Looking back on 1995, one of my happiest memories has to be the night that I escorted Jessica Mitford to the Undertaker's Ball.
Okay, it wasn't really a "ball," and I seriously doubt that any of the guests still were practicing their trade as undertakers; it's difficult to imagine any in that well-heeled crowd removing those flashy diamond rings to wear an embalmer's thick plastic gloves. Still, there I was with "Decca" (as she was known to everyone), schmoozing with professional handlers of the dead.
I used the story of that bizarre evening to introduce our hypertext profile of Decca that appeared in the Albion Monitor last October. If you haven't read it yet, I'd encourage you to do so. Decca is one of the most remarkable human beings of this century. Or rather, was; as you probably know, she died on July 23, having lived a long and astonishing life.
The week following her death, it was impossible to crack open a newspaper without reading another eulogy. Herb Caen and Pat Holt told funny and charming Decca stories in the San Francisco Chronicle; Molly Ivins spun a few tales in her syndicated column; even Susan Schwartz remembered Decca in her Press Democrat offering. The family will be collecting similar clips from other newspapers worldwide, and it's sure to be a fat scrapbook when done. (Karen Leonard, Decca's assistant and researcher, has a collection at the Funeral and Memorial Society web site.)
Many of these esteemed scribblers wrote of her courage; many also described her grace, a product of her aristocratic upbringing. Here's a personal story that combines both aspects:
When Decca accepted my offer of a ride to the undertaker's convention last autumn, she did not know that she would be a passenger in a 15 year-old diesel Volkswagen Rabbit -- a car that makes a Yugo seem both sporty and sensibly safe. Besides the generally rust-pocked state, a careful eye might also note that the windshield was inexpertly glued in, with ugly black goo smeared thickly around the edges. There were also smitches of lichen growing here and there, an organic addition that seemed appropriate in West County, yet strangely out of place at the curb next to her neighbor's gleaming BMW. Decca paused when she first saw my goo-and-lichenmobile waiting for her. "Oh, what a darling little car," she lied.
Of course, what she really meant was, "Ohmigod, what a tiny unsafe deathtrap," but Decca would never say something like that. Nor did she complain about the shaking or noise as my little car rattled its way from her Oakland home to Tiberon, then back again a few days later. And to be polite, I pretended not to notice how she clutched at the door handles during turns, as if this delicate 78 year-old was prepared to spring from the moving vehicle as soon as the inevitable disaster loomed.
Once her profile was finished, Decca was anxious to read it. Only there was one little obstacle: She had no personal computer in her home, and thus no Internet access. I encouraged her to visit a mutual and 'net-savvy friend who lived nearby, but Decca insisted that she could only read it on paper. Couldn't I just fax her a copy?
Sorry, but no, I said; the feature was the size of a slim book, and besides, the narrative was presented in hypertext -- not the sort of thing that one could follow on paper. Decca persisted, and finally my co-author printed her a copy of the entire thing. Early the next morning came a fax from Decca:
Laura McCreery did the most saintlike thing: she printed out the WHOLE huge Dec ploy, so now I've actually got the amazing effort in readable form.
I'm overwhelmed by what you've done. How on earth in such a short time did you a) manage to choke down all that huge amt of material, b) get it all in such v.v. good order? Plus interviewing all those people. Totally overawing. I wish you'd write my new book; it wld only take you a few days, at the rate you go.
It was laden with her typical flattery, of course, yet with the caustic undertone: "readable form" isn't too far removed from her sweet remarks about my "darling" car.
But Decca was most definitely interested in this Internet-thing. Listening again to the interview tapes I'm struck by how often she almost seemed to be interviewing me. Some of it was to dodge answering personal questions, yes, and also some was simply coquettish flatter, a skill that Decca used often to charm strangers. But mostly she wanted to know details about publishing the Albion Monitor. How exactly did it work? How many people could read it? And would I explain that "World Wide Web" concept again, please?
During one dinner conversation, we discussed advertising and its impact on the media. Decca saw nothing wrong with ads, and even told a funny little story about her days at Ramparts, a magazine that produced some of the finest investigative journalism during the 1960's:
When Ramparts was in its heyday, I offered to sell ads for them. I had some letterhead printed up to show that I was a bona fide ad salesman, but I had very little luck, and I tried everything. Howard Gossage, who was sort of the guru of the mad fellows who were running that, [had the] idea to put my mother's island up for sale... that every issue of Ramparts would have the whole back page advertising the island. And if it sold, they would spend the next year running the exact same ad, but with 'Sold Through a Ramparts Ad!' written over it.
The moral of her tale was direct: if a pinko rag like Ramparts would peddle ads, why wouldn't I? We (politely) argued about this the rest of the evening. My position was that it was a devil's dilemma: Advertisers would demand more and more bang for their buck.
And as I've since described in a May editorial, this has come to pass. Mega-advertisers like Proctor & Gamble now pay for only "clickthrough" ads -- according to how many people actually select their ad and visit the P&G site. Some businesses are making deals with companies like Yahoo to aquire the rights to display corporate banners whenever anyone searches for words associated with their company.
The moral of my story is equally direct. The Internet won't follow the (relatively) genteel and passive model of newspaper advertising; it will be more like the aggressive style of television, but accelerated -- like everything else in the evolution of the 'net -- a hundredfold.
I also predicted to Decca that corporations will start censoring or influencing the content of web pages sponsored under their logo. That hasn't happened -- yet. Or at least, as far as I know.
I can't say how much Decca really understood about the Internet. In the months following the profile, I happily researched a few topics to help her with the new book. Through the 'net I prowled the computers at the Security and Exchange Commission and a few other agencies, dutifully faxing off summaries of what was found. And back came her thank-you faxes, signed "Love, Decca." The woman had flattery nailed.
I 'd like to think that through me, she had some vision of what the Internet offered, or at least, what it could become. I'm extraordinarily proud of that, too, and so Decca is part of two happy adventures from 1995.
Jessica Mitford -- or better, Dec Treuhaft -- was among our century's most important journalists, activists, and writers. All in one. It's our loss that she's gone; it's our loss that she didn't have the time to explore what the Internet could offer someone of her caliber.
But most of all, the loss is personal; as I heard echoed in the remarks from dozens of others at her wake last Monday, I'm not alone in missing her spirit, her courage, her wit, and, yes, even her gentle (and often transparent) flattery.
Would that more of us could have some measure of that spirit, that courage, that wit. Although I barely knew her, goddamit, I miss her. Read our profile; read her books. And even if you never met Decca, I'll bet you'll find that you miss her, too.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
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