Saturday, October 06, 2012

Max Eastman: A Life of Paradoxes


Mabel Dodge was one of the first bohemians to venture north to Croton from Greenwich Village. Next to arrive was Max Eastman, radical journalist, prolific writer and romantic poet. Years later he would become the best known American intellectual to move across the political spectrum from far left to extreme right.
In 1915, Eastman and his wife Ida Rauh were living in a sixth-floor walk-up on Charles Street in Greenwich Village when Mabel Dodge invited them to spend a week in the little white cottage she had rented on Mt. Airy Road in Croton.
Eastman, a former graduate student and instructor in philosophy at Columbia, had married the beautiful and intelligent Ida in 1911. A son, Daniel, was born the following year, but by 1915 the marriage was foundering.

A Converted Cider Mill
Eastman, a country boy at heart, was attracted to a house in Croton and bought it, paying $20 against the purchase price of $1,500. Because the previous owner had died and the heirs were scattered, preparation of a deed took time. The agent encouraged Max to move in; he took possession on October 6, 1915.
In his autobiography he later described how he "bought with my own money--and my father's--a tiny house and barn at the crest of Mt. Airy Road in Croton. The house had four small rooms, one of which I turned into a bathroom, and it had an uncovered porch."
Max could now regularly visit Mabel Dodge at her cottage further along Mt. Airy Road, although he had no romantic interest in her. He also ventured down to Harmon, where friends Eugen Boissevain, a Dutch importer, and his beautiful wife, suffragist Inez Mulholland, were living in the late Lillian Nordica's house on what is now Alexander Lane. Here they took care of Crown Prince, a famous racing stallion belonging to her father.
Max’s newly acquired house stood very close to the road, he recalled, "so that its front steps were almost like a horse block. But you could go around to the back porch and look down through a wild tangle of trees to the river."

The Osage Orange Tree
"Beside the porch, and overarching it almost like a roof, was an Osage orange tree some twenty feet high, the only one I ever saw in our part of the world.  I got Philip Schnell, Croton's good-natured carpenter, whose benignly keen smile was as satisfying as the work he did, to make me a long oak dining table, heavy enough to live the year round outdoors on that roofless porch.
"When weather permitted, the porch was the dining room, and the catbirds would come and eat butter out of the dish in front of us. Philip told me my house was the second oldest in Croton, and showed me how strangely it was built, with yellow clapboards outside and papered plaster walls inside, but between them a concealed solid wall of brick.
"For further isolation, I had him fix me up a little study in the barn. And below the Osage orange tree I carved out from my rough acre of land an excellent tennis court--a little short for professionals, but with plenty of room for a hot game by first-class amateurs.”
The house, at 70 Mt. Airy Road, later was bought by Dr. and Mrs. Daniel B. Salzberg, who added a second story. The venerable Osage orange tree survived until 1997, when it was blown down in a storm.

America’s Most Famous Radical
Max Forrester Eastman was born in upstate New York in 1883, the son of two Congregational ministers. His mother, the first woman to become an ordained Congregational minister in New York, was assistant pastor at Elmira’s prestigious Park Church, and was asked to conduct Mark Twain’s funeral service.
Max Eastman was the imaginative and creative editor of The Masses, a combative mix of art and politics, for five years. Founded in 1911 by Piet Vlag, a bearded Dutchman more interested in consumer cooperatives than in social revolution or art, and financed by Rufus Weeks, an insurance executive. Weeks soon withdrew his backing. Lacking adequate financing, The Masses ceased publication in August 1912.
The magazine’s desperate editorial board sent Eastman a brief note scribbled a sheet of paper to notify him of his appointment: "You are elected editor of The Masses. No pay," was all it said.
From the December1912 issue to 1917, The Masses was the focal point of everything that was alive--or irreverent--in American culture. With Eastman as its shrewd and perceptive editor, it featured brilliant artists and cartoonists like John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor and Art Young, and gifted writers like John Reed, Sherwood Anderson and Floyd Dell. Subsidized by wealthy patrons charmed by Eastman, the magazine became a genuine force in the radical movement.

File:Max Eastman.jpg
   Max Forrester Eastman, the young Adonis who became 
editor of The Masses.

