Monday, October 29, 2012

Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, 1: Star-Crossed Lovers


Wait for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Off somewhere a bell will toll mournfully with a low, cheerless sound.  Outside all will be gloomy and sodden. Now begin reading this sad tale of love and loss a lifetime ago.
 It opens in 1915 in PortlandOregon. Louise Bryant, a bored homemaker with aspirations of becoming a poet and writer, is married to a dentist. With husband Paul Trullinger, she shares an unconventional home--a rented houseboat on the Willamette River. She is independent enough to keep her maiden name and have a separate studio in the city.
She had heard about Jack Reed long before they met. Louise had diligently sold subscriptions to The Masses, the magazine edited by Max Eastman to which Jack Reed was a contributor.
A Harvard graduate, Reed was a dashing war correspondent. In 1914, he covered Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Villa affectionately called him "Chatito" (pug nose). Reed was a big, burly bear of a man, six feet tall, large-boned and lanky, with green eyes and a mop of curly red hair.
Reed had come home to Portland on a visit, speaking at luncheons and teas in his honor. It was inevitable that they should meet. At the time he was deep in a romance with wealthy Mabel Dodge but anxious to escape from her clutches. Louise and Jack met secretly until he was assigned to cover the European war on the eastern front in Serbia and Russia. They pledged their love, and Reed promised to come back to her in a year.
He returned to Portland at Christmastime in 1915, and they renewed their trysts. It was obvious to everyone in their circle that they were hopelessly in love. In a letter to Sally Robinson, wife of the artist who had toured the eastern front with Reed, he was ecstatic about Louise:
"I have fallen in love again, and think I have found her at last. She’s two years younger than I.” [She was actually two years older.] Reed added, "She's wild and brave and straight, and graceful and lovely to look at." He admitted she was "the first person I've ever loved without mental reservations."
Louise decided she would leave her devoted husband of six years. Wearing the small bunch of violets her husband gave her, she boarded a train in Portland two days before New Year's Eve. When her train pulled into Grand Central Terminal in New York City on January 4, 1916, Jack Reed was waiting. He had rented a room for her in his building on Washington Square South in Greenwich Village, but she never occupied it. Instead, she moved into his apartment.

Young and Beautiful
      Roger Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union for thirty years, described her as "striking--of course young and beautiful in a very pure sort of way, not made up at all, and with a lot of courage needed to swim against the tide politically. Her hair was dark, her eyes gray-blue, Irish, changing."
Louise went to work as an assistant on The Masses. Dorothy Day, who later founded the Catholic Worker movement, also worked there. The staff, mostly male, were jealous of Louise, Day noted. "She had no right to have brains and be so pretty. They were constantly minimizing her."
Jack Reed finally made the break with Mabel Dodge. Early one evening the doorbell rang at Reed's apartment. Louise, holding a lighted candle, opened the door.
"Is Jack Reed here?" the woman caller asked.
Reed appeared and recognized Mabel Dodge. He introduced the two women.
 "Reed,” Mabel said, “I came to ask you for your old typewriter, if you're not using it."
"Louise is using it," Jack told her.
"Oh, all right, I only thought. . . ." Mabel's voice trailed off. She turned and left, her curiosity satisfied about her successor to Jack’s affection.
Despite living openly with Louise, Jack Reed could not resist the temptation of an occasional affair. He admitted to five in the first 18 months of their relationship.
For her part, perhaps as retribution, she was not above an occasional dalliance. She saw painter Andrew Dasburg, who walked with a slight limp, when Jack was out of town.
When Jack and Louise went to Provincetown on Cape Cod for the summer, she succumbed to the dark Irish appeal of a rising new talent, Eugene O'Neill. After all, they were practicing free love--sexual relations without marriage or formal obligations.

To Croton
      Tired of Greenwich Village’s round of parties and radical politics and desirous of finding a place where they could get some work done, Jack and Louise went house hunting in Croton-on-Hudson. Mabel Dodge and Max Eastman had found weekend homes there. Masses artist Boardman Robinson and his wife Sally had bought a house next to Max Eastman’s.
Louise described Croton as "quiet and peaceful and happy," a place they could "work out here uninterrupted, and play in town." She told Jack, "We can't put off real work year after year." By the end of October, they had found a house for sale, a white cottage with black shutters, the same one Mabel Dodge had rented before deciding to lease Finney Farm.
Jack had always had problems with an impaired kidney. When it became obvious that major surgery would be necessary, they decided to get married. Louise insisted on secrecy because the July 7 divorce from her dentist husband would not become final for six months.
She later recalled their November 9 wedding in a memoir: "That year [1916] he suffered terribly and was ordered to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He said to me, 'Well, honey, I think we'll have to get married, because I might die, and there seems to be a good chance that I will, and I want you to have everything I've got.’"

