Friday, October 6, 2017
UNDERCOVER GIRL: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI
Bring Down the Communist Party (Watertown, MA: Imagine Books, 2017)
By LISA E. DAVIS
Rev. by Hugh Murray
This is a case in which the author clearly dislikes the chief protagonist of her book, and this reviewer dislikes the author. Lisa E. Davis is a politically correct academic and a lesbian, who asserts that one high point of her life was “meeting Fidel Castro.”(Inside back page) By contrast, Angela Calomiris, a small woman with butch features, lived in Manhattan's bohemian Greenwich Village, beginning in the 1930s, she joined the Photo League and then the Communist Party in the early 1940s, and from 1942-1949, was an informant on the League and the CP for the FBI. In 1949 she blew her cover when she openly testified in court against the leaders of the American CP, who were charged under the Smith Act for advocating the violent overthrow of the American government.
Davis relates that those who disliked Calomiris described her as “ruthless,” “conniving,” as a woman who turned in a lesbian to the police or FBI.(p. 2) A few pages later Davis describes Angela as “fair-minded, cold-blooded, charming, and a phony – always intelligent, who knew how to deceive and please and hang tough. A complex, probably troubled person.”(8) At the trial, Angela was labeled “fink,” “stool pigeon,” and “rat.”(12) Author Davis condemns Angela thusly: “But she chose badly, and ended up on the wrong side of history.”(12) Because Angela exposed the Communist efforts to sabotage and overthrow the US Government?! Davis should ask herself, where is the USSR today? I contend Angela Calomiris chose the right side of history, unlike Lisa Davis and Fidel Castro.
Academic Davis basically rejects the findings of the Venona files – that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent, and whether Whittaker Chambers once had a gay crush on Hiss is unimportant compared to the fact that Chambers helped expose the Communist spy rings inside the US Govt.(10-11) Davis also writes sympathetically of the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who most Americans at that time believed were rightly executed. Davis grasps at left-wing straws implying the judgment against the couple was wrong. Although for decades he maintained his innocence, Davis ignores the belated confession of Rosenberg co-defendant Morton Sobell (NYT, 21 Sept. 2008) Davis ignores the speech of Vladimir Putin of early 2012 in which the Russian leader thanked the Western scientists who had helped advance the development of the Soviet A-bomb with suitcases filled with secret information.(Reuters stories, Jan. and Feb. 2012) Davis condemns Roy Cohn for being in the closet, and certainly fails to commend him for his part in the prosecution of the Rosenberg spies. Davis even includes play write Tony Kushner's imaginary confrontation of the Rosenbergs to announce the imminent death of the AIDS infected, closeted, anti-Communist Cohn.(10) Davis does not include the the verdict of Judge Irving Kaufman that the treason by the Rosenbergs led to the Korean War, which would cost 35,000 American lives. We know today that Stalin gave Kim Il Sung the green light to invade South Korea in 1950. Would Stalin have allowed that war if his government had not already exploded an A-bomb in 1949? And Stalin had the bomb in 1949 rather than 1959 because of the suitcases of scientific files provided by Western scientists and others in the Soviet spy networks. Indeed, we might thank the Rosenbergs and their comrades for the Kim Il Sung dynasty that still rules North Korea today.
Davis views it differently. “The McCarthy era spawned great controversy – the special bitterness toward informants.”(13) That bitterness was evident for Communists and fellow travelers, but clearly not for most Americans, as demonstrated by Davis' own book. After testifying to expose the dangers of communism, Angela was interviewed on major radio programs, like that of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Margaret McBride; interviewed and discussed in major newspapers and mentioned on national broadcasts of Walter Winchell. In the early 1950s Angela, with the help of a ghost writer, Caroline Bird, produced Red Masquerade, the story of her membership in the Party and various front groups, like the Photo League. The book was published by Lippincott, a major company, and was widely, favorably reviewed. It was of a genre of the times, like Herbert Philbrick's I Led 3 Lives, which became a television series (and a favorite of the young Lee Oswald). Matt Cvetic's I Was a Communist for the FBI was transformed from book to the screen, and nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of 1951. Angela hoped her book would become a film, too. But it did not. Angela's story was somewhat unique, in that hers was the story of a woman, whereas most of the other informer stories were of men. Of course, during her time in the spotlight, Angela sought to keep her sapphic tastes secret.
Davis is right to stress that in testifying against the CP, Angela risked being exposed as a lesbian. The conservative and mainstream media did what they could to portray her as an all-American girl doing dangerous work for patriotic reasons. But even during the trial, the CP defense team tried to insert the issue in order to discredit the witness. Directing questions to the 33-year-old witness like, are you married, do you have children, and stressing the Miss Calomiris, were meant to raise the queer issue in the juror's minds. Judge Harold R. Medina sought to shield Angela, and upheld prosecution objections to cut off certain lines of questioning. Angela was on the witness stand for 5 days, so the Party attorneys had ample opportunity to try to pierce the shield, but Judge Medina protected the witness and would later speak of the sacrifice she had made in coming forth (and not coming out).
