and the Curzon Daughters
The famously eccentric Mitford family early on.
By Megan McKinney
The ultimate spoiler in Cimmie Mosley’s life was Diana Guinness, the acknowledged beauty of the infamous Mitford sisters. Much has been written about the daughters of an unconventional aristocratic pair who raised their six girls and only boy in the beauty and rural isolation of a corner of the Cotswolds and later on an almost inaccessible island off Scotland, which they owned and were the only residents.
Diana Mitford Guinness.
Theirs was not an entirely unique upbringing for English children of the era, but the combination of keen intelligence, good looks, creativity and geographical remoteness resulted in a handful of women about whom a biographical cottage industry emerged. Stacks of books and articles have been published describing a family of sisters who delighted in raising chickens and spoke their own language, but whose highly vocal political beliefs — ranging from the outer extremes of the left to Nazism on the right — kept them in the international spotlight for decades.
Five of the six Mitford sisters. From left: Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pam. Missing is the youngest, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who died at 94 in 2014.
Diana was a dazzling, long-legged blonde, who at 18 had become the trophy wife of the immensely rich Bryan Guinness. She wed the handsome and astonishingly unspoiled Guinness not because of the enormous brewery fortune he would inherit but to gain access to his artistic milieu.
Evelyn Waugh’s quintessential “bright young” couple on their wedding day.
The young Guinnesses were so completely the epitome of the “bright young things” celebrated in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, that he dedicated the classic 1930 novel to the pair.
Waugh’s bestselling novel in an American paperback edition.
Throughout his years at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Bryan had been part of a group of aesthetes that included Harold Acton, Brian Howard and John Betjeman, and he represented a world of glittering cultivation that fascinated Diana. During her upbringing within the close-knit circle of one of the nation’s most eccentric families, she had yearned to be immersed in an urbane artistic setting, surrounded by clever, witty and talented people, whom she would entertain in a brilliant salon. Through Bryan, her dream not only became a reality, but soon she was the center of the golden set to which she had aspired.
The always extraordinary Diana.
Now an accomplished young hostess, as well as a great beauty of her time, Diana was growing bored with her adoring husband and was feeling a lack of personal direction. After becoming engaged in a political discussion with Oswald Mosley at a dinner party one evening, she began seeing him for long lunches, and, like so many before her, she was mesmerized by his charisma. But for Diana, it was more than Oswald’s sexual energy that captivated her; he assured her of the purity of his political objectives for their country and convinced her that in order to reach them he needed her at his side. Through Mosley, Diana saw that her life of the arts and entertaining, while lovely and rewarding, was insignificant in contrast to Oswald’s intense save-the-world purpose.
The pivotal point in their relationship came on July 7, 1932, at a warming party the Guinnesses gave for their new house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Diana was radiant in a chiffon dress of silver grey, the shade that best highlighted her luminous beauty and mirrored the almost transparent silver-blue of her eyes. Sometime during that midsummer night, Mosley and Diana pledged to be together for life — not in marriage, however, because both knew that Oswald would never leave Cimmie. The lack of marriage vows was a bourgeois detail meaning little to the free-spirited Mitford in Diana, nor did she mind gossip or even the anguish of her husband and two young sons. Within six months, she left Cheyne Walk and moved to a small house in Eaton Square, around the corner from Oswald’s bachelor flat and lived openly as his mistress.
During the time, Cimmie was becoming a national political figure and dealing with the baffling exploits of her husband, her younger sister, “Baba,” had matured into one of England’s most sought-after young women.
Lady Alexandra “Baba” Curzon.
A beautiful, exquisitely dressed brunette, she possessed an unerring sense of style that consistently set fashion for the women around her. Her male admirers ranged from the polo-playing American heir John Hay Whitney to Prince George, youngest son of King George and Queen Mary, and future Duke of Kent.
Jock Whitney would continue to reappear to seek Baba’s favor throughout the years.
Of her many suitors, the man to whom Baba gave most encouragement was Edward Dudley “Fruity” Metcalfe, a tall, handsome Irishman with little money or intellect and no title or pretentions. But he was a splendid horseman and a sweet man with a disarming personal charm. Once Fruity — a bachelor 17 years older than Baba — saw the stunning, exquisitely turned out youngest Curzon daughter, he never considered another woman.
