Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ralph Fasanella: Comrade in Arts

Marc's "Lucky Corner"

I may paint flat, but I don't think flat."
                        Ralph Fasanella

The Art World is capricious.

Ralph Fasanella was a painter of canvases he did not want hung in galleries or private drawing rooms, which may be why so many ended up in just such places.

What the artist wants, the artist rarely gets, although Fasanella's story had a happier ending than most.

The irony is hard to escape when Leslie Umberger, curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum writes, “Fasanella's large, colorful paintings reflect the struggles of a tumultuous era. They were not meant to be rarified works of fine art, but rather a practical means of conveying messages about right and wrong, raising consciousness, and inspiring solidarity among his working class peers.”

Umberger wrote the above in her monograph for the Smithsonian's 2014 exposition of Fasanella's work. “Rarified” air no matter how down-home the presentation.

She noted that Fasanella, “used art as a weapon in an ongoing battle for social justice.”

Gallery show or not, the painter would have been pleased his canvases had raised such a discussion in a place so removed from the source of their inspiration.

Ralph Fasanella was born in the Bronx on April 20, 1914 and raised in Manhattan's West Village. His education did not go beyond the eighth grade. He worked when possible to help his family during the Depression and did time in a juvenile detention center over a bit of petty thievery.

As Al Pacino once said, “I don't need bodyguards. I grew up in the South Bronx.”

Fasanella's immigrant parents, Ginevra – who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory – and “Joe” (Giuseppe), split over his mother's affair with an anarchist organizer or her strident radicalism generally or some combination of the two.

Young Fasanella went radical himself in the 1930s, signing on with the Young Communist League and eventually joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to fight in Spain in favor of the ill-fated Spanish Republic.

According the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Raffaele Fasanello joined the Communist Party in 1935. He sailed for Spain on the Ile de France on Feb. 20, 1937 and arrived in Iberia 11 days later. He served in a “train regiment” and deserted on a British freighter by way of Oran, Algeria, finally getting home in July 1938 aboard The Huntress.

His union work included stints with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Bookkeepers and Stenographers Union and the militantly leftist United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America – the “UE” – among others.

As the Red scare took hold of American life in the mid-1940s, Fasanella was blacklisted and finding work became difficult. His health also took a hit. To combat a pain in his hands, Ralph began sketching.

A painter was born.

Writes Umberger: “He took to painting, believing from the time he began that art was an extension of his activism – not an activity of upper class leisure or intellectualism. As an added benefit, he could distill the memories of his life through painting and attempt to strike a balance between the dichotomies of tradition and change.”

Which is to say a dialectic between a fondness for certain old ways, and a vision of progress that might destroy them, roiled inside the artist.

Umberger observed that Fasanella was open to a diverse number of settings for his paintings. “He was more comfortable putting them on view in union halls and meeting rooms, knowing that this was where his target audience would really see them.”

In 1985, Nick Salvatore, associate professor, New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, wrote an essay, “Ralph Fasanella: Worker, Activist, Artist,” in which he observed, “What structures his paintings, what connects the political and cultural images in his art, and what, not insignificantly separates Fasanella from those who would speak of the disappearance of the working class is precisely his understanding of labor as the central experience for workers and their communities.”

Which is to say he knew the fact of work was a primary feature of most people's lives.

When granted the Vito Marcantonio Award during a 1997 conference on “The Lost World of Italian Radicalism,” convened by an earlier iteration of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, Fasanella told “The New York Times” that, “You don't have the right to be neurotic if you're a worker. You got to step up to the plate every day.”

Fasanella took as long as 20 years to develop some paintings.

Before he crafted the 18 works making up his "Bread and Roses" cycle, he spent three turns of the calendar in Lawrence, Mass., walking the streets where the famed labor action unfolded, hanging around coffee shops, reading voraciously on union history.

He researched his paintings as a writer would a book, viewing them as touchstones for storytelling rather than single moments frozen in frame.

Expressions such as “primitive” or “childlike quality” have been used to describe a body of work usually quite serious in focus.

“Somebody once said I was primitive. How can I be primitive in an industrial society?” Fasanella said to the “Christian Science Monitor” in 1989.

After a hardscrabble existence pumping gas in the Bronx, which he ennobled through his purposeful artistic pursuit, Fasanella the painter enjoyed a breakout decade in the 1970s. A suddenly interested media got it right in presenting him as the socially engaged New York artist he was.

Fasanella's work became prized and the paintings he intended for public consumption, for imparting messages of community and solidarity among working-class people, were being absorbed into the private collections of not working-class people.

Thanks to an effort at buying them back with the union movement's help, a goodly portion of Fasanella's ouevre is available today for universal enjoyment.

The campaign was called “Public Domain” and it featured a UE official, Ron Carver, who made tracking down the paintings a personal mission.

