This review by Florence King appears in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.p> em> Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford br> Edited by Peter Y. Sussman br> (Knopf, 744 pages, $35) /em> /p>
DO NOT READ THIS BOOK while drinking or eating, else its pages will be splattered with whatever you were about to swallow when you came to an hysterically funny line and everything went down the wrong way.
Laughter is the last thing you would expect when politically solemn Communists cross swords with professionally solemn undertakers, but when the Communist is the English aristocrat who wrote The American Way of Death, all bets are off. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 expose of our overpriced funeral industry and its maudlin extortionary wiles was condemned as an assault on capitalism by a godless Red, a subversive harpy who wanted to deprive grieving loved ones of the beautiful “memory pictures” of American funerals and substitute the dismal primitive procedures practiced in the Soviet Union.
Mitford, who was once disciplined by her American Communist Party cell for joking, was ready with the unanswerable. “All the best embalmers are Communists,” she said. “Look at Lenin.”
The Hon. Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), known as Decca, was one of the six daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale, a family so dysfunctional that if a Mitford girl wanted to be a rebellious nonconformist she had to be dull, sane, and stay out of the newspapers. Only one sister managed this feat: Pamela, who enjoyed healthy outdoor life and country pursuits, was so pleasant and conventional and helpful to others that Decca and Nancy nicknamed her “Woman.” The rest made headlines, one headline in particular: “Whenever I see ‘Peer’s Daughter…’ I know it’s one of you girls,” said their mother.
Nancy, the oldest, moved to Paris, wrote novels, and had a long affair with a prominent French statesman. Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire (Decca told people she had gone “duke-hunting”); Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and declared herself a Nazi (“Peer’s Daughter as Jew-Hater”); Unity moved to Germany and became a Hitler groupie (“Peer’s Daughter Is Adolf’s Nordic Ideal”); and Decca became a Communist and eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Churchill’s “Red Nephew,” to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. This last was too much for Baron Redesdale. A Nazi sympathizer himself, he had no quarrel with Diana and Unity, but up with Communists he would not put, particularly those related to Churchill, so he disinherited Decca, instructing his solicitors to insert “except Jessica” after each bequest (“Peer’s Will…”).
When England declared war on Germany, Diana and her husband were imprisoned and Unity tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide, shooting herself in the head, but the bullet lodged in her brain and paralyzed her for the remaining nine years of her life. Decca’s husband joined the RAF but, fearing for Decca if Germany should win, insisted she move to the U.S. where they had spent time after their Spanish adventure.
Money was tight, so she stayed in suburban D.C. as the guest of progressive Alabamians Clifford and Virginia Durr, he a New Deal advisor on race relations and she a passionate advocate of abolishing the poll tax. The Durrs knew everybody in the limousine-liberal set, and Decca’s title and English accent did the rest. She earned commissions masquerading as a saleswoman in an exclusive dress shop where all she had to do was be present and let herself be heard speaking; she cultivated the Meyerses, owners of the Washington Post; and she devised an ingenious way of emphasizing her lineage to impress those in the know while winning the sympathy of the uninitiated. On job applications she wrote None under Education, explaining that her family did not believe in sending girls to school; and None under Father’s Occupation, adding, “Worked at times in the House of Lords.” It was all true — the sisters were tutored at home — but some might easily think she was the underprivileged daughter of a part-time janitor.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?