It is spring 2002. Her flat is in the Septième district, the Mayfair of Paris, on a corner overlooking a large garden with grass and trees. There are French windows on two sides and the sunshine makes patches on Empire cabinets and comfortable sofas. A tall, slim, upright woman, dressed in beige wool, brown suede shoes, and pearl earrings is walking towards me with hands outstretched. "Have you come all the way from Saint Tropez?"
"No, from London."
"You must be so tired."
"No, I came on Friday evening."
"How clever. What will you have to drink?"
She has a wide smile, which seeps upwards into soft, eau-de-Nil blue eyes. And she's full-on. Can this really be Diana Mosley, 92 years old this year, once the most beautiful woman in England, then the most amusing, the most notorious, and eventually the most hated? More than 50 years of exile in Paris don't seem to have done her a great deal of harm. Once upon a time everyone knew the outline of her story. But fewer do these days, so here it is again. She began as a Mitford, sister to Nancy, Jessica, Debo, Unity, Pam, Tom. At the age of 18 she married rich Bryan Guinness, and they became the star couple of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Evelyn Waugh described their milieu in his second novel, Vile Bodies, which he finished while staying with them in Bryan's parents' flat at 12 rue de Poitiers - only a couple of streets from where we are today. Waugh dedicated the novel to them both, "with love", then promptly fell out with Diana and didn't talk to her again for 25 years.
Notoriety came in the 1930s. She attended the Nuremberg rallies with her sister Unity, who introduced her to Hitler. Diana fell in love with the leader of the British Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley (baronet), her adored "Kit". After divorcing a devastated Bryan she set up in Belgravia as a single mother with her two young Guinness sons, Jonathan and Desmond. In 1936 Diana and Unity were the personal guests of Hitler at the Berlin Olympic Games. In the same year Diana secretly married Mosley in Goebbels' drawing-room in Berlin - Hitler was guest of honour. This was through her friendship with Magda Goebbels, who was the first lady of the Third Reich, Hitler being unmarried. Mosley and Hitler didn't click (this was one of only two occasions they ever met).
Diana had two sons with Mosley: Alexander and Max. At the outbreak of the war Unity shot herself in Munich - she never really recovered and died in 1948. Diana was left as the only person in the world on terms of personal intimacy with both Hitler and Churchill (who had married her father's cousin). But events had moved beyond her. In 1940 Mosley was arrested and imprisoned. Several weeks later so was Diana, and she spent three and a half years of the war in Holloway. What was the effect of all this on her four sons?
"The two who were at school were called Guinness - so that helped. But Max and Ali, oh I'm sure they must have suffered. No school would take them, so we got a tutor, and later on Ali went to school in Paris and Max in Germany."
"Has their relationship with England been soured?"
"Certainly not with Max. I think Ali does prefer France. When Max was at school in Germany not long after the war, the school inspector came round and asked each boy a few questions, always including: 'What was your father's profession?' When they came to Max he answered 'Faschistenführer'. They were very cross with him - and not unduly."
There were, in addition, her three step-children from Mosley's previous marriage. The eldest is the present Lord Ravensdale, better known as the novelist Nicholas Mosley. "I'm furious with him now. The books he wrote about his father were so disloyal." Lord Ravensdale, of course, does not accept that. The two of them long battled over the issue but have now given up trying to speak to each other.
"Oswald Mosley had an affair with his dead wife's sister," I venture, tentatively.
"With both of Cynthia's sisters I think," Diana informs me.
"This must have been very shocking for you."
"Well, not really. I think it's very common."
"But you were still young - he was your new love - you surely found it painful."
"Only marginally. I think if you're going to mind infidelity, you better call it a day as far as marriage goes. Because who has ever remained faithful? I mean, they don't. There's passion and that's it."
"You're obviously not a jealous person."
"Not very, no. I might be jealous of a deep friendship, something like that. But not sexually jealous. Kit and Baba always had this thing for each other, and it's life. And with sex, opportunity is so important."
"There's always plenty of opportunity!"
"No, there isn't. Not always."
