Jessica Mitford discusses "Fine old conflict"
BROADCAST: Oct. 7, 1977 | DURATION: 00:52:24
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Studs Terkel Jessica Mitford, Jessica Mitford is a quite marvelous writer. She's an excellent journalist and, I think, a good all-around writer. You remember her two books for which she's best known: The American Way of Death, and it's her quite important and funny and really profound exposé of the funeral industry and the matter of how death is treated here, and a more recent book dealing with the prisons: Cruel and Usual Punishments.
Studs Terkel "Kind", oh, is, had the ironic title, Kind and Usual Punishments. And Jessica Mitford's newest book is her memoir called A Fine Old Conflict, the title is a humorous one of which you'll hear in a moment. Her connections with the Communist Party in the past, and the Left generally, and her own background as a child of a very singular British family, her own thoughts and you might call this the odyssey of Jessica Mitford. Might I add, it's a very funny book, too. There's a great deal of humor to it. Alfred Knopf the publishers. It's received some remarkable reviews. John Leonard in The New York Times speaks of it as one of those beauties and it has a certain kind of feistiness and guts to it, too, that I think everybody, no matter how you feel, likes very much in a person, and so in a moment my guest Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict", after we hear this message.
Jessica Mitford As a disconsolate teenager going for the regulation nice Sunday walk in Hyde Park with nanny or our governess, I often wandered off to Speaker's Corner to listen to the Communist orators on their soapboxes and to join in sting-singing their stirring anthem, The Internationale: "T'is the final conflict. Let each stand in his place." For some years before I saw the words written down, I thought it began, "It's a fine old conflict," which to me it was then and ever shall be.
Studs Terkel Jessica, Decca, call you Decca, her friends call her that, I was thinking, you as a small girl in England, we'll hear about you and your family and your childhood in a moment. You thought it was "A fine old conflict," and I was told about an old guy, an old IWW guy, an old Wobbly through the years, and he used to sing this song, and he never knew the words,
Studs Terkel And he leaned back because he loved battles, he loved fights, he's "Life's a battle," and whenever he'd hear that song he'd lean his head back and he'd sing, "T'is the fine old conflict," and so it was.
Studs Terkel A feistiness. Well, how--the book begins with an introduction of who you are, where you came from, and in your quite beautiful memoir we haven't discussed earlier called Daughters and Rebels, your family. Who, who were the Mitfords?
Jessica Mitford Well, my parents were Lord and Lady Redesdale, and we all grew up in the deep countryside in England. I had, I was one of six girls and a boy. I was towards the end of the family actually, and the family all went their different ways in various important moments of the '30s. I was born in 1917 and there's only one younger than I am. My older sister, Nancy, novelist and biographer, she was sort of a remote star to us because she was so much older than us younger
Jessica Mitford That was Nancy, and then the two sisters who made most headlines probably in the '30s were my sister Diana, who married Sir Oswald Mosley, head of the British Union of Fascists, and my sister Unity, who went to Germany and lived there a great deal as part of Hitler's inner circle. So I was three years younger than Unity, and when I was 15 and she was 18, she had already gone to Germany, and so I decided to become a Communist.
Studs Terkel Well, how did this happen? See, this is, this is the part, you see. Your sister Nancy was a part, was sort of apolitical and part of that circle of very bright young British people following World War One, you know very bright ones, of Evelyn Waugh and the variety of them, you know whom, she was very good and very bright but detached from this. But your two other sisters, Unity and Diana, were very definitely part of the fascist movement, you know.
Jessica Mitford Yes, well so were my parents too, because they went to Germany and got very much infatuated with the whole Hitler regime because they were very conservative to start with, obviously, you know. Well, anyway so I ran away to the Spanish Civil War when I was 19 on the side
Jessica Mitford I don't know. People are always asking me that, and I haven't got any very good answers, I tried to explain it a little bit in A Fine Old Conflict. Seems to me, actually, that at the time I was coming along, you know, the early '30s, and on up until the Spanish war and then the, the Second World War, that the, that many of my generation and people who were a bit older were immensely attracted by the whole cause of antifascism in the first place and also by the magnet of socialist reconstruction of society. And these two things I think combined to make a lot of people either Communists or Communist sympathizers. I was not, really, actually a member until much later on, but I looked upon myself as a Communist.
Jessica Mitford Yes.
Jessica Mitford That's right. And the point is that at that time, young men from all over the world, including very many from this country, from America, flocked over there to join the International Brigades which was to defend the Spanish democracy against the encroachment of fascism, of course they lost that fight. But among them was the person I subsequently married, Esmond Romilly.
Jessica Mitford Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill's nephew. So he and I went off there and then we came back and lived in England for a while after we were married. Needless to say, with incredible opposition on the part of my family, and in fact, I broke with them pretty totally about then. And then in 1939 we came over to America just to have a look at this country and see what it was like, because we knew war was going to break out inevitably sooner or later, and we wanted to, you know, get in some other aspects like having a look at America. So we came over on an immigrant quota and both got various odd jobs around the country. And then when the war broke out, Esmond went back and joined the Canadian Air Force and he was killed in 1941. By now, I had a baby, Constancia.
