Jessica Mitford will be remembered mainly for her muckraking journalism–especially her splashy premier in that genre, The American Way of Death, which skewered the money-grubbing funeral industry. Yet hers was a life so fascinating that her first commercially published book was an autobiography published when the author was over 40.
Perhaps it was the experience of growing up in a right-wing English noble family that inspired Mitford's early radicalism. She came from a family where everybody stood out, so much so that its members were used as prototypes for characters in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
The family was a veritable pressure cooker and the five Mitford daughters–Nancy, Jessica, Unity, Diane, and Pamela–had remarkable trajectories.
Jessica seems to have been born red. When Unity emblazoned the girls' sitting room with swastikas, Jessica in retaliation scratched hammers and sickles into the window panes using a diamond ring. Unity went on to fall in love with Hitler and shot herself when she realized he would not marry her. Diane married Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of Britain's Fascists.
Sister Pamela wanted to be a horse when she grew up and ended up raising horses.
Their mother believed women should not be educated and so the Mitfords didn't attended school. She never forgave her mother for this lapse, but it did not prevent her sister Nancy from becoming a novelist.
"In England the name Mitford is no doubt associated in most people's minds with my sister Nancy's novels and biographies," she wrote. "In America, like it or not...our name has suddenly become synonymous with cheap funerals." The flamboyant radicalism of the girl became the social crusades of the mature woman.
Jessica embraced Communism and eloped to Spain with her cousin Edmond Romilly at age 19 to fight the Fascists. A British destroyer was dispatched to retrieve the pair who insisted on marrying anyway–quel scandale. Jessica was written out of her father's will, and the couple emmigrated to the United States in 1939. There Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. "I'll probably find myself being commanded by one of your ghastly relations," he observed. He was killed in action in 1941, leaving Mitford with a baby daughter.
She then married Robert Treuhaft, a labor lawyer and communist, in 1943. She was called before the California State Senate Hearings on Un-American Activities in 1952, and as it was put in the newspaper accounts of the time, she "quietly and elegantly" refused to answer any questions about any of her associations. Mitford wouldn't even admit to being a member of the Berkeley Tennis Club. In a typical gesture, she donated her per-diem check to the Communist Party. She and her husband resigned from the party in 1958, but remained lefties.
After failing in a number of other jobs, Miford turned to writing. "I figured that the only thing that requires no education and no skills is writing," she wrote.
In his work with unions during the 50s her husband was appalled to discover that funeral homes nearly always charged precisely the amount of a union member's death benefit for a funeral. The couple organized one of the nation's first memorial associations, the Bay Area Memorial Association, devoted to providing cheap and sensible arrangements for the disposal of human remains. (Mitford was cremated.) Thus she had quite a bit of knowledge of the industry's unscrupulous practices by the time she got around to writing The American Way of Death (1963). The book is unstinting in its condemnation of the ways funeral homes bilk consumers–bereaved relatives–when they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. Funeral home directors cum self-styled "grief counselors" charged a fortune. Among the abuses she attacked were haute couture for corpses, salesmen who steered customers toward high-priced coffins, urging that that the "loved ones" as corpses were sinisterly renamed, be given the utmost comfort while rotting underground. Embalming was exposed as a useless expense. "Very likely many a funeral director has echoed with heartfelt sincerity the patriotic sentiments of Nathan Hale: 'My only regret is that I have but one life to lose for my country,'" she wrote.
At the end of her life Mitford was preparing an update to the book. One highlight: the funeral industry, which now calls itself the "death services industry," is undergoing a huge consolidation. Something called Service Corporation International is buying up funeral homes all over the nation. In the near future it may be impossible for an American to give up the ghost without simultaneously paying this multinational a toll.
The American Way of Death was an immediate sensation and stayed on best-seller lists for a year. It made memorial societies into a national movement. And it provided an impetus for a minor movie masterpiece, The Loved One (1964).
