The ProsenPeople

Woody Allen: The Artist Who Got It All

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, David Evanier shared what he learned about Woody Allen while writing an unofficial biography of the comedian and director. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Here's the kind of discovery that biographers love: Woody Allen's boyhood pal Jerry Epstein, now a psychiatrist and author, told me that Woody's birthday is not really December 1; it is November 30. “But Woody wanted to be Number One,” Epstein said.

Allen was never tempted to sell out or to try to outdo himself, and he didn't care to ingratiate himself with the mainstream. Right from the beginning he had total artistic control of his work. And he has always walked away from what became stale for him. He walked away from standup comedy, from TV writing, from talk show, game shows, nightclubs, concert halls, variety shows and mainstream success.

So we are talking about enormous inner strength and self-belief. He was uncertain in his personal life, but he was not shy or uncertain about his art. He is the most identifiable, brazen, and forthright Jewish artist in the world, insistently reminding his viewers about the Holocaust in many of his films. Jewish Hollywood, with many of its moguls refugees from Hitler, had been reluctant to place Jewish actors in leading roles. Maurice Schwartz of the Yiddish Art Theater was cast as the Native American Geronimo; John Garfield and Paul Muni played Italians. But times were changing, with the ascendency of comics Mort Sahl, Lennie Bruce, Shelley Bergman, and Nichols and May. By 1967 films with Jewish content and Jewish stars had emerged in The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman); Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Lumet's comedy, Bye Bye Braverman, starring a new Jewish leading man, George Segal; Mel Brooks's The Producers, and many more, culminating with Barbra Streisand in 1973 in The Way We Were. Arthur Krim and Eric Pleskow, heads of United Artists, gave Allen a blank check and he returned the favor by giving the company enormous prestige and highly successful films.

But the Holocaust was never far from Allen's mind. “Since the Holocaust was such an immense event in my life,” he wrote me, “it couldn't help but wind up as a sporadic or even frequent issue in my work. There are certain crimes that are simply unforgivable.”

I finally visited Allen at his cozy, very lived-in, dark-hued office with its rust and brown couches. He greeted me warmly. I found innocence, curiosity, intensity, total responsiveness, and deep emotion in him. He was nearly eighty, yet he had the youthfulness of the committed artist who cannot wait to get back to his work.

We talked about Israel, about antisemitism (including its masked permutation, anti-Zionism) and about the Holocaust. “It can happen in a minute,” he said. He talked of Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews, of Victor Klemperer's diaries of life in Nazi Germany, of Michael Thomas, a resister to Nazism he'd known, of Rossellini's Il Generale Della Rovere. We talked about our parallel histories: the thrilling double bills of classics at the original Thalia Theater, of Brooklyn, typewriters and the internet—”How can kids watch Citizen Kane on that tiny screen?”—and about the Laff Movie on 42nd Street that played Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton 24 hours a day, and, next door to it, the Horn and Hardart Automat. (I mentioned the mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. “What about the baked macaroni?” he asked. My father had taken me to both places, as Woody's father had taken him.) We talked about the decline of nightclubs, how they had their curious moments—such as John Carradine reading Shakespeare at the Blue Angel nightclub—and he spoke with admiration of Nichols and May, Mort Sahl, and nightclub impresario Max Gordon, who gave him an early break at the Blue Angel.

I asked him what was his greatest joy in life. His face became radiant. “My marriage to Soon-Yi. And my children.” I gave him a copy of my novel, The Great Kisser, and he said he would take it with him to read on the plane to Cannes. He did, and wrote me about it within a week.

All the time we thought he was a neurotic mess, Woody Allen was playing the ultimate magic trick on us. Broken, needy, an impractical dreamer, a schlemiel on-screen, in life he was the artist who kept going, was never destroyed, who got it all.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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What I Learned About Woody

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink

David Evanier recently authored an unofficial biography of Woody Allen, and will be sharing what he learned about the famed comedian and director all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my biography of Woody Allen in 2012, a writer I hadn't heard from in years wrote me excitedly, “Tell! Tell!” I wasn't sure I got her drift, so I wrote back asking her what was it exactly she wanted me to tell. She wrote back, “I was shocked! Shocked!”

