The Outsiders: Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford, the ‘red sheep’ of the aristocratic Mitford family, left behind her own charmed background and never allowed this privilege to prevent her campaigning for the rights of others – making her a perfect fit for John Pilger’s 1983 interview series The Outsiders.

Known as ‘Decca’, she was the sister of romantic novelist Nancy, Diana, the wife of fascist Oswald Mosley, and Unity, who was obsessed with Hitler. In 1937, she ran away to Spain with Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchill who had fought on the Republican side against Franco in the civil war. They married and settled in the United States. Following his death in the war, she became active in the American Communist Party and met and married civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft, settling in Oakland, California. 

The pair were close comrades and became targets of the witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy. Summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they refused to name radical groups and friends and were dismissed as ‘unresponsive’.

‘Jessica not only survived McCarthy,’ says Pilger in his introduction. ‘She went on to become a very different muckracker herself – and muckraker is what she prefers to be called.’ Robert Treuhaft persuaded her to write an article about the corrupt funeral business. Called ‘Saint Peter Don't You Call Me’, it appeared in Frontier magazine and lifted the lid on the many scandals of profiteering that plagued the bereaved in the United States.  

This became a bestselling book, The American Way of Death, whose revelations of unscrupulous practices by undertakers led to Congressional hearings. Its author was described by the Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein as ‘having a winsome manner, an unfailing ear and an instinct for the jugular… the picture of a slightly dotty English lady’. What he might also have said was that Mitford was a natural sleuth and outstanding reporter.

In her interview with Pilger, Mitford explains that her sister Unity’s attachment to fascism and love affair with Nazi Germany revolted her enough to become a communist. Her parents, too, appeased Hitler and Nazism, just as many of the British ruling class had supported Hitler’s rise. ‘He had crushed the trade unions, he had crushed the communist party and he had crushed the Jews,’ says Mitford, ‘and don’t forget there’s a huge strain of anti-Semitism that runs through that class in England.’  

Jessica Mitford died in 1996 at the age of 78, having not long completed her final book, The American Way of Death Revisited, which disclosed a host of new funeral directors’ scams. On her instructions, she was cremated without a ceremony and her ashes were scattered at sea. ‘Jessica Mitford,’ said Pilger, ‘combined a finely honed social conscience and a wonderful gallows humour. She inverted stereotypes. I liked her enormously.’

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library