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In our pages: the Jessica Mitford biography 'Irrepressible'

December 15, 2010 |  3:03 pm

IrrepressibleBefore there were Kardashians, before there were Hiltons, there were the Mitford sisters. The wealthy British socialites dominated headlines in the early part of the 20th century with their beauty, wit and sometimes scandalous politics -- Diana and Unity were fascists, Jessica was a communist. Pamela was the quiet one, Nancy wrote sharp-tongued novels, and Deborah, the youngest and last surviving, is said to still guard their legacy.

In a new biography, "Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford," Leslie Brody looks at Jessica, who went first to Spain during its Civil War and then to America, where she became a well-connected journalist, publishing the bestselling "The American Way of Death" in 1963. Liz Brown has our review:

There's much ground to cover, and Brody squeezes a lot in: hobnobbing with New Deal power mongers; Romilly's death while flying an air raid over Germany and Jessica's subsequent grief; her work in the federal Office of Price Administration, where she meets labor lawyer Robert Treuhaft and does some of her first undercover work; reconciliations with her sisters; her move to Oakland and marriage to Treuhaft; joining the Communist Party, emerging as a doyenne of progressive politics and rollicking parties; and, of course, the investigative juggernaut that struck fear into morticians all over the country.

Imagine an Anglo Elaine Stritch crossed with Zelig. Witty and hard-living (vodka after her morning coffee, Jack Daniel's in the evening), Mitford was somehow everywhere: House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the Rosenbergs' trial, following the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., Black Panther benefits. But unlike Zelig, she was no wallflower.

Brody has clearly done her research, culling from Mitford's own books and letters, as well as those of her sisters and other Mitford studies. She has interviewed the writer's acquaintances, friends and children. The glimpses of the muckraker that come from Mitford's own writing display a candor, verve and, at times, gentleness.

Mitford died in 1996 at the age of 78. Read the complete review of "Irrepressible" here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg