Quite a family, the Mitfords, Nancy was the eldest sister, the tease, the novelist. Unity (Bobo to friends) was quite a friend of Hitler. Boud (Diana to the world) married British fascist Sir Oswald Moseley. While father (Lord Redesdale), well, "Farve is one of Nature's Fascists," Bobo and Boud were wont to say.
Jessica was younger, more obstinate, and partial to the Communists. At 18 she left home to join the Spanish Loyalists with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly. They married and in 1939 traveled to the United States. Esmond then returned to Europe and the war, and was killed in action. Decca would eventually gain fame for her work with - and then without - the Communist Party, and her book The American Way of Death. But in 1941 she had no income, no husband, and a newborn daughter.
AT THE TIME of Constancia's birth I was living in the large, disorganized, and animated household of Clifford and Virginia Durr, who lived in the country a few miles from Washington.
The Durrs were Alabama born and bred, staunch Democrats and supporters of Roosevelt. (Their address was RFD 2, Seminary Hill, Virginia, always rendered by Nancy when she wrote to me there as FDR 2.) My long sojourn with them came about almost by accident. In the autumn of 1940, the day after Esmond left for the long months of training in Canada, Virginia took me to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a distraction from my misery over his departure. There we met some Texan friends of hers, who gave us delegates' badges so that we could join them on the floor of the convention. I was suffering desperately from morning sickness - the Texans, who chivalrously offered to let me throw up in their ten-gallon hats, said it must be the Democratic donkey kicking up its heels, upon which the unborn babe was nicknamed "the Donk."
After the convention Virginia invited me to stay for a few days until I could get settled in a flat of my own in Washington. Like the Man Who Came to Dinner, I stayed for two and a half years, soon adding yet another member to their already bulging household.
Fascinating as they were and much as I loved them, the Durrs had for me something of the quality of characters in an unlikely novel of Southern life. They had moved to Seminary Hill when Cliff, a former counsel for Alabama Light & Power Company, went to work for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the New Deal. He was an uneasy transplant from his native Alabama into the vicious realities of Washington politics. He wa in fact the Southerner with a conscience, the home-lover with a deep sense of responsibility, a peace-lover, conservative by nature, eventually flung by history into a radical role.
The company they kept was much to my liking, as they had a wide and immensely varied acquaintance - thanks mostly to Virginia, who adored entertaining and had an insatiable appetite for meeting new people, seeing olf friends. Virginia was chairman of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax; her sister Josephine, called "Sister" after the Southern manner, was married to Justice Hugo Black. Thus the kaleidoscopic mix of people who came to visit included judicial dignitaries, Southern legislators - whom Virginia was forever trying to proselytize for the anti-poll tax cause - New Deal functionaries, earnest young radicals.
Lyndon Johnson, then a freshman congressman, and his wife were familiars; they came out often on a Sunday afternoon to relax with their shoes off on the lawn and chin away with Cliff and Virginia in their (to me) near-incomprehensible patois about the ins and outs of Southern politics, "Ki-i-ssin' Cou-ousins," the Durrs called them - and anyone else from the South who was not related by blood. In one of my rare letters to my mother (for we were much estranged in those days) I mentioned that Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird had come out to tea. She wrote back: "Who is Lady Bird? I looked her up in the Peerage, but could find no trace."
Virginia was also after the higher echelons of the Senate. Once she invited Senator Claude Pepper (pronounced Cloh-ohd, like the sound of a cow in pain) and his wife to dinner. The other guests arrived, eight o'clock came and went, then nine o'clock, but no Peppers. Virginia was vastly annoyed. The following day she took me to one of those huge official Washington cocktail parties in the Maryflower Hotel ("Honey, get your white gloves on; we've got to go and meet the British Tank Commission"); across a sea of heads she descried Mrs. Pepper.
A ship in full sail, her white leghorn picture hat bobbing up and down, Virginia steered a course through the crowd, following in her wake. "Whaa, Mildred," she cried on reaching her quarry, "Ah was most put out that you-all never came last night. What in the world happened?"
Mildred, quailing before the onslaught: "But whaa, Virginia, you never sent me a reminder card." To which Virginia responded, "Whaa, Mildered, you know darn well in that hick town you came from there were no reminder cards."
But Mildred, I felt, had the last word. Shortly before Christmas there was a telephone call from her maid. The Peppers had gone to Florida for the holidays; Mrs. Pepper had left a Christmas present for Mrs. Durr and would she kindly come to pick it up? Virginia, fuming at what she perceived as a deep discourtesy, nevertheless drove over to fetch the present. It turned out to be a horrid little cactus in a pot.
