By Joseph Collins
“You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”
This memorable quote from Jessica Mitford exemplifies her rebellious, bold, and unflinching attitude. As an author, investigative journalist and political activist, Mitford was never shy about expressing her opinions and taking on important causes. She was an outspoken critic who spent the better part of her days writing about and marching for civil rights. In addition, Mitford actively set about exposing the greed and corruption of exploitive institutions, such as the funeral industry and the American prison system.
Through her writing and activism, Mitford fought against a range of social injustices and took a strong stand against fascism and Nazism in the 1930s, even though right-wing politics were very popular within her own household as a child. Considered a “muckraker” during her time, Mitford forcefully challenged social inequality with a keen eye, as well as sharp wit and irreverent humor, demonstrating that one doesn’t always have to be serious to tackle serious issues. When once criticized about her lack of objectivity, she replied, “Objectivity? I’ve always had an objective.”
PRIVILEGE AND PROTEST
Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford (often called “Decca” by family and friends) was born September 11, 1917, the sixth child of large and very wealthy family. She was born at Asthall Mansion near Cotswolds, England, where her parents, David Mitford and Sydney Bowles, were the Lord and Lady of the manor. During her early years, Mitford grew up at several different country homes owned by her father. Although her upbringing was comfortable, she had little formal education because her mother would not allow her and her sisters to go to school. Instead, she preferred to homeschool them. Mitford resented this, but made due with this unfortunate situation, and supplemented her education with a lot of additional reading on her own.
She described her childhood as mostly unhappy. Her eccentric family included a sister who wanted to grow up to be a horse, and two sisters, Diana and Unity, that harbored a growing obsession with European fascism and Hitler. Early in life, Mitford shared a room with her sister Unity and was disturbed by the fact that her sister adorned their room with swastikas. Mitford’s parents also had sympathies for fascism and supported Hitler’s rise to power.
Even before this, however, Mitford was dissatisfied with her aristocratic life, and, at the age of twelve, Mitford was already dreaming of running away. Growing rebellious, she found refuge identifying with the opposing ideology of communism, and started carving the hammer and sickle symbol on her bedroom windows. It was during this time that she became known to her siblings as the “red sheep” of the family. At the age of nineteen, Mitford finally renounced her privileged background and left home suddenly to run off with a second cousin, Edmond Romilly, who happened to be a nephew of Winston Churchill.
At the time, Romilly was recovering from dysentery, which he had caught in the Spanish Civil War, fighting with the left-wing rebels against the country’s fascist leader, General Francisco Franco. The cousins, sharing similar politics, quickly fell in love and eloped to Spain to get married and help fight against fascism. However, after Franco’s victory, Mitford, became dispirited and left Spain with her husband, eventually moving back to London. In 1937, she gave birth to a daughter, Jessica, but the baby died of measles the following May. Two years later, in 1939, Mitford quit her job as a marketing researcher and she and Edward left England and immigrated to America to begin a new life.
TRAGEDY AND CHALLENGES
After arriving in the U.S., Mitford and her husband spent a good deal of time traveling, going from odd job to odd job, always short on cash. When World War 2 broke out, Mitford’s husband enlisted in the Royal Canadian Airforce to serve. At the time, Mitford was living in Washington D.C., where he gave birth in February 1941 to a second daughter, Constancia Romilly. Sadly, her husband died in combat just nine months later, leaving Mitford to raise their daughter on her own. She continued to drift into and out of various jobs, including working for a while as a union organizer.
Two years later, Mitford met and married a civil rights lawyer, Robert Treuhaft. Before long, they moved to California and started a family. By the time Mitford was 38, she decided that she wanted to be a writer. Although her first two books didn’t do very well, her second book got positive reviews, and she kept at it. During the early 1950s, Mitford held a job as executive secretary of the local Civil Rights Congress chapter. In addition, she was involved in a number of civil rights campaigns, including the movement to stop the execution of Willie McGee, an African-American accused of raping a white woman. As Mitford became increasingly involved in politics, she and her husband decided to join the Communist Party in America, believing that left-wing policies could bring about greater equality and justice.
In September of 1951, during the era of McCarthyism, Mitford and her husband were called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to be questioned about their association with communist groups. When Mitford was asked if she was a member of the Berkeley Tennis Club, she misunderstood them (thinking they had asked her if she was a member of the Berkeley Tenants Club – a group that protested rent hikes), and she replied, “I refuse to answer on the grounds that any answer might incriminate me.” Her response was met with laughter by some, but infuriated the judge who had asked the question, believing she was ridiculing him and the proceedings. “The witness is totally uncooperative!” he roared. “She is dismissed from the inquiry.” In the end, both she and her husband refused to testify to their involvement in the Communist Party or any other radical group.
