Commentary Magazine


The Prince of Progressive Humanity

When Maury Ballinzweig came out of prison in 1970 after sixteen years under lock and key, the balance of forces in the world had shifted to his side, to the side of rationality, peace, progress, and human problem-solving.

Yet curiously, cancer now seemed to be riddling almost everyone.

These were the exhilarating contradictions.

_____________

 

“Are you having an affair, Linda?” he had asked his wife when she visited him in prison near the beginning of his stretch.

“I am.” She had paused. “But with X, not Y.”

She was glowing, in a black gown. She was on the way to meet Sartre on Maury’s behalf and could not conceal her excitement.

He had looked at the ground, unable to raise his head.

Although in time he had come to realize how glad he was that she was not sacrificing herself for him, and how good it was that it was X, not Y.

_____________

 

Daniel Greenwald was walking from Grant’s Tomb along Riverside Drive at 122nd Street in the fall of 1982. He was wearing a coat he’d bought at the Salvation Army to make him look proletarian. He was about to make his first visit to a man who had once been called one of the most dangerous espionage agents in America—the man who had been convicted of giving the secret of how to intimidate the universe to the Russians.

Daniel Greenwald had been building up to this meeting for years, working on the man’s friends, the man’s wife. The idea began pecking at him as he read about the torture of dissidents in Soviet mental hospitals. After he called Maury on the phone, Maury had delayed the meeting month after month. Even though Greenwald had said he wanted to write the life story of Solomon Rubell, not Maury.

Although Daniel Greenwald had ruses and plans, his heart was pure. There was no way the man he was about to visit could be convinced of this. Nor should he have been.

_____________

 

Awaiting his visit was the ex-prisoner, who should have been one of the most suspicious hosts in the United States. Maury had been photographed, taped, wired, spat upon, condescended to, despised, and generally screwed in every orifice. He should have awaited his visitor with machine guns and barbed wire and baby tape recorders in corners. But he sat in his bare room in his slippers, fortified by apricots, his radical publications, his picture of his father, his ideology.

A steel rod, that’s how they designated the Lincoln Brigade members in Spain who had been honored with party membership. Those who could be trusted to maintain the purity of the party line. Who could not be broken.

_____________

 

Maury had no use for Susan Sontag. Or the likes of Susan Sontag. He didn’t care what she had said, and wondered why all the hoo-ha. Berlinguer of the Italian CP had said worse about Poland, and that didn’t bother him. Maury snorted at the sentimentality.

Look, after they arrested him, the party demanded that Maury’s mother give up her party card and not come to party club meetings ever again. He understood what was necessary. He often said, “I don’t go by the heart. I know that by the heart you can get a Nazi as easily as a Communist.” He waited for his visitor, and sat snuggled into himself, clasping his hands between his knees in the barren room crowded with wall posters for Vietnam and Chile and Nicaragua and American political prisoners and Guardians and revolutionary papers strewn across the floor.

_____________

 

“Turtles get a great deal of satisfaction sitting and getting sunned on a rock,” Linda Ballinzweig had said to Daniel Greenwald, explaining how she had always been “attracted to a profound respect for things in and of themselves.” She went on to point out that this society did not have that respect and traced it back to Columbus, who “came to this continent, looked at these people who welcomed him, and the first thought he had was how to use them.” That was why, in her classroom, she had anti-Columbus celebrations.

When they said goodbye, she said, “I want to help you.” Then she kissed him on the mouth.

At the rallies for Solomon Rubell and Maury in the 50′s and 60′s she had been the best speaker. “I need, I need,” she sang.

_____________

 

First Daniel had written an article on the Case for the Wall Street Journal: “Crime of the Century.” Then a friend had a friend who was sharing an apartment with Linda Ballinzweig and would introduce him to her. Daniel learned that Maury and Linda had separated because Maury had wanted a harem at home and Linda had refused. She had moved, but not far away.

