Return to My Life

Brandeis 1963-1967

Herbert Marcuse

(Continued from Cuba 1963)

After the summer in Cuba with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Robert F. Williams and all the rest, Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis was a bit of an anti-climax.  My room in a Cambridge apartment near Harvard Square at that time (fall of 1963) looked like a set from a Godard movie.  Posters of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel covered the walls.  The FBI was parked outside.  I was frequently off speaking somewhere about the Cuba trip, sometimes facing would-be lynch mobs of Cuban exiles shouting “Kill the communist!”  Every chance I got I would be in New York with Viki, and the two of us might be on the streets in Spanish Harlem agitating for Puerto Rican independence, or marching in a demonstration against Madame Nhu (“No Nhus is good Nhus”).  I looked forward to the tranquility of the classroom.

What a fool was I!   Marcuse had just published One-Dimensional Man, a sincerely felt essay criticizing the cultural shallowness and repressive ideology of capitalism.  The book made some good points, and sections of it were inspirational, but it generally met with a lukewarm reception among the more radical students.  One of my grad student friends wrote and circulated a paper criticizing its ideas as too little, too late.

For the Brandeis administration, by contrast, Marcuse’s new book was like waving a red flag before a bull.  Rumors flew that wealthy right-wing alumni had put pressure on university president Abram Sachar to get rid of Marcuse.  They could not simply fire him; he was too great a man, with too much of a following, and they had no grounds.  Sachar determined instead to make Marcuse’s life miserable so that he would quit.  Sachar’s instrument for this purpose was one Peter Diamondopoulos.  Diamondopoulos, a native of Greece, had credentials as a philosopher.  Using its administrative powers, the university positioned Diamondopoulos as co-teacher with Marcuse in the required introductory courses in the History of Ideas department that Marcuse had founded and which he chaired.

The classes went like this.  Marcuse, in his gentle and refined German accent, would begin to lecture on the meaning of logos and nomos in the dialogues of Plato.  Diamondopoulos, in a growling guttural Greek accent, would interrupt to say no, that was nonsense, he knew Greek better than Marcuse, and logos and nomos actually meant something entirely different from what Marcuse had said.  Marcuse would buttress his position with reference to texts; Diamondopoulos would fire back some academic insult, and they went on scrapping like this for the rest of the hour.  It was painful to watch, and it put us students in a cruel dilemma, because while Marcuse assigned the paper topics and the exam questions, Diamondopoulos was empowered to grade them.

Regardless of what we felt about Marcuse’s recent writings, we were outraged by the treatment he (and we) had to suffer.  It was obvious that if the situation continued, he would not stay.  A few of us went to Marcuse in private around the middle of the semester and announced that we wanted to start a campaign to keep him at Brandeis.  By this time there was a large and active chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Brandeis.  Marcuse flatly and adamantly opposed the plan.  Marcuse was known for his rejection of the title of “Father of the New Left,” which the press foisted on him, and he did not want to be seen as the mastermind (or the pawn) of a New Left student battle against the university administration.  So we did nothing.  Later it came out that he would be moving to the University of California at San Diego.

Brandeis rewarded Diamondopoulos for his hatchet job on Marcuse with a lucrative administrative position, which he used as the springboard to become president of Adelphi University, a private college in Long Island.  After ten years there with demoralized faculty, declining enrollment, and mounting financial problems, the New York State Board of Regents dismissed the school’s board of trustees for having wasted millions of dollars enabling Diamondopoulos’ lavish lifestyle and mismanagement.   Under a new president, Adelphi gradually recovered.  Source, and source.  Diamondopoulos then went on to teach at Boston University, where many students ranked his classes as the worst ever.

Lewis Coser

I considered following Marcuse to San Diego, but it would have meant too great a disruption in my personal life, and faraway San Diego seemed unreal to me, like a Disney movie.  Brandeis had a decent sociology department with interesting faculty, so I transferred there in the spring semester 1964.   There was Kurt Wolff, a friend of Marcuse’s and another refugee from Nazi Germany, as was Lewis Coser, the most senior member of the department.   The younger faculty were live wires, funny, engaging, experimental, unafraid.  It was never dull, and it was a haven of tranquility compared to the bloodbath in the History of Ideas department.  It was OK to read and to like C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman and R.D. Laing and Marshall McLuhan and other outside-the-box writers, as long as we also got on top of statistical methods and did our fieldwork.