Jessica Mitford Right. So that was where I was, and, and my book, really, essentially covers, well, the period from the time my baby Constancia was born up until about 1963 with the publication of The American Way of Death, so there's plenty of conflicts all the way through.
Studs Terkel So the introduction deals with beginnings, the family, the conflicts, what the world was like, young people and fervor, fervent years, beginnings, and you coming as young widow and child to the United States, and then you landed in Washington and you met a couple whom we know. Clifford and Virginia Durr. How did you meet the Durrs? Perhaps jusr a word about them, perhaps.
Jessica Mitford Well, the Durrs were incredible people. Cliff, though, was a fairly prominent New Dealer in those days. He was the general counsel for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a New Deal agency, and Virginia was the sister-in-law of Justice Hugo Black, and they were, their household was fascinating. They were constantly inviting all kinds of everything, really, from judicial dignitaries to young radicals because Virginia was always very radical. She was the head of the Committee to Abolish the Poll
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Jessica Mitford Right. I really only went to stay with them for a weekend, but in the end, like The Man Who Stayed to Dinner, I stayed there for about two and a half years, and my baby was born with them.
Studs Terkel You have to describe Virginia, there's a scene here. I think you have to read and do as, as well as you can a takeoff of Virginia Durr. She's very open, very hospitable, and this is the case when Claude Pepper was U.S. Senator and at that time he was a battling senator and he's been sort of destroyed recenty and been quiet. But he and his wife were Southerners, they were invited by the Durrs as guests of honor, and never showed up.
Jessica Mitford Well, it was terrible. I mean, the other guests arrived. Eight o'clock came and went, then nine o'clock with no Peppers. Well, Virginia it was vastly annoyed. The following day she took me to one of those huge official Washington cocktail parties in the Mayflower Hotel. She said, "Honey, get your white gloves on. We got to go and meet the British tank commission." I don't know how well that comes off. And when all of a sudden across the heads of thousands of people at this cocktail party, she saw Mrs. Pepper. So a ship in full sail, her white leghorn picture hat bobbing up and down, Virginia steered a course through the crowd with me, anxious little tugboat following in her wake. "Why, Mildred!" she cried on reaching her quarry. "I was most put out that you-all never came last night. What in the world happened?" So Mildred, quailing before this onslaught, said, "But why, Virginia, you never sent me a reminder card." To which Virginia responded, "Why, Mildred, you know darn well in that hick town you come from there's no reminder card."
Jessica Mitford On
Studs Terkel Quite remarkable, who, with whom you stayed. Now are you getting acquainted with the United States and with Washington. Now, the New Deal. Of course, these are very exciting moments in Washington. The different alphabetic organizations, and now you got a job with the Office of Price Administration.
Jessica Mitford Yes, the Office of Price Administration was the rent and rationing agency. Unfortunately it wasn't a very good job because I'd tried to learn to type, but not too successfully, and my actual job description was sub-eligible typist, and that was in the days when it was said that personnel shortages were so severe in the OPA that they put the applicant into a room with a typewriter and a washing machine, and that if she could identify the typewriter, she was hired.
Studs Terkel You're doing this and just about then the Dies' Committee, the House Un-American Activities was out to destroy the New Deal, of course. That was its prime objective was attacking the various New Deal personnel and people.
Jessica Mitford They were. And so was Time magazine. I recall Time as being absolutely in the forefront of the attack against the OPA and all what we were trying to do to kill prices down and keep rationing going, you know. And so it was, there were exciting days,
Jessica Mitford I met him, he, he was a lawyer in the enforcement division, and my typing was so awful they finally made me an investigator, which paid a lot more money and you didn't have to do any typing. So I was assigned to work with Bob Treuhaft and investigate overcharges and rationing violations and stuff like that, and that's certainly how we first got acquainted.
Studs Terkel And now we come to the period, Washington and the country. I use the phrase that Harold Clurman uses in his book about the group theater, "Fervent Years". They were exciting and fervent years.
Jessica Mitford They were indeed. As a matter of fact, Bob Treuhaft kept sort of getting engaged to other people, which was so annoying. So I decided to leave Washington. I was fed up with the whole thing. And so I got a transfer to San Francisco, and I went there not knowing a single soul with Dinky, my baby, who was now two years old, Constancia, who was always nicknamed "Dink," Dinky. And we went to live in San Francisco, where I was working for the OPA there in the regional office this time. And fortunately for me, Bob Treuhaft came out on his annual leave and we decided to get married. So we did straight away.
