Total Optimism Reigned
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Edited by Peter Y. Sussman
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 744 pp., $35.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Clarissa Atkinson
As a member of an eccentric British aristocratic family and of the Communist Party of the United States, Jessica Mitford was an unlikely, even outlandish, presence in both institutions. She appreciated her own life and its oddities, which she recorded in two memoirs as well as an enormous, wide-ranging correspondence. Happily, she kept copies of her letters, and so did her correspondents—more than seven hundred pages of letters, dated from the 1920s to the 1990s, are included in this volume. Although Mitford (always known as “Decca”) took up the fax machine with enthusiasm in her later years, she never got around to e-mail; readers of this volume will be grateful, as will any future biographer.
Those who approach this collection out of interest in the Mitford family—fans of Nancy Mitford’s novels, or voyeurs of aristocratic British eccentricity—may be surprised to discover that Jessica, who ran away at nineteen and never came back, was embedded in her extraordinary family until the end of her life. Her sisters were always among her primary correspondents, and the letters allow us to follow their shifting relationships through sixty years. As Mitford enthusiasts are aware, Diana—the only sister Decca never forgave—married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. The couple spent several years in prison during World War II, and when they were released (for reasons of health) in 1943, Jessica wrote to Winston Churchill that “the release of the Mosleys is a slap in the face to antifascists in every country…The fact that Diana is my sister doesn’t alter my opinion on the subject.” Decca’s attitude never really changed, but she grew older and sometimes mellower; when Oswald Mosley died in 1980, Decca wrote to her sister Deborah “Diana must be so incredibly sad & lonely. For obvious reasons I shan’t be writing, but if inclined do transmit message of sympathy.”
Strangely, Decca did forgive and continue to love her other Nazi sister, Unity, who was infatuated with Hitler, lived in Germany in the late 1930s, and shot herself in the head in an unsuccessful suicide attempt when England and Germany went to war. Unity was sent home by Hitler and spent the rest of her short, tragic life as a brain-damaged invalid, cared for by her mother. As Decca grew older she came to love her mother too, despite the distant and unsympathetic upbringing that had set her, at age twelve, on the path to running away. The strange, lonely figure of Lady Redesdale comes to life in these letters more fully than in any Mitford novel or memoir. Even in retrospect, however, Decca did not become fond of her father—identified approvingly by his Nazi daughters as “one of Nature’s Fascists.”
We expect letters to be more revealing and less self-conscious than memoirs or autobiography, and the expectation is rewarded here. In 1990, Mitford addressed the associated topics of reticence and remembered pain in a letter to Katharine Graham, then at work on her own autobiography. She told her friend that she had, as she put it, “airbrushed” from her first memoir (Daughters and Rebels, 1960), her grief at the deaths of her young husband Esmond Romilly and of their first baby. In her account of life with the Communists (A Fine Old Conflict, 1977), she said almost nothing about the death of ten-year-old Nick, the older of her two sons with her second husband, Bob Treuhaft. She and Bob were married for more than fifty years, and perhaps the most characteristic and endearing letter of the entire collection is the one she wrote him at the end of her life
Bob – it’s so ODD to be dying, so I must just jot a few thoughts – starting with fact that I’ve SO enjoyed life with you in all ways. . . . I must say I’m glad it’s me first as I v. much doubt I’d bother to go on much if it was you.”
She refers to their lost son, “wonderful Nicky (actually I do think of him most days, now aged 52).” This letter, essentially an appreciation of her good life and good fortune, mentions especially Bob’s long and happy relationship with her daughter Constancia (Dink) Romilly: “goodness what a lucky thing you liked each other almost from word Go.” She advised him to find another wife after her death, but “none of my business you’ll say.” There was a great deal of sadness in Decca’s life: she grew up in a cold and sometimes cruel household and she lost Esmond, her first love, and two children. This deathbed letter exhibits remarkable courage and humor, without an ounce of self-pity.
