Mitford, Jessica (“Decca”)
Mitford, Jessica (“Decca”)
(b. 11 September 1917 in Batsford, Gloucestershire, England; d. 23 July 1996 in Oakland, California), prolific author and social and political commentator on American culture, best known for her work The American Way of Death (1963), a biting expose of the funeral industry.
Mitford was the youngest of seven children born to Lord Redesdale (David Bertram Mitford) and Lady Redesdale (Sydney Bowles Mitford), a well-known and rather eccentric family in England. Her parents did not believe girls should be formally educated, so their one son was sent to school but their six daughters were schooled at home, albeit idiosyncratically. The Mitford’s vast library had strikingly different effects on the sisters: Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, a leader of Britain’s Fascists; Unity became a disciple of Adolf Hitler; Nancy became a famous novelist, best known for her fictitious autobiographies, most notably The Pursuit of Love; and Jessica (known as “Decca”) eventually joined the Communist Party. Although she was close with most of her siblings, Decca described her childhood as unhappy, to the point where she started saving her money in what she called her “running away” fund.
At the age of seventeen, Mitford did leave her family, running off with her leftist cousin Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill. In 1936 the pair eloped to Spain to support the front against fascism, then moved to London, where their first child, a girl, was born. At four months of age, the child succumbed to an outbreak of measles. The couple moved to New York in 1939. In 1941 Romilly, who had joined the Canadian Air Force, was killed when his plane went down over the North Sea, leaving Mitford pregnant and alone.
Mitford moved to be with her friends Clifford and Virginia Durr in Washington, D.C., where she was raising her daughter Constancia and working for the Office of Price Administration as an investigator when she met Bob Treuhaft, a labor attorney. She and Treuhaft moved to San Francisco and were married in 1943. In 1944 Mitford became a U.S. citizen, and shortly thereafter the two joined the American Communist Party. Ever active, Mitford was a fund-raiser and educator within the party. She and Treuhaft relocated to Oakland, California, in 1947, and their son, Benjamin, was born. (They later had a second son, but he died at the age of eleven after being hit by a bus.) In 1949 Mitford began working for the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), determined to champion the rights of African Americans.
In 1951 the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Mitford due to her “identified communist” status, and in 1953 both Mitford and Treuhaft were subpoenaed. The interrogations brought about the end of the CRC, so Mitford began working for the San Francisco Chronicle as a telephone solicitor. Her reputation as a communist dogged her, however, and she was fired. With no hopes of escaping her communist label, Mitford turned to writing.
Her first work, Lifeitselfmanship (1956), was a privately published, wittily constructed exposé of the Communist Party and its jargon. Mitford felt that the party was becoming disorganized, and she resigned in 1958, although she continued to espouse the party’s basic tenets until she died. Her second literary effort, Daughters and Rebels (published as Hons and Rebels in England), appeared in 1960. This autobiographical book details her childhood and her marriage and travels with Romilly and humorously attacks the lifestyle of the English upper class.
Her third, and most famous, book, The American Way of Death (1963), was a best-seller for more than a year. Her first investigative study, it skillfully deconstructed the funeral industry, exposing price inflation, tactics that prey upon the poor, and the inhumane antics of funeral directors. The book enjoyed phenomenal success and was made into a CBS television documentary.
Her other books, although not as successful as The American Way of Death, attracted much attention and critical acclaim. The Trial of Dr. Spock (1969) analyzed the government’s accusation of five defendants for their role as draft evaders and for denouncing the Selective Service Administration; Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973) criticized the prison industry, finding fault with every aspect including parole, the treatment of inmates, and the brutality of officers; and Fine Old Conflict (1977), her second autobiographical foray, detailed her communist days and early life with Treuhaft.
Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979) gathered together several of Mitford’s articles. Of particular interest is one story chronicling Mitford’s semester of teaching at San Jose State University as a distinguished professor of sociology in 1973. The university attempted to extract a loyalty oath, demanded her fingerprints, and requested that the word “muckraking” be deleted from her syllabus. She refused, ultimately teaching without pay and taking the university to court. Mitford then turned to memoir, producing Faces of Philip: A Memoir of Philip Toynbee (1984) and Grace Had an English Heart (1989), but eventually returned to her love, investigative journalism, with The American Way of Birth (1992). She also wrote articles for several publications including Esquire, the San Francisco Chronicle, Life, and the Nation.
Mitford died of lung cancer in Oakland. True to form, she left detailed instructions requesting a highly elaborate, expensive funeral. She was cremated. At the time of her death, Mitford was preparing a revision of The American Way of Death; it came out posthumously in 1998.
Jessica Mitford was a highly spirited, intelligent person dedicated to exposing hypocrisy and championing the causes of the underdog. Her interests ranged from birth to death, but all were based upon one tenet—her passion for social justice. Mitford was fond of remarking, “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty,” a lesson she attempted to teach all of her readers with each work she constructed.
Most of Mitford’s manuscripts and personal papers are stored at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin; some are housed at Ohio State University. Her first autobiography, Daughters and Rebels (1960), traces the years 1917 until 1941, and her second one, Fine Old Conflict (1977) traces her years in the Communist Party. Jessica Benedict wrote Portraits in Print: A Collection of Profiles and the Stories Behind Them (1991), interviews of many well-known authors, including Mitford, with a commentary by each author. Mitford’s nephew Jonathan Guinness and his daughter, Catherine, wrote The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family (1984), a tome chronicling the Mitford heritage and offering in-depth coverage of the sisters’ lives. An obituary appears in the New York Times (24 July 1996).
Sharon L. Decker