Jessica Mitford Well, you see, here's what happened. When I first arrived out there in San, in San Francisco, it was the first time in my life that I felt totally anonymous. Nobody knew who I was, I was just a war widow who happened to fetch up there and to be working with the OPA. And I, I really loved that. But my mother used to say in the '30s, "Whenever I see the words, 'Peer's Daughter' in a headline, I know it's going to be something about one of you children." So these headlines have followed me all my life practically, all my adult life. And so here I was in San Francisco with nobody knowing a thing about all that background, and it was marvelous for a while, but it didn't last because my sister Diana Mosley and her husband Sir Oswald Mosley, had both been imprisoned as potential traitors because they were for the fascist side during the war. And, so, while I was working at the Office of Price Administration, they were released by order of the Home Secretary, which provoked a huge furor, a storm of criticism from the British labor movement, all sections of it, and I of course agreed with the protest, but on the other hand I'd read this stuff and think, "Well, it won't be long before some bright-eyed newspaper fellow is going to discover that Mosley's sister-in-law is living here and do a color story on me or something. So sure enough, it happened. I was sitting in the OPA one day, thinking no ill, doodling away as the way we used to in those government agencies, and I saw a photographer coming way at the far end of the room, and he was going over and making inquiries in the press section. Well, I began to get suspicious straightaway because the press section only existed for giving mimeographed handouts, you know, about the prices and rationing and that, and it didn't attract photographers. So the press officer pointed in my direction. The photographer started walking in my direction. I got up and walked away. He quickened a step, I ran and I burst into one of the glass-enclosed executive offices that ringed around the big place I worked in, and there was my boss, the chief investigator, having a conference with 12 people or so, and they looked very astonished at this odd interruption. I just said, "Oh, I say, sorry, could I just stay in here for a few minutes?" when the photographer burst into the other office and started snapping my picture through the glass. I got furious. I rushed out and tackled him, seized him by the throat, [laughing] kicked his camera and broke it, and of course the whole OPA rose as one man to see this extraordinary fight. Well, after that my cover was blown. And so they all knew who I was.
Studs Terkel As far as his hold on--by the use, this is interesting. It applies to today in some ways when a demagogue comes along like George Wallace was, using working people and their frustrations and fears to find a scapegoat.
Jessica Mitford Yes.
Jessica Mitford Well, because in the first place the Communist Party seemed to me to, throughout its whole history, to have been the most consistent and stalwart fighter against fascism. And here we were in a war with Hitler. This is 1943. So I was very active in the union, and Bob Treuhaft, my husband and I, both were. So we went down to a union convention and eventually, a friend and co-worker, Darby Walker, who incidentally is still a great friend of ours, said to us at this convention, "Would you two be interested in joining the Communist Party?" Well, so we said, "Absolutely." The next thing that happened was that Bob joined with great ease, but my case was different, because I was still an alien. I'd never taken out American citizenship, and it turns out that the C.P., the Communist Party in those days, did -- would, wouldn't take aliens in their ranks, you see. In other words, you couldn't join if you were an alien. So I made immediate steps to get citizenship. I remember being asked by one of the immigration people, you know, quiz you about these things, a routine question, "Why do you want to become a citizen of the United States?" Well, I thought it seemed a bit inappropriate to say, "So I can join the Communist Party," and so I just sort of rattled off some words about the land of democracy and freedom, and so, so then he--I got to be a citizen and joined
Studs Terkel By the, this may seem strange to people who the word is a trigger word, "Communist Party," wham, it's very funny. The book is a great deal humor involving language and the use of it, the formalities and people reading pamphlets and books, and this became, this is part of the humor of your book, at the same time the humanness of it,
Jessica Mitford Well, see, what I wanted to do in the book essentially is, I'm very glad you mentioned that sort of trigger word, you know, it triggers off all kinds of incredible reactions, the word "Communist"--
Jessica Mitford Well, there's a kind of provincial hatred of the, of the left in this country. And I think the purpose of writing A Fine Old Conflict, you know, essentially was to try to demystify the C.P. and to show what we actually did and how, the way we really were, you know. So I mean, this is, this was the purpose of doing it, to show the kinds of causes that we espoused, which, by the way in, in, particularly later on in the book when we get to the '50s and the McCarthy period, there really was no other solid organization that you could count on and trust and would be consistent all the way through. There was fighting for such things as the rights of Blacks. Or there was fighting against the House Un-American Committee, the right to travel, all these things.
Jessica Mitford Yes.
Studs Terkel And it was quite patently a frame, the evidence is overwhelming that it was. And the irony is when Willie McGee was executed, there was a Civil Rights Congress and which had many communists in it and directing aspects, that invariably the Liberals, the non, the anti-C liberals, said Willie McGee died because of them.
Jessica Mitford Right.
