ARTICLES

Confessions OF A FELLOW TRAVELER

Free love! among Montreal’s pink youth? Police spies! in Paris? Red writers’ cells! in London? Now, at last, a young novelist who has brushed against them all lays bare an unsuspected aspect of underground communism—its lighter side

MORDECAI RICHLER November 22 1958
ARTICLES

Confessions OF A FELLOW TRAVELER

Free love! among Montreal’s pink youth? Police spies! in Paris? Red writers’ cells! in London? Now, at last, a young novelist who has brushed against them all lays bare an unsuspected aspect of underground communism—its lighter side

MORDECAI RICHLER November 22 1958

Confessions OF A FELLOW TRAVELER

Free love! among Montreal’s pink youth? Police spies! in Paris? Red writers’ cells! in London? Now, at last, a young novelist who has brushed against them all lays bare an unsuspected aspect of underground communism—its lighter side

MORDECAI RICHLER

Now that everybody from Arthur Koestier to Howard Fast has come clean about his past Communist affiliations, I’d like to get my two cents in before this type of confession goes out of style. Where I come from—St. Urbain Street in Montreal—the boys were very politically wise. There were those, like my Uncle Jake, who never voted. This wasn’t laziness. He had a point of view. All politicians were dirty crooks. “Promise, promise, promise, that’s before elections,” he’d say. “All they want to do is line their pockets.”

Talk like that used to irk Mr. Tansky, the proprietor of the cigar store where these discussions took place. Tansky was a convinced Communist. “How,” he wanted to know, "could He have created the whole lousy world in seven lousy days when even in this modern scientific age it takes longer than that to build one lousy house? Answer me that, big-mouth.”

That was during the war years; Russia was a valiant ally, and Tansky’s store was in the heart of a constituency that was represented by Fred Rose in Ottawa and the late Michael Buhay at the provincial legislature in Quebec City. Both were members of the Labor-Progressive Party. Not all of Tansky’s customers, however, were either Communists or non-voters like my Uncle Jake. Most of the horse players and a majority of the gin-rummy crowd voted for the Liberal candidate. This they did for a variety of reasons.

“Aw,” Arnie said, “it just wouldn’t look nice for our people to elect a Commie again. You know what I mean?”

According to Tansky, Lou and lots of others voted Liberal because their sons, McGill students, were hired each time there was a federal, provincial, or civic election, to go down to the cemeteries with notebooks and compile lists of all those who had died since the last census. Other students were hired to represent the lately deceased at the polls. Naturally this enraged Tansky. “That’s the only way the lousy Liberals could ever elect one of their candidates,” he said.

“Let’s face it,” Arnie said, "most of them would have voted Liberal anyway.”

“Don’t be so sure.”

“In Russia there’s no problem,” Lou said. “Nobody votes.”

Communists, non-voters, and phlegmatic Liberals aside, there were also a number of social democrats and the odd crank candidate who frequented Tansky's store. CCF voters were universally despised.

“The trouble with those guys,” Arnie said, "is they want to have it both ways.”

The odd crank candidate, like Buddy Lerner, usually got as many votes as he had members in his family, sometimes less. Lerner had once been given a ticket for speeding on the Laurentian highway and he ran time and again on a one-plank

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Confessions of a fellow traveler

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“I was brought up to believe that a Communist was somebody who wrung chickens’ necks”

platform: provincial speed cops are antiSemites. Conservatives, like bird watchers, were definitely a minority. Even the Trotskyites outnumbered them.

Mr. Tansky, anyway, was the first of the many Communists 1 have known, and

he was always extremely kind to me. When I came in on a message he’d give me a sucker, a biscuit maybe, or a piece of bubble gum. Only once did he demand that I commit myself politically.

“Awright,” he said, as I entered the

store. “Ask the kid. He can tell us.” “Gwan. He’s still wet behind the ears. What does he know?”

“Listen,” Tansky said, “do you study Canadian history at your lousy school?” “Sure.”

“Awright,” he said, “what does it say in your lousy book? That the Indians were lied to, cheated, and exploited left, right and centre by lousy imperialist adventurers like Jacques Cartier, or that the so-called noble explorers saved Canada from the savages?”

“It says that Jacques Cartier was a hero. La Salle too. It says they were very brave against the Indians.”

