Born into an aristocratic British family with fascist tendencies, Jessica Mitford—a.k.a. Decca Treuhaft or Dec, also called Susan by some of her six siblings—reinvented herself throughout her life, eloping to Spain at 19 with a second cousin who had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, moving to America, joining the Communist Party and becoming a celebrated Oakland author in her middle age.
Throughout it all “letter-writing was the life-line that held her many worlds together,” wrote Peter Y. Sussman, editor of Decca, the Letters of Jessica Mitford, just published by Alfred A. Knopf.
In an interview in his South Berkeley home, Sussman, a San Francisco Chronicle editor from 1964 to 1993, talked about obtaining, then sifting through “thousands and thousands and thousands” of letters spanning Mitford’s life.
Several years after her death in 1996, radical attorney Robert Treuhaft, Mitford’s second husband, asked Sussman, who was in Mitford’s circle of friends for 30 years, to edit the letters.
Sussman first met Mitford when, working as a young Chronicle copy editor, he was trying to track down paramilitary activities in the East Bay. She had heard about his project and invited him to meet and discuss it.
“Any number of other people had the same experience,” Sussman said. “She was very encouraging.”
Sussman said he selected the letters or parts of them to capture Mitford’s voice. “By that I mean her special stance toward the world,” he said. “She saw things in our culture that others did not see.”
For example, there was the way Mitford regarded funerals. “It was absolutely preposterous,” Sussman said, “They are corpses, they are dead, but the way they advertise cushioned soles [for shoes] to put on them in their coffins. Decca could see the ridiculousness of it.”
The editing process entailed omitting letters or parts of them that told highly personal stories of friends or family.
“There’s a kind of falsification that takes place anytime you edit, select, trim, explain. So I had to keep stepping back and asking, ‘Am I being true to what I’m sensing in her, in these letters I have?’” Sussman said. “It’s not like this is an interpretive work, yet there’s a conscious interpretation that comes into it. Just the act of choosing one letter over another or one anecdote over another.”
Another challenge Sussman faced was taking care not to reveal names of Communist Party members whose affiliation was not public. And he had to watch for libel, as Mitford would write whatever came into her mind.
“I thought I was done with the whole thing and then I’d start getting letters from the British lawyers because there are entirely different libel laws in Britain,” Sussman said.
The letters, which span her youth to her deathbed, bring out Mitford’s famous humor and edginess. Even at 19, the headstrong Mitford wrote her mother from Paris, “When
I went to cousin Dorothy’s I didn’t tell you I had met Esmond Romilly. To put it shortly, by the time you get this we shall be married,”
The couple’s move to America nurtured Mitford’s politicization. On a trip through South Carolina, she wrote: “Some of the shacks where the poor farmers live are simply incredible, they are wooden & look like old, broken-down children’s houses. We couldn’t believe people actually lived in them till we saw them inside.”
In his introduction to each segment of Mitford’s life and in his comprehensive footnotes, Sussman fills the reader in on some of the tragedies in Mitford’s life that she wrote little about, such as the death of her young husband, killed fighting Nazism in WWII.
Sussman points out the strength it must have taken to rebel against her tight-knit family. Mitford totally broke with one of her Nazi-sympathizing sisters, with whom she was, as she called it in her letters, “off-speakers” for life.
Mitford moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and embraced life as a single working mother—she was pregnant when Romilly was killed—with a job at the Office of Price Administration, whose objective was to control prices and rents.
Mitford’s letters give a taste of the growing repression in the United States. For instance, in this April 1943 letter, she wrote:
“The FBI (like Scotland Yard) are investigating a lot of people in our [OPA] division at the moment, including me. This is part of a general red-baiting program.” Later letters speak about being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Mitford married Robert Treuhaft in 1943, characteristically writing to her mother: “You will be surprised to hear I am married to Robert Treuhaft.”
The couple moved to Oakland in the mid-1940s and joined the Communist Party. Mitford became executive secretary of the East Bay Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. In introductory remarks to one of the sections, Sussman quotes from a 1981 lecture she gave on the CRC:
“It was the fact of effective black leadership in the fight for black equality that gave our embattled organization its strength, that set it apart from such virtually all-white organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union which concerned itself primarily with the problems of white liberals and generally turned a blind eye to the vicious, rampant discrimination against blacks…”
Sussman expressed gratitude to those who combed through attics, basements and shoeboxes for Mitford’s letters. It was an expression of the debt they owed her, he said, writing in the acknowledgment section of the book: “I was the beneficiary of the debt of gratitude they, too, owed Decca.”
Reading of Jessica
Peter Sussman, Jessica Mitford’s children and grandchildren and friends will be reading from her letters at 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 29 at a benefit for KPFA at King Middle School Auditorium, 1781 Rose St. Tickets $15 advance at local independent bookstores and $20 at the door. For more information, see www.PeterySussman. com.