The jacket copy of Leslie Brody's new biography Irrepressible will tell you that Jessica Mitford, or Decca, as she was nicknamed, was "yoked to every important event for nearly all of the twentieth century." This is a bit much, but it's true that Mitford witnessed some of the century's major events. Even as a teenager in 1932, "using a diamond ring, Decca and [her sister] Unity etched symbols of their political affiliations into the window of the room they shared at the top of the house—Unity drew a swastika; Decca a hammer and sickle." The Mitford family's inner turmoil—with most members (including Decca's mother, father, and sisters Unity and Diana) being fervent supporters of Hitler—echoed the struggle for power within Europe. With Irrepressible, Brody has written an efficient, if somewhat serious, account of Jessica, the family's lone communist, who would go on to become a notorious investigative journalist and writer. (Her book Poison Penmanship, on the art of "muckraking journalism," was recently re-released by NYRB Classics.)
Though it seems like Brody makes a conscious effort to stay away from the gossipy details of Decca's life, in reality there was little frivolity to Jessica Mitford. She was happily married twice, had five children, two of whom died very young. She omitted them from her memoirs Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict because, as she would tell her husband, it was too painful to write about their deaths. The other Mitford sisters—like Nancy, a novelist with a fancy life in Paris, or Unity, a Nazi who shot herself in the head after England declared war on Germany—might be more exciting choices for a biographer. But in Decca, Brody tells the story of a woman who was self-made, in spite of her famous last name.
In order to escape her family, Decca eloped with Winston Churchill's nephew, Esmond Romilly. The two of them set off to report on the Spanish Civil War, and eventually moved to the US, settling in Washington, D.C. Esmond, a patriot, enlisted in WWII and was killed when his plane crashed into the North Sea, leaving Decca with their baby girl, Dinky. The friend Decca was living with while Esmond was away would wake to find the author weeping in her bedroom. "I would go in there and she'd say, 'The water was so cold. The water was so cold.'" Later, Decca's second husband would claim the only time he ever saw her cry was during a spat with her sister Deborah over her choice for Nancy's biographer.
Though well-researched, Brody's book proceeds with a similarly stiff upper lip. The focus of this biography is Decca's work—first as a secretary for the Civil Rights Congress, where she would meet her second husband, Robert Treuhaft, and later where she became active in the campaign to stop the execution of Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman. As communists, Treuhaft and Decca would bravely testify in front of the House's Un-American Activities Committee. After relocating to California, Decca would write her most famous and best-selling book, The American Way of Death (1963), a lively and still-relevant expose of the funeral business that was inspired by one of Treuhaft's clients, who was in a legal battle with a funeral home over exorbitant fees.
The stories of Decca's hard work and commitment to journalism are Brody's strong suit in this biography, but unfortunately her personal life gets less attention. While Decca is described as hilariously funny by friends, and "constantly laughing" by editor Robert Gottlieb, her vibrant personality only peeks through in these pages. Though it's apparent Brody wants Decca's commitment to social equality to be the most important thing to remember about her, more anecdotes from Decca's letters or stories from people that knew would make the book livelier. Still, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more comprehensive account of Mitford's life. All in all, there's no doubt Irrepressible is a biography that would have received the Decca seal of approval.
Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, More Intelligent Life, The Millions, The Barnes & Noble Review, This Recording, and more. Visit her at jessicaferri.com.