Sunday, February 17, 2019

Eileen's sister the Communist

Unlike my own mother, my friend Laura's mother was interested in politics and culture. My strongest memory of Eileen McGowan was her at her usual spot on the living room sofa watching the Watergate hearings. My first political involvement was going door-to-door giving out McGovern campaign flyers at her behest. My parents voted for Nixon.

And because Mrs. McGowan (I never called her Eileen myself) was interested in the arts, she took an interest in my cultural affairs. She knew that Laura and I had written our own fan fiction for "Tom Sawyer" - something my mother never knew, and frankly would not have cared had she known.

My mother has never recommended any literature to me, because she has no interest in literature herself, and has bragged that she got through high school English courses by reading the Classic Comics versions of novels.

Mrs. McGowan recommended I read "My Sister Eileen." I was never sure why exactly, other than, I guess, she enjoyed the book herself and wanted me to enjoy it. But I could not have been any older than eleven or twelve when she recommended it to me - in fact I wonder now if she recommended it to me because the author, Ruth McKenney, died in July 1972, only sixty years old. Her NYTimes obituary is here. Mrs. McGowan herself died in the mid-1980s and was in her late 50s.

I think I tried to read the book but didn't find it interesting. Primarily because it was about adults and at that time I was only interested in books about people my age.

So on Saturday I was researching for the next NYCPlaywrights podcast and wondering if I should put an audio clip from "His Girl Friday" into the podcast, since the theme is "romantic comedy" and I think the movie counts. Also, it's now in the public domain.

So while watching the movie for the tenth time, I was Googling around about the people in the movie and saw that Rosalind Russell, in addition to starring in "His Girl Friday" also starred in the first adaptation of of the book "My Sister Eileen." So I read the Wiki page for that and saw that the book was based on stories McKenney first published in The New Yorker - and since I have a New Yorker subscription which provides access to its entire archive I tracked those stories down.

Then I read McKenney's Wiki. Very very sad. "My Sister Eileen" was based on McKenney's adventures with her sister Eileen, who died at age 27 in a car crash, days before the theatrical adaptation of the book opened. McKenney's husband killed himself on her 44th birthday.

Over the opposition of lawyers for a company owned by President Donald J. Trump, State Supreme Court Judge Eileen Bransten ruled Thursday that a condominium on the Upper West Side could remove the bronze letters spelling out his name from its 46-story building.
McKenney became famous for her humorous stories about her family but what she really wanted to write about was labor issues. And until they were ousted by the Party, she and her husband were Communists.

McKenney's husband Richard Bransten, writing under his pen name Bruce Minton and speaking on behalf of himself and McKenney makes it clear that the couple believed that the US Communist party was not hard-core enough for their liking:
The leadership does not emphasize the great truth that workers must learn; Only socialism can make the people free, only socialism can rid the world of war and fascism. By no word does the American Communist Party at its National Committee Meeting hold the capitalist system to the full light of scorn. The leadership does not educate the American masses to the horror and evil of capitalism, to the awful reality that capitalism offers only terror, lynch, poverty, oppression of women, persecution of minorities, starvation, exploitation, racism, enslavement of peoples and nations, fascism, and war.
Wow, they took their Communism very seriously.

I'm afraid like all serious idealists they were doomed to disappointment. I was first disabused of political idealism when I sat in on a food co-op meeting when I was eighteen and for most of the meeting it was simply people complaining about other people in the group.

No organization of any significant size, from a Philadelphia food co-op to the Communist party will ever be peopled by enough obsessive policy wonks and nerds to satisfy the purity tests of idealists.

More people than not would rather get by with Classic Comics than making the greater effort to read the original. 

Would-be organizers of human beings ignore that at their peril.