Many years before she had sat at a table next to Woody's at Elaine's. She told me that he was seated with two other male friends and they were talking about sex and women. (Not that she was eavesdropping, of course.) Well, I wrote back gently that my life experience has been that when guys get together, this is a pretty normal topic of conversation for us. That was the end of our correspondence.

When I began Allen’s biography I decided that I would drop in on Woody and tell him about my book and also make it clear that I wasn't writing the sort of thing that my shocked correspondent hoped for. So I rang his doorbell. I held a letter in my hand for him. A staff member looked down at me from the upper balcony and told me he'd be right down. He took my letter, smiled and said “Perfect.”

Well, that was nice, I was in. Not quite.

Allen answered me the next day. And many times more, while stating again and again that this was not an authorized bio. And it isn't. That was even better from my point of view, since I did not want anyone peering over my shoulder checking what I was writing. This turned out well, especially since he really was a mensch, answering my emails (pleading with me not to leave more letters at his house) and finally meeting with me at the end.

At the start I was only a prying stranger to him and he responded warily, especially since he was committed to another biographer—I would come to learn that he is deeply loyal. And how many requests of this kind had he received over the years?

He bristled at my praise of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Zelig in that first letter. He was concerned that I would praise him for all the wrong reasons. He is extremely self-critical and certain he has never written a masterpiece on the level of a Rosselini, Fellini, or De Sica. As a true artist, he doesn't care about his past work or about how his work is reviewed. He cares only about what he is doing now and what he will do next. Yet he answered me, again and again, and cared about my struggles as a writer.

His achievements—46 films in 46 years, with a wide range of subject matter, from laugh-out-loud funny to poignantly, startlingly moving—are almost Shakespearean. Allen is a classic storyteller, not abstract or cerebral. He gives everything to his films, even the lousy ones. His continuity and high rate of productivity are unprecedented. He may be the most amazing phenomenon in the history of American show business. He has created indelible films that will stay with us the rest of our lives. And in all of these films Allen has been the writer, director and actor.

What did I discover about Woody in writing my biography? His boyhood pals from Brooklyn told me what a trickster and prankster he was, and that he was even funnier in person than he was on screen. His mother was hyper-emotional and orthodox; his father was a happy-go-lucky, good-time Charlie who played the numbers, was a gofer for Albert Anastasia, and carried a gun.

Allen is not a shlepper at all; he is a totally concentrated, focused writer with an indefatigable work ethic. He lives for his writing. He has said that “Writing is culmination, it is being wholly alive.” He is not doing it for the money: “Money in any way has never been an issue with me,” he wrote me. He has never taken the big, controlling money that would kill him as an artist. He never stopped paying his former manager, Jack Rollins, or crediting Rollins in his films, although Rollins had retired many years ago. Rollins had been Woody's mentor in the beginning, urging him to do standup comedy. Allen was terrified of performing, and Rollins was always by his side, not even taking a commission from him. That was the sort of thing Woody never forgot.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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Woody Allen's Jewish Soul

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 | Permalink

Last year, David Evanier wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the best overlooked American Jewish novelist. He is writing the biography of Woody Allen for St. Martin's Press and has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Like Woody Allen, I can remember a childhood when being Jewish caused me a certain deep unease, partly because of the shadow caused by the Holocaust and partly because of the anti-Semitism of some public school teachers. My parents whispered when they spoke Yiddish and even when using the word “Jew.” As I write Allen's biography, I continue to be astonished at how boldly Jewish he has been in his films from the start, even constantly invoking his feelings about the Holocaust. And perhaps that is why a younger Jewish generation, more removed from those anxieties and memories, takes this aspect of him so casually and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neurotic comic persona.