Like witness Herbert Philbrick, Angela perjured herself when she denied that she had been paid for her years of service by the FBI,(55) and in interviews after “her” book was published, she lied by denying it was ghosted – she asserted she merely had some help in writing. Author Davis even exposes that, horror of horrors, when looking for employment, Angela “padded” her resume.(167) Yet, after the trial, after the interviews and the publication of the book, Angela moved on, developed her business skills and died with a small real estate empire in Province town valued at $900,000. Quite a climb for a girl whose dad died when she was 7, and whose mom then sent her to an orphanage. Despite the hostility of Davis toward her subject one must commend Davis for restoring to the public the life of Angel Calomiris, and including the closeted side not revealed in the 1950s. Now Angela can be understood, not only as an anti-communist, but as a lesbian too.
Davis' political views intrude throughout her book. Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted saying she disliked Communists because they lie; to which Davis retorts: “Anti-Communist might tell bigger lies.”(48) Davis then exposes Angela's lies about not receiving payment from the FBI for her years of information. Davis does write that J. Edgar Hoover was furious about this lie, because it placed his organization in a bad light, unwilling to help those who were helping his security organization. Davis then makes a generalization that what set communist lesbians apart was “these women had a social conscience.”(61) Other lesbians apparantly lacked that conscience, and Angela's anti-communist stance, probably made her anti-conscience in Davis' measurement. Davis extended her assessment when she wrote that the Communist Party was “the conscience of the American Left for at least two decades.”(64) So one is not surprised when, describing the simultaneous trials in 1949, of the Communist leaders at which Angela testified, the Alger Hiss trial for perjury (re spying), and the Judith Copland trial (treason), Davis calls them all “heresy” trials.(76)
When the prosecution and the Anti-Communists praised Angela's great courage in testifying against the CP leadership, Davis tries to avoid this compliment. Davis notes that Angela did receive a mailed death threat upon conviction of the Party leaders, that for a time she had 24-hour police protection, and at one point was beaten as she emerged from a subway exit. Angela thought the assailant was a member of the International Workers' Order. Angela had named names, including members of the IWO. Davis diminishes this, asserting that Angela's testimony was anti-labor. Davis refers to labor reporter Victor Riesel as “the notorious columnist for Hearst's ...[newspapers] and a militant anti-communist.”(149-50) She neglects to mention that Riesel had been blinded by goons working for corrupt unions. And a young, leading-man in California, when he opposed the communists in a Hollywood union, was threatened that someone would throw acid in his face so destroy his image and career if he did not yield to the radicals. Ronald Reagan did not yield then or later.
Davis does connect some of the attacks upon Hollywood star Judy Holiday to Angela's expose of Holiday's police woman girl friend, who was also a member of the CP. Thus, Davis disagrees with Arthur Laurents' assertion that the gay issue did not surface in Hollywood's anti-Communist purge.(156) But the police woman named by Angela was exposed as a Communist, not as a lesbian.
A few things Davis could have mentioned but did not are still interesting. She writes that the CPUSA had taken up the challenge of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay to raise the cause of the most exploited and oppressed section of the world's working class. McKay was a West Indian author, whose “If We Must Die” inspired many. He attended the 4th Congress of the Communist International in Petrograd in 1922. With Stalin's urging, the CPUSA did make Black civil rights a major item in its agenda by 1930. But McKay would become disillusioned with the Communist movement, and in 1944 would be baptized as a convert to Roman Catholicism.
Davis mentions Commonwealth College in Arkansas, which like Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, was meant to be a left-wing institution in the South. Indeed, it was at Highlander that Rosa Parks learned the tactics that she would apply when she refused to yield her seat in 1955 on a Montgomery bus, which led to the bus boycott and the reinvigoration of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King also attended Highlander for training and tactics. Though most of the teachers and participants of these institutions were on the Left or would become so, one alum of Commonwealth went on to become the governor of Arkansas. However, Democratic Gov. Orville Faubus is best known not for his left-wing past, but for his efforts to prevent the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, which provoked Republican Pres. Eisenhower to send troops to guarantee the entrance to the schools of the 9 Blacks. That was the first time federal troops had been used to defend Black rights since Reconstruction.
