Search - List of Books by Jessica Mitford
"Gracious dying is a huge, macabre and expensive joke on the American public." -- Jessica Mitford
Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford (September 11, 1917 — July 22, 1996) was an English author, journalist and political campaigner, who was one of the Mitford sisters. She gained American citizenship in later life.
"I have nothing against undertakers personally. It's just that I wouldn't want one to bury my sister.""Things on the whole are much faster in America; people don't 'stand for election', they 'run for office.'""You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty."
Mitford, the sixth of seven children, was the daughter of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and his wife Sydney (daughter of politician and publisher Thomas Bowles), and grew up in a series of her father's country houses. She had little formal education, since her mother did not believe in sending girls to school, but was nevertheless widely read. Though her sisters Unity and Diana were well-known British supporters of Hitler and her father was described as being "one of nature's fascists," Jessica (always known as "Decca") renounced her privileged background at an early age and became an adherent of communism. She was known as the "red sheep" of the family.
Life with Esmond Romilly
At age 19, Mitford met her second cousin Esmond Romilly, who was recuperating from dysentery caught during a stint with the International Brigades defending Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was a nephew (by marriage) of Winston Churchill. The cousins fell in love immediately and decided to elope to Spain, where Romilly picked up work as a reporter for the News Chronicle covering the conflict. After some legal difficulties caused by their relatives' opposition, they married. They moved to London and lived in the East End, then mostly an industrial slum area. Attended by doctor and nurse, Mitford gave birth at home to a daughter, Julia Decca Romilly, on 20 December 1937. The baby died in a measles epidemic the following May. Jessica Mitford rarely spoke of Julia in later life and she is not referred to by name in Mitford's autobiographical novel, Hons and Rebels.
In 1939, Romilly and Mitford emigrated to the United States. They traveled around, working odd jobs, perpetually short of cash. At the outset of World War II, Romilly enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force; Mitford was living in Washington D.C. and considered joining him once he was posted to England. She gave birth to another daughter, Constancia ("the Donk" or "Dinky") Romilly on 9 February 1941. Her husband went missing in action on 30 November 1941, on his way back from a bombing raid over Nazi Germany. She took months to accept that he was dead.
Life with Robert Treuhaft
Mitford threw herself into war work. Through this, she met and married the American civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft in 1943 and eventually settled in Oakland, California. There the couple had two sons: Nicholas born 1944 (who was killed in 1955 when hit by a bus), and Benjamin, born 1947. Mitford approached her motherhood in a spirit of "benign neglect", described by her children as "matter-of-fact" and "not touchy-feely". She became closer to her own mother by letter over the decades.
Communism and left-wing politics
Mitford spent much of the early 1950s working as executive secretary of the local Civil Rights Congress chapter. Through this and her husband's legal practice, she was involved in a number of civil rights campaigns, notably the failed attempt to stop the execution of Willie McGee, an African-American accused of raping a white woman. Mitford and Treuhaft became active members of the Communist Party. In 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the 'Red Scare', they were summoned to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both refused to testify about their participation in radical groups.
In 1956, Mitford published (stenciled) a pamphlet, "Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man". In response to Noblesse Oblige, the book her sister Nancy co-wrote and edited on the class distinctions in British English, popularizing the phrases "U and non-U English" (upper class and non-upper class), Jessica described L and non-L (Left and non-Left) English, mocking the clichés used by her comrades in the all-out class struggle. (The title alludes to Stephen Potter's satirical series of books that included Lifemanship.)
Feeling that in the current political climate they could do more for social justice outside the Party, and disillusioned by the development of Communism in the Soviet Union, Mitford and Treuhaft resigned from it in late 1958. Evidently she had to become a United States citizen or she would have been unceremoniously deported, regardless of her husband's citizenship.
In 1960 Mitford published her first book Hons and Rebels (American title: Daughters and Rebels), a memoir covering her youth in the Redesdale household.
In May 1961 she traveled to Montgomery, Alabama while working on an article about Southern attitudes for Esquire. While there, she and a friend went to meet the arrival of the Freedom Riders and became caught up in a riot when a mob led by the Ku Klux Klan attacked the civil rights activists. After the riot, Mitford proceeded to a rally led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The church at which this was held was also attacked by the Klan, and Mitford and the group spent the night barricaded inside until the violence was ended by the National Guard.
