David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

The Mitford Sisters


Decca was the nickname of Jessica Mitford, one of six sisters and daughters of an English peer, Lord Redesdale. In their various ways as Fascists, Communists, writers and society figures, they seemed to epitomise in one family the life choices and struggles of the Thirties and Forties. Decca was the Communist among them but very much a society figure as well, trading on her impeccable upper class credentials to get her way in whatever she wanted. Her voice and accent could cut glass, as they say. In Oakland, California, she married a lawyer, Bob Treuhaft, and settled down to a career of writing muck-raking books about the United States while greatly enjoying everything the country offered. Much as she pretended to be a rebel, her life was an exercise in privilege.

In 1972, teaching summer school at the University of California at Berkeley, I took the Treuhaft house, and very large and comfortable it was too. Very visibly on the desk lay their two Communist Party cards, no doubt left there deliberately to provoke me. In the library were the books of Unity, the Nazi sister who succeeded in picking up Hitler and hitting the headlines for it. Her personality came alive, as a study in fanaticism. Decca then helped me to write a biography of Unity, and much relished the row that followed with the other sisters who preferred to bury Unity’s wretched example – with the exception of Nancy Mitford, the novelist, who also supported me. In the book, however, I concluded that Unity and Jessica were two sides of the same totalitarian-minded coin and she angrily repudiated this. If I had lived before the war, I too would have been a Communist, she said, to which I answered that I hoped and expected I would have always supported democracy. Decca was that harmful but all too common a phenomenon, an intelligent fool.

Peter Y. Sussman has recently edited Decca. The Letters of Jessica Mitford, and a monstrous volume of 744 pages it is too. In it, the story of my biography of Unity, and the quarrels with the sisters afterwards, are reported rather fairly. Something quite else caught my eye. In 1980 Decca is writing to Hillary Clinton as wife of the governor of Arkansas to plead the case of a man convicted for murder in that state, but escaping from prison only to be re-arrested in California. To another correspondent Decca later reveals the connection to Hillary, namely that Hillary had worked for Bob Treuhaft as a student intern while at the Yale law school. She fears that the White House of the first President Bush has discovered this strange fact, and will use “to dig up dirt.” At the close of her letter, she judges that Hillary “seems to be an excellent person.” The Treuhafts and their colleagues delighted in flaunting their Communism, and I have yet to hear of anyone insisting that Mrs Clinton explain how and why she came to choose for an internship this particular politicized firm out of the many thousands in the country.


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