      Louise misremembered the name of the city, thinking it was Poughkeepsie. It was Peekskill, an error perpetuated in the Croton Historical Society’s official 1976 history, which also gets the year wrong. It was 1916, not 1917. The date was November 9.
"We were married at the little city hall,” Louise wrote. “The clerk, sitting in his shirt sleeves, called to someone in the other room, 'Come in here, Bill, and get another witness.' So they all stood up and mumbled a few words, we signed our names, and the clerk handed me my wedding certificate, saying, 'Hang on to this, lady, you may need it some day.'"
She gave her age as 26 but she was actually 31. He was 29. Louise’s sole insecurity was her age. She repeatedly fibbed about it.
Three days after their marriage, Jack left for Baltimore, where his diseased kidney was removed. Louise was suddenly stricken with a mysterious illness and returned to the city to be treated by Greenwich Village's favorite gynecologist, rotund, Polish-born Dr. Harry Lorber. The gossip was that she was suffering from a botched abortion and the father was Eugene O'Neill.
In 1917, Jack’s antiwar activities kept him away from Croton in May. Louise went to Provincetown to spend a week with O’Neill. When Jack returned to an empty house in Croton and discovered where she was, he sent her a cryptic telegram. "Peach tree blooming and wrens have taken their house," it said. She returned immediately.

Reporting the War
Jack confessed to having had affairs while he was away. A blowup ensued. Louise concluded that a separation would do them both good. She decided to go toFrance to cover the war. Boardman Robinson got her credentials from the newly formed Bell Syndicate.
She sailed alone for Europe through submarine-infested waters on the French liner Espagne in June, while Jack remained and buried himself in work for the New York Evening Mail, which was secretly German-owned.
Louise demonstrated remarkable zeal in pursuing stories but was frustrated because the French had closed the front to female journalists and she could only gather material behind the lines. She managed to get to the front briefly. When American troops arrived, she was the only reporter present, and the soldiers greeted her with delight.
On her return to the States in August, Jack, in a white Shantung suit and Panama hat, was at the dock to meet her with surprising news: They’d both be leaving for Russia in four days. 
New York City was experiencing a heat wave in August of 1917 as Jack and Louise rushed to get ready to travel to Russia to cover the impending revolution.
Shopping for clothes that would carry them through a Russian winter was especially difficult.
Louise managed to wangle new credentials from the Bell Syndicate for her to cover the revolution “from a woman’s point of view.”  
A clerk at the passport office confiscated their passports. A socialist peace conference was scheduled in Stockholm and the U.S. State Department wanted to keep American radicals from attending. The downcast duo returned to the Hotel Brevoort. The next morning Louise went early to the passport office and vamped the clerk into returning the passports.

Off to Russia
They sailed on the Danish steamer New York for Christiana (Oslo). At HalifaxNova Scotia, the ship was delayed for a week by British counterespionage officials who removed many Russian exiles eager to return to the mother country.
Jack was carrying a number of documents sure to cause trouble--letters from American socialists to Russian counterparts plus an invitation to the upcoming peace conference in Stockholm. He hid these papers under the rug in the cabin and diverted the searches of the officers by sharing a bottle of Scotch with them.
Arrival in Norway was followed by an arduous 18-hour train trip to Stockholm, where they learned that the peace conference had been postponed.
“After we left Stockholm my own curiosity grew every hour,” Louise would later write. “As our train rushed on through the vast, untouched forests of northern Sweden I could scarcely contain myself. Soon I should see how this greatest and youngest of all democracies was learning to walk— to stretch itself— to field its strength— unshackled!”
They crossed into Finland near the Arctic Circle after a week’s delay waiting for visas. Another slow train ride south through Finland was marked by frequent stops by soldiers.

In Petrograd
Bryant found the capital, Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg), the magnificent city designed by French and Italian architects and built by Peter the Great, “impressive, vast and solid.” Compared to its buildings, New York had “a sort of tall flimsiness.”
She wrote, “The rugged strength of Peter the Great is in all the broad streets, the mighty open spaces, the great canals curving through the city, the rows and rows of palaces and the immense façades of government buildings.”
Jack had seen the capital two years before when he covered in the Eastern front with artist and Croton neighbor Boardman Robinson and wrote excitedly to him:
“The old town has changed! Joy where there was gloom, and gloom where there was joy.  We’re in the middle of things, and believe me it is thrilling. There is so much dramatic to write about that I don’t know where to begin.”
Reed’s timing of their arrival in the late summer of 1917 could not have been better. The war had been a series of disasters for the Russians. In the first year of the war Russia lost a million men. Poorly equipped and incompetently led, outmatched Russian troops were defeated in battle after battle.
By the end of 1916, czarist rule had become decidedly unpopular. Mutinies broke out at the front and in barracks back home. Strikes and mass demonstrations were widespread. Shortages, particularly of food, were common, and prices soared with the inevitable inflation.
Workers formed committees, called soviets (a Russian word meaning “council”), in factories and urban neighborhoods. Discontent was widespread.
The czar abdicated on March 15, 1917, and a provisional government under Aleksandr Kerensky was formed.
The new provisional government, unable to reach a decision about continuing the war, faced enormous obstacles. A radical putsch by conservatives was quickly defeated July, spurring those on the left seek more radical solutions.