When he met Linda Ballinzweig, he did not tell her of his article. He wanted to understand, he told her. The idealism, the hope, Spain, anti-fascism in the 30′s and 40′s.

“You want to build a bridge over the Holocaust,” she said.

Why not? “Yes,” he said. He thought quickly: “And I’m setting up these archives of progressive humanity. I plan to shape the book on Solomon Rubell from them.”

“I was in Washington, in the park, picketing, when we heard that Solomon was murdered,” Linda said. “We lined up to put away our signs on the truck. As each sign was lowered by its stick into the truck, into a huge growing pile, it was as if a part of the world’s virtue was being destroyed and savagery was winning sway.

“Maury was meant to testify against Solly. Solly was meant to testify against others. Concentration camps were ready, you know. The FBI came to Maury and told him he was a patsy for not testifying. After Solly’s death, they wanted someone to wash their hands for them.”

Daniel asked, “How would you describe Maury?”

“He’s a hedgehog: a prickly outer shell which he uses to protect his inner soft self.”

“I would like to meet him.”

“You can try,” she said. “Here’s his number.” She was leaving New York to teach the art of software in Oregon.

_____________

 

Daniel ripped his pants and streaked his face with dirt so he would look presentable. He cultivated a loving expression.

He had a new hair style to make him look trustworthy: three hairs from the left of his forehead met three hairs from the right in the most vulnerable handclasp, the rest of the hair brushed honestly back behind his jutting ears. He wore a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, and his proletarian coat. One eyebrow jumped up in progressive steps as the conversation became heated.

Daniel Greenwald stood in the doorway shaking hands with the man in green workshirt, brown pants, and slippers, who looked like his coat had many buttons in need of sewing. Maury’s long white hair was held in a ponytail by a white rubber band. He fidgeted and jumped.

He looked much older than in the black-and-red posters of Daniel’s youth. The posters had been everywhere. There were large pictures of Solomon Rubell, with Maury looking from a distance over his shoulder. It was logical: Rubell had been hanged. Maury only got sixteen years.

_____________

 

After talking about his Social Security and about the weather, they sat down. “Whoo!” Maury yelped. “I’ve got two girlfriends. The first one was very sweet and never surprised me. I found her boring. The new one is full of levels and she drives me crazy.” He laughed buoyantly and munched pumpkin seeds.

Daniel sat in a chair wearing the Japanese slippers Maury had handed him—an aid to contemplation. Maury sat on the floor gazing up at him.

The wall posters proclaimed chile: free all political prisoners. who killed letelier? The battered bookshelf contained books about the Case from all viewpoints.

Maury’s voice was Brooklyn-Jewish with little curls of refinement. There was whining in it, weeping, and a bubbling joy.

God . . . of course you know that epilepsy is loaded with ideology coming from the ruling class!”

“Oh . . . sure. . . .”

“I might like to leave New York,” he said. “I could live on my Social Security. Should I move to Oregon?”

“I like the passion of New York,” Daniel said.

“The passion. Yes. True. Interesting. I don’t know. What I really want to do is to help Vietnam and Grenada. What is their optimum trajectory for technical development?”

Daniel stroked his beard and muttered, “Mmmm. . .”

They sat in silence except for the cracking of Maury’s knuckles.

Maury looked at the floor, and said, “So? Begin.”

“About Solomon Rubell—”

“So you’re going to write the 25th book about Solly.”

“Tell me about him.”

“As a scientist, Solly was a fish out of water. He should have been a Greek scholar. He wasn’t a natural.

“Solly and his wife went to Coney Island one day. People left their clothes in the lockers. But Solly brought all of his things out to the beach with him.” Maury put up his arms and waved them. “Legend has it that all the lockers were robbed that afternoon. They always told afterward how wise Solly was.”

Daniel stared.

