Mitford, Jessica (1917–1996)

views updated

Mitford, Jessica (1917–1996)

British-born American radical and "muckraking" writer, whose bestseller, The American Way of Death, led to reforms of the American funeral industry. Name variations: Decca. Born Jessica Lucy Mitford in Batsford Mansion, Gloucestershire, England, on September 11, 1917; died on July 23, 1996, at her home in Oakland, California; sixth of the seven children of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Lord Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles, six of whom were girls; sister of Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), Deborah Mitford (b. 1920), Diana Mitford (b. 1910), Unity Mitford (1914–1948), Pamela Mitford (b. November 25, 1907), and Thomas Mitford (born January 1909; killed in action 1945); eloped with her cousin Esmond Romilly, February 1937 (killed in action 1941); married Robert Treuhaft, on June 21, 1943; children: (first marriage) Julia Romilly (1937–1938); Constancia ("Dinky") Romilly (b. 1940); (second marriage) Benjamin Treuhaft (b. 1946).

Emigrated to America (1939); naturalized (1944); left Communist Party (1958); had success with The American Way of Death (1962).

Selected writings:

Daughters and Rebels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960, titled Hons and Rebels in England); The American Way of Death (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963); The Trial of Dr. Spock (NY: Knopf, 1969); Kind and Usual Punishment (NY: Knopf, 1973); A Fine Old Conflict (London: Michael Joseph, 1977); Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckracking (NY: Knopf, 1979); Grace Had an English Heart: The Story of Grace Darling, Heroine and Victorian Superstar (NY: Dutton, 1988); The American Way of Birth (NY: Knopf, 1992); (posthumously) The American Way of Death Revisited (Knopf, 1998).

Lord and Lady Redesdale of Swinbrook raised one of the most extraordinary families in recent British history. Of their daughters, Nancy , the oldest, became a comic novelist of the first rank, Diana married the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, Unity befriended Hitler and killed herself when her beloved England and Germany went to war, and Deborah became the duchess of Devonshire. None had a more interesting or unusual life, nor greater gifts, than Jessica Mitford, who alone of the family spent most of her adult life in America and lived good-humoredly at the center of a succession of controversies.

Born in 1917, she was brought up according to her parents' many eccentric notions. For example, her mother believed in "the good body" and denied that medical aid was ever necessary. Twice Jessica broke her arm before the age of ten, but in each case the good body was left to heal itself (without apparent catastrophic effects). The children enjoyed large farm animals as pets (Jessica had a sheep while Unity had a goat and a snake named Enid) and thought nothing of taking them to church on Sundays. Lord Redesdale himself held a hereditary seat in the House of Lords but rarely bestirred himself to attend or vote, except on issues which particularly vexed him, such as the outrageous idea that women should be permitted to take their parliamentary seats alongside the men. The general political tenor of the household was extremely conservative, and the family was one of many in Britain to feel at least a latent sympathy for fascism in the early days of the Great Depression, when Italy and Germany appeared to be addressing the crisis with vigor. Jessica ("Decca") was educated mainly at home, though she longed to go to school, and was a bored adolescent, saving money for her "Running Away Fund."

As her sisters Diana and Unity became more and closely aligned with men of the right, Jessica found herself drawn in the opposite direction. She was 19 when the Spanish Civil War began and felt a strong attachment to the Loyalist forces fighting against Francisco Franco's insurrection. An encounter with her second cousin Esmond Romilly was the decisive event of her youth. He was just back from Spain where he had fought in a British detachment of the International Brigade at the Battle of Boadilla, and was one of very few survivors of what had turned into a catastrophic defeat. Romilly (also a cousin of Winston Churchill) was already notorious. At age 16, he had run away from his boarding school, Wellington, and taken refuge in a Communist Party bookshop in the East End of London. From there, he and his brother Giles ran a subversive magazine, Out of Bounds, aimed at other "public school" boys still swatting away at their lessons and practicing military drill in the approved fashion of the British Army. Esmond Romilly wrote an autobiography based on this experience, also entitled Out of Bounds, followed by a second, Boadilla, publishing both books before he was 21.

