Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale, was born in Burford, Oxfordshire, in 1917. The sister of Diana Mitford, Nancy Mitford and Unity Mitford, she was educated at home by her mother.

Mitford's parents held right-wing political views and supported the British Union of Fascists and in 1936 their daughter, Diana Mitford, married its leader, Oswald Mosley. Another daughter, Unity Mitford, went to Nazi Germany and became a close friend of Adolf Hitler.

Unlike the rest of her family, Jessica developed left-wing political opinions. At the age of fourteen she was converted to pacifism and later, like her sister, Nancy Mitford, became a socialist. Jessica even considered the possibility of visiting Germany with her sister and murdering Hitler. She later wrote: "Unfortunately, my will to live was too strong for me actually to carry out this scheme, which would have been fully practical and might have changed the course of history. Years later, when the horrifying history of Hitler and his regime had been completely unfolded, leaving Europe half-destroyed, I often bitterly regretted my lack of courage."

In 1937 Mitford met Esmond Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill, who had just returned to England after fighting for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He was now working as a journalist for the News Chronicle and was about to go back to Spain to report on the war. Jessica went with him and they married in June 1937. While on honeymoon he wrote Boadilla , an account of his experiences in Spain.

When the couple returned to England Esmond Romilly found work as a copywriter for a small advertising agency in London, whereas Jessica was employed in market research. Along with her husband she became involved in the struggle against the British Union of Fascists.

In 1939 Mitford and Romilly went to the United States. On the outbreak of the Second World War Romilly joined the Royal Canadian Air Force but was killed in 1941 during a bombing raid over Nazi Germany.

Mitford went to work for Office of Price Administration (OPA) where she met the radical lawyer, Robert Treuhaft, who she married in 1943. They both joined the American Communist Party and were active in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1948 they moved to Oakland and Treuhaft joined the legal firm of Oakland, Grossman, Sawyer & Edises. The company specialized in trade union and civil rights cases. This included the Willie McGee case. McGee, a 36-year-old black truck driver from Laurel, Mississippi, was convicted of raping a white woman despite evidence that the couple had been having a relationship for four years. The trial lasted less than a day and the jury took under three minutes to reach a verdict and the judge sentenced McGee to be executed. McGee's defenders argued that no white man had ever been condemned to death for rape in the deep South, while over the last forty years 51 blacks had been executed for this offence.

Jessica Mitford during the Willie McGee campaign.
Jessica Mitford during the Willie McGee campaign.

Mitford travelled to Mississippi to organize a campaign against the sentence. While there she reported on the case for The Peoples World. This included an interview with William Faulkner who spoke out against the decision to execute McGee. Despite a nationwide campaign led by Bella Abzug and William Patterson, McGee was executed on 8th May 1951.

Mitford's involvement in the Willie McGee case resulted in her being subpoenaed by the California State Committee on Un-American Activities. Mitford and her husband, Robert Treuhaft, took the 1st Amendment and refused to answer questions about their involvement in left-wing political groups. Two years later they were called before the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Once again they refused to give evidence and later Treuhaft was described by Joseph McCarthy as one if the most subversive lawyers in the country.

Over the next few years Mitford became increasingly disillusioned with the form of communism being developed in the Soviet Union. This despair grew with the revelations about Joseph Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev and the Red Army invasion of Hungary. Treuhaft and Mitford finally left the American Communist Party in 1958 after John Gates was ousted as editor of the Daily Worker.

As a trade union lawyer Treuhaft became aware of the financial problems that deaths caused in working class families. In an attempt to reduce the high costs of funerals he established the Bay Area Funeral Society, a non-profit undertaking service. In 1963 Treuhaft and Mitford published the best-selling book, The American Way of Death (1963). However, only Mitford's name appeared on the book cover as the publisher argued that "co-signed books never sell as well as those with one author."

Other books by Mitford included the autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960), The Trial of Dr. Spock (1970), A Fine Old Conflict (1977), an account of her time in the American Communist Party, and The Making of a Muckraker (1979).

Jessica Mitford died in 1996.

