In his new book The Millionaire was a Mole: The Twisted Life of
David Karr, Harvey Klehr, the distinguished historian of
Communism, recounts the colorful, sordid, and altogether unlikely
story of a man who, born into an ordinary middle-class Brooklyn
family in 1918, was, in turn, a writer for Communist newspapers like
the Daily Worker, an employee of the Office of War Information
in Washington, a flunky for the syndicated D.C.-based columnist Drew
Pearson, a PR guy in New York, the CEO of a major defense contractor,
a corporate raider, a Broadway and Hollywood producer, the general
manager of the George V Hotel in Paris, and – finally, from 1973
until his mysterious death in 1979, which has been attributed
variously to the CIA, the Mossad, the Mafia, and the KGB – a Soviet
Along the way, Karr acquired a multitude of friends, enemies, and
acquaintances in high places, becoming a target during his years with
Pearson of Senator Joseph McCarthy and columnist Westbrook Pegler;
after relocating to France, he became a business partner of Aristotle
Onassis and a friend of Kennedy clan member Sargent Shriver, who
introduced him to famous oil tycoon Armand Hammer. In turn, Hammer,
who had enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin since 1919, and who helped
fund Communist operations in the U.S. and Europe in exchange for
business concessions in the Soviet Union, introduced Karr to Soviet
officials and ended up with a lucrative job helping U.S. firms set up
business in the USSR. It was Karr, for example, who set up the
financing for the first Western hotel constructed in the Soviet
What exactly did Karr do during his brief stint as a KGB agent? He
provided his Kremlin bosses with inside information on the
presidential campaigns of several Democratic candidates – Shriver,
Henry Jackson, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter. “He tried to
insinuate himself in the Gerald Ford White House,” said Klehr in an
“He probably also worked for the Mossad.” Was he a convinced
Communist, betraying his country in the name of principle, however
misguided? No. Throughout his life, Karr seems to have been a man who
believed only in advancing his career and lining his pockets. Almost
certainly, he committed treason – serving the interests of
America’s totalitarian enemy – only because it was profitable.
When you think about it, becoming a Kremlin pawn was the natural last
act in the career of this sleazy, thoroughly unscrupulous character.
Very few members of the general public
remember him now, but in his time Herbert Aptheker (1915 – 2003)
was a very big deal indeed, and to this day he is a revered figure in
the academy. He is considered a pioneer in the historical study of
slavery in America – more broadly, in the general history of black
Americans, and, more narrowly, in the history of slave revolts.
But he was not just a scholar. He was a
devout Communist. David Horowitz called him “the Communist Party’s
most prominent Cold War intellectual.” J. Edgar Hoover once said
that the FBI considered Aptheker “the most dangerous Communist in
the United States.” In 2015, Harvey Klehr, the historian of
American Communism and of Soviet spying in the US, described
him as “an ideological fanatic who squandered his talents as a
historian, gave slavish devotion to a monstrous regime, and lacked
the intellectual courage to say publicly what he wrote privately.”
Indeed, as Klehr noted, Aptheker
“joined the American Communist party (CPUSA) in August 1939, after
the Nazi-Soviet pact, just as thousands of other disillusioned Jewish
Communists were leaving.” And good Stalinist that he was, he
parroted Uncle Joe’s calls for peace with Germany and, when the
Nazis violated the pact in 1941 by invading the USSR, immediately
reversed his position, calling for the US to fight shoulder to
shoulder with the USSR and UK.
Aptheker’s whole adult life revolved around the CPUSA. As a student he was active in CPUSA front organizations, taught at the CPUSA’s New York Workers School, and was a regular reader of the CPUSA’s Daily Worker and New Masses and a contributor to other CPUSA rags. After the war, in which he fought on the European front, Aptheker settled in the American South, becoming an “education worker” (which is something like a “community organizer”) and working for yet another CPUSA front. From 1948 to 1953 he was a staffer at the CPUSA’s literary journal, Masses and Mainstream; from 1953 to 1963 he edited the CPUSA’s ideological monthly, Political Affairs; and from 1957 to 1991, he was a member of the CPUSA’s national committee, on which he was considered was the party’s leading “theoretician.”
