So I was at another PEN event in January with my great friend who introduced me to his friend Richard who asked me, who remembers why, if I knew the writer Nunzio Pernicone. How funny, I said, not personally but I had his book Italian Anarchism 1864 – 1892 and I’d been thinking of writing about it. He said Pernicone had once posed a question to him: What happened to all the Italian-American radicals? And then Professor Pernicone answered his own question: They married all those nice Catholic girls who (I’m paraphrasing here) whupped the radical right out of them.
You find this theory expressed a bit more formally in Pernicone’s engrossing and well-researched biography of Carlo Tresca:
Despite acquiring some new blood during the interwar period, the Italian-American resistance undoubtedly lost more adherents than it gained. The primary reason was the failure of the sovversivi [“subversives”] to produce a second generation large enough to replace the departed…. The offspring of the sovversivi were generally more assimilated into American society than their parents, accepting American values and rejecting the ideas and principles of their elders. Political and cultural discontinuity between parents and children was also a function of the disproportionate number of male to female radicals, a deficiency fatal to the movement because marital unions generally occurred between a radical father and a non-radical mother, who raised the children Catholic and conservative. (138)
Tresca – agitator, journalist, humanist, anti-Fascist – is a thrilling subject, and Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel is filled with great stories of his fearlessness, pluck, unique charisma, and commitment to fighting the good fight, which he did right up until the moment he was shot to death in the street on January 11th, 1943.
Before we get to the good stuff, however, it must be said that as a lover and a partner, Tresca was a rat. He cheated quickly and robustly on his long-suffering wife Helga – four years into his marriage he was caught in flagrante delicto with a girl under sixteen at a hotel in Philadelphia – and he ran around on his long-term lover, (IWW leader, later CP member, and famous inspiration for Joe Hill’s song Rebel Girl). Tresca went so far as to cheat on Flynn with her own sister, and father a child with her; and for this son and the daughter he had with Helga he rarely paid any kind of child support. Even when he was an old fat guy looking a lot like the Burl Ives Claymation character in the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, Tresca somehow managed to keep cheating on his last lover, Margaret de Silver who, reportedly, found his alliances “amusing” (246).
While I was reading the Tresca biography I happened to also be reading Jacques d’Amboise’s delicious autobiography I Was A Dancer (which as a piece of writing is a spotty taped-together thing but, really, who cares – because his heart is so joyful and his love of dance and life so great that you want to fly with him anywhere), and I was amazed by the fact that d’Amboise, deeply Catholic, was a virgin when he married and seems to have been a good father and faithful husband throughout the course of his fifty-plus-year marriage. Something about the contrast between the subjects of these two books made me think: well, who can blame these nice Catholic girls for wanting to corral their husbands? On a purely practical level (bear with me, friends, while I go out on a retrograde limb here), if it’ll keep the guy home, why not beat some Jesus into your partner? After all, it’s the woman who gets stuck with the babies.
Pity the woman who tries to whup some sense into this man.
Reading this biography took me back to when I was all over radical histories and biographies such as The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Alexander Berkman’s Life of an Anarchist, Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Labor’s Untold Story, We Shall Be All, The People’s History of the United States (both of which I confess I’ve never finished) and what’s probably my favorite, Emma Goldman’s wonderful Living My Life, which I later gave to a cousin of mine who greeted it with a resounding Duh! What is this stupid book?, which hurt my tender cousin-feelings deeply. This cousin later apologized, and I understand she’s now at a Buddhist retreat in Vermont so who says people have to remain assholes all their lives? Anyway, I realized in reading Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel that I got away from books like these because nostalgia for the glorious radical past was starting to suffocate me – and it only made the present feel even more flabby and ill-prioritized. I mean, what does it say about how New York has changed to know that the headquarters of the IWW and the offices of Tresca’s paper Il Martello were once at 94 Fifth Avenue? Half a block north, on the corner where Tresca was murdered, today there is a Bebe store.