THE PRINTED WORD AND TEACHING
As the communist government in the Soviet Union grew increasingly repressive and totalitarian, Mitford and her husband became disillusioned with the Communist Party. They decided that they could do more for social justice outside of the organization, so they renounced their party membership in 1958. Nevertheless, Mitford said she never regretted her time spent with the US Communist Party, as they fought for important social causes, including worker rights, women’s rights, and civil rights. Later in life, Mitford wrote “I can hardly imagine living in America in those days and not being a Party member.”
In 1961, Mitford then pursued a career in investigative journalism. While working on an article for Esquire magazine on southern attitudes, Mitford got caught up in a riot when the Ku Klux Klan attacked the Freedom Riders, a group of African-American civil rights activists. Angered by the blatant racism, Mitford joined a rally led by Martin Luther King Jr. at a local church. Before the night was out, the church was attacked by a mob of Klansmen, and Mitford remained barricaded inside with others, until the National Guard broke up and dispersed the white supremacist demonstrators.
Mitford’s husband, in the meantime, through his work with unions and death benefits, had been growing increasingly interested in the funeral business and its hidden corruption. Over time, he convinced Mitford to write an investigative piece on the industry. The article she wrote, “Saint Peter Don’t you Call Me,” criticized the funeral business for unscrupulous practices and taking advantage of the public, claiming that the burial process had become too commercialized and excessively expensive, and that funeral directors took advantage of grieving loved ones by convincing them to pay for extra, unnecessary services and grief counseling. Mitford later wrote her third book, “The American Way of Death” (1963), detailing the underhanded business dealings of the funeral trade. In spite of the fact that Mitford’s latest crusade angered the funeral industry, her book remained on the best-seller list for a year. The success of the book and the attention it gained in the public led to Congressional hearings on the funeral industry and greater regulation of its business practices.
Although no other book of hers achieved the attention or success of “Way of Death,” another book she had published in 1973 did attract some interest. “Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business,” was an expose filled with harsh criticism of the American prison system, which she found to be inadequate in everything except “brutality.”
“The prison system, inherently unjust and inhumane, is the ultimate expression of injustice and inhumanity in the society at large.”
That same year, Mitford had the opportunity to teach a course at San Jose State University. Her course, called “The American Way,” was a discourse on American politics, covering everything from the McCarthy witch-hunts to the Watergate scandal. However, the dean insisted she take a “loyalty oath” to the university and submit to finger-printing. When she refused, she was given an ultimatum: comply or be fired. She would not accept either alternative, and decided to fight it out in court in order to continue teaching. Students passionate about her classes came to her aid, and held rallies on campus. Members of the school football team volunteered to be her bodyguard. Finally, after a triumphant victory in court, Mitford returned to teaching to inspire another generation of activists and reformers bent on justice and equality in society. Despite her lack of formal education, Mitford had great success, and was soon in high demand as a lecturer at universities and colleges around the country.
DEATH AND LEGACY
On July 22nd 1996, at the age of 78, Jessica Mitford passed away from lung cancer. At her own request, a very simple and inexpensive funeral was held, costing a mere $533.00. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered at sea.
Mitford left behind nearly a dozen books, including her very first, “Hons and Rebels (AKA; Daughters and Rebels)” published in 1960, and “Poison Penmanship: the Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979). Although she had never won any awards, Mitford has influenced one of the most successful and popular writers of our time: J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Rowling once said that, after reading “Hons and Rebels,” she was immediately taken by Mitford’s rebellious nature, and she became a source of inspiration for her.
Jessica Mitford never gave in to age or weakness, and refused to admit that any aches and pains were serious. She worked hard right to the end, finishing her last project shortly before she died — an updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” further exposing the fraud of an industry she saw as self-serving and exploitive.
Whether it was exposing the dishonesties of the funeral industry, criticizing the cruelties of the American prison system, or fighting for the rights of African-Americans, Mitford always put 100% of herself into her efforts. Despite her eccentric background, or maybe because of it, she grew up to become a one-of-a-kind. That rare human being who lives with a fire in the soul and a passion in the heart, and a strong commitment to try and do something about the injustice she saw around her, in her own unique and dynamic style.
“The whole point of muck-raking, apart from all the jokes, is to try to do something about what you’ve been writing about.”