_____________

 

As a boy, Daniel had pondered the posters of Solomon Rubell, with Maury Ballinzweig looking over Solomon’s shoulder. At the rallies before and after the hanging, the people around Daniel had wept and moaned, they collapsed in a frenzy in the aisle, the elderly had strokes.

On the stage, Linda Ballinzweig pounded her breast. Rubell’s mother wept. Maury’s mother screamed—and then there was the collection. Actresses dressed in Lincoln Brigade uniforms came down the aisle, while the band played “Beyond the Blue Horizon.”

The children, the children, someone screamed. The music stopped. Red and black klieg lights swept across the huge auditorium, crisscrossing the stage. An organ softly played. Huddled together, a drawing lit up behind them of Solomon with a noose around his neck and Maury waving goodbye, the Rubell children, in their little white stockings and caps, held each other by the hand and walked slowly onto the stage.

People next to Daniel gasped. “Harry, oh my God,” a woman said to her husband, “this society is killing us. We’ve got to stop the killing before it’s too late.” And she bent his nose with a kiss. The second collection began. “My daddy is innocent—” began one of the children. Screams resounded across the auditorium and klieg lights crisscrossed, the organ ripped into the shrill light and the natural voice of the people was heard:

innocent . . . innocent . . . innocent
toss the wretched monoliths into the sea
rip the marbles of steel off by their hinges
issue forth the dawn

A speaker added, “And don’t forget Maury Ballinzweig.”

_____________

 

Maury fidgeted as they talked.

“I’ve read a lot about you,” Daniel said.

“Yes. What?”

Daniel hesitated. “Well, that your wife told you of her relationship with another man while you were in prison.”

Maury stared at the nub of his slipper. He glanced up at Daniel, and looked down quickly, hiding what Daniel thought was a flush.

“The way the warden and the prisoners baited you about your wife. Your lousy lawyers, your best friend’s betrayal. The death of your father.”

Maury remained immobile.

Daniel said, “How did you survive?”

“Historical and political perspective,” Maury answered. “I didn’t look at it in personal terms. Solly was an ordinary person. I can’t consider myself heroic either. ‘Ordinary’ doesn’t mean you can’t become a hero.”

“About Solomon—” Danel said.

There was a long silence.

“I never had a good hold on him.”

Daniel suddenly said, “Did you like him?”

Maury didn’t answer for a long time. They looked at each other. Maury lifted his arms behind his head and breathed from the belly. Then he looked down. “He was a comrade. This to me is saying a good deal. To understand what this meant is a whole story in itself.

“At that time I couldn’t relate to people. I was an atheist at five. I got into people much more in prison.”

“But did you like him?”

“He was wonderful with his kids.”

“Whenever people mention Solomon, they mention you.”

Maury shrugged. “It was a long time ago.” He paused.

Daniel asked, “You said that to understand what Solomon’s being a comrade meant is a story in itself. What’s the story?”

Maury shifted.

“Daniel,” he said, “beyond that, you’ll have to use your imagination.”

Later, Daniel said: “I thought it was Solomon I was most interested in.” He added, “Now I know it is you.”

“Well, I’m here,” Maury said immediately. “Solomon isn’t.”

At the door, they said goodbye. They would meet again soon, Maury said. They shook hands, and Maury held Daniel’s hand for a moment longer.

_____________

 

Such buoyancy! Such sweetness! Such willingness! Such trust toward a stranger! Such civilized jargon! Daniel was astonished.

What had preserved Maury?

“I want to help you” Maury had said to him.

_____________

 

Daniel Greenwald went in search of Solomon Rubell’s sister to find out more about Maury, but she told Daniel almost nothing about him. She talked about Solomon.

Daniel found her living in Lefrak City with her second husband. Color TV’s flashed in the living room, where her husband sat, and in the kitchen, where she talked to Daniel. She turned off the sound, but left the picture on.

“When I went to visit Solly for the last time, I was waiting outside. I heard the guards talking in the enclosure. One of them said, ‘When the spy is put on the slab.’ I wanted to run in there and say, ‘He’ll never die, he’ll never die.’ I held myself back. I didn’t want them to know I was Solomon Rubell’s sister.