Through his work with unions and death benefits, Treuhaft became interested in the funeral industry and persuaded Mitford to write an investigative article on the subject. Though the article, "Saint Peter Don't You Call Me" published in Frontier magazine, was not widely disseminated, it caught considerable attention when Mitford appeared on a local television broadcast with two industry representatives. Convinced of public interest, she wrote The American Way of Death, which was published in 1963. In the book Mitford harshly criticized the industry for using unscrupulous business practices to take advantage of grieving families. The book became a major bestseller and led to Congressional hearings on the funeral industry. The book was one of the inspirations for filmmaker Tony Richardson's 1965 film The Loved One, which was based on Evelyn Waugh's short satirical 1948 novel of the same name, tellingly subtitled "An Anglo-American Tragedy".
After The American Way of Death Mitford continued with her investigative journalism. In 1970, she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers", an exposé of the Famous Writers School, a correspondence course of questionable business practices founded by Bennett Cerf. She published The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchel Goodman and Marcus Raskin, an account of the five men's 1970 trial on charges of conspiracy to violate the draft laws, followed by a harsh critique of the American prison system entitled Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973), an allusion to the phrase "cruel and unusual punishment".
Mitford was a distinguished professor for the fall semester 1973 at San Jose State University where she taught a course called "The American Way", which analyzed how the Watergate gang cut their teeth in the earlier witch-hunt against the left in the McCarthy era. Due to disagreements with the dean over her taking a loyalty oath and submitting to fingerprinting, the campus was thrown into protests and she was forced to go to court to remain able to teach.
Mitford's second memoir, A Fine Old Conflict (1977), comically describes her experiences joining and eventually leaving the Communist Party USA. Mitford titled the book after what, in her youth, she thought were the lyrics to the Communist anthem, "The Internationale", which actually are "Tis the final conflict". Mitford recounts how she was invited to join the Communist Party by her co-worker Dobby, to whom she responded "We thought you'd never ask!" She bristled against the conservative structure in the CP, at one point upsetting the women's caucus by printing a poster with "Girls! Girls! Girls!" to draw people to an event. She mercilessly teased an elder Communist about what she perceived as his paranoia when he wrote out the name of a town where she could get chickens donated from "loyal party members" for a fund raiser. When he wrote Petaluma on a scrap of paper to avoid being overheard by possible bugs, she asked in jest how the chickens should be prepared, and wrote, "Fried or broiled". It was subsequently revealed in the book Spycatcher by former MI-5 counterintelligence officer Peter Wright that in fact, MI-5 had a massive operation of bugging the communist party in England, which Wright had participated in.
In addition to writing and activism, Mitford tried her hand at music as singer for "Decca and the Dectones," a cowbell and kazoo orchestra. She performed at numerous benefits and opened for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco. She recorded two short albums: one CD Baby: JESSICA MITFORD: Decca and the Dectones contains her rendition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Grace Darling", and the other, two duets with friend and poet Maya Angelou. Her last work was an update entitled The American Way of Death Revisited.
Mitford died of lung cancer at age 78. In keeping with her wishes, she had an inexpensive funeral, which cost $533.31 — she was cremated without a ceremony, and the ashes scattered at sea, the cremation itself costing $475. The funeral company was the Pacific Interment Service, which prides itself on "dignity, simplicity, affordability".
Her widower survived her by five years. Their surviving daughter had continued the activist tradition by working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She had two children with James Forman, its African American director, and eventually became an emergency room nurse. Mitford's surviving son, Benjamin, was estranged from his family for some time and developed bipolar disorder (manic depression), but later became a piano tuner and uses his skills to ship pianos to Cuba with the slogan, "Send a piana to Havana."
Legacy and Influence more less
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, reviewed Mitford's book of letters, Decca, in the Sunday Telegraph in 2006.
Rowling stated in 2002, "My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father's account. I wished I'd had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life. I think I've read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter [Jessica Rowling Arantes] after her."
- "Objectivity? I've always had an objective."
- (at a museum exhibit on Egyptian embalming) "Now there is a society where the funeral industry got completely out of control."
- When Evelyn Waugh wrote in a review of The American Way of Death that Mitford did not have "a plainly stated attitude to death," Mitford asked her sister Deborah to tell Waugh, "Of course I'm against it."
- Hons and Rebels aka Daughters and Rebels (1960)
- The American Way of Death (1963)
- The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchel Goodman, and Marcus Raskin (1970)
- Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973)
- A Fine Old Conflict (1977)
- The Making of a Muckraker (1979)
- Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979)
- Grace Had an English Heart: The Story of Grace Darling, Heroine and Victorian Superstar (1988) ISBN 052524672X
- The American Way of Birth (1992)
- The American Way of Death Revisited (1998)
- The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by journalist Peter Y. Sussman (2006) (ISBN 0-375-41032-5)
Total Books: 52
- Extracts from Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford were dramatized for Book of the Week, BBC Radio 4, five 15-minute programmes broadcast in November 2006. The readers were Rosamund Pike and Tom Chadbon; the producer was Chris Wallis.