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Badass Ladies of History: Decca Mitford, Part 2

When we last left our heroes, Decca and Esmond were grieving the death of their infant daughter Julia. Months after their daughter’s death, the Romillys decided to emigrate to the United States. In loving Esmond, Decca lost her father, her closest sisters, many material comforts she was accustomed to, and suffered the death of a child. Would she be also willing to give up her home country? To Decca, if she was with Esmond, fighting “the good fight,” she was in the best home she would ever know.

The couple’s decision to leave the United Kingdom over the nation’s military inaction in the face of Hitler and Nazism stands in direct opposition to Esmond’s earlier commitment to pacifism. Esmond had been schooled in a traditional boys’ school, Wellington College, a school that valued military precision and discipline. These schools were, perhaps, the last bastions of the attitude of brutality that made the British Navy terribly feared by both opposing armies and their own impressed members (the famous quote from Esmond’s uncle, Winston Churchill comes to mind, “The real traditions of the British Navy are rum, buggery and the lash”).

While at school, Esmond had rebelled against the militarist culture by refusing to join the officer training corp. He also stuffed pacifist brochures into the chapel hymnals on Armistice Day. His biggest rebellion was running away from school at age 15 and writing a book with his brother, Giles, about the violence and abuse that characterized the school, titled Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles and Esmond Romilly.

In their first year in America, Decca and Esmond travelled up and down the East Coast, spending time in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Miami. The more cynical observer would argue the reason the couple left each city after such a quick residence was that they had taken all the advantage they could from each acquaintance. In these various cities, brandishing letters of introduction from their aristocratic relations, the pair picked up odd jobs and fell in to unlikely positions. While they were first discovering America, Decca and Esmond became the subject of a comic strip in the Washington Post which chronicled the misadventures of a upper-crust revolutionary couple.

Decca and Esmond in Miami, via Life archives

In Florida, they spent weeks tending to both bar and books at an Italian restaurant in Miami. During these adventures, the Romillys were willfully unaware of the heartbreaks the Mitford family was suffering in England. In December, three months after the fact, Decca was finally informed of Unity’s attempted suicide. Even though Decca abhorred Unity’s politics, she still grieved for the tragedy of her favorite sister. In contrast to her usual willingness to provide journalists with choice quotes, she kept her silence. She was hounded by reporters in Miami, looking for a pithy reaction from the Red sister of Hitler’s rumored lover, but Decca refused to respond.
[pullquote]
She was hounded by reporters in Miami, looking for a pithy reaction from the Red sister of Hitler’s rumored lover, but Decca refused to respond.[/pullquote]
It was their stay in Washington, D.C., that ultimately shaped the course of Decca’s future life. She made fast friends with members of the intelligentsia like Katharine Graham and Virginia Durr. It was also here that Decca discovered that she was pregnant again. Since losing Julia, Decca had had an abortion in a London health clinic, a decision she made without telling Esmond.

 

A primary reason the couple had emigrated was to give Esmond the opportunity to fight in the War. Since the United States was strictly isolationist at the time, Esmond was forced to enlist in the Royal Canadian Airforce. He reported to training in the early summer of 1941, weeks after Hitler and his army invaded the Netherlands. While Esmond was stationed in Canada, Decca relied on the hospitality of Virginia Durr.

Shortly before Esmond left for Canada, and very soon after Decca discovered that she was pregnant, he introduced his wife to Virginia Durr and her husband Clifford. The Durrs were Progressives and civil rights activists. Virginia’s passion was the abolition of the poll tax, and she had spent the past several years working with Eleanor Roosevelt to seek its end. It would seem to be an ideal friendship, and indeed the women became very close, but upon first meeting Decca, Virginia was not impressed, focusing instead on Esmond’s charms.

Virginia and Clifford Durr

Esmond was able to bully Virginia into looking after Decca, even though Durr was to be leaving for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago a few days later. Virginia was already planning on driving out with two young activists and felt that it was unreasonable to include this young woman. Ultimately, after guilting Virginia with tales of Decca’s hardships (the loss of Julia, Unity’s political beliefs and attempted suicide, the imminent departure of her husband), Esmond succeeded in guaranteeing Decca a ticket to the DNC.

 

Virginia didn’t know that Decca was pregnant, but after spending two days in a small car with her, it became painfully obvious. The DNC actually influenced the naming of her unborn daughter. During the proceedings, Decca began calling the fetus dinky-donk, in honor of both the donkey emblem of the Democratic Party and its habit of kicking. And while the daughter would eventually be named Constancia Romilly, the nickname stuck and she always went by Dinky.

While the Virginia had only intended to look after Decca for a few weeks, she ultimately took in the young woman for the rest of her pregnancy. This made the Durr household quite crowded, as they were already putting up several family members, as well as serving as the headquarters for Virginia’s anti-poll tax campaign. Decca’s habits were also difficult to adapt to. When she discovered that there was no one who would launder her underwear, she simply decided to stop wearing any. She also had not given up her habit of pocketing friend’s possessions, and was caught stealing cigars, stockings, and supplies intended for London mothers.
[pullquote]When she discovered that there was no one who would launder her underwear, she simply decided to stop wearing any.[/pullquote]
A month after Dinky’s birth in February, 1941, mother and newborn daughter traveled to visit Esmond in Canada. In September, Esmond was moved to England to begin actively fighting the Axis Powers. And in late November, days after Decca had decided to follow him to England, and only nine months after Dinky’s birth, Esmond’s plane was shot down in the North Sea.

It took Decca months to accept that Esmond was truly dead. The fact that he was only classified as “Missing in Action” aided her delusion. She hounded her connections in both the American and British militaries for additional information and even personally appealed to Winston Churchill. Unfortunately, the answers all came back that, even though his body was not found, it would be impossible for Esmond to survive after crashing into the North Sea.

Slowly, Decca climbed out of her grief. The friends she had imposed upon in the past willingly and gladly offered up their support. She found work at the Office of Price Administration, met her future husband Bob Treuhaft and eventually returned to her passions of muck-raking and socialism. These passions would continue to shape the next chapter of her life. The decisions she made in the year after Esmond’s death were the ones that would ultimately lead to her legacy.

To be Continued

Images sourced from

Encyclopedia of Alabama
Life Magazine Photo Gallery: Florida Then and Now

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