Black Sheep

The letters of Jessica Mitford.

Although it is not uncommon for big families to produce a rebel or two along with the chip-off-the-old-block offspring, there are few that can lay claim to as much dissension within the ranks as the aristocratic clan of Mitford. This gaggle of wayward sisters (six in all, with one brother, Tom, who was killed in combat in 1945 at the age of 36) included Diana, the family beauty, who married the dastardly Oswald Mosley, head of the British Fascist party; Nancy, the family wit, whose novel The Pursuit of Love kick-started the proliferation of novels, memoirs, and biographies that would come to be called the Mitford “industry”; and the family madwoman, Unity, who went bonkers for Adolf Hitler and put a pistol to her head when Britain declared war on Germany.

Of these exotic renegades, none was more proud of going against the grain than Jessica, a black sheep who flouted everything her virulently xenophobic parents stood for by embracing communism over Blue Bloodism and then, adding insult to injury, the United States over England. Throughout her career, Decca (as Jessica was nicknamed) exhibited an undeviating delight in bucking the trend—an épater-le-bourgeoisie instinct which seems less a testament to a fiery social conscience or to deeply felt beliefs than a lifelong habit of enfant terrible-ism. How you feel about the woman once dubbed “the Queen of Muckrakers” for her scathing indictments of everything from a correspondence course for aspiring scribblers (Bennett Cerf’s Famous Writers School) to a posh women’s spa after reading Decca, a fat volume of her correspondence ably edited by Peter Y. Sussman, depends on your tolerance for a certain kind of d’haut en bas approach to human misery that eschews compassion for brisk vigor. It is symptomatic of her less-than-cuddly attitude that she appears in these letters to be more moved by the plight of Miranda, a pet lamb from childhood that she last saw a half-century ago (“I suppose that by now she must be dead? … Miranda was the light of my life”) than she is by the bipolar disorder her son Benjamin suffered from, the effects of which she characterized as “dreadful, absurd, disgusting manic episodes.”

Decca grew up in an imposing house named after the Cotswold village in which it was located; she refers to it in her first memoir, Hons & Rebels, as “a private lunatic asylum.” She was schooled at home by her mother and then a series of inept governesses. Both her parents had whims of iron: Her father, Lord Redesdale (referred to as “the feudal remnant” or “the Old Subhuman” and sometimes as “Farve” or “the Male”), was given to bursts of rage against Huns and artists, and believed in the efficacy of unpasteurized milk, as well as the unchecked power of the House of Lords. “Muv” had her own pet peeves—Jews were among them—and odd affections (chicken-farming), and was firmly against medical intervention when anyone in the family took ill, being of the belief that ailments were best left to “the Good Body” to take care of on its own.

Jessica, the second-to-youngest daughter, emerged from this proudly insular background (outsiders, including other people’s children, were shunned) with a durable feeling of entitlement; she first learned to make a bed after she was married and staying with her friend Virginia Durr in Washington, D.C. In 1937, after spending a finishing year in Paris, followed by a sightseeing visit to a Nazified Munich with her mother and sisters (this detail was elided from both her memoir and her letters), and coming out in the 1935 debutante season at Buckingham Palace, Decca shocked her family by eloping with Esmond Romilly under their ever-watchful noses. She had been squirreling funds since the age of 12 in a “Running Away Account” at Drummond’s Bank in London expressly with an eye toward such a contingency. (According to Decca’s memoir, her mother, upon learning of the account, murmured vaguely cautionary words in response: “Well, darling, you’ll have to save up a nice lot; you have no idea how expensive life in London is these days.”)

In the congenially interwoven way of the British upper classes, Romilly was Decca’s second cousin and the nephew of Winston Churchill, who was widely rumored to be his father. Mitford had fallen in love with Romilly—whose exploits she had been following ever since he had grown notorious as a pacifist “Red Menace” while still at boarding school—practically within minutes of meeting him at a weekend house party given by her cousin Dorothy.  From the moment she joined forces with Esmond, Decca adopted his sense of outrage at social injustices and his impassioned political commitment. Decca became a member of the Communist Party in the early 1940s, and although she left it in 1958, she did so more out of boredom than disillusionment with its underlying principles (“I did find the so-called ‘discipline’ a bit confining and tiresome”), and claimed until the last to find it preferable to other systems. All the same, she was happy to draw on the cachet of her and Romilly’s crested backgrounds when it suited her purposes after they came to live in Washington, D.C.—paving the way to invitations from Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer to stay at his lushly appointed home in Mount Kisco, as well as to a long friendship with his daughter Katherine Graham—just as she sedulously played down her aristo credentials when she thought they would prove troublesome. (She presumably did not let her many radical friends in on her blue-chip origins or the fact that she had inherited a share of her family’s private island retreat off the coast of Scotland upon her brother’s death.)