Evelyn Waugh's broad satire of the same title was published in 1948 and many attempts had been made to turn it into a film. Buñuel tried to make it and so did Elaine May. Even Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton showed interest. But it was finally done by Tony Richardson, along with Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern. The film starred, among others John Gielgud, Liberace, Rod Steiger, Roddy McDowell, James Coburn, and Jonathan Winters, who played the evil owner of a gigantic L.A. cemetery modeled on the real Forest Lawn in that city.
In a magazine article Mitford wrote from the set of the film she recounted the extensive research which went into the project, for instance when the crew entered a walk-in cadaver freezer to find a score of stiffs hanging by their ears. "They freeze corpses as quickly as possible to discourage people from playing grab-ass with them," she wrote. Director Richardson's "eyes lit up at this, although none of us knew exactly what was meant."
Mitford even supplied the slogan for the film's ad campaign: "Something to Offend Everyone."
The success of the American Way of Death led Time magazine to dub Mitford, "Queen of the Muckrakers," and said she evinced "a depraved interest in what is morally unsavory or scandlous."
"I fear that does rather describe me," Mitford responded.
Later forays into the muck led her to exposés of the natality industry, The American Way of Birth, and the prison industry Kind and Usual Punishment, a book sadly in need of updating in view of this nation's exploding prison population.
She chronicled the trial of Dr. Spock and others prosecuted for encouraging draft evasion in The Trial of Dr. Spock. Her expose of the Famous Writers School, an organization which purported to help aspiring writers and headed in part by Bennett Cerf, drove that organization into much-deserved bankruptcy.
Mitford wrote that a journalist needs "plodding determination and an appetite for tracking and destroying the enemy." One of her favorite sources of information was trade journals, "magazines ...that are 'eyes only' to members of a specific profession." "If you are, like most of us, a patient or client, you will get a bitter laugh out of these, as the whole point of the articles and editorials is how to diddle you out of more money," she wrote.
"I wish I could point to some overriding social purpose in these" works, she wrote. "The sad truth is that the best I can say for them is that I got pleasure from mocking these enterprises and the individuals who profit from them.
"You may not be able to change the world," she said, "but at least you can embarrass the guilty."
Her denial of moral purposes is belied by passages such as the following sum-up of the disasterous Attica prison uprising in 1971, from Kind and Usual Punishment: "Checking with New York authorities several months later, I learned the prisoners now get two showers a week and "toilet paper as requested." For this, 43 men died?"
Yet she nearly always managed to find in her target what she described as her "secret weapon": humor. For instance this passage from The American Way of Birth:
Four days after the festive evening of the initial testing, Simpson [the discoverer of chloroform] used chloroform in the delivery of the wife of a fellow physician. She was evidently delighted, for she christened her baby daughter, the first child born under chloroform, "Anaesthesia"–a pretty enough name for a girl. (Eve Simpson tells us that a Russian boy, first in his country to be vaccinated, was named Vaccinoff. And what of modern medical terms? Somehow names like CesariAnna for a girl, or EpisioTommy for a boy, have not thus far caught on.)
Her sense of humor–to high moral purpose–marks all of her work and amplifies its effects. It sets her apart from such ernest types as Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson–Mitford's work feels good to read. To read Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed you actually have to care about cars. The Sea Around Us, while undeniably a masterwork, requires at least a modicom of concern for preserving nature. The American Way of Death is a hoot. To dislike it you'd have to have the sensibility of, well, a funeral director, and to stop turning pages you'd have to be dead.
As for style, she quoted the writer Sir Anthony Quiller-Couch on refusing to inject convolutions: "Murder your darlings."
She retained her creative humor to the end. Recently she formed a band, Decca and the Dectones (Decca being Mitford's nickname) and put out a CD that includes a rendition of the Beatles "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." "We performed at Paradise Lounge," She told an interviewer. "Do you know it? Oh, it's super grunge."
Jessica Mitford, dead July 23, age 78. GoodBye! respectfully dedicates this issue to her memory.