Primary Sources

(1) Jessica Mitford wrote about her parents' political activities in her autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960)

Participation in public life at Swinbrook revolved around the the church, the Conservative Party and the House of Lords. My parents took a benevolent if erratic interest in all three, and they tried from time to time to involve us children in such civic responsibilities as might be suitable to our age.

My mother was a staunch supporter of Conservative Party activities. At election time, sporting blue rosettes, symbol of the Party, we often accompanied Muv to do canvassing. Our car was decorated with Tory blue ribbons, and if we should pass a car flaunting the red badge of Socialism, we were allowed to lean out of the window and shout at the occupants: "Down with the horrible Counter-Honnish Labour Party!"

The canvassing consisted of visiting the villagers in Swinbrook and neighbouring communities, and, after exacting a promise from each one to vote Conservative, arranging to have them driven to the polls by our chauffeur. Labour Party supporters were virtually unknown in Swinbrook. Only once was a red rosette seen in the village. It was worn by our gamekeeper's son - to the bitter shame and humiliation of his family, who banished him from their house for this act of disloyalty. It was rumoured that he went to work in a factory in Glasgow, and there became mixed up with the trade unions.

(2) Jessica Mitford developed pacifist views during her youth. She explained why in her autobiography, Hons and Rebels (1960).

Major storms were brewing beyond the confines of the fortress. Unemployment was rising alarmingly throughout England. Hunger marches, at first small demonstrations, later involving populations of whole areas, were reported in the papers. Police and strikers fought in the streets from London to Birmingham, from Glasgow to Leeds. Great population centres were designated "distressed areas" by the Government - which meant areas where there was no prospect of improvement in the employment situation. The Family Means Test, under which the dole could be denied any unemployed worker whose relatives still held jobs, was the subject of violent protest by the Communists, who gradually succeeded in swinging most of the labour movement into the fight.

The younger generation was highly political. They accused the elder statesmen of the Allied countries of sowing the seeds of a new and more horrible world war through the Versailles Treaty, the systematic crushing of Germany, the demands made on the defeated enemy for impossible war reparations.

Old concepts of patriotism, flag-waving, jingoism were under violent attack by the younger writers. The creed of pacifism, born of a determination to escape the horrors of a new world war, swept the youth.

I responded, like many another of my generation, by becoming first a convinced pacifist, then quickly graduating to socialist ideas. I felt as though I had suddenly stumbled on the solution to a vast puzzle which I had been clumsily trying to solve for years. Like many another suddenly confronted for the first time with a rational explanation of society, I was bursting with excitement about it. I longed to meet some flesh-and-blood exponents of this new philosophy.

(3) Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (1977)

In 1937 I met for the first time Esmond Romilly, a second cousin of ours whom I had long admired from afar. Esmond had been in the news for some years, ever since he had run away from Wellington, his public school, at the age of fifteen to work in a Communist bookshop where with other runaways he plotted the editing, production and distribution of a magazine designed to foment rebellion in all the public schools. He and his brother Giles had written a book. Out of Bounds, describing their education and their conversion to radicalism, which had stirred considerable controversy in the press when it was published in 1935.

I had followed Esmond's fortunes with deep interest in the newspapers and through family gossip; shortly before arriving at Cousin Dorothy's I had read a dispatch in the News Chronicle: "Esmond Romilly, eighteen-year-old nephew of Mr Winston Churchill, is winning laurels for his gallantry under fire while serving in the International Brigade, which is fighting for the Spanish Government in defence of Madrid.' In a disastrous encounter with the enemy at Boadilla, on the Madrid front, in which scores of volunteers were killed, Esmond and one other member of his unit had been the only survivors. Suffering from a severe case of dysentery, Esmond had been invalided out of the International Brigade and sent to England to recuperate, which is how he came to be staying at Cousin Dorothy's.

