Mitford (1917 - 1996)
we think of immigrant writing, we do not usually expect the
immigrant to be from the higher realms of the English aristocracy.
This is but one of the surprises in the story of Jessica Mitford,
who wrote the best-selling exposé The American Way
of Death from her adopted home in a quiet neighborhood
of Oakland, California.
in 1963, The American Way of Death was not Mitford's
first book, but it was the one that brought her fame and the
which she was most proud. The work grew out of her husband's
observation that, in working with families of union employees,
he noticed that the costs of funerals always matched the amount
of the union death benefit-whether that was $1000 or $3000.
Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft began to investigate
industry practices, and she wrote ironically and in detail
about the many unnecessary services the bereaved were sold
at a time
of their greatest vulnerability.
was so influential that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in
November 1963, his brother Robert, having read Mitford's book, tailored
his funeral choices accordingly.
California has a fair share
of famous investigative journalists. At the top of the list are Lincoln
Steffens (The Shame of the Cities and other works detailing
bribery of government officials and incidents of graft in the early
twentieth century) and Randy Shilts (And the Band Played On concerning
the government's failure to act in the face of the AIDS epidemic).
Mitford joins this list not only for her look at the commodification
of death but also the development of a birth industry (The American
Way of Birth) and her investigation of prisons (Kind and Usual
Punishment.) As teachers of English, there's a lot we can learn
from her development as a writer.
Like Virginia Wolff, she
was never allowed to attend a public school. While her brother went
off to classes, she and her five sisters did not. We might say they
were home schooled, kept at the estate because their father, Lord
Redesdale, feared that his daughters would be exposed to a vulgar
element and made to play sports that would develop their calves and
ruin the beauty of their legs. The older sisters were taught French,
piano, and dancing until their mother learned of a new movement,
the Parents' National Education Union, which promoted a basic curriculum
taught in the home to female children of the aristocracy. According
to Mary S. Lovell, biographer of the Mitford sisters, the PNEU system
emphasized learning through the senses, independent exploration,
regular independently marked examinations of students' progress,
and a phonetic introduction to reading. Before the PNEU system was
introduced into the household, their mother taught the three youngest
girls to read herself, along with the basics of history and geography.
The girls were expected to read The Times and made unlimited
use of the family's substantial library. There was, of course, money
for travel and for domestic help. In Jessica's case, life threw her
some curves which widened her experience of all classes of people.
Although these young ladies were being trained to become debutantes,
they were also encouraged to believe in themselves as individuals
with the right to have opinions and to speak up for them. From this
eccentric beginning, four of them went on to become best-selling
authors. Novelist Nancy Mitford, the author of Love in a Cold
Climate, is Jessica's older sister.
The story of Jessica's coming
to America is dramatic as well as political. As a young woman, she
rebelled against her family's life of privilege and, while two of
her sisters turned to Fascism and courted the friendship of the rising
Adolph Hitler, Jessica embraced the Left. According to her autobiography,
when her sister Unity adorned their shared sitting room with swasticas,
Jessica responded by using a diamond ring to scratch hammers and
sickles into the window panes.
In 1935 at the age of 18
Jessica had her "coming out" but failed to attract a suitor
and returned home depressed and feeling like a child. In January
of 1937, she was invited to spend a weekend with Dorothy Allhusen
at Waverly House. Here, Jessica (called Decca by her family) met
Esmond Romilly, a year younger that herself but already a veteran
of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, a runaway
whose mother had told the court she could no longer control him,
and a confirmed antiFascist. During that weekend, the two not only
got along but concocted an elaborate plan to go to Spain together-a
plan which they executed a month later. Shortly afterward, the British
newspapers ran the story of the attractive but underaged daughter
of a peer of the realm eloping with a cousin who was also the infamous "red" nephew
of Winston Churchill.
The couple married on May
18 in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy in Bayonne with only
Decca's mother in attendance. They were broke and had no home to
return to, Decca's father having taken offense at her choice of husband.
Thus, they were presented with an opportunity to learn how to make
their own living, which Esmond did through translating and by writing
for the local English-language newspaper.
Upon their return to London,
they rented an apartment in the district of Rotherhithe, a working
class neighborhood near the docks. Decca was now pregnant with their
daughter, born December 20 and named Julia. Within six months, a
measles epidemic struck both Decca and her baby, and the child died
at the end of May. Depressed and broke, the couple limped along until
Decca's twenty-first birthday in September when a savings account
her mother had kept for her came into her hands. With the money,
she and Esmond purchased steerage passage and left for the United
States in February 1939, one year after running away to Spain.
Life in New York introduced
Decca to the world of work. But when she and her husband received
the news of the invasion of France in May 1940, Esmond resolved to
join the Canadian Royal Air Force in defense of Britain and Decca
went to stay with friends in Washington D. C., for she was pregnant
again. On February 9, 1941, she gave birth to daughter Constanzia,
nicknamed Dinky. Esmond was reported missing in action in November
of that year, and never returned. Knowing that her dependent's allowance
of $65 a month from the Canadian government would stop six months
after Esmond's presumed death, Decca went to work for the Office
of Price Administration in Washington, where she gained experience
in investigation and met Bob Treuhaft. In a courtship that took place
over the next couple of years, they were separately transferred to
San Francisco and married in Guerneville on June 21, 1943. Within
a few months Decca resolved to take out American citizenship and,
along with her new husband, to join the Communist party-two ways
of telling her family she was never coming home.
These are the key events
that went into the making of Jessica/Decca Mitford Treuhaft, the
writer. She and her husband moved to 6411 Regent Street in Oakland,
were subpoened by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, raised
her daughter and two sons, one of whom was killed when an automobile
hit his bicycle. She began writing at the age of 38, publishing her
autobiography, Daughters and Rebels, in 1960. In their 50+
years together, she and her husband worked, organized, published,
and made friends. At the time of her death at age 78, San Francisco
Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote "In this strangely flat
era of "diversity," she was the rarest of birds, an exotic
creature who rose each morning to become the sun around whom thousands
of lives revolved."