Jessica Mitford the And that was one of the most stupid and rotten things they could have said. The reason they said that was, that in those days hysteria was so huge and, and so pervasive that liberals would much rather duck away from any case that had the taint to them of subversion and communism because they wanted to save their own skins and their own necks, you know. So they would have nothing to do with anything that was labeled subversive. The ACLU wouldn't, the American Civil Liberties Union, and we just learned now, the other day in the Times, that the ACLU was actively collaborating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and feeding them names and stuff like that, which I'd always suspected, and was glad to see that corroborated.
Studs Terkel At that time you're talking about the ironies, the fear was so overwhelming. And there was the Civil Rights Congress, and you became very active in that. By the way, we should point -- you moved from San Francisco to Oakland, and you describe differences. We'll come to that, there's a slight difference here.
Jessica Mitford Well, see, the differences really were, I mean San Francisco is a sophisticated city with a, with a large and powerful trade union movement. You know, in those days of course very much led by Harry Bridges and the left wing of, of the labor movement. Whereas Oakland was a sort of amorphous huge industrial town, a small town grown big, with many many Blacks who'd come up essentially during the war to work in war industries, and who the minute the war was over were flung into the ranks of unemployed. Now these were the people, these working-class people and Black people, that formed the backbone of the Communist Party and of the Civil Rights Congress in Oakland. And that's where we lived and where I worked and in my book I've really tried very hard only to give personal stuff that I know about from my own experience, you know, not to sort of make it to be a political tract in general, but to try to, you know, to illuminate those corners of life where, where we were working in, you know. That, that was Oakland.
Studs Terkel With your husband, Bob Treuhaft, continuously stuck his neck out defending these I should say very, very unpopular causes, and very unsafe causes, particularly for a young lawyer, and throughout he was involved here in defending.
Jessica Mitford Absolutely. He was the general counsel for our chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. So in that connection, of course, he undertook innumerable cases without fee. We were battling police brutality in Oakland, and he was, he was in court all the time on this kind of thing.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, by way, the humor--the phrase used, it's as you write here, "the Negro question." And so there was a formality, wasn't that, almost in the language of people who were members of the Communist Party--
Studs Terkel Jargon.
Jessica Mitford Very often it seemed to sound as though we were translating as we spoke up in meetings and things, translating from Russian or German. Well many people in the C.P., one in particular who I describe in A Fine Old Conflict, literally had no education, no formal education, except what they got in the party, so they learned grammar, syntax and so on, and really kind of while imbibing, you know, the works of Lenin and the history of the C.P. USA and that kind of book, so that they, they began, I think they began talking in, in, in that way. Well, of course the New Left talks that way, too.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, about this time, all this work and, obviously by this time, you know your name's appeared on, in, on many dossiers because you knew you were being tailed and followed by this time, didn't you? Pretty well. The Cold War, now the Cold War had begun.
Jessica Mitford Absolutely.
Jessica Mitford Course we were sort of jolly subversive, we have to admit that. We were subversive of all the things that were going on like the denial of Black people the right to move into white neighborhoods and so forth. We were trying to subvert all of that.
Jessica Mitford Yes, well, there were two, three cases. The, the [Githome?] was the, was the wealthy Black family who moved into a home where we, I arranged for some people to front for them: a young, white Alabama-born lawyer who seemed like the ideal front not to arouse the suspicion of the seller. So the [Githomes?] moved in, and I went with them to help them with the move. And the reason being that I was afraid that there might be violence, which by the way in those days was absolutely, you know, par for the course. There would be violence.
Jessica Mitford No, this was another time. But there, there lots of, lots of neighbors came out. But the fascinating thing about this case was that it turns out that the home the [Githomes?] bought was smack across the street from the district attorney, who was our arch-enemy. He was a rotten man who was constantly framing up Blacks and refusing to move on cases of police brutality, a total reactionary and bigot. And here he was across the street from these Black people. So, of course, his reaction was very swift and predictable. He put his house up for sale and lost a packet of money on it, sold it for far below its worth. He said, he told a friend of ours that he couldn't bear to think of seeing those Black faces every morning as he was driving to work. Now, here's a man who's supposed to uphold the rights of everyone as D., as D.A., so this was just what was happening.
Studs Terkel But here are you, though, you and your husband Bob Treuhaft, doing these things. The obvious question to you, I was going to ask you at the end of the program, but we're coming near the end of the first half. How come--why couldn't you behave yourself and not be a troublemaker? Why couldn't you, you came from this rather noble family and you with all your titles, and you could have lived a very posh life here. How come you took this absurdly troublesome path?
Jessica Mitford It is so difficult to try to analyze [laughing] one's own motives, but I'll tell you one thing. My editor at Knopf, Bob Gottlieb, far from ascribing noble motives to all the things I was doing in those days, says that I was just doing them because I'm a natural-born gutter fighter. So I think he got that idea when I, when we, when we went after the undertakers in The American Way of Death, you know. So maybe there's a bit of truth to that. I'm sorry to have to say so.
