“I suppose it is rather odd looking back,” the Duchess said with a smile at her stately home on Chatsworth House, as she recalled having tea with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1937.
Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, or “Debo” to her friends, was the last surviving Mitford sister and has died
In tribute we take a look back at her colourful life with an interview we first carried four years ago when Nik Brear spoke to her about an exhibition looking back at her life and her then forthcoming autobiography, Wait For Me.
VIDEO: Press the play button to watch our interview with the Duchess.
Of her visit to meet Adolf Hitler she said: “At the time it seemed perfectly ordinary. He was staying in a flat when we visited him and I do remember thinking his set-up was very regular and somewhat haphazard for a head of state.”
The Duchess, aged 17 at the time, was in Munich visiting her sister Unity - a Nazi sympathiser and close friend of Hitler - when Hitler heard of the visit and invited them to join him for tea.
“I couldn’t speak German and neither could my mother so it was a slow job as Unity had to translate everything that was said,” the Duchess recalled.
“I remember thinking he was very nice and friendly. Twice he rang the bell for the housekeeper and no one came which I found amazing for a man of his position.”
This is just one of many fascinating stories The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Cavendish, has to tell from the extraordinary nine decades of her life.
Born in 1920, the Duchess was the youngest of the infamous Mitford sisters. In 1941 she married Lord Andrew Cavendish - younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire. She has managed the stately home of Chatsworth House for the past 54 years.
The Duchess also unveiled an extraordinary exhibition at Chatsworth in celebration of her 90th birthday.
Oy offered a rare behind-the-scenes peek into her life with a carefully selected collection of personal and treasured belongings.
She said at the time: “It’s been amazing going back through things I haven’t seen for years and years. My skates for instance - I’d quite forgotten I had them.
“Skating is the one thing I’ve felt that I could do really well my whole life. It was probably 1939 when I last wore them. Hunting was another big passion of mine that took over after that.”
The exhibition featured her gun and gamebooks alongside numerous artworks, childhood drawings, diaries and letters and even the robes she wore to the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
“There will be some lovely clothes from Paris on display which I bought about 50 years ago and just love,” she said.
“They’re as good as new and perfectly wearable no matter what the fashion is.”
An unusual telephone that has Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock and a piece of fence from Graceland also catch my eye and the Duchess revealed a passion for the crooner.
“I would have loved to add him to the list of fascinating people I’ve been lucky enough to meet in my life,” she explained.
“I wonder how Elvis and Hitler would have got on...” she mused with a mischevious twinkle in her eye, giving us a glimpse of the sharp wit and humour that hasn’t aged at all.
The exhibition for the Duchess followed on from one held for her late husband.
“Of course his was a great success, but then he had a far more active life I suppose than I did but I hope people will find it interesting,” she said modestly.
Asked if the Duchess’ large family was excited to see the exhibition when it is up and runnning she laughed: “Not a bit.
“I have 17 great-grandchildren and they’re not a bit interested. They say: ‘Oh no, not that story again, please don’t tell us anymore’.”
She was also quick to dismiss any plans for a celebration on the big day at the end of the month.
“We’ve never gone in much for birthdays in my family so I hope I will be enjoying it quietly at home.”
There was another reason the Duchess is eager for some peace and quiet as her birthday approached.
“My autobiography is due to be with my publisher that day. Imagine the terror of a deadline like that!” she exclaimed in mock horror.
The book was her twelfth, though the first to focus on her life.
“The book is called ‘Wait For Me’ and is just about my life, my whole life...it’s getting rather long now!” she laughed.
* Along with her late-husband Andrew, the Duchess was the public face of Chatsworth House for decades.
* The Duchess moved out of the stately home - her home for almost 50 years - upon the death of the Duke in 2004. feeling. She now lives in a ‘cosy and cluttered’ former vicarage on the outskirts of the Chatsworth estate which is ‘far more manageable’ for her in her advancing years.
* She continued to manage Chatsworth House, primarily along with her grandson, William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington.
THE LAST OF THE MITFORD SISTERS
Deborah Cavendish was the youngest and last surviving of the infamous Mitford sisters - a family of six sisters who gained noteriety in the last century for their controversial and stylish lives and their public political divisions.
The girls were the six daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Freeman-Mitford, Baroness Redesdale. Though they were known collectively as the Mitford Sisters throughout their lives, they each went on to become well known in their own right.
Unity Mitford was a Nazi sympathiser who was infatuated with Adolf Hitler. In 1939, as war looked set to become imminent between the two countries,
Hitler apparently urged her to return to her homeland but the British girl refused to leave his side. The day war broke out, she shot herself in the head.
She survived the suicide attempt, though she was left with permanent brain damage. She was brought back home to England by her mother and sister Deborah and lived out the rest of her life as an invalid at the family home until her death at age 33.
Diana Mitford was another sister whose life was shrouded in controversy. She married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists in 1936. They married at the home of Joseph Goebbels with Hitler as guest of honour.
The couple were interned throughout much of World War II with MI5 documents reporting: “Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the ‘best authority’, that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time. She is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions.”
Diana and her sister Jessica, a communist, had become permanently estranged over their political differences,
Jessica Mitford was an author, a journalist and a political campaginer, who was famously quoted as saying: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”
Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the sisters and was a popular novelist and biographer.
The least is known about ‘quiet’ Pamela Mitford. She had a love of animals and agriculture and spent much of her life managing farms. The sisters were prolific letter-writers and a collection of their letters to one another, spanningd the 20th century, were turned into a book: Letters Between Six Sisters.