“You see?” Tansky said. “At the age of eleven they’re already stuffing their heads with lousy capitalist propaganda. I’ll bet there’s nothing in their lousy book about the fortunes those bringersof-Christianity made on the fur market.”

Although I liked Tansky very much indeed, my grandfather never spoke to him. We were an orthodox Jewish family unto the third generation and resolutely anti-Communist. My grandfather would not go into Tansky’s store because he remained open on Yom Kippur, the holiest' day of the Jewish year, and sat outside smoking his pipe defiantly. Smoking was absolutely forbidden.

We didn’t like Communists in our family but there was some confusion about who and what actually was a Communist. To begin with I was brought up to believe that a Communist was somebody who wrung chickens’ necks. That, you see, is precisely what I once saw Bernie Huberman’s mother doing to a chicken in her back yard. It was a fascinating sight, really, but puzzling too, because I knew that chickens had to be slaughtered according to the orthodox ritual or else we weren’t allowed to eat them. The explanation I was given was simple and damning. “She’s a Communist. A roite.”

The people downstairs turned out to be Communists too and I was warned not to speak to them. They moved in around one o’clock one summer night while we sat on the balcony above, cracking peanuts and eating watermelon. I was allowed to stay up late because of the heat wave.

“You see all those little boxes they’re moving in?” Uncle Jake whispered.

“Yeah,” my father said eagerly.

“You notice how they’re all the same size?”

“Yeah?”

“You see how they’re all very heavy?”

“Yeah. So?”

“You wait,” Uncle Jake said, leaning back in his chair. “You wait, Sam.”

The next night there was a distinct rumble downstairs and every Wednesday a panel truck came to pick up small boxes.

“They’ve got a printing press,” my father would tell visitors proudly. “An underground newspaper. Right downstairs from us.”

I never got to know the name of the lady downstairs, but I watched her closely whenever she appeared in the back yard and not once did I catch her wringing a chicken's neck. This got me into trouble with my friends at Bancroft School, whom I had foolishly invited to watch with me.

There were no self-confessed Communists with me at Bancroft—some fellow travelers maybe—but once I got into Baron Byng High School there were plenty of them. I got to learn more about the red menace.

Take Danny Feldman, for instance. Danny, who sat only two seats away

from me in room thirty-nine, was no parlor-pinko but a paid-up member of the Young Communist League. Danny came in for lots of heckling from the other guys and he retaliated by ridiculing our interest in the feats of Rocket Richard, Johnny Greco. Jackie Robinson, and other sports heroes. These were idiotic distractions, he said, a trick to take our minds off the exploitation of our working-class parents. He got into trouble with our teachers too. He wanted to know why our history textbooks made no mention of Spartacus, who led a slaves' revolt in ancient times, only glossed over the Spanish Inquisition; and neglected to say a word about the Allied attempt to overthrow the Russian revolution in 1919.

“You read the wrong books. Feldman,” our history teacher said.

“Yeah. Siddown. you dirty red.”

"Let's chip in and send him to Russia. Waddiya say, guys?”

Danny bore his martyrdom with pride. Meanwhile, he quietly led a red infiltration of the B.B.H.S. Cadet Corps and Students’ Council. One day Danny was a civilian and the next he was a cadet major, with easy access to our subbasement arsenal; and the Students’ Council had got up petitions to demand free milk at lunch hours and a ban on the strap. All this came about while our interests — as we began to encourage beards and passed from grade nine to ten —shifted from Rocket Richard to Lili St. Cyr’s strip-tease act at the now defunct Gaiety Theatre. Our latest obsession did not please Danny, either. “I've never seen such a bunch of decadent jerks in my life,” he said.

“Have you seen her, but?”

“Jeez.”

“It’s art. you know. She does it to classical music.”

Free love on Fridays?

Danny lectured us on the wholesome nature of women. He said the strip tease was just another form of capitalist degradation and, turning to Shubiner, he asked, “How would you like to see your mother strip on the stage?”

“You're looking for a punch on the nose,” Shubiner said. “I’m warning you.” Danny and 1, it developed, shared one characteristic. Neither of us joined in when they sang God Save The King at school assemblies. Danny was against all kings and didn’t believe in God anyway. I wouldn't sing God Save The King because I was against British policy in Palestine. We had something else in common too, or so I hoped. Only the other night my Uncle Jake had said, “You know those Communist youth clubs?” “Yeah,” my father said eagerly.

