A Certain Party I Love

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Against the war, then for it

Looking back from nearly 75 years on, with the Nazis enshrined in history as the embodiment of evil, Elly’s desire to get involved with anti-war activities might seem shocking. At the time, though, it wasn’t an unusual sentiment. The US wasn’t officially involved in the war, and many Americans had reasons for hoping it would stay that way — whether they were afraid of the human cost of war, thought that what was happening in Europe simply wasn’t America’s problem, or were themselves fascists and/or anti-Semitic.

In Elly and Leon’s case, it was that the CPUSA saw the war in Europe as a battle between imperialist powers with no upside for the masses. Even aid to countries fighting the Nazis was seen as “warmongering.” That changed rather abruptly on June 22, 1941, when Germany threw over its 1939 non-aggression pact with the USSR and launched a surprise invasion codenamed Operation Barbarossa. In the face of this betrayal, the CPUSA immediately turned pro-war, urging its members not to participate in strikes and other activities that might hobble the war effort and keep the US from helping the Red Army.

(Keep following this blog to find out how Leon and Elly responded!)

Again with the Trotskyists

Elly was just trying to hang out with like-minded leftists, but it seems she found herself another group of the hated Trotskyites, as Leon informed her in no uncertain terms on March 27, 1941:

I can easily understand your confusion at seeing a “Committee Against War” — of whose background and leadership I assume you knew nothing — but simply cannot understand your participation, however small, in view of the fact that you had been warned that its org. was a T. bastard and you suspected as much from his book-review “slants”. Jesus do I wish I could give you some first hand accounts of those louses in action. Please, sweets, get in touch with Ned or Sam or some other developed person for a complete explanation. And for Christsake — disassociate yourself immediately and in no uncertain terms from that gang. Finally — if ever you even so much as vaguely suspect anyone of that particular odor, check on it first in order to better be able (okay, so it’s a split infinitive) to expose and combat.

I particularly like his reference to “developed” people who could set her straight.

In which Leon anticipates music videos

As a lifelong classical music buff who actually adopted “Beethoven” as his middle name at some point in his teens or early twenties, Leon believed strongly that classical music was for everyone, not just the elite. That makes his letter of March 26, 1941, a little surprising. Walt Disney had made a groundbreaking film setting animated visuals to great classical compositions in the Western canon, and Leon…wasn’t sure he approved.

Your letter describing “Fantasia” awaited me on my arrival home and was eagerly and appreciatively read. I was doubly pleased — first, by your thorough enjoyment of this unique film and second, by the fact that your “date” went off so well. I bet my darling was beautiful and charming throughout. A few words of comment for whatever their worth, if any: while I fully appreciate the pioneering strides “Fantasia” takes in the direction of bringing great music to the “masses” through easily-grasped and entertaining visual education, I feel that this particular film may be more harmful than beneficial. Why? It seems to me that especially those people who are not or were not familiar with the music will tend to “visualize” this music as they remember it portrayed on the screen whenever they hear it again in the future. Music, being the most fluid of the arts, should never be cast into a specific mold — an exact picture. Certainly some music is very definitely “program” music (William Tell Overture, Marche Slav, etc.) and it is possible to project their stories on the screen, but even in these cases, the central idea should be to focus the attention of the listeners on the way the music creates the picture — and of course it should be the picture the composer intended (rather than conceptions of cartoonists as in the case of Fantasia) — …okay, I’ll quit. And I am very anxious to see it myself — since I can’t see it with you.

Sweets, I really didn’t mean to sound off at such length about the picture — could it be I’M the gabby one? — so please ‘scuse. I’ve just re-read that part and it is remarkably unclear, but even so I’m sure you’ll get what I was driving at. And I’m even surer of what you’ll get when I hold you close night after night after night amen. NO, THE ANSWER IS NOT “BORED”!

Take out the specific references to Fantasia, and Leon could just as easily have been arguing about the rise of MTV in the 1980s.

I don’t know which side of the “music should be heard and not seen” argument I fall on. I will admit, however, that dancing hippopotami are not the first thing that spring to mind when I hear “Dance of the Hours.”

I personally go straight to Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah Hello Faddah.”

Meet me again in Pittsburgh

Three months into his engagement, Leon was ready to move the wedding planning along. On March 25, 1941, he floated the idea of meeting in Pittsburgh again to keep hammering out the details.

It looks like we’ll hafta make another excursion date toward the end of April, sweetheart, so that I can (1) see you again as I so much long to and (2) have all my leavedays for June when we get married — happy thought! — and possibly take up Bea and Erv’s N.Y. honeymoon proposition. I think the excursion date would be a good time to clean up as many details as possible if we can only manage to spare a half hour.

Although Leon and Elly had yet to set an actual date for their wedding, it seems clear they had at least narrowed it down to some time in June — just three months away, at that point, but people seemed to obsess a lot less over pulling a wedding together then than they do now.