"Did you have any amours after Sir Oswald?"
"Ah, well, like Wilde I can resist anything except temptation - but I was never in the slightest degree tempted."
Lunch has begun, served by the maid at a table at the other end of the drawing-room. Diana had said: "I invited Jean-Noël to join us. I hope you don't mind, because my hearing is so bad and he can help." Which he has been doing, sometimes by shouting what I've just said or by writing it down. Jean-Noël is in his thirties with thick black hair which flows upwards. Later on he says: "Diana is my best friend. I visit her three or four times a week."
The first course was tomato and mozzarella salad and now we're tucking into roast chicken with vegetables. Well, I am - the other two eat very modestly. There's a feature I haven't seen on a private lunch table for many years: finger bowls, in emerald glass. Beneath the table is a smart rug of black and white diamonds.
"What is your favourite thing in this room?"
"My clock and barometer." She indicates the French gilt pair hanging on the wall opposite the windows. "They belonged to my great great grandfather really - but I bought them at one of my father's many sales. He was always having to sell things and always at the bottom of the market."
The voice is not plummy, is not the Oxford or Bloomsbury drawl, but the perky cut-glass deb voice of the 1920s and 1930s. It is very clear, and she has almost flawless grammar besides. Cheese - Diana doesn't have any - and green avocado salad are followed by a superb chocolate flake with lozenges of gold leaf on top. After coffee we decamp to the sofa.
"There's a new book saying Hitler was homosexual."
"I'm sure he was not homosexual - because that sort of thing I do more or less understand." (Diana has always had gay friends, from Lytton Strachey onwards.) "With someone like General Montgomery - it may well have been unconscious - but all the ADCs and other people around him were very good-looking young men. And I believe it was the same with Kitchener. Well, now, Hitler's adjutants were sort of ..."
"Gnarled old men, they really were. They were very, very sweet but I'm afraid not the least bit good-looking. That just is the answer really, these were the people Hitler loved being with."
"It's widely accepted now that his relationship with Eva Braun wasn't sexual either."
"One can't be utterly sure about anyone - except oneself. But I don't think sex was a big appetite in him."
"Which is strange. Because very powerful men are usually very sexual too. Was he like a eunuch?"
"Like a eunuch? No, but, well, there was no question of anything between him and me but, you know, one can still feel it - and with Hitler one couldn't."
Unity Mitford calculated that between 1935 and 1939 she met Hitler 140 times. She introduced him to the rest of the family. Their mother explained to Hitler the value of wholemeal bread. And how many times did Diana meet him?
"Not as many as Unity. But ever so many times."
"I wish he'd been something," I say. "He might not have murdered so many people. Don't you think it would have been better for Europe if Hitler had had a sex life?"
"Yes, it might have been but what about old Musso, who had a terrific sex life?"
"Exactly. Compared to Hitler he was hopeless at destroying people."
"He was made hopeless because he had a very unsoldierlike population. They didn't follow him. However, he was all for setting everything on fire, wasn't he?"
"Is it true that Hitler used to do comic impersonations of Mussolini?"
"Quite true. Hitler could be very, very, very funny."
"At the end of the war, when the newsreels of the death camps appeared at the cinema, what was your reaction?"
"Well, of course, horror. Utter horror. Exactly the same probably as your reactions."
"Why didn't you have a revulsion against Hitler because of this?"
"I had a complete revulsion against the people who did it but I could never efface from my memory the man I had actually experienced before the war. A very complicated feeling. I can't really relate those two things to each other. I know I'm not supposed to say that but I just have to."
Diana is one of the people who cuts across our loyalties and preconceptions. Her disregard for public opinion is very attractive but it has prevented her rehabilitation. She alone from that time refuses to let us dismiss Hitler as pure evil. Hitler has his human side, she insists. He was one of us. This makes him even more frightening, which may not be what she intended. The classic nightmare - the friendly face turns into a monster - is something she refuses to have. Perhaps at some level there is a conflation between Hitler and her husband. Oswald Mosley used to strut around in a black costume of his own devising. He was the Errol Flynn of British politics, except of course he wasn't acting. To reject Hitler would be to reject her husband, and that she cannot do. This was probably burned into her during those years in Holloway.
