The Most Famous Beard

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By David Michael Newstead.

Fidel Castro is interesting the way a time capsule is interesting, because his reign intersects with so many major events in world history: the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of Che Guevara, the Mariel Boatlift, and more. And how many other world leaders ruled through the entire period between President Eisenhower and President Obama, between Nikita Khrushchev and Vladimir Putin? Throughout the years, a caricature of Castro entered our culture and has remained a fixture for decades. He was a bearded revolutionary in green fatigues who gave eight hour long speeches, smoked Cuban cigars, and evaded multiple assassination attempts by the CIA. Outside of that portrait, of course, Fidel Castro was a highly polarizing figure with generations worth of criticisms leveled against him regarding human rights abuses, his communist dictatorship, and the perennial impoverishment of the Cuban people. With his passing, it’s hard to say what the future holds for a place John F. Kennedy called “that imprisoned island”. Over the last fifty years, Fidel Castro went from being a young revolutionary to a senior citizen. The Soviet Union collapsed. And the classic cars in Havana became mechanical reminders of life before the American embargo in 1960. When those cars will finally breakdown and when the ruling Communist Party will finally fall from power is anyone’s guess. But Castro once said that he never shaved his beard, because it saved him time throughout the year. As it turns out, time catches up to us all.

Strange Fruit and Abel Meeropol

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By David Michael Newstead. 

Abel Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit after seeing a photograph of a lynching. Later, his song was popularized by Billie Holiday and became well-known for confronting racism in America head-on. As a result, Meeropol and Holiday both faced intense scrutiny from authorities. Abel Meeropol was called to testify before the New York State Legislature regarding Strange Fruit. And not long after that, he felt compelled to leave his teaching position in New York City, relocating with his wife to California. In Part Two of this series, Robert Meeropol joins me to highlight the life of the songwriter, Abel Meeropol, and its intersections with American history. And to learn more, check out Part One.

David Newstead: How would you describe Abel Meeropol as a person?

Robert Meeropol: Abel Meeropol was a quiet introvert. His wife, Anne, was very social. She was his ambassador to the outside world.

David Newstead: I’ve met couples like this before…

Robert Meeropol: Yes and he liked to be in his study writing. That was his way of engaging. He was very closed in many ways. He was very talented artistically. He was a member of the Teachers’ Union Arts Committee in the 1920s into the 1930s. And he used to design sets for their programs. He would draw cartoons. He was a pianist. He got a Masters in English Literature from Harvard in the mid-1920s and he put himself through school by playing a honky-tonk piano in a local club somewhere. So, he did all these things and was very artistically oriented. But it was all like sort of in his head.

He also had a difficult life. Abel was born in 1903, so he was a teenager during World War One. He idolized his older brother. And his older brother went into the army and served and came back what they called in those days shell-shocked. What we now call PTSD. And his brother spent the rest of his life institutionalized. So, that was very difficult for him. And he didn’t like to talk about that at all. At the same time, he was very funny. With my brother Michael and me, he could make us laugh hysterically at any point. But in some ways, his humor was a defense mechanism. It enabled him to engage with people without actually revealing his thoughts that much.

Politically, he was kind of naïve. You know, he grew up in a left-wing household. His father was a motorman on a trolley line in New York City. And he grew up with left-wing politics. So, he joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, but he never really talked about that in specifics. And he was in the party until the 1950s. I think he left the party to adopt me and my brother. I think Abel and Anne left the party like in 1952 or so. The feeling being that if they were active party members, it would be very difficult for them to adopt us. But I don’t feel that they necessarily left the party because they had disagreed with it. They continued to be friends with party members and usually when people dropped out of the party because they disagreed with it they were ostracized. Or there was a real break. In any event, I really don’t know, because we didn’t talk about these things. We argued current politics, but talking about personal history was like pulling teeth.

But at the same time he had an undercurrent of anger that comes out in Strange Fruit. Abel was no pacifist. He was quite capable of thinking and penning very nasty things about people who he thought were terrible and did terrible things. And I think that generation who grew up and lived through two world wars and the Great Depression and Nazism, it was not surprising that people took sides and that there was less political nuance.

David Newstead: You had mentioned that he relocated from New York to Hollywood. Was he forced to go out there, because he couldn’t teach anymore?

Robert Meeropol: The handwriting was on the wall. The House I Live In was gaining traction. Strange Fruit was being played. He was a known enough quantity and he didn’t like teaching. He did not like teaching! There’s no doubt about it. But he also saw the handwriting on the wall. It’s quite possible he left teaching and went to Hollywood, because he thought he was going to lose his job. And so, all those three things put together and Abel and Anne packed up and went to Hollywood.

