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Decca and Esmond
Decca and Esmond

Rebel With a Cause

by Jeff Elliott and Laura McCreery

Whenever Diana and the pro-Nazi blather around the house proved too much to bear, 19 year-old Decca could always take solace by pulling one of her favorite books from her Communist bookshelf: Out of Bounds.

Its author was Esmond Romilly, her second cousin and nephew of Winston Churchill. For two years, Decca had been following his exploits. His book exposing the English public school system had been favorably reviewed, and followed his creation of a magazine with the same title. He had participated in a riot protesting a rally Oswald Mosley's British fascists. More recently he returned from Spain, where he fought as a Communist in the Civil War. Even more remarkable: Esmond Romilly was just 18.

And Decca was hopelessly in love with him.

The account of their meeting and life together is well told in Decca's own book, Daughters and Rebels. Narrowly they missed meeting several times, and normally they would have known each other as children, except that their mothers had a long-standing feud.

Decca: When my mother was first married, she was accosted by Nellie [Esmond's mother] in Dieppe, and asked for a loan of £ 10 to go to the Casino. Not only did my mother not lend her the money, much to her discredit she also split on her to Aunt Nattie. Since then they had had very little to do with each other. *
Finally at a winter house-party in the country, Esmond and Decca met. Almost immediately, Decca asked if she could run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War with him. Esmond quickly agreed.

Esmond likely pursued Decca as much as she did him

But although Decca's autobiography paints her as the one who relentlessly stalks her future mate, it is likely that Esmond knew all about his beautiful cousin, their mutual interests in Communism, and her desire to run away. "Yes, I do think Esmond did know I wanted to go to Spain," Decca says today. "Giles or Peter Neville [Esmond's brother and a mutual friend] would have told him." Esmond's biographer agrees: even then Esmond tried to figure all the angles, and probably would not have consented so quickly unless he had given the move careful thought. In all likelihood, Decca simply beat him to the punch.

Whether he intended to meet Decca and escape with her to Spain or not, Esmond did have plans to return to the warfront. But not as a soldier; Esmond's role in the Civil War would now be as a journalist. Poorly trained -- his unit played leapfrog for exercise and had no ammunition for target practice -- the rag-tag freedom fighters had rifles that often didn't work, and were ill-prepared for charging up hills against machine gun fire.

With £ 50 saved as "running-away money" and a carefully crafted lie that she was vacationing with friends, Decca soon left for Spain with Esmond. The war proved unexciting; they wandered through abandoned villages, guides pointing out the various factions in the far distance. Decca fired one bullet vaguely in the direction of the enemy.

Their grand scheme was soon exposed. Newspaper readers familiar with headlines describing Esmond as "Churchill's Red Nephew" now found a tasty bit of scandal added to the tale, as editor's speculated on the whereabouts of a peer's daughter. A battleship was assigned to fetch her, but Decca loudly refused to leave Esmond's side.

But privately, Decca was having some doubts about the whole mad adventure, and later told Esmond's biographer she had some "very strange emotions" during those weeks.

Decca: Of course I would never confide these feelings to Esmond. He was very unsympathetic in those days, and was not about to take any nonsense from anyone, me included. He could be delightful company, though, and he had me doubled up with laughter for much of the time ... I never had any real misgivings about having run away with him. Really, if it hadn't been for Esmond where would I be now? In a loony-bin, I guess. *

With a trust fund of 100 pounds, they could buy one-way tickets to America

Decca and Esmond married in May, just a few months after their first meeting. She was 19; he was 18. They returned to England and settled in London's East End, where Esmond joined the Labour Party. With Decca pregnant, they marched in a May Day parade -- only to see Unity and Diana watching, waving swastika flags to heckle the marchers. Decca shook her fist at them.

Decca had a child which died four months later, of complications from measles. They left for a few months, and returned to take up surprisingly conventional roles.

Philip Toynbee: In argument they were inseparable, although it was always my object to persuade Decca that on some points Esmond might be wrong. She was his vociferous ally and supporter in every one of his views. For this was in many ways an old-fashioned marriage, in which both partners clearly recognised their well-defined functions. It was for Esmond to establish their views and decide on their actions -- for Decca to cheer him on and to look after their house. *
Although it is hard to believe that Decca ever took a backseat to anyone, she confirms that it was a "traditional" marriage of the day.
Decca: Very much so...[Esmond] was the sort of leader of it, you know and the head of the household, so to speak, although there was never any household to be head of! And that I was the follower. That was very, very, true. *
These months in England were generally a happy time. While they lived in hiding from process-servers -- Decca didn't know that you had to pay for electricity and gas, and ran up an astronomical bill -- they lived the bohemian life of youth everywhere: BYOB parties, raging politicial arguments, trips with friends, pranks. Once the Romillys crashed a weekend house-party at the estate of a rich (but socialist) member of the peerage. Esmond convinced their host that Decca was ill, and they should stay the night. The next morning they shared their loot with friend Philip Toynbee.
Philip Toynbee: When Decca opened her bag, Balkan Sobrani cigarettes cascaded to the floor of my room, and it was clear that the barbarians had not come away without their spoils. They had gone late, it seemed, to their handsome bedroom, where a switchboard of electric bells had tempted them to experiment with each in turn. Three different servants had appeared, and to each they had made a different and increasingly preposterous request. Sandwich, tea, rum and cigars had all been brought to their room while the Romillys lay like royalty against the pillows. In the morning Esmond had checked Decca as her scissors were poised above the curtains -- which would, she had felt, have made an elegant addition to the furnishings at [their flat]. They had driven away from the shaken house before anybody else was up. *
Are these -- and other stories -- completely true? "They're semi-true," Decca says today. "But then, Philip Toynbee said I just don't remember them all because it was all in a day's work for us."

