Diana Birchall on meeting Jessica Mitford

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In the appendix of my book The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life you will find many personal stories of the girls. I love this story which Diana Birchall so kindly shared with me. See below for this extract (please note: this is copyrighted material and should not be produced elsewhere on the internet).

“My lifelong fascination with the Mitfords drove me, in 1995, to try to meet one. Singular as they were, I wanted to talk to and observe one of the sisters at first hand in order to have a better understanding of the family and the phenomenon. Also, they were getting older, and it was clear that if I was ever going to meet a Mitford, I had to accomplish it soon. As I live in Los Angeles, Jessica was the closest, but this was before e-mail and google, and making contact was more difficult. I couldn’t think how to track and meet her. Then a friend in San Francisco, intrigued by my determination, reported a sighting. Jessica was being auctioned off by the Berkeley Library – or at least a dinner with her was. My friend loyally bid $100. But a wealthy lady won the auction, for $700, the proceeds to go to the library, and this kind lady very generously arranged a dinner for eight, and invited me and my friend to be of the party. So I flew up to Berkeley and went to this elegant soirée at the lady’s beautiful home high on the hills.

The amusing thing was that none of the other people invited (except my friend, and myself) really knew who Jessica Mitford was. They were just doing something nice for the library. Knowing that this was perhaps my only chance to ask a Mitford everything I wanted to know, I compiled a list of questions. What was Farve really like? Did Jessica get along with the others now? Were there really Nazi sympathies still in the family? How did she reconcile her lifelong love of communism with the fall of the Soviet Union? And could she demonstrate for me what the Mitford shriek sounded like? Superficial, perhaps, but the multiple biographies, Letters Between Six Sisters, and Decca’s letters had not yet been published, and the Mitford reader did not know about the sisters’ lives in such depth as we do now.

I found Decca sitting composedly alone and apart in the living room, a silver haired lady in her mid to late seventies, distinguishable from the other rather elderly ladies by her elegant finger-waved silver hair and the triangular, blue, baleful Mitford eyes. Those, I recognized instantly. The other ladies were gathered in little clutches, not liking to approach her, so I went up to her, plonked myself down on a footrest, and proceeded to ask my questions. She instantly lit up and opened out, answering every one of my questions in expansive detail. (She even gave me the Mitford shriek, which to my surprise sounded like a trilling little 1920s debutante giggle.) We talked for about an hour before being ushered in to the elegant dinner, and our lively chat continued during the meal, with the others looking on silently. Was I rude to hog her? But she seemed to like having somebody who knew about her and was interested in her stories. As for me, I was in heaven!
After the main course, the hostess, thinking she ought to say something, introduced Jessica formally to the group and then said, “Now Jessica. We all know you came from England. Would you like to tell us what in your life brought you to this country?” The blue eyes blinked a bit in startlement, as of course she had by then been talking hard and animatedly about nothing less than her complete life story, for at least two hours. “No,” she said, “I don’t really want to talk about myself, but I will tell you what I will do. I will sing you a song.” And she charged into a lively rendition of the Grace Darling song, with all the verses, followed by an amusing anecdote of how, when her family was on their island of Inch Kenneth, and they sang the song loudly with its chorus of “Help! Help!” small boats would pull onto the island to see if there was any trouble. How she did know how to entertain – and to amuse!
The ladies, however, listened rather uncomprehendingly. After this rousing entertainment, another lady addressed Jessica earnestly, with, “Jessica, I understand you have written a book called The American Way of Death.”
“I have,” said she.
“Well, I want to ask you this,” the lady said in a wavering voice, “I am so concerned about this subject because – my husband, he is getting older, and it is just terrible – he is such a brilliant man! He has two college degrees! Tell me, Jessica, as an authority on the subject, do you believe there is an Afterlife?”
Jessica levelled her eyes at her questioner, not the eyes of a gentle elderly old pussycat at all, and said succinctly, “No.”
My friend hastily interposed a general comment about how different religions believed different things, and Jessica raised an eyebrow and asked my friend what religion she was. “Unitarian,” said my friend. “Oh,” said Jessica, laughing, “But that is really no religion at all, is it?” My friend laughed and conceded it.
Then to change the subject, Jessica announced, “I think I will sing another chorus of the Grace Darling song now.” And she did.

I felt flattered that Jessica Mitford, my long time heroine, seemed to take such a shine to me, and actually asked for my phone number at the end of the evening. No doubt she did enjoy my interest. But I soon found out that she was also a canny organizer, and her method was to make use of people to achieve her various worthy aims. When she called and faxed me, she explained that her friend, Sally Belfrage, had died recently and prematurely of cancer, just after publishing a book about having been a Red Diaper Baby. Sally had not been able to do a book tour, so Jessica had organized a memorial book reading in San Francisco, and now she wanted one in L.A. She had an actress who was willing to have it at her house. Would I help organize, and as I was then the local Jane Austen Society president, invite everyone I knew? So I said I would, and Jessica came down to L.A. and invited me to lunch at her hotel, the Sofitel.
This was another very pleasant occasion with me asking her rather more serious questions. About her belief in communism after the fall of the Soviet Union, she said, “Well, that is the problem, isn’t it!” About fascism, she said heatedly that most of her family still did hate Jews really, and that was why she did not care to be among them much.

She did not come back down for the actual book launch, which was a rather strange occasion, since the spectacle of seventy-five Jane Austenites listening to excerpts of a Red Diaper Baby memoir was slightly surreal. But a lot of books were sold. I next saw Decca on a visit to L.A. when she invited me to a party at her lawyer’s house, at which I met Maya Angelou and a delightful bevy of eighty-year-old communists and legendary screenwriters. My son came with me and it is one of his all-time cherished memories.

Soon after, the Duchess of Devonshire came to Los Angeles on a lecture tour, and I met her too. I cheerfully told her that I had won her sister at an auction, but she looked wary and alarmed – the look in the blue eyes, so similar to Decca’s, was startlingly similar – and merely said, “Oh really,” and backed away.”

Diana Birchall is a successful author and is a lover of all things Honnish (she’s quite the Hon, herself!) Click here to visit her personal website and here to have a look at her lovely books.

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2 thoughts on “Diana Birchall on meeting Jessica Mitford

  1. It really was not all that difficult in 1994 to reach Jessica – the Treuhafts were in the Berkeley phone book, and she responded promptly to a letter I sent her with an inuiry about another phase of her life. I still have her signed reply, and cherish it.

    • Just saw your comment, Nancy, and you’re right of course. Perhaps my thinking was that any Mitford must be impossibly difficult to reach as they inhabited such an exotically different time and place. It was not really so far! Jessica was still a busy activist in Oakland at that date. It was a journey and an adventure for me, nonetheless!

      Thank you for putting my story here, Lyndsy.

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