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On a damp autumnal day among the sheep-speckled hills in the heart of England, the Old Vicarage, home of Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, is radiating warmth. Henry, her butler of nearly 50 years, attends to the door of the rambling house on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire — and she’s right behind him, ready to greet her visitors. A bucket of chicken feed sits in the hallway — the duchess has tended her beloved birds since she was a girl — and next to it a pair of snazzy black ankle boots, with sturdy rubber heels and soles.
“Henry is meant to be retired, but so am I meant to be retired, but I notice I’m not,” she says after offering drinks and a plate of cheese, salami and savory crackers. The duchess — Debo, as she’s known to her friends — turned 90 earlier this year and is losing her eyesight, but that hasn’t stopped her from living with trademark gusto or from writing about her extraordinary life, which has ranged from her being one of the famed and beauteous Mitford sisters to marrying the Duke of Devonshire.
Next week, she arrives in New York to promote her critically acclaimed “Wait for Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and, here, the former chatelaine of Chatsworth talks fashion, entertaining, alternative table decorations and one very dull meeting with John F. Kennedy.
WWD: You talk in the book about attending the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, and make a point of saying the women had all made an effort to look their smartest, something that’s rare today. What are your thoughts on how women are dressing now?
Dowager Duchess: I don’t think English women are that interested in fashion. The ones I know live in the country, where it doesn’t matter what you wear. I’ve got a sort of uniform, which is these kilts. [She points to her navy blue kilt secured with a pin.] You can climb a gate with them — or anything you like.
WWD: What about your feet? Do you live in your wellies?
D.D.: I’ve got some that I love which are very short, and needless to say you can’t get them anymore. We looked and looked and looked to find a label, and eventually we found a very sort of dirty, scrubby old one called Ferragamo — which sounded rather good to me. But if you go into Ferragamo now, they just look at you as if you were mad. None of the people in the shop were there when they were invented.
WWD: Are you still buying your clothes at game fairs?
D.D.: At country fairs, where they have very good outdoor clothing. The [clothes] last so long.
WWD: What are some of the really enduring designer pieces in your wardrobe?
D.D.: I’m very lucky to have some amazing presents from Oscar de la Renta. There’s a beautiful [dress] made by Patou, which I had for my son’s coming-of-age, and as he’s now 66, that’s a long time ago. Givenchy was — and still is — a mainstay. I don’t much like new clothes.
WWD: Do you still wear these dresses?
D.D.: Not the [Patou]. I’m not sure I could get into it because I think old women with even semibare arms look rather revolting.
WWD: Do you do any shopping in London?
D.D.: What can you buy that’s of any interest or beauty in England? You can in Paris and you can, I’m sure, in New York. You can’t in the boutiques in England. It’s simply awful — it looks like a jumble sale. I love Oscar’s clothes because he understands what very old people like.
WWD: Are your daughters and granddaughters angling for pieces of your wardrobe?
D.D.: They were angling like anything, and they got some of them. Stella Tennant was never after them. She gets so many contemporary ones, which aren’t any good to anyone except her. She’s six-foot high and then she wears six-inch heels.
WWD: In the book, you talk about the big parties you organized or attended, and your coming out in 1938. What do you remember most about that year?
D.D.: My poor mother! There were six of us girls, and she had to go night after night and sit on those gold chairs. She wasn’t at all social — absolutely not! When the Kennedys came to London [Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to the Court of St. James’s], they made a sensation, not because of Joe but because of Rose, because she’d got nine children and was thin as a sylph and beautifully dressed and all those things. They were an amazing lot of them when they were all together. Eventually, towards the end of the summer, Joe Jr. and Jack came, and they immediately took up the social round. I put in my diary, “Danced with Jack Kennedy, very nice but rather dull.” And then 23 years later, smash-bang, he was president of the United States. But the point of the story is that my mother — sitting on her gold seat — said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that boy doesn’t become president of the United States.” She had great instinct about people.
WWD: Tell me about the more intimate gatherings over the years. What were and are some of your favorite ways of entertaining?
D.D.: When I was entertaining at Chatsworth, we had people to stay. We were usually 18 or 20. Because my friends always came at the same time of year — the end of June — I ran out of things to put on the table. So I got some live chickens and put them on the table, along with the chicks that hatched out that morning. The chicks could hardly walk and they came in a hay box, which kept them warm until they went back into the incubator. There were some beautiful silver wine coolers made by Paul Storr, a known silvermaker in the early 19th century, and so I piled them up — one with white eggs and one with brown eggs — and they looked so nice. And the old cock looked awfully nice. He was in [a glass container]. He sat on the bottom, good as gold. He was very big and heavy — he couldn’t move. He was a good fellow, a huge Buff Cochin.
WWD: What else did you put on your table?
D.D.: Well, I put piglets the next year. They were absolutely replete from a huge meal from the sow, so they were sound asleep. And Andrew [her husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire] spotted them and he said, “This really is too much. Please take them away.” So they were taken away. The thing is, it was his house.
WWD: What sort of food do you like to serve guests?
D.D.: Proper breakfasts. Not fiddling about with bits of wheat. Eggs and bacon. And fried bread — with luck. That sort of thing.
WWD: How do you entertain now?
D.D.: I’ve got six people coming for the weekend. It’s very elastic, this house. I live just the same. We just eat, talk and the politics now are so fascinating.
WWD: Was it a wrench to leave Chatsworth after your husband died?
D.D.: I like staying here, I love this house. [Chatsworth] is too big for an old person. The garden’s 105 acres — not the park, but the garden — and, you know, it’s an expedition to go to the end of the garden. They’ve got a lot of golf carts now for people to go in, but it was walking in my day.
WWD: Was it difficult to part with any of the objects at the Chatsworth Attic Sale that took place with Sotheby’s last month?
D.D.: If you’ve lived with things for 46 years, it’s not easy. But on the other hand, there’s very often two of something — sometimes there’s 12 of something, sometimes there’s 25 of something. So, it was literally a clear-out in a way. It was probably a good idea.
WWD: Was there anything in particular that you hated to see go?
D.D.: Well, I nearly died when I saw my cabbage in a glass case. For sale! It was a very simple thing — an Italian pottery cabbage — and I nearly passed away when I saw the thing. Luckily, I had the head of Sotheby’s for Europe to tea, and I had my grandson and granddaughter-in-law, and they said, “We’ll get it out of the sale for you.”
WWD: Being born in 1920, you’ve lived during a time of great change. How has the role of the aristocracy evolved in those years?
D.D.: The aristocracy is meaningless now because they have no political power. So it’s just names, like it is in France. It’s very nice for starting a letter, I suppose. I don’t think it should be given up here, maybe, because it’s so historic.