Diana Mitford was the fourth child and third daughter of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale (1878–1958, son of Algernon Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale), and his wife, Sydney (1880–1963), daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, MP. She was a first cousin of Clementine Churchill, second cousin of Angus Ogilvy, and first cousin, twice removed, of Bertrand Russell. Mitford was born in Belgravia and raised in the country estate of Batsford Park, then from the age of 10 at the family home, Asthall Manor, in Oxfordshire, and later at Swinbrook House, a home her father had built in the village of Swinbrook. She was educated at home by a series of governesses except for a six-month period in 1926 when she was sent to a day school in Paris. In childhood, her younger sisters Jessica Mitford ("Decca") and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire ("Debo"), were particularly devoted to her.
At the age of 18, she became secretly engaged to Bryan Walter Guinness shortly after her presentation at Court. Guinness, an Irish aristocrat, writer and brewing heir, would inherit the barony of Moyne. Her parents were initially opposed to the engagement but in time were persuaded. Sydney was particularly uneasy at the thought of two such young people having possession of such a large fortune, but she was eventually convinced Bryan was a suitable husband. They married on 30 January 1929; her sisters Jessica and Deborah were too ill to attend the ceremony. The couple had an income of £20,000 a year (the equivalent of £1,132,535.70 in 2016, adjusted for inflation), an estate called Biddesden, in Wiltshire, and houses in London and Dublin. They were well known for hosting aristocratic society events involving the Bright Young People. The writer Evelyn Waugh exclaimed that her beauty "ran through the room like a peal of bells", and he dedicated the novel Vile Bodies, a satire of the Roaring Twenties, to the couple. Her portrait was painted by Augustus John, Pavel Tchelitchew and Henry Lamb. The couple had two sons, Jonathan (b. 1930) and Desmond (b. 1931).
In February 1932 Diana met Sir Oswald Mosley at a garden party at the home of the noted society hostess Emerald Cunard. He soon became leader of the newly formed British Union of Fascists, and Diana's lover; he was at the time married to Lady Cynthia Curzon, a daughter of Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, and his first wife, the American mercantile heiress Mary Victoria Leiter. Diana left her husband, 'moving with a skeleton staff of nanny, cook, house-parlourmaid and lady's maid to a house at 2 Eaton Square, round the corner from Mosley's flat', but Sir Oswald would not leave his wife. Quite suddenly, Cynthia died in 1933 of peritonitis. Mosley was devastated by the death of his wife, but later started an affair with her younger sister Lady Alexandra Metcalfe.
Owing to Diana's parents' disapproval over her decision to leave Guinness for Mosley, she was briefly estranged from most of her family. Her affair and eventual marriage to Mosley also strained relationships with her sisters. Initially, Jessica and Deborah were not permitted to see Diana as she was "living in sin" with Mosley in London. Deborah eventually got to know Mosley and ended up liking him very much. Jessica despised Mosley's beliefs and became permanently estranged from Diana after the late 1930s. Pam and her husband Derek Jackson got along well with Mosley. Nancy never liked Mosley and, like Jessica, despised his political beliefs, but was able to learn to tolerate him for the sake of her relationship with Diana. Nancy wrote the novel Wigs on the Green, which satirised Mosley and his beliefs. After it was published in 1935 relations between the sisters became strained to non-existent and it was not until the mid-1940s that they were able to get back to being close again.
The couple rented Wooton Lodge, a country house in Staffordshire which Diana had intended to buy. She furnished much of her new home with much of the Swinbrook furniture that her father was selling. The Mosleys lived at Wooton Lodge along with their children from 1936 to 1939.
In 1934 Mitford went to Germany with her then 19-year-old sister Unity. While there, they attended the first Nuremberg rally after the Nazi rise to power. A friend of Hitler's, Unity introduced Diana to him in March 1935. They returned again for the second rally later that year and were entertained as his guests at the 1935 rally. In 1936 he provided a Mercedes-Benz to chauffeur Diana to the Berlin Olympic games. She became well acquainted with Winifred Wagner and Magda Goebbels.
Diana and Oswald wed in secret on 6 October 1936 in Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels' drawing room. Adolf Hitler, Robert Gordon-Canning and Bill Allen were in attendance. The marriage was kept secret until the birth of their first child in 1938. In August 1939, Hitler told Diana over lunch that war was inevitable. In Albert Speer's memoir, Inside the Third Reich, Speer recounts that Mitford consistently spoke up for England and would often plead with Hitler to make peace.