While the USSR lasted, nothing shook
his devotion to it. He was always prepared to defend Stalin’s
atrocities, and when the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, he wrote a
book justifying the invasion. He also penned a defense of the 1968
invasion of Czechoslovakia. If the Kremlin was incapable of doing
anything of which Aptheker would not approve, the U.S., in his view,
could do no right. For him, the Marshall Plan amounted to
“renazification.” And of course the Vietnam War was, in his eyes,
a pure act of imperialist aggression. In 1966 he and Tom Hayden –
the California radical who was then Jane Fonda’s husband – made
“solidarity” trips to Hanoi and Beijing.
In 1966, while remaining a CPUSA
stalwart, Aptheker ran for Congress as a member of the Peace and
Freedom Party, whose candidate for president of the U.S., two years
later, was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader and convicted
rapist who would later become involved in a shootout with Oakland
police and flee the country to escape a murder rap.
Under the pro-Marxist dispensation on post-Vietnam American campuses, Aptheker’s academic career thrived: he taught at Bryn Mawr, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, at CUNY, at Yale, at Berkeley, and at Humboldt University in Berlin. Yet he should never have been considered a serious historian: he consistently twisted or suppressed or invented facts to suit his ideological purposes. (Recall that a habit of focusing on the worst of America, including its history of slavery, was a key CPUSA activity.) Klehr acknowledges that “Aptheker deserves credit as a pioneer in the field of African-American studies,” but notes that “his work later came under sustained attack by far more accomplished historians who argued that he had overemphasized the significance of slave revolts and misjudged the militancy of most slaves. Even his fellow Marxist, Eugene Genovese, who praised Aptheker and sought to integrate him into the historical profession, offered a devastating critique of his thesis.”
Aptheker did not quit the CPUSA until after the Soviet Union had fallen, leaving him without a lodestar. To be sure, once the USSR was dead, and exposed to the world as, indeed, an Evil Empire, he felt obliged to cough up a few public recriminations, admitting, for example, that the CPUSA (contrary to his decades-long claims) had always been controlled and funded by the Kremlin. “In short,” wrote Klehr, “he confirmed much of what the ‘right-wing reactionaries’ had said about the CPUSA and the Soviet Union for decades.”
There was more.
After his death, in 2003, it emerged that this man who had spent most
of his life celebrating a monstrous tyranny had himself, in his
private life, been a monster: his daughter, Bettina, in a memoir,
revealed that he had sexually abused her from the time she was a
three-year-old toddler until she was thirteen years old.
Lester Cole, born Cohn, was the son of a Marxist garment-union organizer in New York. After gaining some success as a Broadway playwright, he was summoned to Hollywood in 1932. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, he churned out dozens of scripts, including Charlie Chan mysteries and B-movie thrillers, first for Paramount and later for MGM.
When he wasn’t writing motion pictures, he was playing a major role in Hollywood politics.With John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz, both of whom would also be members of the Hollywood Ten (and whom we looked at yesterday), he co-founded the first Tinseltown union, the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, he would expend a lot of energy seeking to heighten the Guild’s political profile, urging its members, as Allan Ryskind puts it in Hollywood Traitors, “to back Soviet foreign policy, support domestic Red causes, promote Communist penetration of unions, hire radical lawyers, subsidize left-wing groups, and engage in massive protests to stir up strife rather than to resolve labor problems.”
In 1934, Cole joined the Communist Party, which he would never leave. He was also a leader of the Civil Rights Congress and a member of the executive board of the League of American Writers – both of them Soviet front groups. In 1945, when the CSU – a Soviet-backed Hollywood workers union that was engaged in a struggle with the IA, an anti-Communist union – went on strike against the Warner Brothers studio, a range of Soviet front groups supported the CSU, as did the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker. Cole, for his part, met with the board of the Screen Writers Guild, urging that it condemn Warners and that it warn that striking workers would not return to work at the studio until a satisfactory settlement had been reached. Then came the Blacklist, after which Cole spent some years in the cold; eventually he wrote the successful 1966 film Born Free, and later taught film writing in San Francisco.
