I recently watched a television special about the life and times of Jessica Mitford, and the program took me back fifteen years or so to my first meeting with Jessica. It was mid-December, the beginning of the Christmas recess at San Jose State College, and Jessica had been informed that, at the close of the present semester, she would not be rehired as Distinguished Professor of Sociology. Because she had refused to comply with the California State College rule that all teachers in the system had to be fingerprinted, she had been fired, or, as the dean of social sciences, James Sawrey, put it—to Jessica’s immense delight—”dehired.”

Rather than fingerprints, Jessica had submitted to the college trustees a set of her toeprints, and on the San Jose State campus stickers and buttons proclaiming “Jessica Thumbs Her Toes” abounded.

To interview Jessica, I had arranged to drive her from San Jose to her home in Oakland, and during the drive, in high spirits, she discussed her upcoming dismissal. “Prom distinguished professor to extinguished professor in three short weeks,” she twitted. “Really, I haven’t the faintest idea how I got to be a distinguished professor. I never even went to school. Mother insisted that I learn to read, though, and that’s been jolly useful, learning to read, I mean.” She wore red pumps and a red and blue dress patterned like a stained glass window. Her hair was thin and of a peculiar filing cabinet gray. She wore thick, gray, gogglelike horn rims, behind which blinked the famous Mitford eves—eves a British novelist once described as “blue and cold and crazy.”

During the fifty-mile drive, Jessica chattered on about many things. About her one-time membership in the Communist Party: “Oh certainly I was a member of the CP, but really, it was an awful bore—all that silly authoritarianism.” About sociology: “I can’t begin to say what a lot of bosh it is.” About her late father, Lord Redesdale: “He hated blacks, foreigners, and divorcees. He called them all ‘filthy Huns.’ He also hated artists. Once he called Jacob Epstein a ‘filthy Hun.'” About her fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War: “I kept getting concerned letters from my nanny in England. She kept worrying that I had no suitable clothes to fight in.”

I remember stopping in heavy traffic and questioning her about her book Kind and Usual Punishment, about her suggestion in that book that prisons be abolished because only the poor, blacks, and other minorities ever get sent to prison. “People like Spiro Agnew never go to prison,” she declared.

“Maybe so,” I said, “but shouldn’t they? Obviously, you believe people like Agnew should be sent to prison?” I looked toward her for an answer. A smile melted from her face, and she fixed me with the frosty Mitford eyes: “Yes, but they won’t be,” she declared, making clear that this line of our conversation was at an end.

With the exception of an ornate 18th-century French clock on the dining room mantelpiece, I was surprised to find the downstairs area of Jessica’s two-story frame house on Regent Street in Oakland rather modest and staid. In a downstairs bathroom, though, things picked up a bit. Here the walls were covered with ads from Jessica’s favorite periodicals—mortuary magazines like Sunnyside, National Casket, and Mortuary Management. One ad described the advantages of the “Layaway Burial Plan,” another proclaimed “Embalming Will Make You Look Younger.” And above the toilet was a brightly colored poster of Salome holding aloft the severed head of John the Baptist and proudly declaring “Look What Daddy Gave Me Just For Dancing.”

Chain-smoking unfiltered Chesterfields—”They’re positively number one on the Surgeon General’s list of cancer-causers,” she assured me—Jessica wandered about the house in a rather distracted manner. We talked more about her family: about her father (“Farve”), her mother (“Muv”), and her sisters—Nancy, Diana, Pamela, Unity, and Deborah. About Muv’s attitude toward the working classes. “I’m not an enemy of the working classes,” Muv would insist in arguments with the young Jessica, “I think some of them are perfectly sweet.” About Farve’s reaction to the mention of Picasso’s name: “Damned sewer. Stinks to merry hell!” About Nancy’s admonition to Jessica, who could never learn to ride a horse because she kept falling off: “Now Jessica, do try to stay on. You know how cross Muv will be if you break your arm again.”

We talked about Jessica’s classic muckraking attack on the funeral industry, ‘I’he American Way of Death, and about her article “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers”—a piece that appeared in the Atlantic and singlehandedly laid to rest Bennett Cerf’s fraudulent Famous Writers School. “Oh I’ve made a small fortune on the death book,” she said, “but when I wrote it, I hadn’t the faintest idea anyone would be interested. I remember asking Bob [her husband, Oakland attorney Robert Treuhaft], ‘Whoever would want such a book?'” Asked if she planned on one of the plain pine-box funerals she champions in The American Way, she chirped: “Oh heavens no. I expect a five-horse affair.”