Mosley and Diana had two sons: (Oswald) Alexander Mosley (born 26 November 1938) and Max Rufus Mosley (born 13 April 1940), president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) for 16 years. Hitler presented the couple with a silver framed picture of himself. The Mosleys were interned during much of World War II, under Defence Regulation 18B along with other British fascists including Norah Elam.
MI5 documents released in 2002 described Lady Mosley and her political leanings. "Diana Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, is reported on the 'best authority', that of her family and intimate circle, to be a public danger at the present time. Is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions. She is wildly ambitious." On 29 June 1940, eleven weeks after the birth of her fourth son Max, Diana was arrested (hastily stuffing Hitler's photograph under Max's cot mattress when the police came to arrest her) and taken to a cell in F Block in London's Holloway Prison for women. She and her husband were held without charge or trial under the provisions of 18B, on the advice of MI5. The pair were initially held separately but, after personal intervention by Churchill, in December 1941 Mosley and two other 18B husbands (one of them Mosley's friend Captain H.W. Luttman-Johnson) were permitted to join their wives at Holloway. After more than three years' imprisonment, they were both released in November 1943 on the grounds of Mosley's ill health; they were placed under house arrest until the end of the war and were denied passports until 1949.
Lady Mosley's prison time failed to disturb her approach to life; she remarked in her later years that she never grew fraises des bois (wild strawberries) that tasted as good as those she had cultivated in the prison garden. Though prison was not something she would have chosen, she said, "It was still lovely to wake up in the morning and feel that one was lovely One," when she compared her lot to the other women incarcerated at Holloway. Oswald Mosley later mentioned this to Diana's sister Nancy, who in turn included the line in her novel, Love in a Cold Climate.
According to her obituary in the Daily Telegraph, a diamond swastika was among her jewels.
After the war ended the couple kept homes in Ireland, with apartments in London and Paris. Their recently renovated Clonfert home, a former Bishop's palace, burned down in an accidental fire. Following this, they moved to a home near Fermoy, County Cork, later settling permanently in France, at the Temple de la Gloire, a Palladian temple in Orsay, southwest of Paris, in 1950. Gaston and Bettina Bergery had told the Mosleys that the property was on the market. They were neighbours of Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who lived in the neighbouring town Gif-sur-Yvette, and soon became close friends with them. The Duchess of Windsor, upon seeing the "Temple de la Gloire" (built in 1801 to honour the French victory of December 1800 at Hohenlinden, near Munich) for the first time, was said to have remarked, "Oh, it's charming, charming but where do you live?"
Once again they were well known for entertaining, but were barred from all functions at the British Embassy. During their time in France, the Mosleys quietly went through another marriage ceremony; Hitler had safeguarded their original marriage licence, and it was never found after the war. During this period, Mosley was unfaithful to Diana, but she found for the most part that she was able to learn to keep herself from getting too upset regarding his adulterous habits. The only time she and sister Jessica communicated with each other following their estrangement was when they were both taking care of their sister Nancy. Nancy was at Versailles, and was battling Hodgkin's disease. Soon after Nancy's death in 1973, all communication between the sisters ceased. Diana was also a lifelong supporter of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and its postwar successor the Union Movement, to which she made financial contributions until the 1994 death of its organiser Jeffrey Hamm.
At times she was vague when discussing her loyalties to Britain, her strong belief in fascism, and her attitude to Jews. In her 1977 autobiography A Life of Contrasts she wrote, "I didn't love Hitler any more than I did Winston [Churchill]. I can't regret it, it was so interesting." At other times, however, she behaved so as to suggest intense anti-semitic attitudes; the journalist Paul Callan remembered mentioning that he was Jewish while interviewing her husband in Diana's presence. According to Callan, "I mentioned, just in the course of conversation, that I was Jewish—at which Lady Mosley went ashen, snapped a crimson nail and left the room .... No explanation was given but she would later write to a friend: A nice, polite reporter came to interview Tom [as Mosley was known] but he turned out to be Jewish and was sitting there at our table. They are a very clever race and come in all shapes and sizes."
On the other hand, when in 1989 she was invited to appear on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs with Sue Lawley, she caused controversy by saying she had not believed in the fact of the extermination of Jews by Hitler until "years" after the war, and, when asked if she now believed it, by replying that she couldn't believe it was six million, a figure she described as "not conceivable," adding that "whether it's six or one really makes no difference morally, it's equally wrong; I think it was a dreadfully wicked thing." Her choices of music to be played on Desert Island Discs were: Symphony No. 41 (Mozart), "Casta Diva" from Norma (Bellini), "Ode to Joy" (Beethoven), Die Walküre (Wagner), Liebestod (Wagner), "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" from Carmen (Bizet), "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (Procol Harum) and Polonaise in F-sharp minor (Chopin).
