A review of Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman

The funeral industry played into her hands beautifully through the inability of its spokesmen to keep their mouths shut. Each outburst of strained rhetoric from these provided Decca with endless material for subsequent articles in the most widely read magazines in the nation.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
edited by Peter Y. Sussman
2006, ISBN 0-375-41032-5, $35.00, 744 pages

Peter Y. Sussman is better known for his work as a journalist although this is his second book. He has spared the reader the uninterrupted text usual in most collections of letters and provides the welcome relief of chapters. And he is more than an editor since he provides a welcome explanatory biographical preface to each chapter.

The Mitford family was one of some wealth and distinction. Lord and Lady Redesdale lived remote from reality and their children, isolated from others, developed their own language and depended on one another for society and entertainment. The multitude of nicknames that resulted from the private language of these children is a peril that every reader will have to deal with as best he or she can. The Mitford family itself was a collection of extreme types of whom the best known are Nancy, author of some very funny books based on her eccentric family as well as of biographies of Voltaire and Madame de Pompadour, and Diana who married Oswald Mosley, founder and leader of the British Nazi party. Jessica, younger than either Nancy or Diana, came to the United States with her first husband prior to the outbreak of World War II. On the death of her husband she decided to remain in the United States. Because many of her family members had fascist sympathies and she on the contrary had Communist ones, she was and remained of lively interest to the FBI.

This was especially true in the years after the war. The attraction of the Communist Party to someone like Jessica was irresistible. It alone provided a program of action towards social reform. In the postwar society, however, reform was not wanted. Society therefore demonized the communists and allowed cynical politicians to use this support to persecute, harry, and destroy nonconformists. Her letters from this period are a brilliant display of the effects of living in a society that drifted towards totalitarian cruelties. She saw the state of things as a movement towards fascism. This was not an altogether inaccurate description as she and others of the time must have seen it. In light of today’s events it might even be that on the long view she was right.

She and Bob Treuhaft, her second husband, did many dances with the local authorities and the FBI, some of them pathetic and some of them funny. Decca is lively and incisive in her description of these encounters and as she graduated from activist to writer, she begins to shape her letters with more point and precision. She and Bob left the Communist Party in the late 50s as alternative avenues opened for the writer she had become and for the champion of racial equality and social justice that she had always been. Her opposition to the funeral industry and its unfair practices fueled her best known work but she had before written of her family – to the discomfort and anger of some family members – and would be a writer of many books thereafter.

But The American Way of Death brought into play all her best qualities – wit, brashness, and deadly accuracy. The funeral industry played into her hands beautifully through the inability of its spokesmen to keep their mouths shut. Each outburst of strained rhetoric from these provided Decca with endless material for subsequent articles in the most widely read magazines in the nation. Opponents, seeking to discredit her, made much of her former radical activities, but this, if anything, provided additional and productive publicity for her.

The pattern thus set, she began a career of muckraking and became very good at it because she was honestly indignant on behalf of the victims of exploitive businesses. In this spirit she debunked the Famous Writers School with its sham promises and high-pressure sales techniques. Her primary target here was Bennett Cerf, who proved to be thoroughly unrepentant and resistant to criticism – mostly (one suspects from the implications of the text) from innate insensitivity. She inspected the prison system and revealed to the public the inequities, inconsistencies and cruelties of an ineffective system. She struck out at the supporters of the war in Vietnam and wrote a revealing account of the trial of Dr. Benjamin Spock and other opponents of the war who were tried under unjust laws that were later repealed. Throughout she conducts an uneasy, sometimes ferociously turbulent, relationship with the other surviving Mitford sisters. This conflict circled into notoriety as events that would have been better downplayed became matter of public interest. In all this Decca, right or wrong, remained consistent throughout – that is, bluff of manner, astringent of tongue and wonderfully funny.

As she aged she became less discriminating in her choice of targets, and she became more litigious. She proved herself strong in important matters and gave up a lifetime of drinking when it proved injurious. But her relationships with others proved prickly and her insistence on what she felt to be her rights alienated others who were just as insistent on what they felt to be their rights.

Decca died of cancer. During her last days she continued to lavish her love and attention on her family and friends and was even writing ten days before her death about her plans. As a journalist she wrote crisply and well and her contributions still have great value as a commentary and analysis of her time. Her bluff honesty swept away many cobwebs. I particularly relished this observation, “ If I was God I’d be FAR nicer.” Her letters, important as they are historically, are even more important as engaging human documents.

The bad news is the physical book. It is mostly very ugly and the binding of my copy, not the first under this imprint of which this is true, is imperfect. I examined books in my collection that were published by Knopf. In 1985 they were still sturdy and beautiful books. By 1998 they were the sad things that have alas become apparently the norm.

Much of the delight for the reader arises from Sussman’s unobtrusive but effective presence. His presentation is warm and affectionate. Bob Treuhaft, Decca’s husband, selected him for the task of editing Decca’s letters. It was a very good choice and the result is an outstanding and enjoyable book.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places