It also seems like Leon’s sister and brother-in-law had invited them to visit New York City for their honeymoon, although I’m not sure how romantic that would have been!

Start dishing out the smut

Meanwhile, back in Cleveland, Elly was planning what Leon called a “spinster party” for her friend Eve. I’m pretty sure this was not a bridal shower, but something a little less formal — what today we’d call a bachelorette party (or, if you’re in the UK, a hen night). Elly wasn’t concerned about gifts for the new bride’s new home. She wanted Leon to script her a naughty performance, and he was happy to oblige.

Unfortunately, the letter in which he obliged no longer exists. We do have the letter after that, which only makes me wish for the earlier one more.

I betcha you really think I’m psychic and don’t pull that corny stuff about me being an old psychic of yours. What I mean is first I predicted with practically complete accuracy how you would look in Pittsburg (ahhhhhhhh!) and then I sent you a smutty “horse race” which I think will fill your request for something slimy for Eve’s party. You made no mention of it so I assume you hadn’t received it yet when you asked for poetic “porn”.

One of the guys at work typed a copy for me and I slipped it on to you. If you think ‘twill do — okay, if not, let me know and mebbe we can cook up something twixt all the guys here. But I think the “race” is fairly clever. You might provide background by pretending you are a spiritualist and will forecast the honeymoon of Eve and Morrie. You gaze into a crystal ball (or somp’n) and begin — I see a honeymooning couple in — in — in Louisville, Ky. They seem to be engaged in or watching a horse race…let’s see — and then you go into the shpiel. This doesn’t sound so hot on paper but I’m sure my clever darling could build it up (the spiritualist angle) and then start dishing out the smut. Darn, I’d like to do the job myself! Betcha I’d make a clitoris or two itch — for Morrie.

Yes, readers, he went there.

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator" was Charlie Chaplin’s first "talkie," and one of his greatest successes. He wrote, directed, produced, and scored the movie as well as starring in it. It became the highest-grossing film of his career — and earned five Oscar nominations in the process. The satirical slap at Hitler also proved that Chaplin was more than a slapstick clown: although it was a comedy, Chaplin ended it on a serious note by having his character deliver an impassioned speech in favor of democracy and freedom which actually made some viewers suspect him of communist tendencies.

Roger Ebert, who considered “The Great Dictator” one of the great movies of all time despite its flaws, asserted that Chaplin could only have made “The Great Dictator” at the specific point in history that he did: just before the US officially entered World War II. Any later, after Americans had started realizing how horrific the Nazis truly were, and he wouldn’t have been able to poke fun at them.

Chaplin bet his entire career on “The Great Dictator” when he abandoned his beloved Little Tramp character to play the titular dictator. As Ebert wrote, “He put [his comic persona] and $1.5 million of his own money on the line to ridicule Hitler (and was instrumental in directing more millions to Jewish refugee centers). He made his statement, it found a large audience, and in the stretches leading up to the final speech, he shows his innate comic genius. It is a funny film, which we expect from Chaplin, and a brave one. He never played a little man with a mustache again.”

"The Great Dictator" came out on March 7, 1941. Leon saw it less than 3 weeks later and had this to say about it:

I went to see the “Dictator” tonight. No need to me to rave except that I thought it much better and braver than I hoped for or expected it to be.

A visit from siblings

According to Leon’s kids, he remained close to both his brother Fred and his sister Bea his entire life. It’s obvious from his letter of March 24, 1941, that he adored them both and was thrilled when they both came to DC to visit him:

Wotta day! Wottaday! This morning Freddie arrived from N. York. Before you begin imagining how overjoyed I felt at seeing my Wonderful Brother — hold your breath — Bea came in too, an hour later on an excursion train! It was the first time in a year and a half that the tree of us were together! And to top it all, the day was one of those clear, blue, warm, breezy, harbinger-of-spring days.

Naturally, after the effusive and affectionate greetings, we decided to spend the day showing Fred the sights. First we went to a very nice cafeteria — ate good, too, sweetheart — and then down to the Monument, Memorial, etc. Fred had his camera with him and we snapped quite a few shots which should come out very well. When Fred comes home from his road trip nag him to have them developed as soon as possible if he hasn’t had them done yet. Gosh sweetest — if only you’d been there too! But a fella can’t have everything can he? We talked our heads off while we walked and I know how eager you would have been to chime in on our discussion of Freud, psychology, and of course.

Bea is actually bordering on the obese. I really thought she was pregling when I first saw her but she assures me ‘tain’t so. We also had a heart-to-heart finance committee meeting. As a result, new decisions were passed and a budget worked out for Mom which should be more than ample. According to revised statistics I will only send 15 a month instead of every 2 weeks and you and I will save the other 15. Nice decision, no?