Mitford, Unity (1914–1948)

English socialite and Nazi sympathizer. Name variations: Bobo. Born Unity Valkyrie Mitford on August 8, 1914; christened "Unity" after Unity More, an actress admired by her mother, and "Valkyrie" after the war maidens; died on May 28, 1948; daughter of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and Sydney Bowles; sister of Nancy Mitford (1904–1973), Jessica Mitford (1917–1996), Diana Mitford (b. 1910), and Deborah Mitford (b. 1920).

Unity Mitford was born in England in 1914, the daughter of Baron and Baroness Redesdale and the sister of Nancy Mitford, Jessica Mitford, Diana Mitford , and Deborah Mitford . At age 19, when Unity journeyed with her sister Diana on a sightseeing jaunt through Germany, the two ended up at a German Party Congress, and an impressionable Unity became infatuated with the Nazi movement. "The Nazi salute—'Heil Hitler!' with hand upraised—became her standard greeting to everyone, family, friends, the astonished postmistress of Swinbrook Village," wrote her younger sister Jessica in Daughters and Rebels.

After successfully badgering her parents into acquiescence, Unity returned to Berlin in 1934 to study German. She also began to hang around a favorite restaurant of Adolf Hitler's in order to meet him, convinced he was "the greatest man of all time." On February 1935, a delirious Unity wrote her mother:

I went alone to lunch at the Osteria and sat at the little table by the stove. … At about three, when I had finished my lunch, the Führer came and sat down at his usual table with two other men. … About ten minutes after he arrived, he spoke to the manager, and the manager came over to me and said 'The Führer would like to speak to you.' I got up and went over to him and he stood up and saluted and shook hands and introduced me to the others and asked me to sit down next to him. I sat and talked to him for about half an hour. … Rosa (the fat waitress) came and whispered to me: 'Shall I bring you a post-card?' So I said yes, really to please her. … I was rather embarrassed to ask him to sign it.

As translated by her brother Tom, Hitler had written "To Miss Unity Mitford, as a friendly memento of Germany and Adolf Hitler." The 20-year-old Unity was delighted. "I am so happy I wouldn't mind a bit dying," she rhapsodized, "I certainly never did anything to deserve such an honour."

For the next five years, she became an adoring disciple and friend of Hitler; they met and conversed 140 times. But Unity would soon be confused by divided loyalties. On September 3, 1939, when told by the British consulate that England was about to declare war, Unity went to the gauleiter (district leader) of Munich and requested that, if anything happened to her, she be buried there with her signed photograph of Hitler and her party badge. She then walked to the Englischer Garten and fired a pistol at her right temple. But the hapless Unity, who was being tailed by men of the gauleiter, was rushed to a German hospital where she miraculously survived. Her mother escorted her back to Britain in January of 1940. "She is very happy to be back," wrote her sister Nancy, "[she] keeps on saying 'I thought you all hated me but I don't remember why.'"

Though Unity would regain some of her memory, she was brain-damaged and had regressed to the mental age of an 11-year-old. She would die eight years later, having contracted a severe bout of meningitis from the old bullet wound. Unity Mitford was the subject of a book by David Pryce-Jones, which was dramatized for television by John Mortimer and starred Lesley-Anne Down , though her nephew Jonathan Guinness contends that "David Pryce-Jones writes of Unity, and therefore of her family, from a point of view too hostile to permit much insight."

sources and suggested reading:

Guinness, Jonathan and Catherine. The House of Mitford. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Jessica Mitford was delighted by Esmond Romilly's daring and his political radicalism and asked him to let her accompany him when he returned to Spain. Within a few days, they were in France, had declared their love for one another, and began to live as a married couple. Together they returned to Spain, this time on the less lethal northern front. They spent several weeks reporting to the British radical press on the worsening state of the Loyalist position until their well-placed relatives in the British government directed a Royal Navy destroyer to go ashore in Bilbao and pick them up. After a few months in France, during which they were formally married and lived by writing news stories, they returned to Britain and set up house in the East End of London. For a while, Esmond ran a gambling den (after losing his own savings in France at the game of boule), then worked for an advertising agency, while Jessica prepared to give birth. Her daughter Julia was born at the end of 1937, and five months later caught measles. Unconcerned, the local nurses told Jessica that she would pass on her own immunity through breast feeding. But Jessica's own upbringing had been so secluded that she had never had measles, and in May 1938 Julia died.