We were interrupted by Jessica’s maid, Sally, a young English woman wearing a gold ring through one of her nostrils. Sally reminded Jessica that dinner guests would soon be arriving, and we ended our conversation, agreeing to resume it at one of Jessica’s few remaining San Jose State classes after the holidays. “Do come to class,” Jessica said, “we’re having some convicts in.”

Jessica taught two classes: “Muckraking Techniques,” a relatively small class of about twenty students, and “The American Way,” a huge lecture class of three hundred or so. It was in the latter class—the texts for which were books like George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Ramsey Clark’s Crime in America—that the convicts were scheduled to perform. All was confusion in the huge lecture hall: the microphone wouldn’t work; a terrified dog scurried about with several hirsute, scruffy students chasing after it; and Jessica, looking like Lillian Gish playing a governess, ordered the convicts about, shooing them into their seats on the cluttered stage, instructing them how long to speak, and so forth.

From talking with various students in the audience, I gathered that the students were looking forward to a sequence of prison atrocity stories—tales in the Devil’s Island genre. But the convicts (ex-cons, really)—Earl Johnson, a man in his 60’s, who’d spent most of his life in prison; Willy Holder, president of the Convicts’ Union; and two young women who identified themselves only as Patty and Joyce—didn’t quite deliver. Earl, a likable man who’d started his career by stealing (for Detroit’s Purple Gang) a boxcar of U. S. Army machine guns, began his talk by reading his birth certificate and going on, day by day, from there. After an hour or so, Jessica was forced to cut him off. Willy, head of the Prisoners’ Progressive Art League, as well as president of the Convicts’ Union, spent most of his time deploring the fact that prison authorities take back nearly 45 percent of the earnings prison artists make selling their work. And one of the young women—Patty, I think it was—seemed more interested in bombarding the audience with obscenities than in relating prison horrors. Patty, pasty-faced and sporting a yellow beehive hairdo, was primarily agitated about prison restrictions on what she obviously regarded as her constitutional right to free and frequent fornication. “Man, who’s to say you can’t f—? Man, I don’t care if you’re in the Joint or not, Man that’s f—ing with your head. That’s a lot of sh–.”

Almost three hours went by, and it was nearly time for the class to end when Jessica began asking for questions from the audience. “Now I know,” she said, “that everyone is intensely interested in questioning our convicts [Jessica pronounced it, ‘Awah Cawnvicts’], so shall we start?”

There was a long silence before someone —obviously determined to hear at least one solid atrocity story—asked Willy to elaborate on the horrible problem of homosexuality in prison. Willy, plainly eager to get back to the plight of the prison artist, replied impatiently: “The homosexual problem is no worse in prison than it is anywhere else.” The class had gone into overtime; students were streaming out, and Jessica was forced to call things to a halt.

Jessica’s smaller class, “Muckraking Techniques,” required each student to do some sort of muckraking project or report. “Some of the projects are jolly good,” Jessica informed me, “and some are smashing. One student built a miniature casket, complete with foam rubber and velvet lining.” Of the reports, Jessica said, “they don’t have to be anything terribly definite, you know. I mean, they can be extremely flexible. One student is sort of looking over the premises at San Quentin and having a sort of forceful speaking out on the matter.”

In both classes, Jessica made much use of visiting speakers; of her friends: people like Bettina Aptheker, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Germaine Greer, the editors of Ramparts, various Black Panthers, and others; and of her enemies: various undertakers, FBI agents, prison officials, and businessmen. The day I attended her class she was having a black psychologist. “His eyes are out of line—you know, he flies his own plane, that sort of thing. He bashed it up or fell out of it or something. He sings in French and mimics cockneys marvelously.”

We were in the corridor outside the courtroom of San Jose Superior Court Judge William Ingram, who was to render the final decision on the fingerprints business—”The Great Finger Flap,” as Jessica called it. In an earlier compromise decision, Jessica had agreed to let the court keep her fingerprints in a sealed envelope pending a final decision, which boiled down to: if Jessica won, the court would return the fingerprints in the sealed envelope to her; if she lost, the court would give the prints to San Jose State.

I remember Jessica staring out the corridor window at some rose bushes. “I say, roses in January—smashing.” Reporters appeared and Jessica alternated between talking to them, consulting with her lawyer, David Nawi, and giving orders to her student assistant, Novelle Johnson. “Novelle, do run and fetch a newspaper. I must see my horoscope. And do check and see when Channel 4 is coming.”