Indeed, based on addresses in the book – even those of the many offices of Il Martello alone – one could do a self-guided radical walking tour of Manhattan, only to shake one’s head sadly over what was there and what’s there now.
Bryant Hall, meeting place for the International Hotel Workers’ Union, during their 1912 – 1913 strike. “On the afternoon of January 24, guards hired by the Hotel Men’s Association were pelting Bryant Hall with rocks from the elevated train station on Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street. Hundreds of strikers poured out into the street ready to battle any adversary” (63). Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was clubbed by cops and Tresca arrested in the melee. Today, an ugly green-glass corporate tower housing the likes of MetLife and Verizon stands on the site. Photo from the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council’s website.
As I said, this book is incredibly well-researched, though at times it almost gets bogged down in minutiae (though I do love minutiae – in a footnote one reads that Professor Pernicone’s own father, Salvatore, produced, directed, and acted in Tresca’s play, L’attentato a Mussolini, a “surprisingly good political satire”) (167). The book led me to Max Eastman’s two-part profile of Tresca in the New Yorker from September 1934, which I read online, and I have to say it was a little disheartening to read something written in that sort of gently amused old-school New Yorker tone – which tends to survive only, thank goodness, in things like especially twee “Talk of the Town” pieces – applied to what I consider a serious subject. Worse than this, Eastman delighted in reproducing Tresca’s “colorful” English in funny, funny little bits so that by the end I felt like I’d read a profile of Father Guido Sarducci.
To get back to the book at hand – it’s when Pernicone turns his focus on larger currents in the Italian-American and radical communities during Tresca’s lifetime that the book really fascinated me. For instance, I’d always wondered how many Italians in this country were pro-Mussolini back in the day, and this is the first book I’ve read that addresses the question. The findings are dismal: Pernicone quotes Gaetano Salvemini as estimating that, among the Italian-American community, 10% were anti-Fascist, 5% “out-and-out” Fascist, 35% philo-Fascist, and 50% apolitical. He goes on to say that Salvemini was providing these estimates in 1940, “anticipating war between Italy and the United States; his inclination was to present Italian-Americans in as favorable a light as possible lest they suffer persecution as supporters of the enemy”:
In reality, among the “apolitical” mass of first generation immigrants and their children, respect, admiration, and even veneration of Mussolini (as opposed to Fascism per se) was exceptionally strong and widespread. (128)
Pernicone provides possible explanations for the embrace of Fascism by the immigrant community: after years of discrimination and economic exploitation, they finally had a strongman who could prove their detractors wrong. “Disappointment and resentment fostered among many elements – especially middle and lower-middle-class Italian Americans – a ‘nostalgic nationalism,’ which was easily transmuted into an aggressive proto-fascist form of nationalism” (127). He then talks about the network of fasci, or Fascist squads, organized in the U.S, the first dating back to 1921, a year before Mussolini’s rise to power. I was frankly amazed to read how widespread these fasci were, and how many prominenti (prominent Italian-Americans citizens) were in on the game. My maternal grandfather, his brother, and their families left Italy in the late 1920s to escape the rising tide of Fascism – my grandfather, Marino Auriti, really was one of those men who was forced to drink castor oil in the streets by Blackshirt goon squads – so I think I had some fool notion that Italian-American support of Fascism was limited to a few random kooks or certain kinds of sentimental, uneducated people. Such as the families of some girls I went to high school with, who had pictures of Il Duce up in their kitchens, this in the 1980s.
