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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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Floyd Dell: A Respectable Radical


      Few read his books today. Once his novels were immensely popular, not only for their literary merit but because they treated love and marriage with perceptive candor. It was a time when many young people rejected patriarchal family values and sought alternatives.
He was self-taught writer Floyd Dell who had learned his craft in public libraries and on newspapers. The characters in Dell's novels talked openly about the sexual components of love. They argued about the significance of sex in marriage. These were topics that few earlier novelists had treated with such honesty. By today's standards, however, their language and actions were tame.
Floyd James Dell was born in 1887 in the little Illinois town of Barry, not far from the Mississippi. He spent his youth in Quincy, Illinois, a small industrial city atop the steep bluffs of the Mississippi. His father was a failed butcher, constantly out of work. His mother was a country schoolteacher who encouraged her son to be a writer. In Quincy, young Floyd discovered the wonders of the public library and began to immerse himself in books.
Dell's next stop was Davenport, Iowa, a large industrial city, also on the Mississippi. After a brief stint at factory work, he joined the Socialist Party and became a reporter on Davenport newspapers.
Chicago beckoned, and Floyd arrived there in 1908, at the age of 21. He became an assistant editor on the Chicago Evening Post's Friday literary supplement. Here he came to know writers Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Frances Hackett and others who were part of the Chicago literary renaissance.
He also met Margery Currey, a high school teacher eleven years his senior who encouraged him in his writing. To show their unconventionality, they were married by a rabbi the following year, although neither was Jewish.
Dell's Friday book section encouraged the growth of Chicago's budding bohemian avant garde. His impulsive marriage gradually worsened, and Dell succumbed to affairs with the wives of two friends. Divorce was inevitable.

                   A young Floyd Dell left Chicago for New York's Greenwich Village.

To New York
Dell decided to decamp to New York. He arrived in Greenwich Village in October 1913, just in time to participate in Mabel Dodge's "evenings" and supporting himself by writing critical essays in various magazines.
His big break came when he was invited to join the editorial staff of The Masses to bring some editorial discipline to that haphazard enterprise. Max Eastman, a former college instructor in philosophy, had been named editor of the dry and stodgy magazine. Dell opened its pages to talented writers, artists and cartoonists whose work reflected the burgeoning realism in the arts.
He also added a managing editor's expertise in planning, designing and producing a magazine, shaping it to his and Eastman's political and literary tastes. It became a stunning periodical with two-color lithographed covers and fine printing for the artwork in its pages. A quality magazine costs money to produce, and smooth-talking Max Eastman secured donations from moneyed patrons.
Dell also acquired a reputation for having many love affairs. In January of 1918 he bedded green-eyed, red-haired Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poem "Renascence" had burst like a bombshell on the literary scene. Her previous sexual experience was limited to homosexual relationships at Vassar.
Later that year, Dell was named a defendant in the two Masses trials in which juries were unable to agree on a verdict. After the second trial, he met an intriguing young woman from California named B. Marie Gage. Unhappy with her first name, Berta, she had shortened it to an initial.
Dell described her as "golden haired and blue-eyed." She reminded him of a girl in Frank Norris's The Octopus, a novel that he had devoured as a youth: "a sturdy, earth-strong girl, with hair as yellow as the ripe wheat." B. Marie was robust and big-boned. Shy and sensitive, Dell was slight of build—he stood five feet six inches and never weighed more than 120 pounds.

Another Marriage
Floyd fell in love with B. Marie at first sight. On their third meeting, he proposed marriage. At New York's City Hall, they encountered roadblocks invented by the City Clerk. This infuriated Dell, who would have no part in the charade. They took a ferry to Jersey City, only to be stymied there by residency requirements.
The couple recalled that they had been invited to visit Croton-on-Hudson by Jane Burr, described by Dell as "a writer with a very forceful personality." Jane Burr was the pseudonym of copper heiress Rosalind  Guggenheim Winslow, a 37-year-old poet and novelist whose 1916 book of poems, City Dust, had gone through several printings.
Jane Burr ran a sort of bed-and-breakfast in what was once Croton’s Post Inn. Operated for many years by the McCord family, its foundation is still visible opposite the former Holy Name of Mary School. She called it the Drowsy Saint Inn.
Dell later described it as "a place with pleasant rooms furnished in colonial style, where writers roomed in the summer, and with a restaurant decorated in the Greenwich Village fashion with gay colors. It was not open in the winter, but Jane Burr lived there, and asked occasional guests out to visit her."
"We want to get married," they told her on their arrival, "and we want you to help us."
Jane Burr was shocked. She opposed marriage in principle, but agreed to help them. She telephoned the town clerk in Peekskill. Although his office was closed, she learned that the Peekskill Village Board was meeting that evening, and the clerk would be there. Jane Burr arranged by telephone for him to issue the marriage license.
That evening, they got their marriage license in Peekskill and returned to Croton to wait for Judge Decker to marry them at his home. Judge Frank Decker operated a candy store and ice cream parlor on North Riverside Avenue.
Floyd begged B. Marie not to make any feminist objections to anything she was asked to promise, but to say yes to whatever question was asked. They told the judge they wanted a simple ceremony. Judge Decker found in his book one in which they took each other as husband and wife.
After the ceremony, the judge asked B. Marie if she wanted a marriage certificate. She shook her head. "Lots of people don't, nowadays," he remarked, almost wistfully. Then it was back to the Drowsy Saint and their wedding supper. For it, Jane Burr wangled a cake intended to be the finishing touch to a neighbor's Sunday dinner.