That weekend, Esmond agreed to take me with him back to Spain, where he had a commission as a reporter for the pro-Loyalist News Chronicle. The following Sunday we fled, having devised an elaborate stratagem to deceive my parents into believing I was going to stay in Dieppe with some 'suitable' girls of my age. By the time they discovered

my defection, Esmond and I were living in Bilbao, capital of the Basque province, and were engaged to be married. In an effort to prevent our marriage, Farve made me a Ward in Chancery and his solicitors sent Esmond a telegram saying, 'Miss Jessica Mitford is a ward of the court. If you marry her without leave of judge you will be liable to imprisonment.' We took this as a declaration of total war. Eventually the British Consul in Bilbao blackmailed us into leaving by threatening to withhold British aid in the evacuation of Basque women and children from the war zone unless we obeyed his instruction to return to England. This shabby piece of bargaining brought home to me the strength and ruthlessness of the forces ranged against us.

(4) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)

In many ways, this was a far from ideal honeymoon. Esmond was tormented by practical worries, and I felt completely inadequate to help solve them. But we got to know each other faster than would have been possible under more normal circumstances. Esmond had an infallible nose for the cheapest possible accommodation, and we stayed in Bayonne in a small hotel, crowded with Basque refugee families from the northern part of Spain. Every day we checked at the Basque Consulate for my authorization to travel and for possible news of transportation. We went for long walks in the town, during which Esmond told of his experiences on the Madrid front.

Within a few weeks of the first news of the Fascist rebellion, he had set out for Spain on his own, without telling any of his friends, fearful that he might be rejected and sent back because of lack of military training. For once in his life, he regretted his refusal to join the O.T.C. at Wellington. Knowing nothing of the organization of the International Brigade, he had simply bicycled to Marseilles in hopes of boarding some cargo ship bound for Spain. There he learned that young men from all countries were already flocking to the Spanish front, and he fell in with a miscellaneous group of volunteers - French, Germans, Italians, Yugoslavs, Belgians, Poles - sailed with them to Valencia, and was sent to the training camp at Albacete.

There was as yet no English battalion, so Esmond and fifteen other Englishmen were attached to the German Thaelmann Brigade. He was relieved to learn that most of these were also completely lacking in military training; they came from every conceivable walk of life - car-workers, farmers, restaurant-owners, university students. The training at Albacete was extremely brief, and within a few days the battalion was sent to the Madrid front. There they were in almost

continuous action, living the muddy, bloody, confused life of foot soldiers. A week before Christmas, in a single disastrous battle, all but two of the English group were wiped out. Esmond and the other survivor, ill with dysentery and battle fatigue, were sent back to England, entrusted with the heartbreaking task of visiting the relatives of the dead.

(5) Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)

On May Day the entire community turned out, men, women and children, home-made banners proclaiming slogans of the "United Front against Fascism" waving alongside the official ones. The long march to Hyde Park started early in the morning, contingents of the Labour Party, the Co-ops, the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party marching through the long day to join other thousands from all parts of London in the traditional May Day labour festival.

Everyone took lunch in a paper bag, and there was much good-natured jostling and shouting of orders, and last-minute rounding up of children who had darted away in the crowd.

We had been warned that the Blackshirts might try to disrupt the parade, and sure enough there were groups of them lying in wait at several points along the way. Armed with rubber truncheons and knuckle-dusters, they leaped out from behind buildings; there were several brief battles in which the Blackshirts were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Bermondsey men. Once I caught sight of two familiar, tall blonde figures: Boud (Unity Mitford) and Diana (Mitford), waving Swastika flags. I shook my fist at them in the Red Front salute, and was barely dissuaded by Esmond (Romilly) and Philip (Toynbee), who reminded me of my now pregnant condition, from joining the fray.

(6) In 1938 Jessica Mitford continued to be involved in the campaign to raise money for the International Brigades fighting in Spain.

Although mass meetings and fund-raising parties for the Loyalist cause attracted as much support as ever, the atmosphere had changed. The victorious feeling of the early days of the war had seeped away for ever. Even the magnificent Ebro offensive of that July, into which the Loyalists threw all their resources, did not basically change the desperate situation. Franco remained in control of three-fourths of the country.

