Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford


Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls her her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her Decca. Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, she eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew as a teenager. Their marriage severed ties with her privilege, a rupture exacerbated by the life she lead for seventy-eight ...

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Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford

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Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls her her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her Decca. Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, she eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew as a teenager. Their marriage severed ties with her privilege, a rupture exacerbated by the life she lead for seventy-eight years.

After arriving in the United States in 1939, Decca became one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. For her the personal was political, especially as a civil rights activist and journalist. She coined the term frenemies, and as a member of the American Communist Party, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. When she left the Communist Party in 1958 after fifteen years, she promised to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. True to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books before her death in 1996.

Yoked to every important event for nearly all of the twentieth century, Decca not only was defined by the history she witnessed, but by bearing witness, helped to define that history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Journalist and limousine-radical Mitford (1917–1996) gets her due in this breezy and thoroughly researched biography. From a classically colorful English family of women--including Nancy, the novelist, as well as two others who had intimate ties to Adolf Hitler--Jessica very much went her own way socially and politically. She married a distant relative of similar leftist ideals who was better known as Winston Churchill's nephew. The couple settled in Washington, D.C., amid fellow travelers. But when her husband was tragically killed in action in WWII, it was a turning point in her life. Her second husband was an epileptic Ivy League–educated New York Jew and radical lawyer. With their growing family, the pair moved to the Bay Area, becoming involved with the civil rights movement beginning in the late 1940s, and were called as Communists to testify before HUAC. Mitford hit her stride in midlife, publishing the memoir Daughters and Rebels in 1960 and three years later The American Way of Death, winning the sobriquet "Queen of the Muckrakers" from Time magazine. Mitford's talents for schmoozing and recruiting lefties are well chronicled by Brody (Red Star Sister), in as much an evocation of quite different times as biography. 16 pages of photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Irrepressible

"Defying the odds, Leslie Brody has produced an excellent biography. Brody has made the world a better place by telling [Mitford's] saga so skillfully." —San Francisco Chronicle

“With passion, commitment, and a keen sense of adventure—the same qualities that defined her famous subject—Leslie Brody presents Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford as the delightfully complicated character she was: aristocrat, Communist, civil rights activist, mother, author, American dreamer. In brisk but sympathetic prose that will resonate even with those totally unfamiliar with Mitford, Brody traces the fascinating evolution of a woman whose life was shaped by the great political forces of her time, yet who always stayed true to herself and her personal vision. Irrepressible is a great, all-encompassing narrative in the age of niche.” —Erin Aubry Kaplan, author of I, The People

“Such a refreshing biography of Decca! What an inspiration Leslie Brody’s calm yet always vivid history should be to young rebellious souls oppressed by the gloomy cul-de-sac into which our national politics have drifted. Here’s the story of a true rebel in the finest traditions of upper-class English women who kicked over the traces. Decca’s journey took her from Republican Spain to Oakland, California. Brody is never better than when describing the energy and idealism of Communists in those vicious postwar years and Decca’s humor and enormous bravery in the face of real physical danger.” —Alexander Cockburn

Kirkus Reviews

Insightful biography of renowned muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford (1917–1996).

Born into a life of British aristocracy, at age 12 Mitford wrote a letter to a London bank requesting to open a "Running Away Account." Her action, even at such a young age, was emblematic of the life she would lead—that of an outsider, an activist and a hot-blooded liberal from a family with fascist leanings. Brody (Creative Writing/Univ. of Redlands;Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia, 2000) gives full access to Mitford's story, from her first marriage to Winston Churchill's nephew, Esmond Romilly, to her migration from the comforts of England to the exploding social scene of New York City in the 1940s. The narrative accelerates as Mitford struggles to find solid footing in a foreign land, and the World War II backdrop intensifies after Mitford's husband is discovered missing in action and presumed dead somewhere in the North Sea. After Romilly's death, Mitford's slide to the political left continued upon marrying Civil Rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft, who encouraged his wife's passion for activist reporting. Mitford witnessed firsthand the Freedom Riders' beatings in Birmingham, as well as other violent events during the civil-rights movement. Throughout her life, she courted danger while still managing to brush shoulders with royalty. She held chats with William Faulkner and Eleanor Roosevelt, while across the sea, her family dined with Hitler. "Had tea with Hitler," her mother reported. "He is very agreeable and has surprisingly good manners." The political differences between Mitford and her family were exacerbated by Joseph McCarthy's HUAC trials, which called upon Mitford and her husband to testify, an indignity that would only further solidify her role as a resilient muckraker long into the future.

A valuable retelling of a provocative life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582434537
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2010
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.60 (d)

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