Author: Jessica Mitford; Editor: Peter Sussman
Category: This is the first time I’ve read this book.
My thoughts: I have decided to do two posts about this book, because it’s over 700 pages—it seems that Jessica Mitford spent a lot of her life writing letters. So far, I’m absolutely loving this book. Jessica, or Decca, as she was called, was funny and sarcastic, and seems like she would have been fun to hang out with.
I had heard about the Mitford family over the years, and when I was in college, I read Decca’s sister Nancy Mitford’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Decca was the second-to-last child of Lord and Lady Redesdale, British aristocrats. Aside from Decca, the family consisted on Nancy (the novelist), Diana and Unity (the Fascists), Debo (the duchess), and relatively quieter siblings, Pam and Tom. Aside from Tom, who went to Eton, the siblings were not formally educated. Decca was a born rebel, and at 18 she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew-by-marriage, to Spain during the Civil War there. The two of them later moved to the United States, and became friends with Virginia and Clifford Durr and Katharine Graham. When World War II began, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and he and Decca had a baby, Constancia. The letters from Decca to Esmond when he was away during the war are seriously precious. Sadly, Esmond was killed in 1941. One letter in this section, written in 1943, is from Decca to Winston Churchill, in which she expresses disdain that her sister Diana and her husband Oswald Mosley, who was head of British Union of Fascists, had been released from prison (Diana and Oswald had been locked up in 1940, after Britain declared war on Germany). Indeed, Decca made it clear in many of her letters that she loathed Diana because of her politics. I think Decca blamed folks like the Mosleys for Esmond’s death. In one letter to her second husband Bob Treuhaft (from 1955), written when Decca was visiting her family in England, Decca expresses anger at her mother for having lunch with the Mosleys. Decca wrote that she told her mother that she and Constancia (who she calls Dinky, Dink, Donk, and Dinkydonk in various letters) won’t attend because they “do not care to break bread with murderers.” As the kids today would say, Decca knew how to throw shade.
Decca and Bob were also members of the Communist Party during the early 1950s. And in her letters she details the harassment she and her husband endured from “Red Hunters” of the time. She was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and she and Bob had their passports confiscated. It makes one livid, as Decca would say, how folks were treated during this time. Decca was also really passionate about civil rights issues. In California, where she and Bob lived, she fronted for black couples who wanted to buy houses, in order to get around real estate discrimination. She once did this in a neighborhood that the District Attorney, her nemesis, lived in—he put his house up for sale when he found out a black couple was moving into his neighborhood. In the early 1960s, Decca was in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting the Durrs when the Freedom Riders also came to town. She visited a church where MLK was giving a speech and ended up being trapped inside the church with him and many others all night while an angry white mob surrounded them (the Durr’s car, which Decca borrowed to drive to the church, was destroyed in the melee).
Decca also writes about her efforts as an author. She worked on her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, while in England, and mentioned, in her letters, how curious her family was about the contents. In 1963, two things happened: Decca published her bestseller The American Way of Death and JFK was assassinated. The latter event is notable because Decca’s sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, was friends with him—JFK’s sister Kathleen was married to Debo’s brother-in-law, Billy Hartington. Billy was killed in World War II, and Debo kept in touch with the Kennedys. In fact, Debo told Decca that Bobby Kennedy actually read The American Way of Death, and used a bit of advice from the book while choosing a casket for his brother’s funeral.
That’s a lot of information, and it’s only about the first half of the book! Stay tuned for part 2.
Great passage (from a letter to her mother-in-law in 1959): The dinner party was a riot. There were about 8 rather dullish people there, including Peter’s rather dullish wife, and his daughter who popped in and out between dances…We were invited for 7, and between then and 9 there wasn’t a sign of any food, just enormous drinks of whiskey. At 9, Peter set a table for 8, groaning and complaining bitterly as he did so about what a lot of trouble it was; on it he set a small platter of bought cold meats, legs of chicken and the like, and a tiny salad. As I was served first, I took almost everything. And that was all, except for some strawberries and cream (strawberries are currently selling for about 25 each). No coffee, bread, vegs, almost no nothing. Masses of wine, tho, with dinner, and brandy after. This is just what Cedric was telling us about that sort of English person; if they don’t have servants, or if the servants are out, they simply give up, and would rather starve than cook.