According to Time Magazine in 1970, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford, a blue-blooded English aristocrat and one of the famous Mitford sisters, was the ‘Queen of the muckrakers’. Decca tops my list of fantasy dinner party guests – she was fearless, witty and dogged. At age 19 she ran away from home, joined the Spanish Civil War, and later became a communist and an activist for civil rights issues.
She loved a good fight, and once said of her writing that if she couldn’t change the world she could at least embarrass the guilty. In her career, deserving victims of embarrassment ranged from the money-grubbing funeral industry (the subject of her bestselling book, The American Way of Death), the shoddy writing school, The Famous Writers, in an article for Atlantic magazine in 1970, and Maine Chance, the infamous weight-loss camp for rich, fat ladies that Decca poked fun at in women’s magazine McCalls in 1966.
Mitford was, as her editor Robert Gottlieb wrote, ‘ruthless – savage even – when she was on the warpath, but she never stopped laughing’. A touch of ruthlessness is not, of course, an unusual quality in a journalist. It is a profession that is habitually ranked somewhere between used-car salesmen and petty crooks in ‘most loathed’ vox pops. But as English journalist Nicholas Tomalin wrote in his essay ‘Stop the press I want to get on’, ‘the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability’.
The muckraker is perhaps the most despised of the journalistic species. It’s certainly not a job for the squeamish. As Kevin Murphy wrote in his 1987 Regardie’s magazine article, ‘Confessions of a Muckraker’, about his time at Melbourne’s most infamous and now defunct newspaper, The Truth: ‘not everyone can be a muckraker. It takes a special talent to dig up a perfect stranger’s dirtiest laundry, print the sordid details, and laugh like hell.’
Muckraking, of course, has different connotations for different people. American president Theodore Roosevelt is credited with coining the term. While he was all for ‘relentless exposure’ of evils in politics, business and general society, he rather thought journalists, such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, had taken it too far. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, muckraking was often defined as reform-minded investigative journalism; today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines muckrake as ‘the action of searching out and publicising scandal about famous people’. In 1979, when Jessica Mitford published her veritable guide to meddling, Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (republished in 2010), the then definition of muckraker was rather fitting: ‘depraved interest in what is “unsavoury” or “scandalous”.’
Jessica Mitford’s official career as a muckraker began in 1960, with the publication of her memoir, Hons and Rebels. Born in 1917 to Lord and Lady Redesdale, Mitford spent her childhood in the sleepy Oxfordshire villages of Asthall and Swinbrook. Her eccentric upbringing has become the stuff of myth, thanks to her sister Nancy’s novels. But in Hons and Rebels, Mitford describes herself as miserable and moody; she hankered for a different life. She wasn’t allowed to go to school (a stricture for which she never forgave her parents, who didn’t think it necessary for girls to be educated). As each scandal, feud or gossip item about the Mitford family made the headlines (‘Whenever I hear peer’s daughter, I always know it will be one of you,’ her mother once said), Mitford became more determined to make her getaway – she even set up her very own ‘running away’ account at Drummonds bank at the age of 11.
Mitford finally did escape, first to the Spanish Civil War with her first husband, Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew (and her second cousin). The two idealistic aristocrats then made their way to America. After Esmond’s death in World War II, Mitford married Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights and union lawyer.
It was the success of The American Way of Death in 1963 that first launched Jessica Mitford into the spotlight as a muckraker. She would later establish herself as a public commentator, minor celebrity and occasional lead singer in her band Decca and the Dectones. She continued muckraking until her death from cancer in 1996. The year that she died, Mitford reflected on her writing in an interview with a San Francisco newspaper: ‘I never seem to have tackled anything of absolutely prime importance, like nuclear or poverty programs or anything like that. But I write about the sort of things like funerals or [a sham school promoting] famous writers. Which is not really world-shaking, but they are things that victimize people in odd little ways. I think that’s really what I like doing.’
In Poison Penmanship, Mitford gives wannabe muckrakers her best tips. She includes how to rank ones interview questions from ‘kind to cruel’; how to sort the witnesses from the ‘friendly’ to the ‘unfriendlies’; the best ways to avoid being sued; how to gather and categorise your research. And while Mitford was always maniacally factual, she admits in Poison Penmanship that ethics weren’t her strongest quality. The choice of subject, Mitford emphasised, was of ‘cardinal importance’. The targets of the muckraker are mottled with everyone from shoddy hairdressers, petty crooks, wonky businessmen and presidents. A muckraker goes after those with something to hide – and, as Kevin Murphy wrote, ‘politicians, entertainers and the rich are all fair game’.
Muckraking, nonetheless, has to be based on truth. Airing of dirty laundry isn’t enough; it’s got to be something the subject doesn’t want made public. There are bonus points, too, if it puts you right off your eggs at breakfast. But the muckraker must also have style – and style is a close relative to wit; the best sort of muckraking is often wickedly funny. In some ways it has to be – ‘people’ as Melbourne gossip columnist, Lawrence Money pointed out, ‘are far more likely to forgive you if you’re funny’. Making people ‘blither’ (the Mitford word for laughing) was an essential part of Decca’s writing. As John Mortimer said: ‘Jessica Mitford believed in social justice, love, the absurdities of power and the vital importance of jokes.’ The so-called Mitford tease ran rampant in her writing. Mitford wrote like I imagine she spoke: firm, fair, with an undercurrent of astonished amusement at the world, and a very plummy English accent. She observed pithily, and in a certain incisive manner, the things that others might not. So, when describing the atmosphere at the Maine Chance beauty camp, Mitford noted that the ladies running the place ‘glided… (they all glide at Maine Chance rather than walk)’. Sometimes she became a part of the story. In her withering article ‘Let us Now Appraise Famous Writers’, Mitford brilliantly describes her inspiration for the story: ‘My mild curiosity about these matters might never have been satisfied had I not learned, coincidentally, about two candidates for the professional training offered by the Famous Writers who passed the aptitude with flying colours: a seventy-two-year-old foreign-born widow living on social security, and a fictitious character named Louella Mae Burns.’
But what does muckraking really achieve? The American Way of Death exposed the ploys used by the funeral industry to milk people’s grief for money. Of the many macabre stories Mitford unearthed, the one about a funeral director who told a customer that yes, she could buy the cheaper coffin for her brother but it would then be necessary to chop off the poor sod’s feet to fit into the inferior casket of her choosing was particularly disturbing. The public response to the book led to broader advocacy on the ethics of the funeral industry and an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. Mitford’s 1970 investigative article on the Famous Writers School resulted directly in the consumer watchdogs being sent in. The school later filed for bankruptcy. In a 1972 More magazine ‘Hellbox column’, this happy epigraph appeared: ‘Rosebuds (late blooming) to Jessica Mitford, whose devastating dissection of the Famous Writers School in the Atlantic has produced what all exposes aim at but so few achieve: tangible results […] the Mitford article and all the nosing around it prompted has staggered the school financially.’ (In later years, however, the school, newly named, would begin its resurrection. It seems that turning the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse will always be a marketable delusion.)
As Mitford pointed out in her introduction to Poison Penmanship, the results of her own muckraking were often personal satisfaction: ‘I wish I could point to some overriding social purpose of those articles; the sad truth is that the best I can say for them is that I got pleasure from mocking these enterprises and the individuals who profit from them.’
These days, we still need the muckrakers. At the very least, they keep the culpable on their toes and the rest of us delightfully outraged. And while it provides us with titillating reading material, sometimes the mocking – and the revelation of truth behind it – can produce much-needed communal change.