“You know they have parties every Friday night?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Boy. Oh. Boy!”

“What?”

Uncle Jake jerked his cigar in my direction.

“Go and do your homework,” my father said.

Listening from behind the door I couldn’t make out exactly what was said but I heard Jake use the phrase “free love” twice and time and again my father exclaimed, “No kidding!”

So my long, troubled career as a fellow traveler began. From then on when the other guys in class yelled “Why don't you go to Russia?” at Danny, I leaped to his defense. “What are we here anyway? A pack of fascists? Let Danny speak his piece. This is a free country.”

“Sez who?”

“Danny never did you any harm.”

“I don't like his dumb kisser; O.K.?” “Let them rave,” Danny said. “I'm used to irrational abuse.”

“You and me both, brother.”

We walked home from school together that afternoon and I hinted that I would be interested in meeting some guys— “and dames too.” I said—who took life more seriously. There are other things besides sports, 1 said, without exactly mentioning free love. I did, however, tell Danny an off-color Jewish story, hoping to work round to the subject of dames again, but it made a poor impression.

“You’re a chauvinist,” Danny said. “Oh, yeah. Is that bad like?”

“Well, it's not good, but it’s understandable. Listen, would you be interested in going to a party on Friday night?” “Don't mind if I do,” I said.

That was Tuesday. Friday, I thought, would never come. Wednesday I went to Irving's Barbershop and got a Hollywood haircut. I also let myself be talked into a kind of mudpack facial to remove disfiguring blackheads. Thursday I got my one-button-roll sports jacket out of the cleaners and bought a tie. Friday I put on

my new trousers. They weren't exactly zoot, but they were pegged some round the cuffs. I was ready an hour early. But when Danny finally picked me up I was shocked to see that he was wearing the same dirty old sweater and baggy trousers he came to school in every day.

Well, that was some party. There was no booze. They did have a gramophone, but nobody could boogie. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway—the only records around were by Paul Robeson.) A fuzzyhaired girl with a guitar sat on the floor and led a folk-singing session. Everyone

pleaded with her for songs like Joe Hill or Los Quatro Generales. When my turn came I slipped my arm round the dame who sat next to me and asked for an old favorite of mine that began,

If all the girls were like Hedy Lamarr,

I’d work half as hard and get twice as far. -

That, I’d hoped, would get things moving, so to speak, but all I got for my trouble was dirty looks.

“Who brought that here?”

“All-You-Eta,” I suggested quickly. “How’s about that? It’s a kind of gag version of Alouette. It goes All-you-eta, think of all-you-eta. All . . .”

Danny gave me a poke. “Shettup,” he said.

“Whatsa matter?” I said. “That’s a clean one.”

“It happens to be a tasteless corruption of one of our few authentic Canadian folk songs,” the girl with the fuzzy hair said.

“Oh.”

At the university that' hydra-headed monster called communism revealed yet another of its hideous faces to me. I became, as they say, a red dupe. The Dean of.Canterbury, on a visit to Canada at the time, had been invited to speak at our college by the Students’ Christian Movement, but at the last minute the nervous board of governors had refused permission to use the hall. A fight developed. Petitions were circulated, threats and counter-threats were made, and I wrote an editorial in the student newspaper about freedom of speech, but the so-called “Red” Dean left without speaking to us. As an aftermath of the fight, however, I made some new friends, and I began to read the “wrong” books.

“We ought to have free medical treatment in Canada,” I told my father. “It’s our right.”

“Smart guy,” my Uncle Jake said.

“What would happen to your Cousin Seymour?”

My Cousin Seymour was studying to be a doctor.

“After all those years of study,” my father said, “he becomes a civil servant.

Boy, that’s what I call family loyalty.”

I pointed out that the coming American presidential election was just one big fraud. A battle between Wall Street and Chicago capital.

“So what?” Uncle Jake said. “You want I should go out and hang myself?” “Republicans, Democrats; it’s all the same.”

“He’s a Commie,” Uncle Jake said. My grandfather was already convinced I was a Communist because I went without a hat, an offense against the orthodox religion. My Aunt Bessie was sure I was a red because she’d seen me drunk downtown once. “Before dark,” she had fold my father.

“I’m not a Communist,” I shouted. “After all the money I spent on your education,” my father said.

