Jessica Mitford had various claims to fame: a pioneering muckraking journalist, civil rights activist, unrepentant Communist, and a member of the infamous Mitford sisters. As evident in her two classic books – Hons and Rebels (1960) and The American Way of Death (1963) – Mitford was a witty, mordantly funny writer who had little patience for reverence. She was equally humorous in her letters. Edited by journalist Peter Y. Sussman, Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford gives readers an intriguing look into British aristocracy, fascism, the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as an upper-crust society that includes Katherine Graham, Maya Angelou, Hillary Clinton, Julie Andrews and Harry Truman, among other starry names Mitford corresponded with; along with being shown as a prolific and busy writer and epistolarian, the Jessica Mitford from these letters is brave, passionate, loving, unforgiving, short-tempered and difficult.
The Mitford sisters were notorious because of members Diana and Unity and their embrace of fascism and Nazi politics; Unity in particular was a tragic case, who reportedly even fell in love with Adolph Hitler. Jessica, on the other hand, was contemptuous of fascism, and her contempt later turned to righteous anger when her first husband died in WWII, causing an irrevocable rift in her relationship with Diana that lasted until Jessica’s death in 1996 (the two sisters hardly ever spoke to each other and avoided each other, much to the chagrin of their mother, Lady Redesdale, known as “Muv” in the letters). She’s more compassionate toward Unity, and seemed genuinely sorry when her sister died of meningitis in 1948.
That Diana was forever persona non grate does illustrate that for all of Jessica Mitford’s famed tolerance and civic mindnedness, she’s also harsh and uncompromising, never bullshitting her friends or family, even it means potential estrangement: for example, one of her dearest friends, Maya Angelou (who’s referred to as Mitfords “sister”), is almost destroyed because of a disagreement over the lauded poet’s supportive article on Clarence Thomas’ supreme court appointment. She’s also gleefully dismissive and suspicious of the funeral industry, which she mercilessly skewers in the iconic The American Way of Death. It’s clear that Mitford is a demanding friend, who can be prickly and peppery.
But that’s obviously not the whole story: Mitford’s work for social justice is also covered in this book. She joins her second husband in working on legal cases of wrongly-charged black men. She also joins in on various marches and protests, even becoming involved in a riot when the KKK and some followers descended on a group of civil rights activists, who came to join the Freedom Riders.
Mitford’s Communist sympathies also had her face the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the passages that cover her perspective on McCarthyism and the red-scare are fascinating and sometimes scary. There’s a righteous anger as well as reliable doses of humor.
But the book isn’t devoted to merely political matters: there are family concerns as well as mundane details about houses being sold, friends being married, relatives getting gold. These letters show a gentle, funny, loving Mitford – a nice break from the more strident one; her letters to her close friends in particular provide a glimpse of a warm, sentimental women.
Many will read Decca to see the potentially-uncomfortable relationship Mitford had with her sisters and mother. There’s some of that in there – most notably when she swats away her mother’s peace-brokering efforts when trying to reunite Mitford with Diana; Mitford’s relationship with her mother has also been fraught with discomfort as well – but as her mother aged and mellowed, Mitford warmed up to her to the point where the two were able to forge a relationship (though there were still moments of acid – like when Mitford was pitted against her family when she was the only one that wanted to sell the family estate).
Another sell for the book is the list of starry names – besides Angelou, Mitford developed friendships with Katherine Graham, the Redgraves, Julie Andrews, and a Pre-Clinton Hillary Rodham (who worked with Mitford’s second husband at his law firm). There’s a fascinating letter Mitford penned to Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, to ask the latter of the etiquette with fax correspondence.
Also interesting is her less-than rosy impression of future first lady Ladybird Johnson (who she wrote was a “rather dull girl” and later wrote of the Johnsons as “slop(ping) around your [civil rights activist Virginia Durr) garden with their outlandish manners and accents.” A charming side note: when Lady Redesdale first heard of Ladybird Johnson, she wrote to her daughter “Who is Lady Bird? I looked her up in the Peerage, but could find no trace.”
But Mrs. Johnson isn’t the only notable that gets stung with Mitford’s pen. She calls Hustler publisher Larry Flynt a “disgusting specimen,” found Walter Mondale to be a “bore” and cannot hide displeasure at Princess Margaret, saying she had a “silly little voice.”
Also great is when Jessica Mitford the journalist is on display. Whether it’s following her work on the funeral industry, covering the trial of noted pediatrician Dr. Spock, or a hilarious, relentlessly sarcastic take on a health spa in Phoenix, Arizona, Mitford has an incredible talent for framing her facts in such a mocking, acerbic tone, that her writing drips with clear-eyed contempt for things in society she finds ridiculous, unfair, shameful or absurd.
The story of Jessica Mitford is also a great view of contemporary American history. She’s lived through some major events and has had a significant role in covering these events, and given the intimate nature of these letters, readers are given pretty unvarnished views of a particularly articulate witness to U.S. history.