Books October 2006

Poison Pen

The exceptional insouciance of Jessica Mitford

She shot to fame—finally impressing her sister Nancy, in whose shadow she had always felt herself to be—with her hilarious-but-serious exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death. Almost perfect as a subject for her macabre humor, the book was in fact a by-product of her husband’s work for labor unions, whose members’ “death benefit” was being eaten up by unscrupulous morticians. It was followed by equally satirical mini-masterpieces, notably the demolition of the “Famous Writers” racket, in which supposed men of letters like Bennett Cerf put their names to a rip-off writing-school scheme, and by “Checks and Balances at the Sign of the Dove,” certainly the finest revenge ever taken by a customer on a pretentious restaurant. In the letters currently under review, one can follow Jessica’s talent for vendetta as it evolves, and see her extraordinary tenacity and persistence. Woe to the petty official or scam artist who crossed Ms. Mitford. Writing from an absurd beauty-restoration resort in Arizona whose false promises she was exposing, she tells her husband, “Then lunch, by far the most interesting part of the day so far. We repaired to a patio for it (by the way, paper napkins which I did think squalid).” Noblesse, yes. Oblige, no.

Because of Jessica’s extraordinary manner, many people deceived themselves into thinking that she regarded everything as a huge joke. Not so. Her natural tough-mindedness was schooled and tempered by a fierce devotion to the Communist Party, and in particular to its work for civil rights and civil liberty. She was bouncing through Dixie in an old car long before the Freedom Riders, and when she took up a case it got taken up properly. She even persuaded William Faulkner to sign a petition against the execution of a wrongfully condemned black man.

Pursuing another case of injustice, in Arkansas in the early 1980s, she remembered that a young Hillary Rodham had once been an intern in her husband’s law firm, and so she tracked Hillary all the way to Little Rock and the governor’s mansion. These particular letters make for interesting reading: in the intervening years Mrs. Clinton had evidently become a bit more of a “realist.” Jessica Mitford, in contrast, was one of those who get more radical as they get older. Her lampoon of the ghastliness of party-line jargon—a clever parody of Stephen Potter titled Life Itselfmanship—is the forerunner of all mockeries of “politically correct” sloganeering. But when she abandoned the Communist Party she made it absolutely clear that it was because it had become too conservative for her taste.

Her seriousness on this point is illustrated by another magnificent example of upper-class insouciance, when she writes to her friend Virginia Durr, a lifelong correspondent and doyenne of the early civil-rights movement:

I’m afraid I was a rather rotten mother to [the children], as I was totally preoccupied with CP politics when they were growing up; so while I was v.fond of them, I didn’t pay too much attention to them when they were little.

The “v.fond” is nicely phrased. No doubt her own loveless childhood had something to do with it.

To her sister the duchess, she offhandedly writes to see if her own wayward son, Benjamin, has by any chance turned up at the former’s mansion, adding, “Don’t let him into the house if he’s too filthy, he can easily sleep in the car.” To the lad himself, she writes very sternly some years later, informing him that his bipolar disorder has become a bore and that he’d better buck up and pull himself together; the letter closes with an offer of maternal help “if you should ever tire of the manic condition.” (It must say something that Benjamin allowed this letter to be published; and indeed, in my memory his mother was fiercely devoted to him, in that, shall I say, understated way that she had.)

Alarmingly severe as her tone may appear, it makes for a bracing contrast to the therapeutic self-loving culture by which she was surrounded in northern California and for which—like anything else that was bourgeois—she could find no time.

She was great chums with many great hostesses—most notably Katharine Graham, with whom she formed a wartime friendship that lasted for life—and might have been a considerable one herself if she could have been bothered. One excellent letter advises against the huge mistake she once made of inviting to dinner two grandes dames (Edna O’Brien and Lillian Hellman) on the same evening. Her gift for comradeship illustrates the old Hugh Kingsmill maxim that friends are God’s apology for relations. But she was always willing to quarrel on a point of principle, nearly coming to a breach with her beloved Maya Angelou, for example, when the latter stuck up for the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.

Covering the trial of Dr. Spock in Boston at the height of the antiwar movement in May 1968, she writes to a friend about her shortcomings as a court reporter and adds, “I even missed the riot yesterday, which was so sloppy of me.” But on the whole she was on time for the riot, and well turned out for it to boot. The cult of the Mitfords, which now features a shelf of books and several TV documentaries, threatens in itself to become a bore on an almost Bloomsbury scale.

But her mad father, when making dispositions of his property, wrote in his will the words “except Jessica.” And the bookstore at the Devonshire stately home in Chatsworth displays works by and about every Mitford sister but her. These paltry aristocratic gestures confirm, as do these letters, that it was Decca, exiled and intransigent, who was the exceptional one.

Photograph of Jessica Mitford from the Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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