Blackest nightmares of
Funeral directors spring
From counting red sheep.
On my family tree, you can find my Great Grandfather Frank Lewis and his brother Austen. Both scarpered from their upper class British family to make it in North America. The former worked his way across as a stoker and become a union man while working in the mines of BC. The latter palled around with the super-socialist Jack London, became the inspiration for his super socialist novel, The Iron Heel, ran as a socialist candidate for governor of California and was a founding member of the Northern Californian chapter of the ACLU.
Jessica Mitford might have had them beat.
She was born in 1917, the sixth of seven children and the fifth of six daughters, to a hidebound baron and his equally hidebound wife, and spent her childhood in the countryside. Her formal education? Basically zilch, because her mother didn’t believe in formal education for girls. (Did Jessica resent this for the rest of her life? You bet your ass, she did.) She also didn’t believe in germ theory.
From a precocious age, Jessica had nurtured a ‘running away’ account with a local bank. (She also developed strong commie leanings while beloved sister Unity increasingly became a Hitler fangirl.) When she was aged 19, she finally found a chance to make use of this now-tidy sum when she finally met her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, whose anti-fascist antics she had been intrigued by for some time. (Although given the number of affairs enjoyed by their parents’ and grandparents’ generation, their exact relation is a mystery.) He’d been fighting with the International Brigades in Spanish Civil War until he was sent home with dysentery. Jessica had already primed herself to fall in love with him, so she was pretty damned elated when he confessed that he’d fallen in love with her.
What did they do next? If you said, ‘abscond to Europe together, filch some of dad’s money to buy a fancy camera, and try to find a way to Spain to do journalism,’ ding ding ding! You are right. Once they finally got there, their families both tried to block their marriage and trick Jessica into boarding a British battleship to ferry her back to England. Neither worked.
Marriage happened, and they were living in London when their daughter Julia was born in December, 1937. She didn’t last five months. Measles happened. Jessica did not like to talk about Julia.
In 1939, the couple moved to the Land of the Free and Baby Eagles (caw), where they hustled to pay the bills, made friends with civil rights lawyers and activists and their ilk, and had another daughter, Constancia. (Called the ‘Donk’, short for donkey, as it was observed at a Democratic convention that the then-fetus kicked like their mascot.)
AND HEY, GUESS WHAT, A BIG WAR WAS HAPPENING ABOUT THAT TIME. Esmond signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force, but went missing in action in 1941. She got married again, to civil rights lawyer Bob Treuhaft, in 1943. They had two sons: Nicholas and Benjamin. (Nicholas was killed at age 11 when hit by a bus. Jessica did not like to talk about Nicholas.)
You would have expected things to quiet down once the war wrapped up, but you’d be wrong! She and Bob continued involving themselves in civil rights work (including with hopeless cases, like preventing executions of black men convicted of raping white women) and joined the Communist Party. (And yes, they were made to testify in front of a certain committee and they didn’t say nuttin’.) They quit the party after Khrushchev made it clear that Stalin had been a murderous despot.
Then Jessica fell into the whole ‘writing’ gig. This included a memoir of her youth (which her pack of sisters hated, supposedly because she was so mean, which coming from them… Oddly, her old mum, who they thought she was especially mean towards, really liked it), and a bunch of journalism gigs, one of which involved run-ins with the KKK and being barricaded in a church with MLK and Friends. Others involved exposing a mail order writing course scam, getting kicked out of a professor gig because she refused fingerprinting and giving a loyalty oath, spending a week at a health spa for rich middle-aged ladies, and other fun things. (You can read a lot of these in the collection, Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking.)
Probably her best work, though, is The American Way of Death, in which she takes a decidedly unkind look at the American funeral industry. This, she did by exposing every weird and wonderful way that industry did (and in all too many cases, does) bilk the bereaved of every last penny. If this required fibbing about state laws so the customer wouldn’t concoct a cheaper option, so be it. Jessica Mitford was pretty much the devil incarnate for the industry thereafter, especially because she was so funny with the skewering.
The years marched on, the civil rights work continued, the writing continued, the frequent squabbles with her sisters continued. (Remember that sister Diana ran off with Oswald Fucking Mosley. And Jessica and the other living three found more than enough shit to fight about, Diana aside.) She even started a band and opened for Cyndi Lauper!
The constant cigarette smoking caught up with her in 1996. In accordance with her wishes, her funeral was dirt cheap.
Incidentally, if you’re tempted to have a look see at The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S Lovell, I wouldn’t bother with it. The author wastes an amazing amount of time defending the more, how shall we say, Nazily-inclined members of the family and certain in-laws (there’s no evidence Oswald Mosley, leader of the BRITISH UNION OF FASCISTS, was anti-semitic or racist at all, I guess! Unity Mitford laughing at Jews made to cut grass with their teeth? WELL, that wasn’t too bad, was it?) But man, Jessica, she was awful. Never mind that she left the American Communist Party when the facts came in about Stalin; she should have known, right? And how dare she request, upon her last potential last meeting with her father, that he not shout at her husband, daughter, and daughter’s friend? So selfish, and she should have known to give in.
It’s the most readily available biography of the family, but the author is so weird with her starry-eyed admiration for the upper classes.