Two Minutes with Jessica Mitford
Irrepressible by Leslie Brody
Did I finish?: I tore through this book.
One-sentence summary: Well-written biography of muckraker Jessica Mitford.
Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover — the font, the image, the layout — it’s perfect.
I’m reminded of…: Nancy Milford, Barry Werth
First line: Soon after Jessica Mitford moved with her family to Swinbrook House in Oxfordshire, she began to plot her escape from it.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy — I’m telling you, you want to know about the fabulous Decca Mitford!
Why did I get this book?: I love the Mitfords, and I love muckrakers, and I love female journalists. I couldn’t resist.
Review: In a high school journalism class, I read some excerpts from Jessica Mitford’s amazing book The American Way of Death, an expose and exploration of the American funeral business (her book was said to have influenced Robert F. Kennedy’s coffin choice for his brother). It was much later that I learned this Mitford was related to that other Mitford I knew, Nancy.
Born in 1917, Jessica was the sixth of seven children born to an English baron and his wife. Jessica’s childhood was influenced by the privilege of her family’s wealth, status, and name as well as the wildly diverging personalities of her sisters. All were passionate and brilliant, determined to mark their place in society; Jessica’s early liberal political leanings were in stark contrast to her sisters Unity and Diana, who were dedicated Fascists and supporters of Hitler. An impetuous elopement with her second cousin lead to Jessica being cut out of the family. After her first marriage ended, she married an American and became a Communist. She actively worked in the Civil Rights movement and wrote sharp, invective examinations of American society.
At less than 350 pages, this biography reads quickly albeit a tad dry. I tend to favor more ‘relational’ biographies, the ones where the biographer openly acknowledges her place in the story, but this is one of those more formal types where the biographer is invisible. As a result, the writing style is very precise, very sharp, almost journalistic in style. Many sentences are shaped by a direct quote of some sort (i.e., Decca reveled in being “busy, busy, busy.”, page 135) but that isn’t to say that Brody doesn’t write well or without passion (Suddenly, they were in a psychosexual crucible, with all the vino and cheap gin they could drink. He had a bitter edge. She had a wicked mouth. Finally, they were just kids., page 19). Mitford’s life — already fascinating — snaps along in Brody’s hands, one fascinating episode after another, and so this felt like a considerably shorter book.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Jessica Mitford, give this book a try: she’s a fascinating women whose life reads like an over-the-top historical novel. I think anyone interested in post-WWII Britain and America will enjoy following this radical and brilliant writer through some of the most influential events in 20th century history.
A Plucky Attempt
At the tender age of 12, Jessica Mitford – Decca to her famous family – mailed her bank 10 shillings with instructions to deposit them in her ‘Running Away Account’.
By the time she was 19 she was ready to cash it in, running first to the Spanish Civil War to fight fascism alongside her second cousin – and Churchill’s nephew – Esmond Romilly, and eventually to America with him. After Romilly was killed in World War II, she married a New York radical lawyer, relocating to the West Coast.
Though hastily told, Leslie Brody’s biography of the woman for whom the term champagne socialist – or cocktail communist? – might have been invented is laden with juicy details.
When she was presented at court during the debutante season, Decca stole royal chocolates. As a wife she sloshed vodka into her morning coffee. And in midlife she found her legendarily acerbic literary voice.
It’s a lot to capture but this bracing narrative makes a suitably plucky attempt.
This review by Gordon Osmond (an audience member in the original “Mitford Girls” West End production) on the “Book Pleasures” blog, notes that if Decca were alive “she surely would be searching out and challenging perceived injustices and instances of political oppression. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on the permanence of social unrest that today she wouldn’t have to go beyond her beloved Oakland to find it.”
With sisters like Diana and Unity around, it would be difficult for Jessica, the penultimate child in the Mitford clan, to achieve the status of “black sheep.” With a sister like Nancy around, it would be virtually impossible for Jessica to be considered the most successful writer in the family. But in her own way and following her particular lights, Jessica, a/k/a “Decca” (nothing to do with the record label) Mitford was a strong contender for both titles as she forged a life of conflict, challenge, and conquest, all of which are faithfully and lovingly captured in Leslie Brody’s admirable new biography.
Ms. Brody slights neither the life nor the times of Jessica Mitford. From her impetuous but heartfelt elopement with the first of her two husbands, when the happy couple managed (unlike the hapless Mary MacGregor in Miss Jean Brodie’s classroom), to aid the right, actually left, side in the Spanish Civil War, to her final efforts to support her second-marriage son’s campaign to ship contraband pianos to Cuba, Decca comes across clearly as an energetic, eccentric, and iconoclastic champion of underdog causes provided, of course, that they were firmly settled on the left side of the political spectrum.