On to Edward Dmytryk, the Canadian-born son of working-class Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles when he was young. He began his Hollywood career in his teens, as a studio messenger boy; by age 31 he was a full-fledged film director. He went on to make some of the great films noirs of the Forties. In 1944, the same year that RKO released Murder, My Sweet, a thriller based on a Raymond Chandler novel, Dmytryk joined the Communist Party. Yet he was never as much of a fanatic as some of the other Hollywood Ten. For instance, he removed pro-Communist agitprop from his 1945 movie Cornered, arguing that the screenwriter, John Wexley, had written “long speeches, propaganda” that “went to extremes in following the party line on the nose.” Dmytryk knew that such dialogue simply didn’t work on any level – it ruined the effectiveness of the drama and it didn’t convince anybody of anything – but as a result of his action he was subjected to vicious criticism at several Communist meetings. Leading the charge against him was Lawson, who would soon be a fellow member of the Hollywood Ten; siding with Dmytryk was Albert Maltz, who, as we’ve seen, had had his own run-ins with Party purists.
As a result of the conflict over the script of Cornered, Dmytryk began (as he put it) to “drift away” from Communism. Then came the House Un-American Activities Committee, and jail. While behind bars, he came to feel that he’d been used by his Party comrades, and in 1950 officially broke with Communism – the only member of the Hollywood Ten ever to do so. The next year he again appeared before HUAC, this time providing the names of no fewer than 26 fellow Party members. His career restored to him, Dmytryk went on to write and direct a number of major films, including The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Carpetbaggers (1964).
Robert Adrian Scott (1911–1972), perhaps the least-known of the Hollywood Ten, can be mentioned here as a sort of footnote to Dmytryk: a middle-class kid from New Jersey, his main accomplishment in Hollywood was producing several films (including Murder My Sweet and Crossfire) directed by Dmytryk, who told HUAC that Scott had pressured him to put Communist propaganda in his movies. After the Blacklist, he worked in TV, dying in 1973.
Born in 1904 and raised in Zurich, Switzerland, by upright, pious, and wealthy American Quaker parents, Noel Field was brought up to be a fervent – but, alas, eternally naive – believer in peace and equality. After his father’s death in 1921, Noel, his two siblings, and their mother relocated to the U.S., where Noel attended Harvard and then joined the State Department, an idealistic and unworldly young man determined to use his position to remedy the world’s cruelties and inequities.
In Washington, D.C., Field and his Swiss wife, Herta – whom he had known since he was nine years old – lived in a black neighborhood and, appalled by the racism they observed, took part in anti-segregation protests.
Then there was the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were convicted of murder in 1921 and executed in 1927. The case made international headlines, resulted in the formation of defense committees around the world, and led to riots and vandalism. All this activity on behalf of the two defendants was believed at the time to be spontaneous; in fact it was all orchestrated by a U.S.-based Soviet agent, Willi Münzenberg, who saw the case as a golden opportunity to destroy “the myth of America” and thus make the U.S. fertile ground for Communism. Millions fell into his trap. One of them was Field, whom Kati Marton, in her recent biography of him, describes as “an ideal target” for Münzenberg’s machinations.
Disillusioned by his own country, Field began to read the works of Marx, Lenin, and the American Communist John Reed. He subscribed to the Daily Worker. Soon he was a “secret radical.” Bookish, sheltered, and utopian-minded as he was, he was easily drawn to the Communist dream of a workers’ paradise. The fact that he’d never set foot in the Soviet Union helped. “His exposure to Stalin’s Russia,” notes Marton, “came entirely from Moscow’s propaganda.” The Daily Worker‘s glorious descriptions of Bolshevik life – which he took entirely at face value – contrasted dramatically with America’s economic inequality and racism, which he saw firsthand.
