Eleanor Roosevelt - an essay by Phillip Bonosky
In 1984, when articles about Alice Neel’s life began to proliferate, most were faced by a dilemma: either they could picture Alice as a zany old lady, who at 80 painted herself in the nude and who said to me, ”I’d bite a rat’s tail in Times Square if it could get me attention.” Or they could have turned their attention to her serious work which included her political affiliations, chiefly as a life-long member of the Communist Party. I don’t intend to make a cause of it, but it’s a sad and depressing thought that even today, after the end of the so-called cold war, that our intellectuals are still intimidated to mention a person’s Communist affiliations, without crossing themselves and begging for absolution. It’s a pity that we seem to have exchanged our true biographies for case histories and the story of our lives for the entries into the F.B.I. dossiers by an informer. We say of Picasso that he was a great painter, an opponent of Franco and a member of the French Communist Party, and we go on from there. Similarly, Alice Neel was a profound believer in socialism and a very noted artist, and we should go on from there. One fact does not compromise the other. Suffice it to say that without knowing Alice Neel’s profound attachment to socialism one can only know part of her work.
Nevertheless to the current generation the question does arise, “Why was Alice Neel a Communist ?” It could be of service to today’s youth to briefly recall both the origin and the influence that Marxism had on American culture. It should be remembered that in 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the great depression began, the crisis that developed in the country was part of the general crisis in the world. In Europe, Russia went Communist, Germany was on the verge of socialist revolution but pulled back, and France was wracked with inner struggles between the oppressed and the oppressors. No country remained unaffected by the economic crisis. This included the U.S. It should be remembered that the country came to a virtual stop in 1929 et sec and faced a future that to some seemed to be inevitably revolutionary. At the height of the crisis, millions of workers were out of work. Factories shut down, business came to a stalemate. All kinds of propositions for pulling out of the crisis were advanced. Among them, championed by the Communist Party, was the transition to socialism. Only the New Deal with the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt held it back. It is ironic that Roosevelt’s New Deal is still slandered today despite the fact that it probably saved the country for capitalism. In that atmosphere, revolutionary ideas were rampant. You were more likely to be pro-communist that anti-communist. The Soviet Union meanwhile moved from strength to strength. When the Soviet Union announced that unemployment was eliminated in their country the effect world wide was enormous, certainly among the millions of unemployed in all the capitalist countries.
If you were on the left from 1930 to 1940, it was no great distinction. If you were not of the left, you had to explain yourself to everyone. Alice Neal was of this generation. The left and specifically the Communists put forward a socialist program for the U.S. which included specific attention for women that went far beyond anything hitherto proposed. And women responded.
It is therefore no great wrench in logic that Alice Neel was one of them. Socialism promised a liberated, creative life of freedom to which she responded with her whole being. She, like thousands of others, became a Communist.
Logical though that was in its context, it should not be now looked upon as an exposure to have been or still to be a Communist. Particularly for Alice it should be noted that the struggle to find a place for her as an artist was also championed by the C.P. Simultaneously was the setting up of a program by the New Deal, the W.P.A.or Works Progress Administration, that was unprecedented and in many ways revolutionary. This program included all the arts---theater, dance, music, literature, film and the graphic arts, including painting. At its height about 25,000 artists were thus employed by the program.
It should also be noted that in order to get into these programs you had to declare yourself a pauper. It is not too much to say that starting in the 1930s the culture of America was in the hands of its poor. Among these was Alice. She was desperately poor. She received just enough money from the W.P.A. to keep alive. On it she raised two children and created a massive output of art.
I first met Alice in 1948 in the offices of what became a monthly Marxist cultural magazine called Masses and Mainstream. My road to Masses and Mainstream and to Alice was a circuitous one. I was born of Lithuanian parents in Duquesne, Pennsylvania which is about eight miles south of Pittsburgh. I was educated in the Duquesne public schools and graduated right smack in the middle of the depression. No work. I left home at 19 and “road the rails” like 250,000 other adolescents at the time. We didn’t know where we were going but, unlike a later generation, we were not looking for ecstasy “on the road” but for jobs. I landed in Washington D.C. and took part in the struggles of the unemployed of that city, as the “president” of the Washington D.C. contingent of the Workers Alliance(the union of the unemployed and people on relief.) Our demonstrations were numerous and vocal and at one point included Mrs. Roosevelt who invited me to the White House to discuss plans for a demonstration. I spent two years in Wilson Teachers College but never finished. The great cause of our generation was the War in Spain. I wanted to volunteer but was blocked by the government from doing so. In that period I worked on the W.P.A. writers project which up until then was my only qualification as a writer. I worked in the Duquesne steel mill at two different times in two different years.
