Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

Edited by Peter Y. Sussman

pys_002_250x370.jpgBRITISH PAPERBACK now available from Phoenix. Hardback editions available from Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the U.K.

“Peter Sussman has done a masterly job of editing these letters.” — J.K. Rowling

In a profile of J.K. Rowling, The Daily Telegraph (U.K.) once reported, “Her favorite drink is gin and tonic, her least favorite food, tripe. Her heroine is Jessica Mitford.” After reading Decca, Rowling herself wrote, “This is a fascinating, entertaining, illuminating and sometimes heartbreaking collection of letters, written by a woman who wielded a gifted pen and lived an extraordinary life. Jessica Mitford has been my heroine for twenty-seven years, and I finished this book proud of my own good taste.”

“Decca” Mitford did indeed live a larger-than-life life: born into the British aristocracy—one of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Mitford sisters—she ran away to Spain during the Spanish Civil War with her cousin Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew, then came to America, became a tireless political activist and a member of the Communist Party, and embarked on a brilliant career as a memoirist and muckraking journalist (her funeral-industry exposé, The Americanpys_006_250x372.jpg Way of Death, became an instant classic).

She was a celebrated wit, a charmer, and throughout her life a prolific and passionate writer of letters—now gathered here.Decca’s correspondence crackles with irreverent humor

“If you don’t know about Decca, as everyone called her, just start reading this terrific collection of letters and hang on for the ride.” — Michael Dirda, Washington Post

and mischief, and with acute insight into human behavior (and misbehavior) that attests to her generous experience of the worlds of politics, the arts, journalism, publishing, and high and low society. Here is correspondence with everyone from Katharine Graham and George Jackson, Betty Friedan, Miss Manners, Julie Andrews, Maya Angelou, Harry Truman, and Hillary Rodham Clinton to Decca’s sisters the Duchess of Devonshire and the novelist Nancy Mitford, her parents, her husbands, her children, and her grandchildren.pys_007_400x194.jpg
Photo by Margot Smith
Sussman, right, with Jessica Mitford and her husband, Robert Treuhaft, months before her death in 1996

“Peter Y. Sussman is a sublime editor of one of the funniest, most enthralling and gloriously honest collections of contemporary letters I have yet read.” — Miranda Seymour, London Sunday Times


February 2, 1962

To goddaughter Kathleen Kahn (while writing The American Way of Death)

Dearest Goddity,… We’ve finished our Embalming chapter. It’s rather blissful in spots. For instance, I ran across an ad. for Tru-Lanol Arterial Fluid, in the form of a testimonial letter from a satisfied customer. He describes a very difficult case (69-year old woman, was 40 hours in heated apartment before being discovered) and how after 4 days of Tru-Lanol treatment, all was OK. He adds wistfully, “I wish I could have kept her for four more days.” Don’t you think that’s a rather poignant thought? They do so love their work, and so understandably hate to part with it…

November 24, 1943
San Francisco

To Winston Churchill (on the release of sister Diana and her husband)

Dear Cousin Winston:I am writing to you to add my protest to the thousands which I imagine you are receiving against the release of the Mosleys. … Unless the Mosleys are immediately put back in jail where they belong, great harm will be done to the cause of friendship between Britain and America.My personal feeling is that the release of the Mosleys is a slap in the face to antifascists in every country, and that it is a direct betrayal of those who have died for the cause of anti-fascism. The fact that Diana is my sister doesn’t alter my opinion on this subject.

February 9, 1982

To Famous People’s Eye Glasses Museum

Dear Friends,

As eye glass experts, you should be able to date the enclosed pair of spectacles, as they were called in my young days.

In case you are not up to carbon dating as practiced by antiquarians studying Egyptian tombs and Greek temples, the hideous frames might supply a clue – in which year or years did we wear those dreadful spangles in the corner? Over to you on that. …

Please put the enclosed eye glasses as far as possible from those of Ronald Reagan, for fear of an explosion.

October 13, 1971

To sister Nancy Mitford (on their mother)

Darling Soo,

The few things you said about Muv in yr. letter opened up a perfect flood of thoughts in that direction, so I must just impart them.

The fact is that unlike you I actively loathed her when I was a child (esp. an older child, after age 15), and did not respect her, on the contrary thought she was extremely schoopid and narrow-minded — that is, sort of limited-minded with hard & fast bounds on her mind. But then, after re-getting to know her after 1955, I became immensely fond of her, really rather adored her. Therefore in my memory she turns into 2 people; I’m sure she didn’t change much because people don’t except for a certain mellowing with onset of old age.

May 21, 1946
San Francisco

To mother, Lady Redesdale (on contemplated sale of Decca’s share of the family island in the Hebrides)

Darling Muv,

… I’m really not a bit interested in getting the money for myself, as we get along perfectly all right on the money we earn by working for it. However, since a share of the island has come my way, I am determined that it shall be put to a good use, and also I feel it’s important to make sure that I get the maximum to be realized from my share. One way to look at it is that my share will go to undo some of the harm that our family has done, particularly the Mosleys and Farve when he was in the House of Lords. To me, it seems that money is an important political weapon—and that’s the only reason why I’m interested in getting any of it, and also why I’m interested in getting a maximum.

I don’t know whether developments in the last ten years have yet proved to you what a criminal thing it was to have supported Hitler and an appeasement policy for England, but you do know what I think about it, so therefore you can see the logic of my trying to do everything possible in the other direction—including using the money from the island in this way.

June 17, 1977

To grandson Chaka Forman

Darling Chaka,

… Thinking over your general nature and disposition, I suppose you & I are a lot alike in some ways. You are a TERRIBLE TEASE, I have been accused of same. You have AN ODD AND PECULIAR outlook on life, so do I, in some ways. In other words, we both have a screw loose in our make-up—which isn’t too bad, as long as we don’t let it get too loose. Being older than you, I’ve learned to control mine to some extent; I expect you will, too, as you approach age 96.

June 27, 1957
New York City

To friend Pele de Lappe

Dear Neighbor,

… I see an underclothes sale at Bloomingdale’s. Vanity Fair lingerie reduced to 1/2 price. Decide to look for a nightgown to send my mother. I ask the clerk: “Have you got a size 40, long?” Clerk: “No long ones. Why don’t you take a shortie?” Me: “Well it’s for my mother, I don’t think she’d like a shortie.” Clerk: “You get her a long one, she is likely to trip on it & break her neck. Shorties are much cooler. They’re the thing of the future . . .” Me: “Yes but, don’t you see, she’s a thing of the PAST”—the argument rages on in a desultory way. Finally I make my escape. …

October 3, 1973
San Jose, Calif.

To unknown recipients, on being asked to sign an a loyalty oath to teach as a distinguished professor

I am asked to swear that I will “support and defend” the Constitutions of the United States and California “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” I have defended to the best of my ability several provisions of these Constitutions (such as those guaranteeing racial equality, freedom of religion, speech and press) against enemies, especially domestic, and intend to do so in the future. But the annotated Constitution of the State of California runs to three hefty volumes and covers all manner of subjects. Do I support and defend, for example, Article 4 Section 25 3/4, limiting boxing and wrestling matches to 15 rounds? I don’t know. Perhaps it should be 14 or 16 rounds? I do know that I could not support and defend the amendment reinstating the death penalty, which I believe conflicts with the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment.

“The letters are a treasure. Decca lived and battled by a pen that was as graceful and witty as it was sharp.” — Richard Eder, New York Times
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