"Going to prison turned out to be quite a surprise," she says.
"In what way?"
"It went on and on. Three and a half years is a helluva long time."
"But it must have made you strong."
"To know that you could do it."
"Of course there's prison and prison. I mean I wasn't tortured."
After 18 months her husband was transferred to Holloway to be with her. "All we had was an enormous wall, a tree, and sort of asphalt. Then Kit and the old man who was in prison with us made a marvellous garden and we grew fraises des bois, which do very well in soot."
Her sister Jessica and Nancy Cunard were among those who protested against her release.
"Did the Nazi movement attract you in the 1930s?"
"Not particularly, no. It was Unity who was absolutely overwhelmed with the heavenliness of it."
"Did you ever have a black shirt?"
"Did I ever have a black child?"
"A black shirt!" Jean-Noël backs me up.
Gales of laughter. "No. I wasn't really a militant."
"Did you not think the Nazis were vulgar?"
"Well, you see, it was a complete revolution. Do you call that vulgar? It was also a choice at the time between fascism and Communism. I am very anti-Communist. They made a miserable life for almost everyone."
The question of vulgarity lingered, for in a subsequent letter she elaborated the point: "I thought about the vulgarity of National Socialists. They were never vulgar in the way, for example, a Tory conference with ladies in hats singing "Wider Still and Wider", is. I think the answer may be music. My brother, a very musical man, used to say it's so unfair, they've got all the best tunes. Which, of course, for marches and anthems they had. When Hitler made an important speech at the closing session of the Parteitag, a marvellous orchestra would play a Bruckner symphony before he spoke, with the world's press anxious to hear what he was going to say. The choice of music was so un-vulgar."
Though never publicly dissociating herself from Hitler, she did once say to Nicholas Mosley that Hitler ruined her life. "I said it only because I got fed up with being asked why I didn't hate Hitler enough. He ruined my life in that Hitler really began the war - though he was pushed into it. To me the biggest atrocity of all was the war. I'm as near a pacifist as makes no difference. So it would be truer to say that the war ruined my life. But again, not really. I've had a very good life as well. Lots of lovely times since then."
"What makes you feel guilty, generally speaking?"
"I don"t feel terribly guilty, actually. I don't suffer from remorse. What I suffer from is when things go wrong for the people I love. That I can hardly bear."
After the war the Mosleys farmed for five and a half years in the English countryside. They were refused passports and so had to borrow a boat to escape to their next destination, which was Ireland. Then to France, to a house on the edge of Paris called le Temple de la Gloire. The British Embassy ostracised them.
"There was a complete ban on us from the beginning. One ambassador in the early 1970s did invite us. He just didn't realise. So we accepted, and about three days later the poor man had to withdraw the invitation. He'd discovered we were on the Foreign Office blacklist."
"They still don't. I should feel I'd done something awful if I suddenly got an invitation!"
The Mosley name was poison after the war, but not to such an extent that they felt obliged to change it. When I mentioned this on a fax she replied: "I laughed at the idea of changing our name. I was so proud of my husband, especially the fact that Mosley opposed the war which so reduced our country that it cannot be compared with the England of my youth."
Diana has always said that her brain tumour, which developed soon after her husband's death in 1980, helped her deal with the shock of losing him. Even her appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1989 was highly controversial. Its broadcast had to be rescheduled several times because it kept coinciding with Jewish holy days. And yet despite her questionable past, Diana continues to make unlikely friends and keep them. She is extremely considerate, very clever and a terrible tease. Her warmth of personality is captivating.
"To what do you attribute your longevity?"
"Oh. It must be the genes, mustn't it."
"And your other strengths?"
"Love of life. And in a way - contentedness. I'm not discontented. I've no reason to be now but I have had in the past."
"Would you have preferred to end your days in England?"
"I don't care where it is as long as it's quick! The Greeks said that all death is good provided that it is sudden."
