Albion Monitor /Features


Decca: The Making of a Muckraker

by Jeff Elliott and Laura McCreery

"I only paid my dues to come here. It was $14,283, to be here this weekend -- just to meet you, Jessica Mitford," oozes the beefy man in the polo shirt. As he kisses her hand, his eyes gleam with sincerity. His smile is warm and kind and professional. "Oh, you could have just given me the money and I would have come to you," she teases. Everyone laughs merrily. When the man leaves -- after reminding us again that he spent $14,283 to be here -- she turns back to the interrupted conversation's topic: skullduggery in the funeral business.

Jessica Mitford -- or Decca, as she has been known all her life -- is here in Marin County to speak before a group of funeral service providers. That the celebrated author of The American Way of Death is in their midst seems to unsettle some of the attendees. More than a few nervous glances are cast her way. A common lament of morticians is that they get no respect; surely having their number-one critic here will not help matters. Just a few weeks before, one of the trade organizations was angry enough to ask its members to boycott the conference in protest, and also cancel their subscriptions to Mortuary Management, the host of the event. An uneasy truce was made, although some remarks made after her speech are openly hostile.

Many questions unexplored

In the background, music plays. Ron Hast, publisher and editor Mortuary Management, tinkles the ivories of an electronic piano, the instrument setup to sound like combination chimes and organ. With everything played molto adagio, it's a perfectly funerial accompaniment to this cocktail party. The slow tempo sometimes make the tunes hard to identify. Was that The Beatles' "Yesterday?" Hard to tell. One song was definitely "Edelweiss." Another may have been The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," but it was so sluggish it sounded like S.G. took a fistful of 'ludes before crashing the waves.

But why on earth is Jessica Mitford here, shmoozing with a "nest of undertakers," as she referred to them earlier that day? Because she's researching her new book, an update on The American Way of Death. Likely to appear in the spring of 1997, she jokes that the title will be "Death Warmed Over." She has also just completed an article for Vanity Fair on the funeral industry that will appear in a few months.

That she revisits her most famous topic provides a wonderful arc to a muckraking career that began almost forty years ago. Even more remarkable is her life as an activist, which started when she was barely in her teens. At age 78, she still fights for the Worthy Cause; when in the hospital recovering from a broken ankle last year, she had her husband and friends push her wheelchair so she could join a nurse's picket outside.

Almost everyone seems to recognize her name or the titles of her most famous books. Many have read one or both of her autobiographies, but likely that was ages ago, because the books are out of print. What stories people do know about the remarkable woman, they probably dismiss as fiction -- the tales are simply too outrageous to be true.

Other questions have never been explored. Why did she become a journalist? Why drove her to take such risks, sometimes even putting her safety in jeopardy? What fueled her faith in Communism -- which she still holds today? Her two autobiographies reveal much about the who-what-where, but often leave the "why" and "how" unprobed.

Esmond and Decca sneaked off to the Spanish Civil War

Any search for answers would have to begin with her childhood and family, well-documented in her first (and many readers think her best) book, Daughters and Rebels. It is an autobiographical account of her personal and political estrangement from her family, not the sort of exposé that would later land her the title of muckraking journalist.

The portrait of her early childhood revealed by the book is oppressive. One of seven children, she writes that her parents were distant and her education nil . Barely in her teens, she began saving coins for her "running-away money," hoping to escape the family as soon as possible.

Some of that precious stash was spent on books and pamphlets about socialism. After reading a book describing the horrors of WWI, she became an ardent pacifist. Perhaps just as important: socialism became a goal, however vague, to run away to.

Matching Decca's interest in socialism was the obsession her favorite sister had for fascism. Unity Mitford moved to Germany, and quickly became a personal friend of Hitler. Another sister, Diana, married the leader of England's fascist political party. Diana and her husband were thrown in prison when the war began along with other ardent Nazi supporters. Together, Unity and Diana did much to smear the Mitford name in the years before and during WWII.

Decca's first husband, Esmond Romilly, was a nephew of Winston Churchill who had run off from England as a teenager to fight for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. Before they met, Decca became familiar with the young Esmond's views through his early published writings about fighting fascism, a growing interest of her own.

Esmond, Decca, and Philip Toynbee
Esmond, Decca, and Philip Toynbee

Esmond lined up a job as a reporter for the Loyalists, and he and Decca sneaked off to Spain together, using her running-away money as a bankroll. Her father, a member of the House of Lords, sent a British destroyer to retrieve her, but she refused to cooperate. These events, combined with deep political disagreement, permanently estranged Decca from most members of her family. Her father cut her off completely from the family fortune.

The couple came to America in 1939 and patched together a living -- first in New York and later in Miami -- through odd jobs, from tending bar to selling silk stockings door to door. Esmond also pursued a budding career as a political journalist. When the war loomed, he joined the Canadian Air Force, but less than a year after the birth of their daughter, his plane went down over the North Sea in 1941. Desperate for information about her husband's fate, Decca even asked Churchill for help. From Churchill she learned that Esmond was indeed dead -- and (by the way) that he was personally making sure that her Nazi sister, Diana, was comfortable in prison.