In 1941, at the age of 23, Esmond was killed when the Royal Canadian Air Force mission he was on was shot down over Bremen. Within short order, Decca, who was left to grieve in her adoptive country with a baby daughter, Constancia, was being courted by Robert Treuhaft, a lawyer with impeccable Jacobin credentials. The two married in 1943, and in 1947 they moved with their growing family—Decca had given birth to a son, Nicholas, and Benjamin came along three years later—to a largely black neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. Although her richly detailed letters are full of charming anecdotes about her children, Decca described her parental style as one of “benign neglect” and was resolutely undomestic, preferring to expend her energies on picketing, leafleting, and generally raising a ruckus about whatever misdemeanor caught her ire. In 1958, she published an article on expensive funeral practices called “St. Peter, Don’t You Call Me” in a small magazine called Frontier that would eventually blossom into her 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. The book, which became a best seller and made her name, was the first sustained example of Mitford’s “poison penmanship” (the title she gave to the 1979 collection of her take-no-prisoners investigative pieces). As was true for much of her journalism, Decca took an ends-justifies-the-means approach to securing information; she posed as a bereaved widow in order to gain access and was spared by her husband from having to view an actual embalming before describing it in full gory details.

Over the years, Decca’s reverse snobbism led her to embrace the disempowered and even the bien-pensant rich, with their “super-plush” houses, but never, ever the irredeemably middle-class—the sort of people, as she sniffingly characterized them, who sell “USED CARS for a living.” Her upper-class English background was successfully eradicated to the point where she felt comfortable hosting Leadbelly as a houseguest. But traces of it lingered in her aesthetic judgments and visceral responses—in her description, for instance, of Alex Haley’s “amazing spread” in Knoxville, Tenn.: “The Haley ranch,” she wrote Sally Belfrage, one of several younger friends Decca counseled and shared confidences with, “is a dream/nightmare of marvellous comfort and incredibly hideous décor. I shared a cottage … furnished with fake Louis IV things & false flowers & false ferns.” Despite her lifelong nose-thumbing campaign against all her family stood for, Decca remained very much a champagne socialist. She was her parents’ daughter in matters of taste both small and large, someone who had certain “U” standards bred into her bones (such as never resorting to paper napkins or furniture of inauthentic provenance) and who was “brought up never to cry in front of other people.”

These letters are rarely less than amusing, colored by a salubrious scorn for the pieties and deceit of the status quo and marked by Decca’s gimlet eye for the maliciously telling detail. All the same, it can become taxing to spend long periods of time in the company of someone playing so incessantly for laughs. Did Decca experience a moment of sadness, doubt, or vulnerability in her life? With the exception of her correspondence with her grandchildren and the young, which features a more closeted, lovelorn part of her, one would have to conclude that mockery always had the upper hand when it came to anything to do with feelings, especially those she deemed unseemly. (“You know those absurd expressions,” she wrote, “‘Wounded,’ ‘Pained,’ ‘Hurt’ ?”) Vitriolic archness was her first and last defense, abetted by an almost compulsive lack of self-reflection. Openness about the more shadowy corners of experience was one of the many things, along with psychiatry and religion, that Decca simply didn’t “go in for.” Her lapses in empathy are disturbing, especially toward people of pallor and privilege, as opposed to people of color and penury, and although one can admire her for her stoicism in the face of tragedy, it’s hard not to wonder where stoicism leaves off and flintiness begins. The death of her son Nicholas, who was killed at the age of 10 when he was struck by a bus as he rode his bike, gets mentioned briefly in a telegram and follow-up note to Lady Redesdale, but then disappears from sight until the very end of the book. By her own account, Decca “simply airbrushed” Nicholas’ existence out of her second memoir, A Fine Old Conflict: “His birth, his short & delightful life, never mentioned.”

And yet, overall, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Decca’s spiky charm and disarming curiosity, which remained with her to the end. “I do wish I knew who Miss Jerry Hall, tall Texan, is,” she wrote her younger sister Deborah in 1990, in response to a description of a ball her sister and her husband, the Duke of Devonshire, had given at Chartworth, the family estate, which both Mick Jagger and his then-girlfriend attended. Perhaps it’s only Decca exerting her force of will once again, but in a world that seems to grow ever more homogenized, it is refreshing to encounter a one-of-a-kind character—however eccentric and bullying—especially at safe remove. In her penultimate letter, dated July 13, 1996, 10 days before she died of a metastasized lung cancer that had been diagnosed less than a month earlier, Mitford observed to her younger sister: “Am also taking FULL ADVANTAGE of condition to press all sorts of things (lawsuits etc of no interest to you) on ground that you can’t refuse a dying person’s request.” Decca remained a naughty child all her life, one who ventured out from the nursery, thinking of ever more ingenious ways to annoy or alarm the grownups. But who among us doesn’t nurture a feisty inner imp, intent on having the last laugh before bedtime?