Medical jargon is particularly confusing. I remember a horrifying moment in my doctor's office when the doctor was called out of the room and I took a surreptitious peek at my file. "Head: negative," he had written. When he returned I confronted him with this unkind diagnosis. He said stiffly that it was not as bad as I supposed and that in the future I should refrain from reading my file, which was confidential and for his use only.

—Jessica Mitford, Poison Penmanship

As the 1930s came to an end, a general European war began to seem increasingly likely. Jessica and Esmond were afraid that Britain, under its conservative government, might make an alliance with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia. As ardent Soviet sympathizers (this was the era of the "Popular Front"), they dreaded the prospect of becoming involved in a war on what to them would have been the wrong side, and to avoid this they emigrated to the United States. For a year, they moved frequently up and down the East Coast, Jessica working at one point in a clothing store and Esmond even resorting to selling silk stockings from door to door and taking a crash course in cocktail-mixing and barman's tricks.

Soon after the war began, however, in September 1939, with Britain taking the anti-Nazi side, Esmond volunteered for action by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force and training for air combat. He was shipped back to Europe just before the birth of their daughter Constancia ("Dinky") Romilly , who was born in Chicago at the time of the 1940 Democratic Convention which nominated President Franklin Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term in office. Esmond's squadron began to fly bombing missions over Germany. On one mission, on a foggy night in November 1941, his plane radioed base that it had developed mechanical trouble and must return. But it crashed into the North Sea, and all the crew were killed.

These events of her early life Jessica Mitford later described in a brilliant autobiography, Daughters and Rebels (1960), her first published book. Now a young widow and mother, she decided to stay in America and began to work for the Office of Price Administration in Washington, then moved to a similar job on the West Coast. There she married Robert Treuhaft, a radical lawyer with whom she had been working in Washington and who had followed her to the West Coast, and together they became activists in the Communist Party USA. Their son Benjamin was born in 1946. During the war, America's alliance with the Soviet Union made Communist Party membership relatively unremarkable, but the rapid deterioration of diplomatic relations at war's end, and the onset of the Cold War, suddenly made American Communists seem, in official eyes, no better than enemy agents or ideological traitors. The era of McCarthyism which ensued witnessed the purging of Communists and their sympathizers from many government departments, trade unions, and universities.

Living in Oakland, California, the Treuhafts were not trying to foment Communist revolution but they were trying to transform one aspect of everyday life, America's deep-seated racial prejudice, in the name of color-blind solidarity throughout the American working class. They were active members of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a Communist "Front" organization dedicated to dismantling the legal structure of racism. One of CRC's many aims was to break down geographical segregation. Black couples seeking to buy houses in Oakland were often frozen out by white sellers and their neighbors, so white CRC members would make the arrangements with the seller, as if they were the intending buyers, then would hand the property to its black buyer when the deal was made. The Treuhafts entered into this trick with gusto.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) toured the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, investigating "Communist Front" activities of this kind, and it subpoenaed Jessica Mitford when she was secretary of her local branch of CRC. Determined not to give the Committee the CRC membership list (since for many members exposure would lead to dismissal from their jobs), she doggedly took the Fifth Amendment in answer to every question put to her by the Committee. One of the congressional representatives asked sarcastically whether she was a member of the Berkeley Tennis Association but even to that question, Jessica, believing that he had said "Tenants," answered: "I refuse to answer, on the ground that my answer might tend to incriminate me," provoking a roar of laughter from the assembled

crowd. She was dismissed before the issue of the membership list arose, and, rather than return home where another summons might arrive, went to hide with other Communist friends until the Committee left town.

In A Fine Old Conflict (1977), sequel to Daughters and Rebels, Mitford described the many odd and unlikely characters she met in the Communist Party (CP) and described how she and another lawyer's wife, Daisy Rossman , would try to recruit new members in tough working-class districts of Oakland.

Daisy … had a vast and enviable collection of hats—chic porkpies, floppy straws, velvet berets, silk toques, flowered chiffons, turbans—and always appeared in one of these superb creations when we set forth on our neighborhood visits. She was also horribly shy, and would begin to shake visibly as we approached some worker's front door. "Good evening" she would say, in low trembling tones. … I would then spring to her rescue and start rattling on about the forthcoming meeting: "It's going to be absolutely marvellous and frightfully interesting. … Do come, I'm sure you'll simply love it."