The unassuming “Fruity” Metcalfe charmed those in high places.
While a cavalry officer in India, Fruity had become attached to the staff of the visiting Prince of Wales, who was so delighted by the high-spirited, good-natured Fruity that he brought him back to England and made him an extra equerry. Metcalfe possessed the same remarkable quality that would catapult Wallis Simpson to world fame: He treated the prince as though they were equals — and Fruity, in horsemanship, was clearly Edward’s better. He soon became the prince’s closest friend, bringing Baba more intimately into the palace circle she had known through Prince George.
Thelma Furness with her identical twin sister Gloria Vanderbilt. Gloria was mother of today’s Gloria Vanderbilt (and grandmother of Anderson Cooper).
The royal favorites during those years would vary from Freda Dudley Ward to Thelma Lady Furness and eventually Mrs. Simpson. But those closest to the prince were always Fruity and Baba, along with Edward’s cousin Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, with his fiancée and soon wife, Edwina Ashley, another great heiress with foreign roots.
The Mountbattens would later assume the Curzon position and reign as the last viceroy and vicereine of India.
Onlookers were amazed that Baba, who could have chosen almost any man of her generation as a husband, would agree to marry Fruity Metcalfe, but she did. And the handsome, sweet — but none too bright — Fruity would marvel at his good fortune for years to come.
Lady Alexandra Curzon’s wedding to Mr. Edward Dudley Metcalfe.
Cimmie Mosley’s physical condition was rapidly worsening and her decline soon matched the upward sweep of the very open romance between her husband and Diana Guinness. In May 1933, doctors reacted to severe abdominal pain she was experiencing by removing her appendix, a popular but risky procedure before the development of antibiotics, but surgery merely accelerated Cimmie’s deterioration when peritonitis set in. Of more ominous significance was her refusal to fight for survival; even the constant presence of the husband she loved so deeply, sitting at her bedside, pledging love with his persuasive charm throughout night and day, failed to stop her downward spiral.
Cimmie with her children, Vivien, baby Michael and Nicholas, in May 1933, just days before her final illness.
A week after surgery, the disconsolate 34-year-old Lady Cynthia Curzon Mosley died, horrifying her many friends who were correctly convinced that Diana Guinness was responsible.
The sinister Oswald Mosley was becoming more so.
Within five months of Cimmie’s death, Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists, elevating his notoriety beyond aristocratic and political circles to a widespread general visibility that challenged even that of the royal family and the prime minister.
Mosley surrounded by followers.
During the BUF’s first rally in Trafalgar Square on October 15, 1932, Mosley spoke to a crowd from the base of Nelson’s Column flanked by eight men in black shirts. A year later, a larger rally in Manchester — attracting 9,000 participants and featuring 2,000 blackshirts — was disrupted only by a few small fistfights, but the British Union aura was becoming more sinister, with funding coming in from the Mussolini government in Italy. Manchester was followed by a pair of London rallies in 1934 — in April at Albert Hall and at Olympia Hall in June.
Rally after rally drew supporters of “the Leader.”
Mosley’s arrival in any venue was a dramatically staged production of precise timing, theatrical lighting, stirring music and the entrance of the Leader, clothed in a sleek black fencing costume, marching down a spot lit center aisle or prominent outdoor spot. His rousing orations promised a utopian future of “freedom, good wages, short hours, security in employment, good housing and opportunity for leisure and recreation.” Anti-fascist sentiment however was strengthening, producing an acceleration of fights and bloodshed at rallies. Six thousand police were recruited to contain violence at an October 4, 1936 march through London’s East End in which the anti-fascists outnumbered the BUF by more than two to one. The October 4 confrontation, which culminated in overturned trucks, thrown bricks, stones and glass, and widespread bloodshed, has been recorded by history as the Battle of Cable Street.
The Battle of Cable Street.
As usual, there was another Mosley twist on the way. Two days after the Cable Street debacle, he and Diana were in Berlin, conducting life-changing personal business in the drawing room of Mrs. Guinness’ dear friend Magda Goebbels and her husband Joseph, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda.
The Leiters: Chicago’s British Aristocracy, Megan McKinney’s series of articles on this remarkable dynasty, will continue in Classic Chicago over the next several weeks.
Next Sunday: Enter the Windsors
Robert F. Carl