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Studs Terkel Okay. Jessica Mitford is my guest. The book, I point out, it's political--well, of course it's political, as the air we breathe is political. And it, but I should point out the humor throughout, and she's an excellent writer and an observer of herself, too. A Fine Old Conflict is the title, which is funny itself right there. Knopf the publishers, and the reviews have been very excellent indeed, and we'll resume the conversation in a moment, we're going to include that whole language called "Life Itselfmanship", too. But more, and also about your mother and his mother, and that must have been quite a confrontation. Of this in a moment after this message. Resuming the conversation with Jessica Mitford. Now Bob, Bob Treuhaft's mother, your mother-in-law was Aranka. She came from Eastern Europe.
Jessica Mitford Right. She came here when she was a teenager from, in the early part of the century from Hungary, Jewish, and she was about 13, I think, when she first came, and she worked in a factory from that age, and her husband, Bob's father Alvin Treuhaft was a waiter. And but Aranka was enormously ambitious and very, very bright and talented. So she worked her way up in the world until she finally became a milliner with an extremely posh and beautiful hat, hat shop on Park Avenue, Madame Aranka's. Well you, needless to say, she did not approve of her shiksa daughter-in-law and radical daughter-in-law with, with a child of two years old, I mean the most un-ideal marriage that she could think of for her adored only son, Bob. So we had many a spat when, when Bob and I were first married.
Jessica Mitford Well, honestly, of course the reactions were so different, because my mother has this quality that my husband Bob describes as non-Jewish motherishness. In other words she's just the opposite of a Jewish mother, she never really sort of, well, sort of coddled us in any fashion. In fact, we had rather a tough upbringing, I'd say, compared to Bob, who was very much coddled.
Jessica Mitford Oh, well, what happened is that my sister Unity, when we were children, came into my mother's drawing room where she was writing letters, and Unity rushed in and said, "Muv, Muv," we called her Muv, "Decca's standing on the roof and she said she's going to commit suicide." My mother said, "Mmm, poor Dec. I hope she won't do anything so dreadful," and continued writing. That was sort of her attitude.
Jessica Mitford Yes. That was a moment and a half in life. What had happened was that Dinky, now seven years old, had learned to write, and my mother always sent presents to the children. So at Christmas Dinky wrote a thank-you letter saying, "Thank you for the book. I wish you would come to visit us in Oakland one day," and to my amazement and great consternation, a telegram arrived, "Have accepted Dinky's invitation, arriving Oakland in a fortnight," and she did. And of course it was, it was extraordinary for me, because I hadn't seen her for years and years, and you know in those days, when you're young, or, I was 31 let's say, ten years at that time of life is more like forty years might be now. I mean, it's really a whole lifetime [on total youth?] , you know. So it was amazing when she came, and eventually we put her in touch with Aranka, and they hit it off wonderfully well, it was so surprising.
Jessica Mitford Yes.
Jessica Mitford The first thing we did when it was clear that the only hope for Willie McGee was, all appeals had been lost in the courts. He was accused of rape under circumstances which were quite clearly a frame-up. I mean, it was quite clear from the evidence that'd he not committed that rape. So anyhow, the, our plan, since executive clemency was really the only hope for saving him, was to have a white women's delegation to go to the South. The reason for this was that some men had been the year before and been terribly badly beaten up. Really, I mean severely hurt by hoodlums and Ku Kluxers obviously sent in by the governor. But we thought that white women, since the whole "sanctity of white womanhood" was supposedly at stake, that we might have a chance of survival and even of accomplishing something. So four of us went from Oakland, myself and three others, and we drove down to Mississippi and spent weeks there going door to door talking to people trying to appeal to white consciences on this, on this whole thing.
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Studs Terkel Jackson.
Jessica Mitford It's not terribly far, I think it's sort of a few hours' drive. We drove down to Oxford bent on seeing William Faulkner. I remember the first thing that happened was that we were getting directions to his house, and we asked one of these old gangling, pellagra-looking white youths, you know, that abound in that part, the way to William Faulkner's house. And the answer was, "Down the road a piece, past the weepin' willow tree," which seemed to me just to come straight out of Faulkner, so we went there, and we found this dessicated--
Jessica Mitford Yeah. We found this desiccated old mansion, and there was Faulkner, the great man, a very small man actually, in a, in a brown jacket, dictating to a secretary. So we rang the doorbell. He let us in, and he talked to us about two or three hours. It was amazing. You know, I think, in a way that case symbolized for him all the things he was most fascinated and drawn to in his odd fashion, you know, race, sex, violence, all of these elements in the Willie McGee case. And he, he made a long, long statement. I mean, we were there for hours. I made a digest of it for a press release, and of course he was totally sympathetic to Willie McGee's cause. And I telephoned the national office of Civil Rights Congress, they were really thrilled because it was the first time that a person prominent like, like Faulkner had spoken out on the thing. And so, but the head of the CRC, a very distinguished Black man, told me that I must go back and get Faulkner to sign it for fear he might repudiate it later. So I went back alone this time past the weepin' willow tree and there I saw Faulkner again in a Faulkneresque scene in dungarees up to his hips in manure, sort of working alongside a Black farmhand. So I picked my way through the manure and said, "Mr. Faulkner, would you mind signing this statement?" So he read it over and signed it, and then he said softly to himself, "I think that they should both be destroyed," meaning both William McGee and the white woman who had accused him, so I said, "Oop, don't let's add that." I grabbed the statement out of his hand and ran.