"I grew up thinking my parents were heroes"

A 24 year-old widow with an infant daughter, Decca started her new life. She considered going to journalism school, but found it impossible without an undergraduate degree. Eventually she found a job in the Office of Price Administration (OPA), the government agency that set wartime rationing and pricing. But all this was secondary to her main goal: to join the Communist Party.

She found a kindred spirit in Bob Treuhaft, an OPA lawyer who was also interested in labor issues and joining the Party. They saw much of each other until Decca felt she needed to start a new life in San Francisco. "Bob and I had no intention of getting married," Decca says. "I thought he would stay in Washington and get married to this other person he was engaged to, and it was just me and Dinky." But Bob followed her west, and they married in 1943, in the sleepy Russian River town of Guerneville.

Although the Party was secretive, the newlyweds joined the organization the next year. When the war ended, Bob became a civil rights attorney and counsel for some of the more controversial labor unions, such as Harry Bridge's Longshoreman Union.

Both Decca and Bob were subpoenaed in 1953, along with many others, to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in San Francisco. Bob represented himself after finding no other lawyer who would. He used the standard opening of Committee counsel -- "Are you accompanied by counsel?" -- as an invitation to describe his unsuccessful search for representation, peppering the Committee with the details of each of his seven attempts. He refused to inform on others and finished his testimony by scolding the Committee for its work and for intimidating his entire profession.

Looking back on this period, Constancia Romilly says she knew from a young age that her own family was quite different from other families. "All of us who grew up as red diaper babies had a different response," she says. "Some kids grew up angry and afraid. Some hated their parents. But I grew up thinking my parents were heroes."

In 1955 Bob and Decca traveled to England for the first time since her departure, nearly two decades earlier. This was no easy feat, as Americans suspected of being too far to the left were then hard-pressed to obtain passports. But a State Department goof put them in business, and they quickly sailed from New York, just ahead of the federal officials who had discovered their mistake.

The trip "home" was something of a watershed for the couple. The death of a son and the return to her family home brought Decca to an unusual period of self-examination.

"Introspection was incompatible with her personality style," wrote Anthea Fursland in her study of Decca, "but faced with her homeland and her family, and at 38 faced with the onset of mid-life, she was no longer able to engage in minimal reflection."

After England, the couple visited his homeland, Hungary, anxious to see socialism in action. Bob, who could remember the tremendous of poverty among peasants there from earlier visits, found the lot of Hungary's citizens much improved. Decca later wrote a article about their experiences for the Communist Party newspaper, People's World. She included in her supportive account two disturbing incidents about being approached by anxious-looking people seeking help, but these were edited out.

Barricaded inside a Baptist church with the Rev. Martin Luther King as a white mob rioted

Much of Decca's energies during the early 1950's were spent working with the East Bay chapter of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), an important organization in the fight for black equality. As Secretary for the organization, Decca got her first glimpse of undisguised racism. "In New York and the kind of circles we moved in, you didn't see anything like that. You just sort of sensed it, the discrimination and all that, so it was an eye-opener."

At the time, the NAACP was a do-nothing association with a tiny membership. CRC members like Decca, Bob, and Buddy Green, a fearless black reporter for People's World, exposed police brutality in Oakland and other injustices. In one of many cases, Decca rallied forces to defend a black family in Contra Costa County against neighbors wanting to keep the tony community segregated. A memorable chapter in A Fine Old Conflict describes their fight in Mississippi to save the life of Willie McGee, a 36 year-old truckdriver sentenced to death for an interracial relationship.

Decca didn't always seek out conflict -- sometimes, she only fell into it by chance. On assignment in 1961 for Esquire to write a humor piece about southern attitudes, she visited her friend Virginia Durr in Montgomery, Alabama, where she found herself again risking death in defense of civil rights. A Klan attack on the Freedom Riders ended with Decca barricaded in a Baptist church with the Rev. Martin Luther King as a white mob rioted outside.

But the most significant event of that period was Decca's writing. Soon after the European trip, she began to write in earnest. Daughters and Rebels, was published in 1960. "She started out, really, trying to put something together from the letters of Esmond Romilly," Bob recalls. "I think she was somewhat inhibited in doing that. It was too close a question for her, too subjective and too emotional for her. It's part of her style not to display emotion.

"But it did turn into what I think is her best book. I still think it's a great book and certainly established her ability to write. And although she didn't explore deeply her personal feelings, she was able, in a lighthearted way, to discuss serious things."

In the 1960's and '70's, her career as a muckraker bloomed

It was while practicing law during the 1950's that Bob became appalled at seeing bereaved families using up their union death benefits to pay for traditional funerals and burials. He gradually became involved in a movement to provide citizens with a low-priced alternative. As a founder of the Bay Area Funeral Society, he helped make cremation and simple, reasonably priced funeral ceremonies available to all who wanted them.