It was under Virginia's suspices that Constancia was born. Like many of her Southern compatriots, Virginia took an uncommon interest in births, miscarriages, and the like, and enjoyed running the show for others. Unfortunately, I was working as a salesgirl/model in Weinberger's Dress Shop throughout my pregnancy and for the purpose procured an extremely tight girdle. As months went on it began to feel like a ring of fire round my expanding belly; after work I would dash over to Cliff's office at the RFC to meet up with our car pool, and ease it off. One day I was standing in a corner of the office, shedding my girdle as usual, when a distinguished-looking white-haired man came in; he turned out to be Jesse Jones, RFC commissioner and Cliff's boss. Virginia complained about this: "Whaa, honey, you know how nervous that makes Cliff. Besides, you gonna have to quit wearing that damn girdle, else the baby'll be born flat."
She made me go to a well-known, very expensive Washington gynecologist for checkups, although I felt perfectly well and could ill afford the five dollars he exzcted for the monthly urinalysis. My fury knew no bounds when I discovered the same doctor was treating Sister (Mrs. Black) for menopausal difficulties with injections of the urine of pregnant women - and charging her $10 a shot. I went round to his office to denounce him as a crook for selling my urine to Sister and charging me to boot, told him he was fired, and assured him I should spread the story of these fraudulent dealings all over Washington. He offered no defense, merely stared in open-mouthed astonishments.
Thereafter I made arrangements for the accouchement in the nine-bed charity ward of Columbia Hospital. At the time I was reading In Place of Splendour, the stirring autobiography of Constancia de la Mora, daughter of a Spanish grandee who fled her highborn family to cast her lot with the Republican army during the civil war. In the flush of tender euphoria that often accompanies childbirth, I thought to name the baby Constancia. Esmond's letter cautioning against this - "She'll be called Connie, a horrid name" - arrived too late, after the birth certificate was filed. As it turned out, Donk was the name that stuck, modified by Virginia's three little daughters to Dinky-donk or Dinky, her nickname to this day.
After Dinky's birth, my two main preoccupations were to find and join the Communist Party, and to equip myself to be useful once a member. Somehow I must pull out of the dead-end world of market research, retail selling, and the like, and acquire some training; but in what line? My first choice would have been journalism, and I toyed with the idea of enrolling in the journalism school of Columbia University, which I assumed was in the District of Columbia. By the time I discovered my mistake - and learned that to qualify for enrollment one must have an undergraduate degree - I was thoroughly settled in with the Durrs and disinclined to move. So I enrolled in a private secretarial school to learn shorthand and typing. Possession of these skills would, I believed, transport me into realms of ideas and action. I secretly cherished the hope that one day I might become secretary to a Party leader.
To my distress, I proved to be a phenomenally slow learner. Try as I might, the other students, for the most part recent high school graduates and far younger than I, zoomed past me in the speed tests in most dismaying fashion.
Eventually I was hired by the Office of Price Administration (the war time price control and rationing agency) in the cruel category of "subeligible typist," at a salary of $1,440 a year - and this in the days when it was said that the wartime shortage of clerical workers was so severe that the applicant for a government job was taken into a room with a typewritter and a washing machine; if she could identify the typewritter, she was hired. The job description for sub-eligible typist was deeply depressing: "Must be able to follow simple directions." I yearned to improve, to qualify as a proper secretary whose job description was "must be able to exercise initiative."
My boss, Marie Berger, a lawyer in the enforcement division, was pleasantly tolerant of my incompetence as a typist. Indeed, she never learned the full extent of it, for I soon discovered a marvelous place called the typing pool, and learned to partake of its life-restoring waters. I used to wander down there, where some twenty crackerjack typists were furiously pounding away, and pretend to be an executive. "I want nine copies of this by noon, please, and be sure it is correctly proofread." (For some reason, everthing had to be done in nine copies.) Then I would go off and lurk in the ladies' lounge until my beautiful pages were ready.
Marie and I worked in a huge barnlike room in Temporary Building D, our two desks squeezed in among hundreds of others, for she was not high ehough in the OPA to rate an office of her own. "It's too noisy to think in here," she would say dispiritedly.
One day I was mooning about the corridors as usual, waiting for my typing to be finished, when I noticed a dear little office full equipped with two desks, typewriter, telephone - and apparently unoccupied. I kept it under surveillance for a few days to make sure it was really vacant, then move our stuff in. Most of the private offices, I had noticed, had cryptic designations on the door: SENIOR TEXTILE ANALYST, FIELD SERVICES, and the like. I pondered a suitable one for us, and settled on WHOLE-SALE-RETAIL COORDINATOR. Through my typing-pool connections I ordered a sign made up, which I affixed to the door. For the first few days other OPA workers would stop by "You're new here, aren't you?" they would say. "What do you do?" "Oh . . . we just coordinate wholesalers and retailers," I would answer, pointing to the sign. It proved to be a fully sufficient and satisfactory answer.
