Book review: 'Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford' by Leslie Brody

Special to the Los Angeles Times

In their time, the daughters of the second Baron Redesdale, better known as the Mitford sisters, were an industry. Their trade, for the most part, was their mere existence — swanning about British society, leaving scandal and newsprint in their wake. Nancy wrote deliciously acidic novels and gossipy history. (Evelyn Waugh dedicated "The Loved One" to her.) Diana and Unity were avowed fascists. Adolf Hitler was a witness at Diana's wedding to Oswald Mosely, and Unity was so besotted with the Führer and chagrined when Britain declared war on Germany that she tried to kill herself. Deborah and Pamela were more reserved, but the tabloids avidly detailed all the sisters' fashions, marriages, politics and real estate.

Leslie Brody's biography of the second-to-youngest sister, "Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford," is among the latest contributions to the family business. (Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire and the only surviving Mitford, published a memoir last month.) The industry still thrives. Of course, Jessica made her name beyond being "the communist one" by actively investigating commercial syndicates, peeling back marketing jargon and questionable pricing practices to uncover corruption and profiteering, most prominently with her blockbuster "The American Way of Death," the still-classic exposé of the funeral industry, first published in 1963.

"Irrepressible" begins with the rogue Mitford at age 12 opening her own bank account, the necessary groundwork for escape. That came in 1937, when, at 19, she met her second cousin Esmond Romilly, the dashing, precocious nephew of Winston Churchill, who shared her radical politics. To her family's horror and the newspapers' delight, the two fled to join anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Though very much devoted to her family, Mitford was often estranged from them, this being one of the most extreme ruptures.

Brody is especially enamored of this flight to Spain, her tone veering from giddy to hard-boiled: "Suddenly, they were in a psychosexual crucible, with all the vino and cheap gin they could drink. He had a bitter edge. She had a wicked mouth. Finally, they were just kids." It makes for fast if somewhat unserious reading, and that may be apt; Jessica Mitford, a true champion of irreverence, never met a pretension she didn't try to puncture. It's unclear, though, if this gusto would have served the entire book well because the author soon drops it. After Romilly and Mitford returned to England, they married and had a daughter, who died of measles at 5 months. Between the couple's grief and their increasing disappointment with British politics, they decide to move to the U.S. By the time they settle in Washington, D.C., and Mitford has started writing for the Washington Post, Brody opts for straight reporting.

Given how packed Mitford's life was, the tone shift makes practical sense. Consider the people she crossed paths with: Alan Lomax, Josephine Baker, Nora Ephron, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Tom Hayden, J.R.R. Tolkien, Katharine Graham, Jean Genet. And that's the short list. There's much ground to cover, and Brody squeezes a lot in: hobnobbing with New Deal power mongers; Romilly's death while flying an air raid over Germany and Jessica's subsequent grief; her work in the federal Office of Price Administration, where she meets labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft and does some of her first undercover work; reconciliations with her sisters; her move to Oakland and marriage to Treuhaft; joining the Communist Party, emerging as a doyenne of progressive politics and rollicking parties; and, of course, the investigative juggernaut that struck fear into morticians all over the country.

Imagine an Anglo Elaine Stritch crossed with Zelig. Witty and hard-living (vodka after her morning coffee, Jack Daniels in the evening), Mitford was somehow everywhere: House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the Rosenbergs' trial, following the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., Black Panther benefits. But unlike Zelig, she was no wallflower.

Brody has clearly done her research, culling from Mitford's own books and letters, as well as those of her sisters and other Mitford studies. She has interviewed the writer's acquaintances, friends and children. The glimpses of the muckraker that come from Mitford's own writing display a candor, verve and, at times, gentleness. She writes movingly of her ambivalence and longing for her family in England, displaying an unflinching self-awareness of her part in the sometimes strained relations.

At one point, Brody compares Mitford's radical journalism to the emerging New Journalism, but it's too bad that there isn't more of an effort to frame Mitford and her work in a larger context. From one angle as a gadfly eager to mine outrage, Mitford is a forerunner to Michael Moore. An investigative journalist going undercover to reveal unfair trade practices, she is a precursor to Barbara Ehrenreich. A hyper-connected grand dame of politics and cocktail parties, at once in the news and behind the scenes, she foretells Arianna Huffington. As an expatriated British writer with a contrarian streak, she presages Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens. (Hitchens wrote the preface to the reissue of her memoir "Hons and Rebels.")

More timeline than analysis, "Irrepressible" is comprehensive yet rushed. It ends with Mitford's funeral in 1996 — again, fitting in one respect but stopping short of deeply examining her legacy. Maybe another book to be written.

Brown has written for Bookforum and the London Review of Books.

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