At first, Decca teased her husband about his new interests. But when he began showing her the funeral trade publications, she became fascinated with this set of strange American habits. Together they began a detailed study of the funeral industry, and Bob suggested that they publish their findings. He even took a leave from his law practice to work on the project, which became her most famous work, The American Way of Death.

Bob says the success of the book and the ensuing round of appearances and speaking engagements caused quite a change in his wife. "It caused her to recognize that she had something to say. And although it was written to some extent jointly, at the beginning it was considered somewhat cute that a woman, and an Englishwoman, should have written about this subject."

Although they left the Party in 1958 feeling it stagnant and ineffectual, their mutual interest in social justice was unswayed. In the 1960's and '70's, her career as a muckraker bloomed. Decca wrote investigative stories for magazines, many of them collected in Poison Penmanship. Books followed, including an account of the trial of anti-war activist Dr. Spock and Kind and Usual Punishment, a harsh look at the penal system. Bob was the lawyer defending the Berkeley students during the free speech movement, and was personally arrested by Ed Meese for his efforts. Both continued to be involved in civil rights and labor issues.

Always up to a challenge, Decca played herself in Woody Allen's film, "Play it Again, Sam." And recently, she began a surprising new sideline: singer for Decca and the Dectones, where she warbles "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by the Beatles and a few other tunes. Clearly, she has a grand time at it, and visitors to her home don't leave without copies of her cassettes pressed into their hands. At the funeral director's seminar, she was distressed that no one to remembered to bring tapes; doubtless she could have sold dozens to curious undertakers.

Changes in the funeral industry are behind the new book

But why is she writing a new version of the American Way of Death? "There had been some talk before about revising it a bit, but the real catalyst the role of SCI [Service Corporation International], and how they're becoming a world-wide monopoly. I've written an article on this called 'A Global Village of the Dead' that will be coming out in Vanity Fair in December of January." Dubbed the McDonald's of the funeral industry, SCI now owns almost 10 percent of the funeral homes in this country, a larger percentage in Britian, and over half of all mortuaries in Austrailia.

"There were also important new developments in the funeral business. First of all, the rise in cremation is absolutely staggering, especially since funeral directors are so hot on the idea of 'tradition.' Their whole tradition has been turned over in 30 years; cremation rose from 3.75 percent to 21 percent and the latest projections see it getting up to 60 percent."

Another reason for the new book is to prod the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) into action. Because of the consumer outcry following publication of the American Way of Death, the FTC regulated the funeral industry for the first time. Funeral directors had to provide a general price list, separating "services" (such as embalming) and "goods" (coffins). They had to tell consumers that embalming was not required -- except in rare occasions, such as when a body must be shipped long distances. Thanks to industry lobbying, almost all of these requirements have been water-down or rescinded.

Judging from the amount of grumbling at last week's convention, it would seem that the morticians are still far from happy. They seem to view themselves as victims of over-regulation, hampered from making a fair profit. But what they see as fair would be called price-gouging in any other industry; when Decca's assistant, Karen Leonard, told several that she thought that a mere 200 percent markup was reasonable, they argued that it wasn't enough.

At home together wherever they are, each shifting in and out of the other's activities and conversations

Now at 78 and 83, Decca and Bob Treuhaft are still quite the pair. His dry wit, thoughtful commentary and supportive stance make him appear somewhat shy next to the lively and forthright Decca. He does seem to have been a fitting complement to her, and she to him, during more than fifty years of marriage.

"She lights up when he comes home from work," says Kathi Goldmark, producer of the Dectones. "The sweetest thing of all is when he walks in the door in the middle of the afternoon and she just says, "Oh, Bob's here!" and it's so sweet and nice. It's clear to me that she still really adores him, and they seem to have so much fun together."

Bob still spends part of each weekday at his law office, where he has most recently specialized in worker's compensation cases. Meanwhile, Decca does her writing in the mornings, as has been her habit for years. In the afternoons Bob does the majority of the couple's grocery shopping and cooking, often moving softly around the kitchen while Decca has visitors or other activities going on in their Oakland house. Each evening at 5:30 all other activities come to a screeching halt while Bob and Decca park themselves in front of the TV news, the volume cranked up comfortably high.

When Decca broke an ankle last year, he spent hours attending her in the hospital, reading in her room or bringing in special foods such as smoked salmon to prepare for her in a nearby kitchen. They are, quite simply, at home together wherever they are, each shifting easily in and out of the other's activities and conversations.

What does she have planned for the future? At least one more article on the funeral industry, and, of course, the new book. She's also busy as a cheerleader for her son Benjamin, whose "Send a Piana to Havana" campaign is about to ship a boatload of rebuilt pianos to Cuba, replacing lousy Russian models and crumbling pre-revolution instruments.

One more thing in the works: a new album by Decca and the Dectones, "Inappropriate Songs for Special Occasions." Be the first in your neighborhood to buy a copy. Buy two, and slip one in the mailbox of your friendly local undertaker. They'll need something to cheer them up after Decca's next book appears.

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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