Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography (3)


Cub Reporter
Jail Time
Political Education



[Cub Reporter]

Shortly after I left the Feelys’ I became a newspaperman myself. I started where all Chicago journalists start — I got a job on the City News Bureau, a local press service like Associated Press that covered the petty courts, the morgue, and the police stations for all the Chicago papers.

I don’t think I kept the job on the News Bureau very long. It paid almost nothing, eighteen dollars a week, and was deadly dull, especially the divorce court. Cub reporters are sent to the divorce court either because what happens is so dull and repetitious that it would interest no one or so filthy dirty that it couldn’t be printed — it’s just dumfounding the things people say in divorce courts — or because it’s big, hot, and important, a Society case, and the paper sends an experienced man, or more often woman, to cover it. I suppose I learned some more about the great American sexual sickness, but it didn’t interest me very much.

I quit and went over to the Journal of Commerce. On this job I covered conventions — a dreadful occupation. However, conventions are entertained by strip teasers, naked dancers, and French circuses in order of importance of the convention. If one of the major industries throws a convention they provide a call girl for each delegate and a five-act show with top models in flagrante delicto with armadillos and other beasts of burden, while the Hyde Park Plumbers have to put up with one elderly, unemployed burlesque stripper. Since conventions become rather savage as the evening wears away, it is an accepted custom for the entertainers to ask the newspapermen present to escort them to safety. So I met a lot of nice girls, those I hadn’t met already around the Mask, where most of them hung out. [...]

It’s hard to believe the Chicago of those days. Not only is every episode in Ben Hecht’s The Front Page based on fact, but every character is a portrayal of some Chicago newspaperman of the time. Furthermore, this stuff wasn’t isolated and occasional; it went on all around you all the time. One day I was eating, I still remember, baked whitefish in a restaurant at State Street and Chicago Avenue. This was a half-basement place; the windows look out on Holy Name Cathedral. Suddenly there was a familiar roar and rattle overhead. A man from the district attorney’s office and a couple of other gangsters, just emerging from a funeral, tumbled over on the steps of the Cathedral and a line of machine-gun bullets punctuated the pious Latin on the cornerstone, “To the Glory of God and the Most Holy Name of Jesus.” [...]

Newspaper work was far from being romantic. Most of it was dull. It was far from being a school for good writing in those days. In fact, long addiction to city-room journalism had practically incurable deleterious effects. Journalism classes tell you the papers demand the utmost compression and concentration on pure facts. Nothing was less true in the Twenties. All important local news in a city the size of Chicago could usually be put in one column. Nobody really cared much about facts, just the appearance of factuality. One of the signs of a good journalist was the ability to work at least one serious misstatement into every three sentences. Everything was puffed and padded out of all recognition, and it was puffed and padded with sentimentality. The Chicago writers of my youth — Anderson, Hecht, Sandburg, Sam Putnam — all might have been good writers if they hadn’t been corrupted by the awful sentimentality of the police-court reporter. Sob-sister journalese was the distinguishing characteristic of the Chicago Renaissance, and its effects last as late as Nelson Algren and James Farrell. You weren’t even permitted to organize your sentimentality in dramatic, or melodramatic, form. A news story was written so that it could be cut upward from the bottom. I foresaw all the bad effects this could have on me as a writer, as well as the effect all the drinking would have on my health, and worked only sporadically at it, mostly for fun.

The best thing about a newspaper job is the press card. Theoretically it should have protected me even from minor arrests, but it never did except when I was actually working on a paper. It not only gets you through fire lines and into theaters and up to the bedsides of the violently dying, but can be used as a key to open up sections of society normally impenetrable by a writer. At least it does if you have sense enough to shed the distinguishing coloration of your caste. You learn nothing if you carry with you a journalistic system of values, which is invented to save reporters from experience. As a newspaperman you see so much of life, so much of politics, so much of the real organization of society, you discover the hidden unbelievable rascality of men. This makes you a cynic for the rest of your life, but I should imagine that year-in, year-out confrontation of the Social Lie would destroy you. All reporters’ jobs were like those in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The working reporter looks at the naked behind of society every day, for a living, and he dulls the sight with cynicism (in the cheap sense of the word), sentimentality, and drink. This is not for a writer. [...]