By my count, that day was the fourth time in as many months that Jessica had taken San Jose State to court—a schedule Jessica thrived on. Jessica’s enemies, many of whom expressed themselves in letters to the editors of Bay Area newspapers, contended that the San Jose litigation was an answer to Jessica’s prayers. “It gives her what the Mitfords have always craved,” said one letter writer, “lots of publicity; and it gives her another opportunity to do what she does best—bring out the worst in people.” A TV cameraman complained: “She’s using this thing to promote that g–damn book of hers [Kind and Usual Punishment]. Every time she gets a chance, she tries to stick that g—damn book in front of my camera.” Whatever Jessica’s motives, she certainly succeeded in bringing out the worst in various of the San Jose State officials. “She has,” said a San Jose State professor, “succeeded in taking a group of ordinary and really quite amiable bumblers and making them look like extraordinary oafs and bullies.”

With malice toward all, Jessica handled the college officials—just as she handled the undertakers and just as she handled the late Bennett Cerf (whom she inveigled into making such devastating admissions about the Famous Writers School as “Frankly, it’s an appeal to the gullible”). Again and again, Jessica succeeded in bringing out the worst in the officials and their lawyers, in trapping them into saying and doing things that showed them up as increasingly petty and stupid, as far worse than they really were. The officials fired her; she forced them to rehire her. They canceled her classes; she forced them to reschedule her classes. They refused to pay her; she forced them to pay her. And all with much publicity and fanfare. The officials, from the start, were caught in the Mitford tarbaby, and the more they punched and kicked, the more foolishly tarbound they became.

Jessica’s finest hour for bringing out the worst in the San Jose State officials doubtlessly occurred during her confrontation with the aforementioned dean of social sciences, a gentleman appropriately named Sawrey. Foolishly, Dean Sawrey permitted this confrontation to take place in Jessica’s lecture class before some three hundred students and other Jessica sympathizers, whom she had prepared for Sawrey’s appearance. Interrupting the lecture, Sawrey announced that Jessica had been ” dehired,” that she was no longer authorized to teach, that a qualified replacement would be found, and so forth. And the students, of course, went berserk. They marched around the lecture hall carrying signs reading “We Want Jessica, Not Fingerprints.” When the dean tried to speak, he was drowned out by cries of “Jessica! Jessica! We Want Jessica!” and Jessica, clearly the “gallant little Englishwoman” fighting the fascist bully, was able to raise her hand for silence and declare: “They’ll have to pick me up bodily and toss me out to keep me from teaching!” Jessica’s speech was followed by more wild cheering and by Dean Sawrey scuttling off the stage.

From the time of the Sawrey confrontation it was clear to many veteran press watchers that Jessica had won not only the battle but the war, and Judge Ingram’s decision—to return the sealed envelope of fingerprints to Jessica—came as rather an anticlimax.

At the end of the semester, Jessica gave a party at the San Jose State Newman Center to celebrate her victory and her “short happy life as a Distinguished Professor.” Women in pale yellow kimonos and men in pink velvet bell-bottoms wandered about the hall. Bettina Aptheker was there, a short woman whose enormous bottom looked even more so in red tight pants, Shana Alexander was there in granny garb, as was Maya Angelou in African headdress. The hall was hot and clouded with sweet smoke. On stage, a female folk singer with guitar and knee-length blond hair howled something about love and baby. The ex-convicts were there: Willy the Artist; Patty the Obscene; and Earl of Purple Gang fame.

The high point of the party, Jessica promised in her invitation, would be a conga line made up of visiting speakers from her classes: funeral directors from the Lima Family Funeral Home of San Jose; Dean Sawrey; various ex-convicts; Bettina Aptheker; Mava Angclou; Paul Du Feu; Germaine Greer and others. Because the funeral directors and Dean Sawrey did not show up, however, the conga line never materialized. Jessica, presiding over a long table covered with jugs of warm white wine, handed out boutonnieres made of pieces of Kleenex on which Jessica had put her lip prints. Asked what her plans were, Jessica said she was going on a six-month European vacation during which she would write an expose of San Jose State. About the sealed envelope containing her fingerprints, she said: “I have decided, after all, to turn the fingerprints over to San Jose State. I shall,” she declared, “cremate the dear little things and present them in a suitable funeral urn to the college board of trustees.”