We meet again a year later in the spring of 2003. After another delectable lunch - my goodness, this woman does know how to entertain - we retreat to the sofa by the window.
"How did you come to meet Evelyn Waugh?"
"He was a friend of my first husband at Oxford. There were a group of them. We were all tremendous friends from the end of 1928. You should remember that in 1930 I was only 20. I was very fond of Harold Acton, Evelyn Waugh, John Sutro, and a little later of John Betjeman. I think those were the ones we loved."
"Vile Bodies was finished in that flat round the corner here, wasn't it?"
"I was pregnant with my first son so we came to Paris in the autumn of 1929. My parents-in-law had this flat which they never used, marvellous servants in it, a wonderful cook. So we borrowed it and had people to stay, my sister Nancy, Evelyn, they were all writing books. My husband was writing one too."
"How long was Waugh with you in Paris?"
"I should think a fortnight. Not long. We were always on the move in those days. Evelyn's first marriage had broken up - or it was just happening. He was so cheerful and full of jokes that one could not imagine that he was suffering, but apparently underneath he was. His first wife was a pretty little person, but I think quite silly."
"Did he change after his divorce?"
"He did. Vile Bodies was his first success and success changed him but what really changed him was religion."
"The break with Waugh - there's something not quite right - he contrived it perhaps."
She shrugs, sighs, puts her head on one side, and looks at me with those limpid eyes. "We were such great friends. I couldn't go out much because I was going to have the baby. Towards the end of that period he was more or less the only person who came to dinner. Of course the moment I was free from the baby I wanted to rush - you've got to remember I was only 19."
"You married and started a family early. Would you like to have had a career?"
"Not really. I"m too lazy. And a lot of the places I rushed, Evelyn probably didn't know the people. He'd become very possessive and got terribly cross and started saying you can't have so-and-so to dinner. Everything I did was wrong. Since I had a lot of people who thought what I did was all right, I preferred to see them. One doesn't want somebody carping all the time. But I missed him very much."
"After the war he explained that it was because he'd fallen in love with you."
"But it feels more social insecurity than infatuation."
"A bit of both. When I came to write my memoirs I thought: why was there a rift? I wrote to him and he said it was jealousy. I wrote back and asked why was it jealousy, and he said I'd put Robert Byron and Harold Acton above him. Well, it wasn't true." By the end of 1930 it was all over, "though we kept noticing each other at parties, sort of in the distance".
"Did you meet him properly again?"
"After the war we occasionally lunched together. Never a cross word, I'm glad to say. When we were living in Wiltshire I had to go up to London for the dentist. We had Gerald Berners staying with us, who was furious with me for going to London for the whole day. When I got back he was on the doorstep and asked: 'What did you do?' and I said: 'I lunched with Evelyn, who told me that he prays for me every day.' And Gerald said: 'God doesn't pay any attention to Evelyn'."
Diana is wearing a white polo-neck sweater and a black wool suit with jet, brass-ringed buttons. Was Givenchy her favoured couturier?
"Yes. Balenciaga was greater but he was long beyond my purse - very expensive - but I had heaps of second-hand things by him, and used to parade very successfully in those."
"So Givenchy was less expensive?"
"Yes, Givenchy had a boutique. I never bought clothes from what they call upstairs, which was the expensive part. But in the boutique you could choose something and they'd give you a fitting, or even two. Debo had heaps of things from him and I had quite a few and do you know I still wear them - they haven't dated at all. If I put on something Hubert has made I always feel in the height of fashion."
"Well, you are. All these Mitford books and Mosley books. It's getting out of hand. And there's a new biography of your second husband coming. The author says that, contrary to what was always claimed, the British Fascists did receive funding from the Nazis before the war - and that the courier of the money was you."
"What we did do was try to set up this commercial radio station in Germany, but the war put a stop to that. As for the money I am supposed to have carried from Berlin to the British Union of Fascists, it's just another lie. It's such luck I am still alive because I can swear to its untruth. If I were dead, as most people are at my age, who could be certain?"
This is an edited version of an article that appeared in some editions of 'The Independent on Sunday' last monthReuse content