Memories of Los Angeles During the Red Scare
In 1947 my immediate family lived in three tiny wooden houses on the property my grandmother Molly and grandfather Izzie had bought in West Los Angeles on Federal Avenue. Molly was nursing her husband Izzie who was suffering a lot of pain from his stomach cancer. A doctor from the International Workers Order (I.W.O.) took care of my grandfather.
My grandparents, who had never joined the Communist Party, had joined the I.W.O. as had my parents. The I.W.O. was a Communist-affiliated group that provided low-cost health and life insurance, medical and dental clinics, a summer camp and cemeteries which had low-cost burials, so we could go doctors and the dentist and get buried decently. In 1944, the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized the IWO. By 1947, the U.S. Attorney General had placed the IWO on its list of subversive organizations.
Our tiny houses looked like relics from the turn-of-the-century when this area had farms that grew beans. My grandparents were in the back tiny house, where my grandmother tried to alleviate my grandfather’s cancer pain with shots of morphine. Uncle Norm lived in a one-room house in the middle. My parents lived with me in the tiny front house. My dad got a job at a car wash while my uncle worked as an office boy, a shipping clerk and a stock clerk. My mother got pregnant.
Bougainvillea bushes with bright red blossoms grew on our fences, and a gate opened to the street. My earliest memories are the bright sunlight washing over our houses and yard. As soon as an adult let open a gate, I waddled down one house and then started walking on the sidewalk of the Santa Monica Boulevard. I was famous for running off. The man at the corner used car lot saw me, rushed out to take my hand, and walked me home.
In 1947, my grandfather’s oldest sister Esther, and her husband Yashirya Kasdan moved to Los Angeles to be near my grandfather, settling in Venice Beach. My brother was born in October 12, 1948, and the whole family gathered to welcome my newborn brother. My father got a better job as a clerk in the downtown post office and bought his first car, an old beater. During the primary campaign of 1948, Mory Mitchell knocked on my grandmother’s door, asking for donations and a vote for Henry Wallace for president on the Progressive Ticket. The Mitchells and my family became friends; Ray Mitchell and my mother both had two small children.
Uncle Norm took me to a nearby bean field with lots of green beans growing in a last remnant of the farms that used to be. The bean field man gave me a bean, which I ate happily. I also liked going on family outings in our old car to Venice to see Great-Aunt Esther, who lived in an apartment house near Venice beach. My mother was driving down Speedway, a tiny alley near the beach on which she had to drive oh so slowly. Esther was dressed in a long, black dress, and was even older than my grandmother. I found Esther fascinating. If we were lucky, my mama would take me and my baby brother to the beach for a little while, or to walk a little ways on the ever fascinating Venice Boardwalk by the beach.
When I was about four years old, my mother was very concerned that I wasn’t walking correctly. She took me to a clinic where I was brought into a room with lots of toys to play with. I really enjoyed myself having all those toys all for myself, walking from one toy to another. The adults, including the I.W.O. Doctor, watched how I walked until the doctor said my walking showed no problems. An I.W.O doctor had always taken care of my grandfather, whose stomach cancer caused him great pain.
My great-Aunt Sara, a Communist, and union organizer in New York, returned home in 1949 to her apartment when her conservative neighbor, whose wife, when ill, had been helped by Sara, rang her doorbell. He said, “Please, Sara, stay inside; they [the FBI] are waiting for you.”
Five leaders of the Communist Party were on trial in the N.Y. Foley Square trial. Aunt Sara had never held any office or any bureaucratic position, but the FBI talked to her neighbors, and to her landlady, asking questions about her; and tried to talk to her at her home. Sara, and other foreign-born, were advised by lawyers from the Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born not to talk to them, so the next time she saw the agents she told them to leave her alone.
Then the FBI wrote Sara asking her to come to their office to answer questions. Her lawyer told her she had to go, so she did. She was surprised the FBI agents knew so much about her activities for years, including dates. They asked question after question about her party activities and union organizing, but she only answered she had had a common law marriage, and refused to answer any other question. Whenever Sara got a job, the FBI went to the boss, telling him all about her union organizing.
The cafeteria workers union she had organized in 1929, was, in 1949 controlled by bureaucrats who wanted to expel her. Whenever she got a job, the union business agent went to the boss, telling him Sara was a Communist and that the boss would harass her while the union wouldn’t object.
Her lawyer asked, “Why do you stay here?”
Sara left for California, joining us in West LA. The FBI seemed to have lost track of her, but later she learned that they knew every moved she made, even in Los Angeles.