When Decca turned 21, she inherited her trust fund -- a grand sum (for them) of 100 pounds. With it, they could buy one-way tickets to America, with $300 left over.

Decca: Now that the trip was becoming a reality, Esmond hit upon an idea which would enable us to travel all over America and get paid for it. We would get some of our friends to come, too, and offer a lecture tour covering various phases of English life. Our idea of America, like that of most English people, was limited and not a little distorted. We pictured it as a vast nation of Babbitts whose eyes were uniformily riveted on English royalty, Mothers and Dads, and Sex. *

Attempting to stay neutral

Alas, the Americans were not quite the pushovers that Esmond and Decca expected. They bummed through a series of odd jobs, with Decca the first -- and as months followed, frequently the only -- breadwinner. Esmond attended bartending school and sold ladies' stockings door-to-door.

They landed in Washington D.C., where Decca happened to meet Virginia Durr, a New-Dealer whose southern accent Decca later described as a "soft scream." In the nation's political center, Esmond and Decca did not fail to make an impression.

Virginia Durr: Decca was absolutely beautiful -- lovely slanting Mongolian eyes, beautiful white skin and black hair -- but mute. Esmond was having this terrific discussion with Congresman Jerry Voorhis about the Spanish Civil War. He was fascinating. I invited them over to meet my husband. Cliff, who had much greater wisdom than me, adored him. He thought he was brilliant; a man of great principles and courage. *
But in these months before the start of WWII, Esmond seemed focused on avoiding thoughts of the horrors another war might bring. In Miami, they became partners in an Italian restaurant, where Esmond manned the bar.
Decca: Esmond applied himself with great concentration to making the business a going concern. It was as though he was deliberately trying to shut out, for the time being, the realities of life and politics... He even wrote to tell Phillip that we had a "Talk Neutral" sign in the bar. No such sign in fact existed; Esmond elaborately invented it as a way of notifying our friends at home that he was not about to be drawn in as part of a war machine whose purpose was as yet indistinct. *
After Nazi tanks began rolling across Europe in 1939, Esmond saw that only war would stop the fascists. He decided to leave for Canada and join their Air Force, but only after Decca was settled back in Washington, at the home of her friend Virginia Durr. With another baby on the way, Esmond "appraised" the Durr family (according to Decca) as a good environment for his wife.
Virginia Durr: It was all a big joke about her being our refugee. That autumn, Decca's daughter was born. Esmond came down for Christmas to see the baby. Then he flew over to Scotland where he was going to be with the Air Force. The baby was a beautiful child. Her name was Constancia, for the Spanish Revolution, Constancia Romilly. But we called her Dinkydonk ... This was a joke, but the name stuck. We were awfully young in those days and we made jokes about everything. *

Decca and Esmond missed each other desperately

Trained as a navigator and stationed in England, his old chums found Esmond changed. In the 1941 Nazi attack on the USSR he saw depressing parallels with the Spanish Civil War, with a popular front again overwhelmed by a war machine. This new Esmond was more introspective and quietly thoughtful.
Philip Toynbee: Before his departure for America he had already become more mellow, but his mellowing had taken the form of a more indulgent good-humor than a greater gentleness or pirt. Now, walking under the summer sky at Wilton, he told me that his only political motive was his dismay at human unhappiness. I was surprised, almost alarmed, not so much at the sentiment itself as at Esmond's confession of it. No earlier Esmond would have allowed himself to be so emotionally forthright, and I had a sudden superstitious fear that by admitting his own goodness of heart he had made himself vulnerable; that this, without his knowing it, might be a preparation for his own death. *
But perhaps more than anything else, Decca and Esmond missed each other desperately. Their letters -- or at least, the portions that have appeared in print -- show the couple miserable at their separation. Decca began asking if she could join him in England, and in November, he agreed. Arrangements were made for her passage, and she sent him a telegram on December 1:
The very next day, the dreaded telegram came: Esmond's plane had disappeared over the North Sea.
Esmond Romilly was only 23 years old.

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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