Muv’s American Adventure

Muv had grown up travelling around the Orient and the south of France, and she was not unaccustomed to long journeys, always by sea, on her father’s yachts. Such a seasoned traveller, she wore a sailor suit until she was 18. Though, after she was married, Muv’s travels seemed limited to Europe; trips to Dieppe to visit Aunt Natch, ice-skating holidays in Switzerland, reunions with Unity in Munich via Switzerland and ‘cultural cruises’ around the Med with the three youngest girls: Unity, Decca and Debo. And she often persevered with long voyages to Canada with Farve to his fruitless gold mine. Wartime restrictions and Unity’s delicate health (post suicide attempt) limited Muv’s travels somewhat, but in 1948, she surprised everyone when she booked an impromptu plane ticket to California.

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Muv’s American adventure was a surprise visit which both moved and unnerved Decca; the invitation was prompted by Dinky, then 7 years old, when she wrote: ‘I wish you would come see us in Oakland one day.’ Muv jumped at the chance to visit her granddaughter and readily cabled Decca with the necessary travel arrangements. It had been almost a decade since Muv and Decca had met, although they often wrote to one another, and Decca admitted to being in ‘a state of terror’ at their reunion.

Darling Muv,

We are terrifically excited about your visit here. When I got your telegram it was all mixed up, so I got the impression you were planning to smuggle some English goods into the country in order to get dollars. This probably wouldn’t work and anyhow shouldn’t be mentioned in a telegram as telegrams are checked by the authorities. I had no idea one could telephone England but the call went through in no time…Actually, if you can go by plane direct to San Francisco, there won’t be any problem about money, as we would meet you there and take you straight to our house…
    There is only one thing that concerns me, and that’s the possibility of newspaper publicity over your visit. As you know I live in terror of reporters and this is just the kind of thing they might pick up. Most newspapers get a list of incoming plane passengers. Could you look into the possibility of traveling under another name?…(Be sure to let us know what it is!) Above all, don’t talk to any reporters. Simply ignore them, it’s the only way…[D]o bring the Daily Express Song Book, as we have a piano, also family pictures to show Bob & Dink.
    We are really awfully excited that you’re coming & I hope the trip won’t be too awful. Personally I hate flying, it gives me such a frightful headache. But I’ve only done it with Dink when I’ve had the problem of convincing the airport people that she is under 2 so we wouldn’t have to pay her fare. Last time we did this she was 5, we had to wrap her in a blanket with just her head showing & give her a bottle. She was hopeless & kept asking technical questions about the plane’s engine etc.
    I can’t wait for you to see the children…
    Love & longin to see you, Decca.

(Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford by Peter Y. Sussman, p. 130)

Once again, Dinky, broke the initial awkwardness when she brightly asked, ‘Granny Muv, when are you going to scold Decca for running away?’ They appropriately responded with shrieks of laughter, and from then on Muv threw herself into Decca’s American life, she even made potato salad for Decca’s Communist Party comrades. Muv thought Decca’s house ‘wonderful and very pretty’ in comparison to the ‘awfully hideous’ English houses with sham Gothic design and stained glass windows. Following her conclusion of American architecture, Muv thought Oakland was like a ‘musical comedy stage set’.  She was impressed by everything Decca seemed to do: ‘Clever Little D., to make such a lovely meatloaf!’ And Muv, always so suspicious of food, seemed to enjoy American cuisine, joyfully consuming hamburgers and waffles prepared by Bob. Though, some Americanisms managed to get lost in translation. In the supermarket, Dinky began to yell in her California accent, ‘Penny! I want a penny!’
    ‘Oh…panier,‘ Muv said, pointing at the shopping carts. ‘She wants one of those little baskets.’

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Bob had appointed himself tour leader and asked Muv what she wanted to see most. Her list was modest and she replied:

  • A supermarket
  • A women’s club
  • Funeral parlour

The women’s club was out of reach but Muv was able to explore the other two curiosities on her list. The supermarket and funeral parlour were beyond her wildest imagination and she sat down to write to the The Times extolling the supermarket system of self-service: ‘So sensible and practical, I thought.’

Bob seemed baffled by Muv’s ‘non-Jewish-motherishness’. ‘Why are you wearing those hideous spectacles, Little D.?’ she asked one day.
    ‘Because I can’t see without them,’ came Decca’s blunt reply.
    ‘Oh, yes; I remember you never could see much as a child,’ Muv vaguely replied.  

ImageIn anticipation of Muv’s homecoming to Inch Kenneth Unity had spent a guinea on some dead roses for her. Muv was exhausted by the long flight (in those days a plane trip from London to California was a 50 hour journey), but she optimistically described her American adventure and spoke glowingly of ‘Mr T’ [Bob Treuhaft] telling Diana he was a good husband and father and ‘not such a rabid red as Deca is!’ Diana acidly confided, to Nancy: ‘Mustn’t he be surprised when he thinks over his fate.’
(The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, p. 245.)

In true Nancy style, she cheerlessly added…

‘Thank goodness Muv is back- I was so worried by all that sickness as it sounded so like her heart not standing up to the journey. Then of course one knows communists can never pull any strings and whereas any of us would have got her onto the Queen E. [Queen Elizabeth] they clearly never could.’
(The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters, p246).

The American trip was a success and it served to break any conflicted feelings between Decca and Muv, though with the publication of Hons & Rebels in 1960 some old tensions flared up again. In hindsight, Decca confided to Nancy that although she loathed Muv as a child, in her adult years she had come to respect her greatly.

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2 thoughts on “Muv’s American Adventure

  1. I love how Dinky asked Muv when she was going to scold Decca for running away. Even as a child she had her mother’s wit. 🙂

  2. Thank you for a really great blog. One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that in the same letter (dated 13th Oct 1971) in which Decca confided to Nancy that she had loathed Muv as a child, Decca goes on to say that in later life she not only came to respect Muv greatly but also “became immensely fond of her, really rather adored her”.

    I think ‘adore’ brings out Decca’s depth of affection for Muv that ‘respect’ doesn’t quite capture.

    Thanks again and looking forward to reading your next blog!

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