When a “Bread and Roses” edition fetched a price Fasanella couldn't refuse, the painter gave Carver a year to match it. The project had an advisory board spangled with the likes of author Studs Terkel, former New York mayor John Lindsay, folk singer Pete Seeger, actors Ed Asner and Ruby Dee, and enough union leaders to send the Chamber of Commerce running for the hills.

Notable among the recuperations are an installment from the “Bread and Roses” series in Lawrence (Heritage Park Visitors Center) and “Subway Riders,” which is ensconced in a protective casing at the MTA Lexington Ave./53rd Street station.
From the "Bread and Roses" cycle. 

Where a painting was returned to a public space, Fasanella showed up to talk in the corresponding locale's schools and union halls about the message behind his slogan, “Lest We Forget,” a reminder of the sacrifices made by fighting workers.

Like a William Morris or a Charles Dickens lecturing to workingmen's associations in Victoria's England, Fasanella followed his art with the word it was meant to spread.

He told the “Christian Science Monitor” that the America he lived in was one where “generosity and fellow-feeling are often overshadowed by acquisitiveness and greed.”

Wrote Salvatore, “His paintings remain an eloquent testimony to the political and cultural vitality of working-class life, even in an era of homogenization.”

Art critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote in the Coe Kerr Gallery notes for a 1974 Fasanella show that, “A new master is added to the list of modern Americans. When the history of these times comes to be written, if those who write it have sense enough to search out its visual image, the paintings of Fasanella will take a major place.”

The painter considered Vito Marcantonio to be one of his personal heroes along with labor firebrand John L. Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia and Longshoremen's organizer Harry Bridges.

“These heroes,” he said, “stayed in my life because without heroes that have integrity and a pair of balls I would never have made it this far.”

Marcantonio, Fasanella told Washington University researchers, “was a fighter. A little short guy and he'd get up and talk. He had a way with working people and they loved him because he had a sense of humor. Every now and then he'd throw out a word in Italian, he'd throw out a word in Jewish. He understood the the Irish politician. If anyone was hated at that time in New York City, it was Tammany Hall.”

Fasanella produced “The Lucky Corner,” (pictured at top) capturing the street-bound nature of Marc's political life and “Death of a Hero,” which depicted the grief of East Harlem at his funeral.

A lifelong communist, he ran for the Yorkville city council seat on the American Labor Party ticket in 1949, the year Marc ran for Mayor of Gotham. He pulled in 9 percent of the vote.

He named his only son after Marcantonio.

Fasanella was a part of the life and times of Vito Marcantonio. He turned his skill to generating evocative images of the world in which the radical congressman labored; blessings to those who would care later.

A complete treatment of Fasanella's life can be found in Author Paul D'Ambrosio's "Ralph Fasanella in America."

Vito Marcantonio Forum: From Within and Without

Design by Gabrielle Napolitano
The letter begins: "Hello Vito Marcantonio Forum. I just happened upon your website today."

It is signed by one Fred Hirsch who worked on the radical congressman's campaigns in 1948 and 1950.

Hirsch's missive recalls a time of great interest and provides the kind of details about which the rest of us can only make educated guesses.

"We'd arrive at Marc's storefront headquarters in East Harlem after school on Saturdays. Marc would sometimes be there to give us all a talk about the importance of the issues represented in his printed election material. He always pointed out that the handouts were printed in union shops - and that he would not let it be done otherwise.

"We'd be assigned in pairs to streets and addresses of voters in old tenement walk-ups and the few bigger apartment houses with elevators in his East Harlem neighborhoods and be dispatched to our mission of knocking on doors and talking to the voters.

"On our return we'd gather in a circle, sometimes two or three rows deep, and Marc would ask people to tell about their most unusual encounter with a voter that day. It seemed he knew where every voter in the district lived.

"He would sometimes interrupt a canvasser to ask about Mrs. So-and-So, describing something like 'on the third floor in the back.' If Mrs. So-and-So hadn't been spoken to, he'd write it on a chalkboard and someone would have to go back and knock on the door again.

"Knocking on those doors and meeting those voters was a beautiful experience. The people loved and revered their Congressman as if he was a member of the family, always referring to him as 'Marc'."

The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) continues its unique efforts at outreach on behalf of Marcantonio's legacy, sponsoring events about the congressman and those who formed the rich, progressive milieu in which he moved during the 1930s and 1940s.

On May 18, the VMF sponsored a talk by author Marcella Bencivenni on her study, "Italian Radical Culture, 1890-1940." The event was a joint effort with the Italian-American Writers Association.

Just three days later, a VMF team participated in a Left Forum symposium on educator and Marcantonio mentor Leonard Covello that featured readings from his book "The Heart is a Teacher, by actor Roberto Ragone, a talk by VMF co-chair Gerald Meyer on "Cultural Pluralism versus Americanization," and Simone Cinotto who spoke on "Italian Americans and Public Housing in New York City.