“Look here,” I said, “just because the Communists happen to agree with some of my ideas doesn’t mean —”

“A real Communist,” Uncle Jake said. “I’ve got eyes and I can see.”

Eventually I realized that the family was rather pleased with the situation. We already had a middling dentist and a potential doctor in the family, we could get drygoods wholesale through Bessie’s husband Harry, we had a car dealer on my mother’s side and a cousin who could get us a third off on fridges and stuff. Maybe it was a good idea to have a Communist in the family too. Somebody on the other side—just' in case, you know. Anyway, if there were any lingering doubts about the color of my political persuasion they vanished when I quit college to go to Europe the following summer.

“Go, it’s a good idea. Over there,” Uncle Jake said, “it’s crawling with your kind of crooks. You oughta see for yourself how the reds run things.”

While ihe left bank of Paris was not exactly crawling with Commies—I met more hashish smokers than Marxists—I soon did number several subversives among my acquaintances. There was Jean-Paul Maurice, the bearded and unpublished author of WAR: A Capitalist Sex Need; the heiress from Toronto who went on and on about Coca-Cola impe-

“I was not once asked ... to denounce a friend or a relative, or divulge any military secrets . .

rialism; and others too tiresome to catalogue here. I was in Paris at the time of the Ridgway riots and saw more than one demonstration broken up by clubswinging gendarmes. I once heard Jacques Duelos speak. I went to see Pablo Picasso sit silent and magnificent on a Communist platform. And for the first time in my checkered career as a fellow traveler, I ran into that anathema of revolutionaries the world over, the police spy.

I’m speaking of Mr. Noon, the selfappointed prophet.

Bearded, penniless, and inscrutable, Mr. Noon was dependent on us would-be writers and painters for food, clothes, and a place to flop. His age, like his nationality, was indeterminate. Some said he was Russian, others German, and Mr. Noon himself claimed—in his most recent reincarnation, that is—to be Chinese. The first time he sat at my café table he asked me, “How many times is it?”

“Four-thirty,” I said.

“Such much?”

Mr. Noon told me he spoke twelve more languages. Not all of them as well as English, though. And later in the afternoon he turned to me again and asked, “What do you think of the poetry of Mao Tse-tung?”

“Oh, I think it’s the most',” I said.

“Aha,” he said, and taking out his notebook he added, “How wjll one spell your name?”

I got a warning kick under the table. “Don’t tell him,” Dave said quickly.

Later, I was told about Mr. Noon. He had no papers and from time to time the police pulled him in for questioning. This terrified Mr. Noon and, hoping to pacify his tormenters, he would offer them information on left-bank types. “Holbrook,” he’d say hopefully, “is a Communist. He’s an admirer of Mao Tsetung. Miss Dilworth is a drug addict . . . Terry Freed is a fur thief . . .”

Whether or not the gendarmes took his information seriously I can’t say, but they never held Mr. Noon longer than overnight, and Terry was once actually questioned about a fur robbery.

With Communist connections in two countries I now went to live in London where, once more, I instinctively ferreted out the subversives among the expatriate colony. In fairness to my politically

tainted friends, I ought to point out that I was not once offered a torn Kellogg’s box-top, asked to denounce a friend or relative, or divulge any military secrets I might have picked up here and there. I was, however, asked to speak to the Communist Party Writers’ Group. The invitation was issued at one of those crowded cocktail parties, and it was delivered more like a challenge. “I’ll bet,” my friend said, “that you’d be afraid to speak to the Communist Writers’ Group.” “Certainly not,” I said.

“Jolly good. We’ll expect you a week Wednesday. You can speak on Modern American writing.”

“Hey, one minute.”

“I knew you’d be too scared.”

“What do you mean, scared? I’ll be there. Don’t you worry.”

I hate speaking anywhere. Not, mind you, that I’m invited out to speak once a week or even once every six months, but I’m a terrible speaker and I get shorttempered days ahead of time. I would have turned down the invitation if the quality of my courage had not entered into it. I was scared too. This was the heyday of McCarthyism and I had every intention of spending a year in the United States. I didn’t want to be turned back at the border, either. A few days before I was to speak I asked my wife to phone the group’s secretary for me. “Tell them I’ve got a headache,” I said. “I’m in bed with the flu.”

“You got yourself into this, now you get yourself out.”

