Monday, November 19, 2012

Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, 3: A Fatal Journey


      Before Jack Reed could undertake a return trip to Russia in 1919, there were several matters that needed attention. Back home, the Socialist Party he had joined upon his return from Russia in 1918 was riven by dissension. 
      A foreign-language-speaking, mostly immigrant group led by Louis Fraina felt a kinship with the Russian Bolsheviks and called for the immediate organization of an American Communist Party. A rival centrist group, led by Benjamin Gitlow, proposed making the existing Socialist Party more revolutionary and to become the Communist Labor Party. 
      Jack Reed cast his lot with Gitlow, no longer in the majority. At the Socialist Party’s convention in Chicago in September of 1919 the two hostile groups remained poles apart.

False Papers
      When Jack heard that Louis Fraina was on his way to Moscow, he became convinced that he should hasten there himself. Although he was under surveillance by theU.S. government, he arranged to be hired as a stoker on a Swedish freighter by using forged seaman’s papers bearing the name "Jim Gormley.”
To reach Moscow it would be necessary to pass through regions torn by civil war. Nevertheless, Jack was convinced he could make the round trip quickly and be home in three short months.
The crossing was slow and the work of firing the boilers of a steamship was tiring. Jack jumped ship when the vessel reached BergenNorway. Local socialists took him to Christiania (now Oslo), where he learned troubling news from Russia.
Things were going badly for the Red Army. A White Army was approaching Petrograd from the Baltic. Another force pushing up from the south was within 250 miles of Moscow.
Reed was able to travel in Scandinavia and Russia only because a sort of Bolshevik underground railway existed, composed of friendly radical sympathizers. Making his way to Stockholm in Sweden, he was smuggled aboard a ship crossing the Baltic and brought to a safe house near Helsinki, in Finland, where he spent two restless weeks.
Traveling by sleigh and on foot through the subarctic landscape he reached Petrograd, which was no longer the capital. (In the spring of 1918 the Soviet government had moved to Moscow.) His mission was to plead for recognition of the Communist Labor Party, and he hurried to Moscow.
It soon became obvious that a quick decision would not be made. Eventually, the Bolshevik government recommended that a convention be held and that both competing American Communist parties be merged.
Although he was facing trial and probable imprisonment in the U.S., Jack decided to leave Russia in early February of 1920 and return home. The first attempt ended in failure in Latvia because of civil clashes. His second attempt was an absolute disaster. Carrying concealed diamonds and money provided by the Bolshevik government to aid the Communist cause in the U.S., he hid in the engine room of a freighter at the port of Abo. Reed was quickly discovered by Finnish customs agents and sent to jail.
Charged with smuggling, he was held in jail at the request of an American government unhappy with his radical activities. After almost three months in solitary confinement, Jack was permitted to return to Russia by way of Estonia. He caught a ferry in Helsinki for the short trip across the Gulf of Finland.
Because Louise was under surveillance in the U.S., in a carefully worded cable from Tallinn (formerly Revel), the capital, he wrote, “Temporarily returning headquarters. Come if possible,” and boarded a train for Petrograd. Louise understood the message.

Reunion with Jack
      First, she obtained press credentials from Hearst’s International News Service. Knowing she would be denied a passport, she quietly made preparations to smuggle herself illegally out of the U.S. Posing as the wife of a Swedish businessman, she embarked from New York aboard a Swedish steamer and arrived in Gothenburg, Sweden, on August 11.
Radical friends advised her to avoid traveling in Finland and to enter Russia by sea. She reached Narvik, an ice-free port in Norway inside the Arctic Circle, by train. There she found fishermen willing to bring her along the rugged coast in stages to the Russian port of Murmansk, a dangerous destination because it was in Allied hands.
In the meantime, Jack Reed had attended the Second Congress of the Communist International (the Comintern), known as the Third International, in Moscow, but was disappointed. Instead of continuing to foster the idea of world revolution, its focus was on solidifying the control of the Bolshevik party in Russia.
Unfortunately, Jack was not in Moscow when Louise arrived. He was attending a conference of the Peoples of the East at Baku, on the Western shore of the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus.
Jack and Louise did not reunite in Moscow until September 15. Louise later wrote, “We were terribly happy to find each other.” He seemed “older and sadder and grown strangely gentle.” His clothes were in rags and his flesh hung loosely on his big frame.
Ten days after returning from Baku Jack began to feel ill, complaining of dizziness and sharp headaches. A Russian doctor mistakenly diagnosed the illness as influenza. After five days the symptoms grew worse and he became delirious. Jack was moved to Moscow’s Mariinsky Hospital, where his condition was diagnosed as typhus.
Friends scoured the city for medicine. Because of the Allied blockade of Russian ports, medical supplies were scarce and nothing could be found. Louise sat at his bedside around the clock to comfort him. Soon it became difficult for him to swallow, and his body slowly began to waste away. Peasant nurses slipped off to a chapel to burn candles for his recovery.
In the early hours of the morning of October 17, 1920, five days before what would have been his 33rd birthday, Jack Reed’s heart stopped beating.