“A little boy, I remember him. He was the youngest of all of us. And such a beautiful baby. Little gold curls. And blue eyes.

“He sold lollipops on shabbes, he wouldn’t take the money for them. He would come back the next day to collect the penny for the lollies.

“I loved his character. Nothing but pride. He was a wonderful person. Knowledgeable, very well-educated, well-read. To me he was like a king. If you look at me you’ll see Solly, but you’ll see a much handsomer man. Before you knew it he went to Hebrew school, took a keen interest in Hebrew. Put his whole heart into it.

“When he walked, he may have sloped a little. I don’t remember. He entered school speaking Yiddish and didn’t know English. But he learned so fast.

“Broome Street and Catherine Street where we used to live are torn down. All gone. It was a shtetl. You were happy, you walked out, you were among friends and relatives. It was just a haimish atmosphere. In later years we had hot water and steam too. Jewish girls went with Jewish girls and Jewish boys went with Jewish boys.

“We used to walk by the river and throw our sins away . . . on Tashlikh, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah . . . like crumbs or something. You say a prayer.

“Mama would cook and bake for every occasion. I loved Fridays but I hated Sunday when the laundry had to be done. Everything had to be stripped. And that tub in the kitchen. Mama used to stand with the board and wash the clothes. The tub would have curtains around it that she made.

“When my father got up to talk, everybody listened. And this is Solly, he inherited his intelligence, ability to talk; he was a born leader, a brilliant boy. He made sense. He wasn’t as fiery in later life as he was in youth. He changed. He married and had a family. Responsibility. You look toward prospering.

“The lawyer Mandel kept saying, ‘They won’t dare kill him.’ When my husband opened the door at 8:00, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I didn’t think they’d do it.’ He repeated that several times. And he embraced me. And we both cried. A half hour before, my little son who was twelve years old got up on the chair. He turned the clock I shouldn’t watch it. Because I couldn’t watch the clock anymore from 7:30. He had the sense to get up on the stool, a little fella, to turn the clock back.

“Maury Ballinzweig? He wasn’t cut from the same cloth. Even his mother, I heard her say in court before he testified, she said, ‘I hope he’ll have some of Solly’s courage.’ She wasn’t sure.”

_____________

 

As a boy of fifteen in the 50′s, Daniel learned about the party and the Case.

He had stood in the thin crowd, the blinding sun on the podium at Union Square in 1954. They toiled onto the stage, the released Smith Act prisoners, blinking into the sun, thin, waving at the barricades behind which no one stood. Telegrams from Moscow, China, People’s Republics of Eastern Europe were read. Fists clenched. Anna Louise Strong took a bow. Pete Seeger sang. Reverend William Howard Melish blessed the Red Army. Edith Segal read martyr poems. Solomon’s sister spoke in a trembling voice: “To think he didn’t live to experience the joys of television”—and wept.

Henry Winston, blinded in prison, stood with his stick. Robert Thompson, his skull bashed in by a Yugoslavian fascist in prison, sat on a chair with a pillow. Benjamin J. Davis, dying of cancer, stood tall. He shouted, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Moscow than President here.” He dropped the rest of his speech and went right into his crowd pleaser: “They can call me red, they can call me black, but they can’t call me yellow. They can call me red, they can call me black, but they can’t call me yellow. They can call me red, they can call me black, but they can’t call me yellow.”

They bared their throats for slitting.

This was what they knew.

Their pale complexions and gabardine suits.

They knew their lines.

Eugene Dennis read and squeaked his proclamations. No one listened. There were no human sounds. In the dry listless day, on the hot earth across from Klein’s, the people’s martyrs stood silently.

Daniel watched.

