The Duchess Who Secretly Loved Elvis: Remembering Lunch with 'Debo,' The Last Mitford Sister
Deborah, the Duchess of the Devonshire, who died this week, was the last of an iconic, English literary dynasty — and a delightful lunchtime companion.
“Did you hear they’ve discovered who ‘Anonymous’ is?” asked Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire. “It’s somebody called Joe Klein! It says so right here in the International Herald Tribune!”
It was a sunny July day at Chatsworth House, one of the more crazily magnificent country estates of Britain, and it was His Grace who first clued me in on the great media mystery of 1996.
Surprisingly, the secret identity of the author of Primary Colors, a much-hyped roman a clef about Bill and Hillary Clinton, was as juicy a gossip item with the English aristocracy as it was with the Washington political class. The Duke’s revelation that it was an ink-stained wretch like Klein was fairly gobsmacking, since I’d been writing about politics for The Washington Post and thinking that it had to be a former White House aide.
We — my then-wife, our two young children and I — were sitting with the Duke, the Duchess, a few of their dogs, and two of their elderly fellow aristos, nursing drinks on a high terrace overlooking the gardens of the four-century-old baroque Tudor mansion.
The gardens below and the public staterooms of the vast house were crawling with paying tourists — necessary cash for the upkeep of the buildings and grounds. But in contrast to the tourists, we hadn’t bought tickets for the privilege. Through an unlikely set of circumstances, the Duchess had invited us to lunch.
Memories of that occasion — a once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-body experience — came floating back when I read last Wednesday that the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah Cavendish (formerly Freeman-Mitford), had died at age 94. Her husband had passed away nine years before. She was the youngest of the six celebrated Mitford girls (who included the acclaimed novelist Nancy, the muckraking Communist journalist Jessica, and two sisters who were rabid acolytes of Adolf Hitler). The Duchess — more of a mainstream centrist and a bit of a belle-lettrist herself — was totally delightful.
In any case, “Debo,” as her intimates called her, was a lot more gemütlich, I suspect, than her Nazi-sympathizing siblings, Unity and Diana. And more welcoming than Jessica Mitford, the renowned author of The American Way of Death, whom I was still upset with, I jokingly told the Duchess (actually half in jest and wholly in earnest), for declining to admit me decades earlier to her college writing seminar.
“I hope you will forgive me for my sister’s terrible judgment,” the Duchess said with a twinkle in her eye. “Of course,” I answered — though I was later chagrined to learn that “Decca” at that very moment was gravely ill in Oakland, California, and soon to depart this veil of tears, a fact which the stiff-upper-lipped Mrs. Cavendish had apparently not wanted to mention.
Eventually we were all seated around a long, cloth-covered table in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled, richly furnished and carpeted hall festooned with Rembrandts and many other paintings one might find in art history books, along with a couple of Lucian Freuds depicting the current generation of Cavendishes. The windows were framed by tall, velvety curtains.
I dimly recall the two other luncheon guests as a wan-looking, wispy-haired octogenarian gent with a very posh accent, and a matronly, equally posh lady of similar vintage who — the Duchess informed me — “is very deaf, so you’ll have to shout.” Their names and rank are lost to me.
Everyone was dressed for a country weekend — with the Duchess, sitting next to me at one end, across from her husband on the other, sporting a tartan vest and a tweedy skirt — while the servants wore proper uniforms. The table was set with the Cavendish silver and crystal and various sumptuous-looking bottles from the wine cellar.
Every so often the Duke — a stooped, lanky man who apologized that he was going blind and could barely see more than a few feet in front of his nose — reached for a slice of fresh-baked bread, slathered it with butter and furtively tossed it butter-side down on the antique Oriental carpet for the dogs. (This greatly amused my son, nearly eight, and his five-year-old sister, who, moments after we arrived — and perhaps channeling Old Labour — had loudly demanded of her nervous parents, “WHY ARE THEY RICH?”)
All I can remember of what the humans ate is fillet of sole garnished with garden-fresh vegetables (the Duchess had phoned the day before to ask if my kids had any dietary restrictions) and a dessert of blackberries drowning in heavy cream. I had no complaints — and neither did the dogs.
What I recall of the conversation is that it included the Duke’s eagerness to finish lunch as soon as possible so he could watch the live coverage of the 125th British Open, which had just commenced at the Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club; the Duchess’s inclination to side with Charles and Camilla in the ongoing War of the Waleses while the Duke was a warm supporter of pretty Diana (he was especially delighted that this was also my wife’s name); a recent visit to Chatsworth by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts; and the Duchess’s posthumous yet passionate crush on The King — that is, Elvis Presley.
Kennedy, it turned out, had a close connection to the Cavendishes. During World War II, his big sister, Kathleen, aka “Kick,” had eloped with Andrew’s older brother William, the Marquess of Hartington — who would have become the 11th Duke had he not been killed by a sniper on the German front.
Kick died four years later in a plane crash on her way to the French Riviera; her little brother, now a powerful senator, had remained a dear family friend (and it was he who had arranged this implausible lunch invitation on the spur of the moment after I’d profiled him in The Post’s Style section).
“Teddy came here for lunch, and he ate very well,” said the Duke, referring not unkindly to the senator’s ongoing battle of the bulge. “And then, after lunch,” the Duke went on, not bothering to stifle a chuckle, “Teddy went to the pub in the village, and ate an entire second lunch!”
The conversation turned to Elvis when the Duchess mentioned her growing collection of Presley recordings and paraphernalia. “I love Elvis,” she declared.
Her greatest ambition — which she had been unable to fulfill, she said, because of her duties running the income-producing activities of Chatsworth — was finally to make the pilgrimage to Elvis’s mansion, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee. When I told her I had spent a week there during the near-religious ceremonies surrounding the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s demise, she quizzed me hungrily about what it had been like.
“Oh, I would so enjoy seeing the Jungle Room,” she said, referring to the spectacularly cheesy shag-carpeted den that was Elvis’s favorite hangout. She gestured at the opulence presently surrounding us. “Would you say it’s as nice as this room?”
“Better,” I said, playing along.
Lunch was drawing to a close, and the Duchess said it was time to take the dogs for a walk — and suggested we take a tour of the gardens before we left. The Duke disappeared into a darkened side room, where he sat inches from a glowing television screen, gazing at golf.
“I think I’ll have a lie-down,” the wan octogenarian gent announced.
My last image of Deborah Mitford Cavendish was of a forceful, fun-loving, sparkling personality, holding the leashes of four excitedly barking dogs as they barreled down a grand staircase into the public rooms of Chatsworth and marched past a group of astonished tourists.