Jessica Mitford

On this date in 1917, “Queen of the Muckrakers” Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford, nicknamed Decca, was born to a markedly eccentric, religious, aristocratic family in England. Her parents were anti-Semites and notorious members of the British Union of Fascists. Two of her sisters became high-profile fascists, but by age 14 Jessica was a pacifist. Like her sister Nancy, who became a novelist (Love in a Cold Climate), Jessica also embraced a left-wing socialism. She eloped in 1937 at age 19 to marry journalist Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew.

They honeymooned in Spain while he wrote about his experiences in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and was killed at age 23 in 1941 during a raid over Nazi Germany. Mitford then married radical lawyer Robert Treuhaft in 1943 and was active in civil rights campaigns. She led the “White Women’s Delegation” to Mississippi seeking to save a black defendant from the death penalty. She and her husband, who were members of the American Communist Party until 1958, refused to give evidence when summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

She wrote the irreverent best-seller The American Way of Death (1963) after her husband became aware of outrageous funeral costs borne by working-class families. The book enraged funeral directors and the clergy and brought government regulation to the industry. It also spurred demand for cremation. She also wrote an autobiography, Daughters and Rebels (1960), The Trial of Dr. Spock (1970), A Fine Old Conflict (1977), Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business (1973), Poison Penmanship: The Making of a Muckraker (1979) and An American Way of Birth, (1992).

Mitford died in 1996 at age 78 of cancer. After a $475 cremation, a memorial service was held in San Francisco, where famous speakers lauded her mordant sense of humor and lifelong unorthodoxy.

PHOTO: Mitford in 1937.

Freedom From Religion Foundation