We did some classical fieldwork, and some not so classical.  Our conventional fieldwork was in Charlestown, the old Boston neighborhood recently memorialized in the Ben Affleck picture, The Town.  We walked the streets, took polls, looked at census data, made notes, drew maps, and came to the earth-shattering conclusion that the richer people in Charlestown lived up on the hills and the poorer people down in the flats.  Duh.  We were largely oblivious of the turf wars then going on between the Irish mobs in Charlestown and Somerville,  and if we were tuned in to the community’s then ongoing battle against urban renewal, I don’t remember it.

What I do vividly recall was our other fieldwork, dubbed “participant observation,” in the World’s Fair Stall-In in New York City.  The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter in Brooklyn (my American home town!) had been very active, and frustrated, struggling against the City government’s flagrant job discrimination and other racist practices toward African-Americans and Puerto Ricans.  The 1964 World’s Fair, set in Queens, was an obvious opportunity to attract world attention to the City’s injustices.  Someone wrote a song with the refrain:

We don’t want your World’s Fair, mister
We just want a world that’s fair

Black author and activist Louis Lomax told an audience of 1000:

Imagine the confusion which might result if 500 people get in their cars, drive towards the Fair grounds, and run out of gas.

Moderate elements of the civil rights movement immediately denounced the idea, but it attracted many younger, more militant neighborhood activists (who, however, tended not to have cars).  There was a huge, noisy debate, and the press played it up large.  The adoption of the stall-in, a historian said, marked a shift forward from the largely passive, petitioning-style tactics of the old civil rights movement to the more direct-action style that took its place.

VW reserve tank lever (red arrow)

At this time I had an old Volkswagen.  These models had no fuel gauge.  Instead, they had a little lever on the floor just above the gas pedal where you could, by turning the lever all the way to the right, tap a reserve tank with an additional gallon of gas.  (Photo, right.)  More importantly, if you nudged the lever only halfway, you ran out of gas.  Perfect!

Five of us sociology grad students — all white — piled in my beetle and took off for New York.  The only student in the group whose name I remember now was the excellent Nancy Stoller Shaw, a kindred spirit.  The theory of the tactic was that traffic on the Queens Expressway, usually bumper to bumper, could be brought to a total standstill if even a few cars — far less than 500 — stalled.  It was a plausible concept, but the enormous publicity that surrounded this tactic killed it.  It was like the Yogi Berra saying about a certain restaurant:  “Nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”  Fearing the stall-in, people stayed off the expressway in droves.  The road was practically empty when our mobile participant-observer unit approached the target area near the turnoff for the fairgrounds and I nudged the gas lever to the “off” position.

Demonstrators at the gates of the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens

As our beetle sputtered and rolled to a halt, dozens of burly uniformed police suddenly  materialized from the bushes and basically lifted the whole vehicle with us in it off the road.  Putting on my most innocent grad-student face I explained to the chief of the squad that I had no idea what was wrong, this old car did that sometimes, etc., meanwhile nudging the gas lever back to its “on” position with my toe.  “Miraculously” the car started up again, we said “thank you” to the officers, and putt-putted away, alternately going “whew!” and laughing insanely and scribbling notes.  There were lots of other protest activities around the fair — in the subways, at the gates, and inside.  But as far as I know to this day, we may have been the only actual participants in the famous stall-in.

Although the stall-in was judged a “fizzle” in the press because the expected carmageddon never happened, the mere threat of the action kept thousands of people from attending the fair on opening day, which was CORE’s objective.

One of the speakers at the Town Hall rally after the Cuba trip was Truman Nelson.  He was a high school dropout who worked in General Electric factories until he was 40, but meanwhile educated himself during long hours in public libraries and began writing fiction.  His first book, The Sin of the Prophet, was published by Little, Brown; it told the story of the abolitionist intellectual Theodore Parker.  When I met him, Nelson had recently finished The Surveyor, a novel about John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  He was fiercely interested in Cuba and was a strong supporter of Robert F. Williams.  He had just bought a colonial-era house in Newburyport, a short drive from Boston, and was busy removing generations of old paint to reveal the beautiful old woodwork underneath.