Mitford also recalled the odd experience of seeing old "comrades" who had been FBI stooges all along, giving their own testimony at the HUAC hearings.

Persecution from outside and disillusionment from within thinned the ranks of the American Communist Party in the early and mid-1950s. Soon the full revelation of Stalin's atrocities began to emerge, following Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union, prompting Jessica and Robert Treuhaft also to leave the party in 1958. From first to last it had been, in their eyes, fully compatible with American ideals—they certainly never saw themselves as enemy agents. Their work on behalf of African-Americans continued, however, and following the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, the activist phase of the civil rights movement began. Frequently in the following years, Mitford drove down to the deep south to help organize rallies, strikes, sit-ins, and to lobby city and state governments in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. She was a close friend of the Durr family of Montgomery, Alabama, one member of whom was Clifford Durr, the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks in the court case which sparked the boycott.

Now in her 40s, Mitford had written occasional newspaper articles, usually on civil rights issues, and a spoof on Communist jargon (Lifeitselfmanship), but as the 1950s ended she began a new career as a writer in earnest. In 1963, she scored an immense hit with her second book, The American Way of Death, a "muckraking" expose of the American funeral industry. Her husband was active in a movement to promote economical funerals and had heard dozens of stories about bereaved people being deceived and plundered by unscrupulous undertakers. Now they decided to make a systematic study of the trade as it was then carried on. Jessica early realized that her best entree into the esoteric jargon of this gruesome business was through trade journals, and so she became an avid reader of Casket and Sunnyside, Mortuary Management, and Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries, all of which advertised and carried articles about caskets, embalming machinery, funeral home decor, and even "grief therapy." As she showed, undertakers in the mid-20th century faced a rather severe demographic problem—the declining death rate. They tried to compensate for the decreasing number of corpses by raising the per-unit cost of funerals, lobbying state governments to legislate mandatory embalming and other costly processes. What made the book a success was Mitford's dazzling literary skill. With a rhetoric always indignant but never bitter, Mitford managed to make a somber topic hilariously funny, and 30 years later the book remains a classic piece of humorous writing as well as a compendium of amazing facts about nefarious undertakers.

As the book topped bestseller charts, she toured the country, appearing on TV and radio shows to discuss the issue. She was called before government committees, now as a "friendly" witness, arguing on behalf of reforms to protect bereaved customers from wily undertakers, and was rewarded by witnessing a succession of modifications to state laws. She was also a consultant when Hollywood made a film based on Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One (Waugh was a close friend of her sister Nancy). From then on, her writing never lacked an appreciative audience, and she became a literary celebrity of the 1960s.

Living within a mile of the University of California, Berkeley, the Treuhafts became involved in the free speech movement which began there the next year—Treuhaft represented many of the students arrested in the Sproul Hall sit-ins. When Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician, was put on trial for encouraging students to resist the Vietnam War draft in 1968, Mitford covered the trial from beginning to end, and wrote The Trial of Dr. Spock (1969). This book is part memoir, part history of the growing antiwar movement, and part protest against the idea of prosecuting people for criminal conspiracy.

The law of conspiracy is so irrational, its implications so far removed from ordinary human experience or modes of thought, that like the Theory of Relativity it escapes just beyond the boundaries of the mind. One can dimly understand it while an expert is explaining it, but minutes later it is not easy to tell it back. The elusive quality of conspiracy as a legal concept contributes to its deadliness as a prosecutor's tool and compounds the difficulties of defending against it.

Again the blessing of her humorous style enlivened what might otherwise have been a drily technical account, and made a superb contrast with much of the grimly serious literature provoked by the war protesters. Her sketch of the 85-year-old judge, Francis Ford, who swiveled restlessly in his chair as though driving a dodgem car and hectored lawyers, witnesses and defendants alike was particularly entertaining.