Jack and Louise were present when Vladimir Lenin, who had been hiding in Finland, secretly re-entered the capital on October 23, disguised in a wig and false beard. The October Revolution was triggered by the Kerensky government’s shutdown of Bolshevik newspapers. It was over quickly in Petrograd with surprisingly little bloodshed. 
Only two days, October 24 and 25, were needed to achieve the easily accomplished victory. Resistance by government troops was virtually nonexistent. A total of six men were killed in Petrograd--all insurgents.
Women's Battalion Defending the Palace in Petrograd.
On October 25, Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Committee proclaimed the overthrow of Kerensky’s provisional government. In contrast to Petrograd, in Moscow there was heavy resistance. The pro-Soviet forces were victors, but at an enormous cost. Of the total of 800 dead, 500 were Red Guards and soldiers.
Jack and Louise were part of a large army of correspondents from all parts of the globe eagerly seeking information about the changes taking place in the vast Russian Empire. News-gathering was no easy task.
Fearing inevitable counterrevolutionary activity, passes were issued and repeatedly checked by the many provisional government departments and committees, creating a bureaucratic nightmare.
Reed and Bryant interviewed many of the leading participants including Kerensky, Lenin and Trotsky. Louise made sure they interviewed Nadezhda Krupskaya, Nicolai Lenin’s wife, Alexandra Kollontay, the novelist and educator, Marie Spirodonova, the diminutive  revolutionary heroine, and Catherine Breshkovsky, known as the “Grandmother of the Revolution.”
Reed gathered up every document, leaflet and newspaper article for reproduction in the book he would title Ten Days That Shook the World. He also translated and wrote down the words of every printed speech he acquired.
The result was a tremendously valuable combination of reportage and documentation. He intended the material to be the basis of the first volume in a massive series on Russian history.
On the other hand, Louisa’s approach was more journalistic and totally professional. She not only recorded events but interpreted and commented on them. Her dispatches painted a compelling word picture of everyday life at the eye of the revolutionary storm.
Describing a city in which the streetcars no longer ran, Louise wrote, “People walked great stretches without a murmur and the life of the city went on as usual. It would have upset New York completely, especially if it happened as in Petrograd that while the streetcars were stopped, lights and water also were turned off and it was almost impossible to get fuel to keep warm.”
Nevertheless, the Russians exhibited a remarkable calm, even keeping the theatres open. “The Nevsky after midnight was as amusing and interesting as Fifth Avenue in the afternoon. The cafés had nothing to serve but weak tea and sandwiches but they were always full.
Men and women wear what they please. At one table would be sitting a soldier with his fur hat pulled over his ear, across from him a Red Guard in rag-tags, next a Cossack in a gold and black uniform, earrings in his ears, silver chains around his neck, or a man from the Wild Division, recruited from one of the most savage tribes in the Caucasus, wearing his sombre, flowing cape.”
Louise’s Christmas present to Reed was a poem expressing her joy at being with him. It read, in part:

            It is fine to be here in the North
            With you on Christmas
            In a land where they really believe
            In peace on earth
            And miracles.

Her poem concluded with:

            What I want most to tell you
            Is that I love you
            And I want more than anything
            To have you stay strong and clear-visioned
            In all this world madness . . .
            You are the finest person I know
            On both sides of the world
            And it is a nice privilege to be your comrade.

Home Again
      Jack and Louise returned to Greenwich Village three months apart and set to work assembling their notes and dispatches into books. His book was an account of Russian history in the making. Her book, Six Red Months in Russia, remains to this day an insightful picture of everyday life at every level during the early days of the revolution.
Louise’s book, based on her dispatches from Russia, appeared first. Published by George H. Doran in 1919, it was well-received by reviewers.
Jack’s voluminous work would not be published by Boni & Liveright until 1920 but would become a classic. Still in print, scholars still find it invaluable for its reportage and ample documentation.
Despite their joint successes at home, both Jack and Louise itched to return to a Russia where so much was still happening. They would journey there separately in 1920 on a final fatal adventure.

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