I first became obsessed with the Mitford sisters in 2001, when I read the enormously compelling and entertaining biography, The Sisters: the Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell. I had been aware of Jessica Mitford as a local (she lived in Oakland, CA for many years) and a muckraking journalist (famous for her expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death), but I had no idea that she came from this scandalous, brilliant and eccentric British family who were somewhat famous (or perhaps infamous) in England during the 20th century.
Jessica Mitford was the sixth of seven children; five of the seven children led notable public lives:
Nancy Mitford became a novelist, famous for such semi-autobiographical books as The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate;
Pamela Mitford was referred to by a family friend as the “rural Mitford”; she led the quietest life of the Mitford girls, by far;
Tom Mitford, the only son of the family, died in Burma as a soldier in World War II;
Diana Mitford, the acknowledged beauty of the girls, made a brilliant marriage to Guinness beer heir Bryan Guinness, and then caused a scandal by leaving him for British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley;
Unity Mitford was an ardent fascist, admirer and confidante of Adolf Hitler; she shot herself in the head in Germany after war was declared between Germany and the United Kingdom. She lived for seven more years, though she never fully recovered from her injuries;
Jessica Mitford, who shared a room with Unity as a child and was so close to her that they spoke their own made-up language to each other, ended up defying her family’s fascist leanings, becoming an ardent Communist. She later renounced the party, moved to America, and became an activist and journalist;
Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the family (the only one of the Mitford children alive today) became the Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage, thus marrying into one of the oldest and most prestigious titles in England.
These are just thumbnail sketches – the whole family is endlessly fascinating and I could probably write a book about them myself. Why Jessica specifically as an Amazing Woman? Well, politically I’m certainly closer to her than Unity or Diana (though I’m not a Communist). I don’t think “amazing woman” need translate to “perfect woman” – there are things about Jessica (known to friends as Decca) that I don’t like. She seems to have been a rather indifferent parent (perhaps aping what she had learned from her own parents – one anecdote related by Nancy regarding their mother went as follows: “On one occasion Unity rushed into the drawing-room where she was at her writing -table, saying ‘Muv, Muv, Decca is standing on the roof – she says she’s going to commit suicide!’ ‘Oh, poor duck,’ said my mother, ‘I hope she won’t do anything so terrible,’ and went on writing.”). Decca could be spiteful and willful (she carried on feuds with various relatives, most notably Diana, for many years). It’s probably fair to say that at least some of her brilliant, riotously funny anecdotes (found in her memoirs Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict) are, shall we say, a bit embellished. Yet still I admire her, for her humor, her courage, and her dedication to her principles.
Jessica Mitford appears to have been born strong-willed – I love the photo above (from an album she produced with her late-in-life “cowbell and kazoo orchestra” Decca and the Dectones) because it encapsulates her the way I view her – defiant and a bit bratty. She opened a bank account for “running away” money as a child, in response to the disappointment of not being allowed to go to school as her brother did (she and her sisters were homeschooled as many young ladies of her class were at the time). She developed her political philosophy at an early age, and when she was 18 she eloped to Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly, whom she had long admired from afar for his political writings. This move put quite a rift between Decca and her family – they actually involved legal authorities in an attempt to retrieve her, as she was still considered a minor. Eventually, they reconciled themselves somewhat to the union, and Decca and Esmond settled in London. They were living in poverty when she gave birth to their daughter Julia, who died at five months of measles. The couple emigrated to the United States, working odd jobs and moving frequently, rather at the mercy of Romilly’s get rich quick schemes. Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force when Britain declared war on Germany, and Decca gave birth to another daughter, Constancia. Esmond Romilly was killed in action in November 1941 in a bombing raid. Decca took his death very hard.
In 1943 Jessica met American civil rights attorney Robert Treuhaft, the son of Hungarian immigrants. They married and had two sons, one of whom was killed at age 10 when he was hit by a bus while on his bicycle. Mitford and Treuhaft settled in Oakland, CA, and began working for a variety of leftist causes. In 1953 Mitford and Treuhaft were summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee; both refused to testify about their association with the Communist Party. They eventually left the party in 1958, disillusioned by the repression in the Soviet Union and tired of party politics.
Mitford published her first memoir, Hons and Rebels, in 1960, and a later memoir, detailing her involvement with and eventually estrangement from the Communist Party, A Fine Old Conflict in 1978. She gained fame for The American Way of Death, a critical look at the American funeral industry and the tactics employed to drive up the cost of funerals; Mitford felt that the industry was set up to take advantage of grieving families when they were at their most vulnerable.
Mitford went on to write several more books of investigative journalism, staying true to her motto, “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” She died in 1996 at the age of 78 of lung cancer. In accordance with her beliefs, she had a no-frills funeral – she was cremated and her ashes buried at sea – that cost a little over $500.