It is not a bad thing to have grown up in a circle in which practically the only virtues were loyalty, magnanimity, and courage. Sometimes they exacted a rather heavy price. It was about this time that John Loughman volunteered to go up and talk for the strikers in the Montana copper mines. He got into Butte in the night in somebody’s car, spent several days speaking four or five times a day. Anaconda was closed and the sheriff’s posse and the company’s nobles kept everybody connected with the strike from either entering or leaving. Loughman disguised himself rather superficially as a drummer — he was a hard man to disguise — and went up on the train, accompanied by a bodyguard of Seattle and Chicago Wobblies scattered inconspicuously around the car. Two of the biggest got off first with Loughman immediately behind them. Two deputies came from between the cars and without a word sandbagged them, and, in the next motion, pulled the porter’s stool from under Loughman as he stepped down, and sandbagged him. He woke up spread-eagled across the door of his cell, his hands and feet handcuffed to the bars and a pair of handcuffs with the chain tight across his throat. The sheriff had wakened him by putting matches between his toes. He said, “I’ll fix you so you’ll never talk again, you dirty Red bastard,” and proceeded to ram a weighted night stick into his mouth until he had broken all but two or three teeth, broken the lower jaw in two places, and smashed the palate into the sinuses. They then stripped all his clothes off and threw him out into the desert. He walked to the nearest ranch house and got a ride back to Butte. None of the doctors in Butte would touch him, but after he had been patched up by a sympathizer, he went back to Chicago where a leading specialist was one of our group and carried a Red card. This man did a complete job of restoration, a silver plate inside the roof of his mouth and an extraordinary set of lightweight dentures. All this took about four months to heal, the strike was still on, and John went back to Anaconda. This time he got off the train in the center of eight men with Springfield rifles. This was the generation of Wesley Everest, Frank Little, and Joe Hill [IWW organizers who were lynched or executed], and it’s just an accident that these friends of mine didn’t get it, too. Jack Molloy and Lionel Moise were as much members of this circle of agitators as they were newspapermen. [...]

At least the newspaper business taught me how to find my way around. I learned that Chicago was a conspiracy of corruption and mediocrity and that the most mediocre and most corrupt squeezed their way to the top. I learned that there was no such thing as an honest cop or politician. I learned that their dishonesty and brutality passed the wildest dreams of New Masses cartoonists — with one strange exception, which demonstrates so well the use and function of the square in society. Almost all police forces, and not the least that of Chicago in its worst days, included a sizable group of earnest young officers, most of them with degrees in criminology from the Jesuits, who took police work with the utmost seriousness. They were incorruptible, courteous, no more brutal than the next man, and their captains usually sent them up narrow staircases to bring out insane murderers armed with machine guns.

[pp. 177, 180-184]

* * *

[Jail Time]

[One night at the Green Mask, after the owners had refused a favor to police officer McGonigle...]

We came in late. The place was packed. The reading was ending, the air was full of smoke. My usual repugnance for the monologist returned at the sound of his gravelly voice and I started back out the door. Leaning beside the door was a big brute of an Irishman, obviously a dick. He put his foot up in the air against the doorjamb and barred my way. “Where you think you’re going to?”

“Out to get a little fresh air,” I said. “I’ll be back.”

“Oh, you’ll be back, will you? I don’t think you need any fresh air. You’ll get lots of fresh air in the Bandhouse. They’ve got more fresh air out there than they know what to do with in January.”

Then he maneuvered me silently a couple of feet into the shadows in the hallway and hit me full force in the mouth with his pistol. A couple of seconds later a squad car pulled up screaming. McGonigle rushed into the center of the crowded room and blew his whistle; his partner Putz collared my monologist friend with one hand and June with the other. I was still only about half conscious. Everybody was taken in.

June and Beryl were booked as keepers of a disorderly house and managers of an obscene exhibition. The monologist was booked for lewd and lascivious conduct and for making an obscene exhibition. All the customers were booked as inmates of a disorderly house. Their bail was set at a thousand dollars each, and the customers’ at five hundred. I shouldn’t have to point out that even in Chicago in those days in raids on brothels or cardrooms or speakeasies the customers were never held, and if by some chance they were booked, their bail was purely nominal or they were turned loose on their O.R. The audience was such as would go to a poetry reading in a respectable teashop anywhere. Male and female social workers and schoolteachers and very square white-collar culture seekers generally. Few of them got out that night. I got a hold of Spike Hennessy but he said there was nothing he could do for me this time.