And in Hollywood, Communist Party writers of which there were quite few used to hold little seminars and political trainings. I can remember a story Abel used to tell about when he was in Hollywood, which was basically 1944 to 1951. And Abel Meeropol was actually written up by the local Communist Party commissar or whoever it was, because at one of these training sessions where they were reading something by Karl Marx, Abel spoke up and said “I don’t know why I need to read all this stuff. I know who the workers are. I know who the bosses are. I know who our friends are. I know who our enemies are. Isn’t that enough?” And he was written up as being undisciplined. And I think that was his attitude. He was not a sophisticated political thinker. He was very straight-forward and tended to see things in black and white terms.

David Newstead: Granted, Karl Marx books aren’t leisurely reading, so that’s understandable. I mean if you threw Kapital out of a one-story window, you might hurt somebody.

Robert Meeropol: Whatever it was, it was more than he wanted to read.

David Newstead: Did he leave Hollywood in the 1950s because he was blacklisted?

Robert Meeropol: I don’t think he was a big enough name at the time or a big enough cheese to be blacklisted. So, he was kind of graylisted though. I think he left Hollywood one step ahead of the blacklist. He came back east probably one step ahead of the blacklist, fearing that he was going to get named. Strange Fruit was not played during the McCarthy period. And you know, he was really struggling, but it never reached the level of the blacklist.

David Newstead: What did he do for work after leaving Hollywood?

Robert Meeropol: He and someone who did musical stuff with him named Earl Robinson collaborated on a movie called The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was a cowboy movie. And if you watch Turner Classic Movies at 3 AM, every once in a while it’s still on. He also became the writer for James Melton’s Ford Festival, which was a rival of the Ed Sullivan Show, sponsored by Ford Automobile. And he wrote commercials for Fords. It was a failed show though. It got cancelled after a couple of years. Then, he was really struggling.

There were royalties coming in from Strange Fruit and The House I Live In, but not much. His third best known song, which is not known at all anymore actually, is called Apples, Peaches and Cherries. It was recorded by Peggy Lee and made it onto The Hit Parade around 1950. So, he was also collecting some royalties for that. But they were just barely surviving in the 1950s. He was able to scrape by. And you know, he continued to work on things. But scraping by was probably an accurate picture.

I will say one more thing that also helped. That song Apples, Peaches and Cherries was stolen by Brigitte Bardot’s boyfriend, Sacha Distel, and turned into a song called Scoubidou. It’s in French. And it became the number one European song for a while. And Abel found out about it and sued and he got a chunk of money for that. I know we bought a new car. We always drove around in old rattle traps. I mean, it was a Plymouth Valiant. It was no fancy car, but it was new. And it’s the only new car I ever remember them buying. Things like that happened on occasion that kept him going.

David Newstead: This is just an observation. But if he wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and McCarthyism, he must have been a pretty brave person.

Robert Meeropol: He was an intellectually fearless person. No doubt about that. He had very strong beliefs. And he was absolutely insistent on being true to them. The scorn that he heaped upon people who he knew who turned on their old comrades during the 1950s was incredible. And the people who he used to work with who when they found out who he had adopted, they didn’t talk to him. They didn’t want to have anything to do with him, because they were frightened. He was incredibly scornful of that. He had this great intellectual courage.

Read Part One

 

The Commissar Vanishes

By David Michael Newstead.

David King died last month. He was a British graphic designer famous for his collection of Soviet photographs and posters. King spent years amassing his collection, building a visual portrait of history like a jigsaw puzzle.

The only reason I know about David King’s work though is because I was wandering around a bookstore while I was in high school. I found myself immediately drawn to his book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since.

On one level, The Commissar Vanishes is about Photoshop before there was Photoshop – where enemies of the state were airbrushed out of existence so often that an original photograph looked nothing like the multiple reproductions churned out after each purge. In many cases, Stalin was a constant presence, while the other people in the photo were at risk of being killed and then erased from history.

As if that weren’t Orwellian enough, the book also included defaced portraits of officials whose terrified friends and loved ones suddenly found themselves in possession of something illegal, something that had to be destroyed. The result being that victims’ photos were expunged both in public and in private.

But through his years of digging, David King was able to piece together the truth and show each iteration of the fabrications and the system that manufactured a cult of personality through statues, books, posters, photos, and paintings. Because of that work, his legacy is well-earned. David King was 73.

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