A Fine Old Conflict

I can’t stop reading Jessica Mitford. This latest is her recap of years as a Commie, title taken from the anthem, the Internationale, which she misheard as a teenager as “It’s a fine old conflict” instead of “‘Tis the final conflict.” Her writing style continues to be hilarious, but this book definitely felt lopsided and meandering at parts. Perhaps her best work was when she co-authored American Way of Death with her husband, or maybe her editors were much tougher then?

She gives an example of her first successful organization effort, that of other women recovering from childbirth in her DC hospital. When the nurse didn’t answer the bell after ten seconds, all the women agreed to wet their beds. The nurse was faced with nine beds to change and apparently learned to hop to it from this terrible “action.”

Decca escapes DC when she feels jealous of Bob (later her husband)’s attentions to other women. With daughter Dinky in tow, she heads to San Francisco. After a multi-day train trip, she plunks her kid in a hotel and asks the maid to watch her while she heads out for a drink. After she sits down, the hostess explains that an emergency wartime measure by the city forbade any women who were unaccompanied to be at a bar. WHAT?! Eventually she finds an apartment for $40/month in Mrs. Tibbs’s boardinghouse on Haight St. near Ashbury. “In 1943 it was just another run-down district of small shops and working-class homes.” Her work continued at the OPA (Office of Price Administration, a wartime effort to control prices), and the SF branch was housed along with other war agencies in the Furniture Mart at 10th & Market (now the Twitter building). It is here that she later hides from and then punches a photographer from the Examiner looking to get a photo of the blueblooded sister of Hitler’s “Nordic Goddess” who was working for the US government.  (The Mitford family dynamics are complicated, to say the least)

After marrying Bob, they move to Oakland and she continues to be knee-deep in leftist causes, including a jaunt to Mississippi in 1951 to protest the upcoming execution of Willie McGee. Fun fact—she became a US citizen in order to become a member of the Communist Party, because the American branch was only accepting citizens. From 1952-58, passports were arbitrarily withheld or revoked from Americans with Left leanings. “Thus for almost a decade only the true blue, the politically and intellectually untainted, were permitted to travel abroad. I have often wondered if this accounted for the generally low esteem in which American tourists were held by Europeans.” Decca has a great story about her and Bob continuing to press to get passports, eventually getting them, and then receiving word that it was a mistake and they were to hand them over immediately. Instead, they left the country and visited England.

They eventually left the CP after the FBI infiltration wiped out several local chapters and turned it into more of a bureaucratic nightmare. Despite this, her Red roots continued to haunt her, even getting her fired from a terrible job at the SF Chronicle attempting to poach advertisers from competing newspapers. She eventually discovered the freedom of being a writer, and began to churn out articles and books.

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Brilliant collection of Jessica Mitford’s articles along with explanatory notes about her process. This might be one of the most helpful books about writing that I’ve ever read. Her emphasis on picking a subject that you’re completely absorbed in is absolutely right—if you’re not mesmerized by what you’re learning, you’re unlikely to infect others with curiosity from your piece. Being over-prepared for interviews is of the utmost importance, especially when interviewing hostile sources. She also highly recommends dipping into the trade magazines/publications of the industry you’re muckraking—find out what they really say when they think it’s just themselves listening. (This is on obvious display in her wonderful book about the funeral industry). For interviews, you’ll tap into Friendlies and Unfriendlies, but in both cases your questions should slide from kind to cruel. Her suggestions around organization were incredibly helpful, recommending a letter writing technique to distill all the info you’re learning into interesting bits for your friends.

As for the articles themselves, there are some real gems in here—her trip through the South to find out how they’re handling integration, her road trip story that gives the life hack of making person-to-person calls and asking for yourself at the other end so that your family doesn’t have to pay or asking for Minnie S. Ota to let them know that you’re in Minnesota, the amazing takedown of the Famous Writers Correspondence Class (a Utah Congressman read her whole article into the Congressional Record as a warning to the public), her interview with George Jackson at San Quentin, her brief but fraught tenure as a sociology professor at San Jose State where she refused the loyalty oath and fingerprinting.

Her recs on texts about writing:

  • The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“The last chapter, ‘An Approach to Style,’ is particularly rewarding.”)
  • On Writing Well by Zinsser (looks like I read this 10 years ago and probably am due for a refresher)

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.

Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.

Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”

The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.

(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)