In 1998, due to her advancing age, she moved out of the Temple de la Gloire and into a Paris apartment. Temple de la Gloire was subsequently sold for £1 million in 2000. Throughout much of her life, particularly after her years in prison, she was afflicted by regular bouts of migraines. In 1981, she underwent a successful surgery to remove a brain tumour. She convalesced at Chatsworth House, the residence of her sister Deborah. In the early 1990s, she was also successfully treated for skin cancer. In later life she also suffered from deafness.
Mitford attended the funeral of René de Chambrun, the son-in-law of Vichy France Prime Minister Pierre Laval, in 2002.
Mosley was shunned in the British media for a period after the war and the couple established their own publishing company, Euphorion Books, named after a character in Faust. This allowed Mosley to publish and Diana was free to commission a cultural list. After his release from jail, Mosley declared the death of fascism. Diana initially translated Goethe's Faust. Other notable books published by Euphorion under her aegis included La Princesse de Clèves (translated by Nancy, 1950), Niki Lauda's memoirs (1985), and Hans-Ulrich Rudel's memoirs, Stuka Pilot. She also edited several of her husband's books.
While in France, Diana edited the right-wing cultural magazine The European for six years, and to this magazine she herself sometimes contributed material. She provided articles, book reviews, and regular diary entries. Many of her contributions were republished in 2008 in The Pursuit of Laughter. In 1965, she was commissioned to write the regular column Letters from Paris for the Tatler. She was an avid reader and critic of contemporary literature, reviewing for many publications, such as the London Evening Standard, The Spectator, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Sunday Times and Books & Bookmen. She specialised in reviewing autobiographical and biographical accounts as well as the occasional novel. Characteristically she would provide commentary of her own experiences with and knowledge of the subject of the book she was reviewing. She was the lead literary reviewer for the London Evening Standard during A.N. Wilson's tenure as literary editor. In 1996, and on personal grounds, the new editor Max Hastings insisted that she no longer be contracted by the newspaper. Following Hastings' retirement in 2001, the newspaper published several more book reviews by her until her death in 2003.
She wrote the foreword and introduction of Nancy Mitford: A Memoir by Harold Acton. She produced her own two books of memoirs: A Life of Contrasts (1977, Hamish Hamilton), and Loved Ones (1985). The latter is a collection of pen portraits of close relatives and friends such as the writer Evelyn Waugh among others. In 1980 she released The Duchess of Windsor, a biography. New, updated editions of A Life of Contrasts and The Duchess of Windsor were released in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
In 2007, letters between the Mitford sisters, including ones to and from Diana, were published in the compilation The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley. The book received critical acclaim; in a review published in The Sunday Times, journalist India Knight noted that Diana was "briefly sinister but also clever, kind, and fatally loyal to her Blackshirt husband, Oswald Mosley." A following collection consisting of her letters, articles, diaries and reviews was released as The Pursuit of Laughter in December 2008. The collection garnered generally positive reviews.
Diana died in Paris in August 2003, aged 93. Her cause of death was given as complications related to a stroke she had suffered a week earlier, but reports later surfaced that she had been one of the many elderly fatalities of the heat wave of 2003 in mostly non-air-conditioned Paris. She was buried at St Mary's Churchyard, Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, alongside her sisters.
She was survived by her four sons: Desmond Guinness; Jonathan Guinness, 3rd Baron Moyne; Alexander and Max Mosley. Her stepson Nicholas Mosley is a novelist who also wrote a critical memoir of his father for which Diana reportedly never forgave him, despite their previously close relationship. One of her great-granddaughters, Jasmine Guinness, a great-niece, Stella Tennant, a granddaughter, Daphne Guinness and a grandson, Tom Guinness, are models.
"I'm sure he (Hitler) was to blame for the extermination of the Jews," she told British journalist Andrew Roberts, "[h]e was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him." Roberts criticised Lady Mosley following her death on the pages of The Daily Telegraph (16 August 2003), declaring that she was an "unrepentant Nazi and effortlessly charming." He, in turn, was assailed three days later, in the same newspaper, by her son and granddaughter. She was portrayed by actress Emma Davies in the 1997 Channel Four TV miniseries, Mosley.Nancy Mitford (28 November 1904 – 30 June 1973)
Pamela Mitford (25 November 1907 – 12 April 1994)
Thomas Mitford (2 January 1909 – 30 March 1945)
Diana Mitford (17 June 1910 – 11 August 2003)
Unity Mitford (8 August 1914 – 28 May 1948)
Jessica Mitford (11 September 1917 – 22 July 1996)
Deborah Mitford (31 March 1920 – 24 September 2014)