Davis' book lacks an index, making it harder to follow chronologically some aspects of her story, particularly about Judy Holiday. Davis sprinkles her concluding chapters with put-downs of Angela (161, 168, 175, 177, 181) Davis quotes Angela on a point that all should ponder: Angela “accounted for her lack of remorse at betraying people she had worked closely with...'The Party doesn't believe in friendship,' she told them. 'There aren't any friends there.'”(163)
There is another reason why I dislike the author's approach in this book. I recall Elia Kazan, who produced some wonderful films of my youth, like “On the Waterfront” with Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, and Marlon Brando, and “Streetcar Named Desire,” and “East of Eden.” In 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committees Kazan had named names of former comrades. Decades later, the Hollywood Left demonstrated its hatred of Kazan, the fink. When in 1999 the Academy Award was to present the elderly Kazan with a special award for life-time achievement, left wingers in the audience, like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte, sat in their seats and refused to applaud or stood and turned their backs on the whistle blower who exposed Communists in the industry. To the Left, Kazan was an informer. To most Americans, he was a hero. And Angela was a heroine.
I wonder if Ms. Davis has ever personally faced the issue. I recall after my arrest in the first lunch-counter sit-in in New Orleans in September 1960, I was interviewed by the police Red Squad. Seven of us had been arrested, but I think only the two whites were so interviewed. I refused to say how many members were in the NO CORE chapter. Or how many attended meetings, etc. I admitted that I had read The Communist Manifesto, and said I favored income tax.
In 1962 I was called up for the draft. Many of us in a room, and we were handed forms to fill out. Most filled them easily and quickly. I had to take longer. One was a question about arrests. I had been convicted in the 1960 sit-in, a felony, that was still being appealed through the courts. I filled that in. The other problem question concerned subversive organizations: the KKK, the CP, and many front groups. Perusing the list, I suddenly recognized a name – the Jewish Culture Clubs. I realized that during the CORE training institute in Miami in August 1960, we had some connection with the Jewish group. Once, when we were to integrate a beach, they booked the picnic table next to ours, as a buffer, to avoid trouble with possible militant racists. Also we had had a dance at their meeting hall. The first was a public beach, so I did not worry about that, but the dance was at their hall. Should I mark it down? If I lie, the fine mentioned on the form was about $2000, an enormous amount at the time. It was only a dance, - indeed, that is where I first learned the twist, a new dance of that era. Then, I also realized photographs were taken. So I decided to mention this and put it on the form. When I handed it to the officer, he looked, and asked in surprise, “But you're not even Jewish?” He told me I would have to talk to the FBI regarding my felony, but their representative was presently speaking with the Black Muslim who opposed induction. I sat and waited. The FBI man said they could not draft someone with a felony conviction, but he would speak to the DA about dropping the charge. Bottom line, in several weeks I got the answer – the new NO DA, Jim Garrison would not drop the charges, and the case was being appealed up to the US Supreme Court. I was not inducted.
In early 1963 I was teaching 5th grade at a private school in NO, and after classes, played tennis with a colleague. Thus, I arrived home later than usual. My mother greeted me, “Humph! I thought they had rounded you up.” I rushed to the TV to find what she was referring to. The Louisiana Un-American Activities Committee was engaged in an anti-red raid, and arrested 3 “subversives.” James Dombrowski, head of the Southern Conference Education Fund, an integration organization (I was on its mailing list), Ben Smith and Bruce Walzer, two attorneys who defended unions, integration, and other “subversive” types, were the 3 rounded up. Jack, a friend from Tulane and a junior member of the Smith firm, was also wondering if the ax would fall on him. I spoke with him and mentioned that I had known a member of the CP going back to CORE and 1960. If called to testify, what should I do? Happily, I was never called before LUAC.
Nearly 2 months after the round-up, I was teaching 5th grade when Mrs. Flagg, who taught another 5th grade class directly across the hall from mine, came to my door. She asked me to come to her classroom for a few minutes. I rarely left my class unattended, but assumed there was an unusual problem. It was a new school, and we had no cafeteria. Mrs. Flagg's class was then having lunch and free time, so it was quite noisy in her room. One of her pupils had brought to school one of the new transistor radios, and she wanted me to listen. We craned out necks over the boy and his radio. I listened a short time, but had to return to my class.
I re-entered and shut the door. I announced that Pres. Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas. Immediately, the pupils cheered and applauded. One girl was the exception; she put her head on her table and cried. I was shocked by their reaction, and gave an impromptu history lesson. “You think this is the end of integration. At the end of the Civil War some thought, if we can only kill Lincoln, the North will yield, and the South will be allowed to secede successfully. They did kill Lincoln, and the result was the North grew angrier, harsher, and the consequence was Radical Reconstruction. Killing Kennedy will probably make the North even more determined to impose integration. I, like my pupils, assumed Kennedy had been shot by a segregationist.