Marie was so pleased that she arranged a promotion for me, which took me out of the clerical stream ("where your talents are being wasted," she said rather coldly) to the rank of Investigator I: "Must be able to analyze trends, formulate programs and conduct pilot drives." In addition to this encouraging description of my new duties, the job carried a considerable pay increase; I would be making $1,800 a year.
One obstacle to my certification as an OPA investigator was the Civil Service eligibility requirement of a college degree or two years of business experience, not including retail selling. I studied the application for a while; I had never gone to school, let alone college, and my only "business experience" had been my pathetic ventures in retail selling. I had, however, been sent to Paris at the age of sixteen, and had there taken the "Cours de Civilisation Francaise," a beginner's course which the Sorbonne offers to foreigners. I paused, but only for a moment, in filling out the Civil Service form, and put down: "Graduate, Universite de la Sorbone." Paris was then occupied by the Nazis; it seemed unlikely that the personnel people would check.
I found it difficult, and embittering, to be living in America at that time. The boring and oppressive American preoccupation with material comforts, the open boasts one often heard in some circles about successful black market dealings ("My butcher sells me all the steak I want; he never asks for ration coupons"), filled me with gloom. Seen from these shores the war was a spectator sports, to many a rare opportunity for personal enrichment. The unseemly scramble for affluence was not limited to out-and-out war profiteers; it was in evidence everywhere.
Reality was back in England, where the Nazi invasion seemed imminent, where people were stoically preparing for the onslaught. Yet after Esmond's death it seemed pointless for me to return - I had nobody to return to, and encumbered by the infant Dinkydonk I should not be in a position to be of much help in the war effort.
In these circumstances the OPA enforcement division was, for me, an exhilarating place to work. A war agency, yet unlikely the so-called old-line agencies (such as the War Department or the Treasury), it wa infused with the crusading New Deal spirit and frequently locked in battle with major business interests. The OPA seemed as close to the front line of the war against Fascism as anything in Washington.
My new-found colleagues - lawyers, investigators, economists, rationing experts - were for the most part young, dedicated, immensely energetic, and hard-working anti-Fascists. It was our job to hold the line against war profiteers, price gougers, greedy landlords, violaters of rationing regulations. The press, predominantly anti-New Deal and anti-Roosevelt, was also the enemy, referring to us contemptuously as "slide-rule boys" and "OPA snoopers." Time magazine, which led the pack against price control, explained: "A new Washington term for the academicians who used to be called 'braintrusters' is 'slide-rule boys.' Slide-rulers in OPA number well over 100."
As early as 1941, Time, in a preview of the McCarthy witch-hunt that would dominate the next decade, reported: "Ever since paunchy Price Boss Leon Henderson, in a particularly tactless moment, blurted that Martin Dies was 'not a responsible member of Congress' the Dies Committee has been out to get him or his staff. The Committee obtained a list of all his employees, 40 of whom have written for Communist publications." Throughout the war OPA continued to be a favorite target of Time, with its special flair, forerunner of Spiro Agnew's, for inventing new pejoratives: "OPA's foolish fumblers . . ." Malice in OPAland . . ." "OPA's 2,700 lawyers, backbone of the slide-rule cabal . . ." "OPA's slide-rule boys, the LeonHenderson carryovers headed by gangling '5 ft. 20 in.' Deputy Price Administrator J.K. Galbraith . . ."
There was also considerable internecine warfare, as the agency had its quota of saboteurs, collaborators with big business, sent in by powerful conservatives in Congress. Richard Nixon worked there for a while in the tire-rationing division, although today none of us remembers ever meeting him. Perhaps he was off conspiring with Bebe Rebozo, who made his first fortune in retreaded tires in the thirties and forties. According to a biographer, Nixon's desk was next to that of J. Paull Marshall, later assistant vice-president of American Railroads, "an intransigent Republican who liked Nixon as soon as they met. 'Most of the OPA lawyers were left-wingers, and it was natural that Dick and I should develop an affinity for each other,' he says. 'We both believed in the capitalist system, but the other lawyers were using rationing and price control as a means of controlling profits.'" [Bela Kornitzer, The Real Nixon, Rand McNally, 1960, p. 143]
The Washington office was responsible for establishing rent control, price control, and rationing policy, writing detailed regulations, and conducting "pilot drives" to test the enforceability of the regulations before promulgating them in the Field - which sounded like a huge freezing prairie somewhere in the Middle West, but was actually OPA's term for the rest of the country.