_____________

 

Even for a lonely kid, it was weirdness, no doubt about it. He needed a place to go, and he didn’t know how to dance. He couldn’t do the mashed potato or the twist. Allan Freed was pounding the phone book on wins to the new rock sound.

The party took him as he was. They were overjoyed to welcome “a representative of the youth.”

_____________

 

The problem was that two days after Solomon Rubell was arrested, Maury Ballinzweig fled to Toronto with Linda. Within three weeks they were located by the Canadian police and Maury was handed across the border to a United States agent.

Maury had locked up his house in Flatbush, left his new Chevrolet in the garage, and did not tell his employers of his plans.

When he reached Toronto, Maury cashed in his return trip airline tickets and wrote to a friend in Manhattan, using such aliases as “M. Ballbearing” and “Myron Ballast.” Enclosed in his letters to his friend, Maury included notes for his parents and aunts, and asked his friend to forward them.

Maury left Linda in Toronto and traveled to Vancouver by himself, using five other false names, to try to find a boat that would take them abroad. Traveling around the west coast of Canada, he inquired about passage to Europe or South America. He wrote later of those lonely days:

I spent a lot of time at the docks, walking around, hoping to find someone to talk to, someone who could give me a lead. Frankly, a lot of the time I just stood around, observing the local customs, or went “slumming.” The music in the pubs was mainly starkly conventional: Doris Day and Guy Lombardo, and at first it was a novelty to observe another culture. Then it got on my nerves. I hope the music did not adequately reflect the cultural outreach of the habitués. I might have enjoyed a dance or two, but this seemed to me like impermissible self-indulgence. For these forays, I purchased prescription sunglasses, fearing slip-ons would mark me as a tourist.

After he returned in despair to Toronto, Maury and Linda were sitting peacefully in their room sipping wine and reading the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, when the door was broken open. Four men surrounded Maury with guns. “Don’t shoot,” he pleaded. They picked him up and carried him to a car, where they beat him over the head with truncheons.

They drove around with him for hours, questioning him and slapping him in the face when he refused to answer. At the Canadian border he was handed over to a U.S. agent, handcuffed, placed in jail, and returned to Manhattan. This kidnapping became the basis of Maury’s unsuccessful appeal of his conviction.

His flight had occurred at the height of McCarthyism.

But it just didn’t look right.

_____________

 

At the Rubell-Ballinzweig rallies, there were endless explanations of Maury’s “flight from the fascists.” They said that what had happened “would never be allowed to occur in the Soviet Union.” Progressive historians and dialecticians explained it over and over, and Maury himself called it “the most traumatic event of my life,” and said that he had acted irrationally because of the atmosphere of “intimidation and repression” against opponents of the Korean war.

The explanation that stuck came from the historian of the Case, Jim Bailer. Only he had read all the intelligence sources, he said. Only he had discovered the wonderful news that the Soviet Union had never once conducted espionage against the United States. The Soviets had told him personally that espionage was forbidden in the Soviet constitution. Then he presented the obvious parallel between Nazi Germany and America.

“Why did Maury flee from the truncheoned fascists, you ask? Should he have just stood there and waited for the knock at the door?

“I had the special privilege after I was wounded in World War II to visit Dachau with the fabulous People’s Singer, Paul Robeson, in 1945. In traveling from Munich to Dachau, we asked lots of people where the concentration camp was. Not one of them admitted they knew. This should tell us something about our fellow Americans who pretend not to know what is going on all about us here in America. When we got to the camp, the most significant experience for me was this: seeing the ‘shower rooms’ at the death chambers, where they put so many innocent victims, both politicals and Jews, to their death. There were nozzles on the ceilings. They thought they were going to be given normal showers. Instead gas came from hidden pipes on the ceiling. Let us not be like those victims in Germany who went to their deaths not knowing what was happening. Let us be like Maury Ballinzweig.”

In a public letter to Linda, Maury later wrote:

I am trying to conjure up memories of that time, yet I can remember the most trifling incidents of my life more easily. Whence the disparity?