 Louise Bryant grieves at John Reed's coffin lying in stat
at the Labor Temple in Moscow, October 22, 1920.

      His body was carried from his hospital bed to the Labor Temple, also known as the Trade Union Hall, on the shoulders of Russian workers. It lay in state for a week on a dais, the long silver coffin banked with flowers and surrounded by colorful revolutionary posters. Also in evidence were the wreaths of gaily painted tin flowers used regularly in funerals of the poor.
On Saturday, October 23 a military band playing a doleful funeral march led the procession to Red Square. As a mixture of wet snow and rain began to fall, speeches were made in English, French, German and Russian. A backdrop above the grave--a large red banner decorated with gilt letters in Russian--proclaimed, “The leaders die, but the cause lives on.”
Jack Reed’s gravesite lies beside the massive red brick wall of the Kremlin in a small cemetery reserved for revolutionary heroes. Legend wrongly has it that Jack Reed is the only American to be buried in the Kremlin site. An urn containing the ashes of labor leader Big Bill Haywood, who was present at Reed’s funeral and who died in Moscow in 1928, is also interred there.
Louise wrote two poems that Max Eastman would later publish in The Liberator, successor
to The Masses. The first, "In Memory," evokes the house on Mt. Airy in Croton:

      Now you are gone--and past our garden hedge
      Walk strangers . . . little knowing
      How brave and fine a soul
      Has loved these clapboard walls,
      That scraggling lilac or yonder spreading elm.
The young fruit trees remember yet, perhaps,
How gently with your hands
You smoothed their roots in planting . . .
No less than a poet could feel
How shrubs and flowers shrink from rougher touch.
Oh, ever-dear and honored in love,
I go my lonely way
Far from our garden’s sweetly smelling roses.
Yet always does their fragrance
Reach me and enfold me--
Even as now my fancy brings you close
And you’re more real to me than all of the living.
For nightly do I walk with you
The moonlit roads of home
And there we mingle laughter with caresses
And stories of adventure without end.
      What matter if I wake in tears at cock-crow?
      I'll have the dreams again at night . . .
      And after many dreams, the long dream
      From which I'll wake not
      And no spell of stars be broken.

      The second poem, "Aftermath," captured her desperation:

      Dear, they are singing your praises, 
      Now you are gone. 
      But only I saw your going 
       I . . . alone . . . in the dawn. 
      Dear, they are weeping about you, 
      Now you are dead, 
      And they've placed a granite stone 
      Over your head. 
      I cannot cry any more, 
      Too burning deep is my grief. . , . 
      I dance through my spendthrift days 
      Like a fallen leaf. 
      Faster and faster I whirl 
      Toward the end of my days. 
      Dear, 1 am drunken with sadness 
      And lost down strange ways. 
      If only the dance would finish 
      Like a flash in the sky . . . oh, soon, 
      If only a storm would come shouting 
      Hurl me past stars and moon!
     Louise found herself stranded in Russia without a passport, unable to return home. Resolving to pick up 
the pieces of her journalistic career, she soon became William Randolph Hearst’s most adventurous and 
enterprising foreign correspondent.
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