As the offensive simmered down into a series of indecisive battles it was clear that slowly, day by day, the war was being lost, and that slowly, one by one. Loyalist supporters in England were beginning to give up hope.

In the draughty meeting-halls from Bermondsey to Hampstead Heath where they gathered to raise money for Spanish relief, the mood of the huge, grave audiences seemed out of step with the ever more strained optimism of platform speakers.

At the same time, the Spanish war was driven off the front pages by events in central Europe, where lines were being drawn for the last, bitter battle for collective security against the Axis. A million Germans were massed along the Czechoslovak frontier. Newspapers quoted Goering as saying he had definite information that if the German Army marched into Czechoslovakia the British would not lift a finger.

(7) Robert Treuhaft was interviewed in 1934 about meeting Jessica Mitford.

In the Office of Price Administration (OPA) I met a fantastically beautiful woman who attracted me not only by her charm and wit, but by her frugality. I watched with fascination as she moved down the line of the block-long counter of the cafeteria in the huge OPA temporary building. As she passed the beverage section, she would pick up a glass of tomato juice, down it, and set the empty glass down on a handy little shelf below the counter. Next she would scoop up a salad and dispose of the plate in the same way. Then a sandwich. When she reached the cashier, she had nothing on her tray but a cup of coffee - cost of lunch, five cents. This, I decided, was the girl for me.

(8) Jessica Mitford, letter to San Francisco Chronicle (November, 1943)

Like millions of others in the United Nations and the occupied countries, I have all my life been an opponent of the fascist ideology in whatever form it appears. Because I do not believe that family ties should be allowed to influence a person's convictions I long ago ceased to have any contact with those members of my family who have supported the fascist cause. The release of Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley is a slap in the face of anti-fascists in every country and a direct betrayal of those who have died for the cause of anti- fascism. They should be kept in jail, where they belong.

(9) Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (1977)

We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi's most - in fact its only - illustrious resident, William Faulkner. The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner's house. "Down the road apiece, past the weepin' willa tree," was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its ante-bellum pillars covered with greyish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary.

We gingerly approached and rang the front-door bell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke, much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favourite themes: sex, race and violence. The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savour with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories.

Later, it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office: He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don't pay much attention to law and justice, don't go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee's safety in jail. When we left he wished us good luck.

(10) Jessica Mitford, A Fine Old Conflict (1977)

The soil for the noxious growth of McCarthyism had been well prepared by the Truman administration, and the anti-Communist crusade was well under way, long before the junior senator from Wisconsin himself appeared on the scene. Joseph McCarthy was virtually unknown outside his home state until 9 February 1950, when he made his celebrated speech alleging that the State Department was in the hands of Communists, which catapulted him into the national limelight he enjoyed for the next five years.

Some signposts on the road to McCarthyism: 1947, Truman establishes the federal loyalty oath, barring alleged subversives from government employment. States and universities follow suit. The Attorney General, under authority of a Presidential executive order, publishes a list of subversive, proscribed organizations. 1948: Ten Hollywood screenwriters sentenced to a year's imprisonment for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about alleged subversion in the film industry. Mundt-Nixon bill introduced in Senate, requiring registration of Communists and members of 'Communist fronts'. Henry Wallace's campaign for the presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, into which the CP had thrown all its energy and forces, ends in disastrous defeat. 1949: Twelve top Communist leaders found guilty under the Smith Act of conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence. Alger Hiss tried and convicted of perjury. Several of the largest left-led unions expelled from CIO.

Four months after McCarthy's opening salvo, the Korean War broke out, bringing Truman's foreign policy into harmony with his domestic drive against the Left and furnishing McCarthy with more ammunition for his anti-Communist crusade. In this climate most liberals turned tail. Senator Hubert Humphrey proposed establishing concentration camps for subversives, and declared on the floor of Congress: "I want them (Communists) removed from the normal scene of American life, and taken into custody." The American Civil Liberties Union, supposed guardian of First Amendment rights, instituted its own loyalty purge excluding from membership those suspected of harbouring subversive ideas.