NEW YORK — Deborah Cavendish — the dowager duchess of Devonshire and the last of the six eccentric Mitford sisters, who turned her husband’s ancestral estate into one of England’s grand country houses and wrote books about it and her own fairy-tale life — died Wednesday. She was 94.
Her death was announced in a statement by her son, Peregrine, which did not say where she died or provide a cause.
On the jacket of her 2010 memoir, “Wait for Me!,” is a 1952 photo of the regal duchess. In a long gown, against portraits and period furniture, she is a figure of alabaster loveliness from another epoch, one of country estates and fox hunts, furs worn to bomb shelters and clever talk over tea with dictators. She was married to a duke, but had lost a sister, a brother, and two children and had yet to define herself.
Being a Mitford, she could hardly have been conventional. Diana married a fascist in the presence of Goebbels and Hitler. Jessica was a communist and wrote witty books. Unity Valkyrie, in love with Hitler, shot herself when Britain declared war. Pamela as a child wanted to be a horse and married a jockey. Nancy’s books satirized the upper classes. And Deborah, tentatively, became a connoisseur of fine poultry.
Their detached Edwardian parents thought education was wasted on girls, who were expected to marry well, and sent their only son to Eton. Deborah, the youngest, called Debo, grew up with governesses, tutors, and servants in country seats, a London house, and an island in Scotland. Despite the trappings, the family’s wealth was shaky and in the Depression years required economies.
At 21, she married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the 10th duke of Devonshire. When his father died in 1950 he became the 11th duke and inherited vast wealth, including a castle in Ireland and Chatsworth, a 35,000-acre Derbyshire estate that had been in his family for generations.
Surrounded by 105 acres of gardens and miles of meadows and wooded hills, its magnificent 16th-century mansion had 297 rooms, 112 fireplaces, 68 lavatories, 32 kitchens and workshops, and 17 staircases.
But it came with inheritance taxes of nearly $20 million, besides huge maintenance costs. Like many of Britain’s great country houses fallen on hard times, Chatsworth, outmoded and rundown, had long been open to the public, but its trickle of visitors and income left the duke and duchess in the red. They sold artworks and acreage to pay taxes totaling 80 percent of the estate’s value: $285 million in today’s money.
Transforming Chatsworth into a self-sustaining family business, however, was a more ambitious long-term project that, because of the duke’s alcoholism and other problems, fell to the duchess, who made it the core of her life’s work.
She put in central heating, phones, new wiring and plumbing; opened gift shops and a market that employed 100 and sold meat and produce, and began farming lectures that drew 200,000 people a year. Later came restaurants, catering services, boutiques, and two hotels near Chatsworth.
She actively ran the house, greeting tourists. In 2002, Chatsworth became self-sufficient, covering its $6.5 million annual costs. Some 600,000 people a year visit Chatsworth, making it one of Britain’s most popular rural tourist sites.
Visitors found the duchess gracious and down to earth, a straight-backed, silver-haired aristocrat who spoke animatedly with anyone about interior design, livestock, gardening, fine arts, and Elvis Presley, whom she adored.
With the death of her husband in 2004, she became the dowager duchess, and her son, Peregrine, became the 12th duke of Devonshire.
Unlike her siblings, Deborah growing up knew little of politics. But her marriage brought her into political circles.
His uncle by marriage was the future prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who found government jobs for him, and they had long been friends of the Kennedy clan and attended the inauguration and funeral of President John F. Kennedy.
Three of the couple’s six children died shortly after birth. Besides her son Peregrine, she leaves two daughters, Lady Emma Tennant and Lady Sophia Topley; eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.