Jessica Mitford I read an interview with him much later. I think it was in U.S. News and World Report during the time of the '60s struggles, in which he said that while he was, he thought that the Black people should have their rights, yet if it came, if push came to shove and there was civil war in Mississippi, he would take his gun and go to shoot down Blacks.
Studs Terkel It's, it's this complete torn, inside of this quite brilliant and humane writer. And we come to now all sorts of--it's like it's telescopic events just, you know, come, come in on you like, like lava from a volcano, just pouring on you. And now, of course, the Cold War is colder than ever. And you and Bob Treuhaft, up, and now HUAC is in its flower
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Jessica Mitford Yes, we both were. I was sur-first subpoenaed by the state Un-American Activities Committee, the California one. And I was subpoenaed duces tecum, which means in legal language that you've got to bring documents, in this case the names and addresses of all the contributors and members of the Civil Rights Congress. Well, I'd got no intention of doing that. So I was rather expecting a citation and possibly followed by a jail term. So I took Dinky along so she would see my crime, she was now 10 years old, you know, witness it with her own eyes. But I was saved from that by a funny little thing that happened. See, we'd all decided to take the Fifth Amendment, and you have to repeat droning long, you know, the ritual words "I refuse to answer on the answer--on the ground that my answer might tend to incriminate me," so I was doing this to every question the council asked. All of a sudden he shot at me, "Are you a member of the Berkeley Tenants' Club?" Well, I thought he'd said "tenants," tenants.
Jessica Mitford No, "tenants' club" is what I'd heard him to say, because I know that tenants are subversive, because they're not landlords, I mean, so I said, "I refuse to answer, et cetera." The audience burst into shrieks of laughter, the reason being that what he'd actually said was, "The Berkeley Tennis Club," which was a terribly posh expensive country club. So the chairman was so cross at the demonstration of laughter that he just excused me from the stand, so I ran.
Jessica Mitford Well, you see, that was another thing. When we were both subpoenaed, in fact, at the big-time business, which was the House Un-American Activities Committee meeting in San Francisco, the hearing that they held in which incidentally, the majority of people in that hearing, there were about 100 people subpoenaed they were, what were they, they were trade unionists, active people, laborers, you know, people from all kinds of unions, a smattering of professional people, librarians, teachers. This is never publicized. What, all you hear about is the Hollywood glamour people that were subpoenaed, but it was really this kind of hearing, I think, that did the deadly damage. Anyway, Bob was among those, and I was. And so Bob made an effort to get some lawyer who was not already on the subversive list, you know, as a member of the Lawyers' Guild, let's say, to represent him. Some non-leftwinger. Some honest person. Those honest people did not exist. We interviewed about seven of them. Most of them first said that yes, they would represent Bob. They all turned tail, however, in fear of alienating the witch-hunting committee, and by the end of it he had to represent himself. So he, his whole testimony consisted of telling all this, you know, to the, to to the comm -- to the hearing, which caused a huge explosion of applause by the audience, which were all friends of ours. And again, the hearing room was cleared by, by the chairman because of the applause of Bob statement. So the next day there was a headline in the Oakland Tribune saying, saying, "Oakland Lawyer Causes Row at Hearing,"
Jessica Mitford Deeply reactionary Oakland Tribune. "Oakland Lawyer Causes Row at Hearing," and then came the story about Bob. So there was a silver lining to that, because his secretary told me that after that headline, people and particularly the Blacks, kept calling up the office and saying, "Is this the lawyer who caused the row at the hearing?" "Yes." "Well, he's the one that I want to represent my son." They knew he wouldn't capitulate, you see, or make a deal with the other side.
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Studs Terkel Were afraid to represent him. And that was the point he was making, what hysteria can do. While we're on the subject of silence, we know that a contemporary of yours, Lillian Hellman and her quite, a lot of remarkable, the one Scoundrel Time--
Jessica Mitford Yes.
Studs Terkel Says it wasn't that she was sore at McCarthy who was a clown or certain members of HUAC, but of those sweet, decent, quote unquote "liberal people" who were silent, indeed did not object too much to McCarthy's substance as to the style, and she was furious
Jessica Mitford Of The New York Times, and he had a, a whole of two pages in the arts and letters section some months ago blasting Lillian Hellman, the movie The Front, another movie, marvelous documentary called Hollywood on Trial, laying at their door, you know, of Lillian Hellman and all these other people, the crimes of Stalin, and just back to the same kind of red-baiting attack that one would have expected in the '50s, but thought may have faded by now. I feel that these dangerous folks are still very much among us.
