Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: How Dad Became a Communist

My father became a Communist as a young man growing up in Depression-era New York, but he might have been a Socialist, or even a Mormon convert! It was through the Mormons that he wound up, like me, as a media techie. But it was the Depression that pushed him into becoming a radical.

Dad’s mother and uncle owned a small candy store in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; all the kids were expected to work. As a teenager in the 1920’s, he sold newspapers, and then magazine subscriptions to teachers. He practiced reading English from the magazines he sold; reading in Yiddish and Russian, speaking some Rumanian and even some French. He hung out with the other kids, dancing to Jazz 78’s and smoking pilfered cigarettes. He handed out literature for Progressive “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s 1924 presidential campaign. He tried to join the Young Socialists, but remembers being turned away as too young.

He got a job in Manhattan in the shipping department of Amplion – a high-tech company of its time. They imported loudspeakers from England, and installed them in movie theaters that wanted to play recorded music along with “the silents.” The US distributorship was owned by a Mormon family, who took an interest in this Jewish kid from Brooklyn. They encouraged him to learn the trade, sending him to the Polo Grounds (in 1929) to help install the first PA system in the Major Leagues. He was doing pretty well, and soon was able to marry Lillian, “the girl upstairs.” I found their wedding picture. Dad looks light a frightened deer in the headlights, and Lillian has a gleam in her eye. My half-brother Karl says that Lillian “always wanted to party.” Dad had another “party” in his life path.

By 1930, Amplion was out of business, a casualty of the Depression, and of the “talkies” – no theater was going to install a recorded music system designed for silent film. Unemployed, Dad joins the ranks of the protesters, and is drawn to the Communist Party activists. He was interested in photography, and joins the newly formed Workers Film and Photo League and travels to the strike-embattled coalfields of Pennsylvania where he sees first-hand the starving miners’ children. One of his pictures is published in the Daily Worker. He returns a committed Communist.

He once told me that he always recalled the Red Star on the caps of the soldiers protecting Uman’s Jews during the Russian Civil War of 1919-21. It was easy for him to picture his political work in Brooklyn as part of the same world revolution that protected his childhood village.

I always knew him as a political organizer, it wasn’t till I interviewed him about his early days did I realize how much of my interest in media was already in my genes. I was a licensed movie projectionist; he added amplifiers and speakers to those same projection rooms forty-years earlier. He built one of the first “sound trucks” in New York, when in 1930 he took the Amplion speakers he had received as a parting gift from the company, and mounted them on an old panel truck and took it to Union Square on May Day. Thirty-six years later I drove an updated version that included roof-mounted slide projectors around Chelsea for a reform candidate for Congress. Like him, I showed radical movies: mine of student strikes shown in college basements; his were Russian silents, shown as “warm-ups” before the main Party speaker.

I can picture him driving a station wagon with film cans and projectors across a snowy New England winter. Once he got lost on Boston Common in the midst of a whiteout blizzard, and had to follow an Irish cop to the Finnish labor hall where the small but devoted crowd was waiting for the entertainment.

Meanwhile, with all this traveling, things were not going to well at home with Lillian. She wanted a stable breadwinner and someone to take her out dancing. My Dad was a failure on both these counts. She was not pleased with his becoming a Communist; her father was a Tammany Hall political appointee, and this might cost him his job. My father said going off on Party business was a relief from the fights at home. After one weeklong training, he came back to find he was kicked out of the house by his now-pregnant wife.

Dad told me that he was ready to leave Lillian, and that by then, he saw himself as a different man than the boy who rushed into marriage. He even had a new name. Little Leon (Jidel on the Ellis Island immigration manifest) Krassen had taken the Party name of Carl Vedro: Carl for his father’s first name, Kallman; Vedro, a shortened version of Vydrock, his mother’s maiden name. And yes, it sounded Italian, for by then he was already working in the Italian neighborhoods and on the docks organizing against the Mafia-controlled labor unions.

By the time his first son Karl was born in 1934, Dad was busy organizing street demonstrations against the rise of fascism in Germany. In fact, on the night of Karl’s birth, Dad was in jail, arrested in Coney Island for distributing leaflets to the beach crowd on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Karl wound up for a time in an orphanage, and later was reclaimed by Lillian and her new husband. My father eventually became head of the Communist Party in Brooklyn, and succeeded in getting the first Communist elected to the New York City Council. He met and married my mother, the head of the Brooklyn Young Communists. My brother and I were born into the Red Scare of the 1950’s, and never knew our father as youngsters. He was gone from my mother by the time I was two-years old: first “going underground,” hiding from the FBI, then surfacing with his old girlfriend, but that’s another story.

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