The next morning McGonigle and Putz presented as evidence a stack of extremely obscene poems on mimeographed sheets, the sort of things that are sold in high schools for two bits and are known amongst kids as “four sheeters.” They testified that this was what the monologist had been reading and they had three witnesses, dubious characters from North Clark Street, who testified along with them. The judge lashed himself into a fury and told us we should all be horsewhipped, branded, and sent up for life. He sentenced June, Beryl, the monologist, and me to a thousand dollars and a year each, and all the customers to fifty dollars each and thirty days. The cops led us away.

I was in a serious fix. There was no question but what the rap was so phony it would be easy to beat, but I didn’t dare make any waves. I was very much a minor and Judge Horner [Rexroth’s legal guardian] was in Europe or Florida on vacation. Spike Hennessy refused to touch it. If I stuck my neck out the law would discover my real age and I’d end up in a reformatory and have a terrible time getting out of it.

We were taken down to the Detective Bureau, mugged and processed, and generally slapped around just for fun, although we had already been convicted, and sent over to the Bridewell about nine o’clock that night, having had nothing to eat since dinner the evening before. The Chicago police showed everybody the goldfish on every conviction. You got no water to drink all the time you were in the Detective Bureau and no cigarettes while the coppers sat around and drank highballs or malted milks and blew smoke in your face. It was just like the movies. You sat on a kitchen chair with a couple of carbon-arc old-time photographer’s floodlights blazing in your face about eight feet away. Within a half hour you were literally burned, as from a bad sunburn, with the heat. Periodically one of the coppers would get up and slap you across the face, at first with his fist and then with his sap. You were very lucky if you kept your front teeth. From several such workouts like this, two of my teeth are broken and both my eyebrows are divided into two tiers each. (The “Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker once said I had the most peculiarly peaked eyebrows they had ever seen. If the interviewer had asked I would have been glad to tell him how I got them.) Every so often a little sly one among the coppers would come up quietly behind you in the dark and with the skill of long practice snatch the chair out from under you. Then a couple of them would kick you in the head and nuts.

They weren’t all so rough. When the rough ones tired, in came the fatherly one with wavy Irish-gray hair and the unctuous voice of a pederastic archbishop. He was your friend. He just wanted to get you out of a tough spot. All you had to do was make a clean breast of it. You could relieve your conscience which must be torturing you. You could trust him. The D.A. was his son-in-law and he would fix it up. You could cop a plea — it was your first time. You were sure to get probation. He looked on himself more as a social worker than as a policeman.

The ridiculous thing about all this crap is that it was completely unmotivated. They asked you questions about every unsolved crime of the last six months from “L & L,” known to grifters as pee-hole banditry and to the statute books as lewd and lascivious conduct, to the embezzlement of banks. But they really didn’t want to find out anything; they just wanted to work off their animal spirits.

About nine thirty that night I was moved over to the Bandhouse. I waited alone with a copper in a reception cell for half an hour and then was turned over to a punk. He took me across the hall and booked me in and then took me to the bathroom and prodded me into a trough of cold water mixed with some substance that smelled like Lysol and kerosene and probably was exactly that and then stuck me under a scalding hot shower and gave me a cake of Fels-Naphtha Soap.

When I came out I said, “Where’s the towel?”

He said, “Who do you think you are, Claire Windsor?”

He then handed me an assortment of clothes: an undershirt full of holes, a pair of drawers shrunk stiff and still dirty in the seat, a couple of socks, two surplus shoes from the war, a chambray shirt with all the buttons torn off, blue jeans and an overall jacket, both dirty, and cotton mitts. Not a single one of these garments bore the slightest relationship to any other. In fact, the shoes were both for the left foot and one was about a six and the other a fourteen. After I had sorted them out I said, “I can’t get these on.”

“Oh, you can’t, can’t you?” says he, and knocked me naked over the bench onto the stone floor. I let out a yell, the door flew open, and in came a screw who took me by the hair and prodded me up with his fist. He did have the decency to explain that you traded your slops off with the other fish until you finally got stuff that fitted.

Then they shook down my clothes and found in my jacket pocket a purse, containing lipstick, compact, and powder puff, which Shirley had left in my room and which I was bringing down to give her, expecting to meet her at the Mask. This had immediate effect — attempted rape. By this I don’t mean a general, abstract proposition. I was still naked, the screw got a half nelson around my head while the punk went to work. Each time he’d come at me I’d double up my leg and kick backward like a mule. This led to considerable roughhouse, pro and con.

