Monday, September 11, 2017

Jessica Mitford's Centenary

“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”--Jessica Mitford

It was 100 years ago today that journalist, author, and activist Jessica Mitford was born at Asthall Manor in Gloucestershire. In the United Kingdom she may be most famous as the author of the memoir Hons and Rebels and one of the legendary Mitford sisters, "the Communist Mitford". In North America she may be most famous for her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. In fact, aside from her eldest sister, novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford, Jessica Mitford (called "Decca" by one and all) may be the most famous of the Mitford Sisters in all of the United States. Regardless, she would have a lasting impact both in the United Kingdom and the United States.

If anything else could be said about Jessica Mitford, it is that she always marched to the beat of her own drum. While most of the Mitford family tended to be politically conservative (and sisters Diana and Unity were Fascists), not only were Decca's political beliefs at the far left of the political spectrum, but she was a member of the Communist Party for much of her life. She was only 19 years old when she ran away with her cousin Esmond Romilly to Spain and the two of them got married. The two of them would later emigrate to the United States. With the outbreak of World War II, Esmond Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Sadly, on November 30 1941 he went missing in action. Jessica Mitford remained in the United States and later married civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft.

In the United States, Jessica Mitford continued to be politically active. In the early Fifties she was the executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress. She was active in the civil rights movement even then and fought to prevent the execution of Willie McGee, an African American accuse of raping a white housewife. Her first bit of real writing came about through her political activity. In 1956 she published the small booklet Lifeitselfmanship or How to Become a Precisely-Because Man, a parody both of her sister Nancy Mitford's famous essay on "U and non-U English" as well as the many clichés used by her fellow leftists.

It was in 1960 that Jessica Mitford's first professionally published book, Hons and Rebels, came out. A memoir of her childhood and youth, the book proved to be a best seller. Among other things, it helped fuel the public's fascination with the Mitford sisters ever since. Despite the success of Hons and Rebels, Decca's future as a writer lay not in biography, but in muckraking journalism. For Esquire magazine she wrote "Whut They're Thanking Down There", an article on attitudes in the American Deep South. To research the article she travelled to Montgomery, Alabama and wound up caught in a riot when the Ku Klux Klan rushed civil rights activists. Afterwards she attended a rally led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Her article was published in the May 1962 issue of Esquire.

A political cartoon from the October 27 1963 issue of
The Chicago Sun-Times referencing The American
Way of Death
and Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring
It would be another article that would lead to what would be Jessica Mitford's most successful written work. As a lawyer her husband Bob Treuhaft often worked on the estates of members of unions. Over time he noticed that the union death benefits were more often than not eaten up by funeral expenses. Decca took up the cause and ultimately wrote the article "Saint Peter Don't You Call Me", which was published in Frontier magazine. The article would result in Jessica Mitford appearing on a local television programme alongside representatives from the funeral industry. The reaction to her appearance on television led Decca to think there was enough interest for a whole book on the subject. The American Way of Death was published in 1963. It almost immediately leapt to the top of the best seller list, where it remained for months. It also sent shock waves throughout the American funeral industry, who branded Decca "public enemy number 1". Eventually the book would result in new regulations regarding the funeral industry throughout the United States.

Following The American Way of Death, Decca would continue to work as a muckraking journalist. In the article "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers", published in the 1970 issue of Atlantic Monthly, she exposed the shady business practices of the Famous Writers School. In her 1970 book The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchel Goodman, and Marcus Raskin, she wrote about the Boston Five, who, after signing the manifesto “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority", were arrested for conspiracy to violate draft laws. Her 1973 book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business dealt with the American penal system, while her 1992 book The American Way of Birth dealt with the high cost of giving birth.

Of course, Decca wrote other books beyond her muckraking exposés. Her 1977 book A Fine Old Conflict was a memoir of her life in the Communist Party that poked a good deal of fun at the Far Left. Her 1988 Grace Had an English Heart: The Story of Grace Darling, Heroine and Victorian Superstar was about Grace Darling, the legendary lighthouse keeper's daughter who rescued survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838.

Jessica Mitford was certainly not alone among the Mitford sisters in being a writer. Nancy Mitford's claim to fame is as a novelist and biographer. Her sisters Diana Mosley and Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire both wrote books, although they did not see the success that Nancy and Decca did. That having been said, Jessica Mitford would do one thing that her sisters never did; she recorded songs. She was the leader of Decca and the Dectones, essentially a cowbell and kazoo band. Decca and the Dectones recorded versions of The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and 'Grace Darling". With her dear friend Maya Angelou she recorded a version of "Right, Said Fred". Decca even opened for Cyndi Lauper on the roof of the Virgin Records store in San Francisco.

Jessica Mitford died at age 78 from lung cancer on July 22 1996. As might be expected, her funeral was fairly cheap. It cost only  $533.31. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea, the cremation costing only $475. She left behind a legacy whose impact is still being felt to this day.

While the Mitford Industry may well have come into being without it, arguably Decca's book Hons and Rebels was key in spurring the interest that have surrounded the sisters ever since. Beyond furthering the legend of the Mitfords, it would also have a lasting influence in other ways. J. K. Rowling, the creator of "Harry Potter" and author Christopher Hitchens both count Hons and Rebels as an influence.

In many respects her book The American Way of Death would have an even greater impact. It turned the high cost of American funerals into a cause célèbre in the mid-Sixties. This would eventually lead to changes regarding the regulation of funeral costs throughout the United States. It would even have an impact on popular culture. While the film The Loved One (1965) was very loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, its treatment of the funeral industry was informed to a large degree by The American Way of Death.  Following The American Way of Death, American writers, producers, and directors were no longer hesitant about poking fun at the American funeral industry or engaging in some rather dark humour regarding death.

While none of Decca's other works would quite have the impact that The American Way of Death did, her other works of investigative journalism would have an impact. Her exposé of the Famous Writers School would eventually lead to it filing bankruptcy. Over the years Jessica Mitford set her sights on a variety of shady targets, from expensive weight loss programs to American television network censorship to over-priced tourist traps. Even if Decca's articles and books didn't always get results, she always succeeded in embarrassing the guilty.

Arguably Jessica Mitford was among the most successful investigative journalists of the 20th Century. Her success was due to the number of factors, not the least of which was a rebellious streak that had begun when she very young. Like her sisters she also happened to be highly intelligent and possessed a wicked sense of humour. Other investigative journalists were often ineffective because their works were simply dry accounts filled with statistics and testimonials. Decca's books were not only informative, but also very funny. One has to suspect that The American Way of Death was such a success because it not only addressed an issue that had long been of concern to the average American, but because it was also very entertaining. In the end Jessica Mitford would have an incredible impact that is still being felt to this day.

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