California Authors


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Jessica Mitford (1917 - 1996)

Mitford residence in Berkeley

When we think of immigrant writing, we do not usually expect the immigrant to be from the higher realms of the English aristocracy. This is but one of the surprises in the story of Jessica Mitford, who wrote the best-selling exposé The American Way of Death from her adopted home in a quiet neighborhood of Oakland, California.

Published in 1963, The American Way of Death was not Mitford's first book, but it was the one that brought her fame and the one of which she was most proud. The work grew out of her husband's observation that, in working with families of union employees, he noticed that the costs of funerals always matched the amount of the union death benefit-whether that was $1000 or $3000. Mitford and her husband Robert Treuhaft began to investigate funeral industry practices, and she wrote ironically and in detail about the many unnecessary services the bereaved were sold at a time of their greatest vulnerability.

Her work was so influential that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, his brother Robert, having read Mitford's book, tailored his funeral choices accordingly.

California has a fair share of famous investigative journalists. At the top of the list are Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities and other works detailing bribery of government officials and incidents of graft in the early twentieth century) and Randy Shilts (And the Band Played On concerning the government's failure to act in the face of the AIDS epidemic). Mitford joins this list not only for her look at the commodification of death but also the development of a birth industry (The American Way of Birth) and her investigation of prisons (Kind and Usual Punishment.) As teachers of English, there's a lot we can learn from her development as a writer.

Like Virginia Wolff, she was never allowed to attend a public school. While her brother went off to classes, she and her five sisters did not. We might say they were home schooled, kept at the estate because their father, Lord Redesdale, feared that his daughters would be exposed to a vulgar element and made to play sports that would develop their calves and ruin the beauty of their legs. The older sisters were taught French, piano, and dancing until their mother learned of a new movement, the Parents' National Education Union, which promoted a basic curriculum taught in the home to female children of the aristocracy. According to Mary S. Lovell, biographer of the Mitford sisters, the PNEU system emphasized learning through the senses, independent exploration, regular independently marked examinations of students' progress, and a phonetic introduction to reading. Before the PNEU system was introduced into the household, their mother taught the three youngest girls to read herself, along with the basics of history and geography. The girls were expected to read The Times and made unlimited use of the family's substantial library. There was, of course, money for travel and for domestic help. In Jessica's case, life threw her some curves which widened her experience of all classes of people. Although these young ladies were being trained to become debutantes, they were also encouraged to believe in themselves as individuals with the right to have opinions and to speak up for them. From this eccentric beginning, four of them went on to become best-selling authors. Novelist Nancy Mitford, the author of Love in a Cold Climate, is Jessica's older sister.

The story of Jessica's coming to America is dramatic as well as political. As a young woman, she rebelled against her family's life of privilege and, while two of her sisters turned to Fascism and courted the friendship of the rising Adolph Hitler, Jessica embraced the Left. According to her autobiography, when her sister Unity adorned their shared sitting room with swasticas, Jessica responded by using a diamond ring to scratch hammers and sickles into the window panes.

In 1935 at the age of 18 Jessica had her "coming out" but failed to attract a suitor and returned home depressed and feeling like a child. In January of 1937, she was invited to spend a weekend with Dorothy Allhusen at Waverly House. Here, Jessica (called Decca by her family) met Esmond Romilly, a year younger that herself but already a veteran of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, a runaway whose mother had told the court she could no longer control him, and a confirmed antiFascist. During that weekend, the two not only got along but concocted an elaborate plan to go to Spain together-a plan which they executed a month later. Shortly afterward, the British newspapers ran the story of the attractive but underaged daughter of a peer of the realm eloping with a cousin who was also the infamous "red" nephew of Winston Churchill.

The couple married on May 18 in a civil ceremony at the British Embassy in Bayonne with only Decca's mother in attendance. They were broke and had no home to return to, Decca's father having taken offense at her choice of husband. Thus, they were presented with an opportunity to learn how to make their own living, which Esmond did through translating and by writing for the local English-language newspaper.

Upon their return to London, they rented an apartment in the district of Rotherhithe, a working class neighborhood near the docks. Decca was now pregnant with their daughter, born December 20 and named Julia. Within six months, a measles epidemic struck both Decca and her baby, and the child died at the end of May. Depressed and broke, the couple limped along until Decca's twenty-first birthday in September when a savings account her mother had kept for her came into her hands. With the money, she and Esmond purchased steerage passage and left for the United States in February 1939, one year after running away to Spain.

Life in New York introduced Decca to the world of work. But when she and her husband received the news of the invasion of France in May 1940, Esmond resolved to join the Canadian Royal Air Force in defense of Britain and Decca went to stay with friends in Washington D. C., for she was pregnant again. On February 9, 1941, she gave birth to daughter Constanzia, nicknamed Dinky. Esmond was reported missing in action in November of that year, and never returned. Knowing that her dependent's allowance of $65 a month from the Canadian government would stop six months after Esmond's presumed death, Decca went to work for the Office of Price Administration in Washington, where she gained experience in investigation and met Bob Treuhaft. In a courtship that took place over the next couple of years, they were separately transferred to San Francisco and married in Guerneville on June 21, 1943. Within a few months Decca resolved to take out American citizenship and, along with her new husband, to join the Communist party-two ways of telling her family she was never coming home.

These are the key events that went into the making of Jessica/Decca Mitford Treuhaft, the writer. She and her husband moved to 6411 Regent Street in Oakland, were subpoened by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, raised her daughter and two sons, one of whom was killed when an automobile hit his bicycle. She began writing at the age of 38, publishing her autobiography, Daughters and Rebels, in 1960. In their 50+ years together, she and her husband worked, organized, published, and made friends. At the time of her death at age 78, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote "In this strangely flat era of "diversity," she was the rarest of birds, an exotic creature who rose each morning to become the sun around whom thousands of lives revolved."

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