Marton cites another factor in his attraction to Moscow: brought up in a starchy milieu (part WASP-y, part Swiss) without much in the way of human intimacy, the “stiffly self-conscious Noel” was deeply moved by the feeling of warm solidarity he experienced at a 1929 gathering of Communist laborers in New York City. “For once,” he wrote, “I felt myself a ‘comrade’ among that enthusiastic workers’ audience.”
It would take five more years before Noel Field fully shifted his allegiance. But he was already on the path to treason.
Arthur Miller (1915-2005), author of such plays as Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, was – and is – considered not only one of the great dramatists of the twentieth century but also one of the century’s great embodiments of moral principle. When he died, the Chicago Tribune called him “the preeminent social conscience of the world stage, the Denver Post said he was “the moralist of the past American century,” and The New York Times, in which his obituary was headlined “Arthur Miller, Moral Voice of American Stage,” praised his “fierce belief in man’s responsibility to his fellow man.” At his memorial service, fellow playwright Tony Kushner described Miller as having possessed the “curse of empathy.” To this day, his plays are taught in American schools – not only in English classes, but also in history classes, where The Crucible is used to illustrate the supposed parallels between the Salem witch trials of 1692-3 with the interrogation of suspected Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
What had Miller done to win such praise? Many of his plays were, to some extent or another, pleas for social conscience and social responsibility. They are populated by characters whose idealism is crushed or whose ambitions go unfulfilled; Miller’s apparent empathy for these losers in the game of life earned him widespread plaudits. So did his conduct when he himself appeared before HUAC on June 21, 1956. Whle admitting to having attended Communist Party meetings and been involved with a number of Communist front groups, pro-Communist appeals, and Communist-organized protests, Miller refused to name the names of other people who had taken part in these activities. This alone was enough to make him a hero on the left at the time – and a few years later, in the 1970s, when every last one of the men and women who had stood up to HUAC came to be uniformly lionized by mainstream American culture (never mind whether or not they had actually been Stalinists), Miller was consistently depicted as a man of high principle. To so much as hint that he had been a Communist was considered the most vile kind of slur on his character.
In fact, while he had declined to tell HUAC whether he had ever been a Communist Party member, the truth was that he had, at one time, at least, been a convinced Communist – and, for all we know, remained one for the rest of his life. In 2007, two years after Miller’s life, historian Alan Wald revealed that Miller had frequently written for the Daily Worker, New Masses, and other Communist periodicals in the late 1930s and 1940s, and that between March 1945 and March 1946 he had contributed theater reviews to NewMasses under a pseudonym, Matt Wayne. Miller’s writings for these publications, according to Wald, were ideologically consistent with the then-current Party line and were “militantly angry” in their hostility to “imperialism,” which Miller identified as “the enemy.”
After leaving the Communist Party in 1957, writer Howard Fast went on to even greater professional success. The 1960 film version of his novel Spartacus was a huge hit and remains a classic. He wrote a series of highly popular historical novels. Even after he left the Party, his work continued to be shot through with heavy-handed politics. He wrote a draft screenplay for Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas, the star and producer, rejected it, calling it “a disaster, unusable” because “[i]t was just characters spouting ideas.”
Fast also published not one but two accounts of his involvement with Communism. What is striking are the differences between the two books. In his 1957 Saturday Review piece he had written that while the U.S. was not perfect, “it is a land where the individual, in his work and in his rights, is recognized and defended”; the Communist Party however, was “a prison for man’s best and boldest dreams.”
In his book The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, published the same year, Fast continued to take this line, describing Communism as being rooted in “naked terror, awful brutality, and frightening ignorance” and saying that Communists had sold their souls when they joined the Party. Thirty-three years later, however, he wrote another book, Being Red, in which – to quote a review by Gerald Meyer – he covered “much of the same material, but from a very different perspective and for a very different purpose.”