Bea had to leave at 6 so Fred and I saw her off after stopping to eat again. Then I saw Fred off one hour later — he being bound for Lynchburg, S. Carolina — also met several of the orchestra men whom I knew who also came down to Wash from N. York merely to see the sights.

During the hour we waited after Bea’s departure, Fred and I had a man-to-man session in which we discussed — principally — you and me and the perspectives for our forthcoming marriage. Fred thinks very, very highly of you and I do too. In fact, we both love you. But I love you mostest and deepest and firmest.

Changes at the office

With the 1940 US Census still being tabulated, Leon’s workplace was increasingly hectic, as he explained to Elly on March 21, 1941:

Things have been popping at work. all kinds of shifts, reorganizations, new schedules, etc. have been and are being worked out. Yours truly got caught in one of these and shortly I’ll be doing some other type of work — still at the Census, same pay, etc. but probably operating a card-sorting machine. Nobody can figure out what the basis of the changes are as — for example, in my group — some very good coders and some ordinary ones were called in to be transferred to the new work. I had an “interview” with the head cheese of this new operation and from what I can gather this will be night work for which you and I both will be grateful and the only hitch is the business of leave. The guy practically stated flatly that since they need everybody working steady, little or no leave would be granted. Of course we get it — 2¼ days per mo. — but you can’t take it. Thus when you get fired — or “terminated” as the official lingo has it — you get credit for your leave days and quit work that many days before your termination is effective. And, of course, you get paid for those days, too. I won’t say more on this ‘till we get into the work and I learn exact rulings. But cheerup, sweetest — I’m coming home in April regardless. I’ll probably have to arrange to have you send a telegram saying an uncle or somebody is very sick and that I should come home. Faced with something like that, they’d have to let me go and — since I have annual leave due — take it off “annual” rather than dock me W.O.P. (without pay). in 4 more days I shall have completed my 6th month which makes me eligible for the Replacement Register — a list of unemployed clerks used by the other Fed. Agencies — in the event this job folds.

in an apartment now with four other fellows

Well, I was wrong: when Leon moved into his new place, he became one of five men sharing not a two-bedroom apartment but a one-bedroom! You’d think things were tight, but apparently it wasn’t so bad, as he described to Elly in a letter postmarked March 31, 1941:

The place is very ample, having a kitchen, large living room, bath and equally large bedroom. It is laid out thus:

The space in front of the johnny is a small antechamber containing a bureau on which your picture (in front of the show) now reposes and I keep my clothes inside. I like it here very much and am sure I will be saving money and eating better. There is a day-bed sofa which pulls out into 2 in the front room. I sleep on one of these and slept like a top last night. Gosh, dearest — you oughta see me making the bed, washing dishes after breakfast, and I even sewed a button on for one of the fellas. Ain’t I talented no end?

Of course we have steam heat as this is a hotel named the Calverton. Classy too. Switchboard operator downstairs, elevator service (we’re on the 2nd floor so we never use it) and all like that. This morning we ate a hearty breakfast-lunch consisting of large bowls of cereal, orange, bacon and eggs and miscellaneous nosherei. Last night, before retiring, we had delicious toasted tuna fish sandwiches with sliced tomatoes and stuff. It’s really great to get up in the morning — it usually still is morning — and eat inside ‘stead of hopping out in the cold, cold world as Lee and I did all winter.

As to the fellows they are all “good kids”. I don’t know them well enough to say further but we get along okay “individually and collectively”.

As for the other prospective roommate he’d mentioned,

I spent the whole morning day before yesterday tramping up and down streets looking for a double room having Gabriel H. in mind as a roomie. He didn’t call back as he said he would so I don’t know what if anything happened to him.

Leon was an all’s-well-that-ends-well kind of guy, though. He’d started his letter the night before, after coming in from his evening shift at the Census Bureau, but

Some of the boys came in last night and you know what happens to a letter when a gab-fest is going on in the same room. After things quieted down again, I had some of Ma’s Nestle, milk and cake, and then George and I sat down for a chess game. The game was so slow-moving we were both too bleary-eyed to watch or make good moves. And so to bed and it’s got so I have to do all my dreaming of you in the day-time ‘cause I fall asleep as soon as I hit the hay and haven’t dreamed for sometime now.

1673 Columbia Road NW

This is what 1673 Columbia Road NW, Washington DC, looks like as of April 2014.

image

The Calverton is an eight-story elevator building on a main street of the DC neighborhood now known as Adams Morgan. When Leon moved in 73 years ago, the neighborhood was called Lanier Heights, but the building — which is the tallest in the neighborhood — looked much the same. If you go to the website of the company that manages it today, you can see floor plans of the various studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments inside — and based on a rough sketch Leon included in a letter describing his new digs, the layout of the apartments hasn’t changed. It seems five men squeezed themselves into two bedrooms by using the living room and foyer as bedrooms as well.