It was in DJ Taylor’s book Bright Young People that I first encountered the Jungman sisters, and while recently dipping back into this delightful read, a social history of England in the 20s, I was inspired to blog about them.

Zita and Teresa (nick-named Baby) Jungman were the daughters of Dutch artist Nico Jungman and his English wife Beatrice Mackey. Both girls were still young when their parents divorced, and in 1918 their mother married Richard Guinness (distantly related to the beer family).

Their mother’s remarriage opened up a whole new world for the girls; a world of wealth and privilege. Already blessed with good looks and good minds, they now also had the benefits of good connections and money. Armed with these advantages, the sisters took London by storm … literally.

For them and their friends, London in the 20s was a round of masquerades, scavenger hunts, pranks and parties. Or as Evelyn Waugh described it in his novel Vile Bodies: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood.”

The Wilsford Group, photographed by Cecil Beaton (Zita is on the left of the group, and Teresa second from the right)

Cecil Beaton described Teresa as “like a white Gloxinia, with her Devonshire cream pallor and limpid mauve eyes.” Older sister Zita was the quieter, deeper one, described by her friend Loelia Ponsonby as a “master of unusual ideas.” Another friend, Edith Olivier, remembered that she “never moved with the herd.” The sisters were leaders, not followers. They pioneered the famous treasure hunts that became all the rage among the Jeunesse Doree, and by 1930, when the next generation of Bright Young Things was already burning out, Zita and Teresa were living quiet, exemplary lives out of the spotlight.

And this is what I find so fascinating about these two young women: in the midst of all the partying and debauchery of the 20s, they remained true to their own beliefs and to themselves. Devout Catholics, they never compromised their principles. Both refused to get involved with divorced men, and though both sisters were later divorced themselves, they never re-married. Lord Longford once said of Teresa that she was “more like a nun, like a very friendly and fascinating nun.”

Zita Jungman

Between parties, they attended mass and delivered meals to the needy. During the second world war, Zita worked as an ambulance driver in France, coming dramatically close to being caught by the Germans when France fell. After the war, they lived quietly and modestly together, for more than half a century.

For a more detailed inside glimpse into the lives of these two remarkable women, read this article by biographer Hugh Vickers, who met the sisters several times while researching his biography on photographer Cecil Beaton.

There are just two serendipitous moments in their lives I’d like to share:

Teresa Jungman

One of Teresa’s greatest admirers was the novelist Evelyn Waugh. His other great unrequited love was Diana Mitford (one of the famous -and infamous- Mitford sisters, who married first Bryan Guinness, then Oswald Mosley). In 1985 Teresa’s daughter Penelope married Diana’s son, Desmond Guinness.

Later in life, Teresa and Zita moved to Ireland, to live in a garden cottage on the estate of Teresa’s daughter and son-in-law. Both sisters lived to the ripe old age of 102, Zita dying at that age in 2006, and Teresa at the same age in 2010.

These kinds of coincidence would be unbelievable if written in a novel!