At last they gave up and took me over, limping in my misfit shoes, through the sub-zero night to the oldest of the cell blocks. This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.

Mezzrow says the Bandhouse was segregated. I judge he was there the same winter. If he was, this is simply not true. I was put in a cell already occupied by five Negroes (for the four bunks). They immediately took charge of me and my misfit clothes were passed up and down the tier. In each cell somebody wore a device to be used for such purposes — a hook on a long handle, under his clothes, strapped against his thigh. There was lots of equipment of this kind. Each cell had at least one shiv; in fact, most prisoners had one. Usually these were made out of board, whittled to a rough sword shape and the edge lined with razor blades or sharpened triangles beaten out of tin cans. They looked rather like the swords armed with fishes’ teeth from the South Sea cannibals I had seen in the Field Museum, or like those dug up in recent years in Jericho armed with microliths, thus demonstrating the great age and wide provenance of man’s basic technological advances. This is a nice question for the Diffusionists. Could any connection be traced in time or space between the Bandhouse or any other modern prison and the Solomon Islands or the mesolithic Near East? Not only could these things kill a man, they often did. Many years later Dick Loeb was to be cut to death with just such a razor-blade shiv in a shower in Joliet. In our cell there was even a hypodermic and several needles, as well as the usual equipment of safety pin, spoon, and medicine dropper. There wasn’t, however, anything to put in them, but there was plenty of marijuana, which was purchased from the screws. This was before the days of modern so-called heroin, but the screws had plenty of M.S. However, it was too expensive for my Negro cellmates.

One of the fellows, a brawny six feet and very black, was queer, and he had a complete set of what is known as “gear.” White silk stockings were fashionable in those days. He had a couple of pairs, high-heeled shoes, a fringed girdle with fancy garters, a brassiere and falsies and even a transformation of false hair, as well as several brightly colored step-ins. The peculiar thing about the rest of the fellows in the cell is that they weren’t interested personally in his charms, but he used to rig himself out and strut and grind and bump and sing “If You Want It You Got to Buy It, ’Cause I Ain’t Givin’ Nothin’ Away,” while the rest of us blew on combs, beat our shoes together, strummed the iron slats of the beds, clapped, and sang. He was quite a sight. He made a lot of dough and he’d always bring it out in the evening, wreathed in smiles, and with it we’d buy stuff from the screw — candy, cigarettes, muggles, pulp magazines, and alcohol from the infirmary. He was a natural-born whore and he got much more pleasure out of giving the really substantial proceeds of his tricks to us men and making us happy than he would have had spending it on himself. I’m sure that if the screws could have smuggled them in he would have provided us all with silk shirts, diamond stickpins, braided double-breasted suits and long, pointy yellow shoes. He was a great guy and remained my friend until I left Chicago. His drag name was that of the reigning movie actress of the day. When he died years later he was buried in drag in one of the historic funerals of show-business Harlem.

I was welcomed by my cellmates with enthusiasm. They were proud to have a white boy to educate and protect. As long as I was in that cell nobody dared make a pass at me, no screw ever laid a hand on me, and, as far as it was possible, I was saved from the most punishing jobs of work. All sorts of things showed up: cans of fancy food, good socks and underclothes; even, eventually, a new pair of Army shoes which fitted perfectly. I could have anything I wanted. Nothing was too good for me, and none of my cellmates made any advances to me.

Since the old cell blocks were essentially unheated and we each had only one ragged blanket, and as it was a sub-zero Chicago winter, keeping warm was a slight problem. It was against the rules to have newspapers, but from somewhere everybody gathered plenty of them. In the first place you had to wear them under your overalls on the job to keep from freezing. At night a whole mess of them were crumpled up in the corner of the floor. We all curled up in them like snakes in a posthole, put other newspapers over us, and put the blankets on top. The bucket privy was kept on one unfolded upper bunk so nobody would tip it over; on the opposite bunk, a bundle of everybody’s stuff. I’m still waiting for somebody to ask me, “Would you sleep with a Negro?” If I hadn’t, I sure as hell would have died. In the morning we filed out taking turns carrying the bucket, which smoked vigorously in the winter dawn, and dumped the contents in the garbage pit. This is one of the clearest pictures in my memory — the shabby Bandhouse yard, which looked half ruined, as though it had just gone through a war, and every fifth or sixth man, like a thurifer, carrying a pot from which rose a pillar of incense. It had all the solemnity of a religious procession.

