Decca Mitford, known as Jessica only on her books (such as The American Way of Death and the latest, A Fine Old Conflict), has a priceless anecdote about her experience as a mother. Her daughter Dinky (that’s short for Dinky-Donk) had a thumb-sucking problem back in 1945 and Mother took her to a University of California psychiatric clinic near their home in San Francisco. “Your birth date?” asked the interviewer. “Childhood diseases? Migraine headaches?” Mitford’s British reserve affronted, she answered reluctantly. Her parents, she confessed, were Lord and Lady Redesdale, of the Cotswolds. Epilepsy, no, fainting spells, no. Then:
Q—Any insanity in your family?
Q—Any marked eccentricity?
A—Well…One of my sisters, Unity, shot herself.
Q—Circumstances of shooting?
A—She adored Hitler and had joined his circle, so when war broke out between England and Germany, she felt she should shoot herself.
Q—(more hesitantly) What were you doing at the time?
A—I’d run away to Spain to help the Republican forces fight the Fascist rebels.
A-(very low) I came to America and joined the Communist Party, U.S.A.
The clinic rejected Dinky, concluding: “The mother lives in a fantasy world and is incapable of giving rational and credible answers to questions.”
Mitford includes a version of that story in her just published A Fine Old Conflict, the second installment of her autobiography. This volume takes her into the party, out of it and on to her career as a best-selling muckraker. For Americans, the book is a good introduction to Jessica Mitford herself because it illustrates the problem non-Britons have always had with the Mitfords—they cannot believe the family is real.
The English, on the other hand, have no such problems with idiosyncrasy. “When I toured England earlier this year to promote the book,” says the author, a twinkle in her light-blue eyes, “several British newspapers reported ‘a boom in the Mitford industry,’ since mine was the fourth book on the family in fairly rapid succession.” A Fine Old Conflict (her mishearing of a line from the Communist anthem The International: ” ‘Tis the final conflict, / Let each stand in his place”) was preceded by sister Diana’s autobiography, A Life of Contrasts, which tells of her years as the wife of British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley; David Pryce-Jones’ Unity Mitford, about the sister who shot herself, and Harold Acton’s Nancy Mitford: A Memoir, an evocation of the most famous sister, the late author of biographies and witty novels.
“One writer said he was assaulted by Mitfords,” Decca adds in the exquisite upper-class British accent that 38 years in America have failed to adulterate. That speech, those polyester suits. Is this matronly woman truly the radical of the West Coast, former Communist and scourge of this country’s funeral industry?
Decca, 60 in September, was the second youngest of the seven children of David Mitford, the second Baron Redesdale, and his wife, Sydney (Farve and Muv to the kids, then to their friends and ultimately to the entire United Kingdom). Muv thought schools an extravagance for the younger offspring, just as she thought napkins a luxury since they always needed laundering. Decca “came actively to dislike her” and opened a Running-Away Account in a bank—but that’s another story, already told in 1960’s Daughters and Rebels.
“Decca,” “Farve,” “Muv”—it should be pointed out here that in England childhood nicknames often stay with a person to the grave, and the Mitfords were creative in their nomenclature. Nancy, the eldest, was Coco; Unity was Bobo (except in private to Decca, who called her Boud, pronounced to rhyme with loud); Jessica was Decca (except to Bobo, who called her Boud), and Deborah, the baby, was Debo. The oldest children, Pamela, Tom (who was killed in the war) and Diana, escaped pet names because the three youngest, who controlled the naming process, considered them over the hill. (Firstborn Nancy was dubbed Coco in the cradle by Farve, the Baron.) The “Boud” that Decca and Bobo used came from a cryptic language, called Boudledidge, devised to keep Muv and Farve in the dark. To complicate things even more, Decca and Debo invented Honnish, an even stranger dialect, to keep everybody in the dark. The common denominator in all this double-talk was Decca, which serves to explain what she means when she says, “By nature I am subversive.”
Thus it seems only natural that she swung left after Muv and Farve became Hitler admirers in the 1930s (“Such lovely manners,” breathed Muv after tea with the Führer). Bobo followed her parents and Diana married into the British Union of Fascists. Decca’s first efforts to embrace Communism, however, were thwarted. In 1937 she used her Running-Away Account to elope to Spain with Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill, in hopes of fighting Franco’s army. They tried to marry there, but Decca was just short of legal age. A British destroyer was dispatched to fetch the young couple home, but she and Esmond worked out an accommodation with officialdom and wound up in the South of France. Later they emigrated to the U.S. Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, went overseas and was killed in November 1941, leaving Decca in Washington, D.C. with brand-new Dinky (whose name on her birth certificate is Constancia).
Educated poorly, only by tutors, Decca was classified as a “sub-eligible” typist but got a job in the wartime Office of Price Administration. There she met Robert Treuhaft, an OPA lawyer from Harvard who fascinated her with what she called “his exotic Bronx idiom and pronunciation.”
