Arts Listings

Books: The Skinny About and by Decca

By Pele DeLappe, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 31, 2007

“Not fair, roaring without telling,” Decca would warn as I read—and roared—over some bit from her latest book or letter. I was nursing a sherry in her Oakland kitchen, and reading hugely funny and provocative items from some of the experiences we’d shared during the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

Such as the times we faked interest in a white-owned home for sale, in Oakland, running interference for a black couple not allowed to bid for it for themselves. (Racial Restrictive Covenants prevailed then —eventually to be tossed by the U.S. Supreme Court.) Such as producing Lifeitselfmanship: or How to Become a Precisely Because Man, the send-up of Left language, illustrations by me. It was home-mimeographed, stapled and sold to benefit The People’s World, although the satire rubbed some Comrades the wrong way. 

Then Decca became a proper Writer with the publication of her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, in the U.K. in 1959 under her proper name, Jessica Mitford. By that time her Committee—composed of five or six friends and two husbands: Bob Treuhaft and Steve Murdock (my second)—had become a kind of editorial board while roaring over her bizarre family history. Hard to believe that Lord and Lady Redesdale’s next to youngest daughter would become an American Communist married to a Jewish lawyer while two of her older sisters were raging, notorious Fascists. 

Decca went on to write The American Way of Death, the best-seller which dealt a mortal blow to some of the more nefarious practices of the funeral industry. We all enjoyed reading house organs like Casket & Sunnyside, for their grisly ads. 

She was a hero to me for her bravery in confronting racist mobs; e.g. rounding up defense for a black couple who had moved in to a formerly all-white community in San Pablo; being in a black church in Montgomery, Ala. to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as rioters raged outside and burned her borrowed car. 

She became “Queen of the Muckrakers,” an investigative reporter who could skewer her subject with the politest of voices, all wide-eyed and relentless. I recall her quizzing a coffin-maker about his wholesale prices to the “trade.” But he was an artful dodger. “Hm, I see you are not going to tell me,” Decca decided. A collection of her essays, Poison Penmanship, is must reading for aspiring journalists.  

Decca’s second autobiography, A Fine Old Conflict, deals with her life as head of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress and membership in the Communist Party. (The title is a “mondegreen,” a mishearing of “’tis the final conflict...” from The Internationale.) And a fine old conflict it was in the McCarthy ‘50s—raising children, going to endless meetings and bucking the racist Oakland police. In Decca’s case, bearding racism in the heart of the South, when she and a group of white women went to Mississippi to try to forestall the execution of an innocent black man, Willie McGee. 

Our lives ran along similar lines. Our lawyer husbands, Bob Treuhaft and Bert Edises, were continually harassed by the police and occasional investigative bodies—HUAC, etc. for their defense of unionists and black people. The Treuhaft house was abuzz with activity in 1966 when Bob ran for District Attorney in an effort to unseat “loathsome” J. Frank Coakley. Bert had made the run in 1950; also lost. But they remained Coakley’s worst nightmare in court. 

Not long after I met Decca, in 1943, we became friends and neighbors. She was never one to hug, but you knew she liked you and was on your side, whenever push came to shove. She and Bob gave great cause parties; one, I vividly remember because you were not only charged for entrance but for napkins, glasses, toiletpaper—and to leave! Anything to keep the CRC afloat.  

Since Decca arrived from England she’d been fascinated by American slang. On our way out to lunch, she would say in her perfect British accent, “I am so longing for grub!” Whereas, when British journalist Claude Cockburn arrived to observe the United Nations Decca was called upon to translate his indecipherable English. She began to sound more like a Brit as she made many trips back to “Jolly Old.” 

It’s such a good read, these letters, and so beautifully stitched together by Peter Sussman. He makes it easy to follow the chronology and the tumultuous ‘50s and ‘60s. He did a massive job of pulling together Decca’s family relationships, the political times (and the curious punctuation). 

The Letters reveal a witty, courageous, hugely funny woman in her own words, from the inside out. It’s a great chronicle of those times. How I miss—and long for Decca’s take on these parlous times. 





Edited by Peter Y. Sussman. 

Alfred A. Knopf. 745 pages. $35.