Friday, September 26, 2014

Vito Marcantonio and the Art of Spaghetti Making

Virginia Foster Durr was born to southern aristocracy and grew up in Alabama without even knowing her confederate ways were confederate ways.

She attended Wellesley College and that exposure to the larger world awakened her dissenting nature.

She married an attorney named Clifford Durr.

According to a 1985 “New York Times” review of her autobiography “Outside the Magic Circle,” the pair became “the locally vilified champions in long battles from the New Deal through the arrival of the Freedom Riders.”

The choice to remain outside the magic circle of southern life led to their eventual insolvency and reduction to shabby gentility.

Along her heroic way, Durr made the acquaintance of Vito Marcantonio and, after a rough start, became the kind of friend, to he and his wife Miriam, that came to stay at their place on 116th Street in East Harlem.

Durr granted
interviews to the Oral Histories of the American South Project at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and these possess gem-like anecdotes for Marcantonio fans and scholars alike.

The rough start came at a meeting requested by Durr and allies in the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax who were trying, well, to get the poll tax abolished. They said they were backing a bill introduced by Rep. Joseph Clark Baldwin, a Republican from Manhattan's Silk Stocking District, in an effort to get conservative support. They asked Marc to withdraw his.

[From “Outside the Magic Circle”] 

“Oh my Lord, Vesuvius erupted! Whew! He sprang up and you never heard such a tirade in your life. 'I withdraw my bill and let that Park Avenue fancy pants...' He just raved on and on. He would not withdraw his bill. His bill was going to be the bill that got through and was going to be the bill that the House backed and, as far as we were concerned, we could just go and drown ourselves. He didn't care whether we supported him or not. Oh, he was mad, just furious."

She remembered that Marc, who successfully ran in the primaries of the Republican, Democratic and American Labor parties a few times, prevailed upon the Republican House leadership to go with his measure. 

“He even got Baldwin to withdraw his bill,” Durr recalled. “We were forced with the choice of supporting Marcantonio's bill or having no bill. We either had to eat crow or we had to get out of the business.

“We went to see Marcantonio again. He had won, so he was very nice to us this time. Any help that we could give him, he would be very glad to have. He was very pleasant. He had licked us good, too.”

She remembered how Marc legislated with joy. “He was one of the funniest people you've ever known in your life.”

It was typical of Marcantonio, Durr reminisced, to have Rep. Martin Dies, or some other reactionary rival, paged from the floor, mid-anticommunist rant, and come to the phone. Whoever was on the line would ask Dies if he knew where Vito was.

“He was a super politician,” she said. “The people in the House liked Marcantonio. They may have called him a Red, you know, and a Wop and all that, but they liked him.”

Her account of Miriam Marcantonio's life with the congressman's mother after he died is nothing short of harrowing for anyone with a heart, but at the opposite end of the emotional register, one of Durr's most charming stories involves the Italian-American passion for food:

“And you'd have him [over for] dinner,” she recounted. “I remember I had spaghetti. I thought since I was having Vito Marcantonio and his wife, who was this tall New England girl, that I would have spaghetti, you know, like somebody having me and having fried chicken. 

“Well, he was so funny, because I thought it was pretty good spaghetti. He ate it and he said, 'Now Virginia, that was fairly good spaghetti' – well I had a lot of other things too – 'it was a really good dinner on the whole,' he said, 'but that spaghetti was not as good as it should be.' He said, 'Now come out here and I will tell you how to cook spaghetti.'

Durr with Rosa Parks

“And, you know, he took an hour to tell me how to cook spaghetti: You boil a huge pot of water. It would have to be like a washtub practically, and you don't put a whole lot of spaghetti in it because it can't stick; it has to be all separate, and then you dip it out and then you immediately put butter on it or something to keep it from sticking.  

“And then the sauce, instead of being cooked as I had from four o'clock to six o'clock, had to be cooked two days to be real good Italian sauce. And he explained to me in detail exactly, putting the little bit of sugar with it...

“But he was such a human man, you know, and he really wanted me to learn how to make spaghetti since I was going to have spaghetti and he thought it was lousy.”

"Living the Revolution" by Jennifer Guglielmo

Oh, the ever-changing face of America!

Who among us can even envision a northern New Jersey clutching tight to New York via the tendrils of the garment and other departed industries, pocked with recently arrived anarchists from places like Avellino?

Jennifer Guglielmo's "Living the Revolution," assembles the research and words necessary to conjure that distant and disappeared time.

Some of this reviewer's antecedent's hailed from Avellino and the revelation in Guglielmo's book goes a long way toward explaining his own anarcho-syndicalist tendencies.

And explanation is necessary, because the Italian-American milieu in which he grew up was far from revolutionary. Uncles and aunts in Brooklyn and Queens loathed John Lindsay in favor of a hack named Mario Procaccino. When a black family moved into the neighborhood, a call of alarm went out.

To be Italian-American in mid-century New York was to be conservative, closed-minded and to wont for a liberal, higher education (generally speaking).

"Living the Revolution," goes a long way toward explaining how that happened: Italian-Americans desperately clinging to their classification as "white" by federal authorities; their frantic efforts to establish "American-ness" while the U.S. made war on Mussolini's Italy; the devastating impact of the Palmer Raids on the anarchist culture that took root in the tri-state area among Italian immigrant women.

Later on, according to this book, Italian and Italian-American women became active in the the union movement, although their efforts to gain power were often thwarted and their contributions to the Ladies Garment Workers and other syndicates undervalued.

Guglielmo's book recuperates the ladies' names and actions, making great strides in combating the widely-held notion that they were somehow not militant. This appears to be the primary task she set out for herself in penning this text.

"Living the Revolution," sets the record straight. It's a work of historical scholarship and, from time-to-time, bogs down in minutiae, however necessary. Sometimes, the task at hand causes the author to wander far from the focus of her discussion and into the 19th-century uprisings in southern Italy or the writings of Antonio Gramsci.

In the end, it all ties together and Guglielmo's passion for the subject ultimately drives the narrative and should win over those who come to her story with a healthy curiosity.

"Living" is a feminist tract. It pulls from the rich filigree of events, that make up the first half of the 20th century, the prevailing policies, traditions and mores of patriarchy and white supremacy.

It dramatizes how these things weighed upon the activist women and illuminated the creativity they employed in combating them.

"Living the Revolution," not only rescues the names and profiles of some worthwhile people otherwise condemned to anonymity, it helps explain how we got where we are as a nation today, the good and the bad alike.