“Hey, how would you like to go to Paris for a week? I could send them a wire from there.”

The phon« rang. “It’s for you, comrade,” my wife said.

It was my friend. “I’m just calling to tell you,” he said, “that there’s still time for you to back out.”

“I’ll be there. Don’t worry.” Wednesday night I talked a friend of mine, another Canadian writer, into coming along with me. We arrived fashionably late. At least thirty people had been prepared for, but there were only twelve in evidence.

“It’s raining,” my host said.

But I learned that only last week, when a certain Mr. Wu had come round to speak on modern Chinese writing, the

same room had been packed. S.R.O.

“The Bulgarian folk dancers opened in the West End tonight,” my friend said. “A lot of people went there.”

“Listen,” I said, “why don’t we all go to a movie and forget about the talk?” “Oh, no. I wouldn’t hear of it.”

We waited another half hour and three more people drifted in. Everyone in the group was supposed to be a writer, but it didn’t look like that to me. Most of the audience was made up of women who had brought their knitting and they suggested nothing more subversive than a meeting of the local church group. 1 was given an elaborate introduction and started right in to talk knowledgeably, I thought, about younger American writers. Nobody was interested. Nobody, that is, except an intense young man who took notes throughout my little lecture. That’s him, I thought. The fink. The guy from the FBI. Good-by year in the States.

“Why,” one woman asked me, “won’t they let Howard Fast out of jail?”

The young man with the notebook smiled encouragingly at me.

“He’s a lousy writer anyway,” I said, looking directly at him.

“Is it true,” another woman asked, “that a progressive writer can’t find a publisher in the United States today?” “Would you say,” a third woman asked, “that all American writers arc politically corrupted by success?”

“Well, I—”

“Look at Dos Passos!”

I managed to excuse myself early, but I was stopped at the door by the young man with the notebook. He had a girl with him. “I enjoyed your talk very much, comrade,” he said.

“Aw, don’t mention it."

He invited us to join him elsewhere for a spaghetti dinner. I said we were in a hurry and suggested a quick cup of coffee across the street instead. The young man pressed my arm compassionately. “It must have been hell,” he said.

“What?”

“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” the girl said. I shrugged.

“I think it’s a dirty shame what they did to people like you,” the young man said.

'"So do I, comrade,” his girl added feelingly.

1 must have looked very pained. “They had no right to deport you.” “But I’ve never been deported from anywhere,” I said.

The young man smiled.

“I understand,” his girl said. “It’s all right, comrade.”

“Will you stop calling me ‘comrade,’ please?”

“He’s still jumpy,” the girl said to the young man.

“Not to worry, comrade.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!”

The coffee bar, one of those espresso places, was thick with lovely young girls with pony-tails. My friend and I smiled, but my comrade didn't approve. “The bourgeois,” he snarled, “is really out in force tonight.” •

He was a schoolteacher, it turned out, who was writing at night, and he was having a rough time of it. just like us bourgeois scribblers. “It’s very hard for a young writer to get anywhere in the Communist Writers’ Group.” he said. “No kidding?”

“All the old writers in the group stand in your way. They’re jealous.”

“They take a very reactionary attitude,” his girl said.

“Well.” I said, “time to go, I’m afraid.” “It must be terrible,” the young man said, “to be an exile from the land of your birth.”

“Look here, I'm a Canadian citizen.

I can come and go as I like. I’ve never been deported from anywhere.”

“He doesn’t trust us,” the girl said. “Can you blame him?”

“Good night,” I said.

Last year I returned to Canada after an absence of four years, and I had only been back for a few days when I ran into Uncle Jake.

“Well, well, well,” he said, “the Commie returns. Things weren’t so hot over there, were they?”

“Look. I’ve never been a Communist.” “Sure. You bet.”

“I didn’t go to Europe for political reasons.”

“Naturally.”

“So why are you looking at me like that?”

“You think I care that you’re a dirty, no-good red?”

“Look, for the last time, I’m not —” “But a guy should stand up for what he is. If you’re a Commie you’re a Commie. Don’t apologize for yourself.”

“I’m not apologizing for myself.”

“I can’t stand liars, that’s all.”

“Would you be happier if I told you I was a spy?”

“No kidding?” he said.

I made a little self-deprecating gesture. “Can you at least earn a decent living at it?” he asked.

“Can’t complain.”