On July 17, the group gathered in celebration of its fifth anniversary for a fundraiser at Gaetana's Cucina Italiana on Christopher Street.

It wasn't just a food-and-drinks affair, because the VMF does not allow a chance to impart the Word of Marc to pass unexploited.

Poetry, dramatizations and scholarly discourse were all on the menu from Meyer and Ragone, as well as co-founders Gil Fagiani and LuLu LoLo Pascale, Robert Viscusi, Maria Lisella and Adam Milat-Meyer. Bernard Johnson brought singer and activist Paul Robeson to life, reading his eulogy for Marcantonio.

Next up is the VMF's annual commemoration of Marcantonio's death. This year the focus shifts to the locale of Marc's death, on Broadway just south of City Hall across from the Woolworth Building.

There will be a reading of "The People's Proclamation for Vito Marcantonio," a eulogy by Meyer and dramatizations from Ragone and Pascale. Luminaries from the political universe have been invited.

Fred Hirsch's letter signifies an expansion of the VMF's mission beyond instruction and discussion to that of a depository for information not uncovered in its own work; a clearing house for all things Marcantonio that did not exist before.

Restoring Marcantonio's voice has restored that of his still-living constituency.

"Thanks for keeping alive the memory the man who must have been the bravest, clearest and dearest member of Congress during the 20th century," Hirsch concluded. "He stood, sometimes alone, in the halls of Congress against the winds and windbags of McCarthyism and for the working men and women and their children in his congressional district and worldwide."

The VMF has launched a Go Fund Me drive to help finance the continuation of these efforts.

The Miseries of Mrs. Marcantonio

An Internet search cannot produce a single photograph of her. The traces of Miriam Sanders Marcantonio across the digital landscape are faint and lead only to her death.

Such was the fate of a woman whose husband's ample legacy was systematically erased from the country's historical memory.

Although images of Vito Marcantonio's wife are hard to come by, we can begin to form one through her presence in the public record, the same place her husband still looms large, through research and memoir.

Scholastic works on Mrs. Marcantonio characterize her as a New England blue blood.

She was from Ossippee, in central New Hampshire, close to the Maine state line. The Ossippee Indians were one of the twelve Algonquin tribes. The town has history as an “Indian stockade fort” that evolved into the most prominent of its kind regionally. It is settled on rocky terrain, suitable for farming the hardier stuffs, and a regional source of gravel and sand.

Ossippee has been the birthplace of John Lovewell, a famous Indian killer; Republican Rep. Earl Merrow; and Dale Bozzio, lead singer of the 1980s new wave band, Missing Persons.

A ship bearing the town's name participated in the federal subjugation of confederate Mobile, Alabama during the Civil War.

Miriam Marcantonio, nee Sanders, was actually born in Sommerville, Mass., on March 3, 1891 to Charles and Clara Sanders. The Sanders name appears in the list of “early Ossippee families” maintained by the city.

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” author Gerald Meyer wrote that, for Sanders, Marcantonio “was the apotheosis of what she hoped could emerge, with assistance from Haarlem House and herself, from the immigrant community.”

For the East Harlem Italian, Meyer continued, “Sanders represented an unknown America, almost another country, but a country he truly loved and wanted to be a part of... More than anyone else, Sanders introduced Marcantonio to the manners and ways of the world outside East Harlem, knowledge without which he might never have achieved national prominence.”

Alan Schaffer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress,” wrote of Sanders: “Devoid of luxurious tastes, thrifty in both person and speech, a devout believer in the social responsibility of her Protestant faith, Miss Sanders had been educated at New Hampshire University and had studied social work at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. She did social work in Boston for a short period; then her work brought her to New York City, Haarlem House, and Vito Marcantonio.”

Marc worked in the adult education department at the venerable settlement house.

In “East Harlem Remembered,” author Christopher Bell recounts how, “It was a case of opposites attracting, for Sanders, eleven years his senior and five inches taller, was a Protestant who fell in love with the short, wiry Catholic Vito Marcantonio. They married in 1925, the same year he earned his law degree.”

In Salvatore LaGumina's “Vito Marcantonio: The Peoples' Politician,” Sanders is described as, “A social worker in the truest sense of word... a product of classic New England Puritan background, she continued to remain a staid, hermetically sealed woman, outwardly cold in appearance, but inwardly possessing a warmth impressive to close friends.”

LaGumina observed that Marc's single-minded dedication to his district meant that family life suffered.

Sanders, he said, accompanied her husband to Washington in the first few years of his congressional run, but eventually stayed home, “reconciled with her role; at least her friends never heard her complain which was in keeping with her traditional New England modesty.”