Then we went on to work. The Bandhouse was a very profitable enterprise, all proceeds of which, except for payoff to the Organization, went into the pockets of the warden. We did the baking and several other things for all the city institutions. It had an aggregate and gravel plant; it did the laundry for many city institutions; it made furniture, and it had a large pottery and brick yard. My cell worked in the clay pits of the pottery. In the fall of the year a large hole was filled with water and turned into a puddle of mud, and from this we mined frozen clay blocks. This was pretty hard work for a young boy, and as much as possible my cellmates saved me. I was one of the few white men on this job. It was wonderful to work with these fellows. To keep up their morale, they sang — never proletarian work songs of the type popular with Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, but mostly the Dirty Dozens, of which they knew an infinite number of verses. If they weren’t singing they cussed each other out. Any mistake or fumble would be greeted with a string of the most imaginative abuse which would last for several minutes without interruption and never repeat. When nobody did anything wrong one guy would just cuss out another out of good spirits — working-class solidarity. It’s quite impossible to convey what this was like. It’s not just that it would be unmailable, but I can’t remember it, couldn’t possibly imagine it, and could never convey the rambunctious joy of life with which it was delivered.

For breakfast we had musty cornmeal mush already sweetened and very thin. It was usually burned. Once in a while we had oatmeal. That was always burned, and often there were little cooked worms in it. And coffee. I feel I won’t be believed, but the tea from the night before was dreened off into the pot, filled up with water, a small amount of coffee added and boiled for half an hour or so. The result was a gray fluid like Mississippi River water. In the evening the leftovers were dreened off the coffee grounds, water was added, a couple of handfuls of the cheapest tea were thrown in, and the mess was boiled up again. The result was browner, thinner, and had more bite. Since prison induces a constant nervous fatigue, I learned to drink it. Whatever it did to my stomach it seemed to pep me up. Everybody said it was full of saltpeter, but I was sure we didn’t need any saltpeter. Unadulterated, the food and drink would make anybody impotent. Lunch consisted of the seconds from the bakery — loaves that had not risen or had been burned, or both. They would have gone over big in a Los Angeles health-food store, because they tasted like no breadstuffs ever made. Along with two big chunks of punk, we had two slices of “blue steel.” Blue steel is bologna and this bologna was blue, and sometimes ambulatory. If we didn’t have blue steel we had moldy cheese, which I suppose was bought as spoilage from warehouses, wholesalers, or ships’ stewards. For dessert there was a dish of prunes, scarcely cooked and served in a thin, sickish juice peculiar to the half-cooked prune. These were always weevily, sometimes so much so that when you bit into the prune you got a mouthful of wet brown powder instead of prune. Supper was stew, each bowl with a two-inch cube of meat which smelled like a rendering plant, and a gray, amorphous mass of vegetables. These had the special flavor of frozen, mildewed carrots and onions. Nothing gives that rare aroma of prison cuisine like a peck of onions, brown and translucent inside. On Fridays we had fish which no one could eat.

Morning and evening there was no way to wash, but once a week we were herded down to a shower room, where a number of pipes which came out of the wall were hammered flat at the end into fishtail jets which sprayed cold water over us as we pushed each other in and out. It was great fun — one of the high points of the week. Three days after I arrived I had crabs, head lice, graybacks, and scabies. Although we didn’t have any beds the bedbugs never missed them but kept us all restless all night. [...]

Then one day the Judge came home from wherever he’d been. My girl showed up, dim as a fish under muddy water behind three layers of dirt-caked screening, and brought me a change of clothes. The next morning the primitive intercom telephone rang, and McGregor came over and said, “Beat it. You’re sprung!”

[pp. 220-226, 235-236]

* * *

Through the connections I had formed in jail I got a little closer to the underworld than I had been, and considerably closer to the Organization. Eddie MacMillan, whose driver had been pinched, hung around the Near North Side and he came to see me to find out if the fellow was all right. MacMillan looked like an intelligent, quiet, and conservative North Irish professional man. He had a high, balding forehead, carefully combed hair with no stickum — most unusual for a gangster, however nifty — white shirts, plain round gold cuff links, a black tie, a navy-blue or Oxford-gray suit, plain black shoes with simple toes and no punch work, black silk socks with white clocks in them, carefully manicured hands, and no jewelry. He never raised his voice. You had to listen to hear him. He was a bag man for Moran. In those days Moran was peacefully giving up — swapping joints with the South Side Organization, and retiring from the South Side. Eddie’s job was to collect the take from the joints that remained under Moran’s control. This was ticklish work. The big Organization didn’t believe that the South Side was being given up quite so peacefully, and a rumble was liable to break out any moment. We used to drive around the Negro district and as far south as there were any joints, Sixty-third and Cottage, Blue Island Avenue, out to Calumet, and to a bar near where I used to go camping, beyond Argo on Western Avenue, which was a hide-out and club for petty gangsters. Sometimes we would pick up a couple of girls and go socially to the same places and nothing was too good for us.

