of 1938, Mitford ventured into London's Hyde Park for a political rally and was attacked by members of the crowd who tore the Nazi badge from her lapel before police officers could escort her to safety.
A month later, with all lines of communication between England and Germany severed due to the declaration of war, Mitford's family learned that Unity was hospitalized in Munich. She was later moved to a hospital in Bern, Switzerland, and on the last day of 1939, Deborah Mitford and her mother made the arduous journey to collect her. “Our first sight of her was a shock: her face was the same greyish-brown as her hair, which was matted and almost solid with dried blood—she had not been able to bear anyone touching her head,” Deborah recalled in Wait for Me! When her mother and sister brought her home, newsreel footage captured the former debutante being transferred into an ambulance. This triggered public outrage at a time when British troops were mobilizing for war and civilians prepared for the austerity measures and other draconian restrictions that would be imposed once the island nation declared war on Nazi Germany.
As doctors in Switzerland and England explained to Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Lady Redesdale, the bullet had lodged in Mitford's head and was inoperable. An invalid, Unity lived the remainder of her days with her parents, transitioning among Old Mill Cottage, their Buckinghamshire home, Swinbrook House, and, later, Inch Kenneth, a private island in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. In late 1943, her sister Diana Mitford Mosley was released from detention as a subversive, and in March of 1945, brother Tom was killed in action. Mitford died of meningitis at a hospital in Oban, Scotland, at age 33 on May 28, 1948.
Mitford, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, with Charlotte Mosley, Wait for Me! Memoirs, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010.
Thompson, Laura, The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, St. Martin's Press, 2015.
Daily Mail (London, England), January 25, 1940, Percy Gater, “Lords v. Commons on Unity Mitford,” p. 4.
Times (London, England), October 30, 1976, David Pryce-Jones, “In Search of Unity,” p. 6.
Spectator, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/08/hitlers-valkyrie-unity-mitford-at-100/ (August 9, 2014), Mark McGinness, “Hitler's Valkyrie: Unity Mitford at 100.”□