It’s Tresca’s unwavering fight against Fascism that really makes him a hero, and these chapters in the biography are thrilling to read. Tresca was the main man among anti-Fascists in the U.S. in the ’20s, putting Il Martello “at the disposal of many prominent radicals who lacked publication outlets” (136), helping raise money for victims of Fascism, harassing Fascist dignitaries and local fasci, and generally sticking his neck out for the cause:
Directly or in collusion with American authorities, Mussolini’s official representatives and local disciples caused Tresca to suffer periodic harassment, several arrests, loss of his Italians citizenship, a four-month prison term, a narrow escape from deportation, destruction of his property, and a bomb attempt on his life. But Tresca never relented. (135)
And he really was fearless: maybe having been arrested and beaten up so many times – he was even slashed across the throat by a razor-wielding Mano Nera thug in Pittsburgh back in his early labor-organizer days – made Tresca immune to intimidation. He stood up to every threat. One example among many: in 1926, Fascio Mario Sonzini, a group in the Bronx – which was “the borough where the Blackshirts had achieved their greatest gains…especially the Arthur Avenue section” (170) – sent goon squads to roam the neighborhood, “beating up known anti-Fascists whenever they encountered them singly or in groups of two or three” (171). They issued a public challenge for anti-Fascists to set foot in the borough, and “Tresca and Vidali [CP member who later turned into a full-throttle Stalinist assassin] received a special warning promising death should they venture north of Manhattan.” Tresca, Vidali, and a group of comrades got right up there, baiting the Fascists by “strolling past known fascist haunts, eating ice cream and singing ‘Bandiera Rossa.’” Later, as up to 2,500 anti-Fascists massed, Tresca and others spoke to the crowd and demonstrators marched past Fascio Mario Sonzini, singing songs and challenging the Fascists to come out: “Wisely, not a single Blackshirt showed his face…” (171).
I think of other books about the Fascist era – such as Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings, a book beloved by me – and the beautifully drawn image of Ginzburg’s father running laughing through the streets of Rome while bombs burst over his head (I gave my copy to my niece years ago, so I’m writing this from memory). I think of the kind of beautiful glee that comes over you when you know you’re on the side of the just, even if it might cost you your life.
Another fascinating topic given a lot of discussion in the book is the behavior of the Communist Party in America. Easy to say from my perspective many years down the line, but I always wondered how these benighted folks, some so well-intentioned, kept their blinders on for as long as they did. I well remember late 1991, when the Soviet Union was finally unraveling, sitting with my then-boyfriend in his parents’ boishy apartment as his grandma, born in 1907 and an old CP member from waaaay back, came shuffling through the door. Well, she said, terrible things are happening in the Soviet Union. We paused over our morning tartine-and-New York Times routine. I don’t know what all the celebration is about, she said. We said something vague, she looked at us, and then old Doris shuffled on out again, shaking her head at our shameful ignorance.
If only to be reminded of how many murderous Stalinist thugs were running around with ice-picks back in the day and how sheep-like the behavior of so many CP members were, chapters like “Taking on the Stalinists” are well worth reading. Tresca was immediately suspicious of the Popular Front. “As an anarchist, Tresca rejected electoral alliances of any kind, but he might not have opposed the Popular Front if it were a true ‘united front’ of anti-Fascists functioning as equals….but a united front dominated by a partnership between communist and socialist parties essentially serving the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union was unacceptable to him” (227). The chapter talks about the “May Days of Barcelona,” when “elements of the communist Partido Obrero Unificat de Catalunya and Catalonian government police” murdered some 500 anarchist and Marxist dissidents, among them much-loved anarchist and Matteotti Battalion co-founder Camillo Berneri, who was brutally gunned down in the street.
Back in New York, Juliet Stuart Poyntz (née Points, Barnard class of ’07; I’d just read the article “Undercovers” about her in the Fall 2010 edition of the usually quite boring alumnae magazine), a prominent member of the American CP, confided in Tresca her disillusionment with the Soviet Union after returning from a visit there in 1936, during which time she observed first-hand some of the show trials. “Although they differed politically, Tresca and Poyntz had been personal friends for more than twenty years, and he became fearful for her safety” (232). Shortly afterward, Poyntz vanished without a trace.
