Book review: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford

The most outward-looking of the fabled Mitford sisters, Jessica left privilege behind to forge a new life interrogating the reality of the American Dream, writes Lee Randall

FROM the outset, where she describes young Jessica (aka Decca) Mitford’s way of attacking a problem, biographer Leslie Brody lets us know exactly who we’re dealing with. Not only did the unhappy 12-year-old establish a Running Away Account at Drummond’s bank, seven years later she cashed it in, using her savings to run away to the Spanish Revolution with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly.

Decca was the penultimate Mitford sister, but unlike Nancy – the sister she regularly measured herself against – Decca was passionately interested in people outside her own family. She complained that she was an intellectual forced to live in the body of a useless débutante, and never forgave her parents for denying her an education.

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Aged 19, she encountered Romilly. Brody describes him as, “sort of rainmaker, a fire- plug – all sex appeal; nabbing Decca Mitford might have been the pièce de résistance of his pirate’s life”.

The early portion of the book is full of distracting language, including several bouts of fruity breathlessness. Decca’s father, Lord Redesdale, is “rampant”; the young couple’s nest egg is “fantastically diminishing”; and then this: “Mischievously, craftily, wickedly, crazily, Unity kept Decca well apprised of all late-breaking Hitler news.” It’s really best to avoid imitating the distinctive Mitford style, for even they can grow tiresome, with all their shrieking and honking.

The young runaways shared strong anti-fascist views, bringing Decca into conflict with her family, especially after Diana left her husband to marry Oswald Mosley and Unity’s devotion to Hitler escalated. Decca was at pains to hide her close emotional ties to Unity from Romilly, and when she read in a newspaper about Unity’s suicide attempt, she had no one to console her while waiting for a word from the family.

The elopement of these well-connected youngsters (Winston Churchill was Esmond’s uncle) made front page news and authorities at the highest level were mobilised. Decca won consent to be married by forcing everyone’s hand: she got pregnant. Her outraged father disinherited her.

In 1937, their daughter Julia was born, but she died a few months later from measles. The following autumn, Decca had a dangerous abortion, which she kept secret from Esmond. Then in February 1939, they emigrated to America. Esmond was a literary whiz kid and Decca a Mitford, so they arrived armed with letters of introduction to ee cummings, James Thurber and other creative luminaries, as well as a raft of American toffs, whose hospitality they regularly abused by stealing from them.

In Washington DC they forged enduring friendships with the likes of Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post, and Virginia and Clifford Durr, who ran a kind of New Deal salon. In 1940, when Esmond enlisted in Canada, he convinced Virginia to give his pregnant wife a home, but as ever, she was a rotten houseguest. A life of privilege had taught her nothing about looking after herself.

Esmond was convinced he’d survive the war, so Decca believed it, too. Neither believed capitalism could survive, however, and they planned to join the Communist party. But in 1941, Esmond was killed when his plane crashed into the North Sea while returning from a bombing mission over Germany. Decca vowed not to return to her “filthy fascist family”, whom she held responsible. She found a job with the Office of Price Administration (OPA), and love with lawyer Robert Truehaft, the son of Hungarian, Jewish immigrants, whose left-wing politics chimed with hers. Brody says he escaped the draft because he had epilepsy, but never describes how this affected their marriage. It’s an omission typical of a biography heavily weighted in favour of facts and figures, but low on emotional insights.

In 1944 Decca became a US citizen, partly because it was a requirement for joining the Communist Party. Brody says joining was one of the most important decisions of her life, but reports quite casually that Decca left it in 1957, because she and Bob were convinced that it was no longer effective.

The Truehafts had two sons, Nicholas and Benjy, but tragically, Nick was killed by a car while out on his paper round in 1955. Decca was so devastated that she left him out of her second memoir, because it was the only way to avoid writing about his death, something she couldn’t bring herself to do.

Toward the end of the 1940s, President Truman began routing “undesirables” out of government positions. Decca took a job with the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), as an organiser and a fundraiser. Her skill, Brody writes, was “grinding down people, intimidating, to coax you into doing what she thinks ought to be done”.

Decca and Bob were always going to be in the firing line: during the McCarthy era, prevailing wisdom held that if you insisted discrimination existed and that there was an inequality of wealth, you were a Communist. When the House Un-American Activities Committee came to the west coast, Bob went into hiding. Decca received a summons to provide records of the CRC’s activity. She took the Fifth Amendment for every question. After years of being denied passports, a clerical accident in the mid-1950s enabled them to visit Europe and Decca’s family, though she refused to see Diana – they weren’t reconciled until Nancy lay dying – and her father refused to see her. But seeing Nancy in Paris inspired her – she envied the life of a full-time writer, and itched to try her hand at it.

Thus was born her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, offering her version of the eccentric Mitford upbringing. Then Bob encouraged her to write about the American funeral industry, after taking a case on behalf of someone who’d been ripped off. Decca was in her element, and her persona as an eccentric muckraker was born. Celebrity followed with the publication of her most famous book, The American Way of Death.

Brody reveals that Truehaft, on sabbatical from his law practice, did most of the research, and should have had co-author credit, but Decca’s publishers advised against it for marketing reasons. She speculates that the book was Decca and Bob’s revenge. The Communist Party had let them down but they found a new way to attack capitalist excesses via the funeral industry. Ironically, the money started pouring in, and Decca really enjoyed having it.

Over the coming years, Decca toured the American south following the Freedom Writers, wrote an exposé about the Main Chance health spa, and went head to head with the Famous Writer’s School – another racket that came to light through Bob’s legal practice. Describing Decca’s style, reporter Doug Smith pointed out that she artfully, and thoroughly, quoted everyone who reinforced her position, but gave the other side short shrift, “leading the careless reader to conclude that there is no other side or none that is orally defensible”. She was a personal, passionate journalist, not an objective one.

She was also a heavy smoker and an alcoholic, who began each day with a slug of vodka. She seems to have gone from an ascetic, right-on lifestyle straight back into the society circuit in San Francisco once her notoriety and new income allowed it. Her international roster of friends ran the gamut, from WEB DuBois, Paul Robeson and Sonia Orwell to Maya Angelou, who became like a sister to her. Unfortunately Brody rarely describes these friendships in any depth.

Decca went on to write an expose on the California prison system that revealed the state was conducting drug experiments on prisoners, and A Fine Old Conflict, her memoir of life as a member of the Communist party. Enjoying the opportunities celebrity afforded her, she even recorded some pop tunes, as Decca and the Dectones.

At the very end, Decca sobered up, but it was too late. Her three-pack-a-day habit did for her, and she died of lung cancer in 1996. Though she’d pre-arranged a modest cremation, she’d once joked about having a horse-drawn hearse. Her family and friends swung into action and as mourners came out of the funeral they were greeted by an ornate antique hearse, a driver in full livery, and a band of musicians who played When the Saints Go Marching In, Amazing Grace and The Internationale in tribute to the marvellous contradiction that was Decca Mitford.

I wish Brody’s book had had a little more of that fanfare, and been less “this and then this”. All the facts and figures are here, but considering the colourful, contradictory character at its heart, this biography is woefully short on soul.

The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford, by Leslie Brody. Counterpoint Press, 416pp, £12.99