Noblesse Oblige: The Last Of The Mitfords

‘I had letters from you & the Lady (Nancy) & Henderson (Jessica) today, wouldn’t it be dread if one had a) no sisters b) sisters who didn’t write.’        

– Deborah Cavendish to her sister Diana Mosley, July 1965

‘Debo’ as she was known to her loved ones, was always willing to correspond with those wanting to talk to her about her remarkable relatives, and her extraordinary life as the Duchess of Devonshire. With the laying to rest today of Her Grace, in the ducal churchyard at Edensor, the iconic Mitford sisters who came to occupy an almost mythical space in British culture are no more.

In reading the host of obituaries following the death last Wednesday of Deborah Freeman-Mitford, at the age of 94, a more genuine picture of the bonds that united the Mitfords in the face of Fascism, Communism, war and death, emerges from their own personal recollections. The sisters resist any contemporary comparison, because of their background and upbringing within a uniquely select world, one evolving for a thousand years then finding itself undergoing a period of rapid decline.

It was to be a process of radical political change in England, with which history will always associate the Mitford name. As was common in those of their class, the sisters wrote to each other for the duration of their lives, on occasion penning correspondence to their siblings several times a day. Offering a unique record of an age gone by 12,000 letters survive, presenting a profound insight into how their experiences of life in their childhood homes, would shape destinies subject to public notoriety and historical fascination ever since. What also emerges from their letters is the constant role of Debo as peacemaker, the preserver of a pastoral idyll tarnished and faded by crisis. In the life ahead of her she would need all the compassion and tact for which she would become renowned.

The Honourable Deborah Vivien was born on 31st March 1920, the youngest child of what were by then Lord and Lady Redesdale, of Asthall Manor in Oxfordshire. David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford and his wife Sydney Bowles. Debo’s elder siblings were Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity and Jessica. Known as Decca, Jessica had been born three years earlier at the sprawling Batsford House estate in Gloucestershire. Batsford was the home of Algernon Bertram ‘Barty’ Freeman-Mitford, David’s father with whom Sydney and their children lived after David joined up in 1914, the family having previously moved around various parts of London and Wiltshire. Continue reading

Clouded By Illusions: The Beauty Of Gia Carangi

Life and death
energy and peace
if I stopped today
it was fun.
Even the terrible pains that have burned me and scarred
my soul it was worth it for having been allowed to
walked where I’ve walked. Which was to hell on earth
heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between
and above it.

Gia Carangi (1986)

The death of supermodel Gia Carangi went unreported by the press. Five days later, her funeral was a quiet affair, attended only by her immediate family, with a closed casket recommended for the woman whose exquisite face and fabulous figure had once stunned the fashion world. None of the photographers who had clamoured to capture her, or the fashionistas who excitedly watched her strut down a catwalk were there, or even knew she had died. She was certainly not the first young woman destroyed by the glamorous but notoriously fickle modelling industry, but as one fashion insider later remarked, ‘There were a lot of girls who were victims of those times — the night life, Studio 54, dancing, having fun. There were girls who took a lot of coke and destroyed their beauty, but I don’t think Gia was one of those. I think she was a victim of herself.’

Born in Philadelphia on 29th January 1960, Gia’s early life had been wrought by the unhappy marriage of her parents, Joseph Carangi, an Italian restaurateur and his wife Kathleen, who was of Welsh and Irish descent. Gia was their youngest child of three and their only daughter, although Joseph also had a son from a previous marriage. In 1971, Kathleen left the family home for good and later remarried, seeing her children at fairly irregular intervals much to the distress of her daughter, who was never able to overcome her sense of abandonment, as a friend recalled, ‘The one person Gia always wanted something from was her mother – and she just never felt like she got it.’ As well as her mother’s departure, Gia eventually revealed that she had been molested at the age of five, an experience that left her traumatised.

After being discovered by a local photographer whilst working in one of her father’s restaurants, Gia appeared in several advertisements in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1978. Gia was signed by Wilhelmina Models straight away, with the agency’s owner Wilhelmina Cooper, who would become her mentor, enraptured by her ‘fantastically pliable face.’ One of Gia’s first assignments was for Vogue with the photographer Chris von Wangenheim in October 1978.

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