The vacation—or “flight”—had many motivations. To see the land, to search out others—these too contributed a taste to the feast.

History entered, as it must: the Korean war, the witch hunts, fascism’s imminence. Perhaps I was frightened of something, or thought I was.

Why did I apparently decide to opt for the experience of an “assumed” name? Why did I crave this particular experience more than once? Was I trying to hide something, and what could it have been?

Clearly there was some movement on my part toward anonymity. Was I on some level running away, or perhaps toward myself? Perhaps you, my wife, could contribute some wisdom to our understanding of these events.

Was I sympathetically projecting onto Solly’s experience and did I fear the concept of hanging?

Put brutally: was there a cause for my behavior? What was it? Can one isolate in the maelstrom of being one simple cause in any case? This reduces life to simplistic levels, and is not my style at all.

_____________

 

Daniel called Maury every Sunday night, trying to get him to agree to a second meeting. He lived in terror that Maury would see his article on the Case in the Wall Street Journal. He would call after taking a tranquilizer, a beer, and black coffee.

One Sunday in January, Maury told him that his mother had been mugged, and that he was proud of her for not identifying the mugger. Then he said perhaps he could see Daniel again in the springtime.

“I haven’t been sleeping well since I saw you,” Maury said.

“Maury, look, I want to see you again. I’m very shy. I don’t want to push you—”

“Daniel, you don’t have to—”

“Let me—”

“You don’t have to! You don’t have to! Really! I understand. Let’s put it this way: the only chance I won’t see you—” Maury paused, and out came a stream of laughter—“is if I go down to El Salvador!”

“Oh God.”

“Look, going to these places is my idea of having fun!”

“But—”

I know, Daniel, but I’m trying to have fun!

_____________

 

Linda Ballinzweig had been impressed by Jack Henry Abbott. “These jailers who destroy people: they’re the ones who are guilty for any murders that happen afterward,” she said. “Look at the black people. They’re robbed of everything before they are even born. They don’t even get necessary nourishment in their mother’s bellies. They’re justified in whatever they do.”

_____________

 

Maury’s early attempt to join the anti-fascist struggle on a politically mature level took him to Cats Paw, Georgia, on a dusty hot August day in 1941. Dressed in old khakis, sweatshirt, and sneakers, driving his beat-up Ford, he planned to melt into the local population. He carried two expensive cameras with him.

Several things bothered Maury immediately about the town: the accents of the people, which grated on him, bringing to mind reactionary viewpoints of the worst racists; and the curiosity of the townspeople toward him, which he didn’t understand. Why did they stare at him? They were especially interested in his “German accent.” He told them with a snort of contempt that he did not have one, and “obviously could not have one, since I was born in Brooklyn.”

The young man checked into the Loveheart Tourist Home on Route 5. Then he walked into the Pevear flour mill and asked to see Mr. Pevear. He asked Pevear for permission to take pictures of the mill. He photographed the outside and inside of the mill and took close-ups of each piece of machinery. Then he headed for the Harris lumber mill, and asked the foreman where and how much of the lumber was being shipped. The foreman didn’t reply. Maury asked if he could take pictures. The foreman told him to get permission from the owner. Within a few minutes, the foreman saw Maury snapping away, and assumed Maury had gotten permission. When Mr. Harris, the owner, saw Maury taking pictures, he did not know that Maury had been told to ask his permission.

Crowds gathered.

Maury tried to relax them by chatting about matters of general interest on a level they could understand. He asked one worker if there was a shortwave radio set in the town, and the man stammered he didn’t know. “Well, can’t you find out?” Maury said, and turned away. He asked a man who looked more enlightened, but the man walked away without replying and called the police. Maury said to a group who were looking at him, “Can you believe those English? Such incredible arrogance? In this day and age, with all those outmoded customs and mores?”

“What do you want here, mister?” one of the men asked.