The reality is that this candor was—and continues to be—revolutionary, just as ground-breaking as Allen's other writing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astoundingly fresh and revelatory today as they were then. (Allen had good company in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman.) Allen's work has deepened with the years, just as its Jewish content has continued to grow and unearth windows into his soul—but nowhere more so than in his most avowedly Jewish film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), in which his Orthodox Jewish past was treated (despite Allen's religious skepticism) with a certain reverence and love. Sometimes that reverence is expressed with comedy, as with the compassionate but luckless subject of Broadway Danny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affectionate Jewish show-business ambiance of this heartfelt film but also the haunting words of simple wisdom that Danny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to conduct a moral life: “Acceptance, forgiveness, love.” (Words which are repeated twice, first by Danny/Woody and later by Tina/Mia.) A love for Israel has recently been expressed by Allen in his statement of support last October in the Jerusalem Post. Speaking of the double standard applied in the barrage of criticism of Israel, he said:

“I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don't like Jews.”

“I've always been a big rooter for Israel,” Allen wrote in Tikkun in 2002.

Allen was quoted this year as saying he wanted to visit Israel for the first time with his two daughters and his wife.

Woody Allen became a comedy star at a time when every preconception about American life came into question. He entered a social milieu that somehow was waiting for and anticipating him. He was the antithesis of the traditional male hero: the archetypal schlemiel with a whining, high voice. His humor was very personal and unique; it was not interchangeable with other comedians. There was a presumption, whether it was true or not, that he was telling you something more personal and autobiographical about himself and his experiences.

It almost strains credulity that a Jewish comedian and film actor who placed his Jewishness front and center and consciously proclaimed it, utilizing constant references to his Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, and with ambivalent ways of defining gentiles (white bread and mayonnaise were the most popular reference) could capture the imagination of and even beguile a huge audience as Woody Allen has done. Jack Benny, George Burns, Eddie Cantor, and Groucho Marx preceded him, but these were not comics advertising their Jewishness; it was implicit and polite. Borscht-belt comics were open about their ethnicities by the 1950s, but they were entertaining largely Jewish audiences. Allen was a national comic from the start.

Allen's boyhood was lived during the Holocaust from afar and he is obsessed with it. He wrote in Tikkun of his rage when reading Elie Wiesel's Night: “Wiesel made the point several times that the inmates of the camps didn't think of revenge. I find it odd that I, who was a small boy during World War Two and who lived in America, unmindful of any of the horrors Nazi victims were undergoing, and who never missed a good meal with meat and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and whose memories of those years are only blissful and full of good times and good music—that I think of nothing but revenge.”

Born Allan Stewart Konigsberg on December 1, 1935 to a middle-class Jewish family in the Bronx, Allen has always been caught in the reality of his own Jewishness. His persona was the classic Jewish loser filled with lust. “He came along at exactly the right moment, in the sixties, when everything was being questioned about masculinity,” critic John Simon told me. “And he was extremely heterosexual, desperately so. And he worshipped women.” Forty-two films later, he is the only independent filmmaker who has consistently worked for decades, making some wonderful films, some good films, and some bad films. But he kept going and he is internationally beloved. There is no one else in his league. He has bedazzled the world with many indelible moments of romance, comedy, magic and even some morality tales.

His hard work has seen him through. His is a gigantic success story against the odds, but genius always has an inexplicable element to it. We all suffer, many of us have crippling, devastating childhoods, but few find ways of transmuting that pain into art. Early on he achieved a unique comic perspective—a comedic talent that is so instinctive perhaps he cannot fully understand it himself.