A generation of middle-class students was introduced to the sharp end of law enforcement by the civil rights and antiwar movements, and their experiences prompted Jessica Mitford to turn her investigative eye from the courtroom to the prison system for her next expose, aided now with a Guggenheim fellowship for 1972. Kind and Usual Punishment (1973) was the upshot of this work, a scorching indictment of the American prison system. Mitford showed how strongly skewed against poor and black people the prison system had become, and how routinely prisoners' elementary rights were violated once they went behind bars. She persuaded the authorities of a women's prison in Washington, D.C., to incarcerate her for a few days so that she could get a taste of life "inside," but she spent almost her entire stay protesting her treatment and demanding redress in a way ordinary prisoners hoping for parole would hardly have dared. A central theme of the book was the protest against indeterminate sentencing. A sentence of "two to fifteen years" could have a liberal appearance at first glance, giving the impression that a prisoner might enjoy leniency in return for good behavior. In practice, it made prisoners the slaves of a constant agonizing un-certainty, repeatedly dashing their hopes of release, and making them powerless in the face of capricious guards and warders. She also published a long insightful interview on this question with George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, a denunciation of the prison system by one of its victims, shortly before his death in a San Quentin prison gun battle.

As an established and respected writer, Mitford undertook a range of investigative assignments which piqued her curiosity in the 1960s and 1970s, gathering them later in Poison Penmanship (1979) and commenting on the way they constituted her practical education in muckraking. She even taught college courses on muckraking at San Jose State University and at Yale. Remaining as deeply committed to the cause of the left as she had been in her Communist years, she visited Nicaragua and El Salvador in the mid-1980s with a committee of activist women, trying to promote the cause of popular democracy and to gather accurate information in an area of the world increasingly beset by violent revolution. Undaunted by a heart attack which forced her to return home prematurely, she maintained a busy writing schedule through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, writing a memoir of her old London friend Philip Toynbee (son of the historian Arnold Toynbee), a history of the semi-legendary English heroine Grace Darling , and another exposé, The American Way of Birth (1992).

As with her view of the other end of the life cycle, Mitford found a way of making the highly technical world of obstetrics and gynecology accessible to the lay reader in a vigorous prose peppered with indignant asides. Just as the undertakers had unscrupulously taken death into their hands and grown rich, she showed, so had the doctors laid their own heavy hands upon life's opening moments. She demonstrated how doctors' greed, frequent incompetence, and control of scarce resources, has forced up the price of giving birth, and driven safe natal care right out of reach for many middle- and low-income families. Insurers and lawyers also came under the lash. The heroes of this book were the nurse-midwives, who recognized that childbirth is not a sickness which requires extensive drug treatment and elaborate electrical monitoring, but rather, in nine out of ten cases, a natural process which a woman with sympathetic helpers can manage without all the paraphernalia. Mitford treated the prevalence of caesarian sections as an epidemic and proposed a dozen simple measures to bring costs under control without jeopardizing mothers' and babies' well-being. As in all her books, she depicted a world in which it was easy to sort out the good people from the bad. A deeply moral tale, it is cathartic to read and impossible not to enjoy, if sometimes tendentious.

Jessica Mitford represented the British upper classes at their best: fearless in defense of her convictions, intelligent, articulate, witty, and versatile. Without a grain of snobbery, and widely admired in Britain and America, she wrote consistently on behalf of the non-specialist, and reassured readers that they did have rights, that their rights should be honored, and that they need not dread being swallowed up by an anonymous society. In many respects a radical individualist, she never found it easy to become a part of the Communist collective, but her special gifts made her an invaluable ally in every cause she espoused. And as she recognized wryly, she did far more to advance her causes once she had left the party than she ever did within it, surrendering an audience of dozens but winning an audience of millions.


Guinness, Jonathan and Catherine. The House of Mitford. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

Ingram, Kevin. Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly. London: Widenfeld & Nicolson, 1985.

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Birth. NY: Knopf, 1992.

——. The American Way of Death. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

——. Daughters and Rebels (autobiography). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

——. A Fine Old Conflict (autobiographical). London: Michael Joseph, 1977.

——. Kind and Usual Punishment. NY: Knopf, 1973.

——. Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muck-racking. NY: Knopf, 1979.

——. The Trial of Dr. Spock. NY: Knopf, 1969.

related media:

The Mitford Girls (a play).

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia