We used to play a game called Cellmates at work, and Decca Mitford is always my first choice. I decided to write about why.
Decca Mitford, the original runaway
Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford, aka Decca Mitford, is my perfect cellmate. In a similar vein to the imaginary dinner party scenario, you have to come up with five people you would share a prison cell with, and Decca would have had us out of there in no time.
Why am I so confident in Decca? My chosen celly is an original runaway, and she pulled it off with style, grit, and fifty quid.
For everyone that’s never heard of the Mitfords before, I’ll set the scene. The six Mitford sisters are a pack of contradictions like you wouldn’t believe. The stories connected to them sound like a lot of big fish, but these people dealt in big fish, and a lot of the myths that made them famous are also horribly true. Let’s take a 60 second trip through the twentieth century, shall we? Nancy, a catty society queen with a wit NO-ONE wanted to get on the mean end of, Diana, a Fascist-loving Bright Young Person, apple of Evelyn Waugh’s eye, and the epitome of frivolous 1920s London. Unity, a Nazi obsessive who would eventually become a confidant to Hitler, Debo, a Duchess and close friend to the Kennedy clan, Pam, a farmer and homemaker, and Decca, the ‘red sheep’.
It’s no wonder Decca fought so hard to escape the family ties so eager to bind her. Growing up in the second wave of children for the Mitfords, Decca’s weekends were only punctuated with her older sisters arriving home in the Oxfordshire countryside with apparently ridiculous new suitors or freshly cropped hair (too too shy-making for the interwar years in Britain). Her parents’ reluctance to have Decca formally educated and their stiflingly dysfunctional marriage meant her time as a Mitford was overshadowed with living up to a family name, and its growing infamy in the 1930s and 1940s as her older sisters ran amok in London and Germany.
It would have been all too easy for Decca Mitford to grow up as another socialite ‘It’ girl, gracing the headlines of the British press for all the supposedly right reasons. But Decca, with her made-up languages and communist leanings would never have survived locked away in the English countryside. From a young age it became clear that she wasn’t going to fit any mould laid out before her, and would spend the rest of her life defying every expectation her surname placed on her.
In 1929, at just 12 years old, Decca began plotting her exit. Writing to her family’s bank in London, Decca deposited ten shillings into her newly titled Running Away Account. By the time she was ready to leave at 19, she had fifty pounds to her name. But her real find was a communist cousin from the wrong side of the boarding school tracks ready to elope with her.
Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s then 18-year-old nephew, had returned from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and met Decca at a family party over one weekend. The story goes that between aperitifs and dessert, Esmond and Decca had plotted entirely in whispers to escape their stifling families and elope to Spain. Instead of sulking about in her parent's country pile, Decca figured the time was ripe to skip town with a cousin she had only just met, who she had also pretty much decided was her first love. Decisive and romantic?! Perfect celly material right there.
Once in Spain, Esmond would report on the war against Franco, and Decca would be his secretary. Decca bought a camera and what she deemed was a ‘fighting outfit’ at the Army and Navy store, and charged it to her parent's expense account. They were all set. All they needed was a cover story.
Under the guise of going to stay with twin friends in Dieppe, northern France, Esmond wrote a phony letter to Decca, pretending to be the twins inviting her to stay. Britain is famed for its merry-go-round of etiquette and manners, and Decca had learnt how to play this to her advantage. No-one imagined Decca would do something as down-right awful as eloping, and despite talking about running away her entire life, none of her family saw through the Dieppe invite. As the daughter of a Baron, her rebellion was always going to cause scandal and outrage, and it was made all the more possible because the stakes were so high. Within a week of meeting Esmond for the first time, Decca found herself being seen off at the station by her Muv and Farv, as she called them, casual hamper full of delicacies for the journey in tow.
A few carriages down on the same train, Esmond sat waiting so they could travel together as soon as they left the station. It’s at this point where I would have cracked. Maybe it’s the hamper that does it for me but there’s just no way I could hold a poker face through jovial goodbyes to my parents and their parting gifts. But Decca sat tight.
After a few hold-ups en route, which involved Decca furiously posting cards back to her family from France to keep up the appearances of her Dieppe holiday, Decca and Esmond finally made it to loyalist Bilbao, where they began transmitting news of the Spanish War for a press bureau that had taken them on. Reading Leslie Brody’s brilliant biography of Decca, Irrepressible, you can see how the realisation of Decca’s situation must have started to dawn on her. With all the excitement, violence and reality of war around her, Decca described life as taking on “far more the quality of a dream than of a dream come true”.
