I remember an occasion in San Francisco, years ago, when the writer Tillie Olsen invited other women writers of the area to dinner at her house, where by way of introducing her guests, in the sweetest possible manner, she went around the room telling a slightly humiliating anecdote about each one. Of Jessica Mitford, she said, “Darling Decca—we go way back. When we were in the Party, Dec was always trying to pretend to be one of the People and bake casseroles for the dinners, and talk about floor wax, but believe me, I used to make those casseroles for her, and she never waxed a floor in her life. But we all loved her for the way she pitched in …. ” Perhaps Olsen meant to poke gentle fun at Decca, but she was deadly accurate about this English aristocrat oddly misplaced in a modest Oakland, Cal., neighborhood, trying to bake.
Decca, or Jessica, Mitford came from a family of unapologetic extremists. Her sister Unity didn’t just admire Hitler (as did their mother) but fell in love with him, and shot herself in the head when her preferred country of Germany and her native England went to war. (Hitler then sent the gravely injured girl to Switzerland in his private train so her parents could get her home.) Diana, the beauty of her day, married Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British fascists, and was a cheerful presence in Holloway prison when Churchill jailed the Mosleys as potential dangers during the war. Deborah, or Debo, married not just any duke but one of the most important ones, the Duke of Devonshire; novelist Nancy, living and writing in Paris, became more French than the French. A family of vivid colors, except for Pam, the least colorful, who was acknowledged as such and stripped of her name by her sisters, who would refer to her only as Woman—lovingly, of course.
Which leaves Decca, whose career may be the most unlikely of them all: renegade marriage to Churchill’s nephew Esmond Romilly, running a bar with him in Miami, early motherhood and widowhood, putting down roots in Oakland, ardent communist, queen of the muckrakers via her best-seller The American Way of Death (1963), fierce civil-rights activist, part-owner of a Scottish island (which she tried to give to the Communist Party—they weren’t interested). She was also a passionate friend to famous people like Katharine Graham and Maya Angelou, and countless other regular folks, and a compulsive correspondent for whom letters were the staff of life.
Although Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford is over 700 pages long, the letters it contains, very well edited by Peter Sussman (his biographical essays and notes are invaluable in keeping track of this eventful life), represent a modest fraction of Decca’s epistolary output. That’s all that’s modest about these exuberant and take-no-prisoners missives to the world. “Darling Muv, Thank you so much for the lovely bread board, we were so thrilled with it …. As you can imagine we are frightfully busy, trying to get the Communist leaders out of jail & hoping to stay out ourselves.”
Whether she’s chiding Hillary Rodham Clinton, who worked (pre-Bill) in the law office of her second husband, Bob Treuhaft, or counseling her daughter Constancia Romilly (known in the family as Dinky), or reporting on her muckraking investigations—into the Famous Writers School, which she demolished; Maine Chance, the famous fat farm (which, unlike most people, she hated); and, most famously, the funeral industry—she was always herself: that is, a funny maker of fun at other people’s expense and, at the same time, loving and loyal to her family and friends. To Hillary Clinton: “Do write back. I’d love more news of Chelsea Victoria—what a marvelous name! How did you come by it? Was she conceived in Victoria Station, or Chelsea?”
But she wasn’t always serene. For years, living in America, with violently different politics and lifestyles from those of her family—the Treuhafts lived in a modest house; her sister Debo lived in one of England’s greatest stately homes—the gap between Decca and her background was vast, but whatever her politics, she never cut herself off from her aristocratic roots, even eventually resolving her fraught relationship with her somewhat chilly, pro-German mother, whom she (and her sister Nancy) found it hard to forgive for denying them the education they longed for: Not one of the Mitford girls was sent to school.
Decca’s double life meant that her letters reveal two separate and equally fascinating worlds, of the English aristocracy and American radical politics, and she never loses a certain note of deracinated fascination with American goings-on. As late as 1980, her letter to Sally Belfrage about sister Diana Mosley’s book The Duchess of Windsor (“It made me turn quite pink to think that one of us could write such total trash & so badly—it’s Woman’s Day all the way”) reveals that she still thinks of herself as one of “us,” that is, a Mitford, with all that implied.
The personality that emerges in these letters is that of a woman for whom everything is a tease, and at the same time deadly serious. She’s provocative, self-mocking, eloquent sometimes, silly, generous and brave. She had to endure more tragedy than most people—she lost her first husband, her favorite sister and two children—yet she seems to have faced all this with unwavering stiff upper lip, whether she’s in physical danger (as during the civil-rights period) or personal sorrow. Despite her disapproval of the American way of death, when she went down with all flags flying (lung cancer at 78), she had organized a corking funeral for herself, with horses and plumes.
Diane Johnson is the author of 14 books; her most recent novel is L’Affaire (Plume).