The lawyers shared the investigators. Sometimes I was assigned to work for Bob Treuhaft, an enforcement attorney, among whose many attractions were his slanting, twinkling black eyes, his marvelously funny jokes, his (to me) exotic Bronx idiom and pronunciation. Bob had written the regulation on Pleasure Driving, designed to alleviate the critical gasoline shortage by imposing a ban on all driving except for business reasons - one could drive to work and back but not to a dinner party. He proposed we should conduct a pilot Pleasure-Driving Drive to determine the level of compliance with the new regulation. We staked out a spot near the superfashionable Troika night-club in the Mayflower Hotel, where we would meet each night under the stars in the freezing Washington winter and apprehend pleasure drivers as they alighted from their cars.
One night we caught the Norwegian ambassador. He stopped his car outside the Troika and we advanced upon him, explaining that he was in violation of OPA regulations. His wife was livid: "Surely you don't expect us to take the bus?" The ambassador diplomatically kicked her in the shins and said, "In the future, my dear, we shall have to." I was pleased by this surprising bit of luck, surely bound to result in nationwide publicity for the Pleasure-Driving Drive. I could visualize Bob and me posing for photographers outside Temporary Building D, sternly displaying the ambassador's confiscated ration book as a warning to all who might be tempted to Pleasure Drive. But alas, he was "too smart for us," as Bob ruefully put it. The next day his picture was on the front page of the Washington Post, boarding the bus in some far-off suburb on his way to the embassy, with caption "Norwegian Envoy Conserves Gas."
For OPA loyalists, fiercely bent on securing compliance with the agency's regulations, any violation of these would be unthinkable. Thus shortly after the pleasure-driving ban was announced, Bob's roommate, Ike, also an OPA lawyer, and a noted womanizer, woke him up at three o-clock one morning to report ecstatically, "Bob! I laid four of them tonight, all in different parts of town from Washington to Silver Spring, using only public transportation!"
After the Norwegian ambassador nab, Bob wrote a poem for me, and my heart flipped. It began:
Drink a drink to dauntless Decca,
OPA's black market wrecker.
Where there is no violation
She supplies the provocation.
Smiling brightly, she avers, "Je suis agente provovateuse."
But I think I really fell in love over the rape of the OPA Census Building plans. In one of those gargantuan bureaucratic maneuvers for which the government is famous, it was decided to move the entire OPA from familiar, grubby old Temporary Building D to the grander and hence more desirable Census Building, which had been evacuated to accomodate us.
For months earnest relocaters had been at work preparing meticulous ground plans and charts, the goal being that on the day of the move everybody would find his desk, typewriter, chair in the Census Building in the exact same juxtaposition to his neighbor's desk, typewriter, chair as it had been in Temporary Buildings D. To this end, colored and numbered tags were affixed to every movable object.
THe evening before the move, Bob and I were working late in our respective offices. He dashed in to the Wholesale-Retail Coordinator's office, gleefully waving a sheaf of papers: "The master plans for the Census Building move! Quick, we haven't much time to spare." He had found them lying around in full view, and swooped them up for the purpose of doing a bit of master planning himself. This was a marvelous chance, he pointed out, to teach a well-deserved lesson to some of the racist, anti-Semitic characters who had infiltrated the OPA.
It took hours of painstaking, meticulous work poring over the charts, removing the sets of colored tags and rearranging them according to the Bob scheme of things, and we staggered out into the night bursting with laughter at the thought of our colleagues' reactions the next day.
We were not dissappointed. Arriving early, we observed their expressions change from bewilderment to rage as they sought to find their desks. The frumpy racist mistress of the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, whose appointment as investigation could, we thought, be attributed only to his alliance, gasped open-mouthed as she found herself surrounded on all sides by Jews and the one black investigator. The office glad-hand was next to the office grump, and so it went. Bob and I, of course, found our desks, now cozily ranged side by side, without difficulty.
Bob's recollection of the beginning of our romance is somewhat different. For the Harvard Twenty-ifth Anniversary Report, a complition of brief biographies of graduates of the class of 1934, he wrote: "In the OPA I met a fantastically beautiful woman [A vast exaggeration, of course. Perhaps a Harvard manner of speech? Reading other entries in the Anniversary Report, I noted many of his classmates felt constrained to use similar hyperbole in describing their future wives.] who attracted me not only by her charm and wit, but by her frugality. I watched with fascination as she moved down the line of the block-long counter of the cafetria in the huge OPA temporary building. As she passed the beverage section, she would pick up a glass of tomato juice, down it, and set the empty glass down on a handy lttle shelf below the counter. Next she would scoop up a salad and dispose of the plate in the same way. Then a sandwich. When she reached the cashier, she had nothing on her tray but a cup of coffee - cost of lunch, five cents. This, I decided, was the girl for me."