I was all set to do a column on Phil Jackson’s taking over the Knicks and why Derek Fisher is a better hire than Steve Kerr. But last Saturday night I saw a remarkable play, A Day in Court, at SUNY Ulster — and so many memories were awakened that my game plan radically changed.
Written by the late Ron Marquette and brilliantly acted by Sean Marrinan and Robert Figueroa, the play concerns the appearance of actor Larry Parks before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. Parks, who was then a bigtime movie star, was the first Hollywood celebrity to be subpoenaed and questioned by the committee. Naively, he confessed to having been a member of the Communist Party from 1941 to 1945, when he was still an idealistic young man. All that his so-called cell did was to meet irregularly to discuss politics, have a few drinks, and share some industry gossip.
Disregarding this rather innocent agenda, HUAC’s counsel insisted that Parks, like all American Communist Party members, must have been involved in various (and unspecified) activities designed to “overthrow the US government.” He insisted that Parks name all of the Hollywood-based Communists he knew. Parks held out until, after being harangued, needled, humiliated, and finally threatened with jail, he yielded. As a result of his testimony, Parks was blacklisted in America and had to completely change his profession in order to earn a living.
I was stirred by the play because I was viscerally reminded of my childhood, when both of my parents were card-carrying CP members. My mother was a bookkeeper for a neighborhood community house, while my father worked as a tailor in a Manhattan sweatshop like so many other Eastern European immigrants. What their “subversive activities” actually consisted of was to stand around for hours at local subway and bus stations handing out leaflets that supported various causes: better working conditions for low-wage laborers, women’s rights, racial equality. They also tried to educate the public about the takeover of the democratic process by the super-rich, as well as the witch-hunt that was currently being conducted by HUAC and Senator Joe McCarthy. Indeed, according to the mainstream, right-leaning media, there was a Commie under every bed, and all of them were Jews and/or homosexuals.
The meetings of my parents’ “cell” usually took place at our East Bronx apartment. Although I was supposed to be in bed and asleep, I’d open my bedroom door a crack to hear what was going on amid the sound of laughter and the clink of wineglasses: I heard them berating President Eisenhower as a coward for not silencing McCarthy and ridiculing the jingoistic absurdities spouted by the Dixiecrat segregationists, the American Legion, and other misguided fools. In my sleepy state, I also got to hear what they and their friends did respect: the likes of Ralph Bunche, the NAACP, Fiorello LaGuardia, and most of the courageous union leaders of the day. And indeed, they were still mourning the death of FDR.
Weren’t these ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality all supposed to be our core American values? At least that’s what my school textbooks taught. What my parents and their friends believed in, and what they did, had nothing whatsoever to do with the grandiose edicts, secret treasons, and routine cruelties practiced by Josef Stalin in Russia and most of the CP overlords in America.
My parents and their entire circle were good people — as were the vast majority of CP members shortly before (and during) World War II. It should be remembered that Russia was a valuable ally in fighting the Nazis, and their painful and costly repulsion of Germany’s invasion of the Motherland spelled the turning point of the war.
This was my world, and it made sense to me. Especially when we watched our tiny black-and-white TV and I’d overhear my father calling every backward-looking politician a “son of a bitch.”