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Socialite Style

December 21, 2006 By:
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A ridiculous coupling of subjects occurred in the "Style" section of The New York Times on Oct. 29. For some reason, this department, which seems dedicated to scraping together as much fluff as can be found in the world, has decided to run a weekly book review. Neither of these pursuits is objectionable -- either devotion to peddling fluff or reviewing books -- but sometimes, combining them can lead to odd pronouncements.

For the most part, the book reviews haven't been intellectually challenging: assessments of coffee-table books on fashion or jewelry or the history of pocketbooks, which is understandable for a section called "Style."

The reviewer each week has been Liesl Schillinger, a frequent contributor to the Times Book Review, where she shows a great deal of flair. In the "Style" reviews, she seems, instead, to be indulging her tawdry side.

On the date in question, she reviewed two books, as is the custom. The first was House of Hilton: From Conrad to Paris by Jerry Oppenheimer; the other was Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y. Sussman.

Oppenheimer, according to Schillinger, spills all the dirt about Paris Hilton and her parents, all of whom sound like mental cases.

But putting these present-day Hiltons in the same boat as the Mitfords is what skews the review so badly -- and not without serious consequences. Here is the reviewer's transition from one family to the next: "The Hilton heirs may sound like a handful, but their escapades lack the inventive genius of the British Mitford sisters, who captured international headlines for much of the 20th century."

For example, Unity Mitford, who idolized Hitler, shot herself when England declared war on Germany. Diana first married the beer heir Bryan Guinness, but left him for Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Nancy was the famous novelist of Love in a Cold Climate, who's described as "cruel"

There were two other sisters who Schillinger doesn't touch on, in addition to Jessica, whose nickname was "Decca." In reaction to her privileged background and her sisters' excesses, Decca became a fervent Communist, ran off to fight in the Spanish Civil War when she was 19, and then, after moving with her British husband to America, became a crusading journalist best known for her book on the funeral industry, The American Way of Death.

Even though Schillinger tries her best to make a division between Paris Hilton and Decca Mitford, she doesn't really attempt to make the latter look less madcap and gay than the former. She stresses Decca's lifelong commitment to social justice and quotes portions of her letters that make the writer seem a modern-day wit. What she doesn't get into is the fact that Decca was a terrible apologist for the murderous Stalinist regime -- one of those cultured Westerners who convinced scads of intellectuals that communism was the shining light of the 20th century, all of which puts her in a completely different class from those wags the Hiltons.

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