His forty-two films declare his Jewishness again and again. How many times does he turn into a rabbi or a Hasid? It's hard to count, as are the references to the Holocaust. In Stardust Memories he tells an envious old classmate: “If I were in Poland I'd have been a lampshade.” He turns into a Hasid briefly in Take the Money and Run and Annie Hall. There are other characters who are rabbis in Radio Days and Crimes and Misdemeanors. When he is trying to become a Christian in Take the Money and Run, he winds up davening in church and making a very feckless sign of the cross. He experiences feelings of Jewish paranoia throughout Annie Hall: Alvy Singer tells his best friend Rob as they walk on the street,“I distinctly heard it. He murdered under his breath, 'Jew.' Rob tells him he's crazy, but he continues: “Well, I pick up on those kind o' things. You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said...uh, `Did you eat yet or what?' and Tom Christie said `No, didchoo?' Not, did you, didchoo eat? No, not did you eat, but jew eat? Jew. You get it? Jew eat?' Later, Alvy meets Annie Hall to see one of his (and Woody's) favorite films, Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity. Clips are shown from the film and later Alvy talks of the French Resistance and reflects “how I'd stand up under torture,” a question Allen has frequently pondered.

It is during dinner with Annie Hall's family that Alvy is confronted by her anti-Semitic grandmother who stares at him with hostility and he turns into a Hasid with a long black coat, moustache, and beard. Late in the film, Alvy takes Annie to see The Sorrow and the Pity again: The screen shows a Nazi propaganda film, a street with fleeing cars, belongings tied on top and piled in the back seats, and the subtitles read: “The Jewish warmongers and Parisian plutocrats tried to flee with their gold and jewels.” The Ophuls film is referred to yet a third time at the end, when Alvy is pleased to see Annie going to see the film again at the Thalia and he has a brief reunion with her. And Broadway Danny Rose says, “It's important to feel guilty. Otherwise...you're capable of terrible things...it's very important to be guilty. I'm guilty all the time, and I never did anything, you know. My...rabbi, Rabbi Pearlstein used to say we're all guilty in the eyes of God.”

One must return to Crimes and Misdemeanors to fully grasp Allen's search for a Judaism that can have meaning. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) recalls that his father told him, “The eyes of God are on us always.” Rosenthal is struggling with what to do about a mistress who is threatening to destroy his marriage and his career (he is guilty of malfeasance). He consults Ben, a Rabbi, who says “I couldn't go on living if I didn't feel with all my heart that there was a moral structure with a real love and forgiveness. Some kind of higher power. Otherwise there's no basis to know how to live. I know the spark of that....is somewhere in you.”

Rosenthal ultimately arranges the murder of his mistress and gets away with it.

He returns in memory to family seders with scenes at the bimah and at the family dinner table. Later a key role is played in the film by the brilliant writer, psychoanalyst and teacher, Prof. Martin Begmann, portraying Dr. Louis Levi, who is a composite, Allen wrote me, of Prof. Bergmann and Primo Levi. It is Prof. Bergmann who concludes the film by holding out the hope that, despite Allen's despair about the absence of a moral structure, “Most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.” These beautiful words end the film. Seeing Allen's rapt intensity as he watches Bergmann/Levi speak, one is afforded a glimpse into Woody Allen's Jewish soul.

David Evanier has published seven books and has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award. He was the founding editor of the literary magazine, Event, and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. His novel Red Love was recently published as an e-book. Read more about David Evanier here and keep up on news about him and his Woody Allen biography by following him on Twitter.

The Best Overlooked American Jewish Novelist

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 | Permalink

In November, David Evanier wrote about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the reissuing of his novel Red Love. He is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Stephen Dixon is, in my opinion, the best and most overlooked American Jewish fiction writer in the country. If I left out “Jewish,” he would still be the best. He has just published his 32nd book, a novel entitled His Wife Leaves Him, which is partly based on the death of his own beloved wife. Like Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Beller, Jennifer Belle, Jonathan Lethem, Bruce Jay Friedman, and such predecessors as Saul Bellow, Henry Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Daniel Fuchs, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and Wallace Markfield, Dixon's Jewishness is not an orthodox or institutional one, but simply a fact that informs and haunts much of his work. It is hard to understand Dixon's obscurity; he's a two-time National Book Award finalist and has won four O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. In 1994 the Boston Globe wrote that “It will take writers twenty years to catch up with what Stephen Dixon is doing.”

