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The American Way of Decca

Jessica Mitford was a most delightful observer of the American way of life and death.

By 7.20.07

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This review by Florence King appears in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Edited by Peter Y. Sussman
(Knopf, 744 pages, $35)

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.

After her husband was killed in the war she married Robert Treuhaft, a radical labor lawyer whose firm would one day hire an intern named Hillary Rodham. They moved to Oakland, California, where Decca joined the American Communist Party, a shadow of its former self but "the only game in town for civil rights," now her cause celebre. She soon put the there in Oakland, masquerading as a prospective tenant to catch out landlords in racial discrimination, lionizing black folksinger Leadbelly, and making an American version of The Headline ("Sister of Hitler Girlfriend...") when she wrote Churchill demanding that he keep her sister Diana in prison "where she belongs."

The genesis of The American Way of Death was her husband's legal defense of a local burial society that kept running into obstructive state laws lobbied into being by the powerful California Funeral Directors Association. Seeing her chance to do battle with her hated trifecta of greed, hypocrisy, and sentimentality, she rescued the subject from her husband's lawyerly approach and quickly became the most notorious woman in the country.

Her first success was getting "P.O." (for "please omit flowers") into obits when former President Eisenhower included it in his mother-in-law's. The book also earned accolades from the Kennedy brothers thanks to Decca's sister Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, whose title would have gone to Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy if Kick's husband, and Kick, had lived. Deborah had remained friends with the Kennedy family and Bobby read Decca's book (which influenced him a few months later when he chose JFK's coffin).

To Decca's (and everyone's) surprise The American Way of Death found favor with clergymen, who considered many funeral practices pagan. That did not stop enraged politicians from delivering their usual gems, however, like this one from California Congressman James B. Utt: "I would rather place my mortal remains, alive or dead, in the hands of any American mortician than to set foot on the soil of any Communist nation."

Handing Decca statements like that was like handing a baby a loaded gun. The book and her many media appearances drew so much fan mail that she had to hire someone to answer it. To avoid spending time dictating, she told the typist to make up suitable replies to each letter. The girl was intelligent enough, but she was also an English debutante. As Decca described what ensued:

Some serious old soul in North Dakota wrote to say that having thought it all over, she decided to bequeath her body to med. school. So my sec'y writes back: "What a perfectly smashing idea. I'm sure the medical school will be so delighted to get it."

One wishes the whole book were like this, don't one? Unfortunately, Decca does not go full-sailed into the political night, but founders on the shoals of her -- wait for it -- bete noire. Whenever her subject is race relations, and it often is, she loses her lofty detachment, English understatement, and perfect dead-pan and turns into just the sort of two-faced, guilt-ridden, sycophantic crawler she claimed to despise.

Some of the blame can be traced to her Communist Party training, which subjected members to a level of political correctness that would make our present-day rules seem like free speech. They weren't allowed to order "black coffee" or use figures of speech like "the dark days ahead." Another problem was her subconscious association of her aristocratic girlhood world with the gentrified Jim Crowism she found in America: "I simply loathe the old South and old Southerners, they are completely uncivilized and are too vile about the Negroes. In fact, they're just like Empire Builders."

A MAJOR CATALYST FOR HER racial conflicts was her friendship with Maya Angelou, the garrulous, gravel-voiced Poetess Laureate and non-stop autobiographer of the you-go-girl school of intellectual reparations. Decca's letters to Angelou are virtually unrecognizable as the words of one of the greatest wits of our time. One in particular, in praise of Angelou's third autobiography (Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas) is a gushing fan letter that opens with "Dear Miss Absolutely Amazing Thing," and descends to girlish superlatives... "a lovely breath of life... most tremendous lift... totally fascinating."

Angelou realized that she had a peer's daughter for a whipping boy and behaved accordingly, as when she blew up at another white woman at a party and left Decca to plead for all whites. The woman asked, "But what can we DO about racism?" and Angelou exploded, "YOU are asking ME?" Decca's letter is a danse macabre of how to walk on eggs, a Euclidian treatise on how many hands will go into on-the-other-hand, all followed by a P.S. almost as long as the letter itself.

The friendship broke up when Angelou did something unforgivably white. She came out in favor of Clarence Thomas in a New York Times op-ed, saying that the hysterics calling for his head should calm down and listen to his side of the story, if only because a black man who had come that far was too precious to sacrifice. This time it was Decca who exploded, concocting the bizarre theory that "Maya has completely cast her lot with right-wing Republican blacks, all Bush toadies."

It goes without saying that Decca supported Jesse Jackson for president in 1984, but what boggles the mind is her take on the O.J. Simpson case. "We were pleased with the verdict but thought he was probably guilty," she wrote in one letter. In another she said, "We welcomed the verdict as Benj [the Treuhafts' son] did, serves the cops right. A thought: sort of an Affirmative Action type of vote? Redressing centuries of injustice in our law courts."

It also comes as a surprise, though a rather pleasant, nostalgic one in view of today's approaching moral collapse, that the Hon. Jessica Mitford, for all her rebellious eccentricities, was just that: Honorable, in ways beyond her title. Nowhere in this mountain of letters is there the slightest hint of lovers, lesbians, abortions, radical feminism, or any of the lubricious confusion our world takes for granted. Whatever else she stood for, she was an old-fashioned girl who slept with only two men and was married to both of them.

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).