On the day I met Alice she had come to ask whether the magazine could use some drawings that she had brought with her. What she showed the editors then actually shocked them , and they turned her down, although they later published many of her drawings. What particularly shocked them was the unrestrained , satirical exaggerations with which she treated both those high and low .My backround as a steel worker hardly qualified me as an art critic then. But even now, fifty years later we can feel the sharp edge of Alice’ drawings. Then she was far ahead of her times. A working class artist was expected to be more in the style of Kathe Kollwitz(German Expressionist 1867-1945).
Though rejected by the editors, she looked at me and said, “I’d like to paint you.” Though her style was near hysteria, and I wondered for a moment what I was getting myself into, I agreed to sit for her. She set a date which I had no particular intention of keeping. But when the day arrived ,and I had nothing else to do I decided to go ahead with the sitting. I went to her house on 107th St. between Madison and 5th Avenues (Spanish Harlem ). My knock on the door got no response, and it was only as I was leaving that I saw her puffing her way up the stairs carrying bundles.
She had me sit for three or four days while she painted me. It was in those days that we got to know each other and that formed the basis of our friendship, which lasted until her death in 1984.
It is saying nothing to say that she did not live a conventional life. She had had four children (one died of diphtheria), with three fathers, including Sam Brody who was with her at the time we became friends. My friendship with her included her two sons, and an on again, off again relationship with Sam. The details of these relationships are documented in the following notes.
I made the notes very early in our relationship because she was such a challenging personality. I had to struggle to reach some kind of understanding of her. Alice was aware at a certain point that I was taking notes about her, but I never showed them to her.
In our long career together I wrote about her paintings and work several times. I was always sure to fatten out any sparse turnout at any of her showings. I was very impressed with her work, and although I did not consider myself a great judge of art, still I believed she was highly talented. She was grateful for my support of her art, but she was equally grateful for what she considered my political guidance.
I feel it is very important that I stress the political side of Alice’s life. The tendency has now pretty much firmed up to present her only as a kind of eccentric. This is not only a limitation, it is a slander. She had a deep and abiding faith in socialism and actively supported friendship with the Soviet Union even in the midst of the Cold War.
In a review of the documentary “Alice Neel”, Gerald Meyer said, “Some of her very finest portraits comprise an iconolgy of Communists, who were largely ignored or demonized in the wider society. These included Pat Whalen, Art Shields, Mike Gold, Moses and Raphael Soyer, Ella Reeves(Mother)Bloor, and individuals who were close to the left, such as Linus Pauling. Kenneth Fearing and Bella Abzug.” 1
Alice had pressed me for years to arrange a showing in Moscow. And in 1980, when I was correspondent in Moscow for the Daily World, I finally managed to do this under the auspices of the Soviet Artists’ Union. She and her family were guests of the Artists Union and the show was a great success. There were over thirty correspondents from newspapers and publications from the U.S. and Europe, but not a word about the show appeared in any of them.
For this and other reasons that show up in the notes, but mainly to correct the growing distortion of her life I’ve decided to publish the notes. I give them exactly as I wrote them so many years ago. A word about the style in which these notes are written. The reader will notice how initials proliferate as though the intent was to hide the identity of the people. And indeed that was the intent. In 1950, the Korean War broke out and for an awful moment the world shuddered at the prospect of the beginning of World War III. In the U.S. there was every reason for the progressive left to believe they would be illegalized and driven underground. This then was the reason that I used initials. I did not want to identify many I was dealing with for fear of compromising them. Though the use of initials belongs to another time, I do not think they interfere with the picture of Alice Neel that emerges.
1 Gerald Meyer,”Alice Neel:A Review,” Political Affairs(Sept./Oct. 2007,36-38.)
More about Alice Neel:
Alice Neel Documentary Official Alice Neel website