“Basically, I have a deep interest in studying Tobacco Road country,” Maury replied.

When the town was getting ready to arrest Maury, Pevear took him aside and told him that he was acting in a very peculiar way. Maury took out his Navy shipyard card and explained he was on vacation.

“But what does that have to do with your taking pictures of the mills?” Pevear said.

“I’m sorry I can’t seem to satisfy you,” Maury said. “Nobody seems to know anything,” he continued. “The English go on acting like they own the world, and in my estimation they can’t do anything right. Would you want to place your destiny in their hands?”

Maury walked off and entered a radio shop. He again asked about a shortwave radio, explaining he wanted to send a message.

Maury disappeared the next morning. When the FBI arrived, the landlady told them, raising her eyebrows, that the young stranger had received two special delivery letters and that he was carrying one small bag.

_____________

 

Before meeting Maury, Daniel had spoken to anyone who was close to him: old Communists, a progressive historian. He traveled to Washington for the Freedom of Information files. He’d gone to a rally on Nicaragua on a steaming hot Sunday in Tompkins Square Park. Linda had mentioned the rally, and he thought Maury might be there and he could see what he looked like now. And there he was: an old man with a long white ponytail bobbing along with quick little steps bringing a Coke to the tall young blonde who towered over him.

_____________

 

The progressive historian who knew Maury well had a cheery face. Yet when she spoke agitatedly in the dark room about the Hitler-Stalin pact, Daniel could swear a change took place—her face became redder and redder. Sweat poured down her; her cheeks hollowed out. He saw horns, and smoke.

“Maury was raised in a family of party people,” she said. “His aunts were in positions of leadership: on the National Committee, chairmen of the Disciplinary Committee. From childhood on, as soon as he walked, as soon as he remembered, he was surrounded by the party. He still resents to this day the domination of his mother. When he got his first job in Chicago, she brought the dishes and the linen to his new apartment.

“She had a great contempt for her husband. Her family was important in the party. Her husband didn’t have time, although he was a member, to be active. He ran the candy store, and he was there practically twenty hours a day. She played a strong activist role, and felt he wasn’t active enough—that he was a yeshivah bocher type, that he allowed himself to be pushed around. She thought Maury was from her side of the family, and that he identified with her.

“She was wrong. He loved his father, he treasured the memories of his father. When his father became ill, his mother put him in a home. Maury never forgave her for letting his father die there while he was in prison.”

_____________

 

Maury was too busy to see Daniel. Daniel phoned him every week. Maury had six, ten projects: to help improve the medical equipment in Vietnam—to attend the farewell dinner for the Vietnamese ambassador—rallies, demonstrations—“I met Abbie Hoffman for the first time at an affair for Nicaragua!” Peals of laughter. Why was this man laughing?

The months passed. On a spring day, a spy was arrested. When Daniel called him that night, he could barely recognize Maury’s voice. It was minute, strangled, terrified. He did not understand why. Had the arrest brought back memories? Had Maury discovered Daniel’s article? Was Maury afraid of him?

Yet that was the night Maury finally agreed to see him again. They agreed on “next Wednesday night.” Maury called back. He was suddenly effervescent again. Was it to be that Wednesday or the following? Maury was delighted with “the ambiguity in the language.” He rocked with laughter, and hung up howling.

_____________

 

On Wednesday night, Daniel walked through Harlem to Maury’s house. He had left a goodbye note, just in case. Paranoia ran in his family. He felt sorrow for Maury; it almost outweighed his fear.

Daniel removed his shoes and put on Maury’s slippers.

Maury said he felt upset that night. He looked much older, his hair frazzled. He sat scrunched up, his hands between his legs, peering downward. Daniel suddenly saw him in prison.

Maury talked again about his Social Security; he was afraid he would be getting less than he had expected. “How do you earn your living?” he asked.

“Freelance editing. Not much. Part-time teaching.”

Daniel began. “You said you became a much more social person in prison.”