Two things Eddie MacMillan said I never forgot. I was making a living playing poker in a setup with Willy McCauley and Max Bodenheim. I said, “You know, I can’t lose. Unless the game is crooked I always win, so that I don’t really gamble.” Eddie casually commented, “Only customers gamble.” I laughed and said, “Is that your life motto?” “Well, I never said it before,” he said, “but I guess it could be.”

Then he was offered a job in a gangster movie. It was before Underworld, but Ben Hecht had something to do with it. Eddie was offered a part through Ben and left for Hollywood. When he left he said, “Well, good-by, Duke. Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer, and that is a motto.” I never saw him again. He went to Hollywood and became a specialist in gangster pictures. All he did was authenticate the material. He died in bed, not so long ago.

[pp. 237-238]

* * *

[Political Education]

I was sitting one afternoon on the grass at the Bug Club in Washington Park and a boy about my own age came up to me, looked furtively around him as though he were carrying morphine or the Hope diamond in the heel of his shoe, and slipped me a small book, wrapped up and tied with string.

“Don’t open it now,” he said. “Take it home and read it.”

Until this time no book-length work by any of the leaders of the Russian revolution had appeared in English, although I think there were a couple of books by Trotsky in Yiddish. The only things available were pamphlets by Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, explaining, just like today, the twists and turns of Russian politics, internal and external. As a boy raised on on the Charles H. Kerr library of Socialist and revolutionary classics, what I wanted to see was a real book — what the Bolsheviks themselves would call a “theoretical contribution.”

“It’s Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism,” said Sigmund.

I carried it home as though it were radium and unwrapped it in my room. I can still remember the cover — a dull green, mealy paper like pre-Raphaelite wallpaper with a blood-red scrawl of script for a title. I sat up all night reading it.

“This is not my revolution,” I said.

It is hard to convey to a generation casehardened to such behavior the effect of Lenin’s abuse, lies, and paranoid accusations on a young boy saturated with the lofty moral optimism of the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary movement. [...]

Alexander Berkman’s reports from Russia had begun to circulate amongst the Anarchists and IWWs in Chicago — reports that later appeared in the book The Bolshevik Myth. It was easy to believe them after having met Pepper and read Lenin.

Up until this time the actual Left of the revolutionary movement had collaborated with the Bolsheviks in Russia, in the U.S., as a matter of fact, all over the world, although they considered the Bolsheviks just perverted and unscrupulous social democrats. These were the years of the first great Right Turn, of the New Economic Policy, the collapse of the German revolution, and the murder of Kronstadt. The Budapest and Munich revolutions had gone past so quickly that nobody noticed they had been “betrayed,” except the unfortunate participants. It was a time of countless all-night arguments, meetings that never adjourned or that recessed never to meet again, of bitter personal quarrels that made lifelong enemies, and of disruption in the literal sense of the word.

Until this time, except for the cantankerousness of Daniel De Leon and his followers of the Socialist Labor Party, everybody in the American radical movement got along pretty well together. Socialists, Anarchists and Syndicalists shared platforms for general causes in which they all believed (an activity later to be dirtied by the term “United Front”), came to one another’s defense when in trouble with the law, and all piled in and worked like demons in big mass strikes and spontaneous movements of the working class — which they had sense to recognize were bigger than their own sectarian groups. The internal factional snake pit and the erratically shifting foreign policies of the Bolsheviks exploded this coherent foundation of radical activity like a series of land mines. While the American labor movement was recovering from the Palmer raids, its leaders discovered that they were being swept away in a maelstrom flowing from a world with which they were little concerned. The remarkable thing is that, with almost no exceptions, all of them continued for many years to defend Russia and what they called “the gains of the Revolution.” [...]

