Biography

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

Born into one of Britain’s most renowned families, Mitford forsook the traditional perquisites of upper-class life in order to fight fascism and government corruption. During the Spanish Civil War, she ran away to Loyalist Spain and married Esmond Romilly, a communist sympathizer who was later killed in World War II. In 1943, after moving to the United States, she met her second husband, Robert Treuhaft, a labor lawyer. They settled in Oakland, California. During the McCarthy era, Mitford was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

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During the mid-1950’s, she unsheathed her poison pen and launched her career as a muckraker. After she published The American Way of Death (1963), a powerful exposé of the funeral industry, the resulting public outcry forced the industry to restructure itself almost overnight. Her other investigative books included The Trial of Dr. Spock (1969), Kind and Usual Punishment: The American Prison Business (1973), Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (1979), and The American Way of Birth (1992).

In a series of investigative articles, Mitford single-handedly exposed a variety of society’s cherished institutions, including Bennett Cerf and other “faculty” members at the Famous Writers’ School, Elizabeth Arden’s Maine Chance spa, National Broadcasting Company (NBC) censorship, a restaurant in New York City, and personnel procedures at California’s San Jose State University. Censors were among her favorite targets. In September, 1965, she published an article titled “Don’t Call It Syphilis” in McCall’s magazine. The hard-hitting exposé publicly embarrassed NBC for cancelling a two-part segment on the dangers of syphilis.

Meanwhile, Mitford herself was the subject of an attempt at censorship when she was hired to teach at San Jose State University as a distinguished professor in 1973. The trouble began when the university ordered her to sign a loyalty oath, tried to fingerprint her, and deleted the word “muckraking” from her course descriptions. When she resisted these measures, the administration fired her and canceled her classes. However, she ignored both actions and continued teaching her classes without pay. Eventually she signed the oath under duress, but forced the fingerprint issue into court. Finally, an embarrassed university paid her; after the fall semester ended, a court ruled that the fingerprint requirement was not enforceable.

Mitford’s long struggle against censorship won her respect as one of the nation’s foremost investigative journalists. The New York Times conceded that “Mitford’s pen is mightier than the sword,” and Time magazine dubbed her “Queen of the Muckrakers”—a title that she cherished.

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