“There’s a real camaraderie,” Maury said. “There was an escape attempt. Half the joint knew what was going on for months. That’s how tight the thing is. . . . But even if I felt close to someone, for their own sake I kept aloof. It hurt me, especially with black people. One guy wanted to get even with a guy who fired me. But I said no. . . .

“I had the outside to keep me going. That was a stress inducer and a stress reducer. You go insane digging a ditch in your mind deeper and deeper into events that happened, going over and over them, with no way of breaking out. If it were analysis, okay; but it wasn’t.”

“You seem to be a happy person,” Daniel said.

“I have to make up for those years. That’s why I’m happy. In prison, you develop humanity. You see all these unfortunate people. You feel for them. My confrères opened up to me. We walked the yard and talked. I developed a radar. There’s either an open loop when you speak with somebody or there’s a servo loop—engineering terms—and you really listen to what they’re saying. In college I was an open-loop person. I didn’t listen. In prison I listened.”

“But you call yourself primarily a political person.”

“Yes. People unfortunately react with their hearts rather than their heads. The heart betrays. I strictly avoid self-sacrifice. In Argentina the bastards are getting the people’s support. In England they support the bitch. We wouldn’t have wars if people didn’t respond that way.”

Maury stretched his legs out before him. “Before prison I never really had a world view, a long view. It was through the heart, not the head. Linda was very political, even when I met her in 1940. So was Solly.

“In prison the government was testing me, trying to make me a witness. Why did I resist? I didn’t feel pressure. It isn’t in yourself to turn somebody in to save yourself.”

He suddenly said, “You know, I can’t get deeply involved with a ‘personal’ person.”

“I guess that’s me,” Daniel said.

“I once wrote to the Metropolitan Opera radio host asking him to compare Tosca with Leonora: two women trying to help free their husbands from prison. Tosca uses womanly wiles to try to help her husband. Leonora turns into a boy, Fidelio, and succeeds in freeing hers.

“Apropos culture,” Maury said, “I can’t believe you hated Reds.”

“Did I say that?”

“You said it. On the phone. You’re an effete aesthete,” he snapped. “I’m the radical, you’re the liberal.”

“But you couldn’t tell what John Reed was motivated by.”

“All right!” Maury shouted. “So you couldn’t tell. Maybe Reed didn’t know himself why he was doing what he was doing! So what?”

Maury sprang up and ran water into a glass. He paced around the room. He picked up a book. “Ever see this?” He showed Daniel Linda’s book of poetry, To My Beloved Prisoner.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Two of the poems were to me. The others were to other people. This wasn’t generally known at the time.”

“It must have hurt you, about Linda,” Daniel said softly. Maury stiffened.

“That was our relationship. I was powerless. Under the circumstances any other way would have seemed more painful.”

“When did she tell you?”

“About a year into it. Haven’t you had extramarital affairs?”

“No.”

Maury was striking his hand against the chair. “Look, I don’t believe in self-sacrifice. I was caught in a situation, I did not choose. They came to me with all these deals. They were not viable alternatives. She had alternatives, which would’ in no way take away from me. If I had faith in her, it would not take anything from me. If it hurt me, it was my own fault. It’s because I’m too damn bourgeois.”

“Did it hurt you?”

“Of course it hurt me.”

Maury stood up and moved to a table. He took a framed picture from it and silently handed it to Daniel. It was Maury as a boy in Brooklyn, sitting on his father’s lap. His father was smiling. Maury took the picture back and placed it on the table.

“You don’t know where I’m coming from,” he said after a silence. “You’re too full of feeling—that’s what I get from you. Feeling just works off guilt,” he said with contempt.

Daniel said, “No one’s more full of feeling than you.”

“But I control it.” Maury stood up. “I think that’s it for today.”

Daniel put on his shoes and coat.

Maury ripped Daniel’s name off his bulletin board.

Farfallen,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“The opportunity is lost.”

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.