When Mitford moved to San Francisco, Treuhaft followed, and they were married in 1943. Both of them, her new book makes public, joined the Communist party that same year. The proprietor of the Running-Away Account became the party’s financial director, a frustrating post. “How often I would moan, ‘Oh, for a shipment of Moscow gold!’ ” she laughs.
The Mitford frivolity did not fit easily into party discipline. When people were slow buying drinks at one fund-raiser she threw, Decca slapped on a charge for using the toilet, and as the situation deteriorated she added a fine for leaving early.
Perhaps the “subversive” was already on a collision course with the party. She and Treuhaft left in 1958. It was not, Decca insists loyally, that the comrades were all humorless bores (“I hope it doesn’t come through that way in the book. Many members were witty, intelligent people”) but because the party cleaved strictly to a Soviet line. She still supports its aims. “If I were French or Italian,” she adds, “I’m sure I would be a party member to this day.”
Her two children grown (Dinky, now 36, is a nurse at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and Benjamin Treuhaft, 29, is a well-known Berkeley piano tuner), Decca turned to writing. Daughters and Rebels was a delightful romp through childhood and insurrection, but the success of The American Way of Death in 1963 established Mitford as one of the most influential of the modern-day investigative reporters. (The book sold over 100,000 in hardcover and close to a half million in paperback. “I’m still getting royalties,” she says, “so you can see the undertakers made my fortune.”) She then wrote a brilliant exposition of the ambiguities of the criminal-conspiracy statute in American law, The Trial of Dr. Spock (1969), and a highly caustic view of prisons, Kind and Usual Punishment (1973).
She has practiced nonliterary subversion too. Invited in 1973 to lecture at San Jose State, she objected to being fingerprinted, as the state university system requires, went to court and was upheld. Last year she taught a seminar at Yale with no contretemps more severe than having to pick her 18 students from 239 applicants.
The Treuhafts have lived since 1961 in a two-story, brown-shingled house in Oakland. “It is the only house I’ve ever really taken an interest in,” Jessica says. The integrated neighborhood was built in the early 1900s; trees shade the street and the porches are covered with lattices of roses. “There are tons of young people with children and dogs, and a lot of students too, because it is on the cheapish side.”
Inside their house the oriental rugs are faded, Punch cartoons decorate the walls and books and papers are strewn everywhere. “We built on a nice study,” says Mitford, leading the way to a stone-floored room in back, “so there would never be another piece of paper on the dining room table. Now look at it. The whole house is a snowstorm of paper.” A Mrs. Wiggins comes in twice a week to manage the mess, “which, by the way, is always made by me. When I’m away, Bob hardly needs anyone to pick up.”
Treuhaft, an affable man with a genuine concern for the powerless, is an Oakland lawyer with a clientele about two-thirds black. “In 1964, when 800 students were arrested in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, Bob’s firm represented them without fee,” says Mitford. “It still represents the Black Panthers and takes on many civil rights cases.”
She and Treuhaft are early risers. “I get up at 6 normally—at 5 if I’m roaring toward the end of a piece,” she says, returning from the kitchen with fresh coffee. “I drink tons of this—it’s the only thing I have till noon. I’m afraid Bob goes out for breakfast.” She makes a small grimace of guilt and lights up a Chesterfield.
Unless she’s on tour promoting a book, she breaks her working day up into “jolts.” “There are three jolts in the morning, to get the old noggin moving. The first is the coffee. At this point unfortunately one tends to read the newspaper. Next, at around 10:30, it’s a hot bath. The next jolt is trying to lure somebody over for lunch and a drink.” She has sherry or a vodka tonic at home before going to a tiny Chinese restaurant a few blocks away. “When they first opened I went every day for six months,” she says. “I was so afraid they might not have enough customers and close.”
The fourth jolt is that “one falls straight asleep after lunch.” She tries to do more work late in the afternoon. Whether successful or not, two things she tries not to indulge in: housework, a bore, and sports, which she views as a kind of torture. Evenings, the Treuhafts go out to restaurants or to friends’ houses—or Treuhaft ventures into the kitchen and does “Hungarian things his mother taught him.” They retire early, after a few furious rounds of Scrabble. The game is an obsession.
“When Bob was on sabbatical, we played for 800 hours. He uses all sorts of scientific words.” They have one set in the living room, another for traveling. Bob especially can get deeply involved. “Not long ago he was putting down all seven letters at once,” says Mitford, fighting back a chuckle. “A 50-point bonus. He was so excited he threw his shoulder out.”
Does a muckraking author ever get ordinary writer’s block? “Oh dear, yes.” What does she do in such a circumstance? “One warms up by writing letters. There are tons to be answered, and that gets one in the mood. Then”—she looks pleased at the thought—”you tear up everything you wrote the day before.”