When my great-Aunt Sara arrived to stay with us in 1949 ,many people, from screenwriters to carpenters in Los Angeles, lost their jobs during the blacklist. Aunt Sara, and my grandmother had fights about how much morphine to give my grandfather: Aunt Sara wanted to give him more than my grandmother did. Now both my grandfathers’ sisters came to be near him when he had stomach cancer.
Nobody in my family went on demonstrations against the Red Scare until Aunt Sara demonstrated against it in downtown Los Angeles. She stayed with us for months until she took off hitchhiking across the country. When my grandfather died, he received a decent but low-cost funeral at the I.W.O. cemetery in an eastern suburb of Los Angeles. My parents ,and grandmother were still afraid we’d lose the only access to doctors and dentist that we could afford if the U.S. government shut down the I.W.O., as they kept attacking our health care year after year.
As an adult, I heard stories about how adults took all their volumes of Marx and Lenin, donating them to the Jewish Home for the Aged in Reseda, thinking the FBI would never think of looking there. Other adults were about to destroy their libraries and memorabilia, but one left-winger, Emil Fried, started to collect these books, leaflets, and even films, starting a library and archive which later became the Southern California Library for Social Justice and Research in South Central Los Angeles. Fried’s library documented social justice and racial struggles in Los Angeles, and nationwide in the 20th century.
In 1950, a developer wanted to build an apartment house on our land as other developers were in a rush, building apartment houses in the neighborhood. The developer went to the city, getting our housing condemned as “unfit for humans.” My mother ,and grandmother tried to fight it, and we were fearful of losing our property, which we loved. The houses were tiny and old, but they were our homes. I clearly remember those months as very anxious for the whole family. After months of the city bureaucracy shuffling papers, the developer won. We had to sell and move.
My parents ,and grandmother decided they would buy a piece of property together now that my parents had saved a little money. They looked around Fairfax Avenue, which had become THE Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. My mother saw a lovely house for $13,000 in the Fairfax area, but my dad said it was too expensive. Then they found a modest duplex with each apartment having two bedrooms, a kitchen, a good-size living room, and a dining room in the Fairfax Area for $11,000: in one half my family would live, and the other half my grandmother and uncle would live. My parents, and grandmother bought it ,and we moved.
Actually, moving to the new house was very good for us. The rooms in the new house were regular-sized, not like the tiny rooms in our previous house. A grape arbor, an avocado tree, and a tangerine tree grew in the backyard. My parents put in a picnic table and chairs for my brother and my for birthday parties. Half the houses were duplexes, and half single-family homes. The duplexes had been built for union workers, like carpenters and electricians who worked at the nearby studios in Hollywood. Occasionally, extras, or wannabe actors also rented on our block.
The first day we moved in, my brother, and I met the children across the street: a girl, Yvonne Newton, about five years old, six months older than my four-and-a-half years; her older brother Reggie, who was seven years old; and a swarm of other children three to eight years old. When I joined their group, somehow, a brick smashed in my hand, making my nail bleed. After my mother bandaged me up, I went happily back outside to join up with the children who played in the Newtons’ front yard.
In 1951, Uncle Norm, who lived in Grandmother’s back bedroom, was drafted for the Korean War. He was trained as a machine gunner in 40th Infantry, Division 224th regiment, Easy Company. From army training, he’d return weekends, and he’d give my brother and I close order drill in the street. We loved to drill. He was sent off to Korea as a machine gunner. Mostly ,his unit sat on a hill on the line dividing North Korea from South Korea. Now and then, the North Korean and U.S. armies would have a battle for one hill but never the hill he was on in 1951-1952. At that time, the boundary line between the two Koreas, and two armies was mostly stagnant, but after my uncle left, a whole patrol was wiped out.
My mother, and grandmother were back to sending regular parcels of cookies and candies to Norm in Korea ,just as they had done for my father during World War II. My uncle was the 2nd best poker player in his regiment. He would take his poker winnins with him for rest and recreation in Japan, where he would buy and send his gifts that we loved during the two years he was in the army.
My grandmother received from my uncle an elegant Japanese set of ceramic tea cups and plates, while my mother received a picture of trees on a river bank with a small river in the middle in a frame that looked as it had been painted, but was really woven in greens, browns, and red. My brother and I received, each, a box in October that said, “Do not open until Hanukah,” which was in December. My mother put the two boxes on the mantel piece, making us wait two months to open them.
My gift was a three feet high elegant Japanese doll of a woman in a kimono that stood on a stand. My brother got a small pair binoculars. My family had a previous difficult four years with my grandfather’s long illness, and then his death; with fear of losing our health insurance; and with being evicted from our house. But when Uncle Norm’s gifts arrived, we started to feel happy again.