Truman Nelson

It was a privilege to be invited for Thanksgiving to his house, and at other times as well; I helped out a little with the woodwork, and I read and was deeply impressed with The Surveyor, especially because much of it took place in the area of Kansas — then known as Bleeding Kansas — where I had gone to high school.  We talked politics, of course, but he was such a down-to-earth individual that I could talk to him about anything at all, and after one such conversation he laughingly called me “cunt-struck,” a label that I hope won’t appear on my tombstone.  Nelson went on to write another novel about John Brown, The Old Man, John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, the documentary The Torture of Mothers, the essay The Right of Revolution, and other works, some of which were collected after his death in 1987 in The Truman Nelson Reader, reviewed here.  Truman Nelson was a good friend who richly deserves wider appreciation.

At this time, I lived with two roommates in an apartment at 14 Mellen Street, not far from Harvard Square, and commuted to classes at Brandeis in Waltham by train.  One of my roommates, S., was a drummer and a wit who delighted in sayings such as “He who has a tates is lost.  A tates is a broken or demagnetized compass.”  He also liked to post signs in the kitchen, such as “NO SOAP – FRYING PAN” to protect our cast-iron cooking gear.  He initiated me into the dark art of shoplifting steaks from the nearby supermarket.  My moral boundaries having been stretched at the bookstore at Wesleyan years earlier, this did not take a great deal of arm-twisting.  Looking back on this behavior now, I am filled with shame.  For S., as a starving drummer (is that a tautology?) this dishonesty may have been a matter of survival, but for me at that time, it was purely a sport for my dark side.  My other roommate, Rob T., was a serious student of medieval literature and philosophy who eventually became a master wood craftsman, much in demand, who specializes in building exact replicas of pre-modern furniture.

Living near Harvard Square gave us ready access to the rich cultural life of the area.  We went to the Club 47, where Joan Baez had started her career.  We went to Birdland.  We heard Tom Lehrer play.  I went to hear Malcolm X speak at Harvard.  You could not help but be impressed by the man.  In a political setting that was thick with lies and distortions of every kind, he was one of the very few who spoke truth to power with passion, righteousness, and clarity.  After his talk, people gathered around him for discussion, and I joined the cluster and eventually got to the front and told him of my respect, and shook his hand.

Viki and I at the wedding reception in Bobbye Ortiz’ apartment, 1964

That fall (1964), Viki and I were married in New York.  Algernon Black, leader of the Ethical Culture Society (we irreverently called it “Edible Vulture”) in Manhattan, performed the ceremony.  The reception afterwards, at the apartment of Viki’s mother Bobbye Ortiz, a great and wonderful woman, was like a who’s who of the New York non-Communist Party left intelligentsia.  Bobbye was the Managing Editor of Monthly Review, the independent socialist magazine, and knew everybody.  Her boyfriend Robert Colodny, an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran, was there.  Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, co-founders of the magazine, were there.  Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz of the famous constitutional law firm (whose lengthy list of clients I was soon to join) were there.  At one point I went to answer the doorbell and there stood one of Boudin & Rabinowitz’s most controversial clients, Alger Hiss.  A score of our fellow Cuba-trippers were present, including its maximo líder and lead defendant in the cases that would shortly follow, Lee Levi Laub.  My mother had come out from Wisconsin and met everyone.  She highly approved of Viki.  The whole atmosphere reminded her of her youth in prewar Germany.

After the reception, Viki and I were due to spend a night in an upscale hotel, a wedding gift from a friend.  By the time we arrived, I had already consumed quite a bit more alcohol than was prudent.  The desk clerk confronted us with the bad news that due to a misunderstanding, the only available room had twin beds.  This was not our idea of a wedding night’s lodging.  The manager promised to “see what he could do” and had us wait in the bar, where I had more drinks.  When the desk clerk gave me the final verdict that there were no other rooms, I lost it; I took a drunken roundhouse swing at his head.  He easily ducked it.  Viki, who was more rational, talked me down, and we accepted the room assignment and settled in.  I promptly passed out.  One bed was really more than I needed:  I came to in the morning on the floor. The incident was one of the first glaring negative consequences of my drinking, begun during fraternity rush at Wesleyan.  It would not be the last … but at the time we groaned and laughed about it and went on with living.  There was much to do.

(Continued in Jackson)


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