In his essay, “When Frank Sinatra Came to Italian Harlem,” Meyer noted that Sanders was among 17 “well-chosen people,” community prominenti, convened when violence between African-American and Italian students threatened the very existence of the community's emblematic Benjamin Franklin High School.

In the same piece, Meyer noted that Miriam Sanders was the “head worker” of Harlem House, and one of the local community directors of the East Harlem League for Unity, an organization formed in 1943 for the purpose of developing, “better understanding among nationality and racial groups.”

In “Spanish Harlem: Anatomy of Poverty,” Patrica Cayo Sexton described a moral invasion of local streets by Anglo-Protestant reformers such as Sanders.

“The white Protestant hegemony,” Cayo Sexton wrote in 1965, “has added, among other things, a certain sanitariness to the political and social life of East Harlem. Their presence may help familiarize the poor with this essential middle-class virtue, for the middle class is nothing if not clean and tidy.”

The sarcasm appears intended, but the virtue or lack thereon of Anglo-Protestant reformers in East Harlem is raised merely to demonstrate how Sanders was not an odd duck out of water, but part of something integral to the neighborhood.

These are all helpful historical data pinning the personality of Miriam Sanders Marcantonio in space, time, class, work and love.

But an interview with civil rights activist Virginia Durr adds pathos to her story and reminds us that, as we work to recall and revel in Marcantonio's exploits, he is ultimately a tragic figure, his “flaw” being that he represented his constituents too well.

“His wife was a perfectly lovely woman,” Durr told the Oral Histories of the American South Project, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“[S]he and I got to be great friends and I used to stay with them up in New York. We'd have such a good time because I'd go up to beg money you know for the poll tax or something. We would go out... and we would eat in these little Italian restaurants where the clothes were hanging overhead – the laundry was out – marvelous food, really delicious Italian food. But everybody knew him and he was very popular and everybody would come and speak to him. And they liked her very much. And then they would have the most marvelous breakfast in the mornings – of Italian sausages and they were a very happy couple... They loved each other and seemed to have a great respect for each other.”

There is no shortage of observers who believe the persistent and ruthless efforts to oust Marcantonio from his congressional seat killed him in the process.

When Marc died a few years after his electoral defeat, he left a yawning gap in the lives of thousands who depended upon him for practical help, legal or political advice, and inspiration.

We might expect his wife's subsequent sufferings to be great and they were, for simply too much was lost with this one man.
There was no money. “Oh, no, he just gave it away,” said Durr. “Well you see they [congressmen] didn't make but about $10,000. And he was very generous; he gave money away and helped people out.”

Durr noted that Miriam ended up living with both Marcantonio's mother Angiola, and his brother who was mentally disabled, but had been kept in the comfort of family surroundings. With Vito's death his sibling was institutionalized.

Durr accompanied Sanders to visit Marc's grave and deemed the outing, “the most painful morning I ever spent, because his old mother went with us and oh my Lord, she just went into hysterics and tore her hair and screamed and cried and threw herself on the grave. It was awful.

“Finally she had to send her to a Catholic home,” Durr recalled, “because she cried all the time, just wept, wept, wept, and wailed and when she wasn't crying she was praying – both for the son that had been sent to the retarded institution and the son that had died and not been buried in consecrated ground or hadn't been given the last rites. She was either crying all the time or praying all the time.”

Durr refers above to the fact the Catholic Church barred their cemeteries to Marcantonio's body.

“Oh and what a hell of a time did she have after he died, because she couldn't get a job, you see, that was when McCarthyism was in full flight,” Durr remembered. “Miriam didn't live very long after that. She he had an awful rough time. She worked in the Bellevue Hospital, some job under a false name.”

Sanders' “New York Times” obituary, under the lean headline, “Mrs. Marcantonio, Legislator's Wife,” informs that she died on April 9, 1965 at Sanger's Home for Chronic Patients Inc., 500 W. 57th Street. She was 74 years old and listed her residence as 196 ½ Westville Avenue, Danbury, Conn.

The uncredited clip said she was “a professional social worker” and director of Haarlem House until her retirement in 1953 [the year Marcantonio died].

On Sept. 15, 1954, in the wake of her husband's sudden departure, Sanders Marcantonio wrote a letter to W.E.B. DuBois.

It is probably one of many she penned with the same goal in mind, and we reproduce it here as a rare example of her own discrete voice in expression:

Dear Friend,

I know that as a friend and co-worker of Marc's, you must be giving earnest thought to what we can most fittingly do now, so that the great meaning of his life lives on.

I want to talk over with you and among Marc's other colleagues some tentative ideas and proposals towards this end.

Will you kindly be at the Vito Marcantonio Political Association. 247 East 116th Street, New York City, on Wednesday September 22 at 8 p.m.?

I look forward to seeing you there.

Sincerely yours,

Miriam S. Marcantonio