Studs Terkel Yeah, so, that's--there we go again. Jessica Mitford, and also--this book of--This is my own editorial comment of gallantry. And by the way, what people asked us, did you become disenchanted with the Communist Party?
Jessica Mitford Not really. I mean, we left in the end in about 1958, but it wasn't at all with a feeling of bitterness or disenchantment or indeed of repudiating anything that we'd done; on the contrary, we were very proud of everything we had done in those years. It was much more because by that time the party seemed to us, rightly or wrongly to have become a fairly ineffective sect, and there were movements growing up in the campuses and in the back-Black community that we thought we could better devote our time to, but we still remain very friendly with lots of people who are members of the party.
Jessica Mitford Well, not really, I mean to say, that's a long story which I tried to deal with a little bit in my book. My book is really about the American Communist Party, about an effort to find a truly indigenous American radical path to a better life. That's what it's all about.
Studs Terkel This goes back to beginnings and toward now and visa--oh, you wanted to go back. Now, we--here's some funny, very funny and very dramatic sequences. You want -- trouble with the passports.
Jessica Mitford That was something. See, the thing was that all subversives, of which we were high on the list, were denied the right to travel in those days. In other words, the passport director could simply by a, a flick of the pen deny you a passport with, with no reasons given except that your travel would not be in the interests of the United States or something like that. So these cases were being fought in the courts, and we decided to join in those cases by making another application for a passport, which we did. And the extraordinary thing was that the passport arrived by return of post. I mean, we got it straight away, and so we thought there'd been a genuine change of policy in the passport division. On the contrary, a few days later a telegram came, saying "Passport issued by mistake, do not use it under penalty of the law." So naturally, we fled using it, and we went over to Europe for the first time, I mean, I, my first visit back since I was 19 years old, and it was most fascinating.
Studs Terkel You know, throughout there are still references to your family back and forth, just as your commitments. Your sister Nancy is very fascinating, comes in and out, even though she was detached and you saw her on occasion, you realized that there sometimes there was another Nancy, too, that there was a mask
Jessica Mitford Well, she was a very complicated creature, Nancy was, some of which comes through I think in her own books, and some comes through in, in, in, in the memoir of her by, by Harold Acton, but I tried to deepen the understanding of Nancy a little bit in my book, you know, to show the many sides of her. She was terribly funny. She was one of the most incredibly amusing people you'd ever want to meet. She'd pull those wonderful practical jokes when we were children, you know, and, and, and so on. But there's also another side of her. She was--she had a rather beastly and bitter life, I suppose, in a way. And so one, also you could never really get through that protective coloring of humor and wit. But, you know, even though one would try.
Studs Terkel Well, the reason I raised her name now before this hour is over, we have to do what is in your Appendix, and there's a very funny, it's called Life Itselfsmanship or, How to Become a Precisely-Because Man, it's a take-off on Left jargon. It's, Nancy wrote about "U," that is, upper, and "non-U," and you write about "L" and "non-L"
Studs Terkel L for leftwing, and by Decca Treuhaft, and it came out as a booklet, but I think perhaps, why don't you set the scene for this, the idea that when you went and saw your colleagues, that there was a language used that you found rather amusing and formal and stilted.
Jessica Mitford I try to give this, you know, in, in Life Itselfmanship, which is the Appendix to A Fine Old Conflict, I, I, I started off with translations, you see, how ordinary people talk, and how communists talk, or "L people," left wing. For example, "time will tell whether that plan was okay" is how ordinary people might say it. "L equivalent," "the correctness of that policy will be tested in life itself, or alternately in the crucible of struggle." Another translation: a non-L person would say, "at the present time we need to find out what's wrong with some of the most important unions." The L-man would say, "in this period there is a need for clarity on the weaknesses of certain key sections of the labor movement." You see, I mean. in other words it's all convoluted and so on. A non-L man would say, "suggesting a bum plan," the L equivalent "projecting an incorrect perspective." And so it goes.
Jessica Mitford Well, I just, I found myself terribly at loose ends. I--after the Civil Rights Congress folded, I couldn't get a job. I got one very briefly, the most stupid job you can imagine, it was selling classified advertising for the Chronicle,
Jessica Mitford Yes, telephone solicitor. And, so, you, eventually the FBI tracked me down and got me fired, because Bob Treuhaft, my husband, said, "Well, you must have known that it was classified work anyhow all along." Well, I felt at a dead end, so I decided to try my hand at writing. In fact, it was the FBI that made me start writing. It really was, because I didn't think I would have considered myself a writer if they hadn't chased me out of every kind of employment, and made me feel, well, I've got to do something, you know, with the rest of my life, so I started to write. And that was when I did Life
Studs Terkel By the way, there's a whole sequence here concerning what happened. Now you are writing quite remarkable books, became articles in The Atlantic, long pieces on, and The American Way of Death. And later on, a co -- there was a congressman Utt, U-double T.