That’s putting it mildly. As Meyer himself put it, “Being Red describes Fast’s membership in the Party as the best years of his life.” Dropping The Naked God down the memory hole, Fast “insisted that the Party was not dominated by the Soviet Union,” praised the USSR for having vanquished Hitler and saved “three million Polish and Ukrainian Jews,” maintained that the DailyWorker “never compromised with the truth as it saw the truth,” and resumed saying, as he had during his Party days, that he and his fellow Reds were “priests in the brotherhood of man” and members of “the company of the good.” Meyer summed it up this way: “Without ever mentioning The Naked God, in Being Red Fast refuted the damning criticisms of the Party he made in the earlier memoir.” He even made up at least one story out of whole cloth. (This was far from the only lie he told about his career in later years. At one point he even claimed that Ronald Reagan had applied to join the CPUSA in 1938 but had been rejected as “too stupid” – a tale that was sheer invention.) Significantly, the list of “Books by Howard Fast” in the front of Being Red omitted The Naked God. “Clearly,” wrote Meyer, “The Naked God is something Fast wanted to forget, and amazingly the reviewers of Being Red have allowed it to be forgotten.”
Why did Fast revise the story of his life? Meyer got it right: he was 85 (he would die three years later) and “wanted to be remembered as a man of the Left.” While The Naked God had been a good career move in 1957, enabling him to resuscitate his career as a mainstream novelist, Being Red was an equally good career move in 1990, when the most honorable items a writer could have on his CV, in the eyes of the literary establishment, were a stint in the CPUSA and a period on the Hollywood blacklist. Historian Ron Capshaw’s summation seems fair enough: “Howard Fast, among the writers attracted to communism, emerges as the worst example for the CPUSA: simultaneously dupe and careerist, a propaganda merchant and a groupie.”
We’ve seen how novelist Howard Fast was supposedly disillusioned by Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” about the evil deeds of Fast’s longtime hero, Josef Stalin. In a 1957 essay for Saturday Review, Fast publicly declared that he’d left the Communist Party. (He wasn’t alone: a large majority of American Communists quit in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, also in 1956.)
That essay is a curious piece of work. On the one hand, he professed to be stunned by the reality of Stalin’s terror. On the other hand, he goes on to describe, with a novelist’s flair, the reality of life inside the Party, of which he had been a member for thirteen years. It is not a pretty picture. It is a grim portrait of a life made up of meetings with shifty, slimy, barely human characters – men and women who spouted dogma like robots, who feared original thinking “as the devil himself,” who bowed and scraped to their superiors, who systematically intimidate their inferiors, and who routinely listened for the slightest possible deviation from Party orthodoxy by their fellow members so that they could then set about denouncing them, humiliating them, and driving them from the fold.
The Party described by Fast was also populated by people utterly lacking in artistic taste or cultural sophistication – which was all to the good, from a Communist perspective, for art and culture, unless entirely devoted to promoting the Party, are anathema. It was also a fount of hypocrisy: Fast remembered a lunch meeting with the Romanian ambassador to the U.S., who was appalled when Fast and his colleagues from a Communist magazine, Mainstream, suggested that, in line with Communist doctrines of equality, the ambassador’s chauffeur be invited to join them at table. Moreover, the Party was a hive of envy: while Stalin and his henchmen in the Kremlin celebrated Fast, the local CPUSA hacks in New York saw him as an underling who was too big for his britches.
Fast maintained that he had never in his life experienced outside of the Party the kind of consistently repulsive behavior he had experienced and observed inside it. “Not even the warden of the Federal prison where I served a sentence as a political prisoner years later,” he wrote, “ever treated me or anyone else with such inhuman disdain and contempt.”