Tresca pointed the finger at a member of the CP, telling his story to the New York Times and testifying before a grand jury. The Communist press attacked him from all sides, calling his story “‘an anti-Soviet cock-and-bull story…and a tissue of lies’” (233). Even Vito Marcantonio, who is supposed to have been a good guy, got into the act, saying Tresca was “‘completely discredited in the eyes of the population of New York’” (234). The anarchist paper L’Adunata – which had a long-running beef with Tresca, perhaps on an I’m-a-cooler-anarchist-than-you-are level – jumped on the bandwagon, denouncing Tresca as a spy in the pocket of the bourgeois police. Even Tresca publishing a letter from Emma Goldman supporting his stance did not shut these people up: “‘It’s a rather disagreeable job to have to apply to a Capitalist court to expose the Stalinist gangsters, [Goldman wrote]. All in all I do not envy your job though I think you should go ahead and expose the disappearance of Miss Poyntz’” (236). It is of course an article of faith among anarchists that you don’t run to the Man for help, and this seems to have hurt Tresca’s standing more than anything:
But even Italian anarchists who rejected L’Adunata’s portrayal of Tresca as a “spy” were dismayed by his action in the Poyntz case, for by providing information to the government he had violated a sacred tenet of anarchism. Many old comrades severed relations with him. Thus, in the end, the Poyntz case, rather than enhance his reputation as an anti-Stalinist, accelerated the decline of his career. (236).
Because what’s one dead woman when you have a reputation at stake? Juliet Stuart Poyntz’s disappearance has never been solved.
Juliet Stuart Poyntz in her Barnard years.
Similarly, Tresca’s own murder has never been solved. He had a lot of enemies, and all sorts of theories abound – was it a mob hit, a CP hit, a Fascist hit? Pernicone seems to have studied every single angle, and unpacks each of them in the last chapters of the book. He arrives at the conclusion that a high-echelon mobster named Frank Garofalo paid a mob thug named Carmen Galante for the hit as payback for a public snub Tresca gave him at an Italian-American fundraising banquet the year before. There are many subtleties in the theory that I won’t go into, and one can do an internet search of something like “Carlo Tresca, murder” and come up all sorts of theories on all sorts of websites, many of them Mafia-lore sites written by people who go on even longer than I do.
Obviously a labor of love as well as scholarship, Carlo Tresa: Portrait of a Rebel is packed with information – so much so there’s a feeling of something like exhaustion in its final passages, when the book doesn’t end so much as stop. I think I wanted some kind of summing-up, a bit more of the elegiac – but this is a small quibble. Oddly, Tresca seems to have foreseen his own death. His two brothers both died of cancer the year before he was killed, and he went around saying goodbye to people in the weeks leading up to his murder. Two days before he was shot to death, there was a banquet for Tresca, during which he made “what was to be his last public statement”:
“When I see young people who carry on the struggle against Fascism and totalitarianism, then I am glad. For I know that my life work has not been lost; that the seeds I have sown are bearing fruit.” (271)
On a less somber note, god bless AK Press for publishing books like these, and please get them a proofreader. Reading this book I was reminded of when, many moons ago, I did some pro bono proofreading for a reprint of a Dwight Macdonald essay that the similarly cash-strapped press Autonomedia was putting out. I combed over it meticulously and, I have to say, in the published edition, I found no errors – except in the spelling of my own name on the thank you page. “Thanks also to B.G. Fiarmani…” No, honey – thank you!
And just to play six degrees of separation, Carlo Tresca’s lover Margaret de Silver was a close friend and benefactor of the late great writer Dawn Powell who was a friend of translator and writer Jacques LeClercq who was the father of peerless NYCB dancer Tanaquil LeClercq who, of course, was partnered by Jacques d’Amboise in many a ballet during the golden Balanchine years. Here they are dancing Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun in this clip on YouTube. They take my breath away.
On a final note, and more to the point, I was trying to sum up the particular qualities of Carlo Tresca that made him so beloved by those around him. The Nation’s Lewis S. Gannett wrote that Tresca “was always lovable…that was the quality that surprised many people, meeting him for the first time, when they had heard only of his fighting quality…he loved people, and people of all kinds responded to his world-embracing smile…” (237). On the surface, fierceness and kindness seem antithetical qualities to find in one person. And then I realized, of course – Tresca, an Abruzzese, was truly forte e gentile.