Death of The Masses
With war hysteria at its height in August of 1917, the New York postmaster rescinded the magazine's mailing privileges. Without access to the mails, The Masses could not survive on newsstand sales alone. When the unsalable material was finally identified in court, it turned out to be two mild editorials and a half-dozen innocuous cartoons. Judge Learned Hand ruled for The Masses, but the forced interruption in publication had indeed made it unmailable. The last issue of The Masses was dated November-December 1917.
Simultaneously, Eastman and six of the staff were indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act for conspiring to obstruct the draft. Jack Reed was in Russia and another defendant had fled to Mexico. The indictment against poet Josephine Bell was dismissed after it was shown that she did not know any of her alleged co-conspirators.
Undaunted, Eastman and his brainy and beautiful sister Crystal, also a Croton resident, began a successor magazine, The Liberator, with a first issue date of March 1918. Its circulation grew to 60,000, double that of The Masses, but it lacked its predecessor’s lightheartedness.
Trial of the four remaining Masses defendants began in April of 1918 and lasted nine days, resulting in a hung jury. A second trial began in October, enhanced now by the colorful presence of Reed, back from Russia.
With the original attorneys unavailable, Eastman became the lead speaker for the defense. His three-hour extemporaneous summation was masterly. Again, the result was a hung jury. The government wisely decided to forgo a third trial. Besides, the war was almost over, and the charges were moot.

To the Soviet Union
Divorced from Ida Rauh in 1922, Eastman sailed to Genoa, Italy, to attend a 29-nation conference to solve world problems. There he met charming and flirtatious Eliena Krylenko, secretary to Soviet Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov.
Later that year he traveled to the Soviet Union to inspect the Bolshevism he had been praising from a distance but also in pursuit of Miss Krylenko. In the almost two years he spent in the new nation, he became friendly with Leon Trotsky and strongly supportive of him.
Unable to leave Russia because his passport had expired (the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet Union), Max married Eliena Kylenko in 1924. He described it as "a marriage of convenience," but it would last 32 years until her death in 1956. Her connections enabled the couple to leave for Europe, where he continued to write about the Russian revolution.
After an absence of five years, Max returned to America in 1927 with his Russian wife. He also brought with him the manuscript of a novel titled Venture about the formative years of radicalism between 1910 and 1917.
Critics liked its robustness; Mabel Dodge loved it because the hero, reminiscent of Jack Reed, had a love affair with "a wise and charming woman”--a thinly disguised character much like herself. The taste-setting New York Times Book Review called Venture “a novel of ideas that stands well above the majority.”
Max Eastman returned to the U.S. with a growing awareness of Stalin’s vicious cruelty and bitterly destructive policies. After Lenin died, his presumptive heir, Leon Trotsky, whom Eastman had befriended, was bypassed and expelled from the Communist Party. Later exiled from Russia, Trotsky would be murdered in Mexico in 1940 by an assassin employed by Stalin.
A series of Eastman books in the 30s and 40s questioning communism and Marxism reflected his disillusionment with the Russian experiment, making him a pariah and the object of attacks from the left.

Two Literary Titans
Eastman would have many literary and political scraps in print, but it was a physical scuffle with Ernest Hemingway in 1937 that captured the public’s attention.
Hemingway was unhappy with Eastman because of Max’s review of Death in the Afternoon four years earlier. Max hated bullfighting and titled his review, "Bull in the Afternoon."
He accused Hemingway of emphasizing his masculinity and creating "a veritable school of fiction writers--a literary style, you might say, of wearing false hair on the chest." Hemingway saw this as an attack on his manhood. Eastman wrote a note to Hemingway assuring him this was not so.
About to embark for Loyalist Spain, a still-angry Hemingway encountered Eastman in the office of Scribner’s legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. Hemingway acknowledged him with a friendly greeting but then demanded angrily, "What do you mean accusing me of impotence?” He opened his shirt to reveal a hairy chest.
Eastman produced a copy of his book Art and the Life of Action in which the essay had been reprinted to show Hemingway he had misread the review. Hemingway responded by shoving the book in Eastman's face.
Max was no boxer but he could wrestle. He grabbed Ernest by the throat and threw him--or backed him up--over Perkins's desk and pinned him with both shoulders touching the floor. Hemingway patted Eastman's shoulder as if to signal defeat and got up. No sooner on his feet, however, he cursed Max and challenged him to meet him "in the ring."
Hemingway was famous for his drunken belligerence and for sucker-punching opponents with an unexpected blow. Eastman ignored this, and a cursing Hemingway strode from the office.
Local newspapers called it a split decision. The World-Telegram and the Post gave the nod to Eastman. The Post headline read, "Unimportance of Being Ernest Hemingway Shown, When Eastman Unbeards a Chest." Its story concluded with a quip: "Mr. Eastman is planning an article to be entitled "The Enjoyment of Thrashing Ernest." The Times and Herald Tribune were in Ernest's corner.
Hemingway claimed that Eastman, sixteen years his senior, clawed at him like a woman, and that he had used only enough force to subdue him. Editor Perkins later complimented Eastman for "acting magnificently" in handling the situation.