It’s all very interesting. But also deeply puzzling. For by the time the Times published Khrushchev’s speech, Fast had been a member of the Party for a full thirteen years. He had long since noticed all the unpleasant things about the Party that he would detail in his Saturday Review piece. How, then, could he have been surprised, as he claimed to be, by the revelations contained in Khrushchev’s speech? Since he already knew how far short the Party fell of what it professed to be, why did it take Khrushchev’s speech to make him leave? Wouldn’t it have made more sense, on the contrary, if Fast, aware as he was of the corruption and cynicism of the Party, had welcomed Khrushchev’s speech as a breath of fresh air and as a reason to hope that, with Nikita rather than Uncle Joe at the helm, the whole operation might actually reform itself into something that actually was dedicated to brotherhood and all that? And in that case, why didn’t the Khrushchev speech cause him to rededicate himself to the Party rather than to leave it?
As we saw yesterday, joining the Communist Party was a great career move for the novelist Howard Fast. He became a superstar behind the Iron Curtain and acquired influential comrades in the highest cultural and intellectual circles in the West. He hobnobbed with other members of the Red elite – French Communist author Louis Aragon, Chilean Communist Pablo Neruda. When Soviet writers came to the U.S., he played host to them; when he visited Paris, he was granted an audience with fellow Party superstar Pablo Picasso, who “kissed him on the mouth and offered him any painting he chose.”
Meanwhile, Fast lent his talents to the cause. He wrote pamphlets at the Party’s direction. He edited the American Communist Party’s house organ, the Daily Worker, from 1952 to 1954. He ran for Congress in 1952 on the American Labor ticket.
But his main contribution to Communism was this. He was a historical novelist whose novels revised history – especially American history – by consistently viewing it through a red-tinted lens. To quote Gerald Mayer, he “refitted the genre of the historical novel to the requirements of Popular Front culture.” Which is another way of saying that he was a master propagandist, distorting events of the past to make it look as if they were all about class struggle. As historian Ron Capshaw has put it, Fast “inserted the class struggle into U.S. history by filtering Tom Paine, slavery, Reconstruction, and Indian reservations through a radical lens. He did the same for figures in Western history including Moses and, most famously, Spartacus, the Thracian gladiator and slave of the Romans.”
In all these writings, according to Capshaw, Fast eagerly complied “with the directives of the Party to blue-pencil any ideologically incorrect sentiments (such as suggesting that a capitalist character could have any humane qualities).” Even Dashiell Hammett, whom Capshaw calls “one of the most obedient of Marxists,” despised Fast’s fiction, accusing him of “oversimplifying to death” his themes, more in the manner of a propagandist than of a literary artist. But the bottom line is that Fast’s fiction represented an invaluable service to the CPUSA, whose General Secretary, Earl Browder, believed that such efforts on the cultural front were vital if Communism hoped to win the hearts and minds of middle America.
Fast hit a bump after the war. Summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to talk about his Communist activities, he was imprisoned for three months for refusing to provide HUAC with the records of a Party front called the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. But according to Capshaw, Fast “ruined, with his self-serving egoism, any chance for fellow communists to admire his fortitude. His depiction of his time in prison was so Christ-like that Dashiell Hammett (who also went to prison for refusing to betray his comrades) accused him of trying to wear a ‘crown of thorns.’” In any event Fast’s prison term was only a blip in his success within the Party, which was capped by his winning of the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.
Two years later, however, everything changed. Stalin had died in 1953, and on June 5, 1956, the New York Times published the text of the so-called “secret speech” by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. In the speech, Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s reign of terror, described it in horrific detail, and condemned it utterly. A year later, in an article for the Saturday Review, Fast would recount what supposedly happened the next morning at the offices of the Daily Worker, where the question of the day was whether to print the speech or not. Fast and his colleagues, he maintained, were all shell-shocked. They had sacrificed “brilliant careers” to fight for “brotherhood and justice.” And yet now they knew they had hitched their wagons to an evil monster who, if given the opportunity, would likely have executed all of them.
In a recent issue of Commentary, music critic Terry Teachout recounts in brief the storyof the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. Jazz aficionados know some of the basics: she grew up poor, became a prostitute at a very young age, pulled herself out of poverty to become a star – but destroyed herself with drugs, alcohol, and a series of compulsively self-destructive relationships, being “irresistibly drawn,” as Teachout puts it, “to flashy, violent men who, like the pimps she had known in her childhood, lived off her earnings.”