Jessica Mitford Yeah, well you see it was rather fun for me in A Fine Old Conflict, being able to describe some of the story behind the story of The American Way of Death. That's how we got into writing it in ther. But mainly after it came out it was totally unexpectedly a huge hit, I mean, nobody expected it to sell very well, and it went straight to the top of the bestseller list, and this was thrilling for everybody, you know, the publisher sent me on a tour of the country to promote the book. So in the course of the tour, and this was in 1963, a fellow called Congressman James B. Utt of Santa Ana, cemetery land, California, read into the Congressional Record a statement exposing all of my red background. He'd done this at the behest of the undertakers and Forest Lawn and so on. So this caused a huge newspaper story, and nobody knew which way the cat would jump in those days, I mean it was very dicey because McCarthyism was still very much alive although McCarthy himself was dead in, in '63. So it was fascinating to see what the response throughout the country, particularly if, you know, media people, newspaper people and television and that, would be to Congressman Utt's statement. Well you can imagine my absolute whoops of joy when The New York Times had an editorial, "How Not to Read a Book", in which they castigated Utt for his stupid position.
Jessica Mitford Well, you see, there, there we have an exam to test out how well people have learned their lessons of, of these equivalents and so on, you see. Mo-what-ily, what-it-lism is based on super profits? Answer: not cap. Monopoly capitalism, in other words.
Jessica Mitford OK.
Studs Terkel What must we do soberly is asked? The L, L response is "evaluate soberly, or estimate, or assess, anticipate." Those are the correct answers. The incorrect answer is "go down to the nearest bar." Another one: List various kinds of struggle: and the answer is "all out," from political, class, cultural, many-sided, one-sided, either party. And then, what elating petty bourgeousie? Vac, V-A-C, as in vacillating.
Jessica Mitford Right.
Studs Terkel This is funny--how do contradictions get started? They either stem from, or flow out of, sometimes roots of, and this, then it goes on. And then you have what you call aquatic or water sports: in the main stream, launching broad current.
Jessica Mitford Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah, here's the po -- now here's a poem. This is a very familiar poem. Let me read the non-L part, and each time I read the non-L line from the verse, the stanza, you read the L. So, now here's the poem. "Tell me not unmournful numbers."
Studs Terkel That's fantastic. Jessica Mitford is my guest, and the book is A fine Old--that's the Appendix at the end, it's very funny, it's great for out loud reading, too. But more than that, it's a book about a certain person at a certain time, and A Fine Old Conflict is the book, Knopf the publishers, and I'm sure a postscript is in order. What comes to your mind now before the hour ends?
Jessica Mitford I've done one thing which is going to come out in McCall's, which I publish in quite a lot now I've become so respectable, and it's, it's really, a kind of you might call it death warmed over, it's, it's an update on The American Way of Death. It has to do with the Federal Trade Commission hearings around a rule which, a trade rule, which would go very, very far to stymie those undertakers in their tracks, actually. And these hearings took place last year, this is a round up of that stuff, and I'm rather pleased with that.
Studs Terkel Another question I suppose, this is, this book, which is the most memoiristic since your first Daughters and Rebels, dealing with your childhood in England. There's something I suppose has been on your mind for a long time, it's a book that could not have been written in 1950.
Jessica Mitford Well, I started writing it, actually, in 19--well, about 17 years ago right after I'd finished my first autobiography, Daughters and Rebels, but then I, I found it much too hard to get on with at that time, and I kept stalling it and not doing it, you know, and getting sidetracked by funerals and other matters, and finally I decided I'd must one day get this out of my system. I wanted people, especially young people, you know, because, because that whole period of American history is so shrouded in mystery, and it's been so distorted and lied about in the popular press and also by renegade communists who sort of say, well, I was duped, that kind of person. So I was just determined one day to do it, and finally the day came and now it's finished, thank God, and I can get on to something else.
Studs Terkel By the way, you said something about that history, that whole vague, it seems almost all periods there's a kind of history not written about, a sort of bottom-up kind, and you point here about a certain moment that has been not at all dealt with, or if dealt with, are rather perverted at times.
Jessica Mitford Completely. I mean, you read the government reports. I wish you would go back as I did and have a look at some, some of the yellow press, say Time magazine, you know. Go through a whole bunch of old issues in the '50s. You'd be, just be simply amazed at how that can recreate for you the atmosphere of, of the times, which I tried to do, you know, in my book.
Studs Terkel That was when Henry Luce and Time were, and the China lobby and that's how we, as owed, Owen Lattimore and John Service lost China as [unintelligible] comes back that again. The book is just obviously one of those books that fills in something that is wholly lacking and written by a very, I think, gallant and very gifted writer. Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict, Knopf the publishers, and thank you very much.