High on our list of Most Admired Women sits Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Born Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford in 1920, the Duchess was the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, who were well-known English socialites of the 1930s and 40s. When she died at 94 in 2014, she was perhaps the only person who could say that she hosted the Kennedys, was a familiar of the Queen and a Prime Minister, and collected Elvis memorabilia.
As a child, the Duchess and her sisters grew up in grand, yet threadbare, homes where they conspired together while huddled in warm linen closets and mucked about the grounds in their Wellies. She developed a great love of chickens at age six, fiercely loved the countryside, and spent her life surrounded by dogs.
Perhaps it was the faded glory of her childhood homes that inspired what the Duchess is most remembered for: restoring her husband’s ancestral estate, Chatsworth House—a grand English manor—and transforming it into a bastion of gracious living, a profitable tourist attraction and a booming cottage industry.
Her life was extraordinary. By all accounts she was wonderfully eccentric, quietly glamorous and endlessly devoted to the causes she held dear.
Photo by Bruce Weber
Some of our favorite quotes about the Duchess:
“She presided over the bread, cake, jam and chutney industries which grew up to feed the farm shop, which was described…as ‘every greedy child’s idea of what a shop should be’.” The Telegraph
“Her favourite reading matter was the British goat keepers’ monthly journal, Fancy Fowl magazine and Beatrix Potter.” The Telegraph
"Deborah Devonshire is not someone to whom one can say, 'Joking apart . . .' Joking never is apart: with her it's of the essence..." Stephen Moss, The Guardian
“Her hair is steely grey and voluminous; she is elegantly dressed in high-necked blouse, lemon cardigan and sensible skirt; on her left wrist, beside her watch, she has a band with a small red disc that I mistake for a bracelet; she tells me it is an alarm in case she has a fall, but that she likes to pretend the red button she has to activate is a ruby.” Stephen Moss, The Guardian
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