Jessica Mitford; Crusading Writer Acclaimed for Her Biting Exposes
Jessica Mitford, sometimes called “Queen of the Muckrakers” for her proclivity to skewer in print every business from funeral homes to fat farms, died Tuesday in her Oakland home. She was 78.
Mitford died of lung cancer, according to her daughter, Constancia Romilly of Washington, D.C.
Born to a titled British family, Mitford was already in middle age when she began writing her well-documented but often biting exposes. Her first major success came in 1963 with “The American Way of Death,” which excoriated funeral directors for staging unnecessarily pompous and expensive final rites.
Mitford said she was prompted to write the book when she realized that the estates of her husband’s poor legal clients were drained by excessive funeral and burial costs.
“Miss Mitford does not shrink from the gruesome,” a Times critic noted in reviewing her controversial bestseller. “She goes into the embalming process with detailed zest. She exhumes little-known items such as the fact that 120 man-hours are devoted to each corpse. She chews out the florists and allied industries that prey on death.”
As a solution to expensive funerals, Mitford touted cooperative burial groups, and she quickly became the darling of such organizations.
“Morticians and cemetery promoters live in deathly fear their $2-billion business is slipping from their grasp,” she told applauding delegates to a 1963 Fresno convention of the California Federation of Funeral and Memorial Societies. “The more people know the more the rebellion will grow.”
Mitford proudly noted that a major casket manufacturer showed a 10% drop in gross income for the year after publication of her book.
The author, her daughter said, will be cremated.
Mitford’s other books included two autobiographies--"Daughters and Rebels” in 1960 and “A Fine Old Conflict” in 1977--and several collections of her articles including “Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking” in 1979. After rising to fame criticizing the high cost of death, she eventually took on unnecessary expenses in childbirth as well, resulting in “The American Way of Birth” in 1992.
Her articles, published by such magazines as Life, Esquire and The Nation, targeted Bennett Cerf and other members of the Famous Writers School, television executives, a spa catering to overweight wealthy women, and overpriced restaurants.
“You may not be able to change the world,” she was fond of stating, “but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”
Last year, she was in Los Angeles to receive the Emil Freed Award from the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a group that collects and preserves historical materials on 20th century progressive movements. The group called Mitford “America’s favorite gadfly.”
Known to friends as “Decca,” she was born in Batsford, England, one of the somewhat eccentric and politically daring brood of six daughters and one son of David (second baron of Redesdale) and Sydney Bowles Mitford. She, her sister Nancy and others wrote so prolifically that Jessica christened prose “the Mitford Industry.”
Prototypes for characters in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” the unusual family was profiled in a 1985 book, “The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family,” written by Jessica Mitford’s nephew, Jonathan Guinness, and his daughter, Catherine.
Jessica Mitford ran away to Loyalist Spain during the Spanish Civil War and married Esmond Romilly, a Communist sympathizer who was killed in World War II.
She later married a labor lawyer, Robert E. Treuhaft, whom she met while working in Washington, D.C. They settled in a racially integrated section of Oakland and joined the Communist Party--from which they resigned in 1958.
In addition to her daughter from her first marriage, Mitford is survived by her husband; their son, Benjamin Treuhaft of Berkeley; one sister, Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire of England; and three grandchildren, Benjamin Weber of Atlanta, James Forman of Washington, D.C., and actor Chaka Forman of Los Angeles.
Memorial services are scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday at the Delancey Street Hall in San Francisco.