Debo


There was a nice article in the Sunday Times about Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (which is the best alliterative name I’ve ever heard, edging out Marion Mitchell Morrison). Deborah – Debo to her friends – is the last surviving Mitford girl. She is ninety years old, intelligent, charming, loves Elvis Presley, loves her chickens, and still takes care of her privacy (I admire the way she gently hints to the reporter that it’s time to end the interview).

 

I didn’t know any of the Mitford sisters were still with us. Sometimes I try to enumerate them, the way people try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves. Nancy the novelist; Jessica the Communist; Unity the Fascist; Deborah the duchess – who am I forgetting? I had to look. Pamela, who stayed home and raised poultry, and Diana, the beauty (also a Fascist).

 

The Mitfords were born into an upper-class family in England, and tumbled effortlessly through life. They did not struggle upward; they just floated up, up, up. Even when their politics were awful, they never seemed like awful people. They were funny.

 

Money doesn’t hurt, of course. Without money, there’s very little comfort to be had from life. But money came and went for Debo too, and now she has plenty of it again.

 

She reminds me of an Englishman I knew in Morocco. He was in his eighties in 1984, walked with great difficulty, had trouble breathing sometimes, but was very sharp-minded. We were both dinner guests at a friend’s house, and I accidentally quoted Jane Austen, and we were friends after that. He’d been in the British Foreign Service for decades. He had a much younger and very nice Senegalese boyfriend. He’d known Olivia Manning. He said no one liked her; she was always making furtive notes, as if she was going to write a book about you someday. Another day he pressed a copy of “The Towers of Trebizond” on me and said, “Rose Macaulay. Strange woman. But very good book.” I had a long funny letter from him, but I think I’ve lost it, and now I wish I’d been more careful about keeping it.

 

And there was a piece in the Sunday Times about the 94-year-old Eli Wallach, whom Tennessee Williams said “has discovered the secret of pissing people off,” and whose wife of 62 years, Anne Jackson, sometimes walks into interviews and announces that she wants a divorce, just to shake up the interviewer.

 

I think of Maira Kalman visiting Louise Bourgeois (“She is 96 and still works, for God’s sake!”) and Kitty Carlisle Hart (“She dated George Gershwin, for God’s sake!”). They both served Maira Kalman chocolate. It must mean something.

 

I think of Auden’s portrait of Voltaire in old age:

 

. . . He would write

Nothing is better than life.” But was it? Yes, the fight

Against the false and the unfair

Was always worth it. So was gardening. Civilise.

 

We’d better get out there and cultivate our gardens, y’all. Time’s a-wastin’.

 


 

 

About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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