Today most non-Bolshevik radicals under about fifty years of age have come to their opinions by an intellectual evolution which developed specifically in opposition to Bolshevism. In fact, Bolshevism has been the dominating factor just as nineteenth-century capitalism was the dominant factor in the minds of Marx and Engels or the czarist secret police in the mind of Lenin. Many thousands have turned to reaction, religion, or plain folly because to them Socialist revolution meant Bolshevism. [...] For the first fifteen years after the Russian October, the Bolsheviks enticed into their ranks, one after the other with each change of line, all the groups in the West which represented the old Western European revolutionary humanism, and systematically destroyed them until there was no one left who was not completely centered on the Kremlin, either as a mindless Stalinist hatchet man or a psychopathic anti-Bolshevik. It’s hard to say whether this was a deliberate matter of policy.

[pp. 126-128]

* * *

[Some time later in New England, where he had gone to be with his girlfriend Shirley Johnson...]

I spent a couple of weekends down in Boston, where Hays Jones, whom I had known in Chicago, was working for the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee. I did some work for him, and was able to visit Vanzetti, who I believe was then jailed in Dedham. Sometime later I was able to meet Sacco, too. It is hardly necessary at this date even to bother to describe the overwhelming effect they both had on me. Everyone knows the force and, as things came to their terrible climax, the grandeur of their personalities. This was the first time in my life that I had ever encountered true saintliness, and not only have I never forgotten it but the persons of Sacco and Vanzetti are for me one of those memories like the memory of one’s most precious lovers: a memory that does not have to be recalled but is always there, all the time, just under consciousness.

[pp. 200-201]

* * *

[Back in Chicago...]

Willy McCauley and Harold Mann and I used to help a fellow by the name of Dick Vail, an old-time Wobbly who later became a successful bootlegger, who ran a handy-man shop. [...] One day a girl came in when I was alone in the office. She said, “Do you do locksmithing?” and I said, “Sure.” She said, “Licensed locksmiths?” and I said, “Yes, sure.” “Could you change a lot of locks for us? Could you change them so that they all have different keys?” “Yes. Simplest thing in the world.” And she said, “You’d have to do this at night. It’s a big office building and we want all the keys in the office building changed.” I said, “Fine.” Dick came in and I told him what the girl wanted and he asked what was the building, and I said, “U.S. Five.” He said, “Fellow worker, what have we got?” I looked puzzled and he said, “You know what it is, don’t you?” “It’s a group of insurance companies.” “Yeah, I know, but they’re big in this so-called industrial insurance business. They hire stool pigeons. One of the companies made a fortune off the Great Steel Strike. It is that industrial insurance outfit in that building which hired all the stool pigeons within the leadership of the Great Steel Strike, besides all the goons and plug-uglies, and right now they are hiring people on all sides for the coal war down at Centralia.”

We went over with our kit that night, and the same girl, who was the secretary of the manager of the building, let us in and left. The first thing we did was to go to the files of this one company, and there was the dope all right. It didn’t take us long to find it. Later, Dick, who was handsome, always had a bottle of liquor in his hip, and was full of blarney, was able to find out from the girl why the locks were being changed. The place was being prowled by another detective agency and by the Department of Justice, which had apparently been unable to get its own trustworthy agents inside. Here was a file of both private and Federal stool pigeons, provocateurs, police agents, labor spies, the whole business. We got the same two girls, Angela and Liz, and we copied it all night for a week.