Yet through it all she remained a gifted musical artist, able (to quote Teachout again) to “make even the most trivial Tin Pan Alley ditties seem meaningful” and to bring first-class songs “to vivid life without falling victim to the temptation to over-dramatize them.” Teachout cites Holiday’s prewar recordings of such tunes as “I Wished on the Moon” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as archetypal of her work at its best. Other examples: “Easy Living” and “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw away the Key).”
But in 1939, Holiday’s career began to take a major turn – one that, as Teachout tells it, had a surprising political element. During a long-term association with a New York club called Café Society, Holiday “changed her style deliberately and dramatically,” introducing new songs into her repertoire. Among them was “Strange Fruit,” which Teachout describes as “a minor-key setting of a poem about a lynching” that is performed “at a paralytically slow tempo” and “full of melodramatic couplets whose sincerity cannot disguise their staginess.” In any event, it became a hit (and a classic) – and pushed her over the line from successful band singer to full-fledged singing star.
Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” is powerful – as is virtually everything else she recorded. A social statement for which the word “impassioned” is far too weak, the song serves up a ghoulish image of a lynched corpse and bitterly condemns what the lyric refers to, with acid sarcasm, as “the gallant South.” It’s interesting and instructive to learn from Teachout that the lyrics were by Abel Meeropol, a fervent Communist who (small world) adopted the sons of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the spies’ 1953 execution.
Needless to say, lynching was every bit as abominable a practice as “Strange Fruit” suggests. But for Stalinists like Meeropol, writing songs about such subjects for American consumption was a consummately cynical exercise; such productions were, quite simply, Cold War weapons, the kind that America was not in a position to counter with similar weapons of its own, given the hermetic nature of Soviet culture. And what effective weapons songs like Meeropol’s were – promoting the diabolical ideology of Stalinism by pummeling the consumers of American popular culture with reminders of the very worst aspects of American history and thus rendering them more vulnerable to the idea that the enemy’s way just might be better.
Holiday, however addled by drugs and booze and beatings, wasn’t unaware of this aspect of her work. She was a mess, but she wasn’t stupid. “Strange Fruit” changed her style. As the music critic John Hammond has observed, her later work remained “marvelously musical” but also became “mannered” and “self-conscious.” He called Meeropol’s song “the beginning of the end” for Holiday as an artist, because it made her “the darling of the left-wing intellectuals,” which in turn caused her to start “taking herself very seriously and thinking of herself as very important.”
Teachout puts it this way: atCafé Society, Holiday “reinvented herself as a politically conscious torch singer” and thus became “a magnet for leftists, many of them of the hardest possible kind.” These were people who were “more interested in her utility as a political symbol than in her artistry.”
Billie Holiday, political symbol? You bet. Just poke around online. The World Socialist Web Site devotes a page to the story of “Strange Fruit.” Earlier this year, in People’s World (which describes itself as “the direct descendant of the Daily Worker”), Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ younger son, sought out parallels between Holiday and his mother, the traitor, paying tribute to both of them and concluding as follows: “In 2015, the centennial year of both of their births, we remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching, and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.”
The artistic results of Billie Holiday’s conversion from purely apolitical songstress to tool of left-wing propagandists were not pretty. “From 1939 on,” Teachout writes, “she resorted with fast-growing frequency to a lugubrious self-dramatization and exaggeration”; while “still capable of singing with moving expressivity,” she exchanged “unselfconscious simplicity” for “the inflated pseudo-profundity of ‘Strange Fruit.’” Was she a useful stooge? Hard to say. But she was surrounded by them, used by them, influenced by them, and paraded by them as a victim of a society that, in point of fact, was, for all its egregious faults, incomparably superior to the murderous totalitarian dictatorship for which they labored incessantly and lied without shame.