A Generous Tribute
Still smarting over his opponent's account of the affair, when the troubled Hemingway committed suicide in 1961 Eastman wrote magnanimously about him:
"You can't ask everything of one man, and I find Ernest's triumph over fear, his scorn for the petty big-city, big-celebrity life he might have lived in New York as a well-advertised literateur, his bold honesty in expressing his dissent from mollycoddle standards, and the superb style in which he often expressed it--I find these things a joy and an inspiration. I think sometimes in reading him of Walt Whitman's great lines: 'This is no book--who touches it touches a man.’”
The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 put the capstone on Eastman's disillusionment with Stalinism and Marxism. He produced two openly hostile books in 1940, Stalin's Russia and the Crisis in Socialism and Marxism: Is It Science? Critic Edmund Wilson hailed them as presenting "the most intelligent and searching as well as the best-informed discussion of the implications of the Marxist movement and the development of the Revolution in Russia."

Don Juan Eastman
Eastman had been conflicted about sex in his early years. After an affair with his sister-in-law Rosalind Fuller while still married to Ida Rauh, he quickly made up for lost time. Even into his seventies, he had many love affairs, sometimes carrying on several simultaneously. He indiscreetly recorded these conquests in his memoirs to the chagrin of partners he openly identified.
For women, a love affair with Max followed a usual pattern: a chance meeting, avid attention, bombardment with romantic love letters and poems, until eventual surrender. After a brief period, Max would lose interest, grow distant and trysts would cease. Even so, many former lovers remained on good terms with him.
A stormy and tempestuous relationship with ambitious young movie actress Florence Deshon ended tragically in 1922. While away from Max, Florence openly had an affair with Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood. This gave her film career a boost. But once movie makers learned that Chaplin had lost interest in her, offers of roles dried up.

   Max Eastman meets Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood. Both were lovers 
 of actress Florence Deshon.

Back in New York and unsuccessful in finding roles on Broadway, she was found unconscious in the bedroom of her apartment with illuminating gas pouring from an unlit fixture. At St. Vincent's Hospital, Max gave her a blood transfusion, but she could not be saved. He was so remorseful he was unable to attend her funeral. The coroner ruled it an accidental death.
A tall, strikingly handsome man, Max was openly vain about his looks, his swimming ability and his skill at tennis. In Paris he had marched through the streets during a Beaux Arts ball bronzed like an American Indian and wearing nothing but a jockstrap.
Despite his many casual affairs, Max Eastman was inherently a highly moral person, retaining the residual Puritanism of the era and his upbringing as the son of ministers. He disliked obscene or even risqué language in books or conversation.

Max Eastman’s Dark Side
Max was never comfortable around children. His first wife's pregnancy was one of his principal grievances against her. Their divorce gave her sole custody, and Max did not see his son Daniel for 23 years. The boy grew up never knowing his father and never forgave him for deserting him.
Daniel Eastman married twice, but both marriages failed. By the age of 29, he had already tried four different careers. More jobs followed. An alcoholic, he was writing a book at the time of his death in 1969.
      When Max's widowed sister Crystal died unexpectedly of nephritis in the summer of 1928, she left two small orphaned children. Instead of taking them in, Max selfishly found foster homes for them.

The Eastmans Leave Croton
Max landed a job with CBS in 1938 as the moderator of a radio show, "The Word Game." Although it lasted only five months, the income enabled Max and Eliena to buy a hilltop at Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard and eventually erect a house there. They would retain their Croton home until the early 1940s.
In 1941, his agent suggested that he write an article about his mother for the Reader's Digest feature "My Most Unforgettable Character." DeWitt Wallace, the magazine's publisher, liked Eastman's piece and suggested that he write more.
Eastman wrote an essay blandly titled "Socialism and Human Nature." When it was published, however, the title had been changed by Digest editors to "Socialism Does Not Gibe with Human Nature."
The article was glowingly endorsed by Wall Street lawyer and unsuccessful 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Even though Eastman wrote nothing he had not written before, the liberal left reviled him as a turncoat.
Eventually, he became a roving editor for the Digest, writing pretty much as he pleased. Publisher DeWitt Wallace offered him an annual retainer of $10,000 in return for a first option on anything Max might write, plus the standard Digest fee. Although they had no written contract and Max's article output was meager, to his credit Wallace honored the agreement for the rest of Max's life and even gave his widow a pension.
Eliena Eastman developed cancer and died at their home on Martha's Vineyard in 1956. Two years later, at 75, Max Eastman married Yvette Szekely, a much younger woman he had met years before when she was a teenager.
He wrote 86 books, had uncounted lovers (but failed to seduce Edna St. Vincent Millay) and remained vigorous to the end. While wintering on the island of Barbados, a massive stroke in March of 1969 ended Max Eastman's life of paradoxes at the age of 86.

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