VITAL SIGNSrnCOMMONWEALrnThe Great San JosernFinger Flaprnby James p. DegnanrnRemembering Jessica MitfordrnIrecently watehcd a television specialrnabout the life and times of JessicarnMitford, and the program took mc backrnfifteen years or so to my first meetingrnwith Jessica. It was mid-December, thernbeginning of the Christmas recess atrnSan Jose State College, and Jessica hadrnbeen informed that, at the close of thernpresent semester, she would not be rehiredrnas Distinguished Professor of Sociology.rnBecause she had refused torncomply with the California State Collegernrule that all teachers in the systemrnhad to be fingerprinted, she had beenrnfired, or, as the dean of social sciences,rnJames Sawrey, put it—to Jessica’s immenserndelight—”dchircd.”rnRather than fingerprints, Jessica hadrnsubmitted to the college trustees a setrnof her toeprints, and on the San JosernState campus stickers and buttons proclaimingrn”Jessica Thumbs Her Toes”rnabounded.rnTo interview Jessica, I had arrangedrnto drive her from San Jose to her homernin Oakland, and during the drive, inrnhigh spirits, she discussed her upcomingrndismissal. “Prom distinguished professorrnto extinguished professor in threernshort weeks,” she twitted. “Reallv, Irnhaven’t the faintest idea how I got to berna distinguished professor. I never evenrnwent to school. Mother insisted that Irnlearn to read, though, and that’s beenrnjolly useful, learning to read, 1 mean.”rnShe wore red pumps and a red andrnblue dress patterned like a stained glassrnwindow. Her hair was thin and of a peculiarrnfiling cabinet gray. She v^’orernthick, gray, gogglclikc horn rims, behindrnwhich blinked the famous Mitfordrneves—eves a British novelist once describedrnas “blue and cold and crazy.”rnDuring the fifty-mile drive, Jessicarnchattered on about man’ things. Aboutrnher one-time membership in the CommunistrnParty: “Oh certainly I was arnmember of the CP, but really, it was anrnawful bore—all that silly authoritarianism.”rnAbout sociology: “I can’t begin tornsav what a lot of bosh it is.” About herrnlate father, Lord Redesdale: “He hatedrnblacks, foreigners, and divorcees. Herncalled them all ‘filthy Huns.’ He alsornhated artists. Once he called Jacob Epsteinrna ‘filthv Hun.'” About her fightingrnagainst Franco in the Spanish Civil War:rn”I kept getting concerned letters fromrnmy nanny in England. She kept worryingrnthat I had no suitable clothes to fightrnin.”rnI remember stopping in heavy trafficrnand cjuestioning her about her bookrnKind and Usual Punishment, about herrnsuggestion in that book that prisons bernabolished because onlv the poor, blacks,rnand other minorities ever get sent tornprison. “People like Spiro Agnew neverrngo to prison,” she declared.rn”Maybe so,” I said, “but shouldn’trnthe? ()bviously, you believe people likernAgncw should be sent to prison?” Irnlooked toward her for an answer. A smilernmelted from her face, and she fixed mernwith the frosty Mitford eyes: “Yes, butrnthcv won’t be,” she declared, makingrnclear that this line of our conversationrnwas at an end.rnWith the exception of an ornatern18th-century French clock on the diningrnroom mantelpiece, I was surprisedrnto find the downstairs area of Jessica’srntwo-story frame house on Regent Streetrnin Oakland rather modest and staid, hi arndov^’nstairs bathroom, though, thingsrnpicked up a bit. I Icrc the walls were coveredrnwith ads from Jessica’s favorite periodicalsrn—mortuary magazines like Sunnyside,rnNational Casket, and MortuaryrnManagement. One ad described the advantagesrnof the “I.ayaway Burial Plan,”rnanother proclaimed “Embalming WillrnMake You I,ook Younger.” And abovernthe toilet was a brightly colored poster ofrnSalome holding aloft the severed headrnof John the Baptist and proudly declaringrn”Look What Daddy Cave’Mc JustrnFor Dancing.”rnChain-smoking unfiltcred Chesterfieldsrn—”They’re positively number onernon the Surgeon General’s list of eanecreausers,”rnshe assured me—Jessica wanderedrnabout the house in a rather distractedrnmanner. We talked more aboutrnher family: about her father (“Farve”),rnher mother (“Muv”), and her sisters—rnNancy, Diana, Pamela, Unity, and Deborah.rnAbout Muv’s attitude toward thernworking classes. “I’m not an enemy ofrnthe working classes,” Muv would insist inrnarguments with the young Jessica, “Irnthink some of them are perfectly sweet.”rnAbout Farve’s reaction to the mentionrnof Picasso’s name: “Damned seyver.rnStinks to merry hell!” About Nancy’srnadmonition to Jessica, who could neverrnlearn to ride a horse because she keptrnfalling off: “Now Jessica, do try to stayrnon. You know how cross Muv will be ifrnyou break your arm again.”rnWe talked about Jessica’s classicrnmuckraking attack on the funeral industry,rn’I’he American Way of Death, andrnabout her article “Let Us Now AppraisernFamous Writers”—a piece that appearedrnin the Atlantic and singlehandedly laidrnto rest Bennett Cerf’s fraudulent FamousrnWriters School. “Oh I’ve made arnsmall fortune on the death book,” shernsaid, “but when I wrote it, I hadn’t thernfaintest idea anyone would be interested.rnI remember asking Bob [her husband,rnOakland attorney Robert Treuhaft],rn’Whoever would want such a book?'”rnAsked if she planned on one of the plainrnpine-box funerals she champions in ThernAmerican Way, she chirped: “Oh heavensrnno. I expect a five-horse affair.”rnWe were interrupted by Jessica’srnmaid, Sally, a young English womanrnwearing a gold ring through one of herrnnostrils. Sally reminded Jessica that dinnerrnguests would sooir be arriving, andrn46/CHRONICLESrnrnrn