The Dells Move to Croton
Floyd and B. Marie returned to Greenwich Village and their Christopher Street apartment. The memory of Croton remained with him; Dell was a small-town boy at heart. On B. Marie's birthday in April 1919, they again took the train to Croton to visit friends. As they walked up Mt. Airy Road they encountered John Reed walking down with friends from Greenwich Village. His now-classic account of the October Revolution had just been published.
Reed announced, "This is the Mt. Airy Soviet, and we have decided that you two are to live here in Croton." Indicating a nearby house that was for sale, he added, "And this is the house you are to live in!"
As a down payment, Floyd paid ten dollars to the artist and his wife who owned it. A mortgage covered half the $3,000 price. Although money was tight, they secured the balance by the end of the month.
When Floyd and B. Marie returned to Croton the first weekend in May, they immediately began work on the somewhat dilapidated building. They replaced rotting floorboards, planted a garden, and painted everything inside and out, spending most of the summer getting the house ready.
The Dells continued to live in Greenwich Village until 1921 and used the Croton house only on weekends. It was here that Dell worked on most of his eleven novels, and several collections of short stories, poems, essays and plays. The Dell house at 75 Mt. Airy Road is one of Croton's true literary landmarks.

Dell’s Literary Output
Despite his prodigious output of books, interest in Floyd Dell today is low. Between them, the 38 member libraries of the Westchester Library System own a total of only seven Dell titles. In its collection of works by local authors, the Croton Free Library has only one of Dell’s books, his 1933 autobiography Homecoming.
Whether in essays, critical reviews, or novels, Dell drew heavily on his own experience in everything he wrote. His first novel, Moon-Calf, appeared in 1920 and recounted the story of Felix Fay, a thinly disguised young Floyd Dell. He included accounts of his own family and their frequent moves, showing how Felix Fay's character was shaped by the poverty of his own early years.
Critics reviewed Moon-Calf enthusiastically. It went through several printings and sold more than 40,000 copies, bringing Dell nearly $15,000. The Brooklyn Public Library considered the book so racy it restricted its sole copy to approved readers.
His story of a sensitive young man who rebels against small-town respectability to seek success in the city took its title from a 1901 science fiction story by H.G. Wells. "I should define a 'moon-calf,'" he told a reporter from the New York Herald in February 1921, "as an awkward young man with a touch of intellectual lunacy."
Years afterward Dell attributed the book's success quite as much to popular misconceptions about it as to acceptance of its virtues. No other writer of the 1920s so successfully explored the maturation of the young and sensitive intellectual who finds himself isolated and alone in the cities and towns of the American Middle West.
Dell's second novel, The Briary-Bush, appeared in 1921 and continued Felix Fay's story in Chicago, where Dell scored his own early literary success. Felix falls in love with and marries Rose-Ann Prentiss, but they soon are miserable, replicating Dell's own unhappy first marriage.
Dell did not complete his semi-autobiographical trilogy until 1929 with his eighth novel, Souvenir. In it, Dell reflected about his life, and concluded, "He could regret none of it, would not have had it different, would not have missed a single one of the pains and insults that had hardened him and taught him."
After the birth of their first son, Anthony, named for Floyd’s father, the Dells moved from Greenwich Village early in 1922 and made Croton their permanent residence.
In An American Testament: A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics, writer Joseph Freeman, a Croton resident and frequent guest at Dell parties, described the Dell house in Croton as "a magic little world retaining all that was best in the tradition of Greenwich Village. That tradition shone from orange curtains at the windows, Nordfeldt's [Swedish-American Chicago artist Bror Nordfeldt] portrait of Dell as a young man, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with books."

                        Portrait of Floyd Dell by Swedish-American artist Bror Nordfeldt. 

