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Book Report: Decca

I would like to write at great length about Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, because I enjoyed it a lot, and there’s a lot to it. I hadn’t really been familiar with Jessica Mitford and the Mitford Sisters (I’m not sure I knew that Jessica Mitford was a different person from Nancy Mitford), but it turns out that Ms. Mitford was hip-deep in lots of stuff I find interesting about the twentieth century. There is the once-famous story about how she ran off to fight the Fascists in Spain at around the same time that her sister Unity ran off to live in Berlin with Adolf Hitler and her other sister Diana married the British Fascist Oswald Mosley (with Herr Hitler present at the ceremony). Then she goes to America, where she and her second husband join the Communist Party, fight civil rights battles, and generally hobnob with the American Left. Then a career as a muckraking journalist.

Here’s something about Ms. Mitford: In the Library of Congress cataloguing system, she has books starting with CT, GT, HV, HX, KF, PN and PR. Five letters is pretty impressive. In the Dewey, it looks less impressive, as her books are all in the 300s, 800s and 920, but then the whole business of shoving all the biographies into 920 is wacky, anyway. Well, no, it isn’t wacky, it’s a perfectly good way to shelve for a browsing library, but it doesn’t give a sense of what the book is about.

Anyway, I think the thing to do is to read the books of memoirs, and then talk about her life that way.

Oh, I can’t resist. Her husband, Bob Treuhaft, was a lawyer dealing with lefty stuff, labor, civil rights and so on. Ms. Mitford was very heavily involved in civil rights struggles, and they would get particularly involved in cases where black people would get unjustly imprisoned, convicted of crimes they didn’t commit but essentially jailed for being black and uppity. As so often happened. Anyway. A fellow named James Dean Walker was imprisoned for life in Arkansas after being shot by a police officer in 1963; he escaped in 1975 and lived in California for five years. He was caught on a drug offense in 1980, and Arkansas wanted him back. Now, the prisons in Arkansas were notoriously awful—all the bad things you can imagine about racist, sadistic guards given full license by a racist state to do whatever they wanted to the black prisoners. It was considered likely that if Mr. Walker were to be returned to the Arkansas prison system, he would be beaten to death. The Governor of California (Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown) signed the man over to Arkansas, but he appealed to the courts for asylum. The courts turned him down.

Anyway, as it happened, Ms. Mitford (who was involved in the campaign to keep Mr. Walker out of Alabama) remembered a young attorney who had, fresh from Yale Law School in the 1970s, been a law clerk in Mr. Treuhaft’s office, and helped with the defense of the Black Panthers (among others). That young attorney was now (in 1980) married to the governor of Arkansas. So there was a possibility of some help there. Sadly, Governor Clinton’s re-election bid was defeated, so there was no help there. It doesn’t seem as if Ms. Mitford ever quite forgave Ms. Rodham (as was), but then she was one to hold a grudge. She never forgave Jerry Brown, either.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


So what did happen to James Dean Walker?

I suppose I could look it up, but I believe (from a dim memory of a footnote) that the rest of the story goes like this: extradition to Arkansas, a series of appeals on various grounds, new exculpatory evidence uncovered, new trial ordered. State can't locate any of the original evidence (after twenty years), nor can any of the (surviving) original witnesses recollect with any certaintly the events. Mr. Walker freed.

Some years later, Mr. Walker (having returned to California) is jailed on another offence of some kind, possibly drug-related.

I don't know that there's anything in the story about justice, but it's an interesting story. Also, the New York Sun got hold of the connection, and you can read some of the correspondence on their website.


Correction! Your Humble Blogger learns from the New York Sun!

Mr. Walker was, in fact, jailed on cocaine charges, but was acquitted, based on an entrapment defense. He is currently living in Idaho. Also, although I don't say so directly above, I wrote with the idea in mind that Mr. Walker was black; he is white. Not that white people were treated constitutionally or even humanely in Arkansas prisons, but the horror stories I've heard put race in the foreground.

Also, to excuse myself somewhat from what seems (to me) to be a stereotype-based error, Ms. Mitford and her husband did work for several black men (and Panthers) whose arrests and treatment they felt were race-based. In fact, I have the impression (and will talk about this later, when and if) that the main reason they joined the Communist Party was because that organization was the only one sufficiently active in racial justice in Oakland at the time. So it was not just the alleged cop killer not given a fair trial stereotype at work, although I'm sure to some extent I fell into that, it was a Bob and Decca Treuhaft justice campaign stereotype as well.


When racism is a majority against a minority, it often manifests in members of the majority treating disadvantaged members of the majority similarly to members of the minority. Same-race violence can be racist in origin, nature, and tone.

The reason I mention that is because it ties into the other thread's discussion of bitch. The use of that term against a man is frequently just as misogynistic as the use of that term against a woman; it's adding the additional component of feminizing the man, rather than being a gender-neutral term describing attitude or behavior.

It should also be noted that your phrasing suggested to me that Walker was unjustly imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit--that he was just minding his own business and some cop came up and shot him and then claimed he'd committed a crime. The Arkansas News in 1994 had a very different version of the story, clearly written by someone who believed Walker was guilty of murdering a police officer. A somewhat more neutral brief New York Times article suggests that there was evidence someone else killed the officer; still, it seemed to me that your phrasing suggested that Walker's conviction was a clear miscarriage of justice, and I'm not sure everyone would agree.

...My favorite bit of the letters posted on the Sun's website is this, in a note from Mitford to Clinton, after Clinton has mentioned giving birth to Chelsea:

"Do write back. I'd love more news of Chelsea Victoria--what a marvelous name! How did you come by it? Was she conceived in Victoria Station, or Chelsea?"

To which Clinton responds:

"Chelsea Victoria looks distressingly like Winston Churchill which at least diverts inquiries as to why we named her after the London Subway. We didn't really, just loved the sound and feel of the words and a lovely 1960's song called 'Chelsea Morning.' In any event, she'll be free to call herself South Kensington if she likes."

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