The recent death of Pete Seeger is a reminder that few indeed are left of the generation who can remember the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and how divisive an issue that was here in the US – which, along with France and Britain, had opted out of taking sides in the conflict. During the Great Depression, with tens of millions of Americans out of work for long stretches of time, leftist ideologies found many sympathetic ears, and to call oneself a communist or a socialist did not yet incur the degree of social stigma that later developed during the McCarthy Era. Still, many Americans in the 1930s supported general Francisco Franco’s campaign to oust Spain’s democratically elected socialist government – at least, until Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler sent in a combined 80,000 troops to turn the tide of battle and the victorious Franco went on to prove himself a full-blown fascist dictator.
For many young intellectuals of that era, the cause of the Spanish Loyalists (also known as Republicans) was a clarion call to activism. Of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers who fought under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, only two were still living at last report, aged 97 and 98 respectively.
Among those who perished in the war was a gifted young artist from the Town of Lloyd in Ulster County named Edward Deyo Jacobs, known to his comrades as Deyo. He became radicalized while studying at the Art Students League in New York City, where his instructors included Thomas Hart Benton, John Sloan, George Grosz and Harry Sternberg; Jackson Pollock was a friend and fellow student. After school, Jacobs worked briefly with the Works Progress Administration’s public art projects and then, unable to find steady employment, rode the rails like a hobo to visit the family of his best friend, Douglas Taylor, in Utah. He joined the Communist Party in 1935 and signed up to fight in the International Brigades at the end of 1936. Taylor joined him about six months later.
The Loyalists put Jacobs’ artistic talents and training to work, assigning him to illustrate pamphlets and posters, and later to scout out the terrain and make maps; but he also fought in the trenches. Having survived the bloody Battle of Jarama, he was among the many lost in the disastrous rout from Teruel in March of 1938, shortly before the end of the war. He was listed as Missing in Action, and it took many years before his family in Highland received an account of his death. Not fully recuperated from a recent ankle fracture, Jacobs had been unable to flee the advancing Nationalist troops; Taylor stayed with him, and both were apparently captured and summarily executed. By then the Nationalists, smelling victory in the air, were taking no prisoners.
After a long career with the US Information Agency, Deyo Jacobs’ younger brother John Kedzie Jacobs, now 95, moved back to the old family homestead on South Street in the rural Clintondale neighborhood; he lives there still with his wife Katia. Decades after the Spanish Civil War, following the death of their parents, John Jacobs unearthed a trove of letters to and from his brother. He dedicated many years to reading and organizing them, trying to contact other people who had known him and collecting surviving examples of Deyo’s artworks.
The result of this labor of love is a poignant and enlightening volume titled The Stranger in the Attic: Finding a Lost Brother in His Letters Home, self-published this winter, 75 years after Deyo Jacobs’ passing. It’s a fascinating window into the zeitgeist of the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, the New York City art scene of the time and the dynamics of a rural Ulster County family whose members were all gifted but frequently at odds. Through John Jacobs’ eyes, we see his brother transformed from an unsympathetic, self-centered, socially abrasive, possibly somewhat autistic boy to a brilliant young man with passionate commitments to his art, his friends and his political ideals – perhaps even a hero.
John Kedzie Jacobs will read from The Stranger in the Attic and talk about his brother and his writing process at Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz on Friday, March 14 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Come catch a bit of firsthand history of the ‘30s. You may even find yourself singing a chorus or two of “Venga Jaleo” on your way out.
John Kedzie Jacobs reads from The Stranger in the Attic, Friday, March 14, 7 p.m., free, Inquiring Minds Bookstore, 6 Church Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8300, https://inquiringbooks.com/new-paltz-bookstore.