Thursday, February 08, 2007

Jessica Mitford

"You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty."

I've recently stumbled across the indomitable Jessica Mitford, and her postwar activism in civil rights and moral outrage. An avowed communist, she survived the death of her first husband (shot down during a raid over Germany, in WW2), the death of her son and an infant daughter (measles). Despite all this, her wit, her warmth and her individuality and sense of purpose embodies everything I admire about women.

I recommend two of her books: Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford and Hons and Rebels. The book she's most remembered for, The American Way of Death is a little dated. Below is the Salon article that celebrated her life, a few days after her death.

Jessica Mitford was best known for her uproarious exposé of the
American death industry. But her greatest contribution may have
been the joie de vivre she brought to a gloomy American left.


Photograph by Ed Kashi

DECCA MITFORD, taken off the stage at the age of 78 by cancer, had a voice so confident in its intonations that it vanquished furtiveness and shame like a thresher going through a field of wheat. A friend of mine once went to a session on censorship at a concert hall in San Francisco. The place was stuffed with righteous folk of correct disposition, many of them taking the position that porn prompted men to acts of darkness, and that maybe some fine-tuning of the First Amendment would be no bad thing.

Explaining that the fine-tuning might not be in the hands of thoughtful persons such as those mustered in the concert hall but of nastier types like J. Helms and E. Meese, Decca started discussing the porn films she had been watching with her husband, Bob Truehaft, as part of her researches into filth. There had, she said, been "a man with a most enormous penis, perched on a motorbike with a woman. I said to Bob, 'That looks frightfully dangerous.'" Then she started raising questions about working conditions in the porn industry, industrial comp and other important aspects of the situation.

The way Decca bugled out the word "penis," entered it triumphantly into the concert hall after the adjectival build-up of "enormous" in her plummy tones, changed the entire mood of the gathering. "Penis" lost the furtive, indeed shameful connotation with which it had become burdened in that oh-so-correct concert hall. Ennobled by her imperious tongue, it was amply endowed with a sort of bluff heartiness -- just like the hunting parsons Decca must have seen in her aristocratic youth. "Mornin' Miss Mitford!" "And a jolly good morning to you, Mr. P."

The Mitford saga is an epic that will no doubt end up on Masterpiece Theater. There was stuffy Lord Redesdale, giving birth to all those sparky girls, ranging from Nancy to Red Decca ("Jessica" on the birth certificate and book jackets), to Hitler-loving Unity, to fascist-friendly Diana, to Deborah, who ended up marrying the duke of Devonshire.

In the late 1930s Decca eloped with Esmond Romilly, nephew of Winston Churchill. The couple took sanctuary in my father Claud's apartment. He left them ensconced and went back to Spain, where he was both fighting in and covering the Spanish Civil War. Later Decca and Esmond went to Spain, and Churchill sent a destroyer to try to get them out of the war zone.

After she became a Red, Decca decided to give a small island in the north of Scotland to the Communist Party. Her notion was that amid their revolutionary labors the comrades might take the occasional vacation in this pleasant, albeit distant, spot. It was a nice idea, but for various reasons the party brass didn't particularly want the island. It was a long way from anywhere. My father was deputed to visit Decca's father, Lord Redesdale, and somehow managed to give the island back. Eventually he ran Redesdale to earth in the House of Lords, and party property duly found its way back into the Mitford estate. Decca thought my father a rat for having been complicit in this affair.

Romilly was killed in a bombing raid on Hamburg and Decca married the Oakland-based labor lawyer Bob Truehaft, who survives her. Both Communists, they survived the McCarthy period intact. In 1963 came Decca's first big literary success, "The American Way of Death." At least half of it was written by Truehaft, who, as a labor organizer, had urged her to investigate the funeral industry. Other books followed in a steady stream, on Dr. Spock, on prisons, on Grace Darling.

Decca was proof of that old Latin tag about not losing the reasons for living just for the sake of living. The whole Mitford thing -- Nancy, Unity, Hons and Rebels -- could have become an awful ball and chain, but it didn't hobble her in the least. Radical from top to toe, she was serious enough and confident enough about her politics and ideals to laugh heartily when less ebullient types chose the chaste dignity of gloom. What a pleasing contrast to the appalling Orwell, who spent his last moments remitting McCarthyite denunciations of possible fellow travelers to the British Secret Service.


Blogger Peter said...

A Google Alert for mentions of Jessica Mitford drew me to your site. I'm the editor of "Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford."

Anyone who wants to learn more about the book can do so at my web site,

Thanks for the mention,
Peter Sussman

1:23 AM  

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