But being the daughter of a British peer meant running away would spark more than a few angry email exchanges. Two weeks after eloping, a coded telegram arrived in Bilbao, addressed to the British consul stationed there, who just so happened to be out of town. It demanded that Jessica Mitford should be tracked down and taken back to Britain immediately. The Spanish proconsul gave it to Decca and Esmond, who managed to decipher it, and, using the same code, reply: "Have found Jessica Mitford-stop-impossible to persuade her to return-stop”. Apparently the British government was not in the same mood for LOLs that week and instead sent a destroyer warship to collect the missing Mitford.
Sullen-faced Decca agreed to meet the destroyer from the port (Just a few torpedos, move along), but made no promises about her return. The captain of the ship tried to trick her into dinner on board in order to whisk her home, but Decca and her authority-shunning squeeze had other ideas. Again, if not for the warm, roast chicken and bread sauce meal the captain promised her but out of sheer embarrassment, I probably would have been on the boat home, ears burning at the thought of all those headlines and stern talkings-to when I returned. But Decca was different. She declined the invitation (and actually asked if she could have the dinner to-go instead), and stayed in Spain, causing so much outrage she was eventually forced to move to London as Britain threatened to cut off its aid to Spain if she didn’t return.
Whether it was the Spanish Civil War, American Civil Rights or fighting against the Klu Klux Klan, Decca belonged on the front lines. In her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, she wrote: "You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty." It's clear from reading her book that she would have been miserable leading the 'quiet life' of debutante balls and society commitments that enraptured her elder sisters.
But despite her early escape from the clutches of the family seat, it seems Decca's own life was never free from tragedy. In fact, Decca’s life was full of everything. After emigrating to the States, when Decca was just 22, Esmond went missing in action fighting against Nazi Germany, nine months after the birth of their second daughter, Constancia. Decca lost her first daughter, Julia, to measles two years before, and would go on to lose another child, Nicholas, when she was 38 and he was eleven.
Trying to follow Decca's timeline is like reading three other people's achievements in one list. You can read her brilliant book, Hons and Rebels, from cover to cover, without realising the huge amount she chose to omit and keep private, including the sorrow of losing Julia, who isn't mentioned by name in the book. You can read her exposé The American Way of Death, which subsequently led to Congressional hearings on the funeral industry in the U.S., and think its effect would amount to one person's life work. But you’d still have something missing, something that doesn’t seem to quite translate to paper no matter how much I read about this woman that never stops to inspire me. Because Decca also knew how to have a ton of fun, and when she wasn't playing hard-to-get from British warships or teaching university courses on the Watergate scandal, she was opening for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco with her cowbell and kazoo orchestra, Decca & the Dectones.
According to an unclassified FBI report I found online when researching my fellow celly, Decca said she wanted to move to the States simply for “an adventure”. The newspaper reports at the time sneer over her new job working with Esmond in a bar in Miami, and what her father, Lord Redesdale would say. But Decca knew she had finally escaped the grasp of her family, and that she was going to keep it that way at any cost. Her sisters’ involvement in Nazi Germany and the Fascist party in Britain meant it was easy to tar Decca’s name with the same brush. Instead, she made it her life’s work to be known for more than the awful decisions some of her sisters made.
J.K. Rowling, another huge fan of Decca, who even named her daughter, Jessica, after her, has said in the past that she admires the fifth Mitford daughter for "never outgrowing some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics - she was a self-taught socialist - throughout her life." Hers was a life well-lived, from the home counties to wartime Spain, grotty communist flats in London's East End to bars in Miami, Washington as a recently widowed single mother, and finally settling, as much as it seems Decca ever could do, in San Francisco.
Even though Decca won’t ever actually get to be my cell mate, 'What Would Decca do?' is something I ask myself whenever I can't make up my mind, or I suspect I'm not giving something every single bit of energy and brain power I can muster. A straight-up hustler who didn't even know how to pay the gas bill or clean her own oven, Decca focused her entire life on righting the wrongs she saw, and she never stopped. Her sisters hung out with Hitler, Fascists, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton and the Kennedys. But it was Decca that ran away with Churchill's nephew, causing uproar at home and then threatening to have “a large family before [she] was twenty-one” if they weren't allowed to get married. Despite all the restraints, expectations and tradition placed on her, Decca managed to follow her own heart, in defiance of her highly conservative and right-wing family.
For all her sisters' contradictions, rivalry and eccentricities, Decca carved her own identity, and instead of burning out in a heat of controversy, as many would have expected when she was initially discovered in Bilbao, remains a lasting legacy of what can truly be achieved in a lifetime.
Decca's running away was her first strike against this, and it was the start of everything.
Go big or get the warship home.