The school canceled later classes and let us all out early. That afternoon, I received a phone call from Shelly Zervigon, wife of Carlos, one of the early CORE activists. She told me she had heard on the news that Kennedy had been murdered by a Lee Oswald, a communist from New Orleans! I was stunned. Who was he? Many thought I was a communist from NO. And in October the round up had already begun. In November 1938 Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris, and shortly after, Kristallnacht, the round up of thousands of Jews and burning of many synagogues in Germany. If that happened because of the assassination of an embassy official, what will happen with the assassination of a President? I began to think, this is it. I am going to go out and drink (it may be my last chance), and try to find out info on this Oswald. I drove to the French Quarter and drank and asked. No one seemed to have heard of LHO. Finally, I did hear about one person who may have spoken to him. I was told Bob Heller, a Tulanian and former CORE activist, may have spoken with Oswald when Oswald was distributing pro-Castro literature in down-town NO. At that time, that was the only name I knew that might have had a connection to LHO.
After school on Tuesday 26 November 1963 two FBI men came to visit me at home. In the summer of 1963 I had picked up a Fair Play leaflet in the Tulane U. library on a table, with no one around. On it was a PO Box address. I thought a fellow grad student had printed it, went to his desk, showed it to him, but he knew nothing about it. We discussed writing to the POB, but both of us were suspicious. I joked, it could be an FBI ploy. We decided to do nothing till we knew more. Now, the FBI was asking me about Oswald. At the time, I had no idea we had attended the same junior high, and possibly the same high school. I knew only one name of a person who someone thought had met Oswald. I told the FBI Heller's name. And if I had known 20 people who had encountered Oswald, I would have named all 20. Some years after, I became a critic of the Warren Commission's report and conclusions about the assassination. Had I withheld information, it would have been more difficult to be a critic. The FBI did then go to interview Heller. Later when I encountered a Northerner on Tulane campus, Phil Good always would point at me and yell “fink.”
In 2008 I was teaching at Hebei Normal U. in Shijiazhuang, China, when one night I received an email from my boss: be careful, there had been an incident at Disco City; try to come back early (or something like that). I assume the same email was sent to all the foreign faculty. I had never been to Disco City, but was curious. Phone calls here and there. With the help of a friendly Chinese woman who had a car, a Brazilian of Chinese extraction who knew English and Cantonese, but was studying Mandarin and was also a business man, and one of my students to help translate, we set out. I was told there were 3 victims, an American, an African, and an Asian. First stop, the hospital. We found the room where one of the foreigners was being held. The door was locked, and brown paper on the windows blocked all views, but the strong odor of medicine gave the impression that the injury was serious. I tried to use my foreign privilege, with my student translating to the nurse telling her I'm and American and want to see the American in the room. The nurse did not yield; she would not allow us to see the injured party.
From there we drove to the jail for illegal aliens. I was surprised that a young Bangladeshi, who had lived in the same building as I, and with whom I had chatted in English on occasion was in trouble. He had arrived on a visa to study Chinese, but overstayed his visa, got a job in another disco, and had a girl friend who happened to be one of my students. All this was news to me. In the jail he told me at Disco City the three foreigners were together and one had made a play for a pretty young Chinese gal, who happened to be the girlfriend of a local Mafioso. When the 3 exited the disco, they were met by 6 Chinese with knives. The East African had been badly wounded (it was he who was in the hospital room). The American had received only a slight cut on his hand, and he was more worried about being deported as China was expelling many non-essential foreigners in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. The Bangladeshi ran away and escaped injury. But as there were so few foreigners in Shijiazhuang, a city of about 2 million, authorities had no trouble apprehending him. We raised some money to help pay his fines, and his parents had to pay for his flight home.
Upon returning to my flat, I received a phone call from my boss. Where was I that afternoon? Who was I with? I had never before received such a call; indeed, I had been given great freedom in teaching my classes. But I refused to give names in this instance. I don't think there were any negative repercussions for me or my student; I was treated well. Overall, I probably had more freedom in teaching at that university in China then, than I would have had at most narrow-minded, politically correct universities in America.
I was working as a minor bureaucrat in the police building (I did not work for the police, however). I was shocked when young men would enter the building wearing t-shirts, “Off the Snitch.” Kill the informer! I assume they reside in the neighborhoods that are crime-ridden with high murder rates.
Bottom line – despite Davis' terms, “fink,” “stool pigeon,” “rat,” or the more positive ones I prefer, “whistle blower,” “informer,” “reporter,” I do not think there is a simple formula one can use concerning informing. Sometimes it is right; sometimes wrong. And unlike Davis, I think Angela Calomiris did the right thing in informing on the leadership of the CP, and more, I think she, and not they, were on the right side of history.