However, we were pretty na├»ve in those days. The evidence we uncovered had a good deal to do with the split in the IWW at that time. Several people were quietly forced out of the IWW because of the evidence we uncovered. There were dossiers on agents in Bill Foster’s Trade Union Educational League, which had been the ginger group of the Great Steel Strike, and on confidants of Fitzpatrick, the leader of that strike and of the Chicago Labor Council — an incorruptible individual and one of the finest men in the American labor movement. There were dossiers on agents in the United Mine Workers, the West Virginia Federation of Miners, the Progressive Miners’ Union, and the old Western Federation of Miners, intimate friends of Bill Dunne, the newspaperman from Butte, Montana, and leader of the Silver Bow Miners’ Federation, who became a prominent Communist journalist and was eventually expelled with Browder. The ordinary trade unions and every conceivable radical sect had their stool pigeons — they were all there. Besides the documents on the employees of the insurance company there was material on every other kind of labor spy. They had to keep track: you couldn’t have people going around shooting one another who were on the same side, although that is precisely what happened at Centralia that next year — possibly because parties unknown fouled up the records. They had dossiers on all the Department of Justice people and Pinkerton Detectives and Burns Detectives and all their competitors’ employees. It was all there in a battery of filing cases. We could take care of our own and we gave the information to the regular Anarchist groups and to the Socialist Party and to the trade unions. But what to do about the Workers’ (Communist) Party? Finally Dick said, “Well, I guess it’s a workers’ party. We’ll go and see General Goosey.” This was the Ukrainian Red Army general who had succeeded Pepper. He wouldn’t see us, so we got hold of William Bross Lloyd, the millionaire who was under indictment, having been arrested in the Michigan raids, and his lawyer, and we arranged an interview with Lloyd, the lawyer and General Goosey. Lloyd accused us of being police agents and stormed and raged at us and threw the stuff at us and threw us out of the place. The General sat, fat and impassive, and said nothing. We decided that they must all be employees of the Department of Justice. A few days later a woman at whose home I had met the General called me up and said, “Come over. I want to talk to you.” She said, “You don’t understand the position of the Party. The General can’t talk to you about this directly, but we know all these people and we tolerate them. Many of them are double agents, the rest of them we keep track of and use for our own ends.” Since the list included a sizable percentage of the leadership of the Communist Party, it was just a little difficult to see who was watching whom.

[pp. 263-265]

* * *

I became very fond of Geraldine Udell, who ran the Radical Bookshop. [...] With her I had long discussions about that Revolution which then seemed so near and about Anarchism, Bolshevism, Syndicalism versus Socialism, Federalist Anarchism versus Syndicalism, Alexander Berkman versus Lenin and Trotsky, and Herman Gorter versus all of them. It may seem academic now and very far away, but it was not then; it was life and death to us in those days.

Bertrand Russell had visited Russia prepared to accept Bolshevism, and had written, “The present holders of power, Lenin and Trotsky, are evil men, and there is no depth of cruelty, perfidy, and brutality from which they will shrink when they feel themselves threatened.” These words, printed in red block letters, still survive in one of my notebooks for the year 1924.

All day long the bookshop was a hotbed of argument. I think that it was there, in discussions with Geraldine and others, that I straightened out my attitudes toward the pressing problems of the revolutionary movement. I don’t think the straightening out was due to Geraldine’s brains, I think it was due to her calm. Nothing was said that was decisive but the atmosphere was decisive. I look back on the period and place and discussions as a determinative moment. I remember standing there and arguing with Charlie Ashleigh, Jim Larkin’s lawyer (whose name I’ve forgotten), Caleb Harrison, and Geraldine. Geraldine spoke little but to the point. We were discussing the Kropotkin letter.

I realize now the Kropotkin letter was a fake, but we were hotly debating it then in good faith. In a letter circulated by the Bolsheviks, Kropotkin had said, “This is not our revolution. We were unable to make a revolution. The Bolsheviks did. We should never take part with the bourgeoisie, let alone the Czarists, against them. We should cooperate with them in trade unions and mass organizations and defense and let them take care of their own politics.” This is the definition of fellow traveling. I think it’s highly unlikely Kropotkin ever wrote this letter. He was deliberately starved to death by the Bolsheviks in a little cottage in the country and he died about this time, and this was supposed to be his testament. It hit America along with Alexander Berkman’s revelations, Trotsky’s apology for terror, and news of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, and the betrayal of Makhno by Trotsky.

I made, pretty deliberately, the decision that I would avoid the political issues. I had no use for the Socialist Party or any of its works. It was obvious that the IWW had reached the end of its tether; something had gone wrong with it. I decided that the thing to work with rather than the IWW was the ordinary trade-union movement, which, of course, we all despised. Lenin was mild in his criticism of lieutenants and agents of the bosses in the ranks of labor in comparison with us. But I was coming to the conclusion that my job was to find what the Bolsheviks called “the masses,” and to avoid the factional fighting which surrounded any Bolshevik incursion into the labor movement. The most effective tactic seemed to be to bow before the storm and keep out of the way, to try to work on a mass level and avoid pie cards of any kind, to try to work with the rank and file, to constantly increase rank-and-file initiative and democratization, and to assist any measure that led to greater control on the part of the workers, but to keep quiet about my personal program and never get myself drawn into a factional position. By and large, I was able to stick to this decision.

[pp. 273-275]


Part 3 of excerpts from Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiography. Copyright 1991 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.