Letters from the 1940s and early fifties fill out with significant personal detail the story of Mitford’s participation in the radical causes of those years, the period described in A Fine Old Conflict. The major focus of her political work was always antiracism; she and Bob joined the Party in 1943 because it was “the only game in town in terms of civil rights.” From their home in Oakland, California, Bob served the Party as a radical lawyer while most of Decca’s colossal energy was poured into the Communist-dominated Civil Rights Congress. Against all odds (and often, I believe, in the characteristic teasing mode of the Mitfords), Decca persisted in attempting to describe her life and work to her aristocratic, right-wing mother. In 1952, when the entire Treuhaft family was caught up in the defense of Jerry Newson, an African American framed for murder, she wrote:
Poor Nicholas got arrested the other day for selling tickets door to door for a Jerry Newson Defense benefit, I was so furious. Two policemen brought him home and he was crying bitterly. I took all 3 children down to the Chief of Police to protest Nicholas’ arrest. The only trouble was Benjamin kept having to go to the loo which rather ruined the delegation.”
As we might expect, Mitford’s letters from the 1950s do not dwell on what she and Bob came to believe was the failure of the Communist leaders to reform the Party or find constructive ways to move beyond the setbacks and struggles of the McCarthy years. In another attempt to bridge the abyss between her mother’s life and her own, she wrote in 1951 “On re-reading this letter I see it is full of references to jails, sorry, but that is where most of our friends are.” She and Bob left the Party in 1957 mostly because it “grew rather drab and useless, not on any principled issue”—but in or out of the Party, she certainly continued to think of herself as a “red” and to work as hard as ever on issues of social justice, especially civil rights. In a letter written in 1985 to her grandson, the son of Dink Romilly and James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she reflected on some of the differences between his generation and her own:
When I was your age . . . the clarity, the brilliance, the total solution to horrors of war & mass poverty contained in the Communist Manifesto and other writings. . . burst on me like fireworks. . . When Dink was born, I was quite certain that the Comm. revolution would happen long before she grew up. Silly of me, but there you are—total optimism reigned.
She invited him to reflect with her on what went wrong, and as always, in matters of political or personal loss, she did not whimper or complain.
I was startled to realize that Decca, the Red Mitford, was only forty—just halfway through her life—when she left the Party in 1957. She never ceased to be an activist, but writing became her central occupation, especially after her best-known and most financially lucrative book, The American Way of Death, was published in 1963. The success of that book not only turned the American funeral and undertaking establishment on its head but stabilized the Treuhaft financial picture and provided Decca with new opportunities and acquaintances. Her letters reveal how she relished and thrived on the activity, commotion, travel, and controversy involved in publicizing the book and fighting off its attackers. She understood herself as a journalist, not a literary figure, and made new friends among writers and publishers: one benefit of this collection is its window on correspondents such as Maya Angelou and Kay Boyle. Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, her friend and editor, received some of her choicest comments: during the invasion of the Falklands, she asked him: “By the way – which side are you on? Perfidious Albion, or rotten fascist Argentina. I can’t seem to make up my mind.” Decca kept writing right up to her death and was never without a project, often more than one. In an observation that will resonate with any writer, she commented that although working is terrible, not working is worse.
Jessica Mitford did not ally herself with “feminists,” by which she seems to have meant women who complained, or insisted on scrutinizing their own troubles or feelings. She avoided anything that smacked of religion or psychiatry along with consciousness-raising and other inward-looking activities, and loved to make fun of their accompanying jargon. During her tough childhood, in a family whose dominant mode of communication was teasing, she learned to laugh instead of complain, and to avoid sadness—or at least its expression—at all costs. Among those costs, I suspect, were her heavy drinking and smoking, along with quarrels with friends who reacted badly to her sharp tongue. But not all of her quarrels arose from temper or temperament: some were matters of principle. She told Maya Angelou, a dear friend, why, and how strongly, she disagreed with Angelou’s support for the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, which she described to another friend as “that ridic. endorsement of dread Clarence Thomas.” The two had “a terrible falling-out” but patched up their friendship before Decca’s final illness, when “Angelou flew into town and sat at her bedside, singing the raucous songs they loved, with Decca rousing herself occasionally to sing along.”
Peter Sussman has done a fine job of introduction and annotation. His explanations add to the interest as well as the clarity of this rich and complicated volume, and although the footnotes are numerous, none is unnecessary. Mitford’s correspondence was so various, its range in subject matter and personnel so vast, that readers could easily be lost without Sussman’s helpful, unobtrusive commentary. The division of the book into chapters reflecting the stages of Decca’s life provides useful breathing spaces, and the chapter introductions place the letters in their appropriate context in twentieth-century history. Whether readers approach this volume out of interest in radical history or in what Decca called “the Mitford Industry,” they will find what they were looking for, and much more.
Clarissa Atkinson is a devoted student of both the Mitford Industry and the Communist Party of the U.S.A.