Goodbye to the Communist Party 
Dell became an editor of The Liberator, the successor magazine started in 1918 by Max and Crystal Eastman. This folded in 1924, and he next joined the staff of The New Masses, published by the Communist Party.
      Floyd Dell always thought of himself as a radical--but his radicalism was romantic and utopian, not fitting any ideological mold. Mike Gold, editor of The New Masses, drummed him out of the radical movement in 1929. 
      Unhappy with the magazine's policies, Dell had submitted his resignation as a contributing editor. Gold published Dell's letter and added two pages of his own comment scolding a Dell so corrupted by prosperity he wore a dress suit.
Dell took his excommunication in stride. He denied wearing a dress suit except to pose for a single publicity photo, but conceded that he liked wearing dinner clothes.
"It is also true," he commented, "that I like to make money, though Mike exaggerates my prosperity. I think Mike would like to make money, too."  Gold would be less unhappy and less full of hatred for others, Dell added, if he could admit to himself that he wants what many others have in an insecure world.
Cartoonist Robert Minor and his artist wife, Lydia Gibson Minor, had built a home in Croton at 79 Mount Airy Road, next door to Floyd and B. Marie. Minor had been the editor of the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker, and indefatigable candidate for governor of New York, mayor of New York City and U.S. senator. The doctrinaire Minor had many bitter arguments with Floyd over Dell's peculiar brand of radicalism.

Broadway and Hollywood
Floyd Dell's novel An Unmarried Father had been published in 1927. About that time a second son was born and named Christopher for the Greenwich Village street on which the Dells had lived.
In this novel, Norman Overbeck, a young man about to be married, breaks his engagement and adopts a child he has become convinced he fathered. In the end, he accepts responsibility and marries the unwed mother. It was received with mixed reviews by critics confused by Dell's sudden conventionality.
Dell saw theatrical possibilities in the story and turned it into a play script. Broadway producer Crosby Gaige read it and referred Dell to Thomas Mitchell, a 35-year-old former reporter, stage actor and playwright. Mitchell, who would later achieve success in Hollywood, is best remembered for his 1940 Academy Award-winning performance as Doc Boone in John Ford's classic film Stagecoach.
Mitchell took Dell's wordy and unwieldy rough draft and turned it into a risqué and funny piece of stagecraft. Retitled Little Accident and with Mitchell playing the role of Norman Overbeck, it opened to rave reviews at New York's Morosco Theater in October 1928. The play ran for 303 performances before taking to the road. Money--as much as $500 a week--began to roll in for Dell.
Little Accident was adapted three times by Hollywood: In 1930, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Norman, and again in 1939 with Hugh Herbert in the lead. Re-titled Casanova Brown, a third Hollywood version starred Gary Cooper in 1944. The French also saw the comedic possibilities in Dell’s plot and released the film Papa sans Le Savoir (A Father without Knowing It) in 1932.
In the depths of the Depression, Floyd and Thomas Mitchell tried to repeat the success of Little Accident with another collaborative effort. Cloudy with Showers, a lighthearted treatment of the relations between the sexes, opened in September of 1931, also at the Morosco Theater. Although it played for a respectable 71 performances with Mitchell playing the lead role, it was no solution to the Dell family's money problems in the depths of the Depression. 

Moving On 
 Later novels also were important. Dell’s favorite, Diana Stair, a big, 641-page work, revived the popularity of the historical novel in 1932. Floyd and B. Marie rented out their Croton house the following year and moved to Winchester, New Hampshire. His last novel, The Golden Spike, appeared in 1934.
The family moved again in 1935, this time to Washington, D.C. Floyd had been hired as an editorial consultant and speech writer for the Works Progress and Public Works administrations and other agencies. B. Marie worked as a librarian in the Washington public library. He retired from government service in 1947.
All his life Floyd Dell had been a heavy cigarette smoker, preferring a brand called Richmond Straight Cuts. As he grew older he suffered from emphysema and a series of strokes in the mid- and late-60s and lost the sight of one eye to glaucoma. Confounding those who had predicted the marriage wouldn't last, the Dells celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in February 1969.
Floyd Dell died five months later in Bethesda, Maryland, survived by his wife and two sons, Anthony and Christopher. His body was cremated, and his ashes were taken to the family’s New Hampshire summer home.
As a novice editor of The Masses, Max Eastman had hired Dell with the title of managing editor to put a journalist’s stamp on the magazine. He later paid this tribute to him: “I never knew a more reasonable or dependable person, more variously intelligent, more agile in combining sociability with industry and I never knew a writer who had his talents in such complete command.”


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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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