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Mitford, Jessica

MITFORD, Jessica

Born 11 September 1917, Batsford Mansion, Gloucestershire, England; died 23 July 1996

Daughter of David and Sydney Bowles Mitford; married Esmond Romilly, 1936; Robert E. Truehaft, 1943

Jessica Mitford was the daughter of the second baron of Redesdale. Her eccentric siblings include Nancy, the biographer; Diana, the wife of fascist Oswald Mosley; and Unity, disciple of Hitler. After receiving a private education at home, Mitford ran away with and married her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, in 1936 to assist the Loyalist cause in Spain. They worked briefly as journalists before returning to England, where Mitford was a market researcher for an advertising agency. Mitford and her husband emigrated to the U.S. in 1939, where each took odd jobs while traveling along the Eastern seaboard.

Mitford worked in Washington, D.C., for two years in the Office of Price Administration after Romilly was killed in action during World War II. She married a lawyer in 1943, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944. After moving to Oakland, California, she worked as executive secretary for the Civil Rights Congress, where she pressed for the investigation into charges of police brutality. In 1973 Mitford was appointed distinguished visiting professor in sociology at San Jose State College, where she taught a class on "The American Way" and a seminar on muckraking.

Mitford's first book, Lifeitselfmanship, was privately published in 1956. Her autobiography, Daughters and Rebels (1960, reprinted 1981), hilariously recounts her childhood and marriage to Romilly. Mitford's first investigative study, The American Way of Death (1963), exposed the greed and commercialism of the funeral industry. Relying on extensive research and quotations from the industry's own publications, Mitford satirically deflated the pretentious hypocrisy of such establishments as Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Although the book was viciously denounced by the industry, it was used as the basis for a television documentary.

Mitford's second investigative study, The Trial of Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin (1969), concluded with the observation that conspiracy laws threatened personal and civil rights: "Does not the cherished concept of due process of law, the foundation of our system of jurisprudence, become merely an elaborate sham to mask what is in reality a convenient device to silence opponents of governmental policies?"

Mitford next attacked the Famous Writers School in a lengthy article entitled "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers" (Atlantic, July 1970). Mitford charged the Westport, Connecticut, school with deception in advertising and criticized writers who allowed the school to use their names. Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973) exposes the atrocities of the penal system. In a chapter entitled "Clockwork Orange," Mitford listed the techniques used in prisons to modify behavior and reform "antisocial personalities," including chemotherapy, aversion therapy, neurosurgery, and drugs. She refers to prisons as the "happy hunting ground for the researcher." Mitford condemns lengthy and indeterminate sentences, the parole system, and the use of prisoners in psychological and physiological research, while supporting the idea of a prisoners' union. She concludes prisons are "inherently unjust and inhumane" institutions that demean all people in society.

Mitford published the sequel to her autobiography Daughters and Rebels in 1977. A Fine Old Conflict traces her involvement with the Communist party in America. As Mitford puts it, being fiercely anti-Fascist and antiracist, the Communist party seemed to her the only practical outlet for her political and social beliefs. Recreating the ambience of the "witch-hunting" 1950s, Mitford recalls such activities as her trip to Mississippi in 1951 to appeal the conviction of a black rapist and her efforts to raise money for the party by organizing chicken dinners. After defecting from the party after 20 years, Mitford describes it as "an embattled, proscribed (and, to me, occasionally comical) organization." The appendix reprints her previously unavailable spoof of party jargon, Lifeitselfmanship.

In addition to her book-length studies, Mitford published extensively in Life, Esquire, Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A staunch supporter of civil liberties, Mitford was often accused of communist sympathies and "un-American" activities. All Mitford's writings, however, reveal a satirical perspective on the fraud and corruption of organizations that victimize and exploit human beings.

Other Works:

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979). Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee (1984). Grace Had an English Heart (1988). The American Way of Birth (1992). The American Way of Death Revisited (1998).

Bibliography:

Benedict, H., Portraits in Print: A Collection of Profiles and the Stories Behind Them (1991). Canine, J., What Am I Going to Do with Myself When I Die? (1999). McCreery, L., "Queen of Muckrakers: Jessica Mitford's Contributions to American Journalism" (thesis, 1995).

Reference works:

CA (1967). CB (1974). Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993).

Other references:

American Book Review (Nov. 1990). Book World (Nov. 1992). California Lawyer (Nov. 1992). City Arts of San Francisco Presents Jessica Mitford (audiocassette, 1990, 1995). Critical Quarterly (1996). Harper's (Nov. 1992). Medical Anthropology Quarterly (1995). NR (Dec. 1992). Portrait of a Muckraker (videocassette, 1986). Theology Today (1999).

—DIANE LONG HOEVELER

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