Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, muckraker, mischief-maker. But those who knew her best simply called her Decca. Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, at the age of nineteen she ran away with Winston Churchill’s nephew. Their elopement severed ties with her privilege, a rupture only exacerbated by the controversial life she would go on to lead for seventy-eight years.
Decca arrived in the United States in 1939, and before long became one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. She went on to work as a civil rights activist and an investigative journalist championing the underdog. She coined the term frenemies, and as a member of the American Communist Party for fifteen years, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. In 1958, when she finally left the Party, she did so with no hard feelings, declaring herself an ex-red menace and promising to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. Staying true to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books—including Hons and Rebels, The American Way of Death, and A Fine Old Conflict—before her death in 1996.
Yoked to every important event for nearly all of the twentieth century, Decca not only was defined by the history she witnessed, but by bearing witness helped to define that history.