Whether attacking undertakers, fat farms, baby doctors, prisons, writing consultants, or prosecutors, Decca always put her personality where her pen was. On the West (Left) Coast, she became the “hostess with the mostest,” offering support to and in procuring support for her various charities. Brody includes a delightful account of a typical residential fund raiser where Decca put the nickel-and-dime charging practices of modern airlines to shame in her effort to extract from her “guests” every cent for the cause of the day.
Decca’s crusade against a writers’ organization that preyed on the hopes and dreams of authors will strike a familiar chord with playwrights who are victimized by New York City’s numerous “play mills” and by writers aligned with publishers that would rather go out of business than refund a cent for an unperformed service.
The clear clefts in the Mitford family were political, but not necessarily philosophical. Decca’s despising of sister Diana’s fascism was so intense as to cause Decca, in a Sister Dearest moment, to write a letter to Winston Churchill, a relative, urging the Prime Minister not to release Diana and her husband from prison. Only by putting a bullet in her head did Unity, a tea cozy companion of Hitler, receive from Decca a degree of forbearance, if not forgiveness. Father Mitford carried on the family tradition by excluding Decca by name from all dispositive provisions of his Will.
When Stalin proved to be as fond of genocide as Hitler, there was cause to conclude that fascism and communism were not, at base, polar opposites but rather two sides of the same collectivist and totalitarian coin. This possibility is touched upon rather lightly in the final sections of the book, but neither author Brody nor her subject seem to have much to say for it. Decca’s false prediction that communism would soon bury capitalism should, perhaps, have provided pause for reflection.
Writing was the means by which Decca fulfilled herself and, incidentally perhaps, rose from a poverty self-imposed by a high level of integrity and independence consistently maintained throughout her earlier, leaner years. The author’s description of her subject’s writing methodologies will surely delight all those who have written or ever aspired to. The vetting of her drafts, piece by piece, by trusted friends, her tendency to blend ink with alcohol, the location of her writing sites from a view of the Scottish shore to the luxurious environments of Lake Como to the Riviera, to her search for agents and publishers, all provide a vivid account of Decca at her desk.
Rarely does a turn of the book’s many pages fail to reveal some new insight into or example of Jessica Mitford’s remarkable personality, whether recounting ribald events centered around urine, probably apocryphal confusion between the District of Columbia and Columbia University, Decca’s response to the loss of her children through miscarriage, abortion, disease, or accident, or her distaste for housework, presumably on the ground that it represented a circular rather than a linear endeavor.
It’s somewhat remarkable that a woman as mercurial and dynamic as Decca could live happily to term with not one, but two loving husbands. Her second seems especially understanding in that, for all we know from Ms. Brody, he lived without cavil through two literary projects in which his wife was immersed in the life and loves of her first husband. Could this perhaps be a contributing cause of his later marital waywardness?
Brody’s research is so searching as to uncover a Chichester production of a frothy musical named, The Mitford Girls, which Jessica attended but did not comment upon to any significant extent, at least in this book. The musical, which transferred to the West End if not to Broadway, was, in the opinion of this reviewer, totally delightful and featured a line attributed to Mother Mitford in addressing one of her brood that captured perfectly the tough love aspect of the family: “Don’t put on airs, dear; nobody’s looking at you.”
Brody has an intelligent and appropriately breezy writing style that comports well with her subject. The text is enlivened by actual quotations from various writings, indicating, among other things, that the Mitford girls were addicted to ampersands and various abbreviations.
Ms. Brody has a palpable love of words. Her “Black berets sailed upon their spherical Afros . . . is merely representative of her excellent use of simile, metaphor, and alliteration. On the other hand, at one point—”She was instantly the expert, the authority on all things funeral”—”funereal” might have been a better choice and “debacle” perhaps a bit high voltage to describe a job firing after a scant three months of employment. But, on balance, can we ever thank Ms. Brody enough for “monde green,” which apparently has nothing to do with Al Gore.
Once the story is over, the reader of Irrepressible is rewarded with a fine index, a useful bibliography, a section of notes, and a list of acknowledgments so encompassing as to make the reader feel somehow excluded in the thanks department.
Were Jessica Mitford still alive, she surely would be searching out and challenging perceived injustices and instances of political oppression. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on the permanence of social unrest that today she wouldn’t have to go beyond her beloved Oakland to find it.