His output is mind-boggling: in addition to his novels, he has published hundreds of stories and is completing a new book, Late Stories, with hundreds more. Nevertheless, Dixon is not about quantity or longevity. Dixon is about freshness and quality. Among his gifts—which include narrative inventiveness without a trace of pretension or convolution, a hilarious sense of humor, and a memory that seems to evoke every single thing that has ever happened to him—he writes the most moving and lasting love stories I have ever read. Among them are his immortal story Sleep, in which the narrator imagines, with infinite pain and loss, the death of his wife.

And now we have in His Wife Leaves Him, perhaps the most complete love story ever written in the history of American letters. And it too is a story told in the face of death. Martin's wife, still young, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that, over the years, is unrelentingly cruel and ultimately fatal. I am certain that American literature has never created a husband who gives of himself so deeply, so fully, taking care of his wife even to the point of physical exhaustion. And it is a story told without false sentimentality or embellishment, which renders it all the more touching and believable.

Martin Samuels, the protagonist, has spent the first forty years of his life bumbling about—as a bartender, actor, reporter, wanderer in Paris, but always a dedicated writer—in search of a true love.

When he encounters Gwen, he finds everything he has been looking for: a truly beautiful, gentle but strong woman of exquisite kindness, sensitivity and literary sensibility, a person of the highest moral standards who shares his values and passions and is ready to start the family he has been yearning for.

She is a translator of the Russian literature he reveres, with a profound knowledge of the literature of the Gulag, Nazism and the inspiration of the Soviet Jewry movement. And she is Jewish, not a small matter to him. Gwen says, “Though I'm by no means a religious or observant Jew—at most, I'll buy a box of egg matzos for Passover, though I'll continue to eat bread and rice over the holiday—my Jewish identity is very strong and important to me because of my family history. In fact, the reason I've never been seriously involved with Gentile men since high school, or really only one and not for long, is because I never felt they could understand my experience of growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.”

Although he is Jewish, he has not dated a Jewish woman seriously before. “That's why I said before,” he tells her, “that I was glad you were Jewish. Fact is, for want of a better word this moment—maybe because I am so thrilled—I'm thrilled.” Everything about Gwen fills Martin with gratitude, and it will be a procreative life filled with their children, beautiful environments (Maine, Riverside Drive) and a passionate immersion in creative work—work they both engage in. Martin cries at his own wedding. His mother says, “It shows how sensitive you are and how much she means to you. I'm only saying I never saw or heard of any groom doing it before, and I've been to plenty of weddings. I can just imagine how you'll react when your first baby comes out and you're in the room.” This kind of dialogue, affectionate, funny and sad, richly steeped in a lived history, is totally representative of Dixon.

The novel is a summing up of the totality of a marriage, its incredible joys, epiphanies, smoldering sensuality, tenderness and moments of frustrated rage as Martin is engulfed, in the later stage of the marriage, in an endless round, night and day, of ministering to Gwen in her terrifying decline. And Dixon summons Gwen back to life unforgettably through her dialogue, and we see a precious person, a brilliant character, rendered real and palpable.

It's hard to believe that Dixon's encyclopedic memory has left a single thing out of this account of an extraordinary marriage. Dixon manages it not only through memory, but with a particularly intimate, vulnerable style of writing, a writing of deep feeling in which nothing is held back, even though it is artfully shaped and the ordinary details and tedium of life are transmuted by a master novelist. Dixon is an obsessed writer (great ones usually are) but he is not solipsistic; his work encompasses everyone he encounters and paints with vivid colors. He blankets the reader with specifics, but specifics so unique and compelling that they have universality. His work will stand as a penetrating record of what a man's love for a woman can be, and what it means to be a humane, sensitive, flawed, passionate participant in life in our time.

David Evanier has published seven books and has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award. He was the founding editor of the literary magazine, Event, and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. His novel Red Love was recently published as an e-book.

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Red Love and Betrayed Ideals

Monday, November 25, 2013 | Permalink

David Evanier has published seven books and has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award. He was the founding editor of the literary magazine, Event, and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. His novel Red Love was recently published as an e-book. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”

I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs' execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin's crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve.

In the 1980s I set out to write about the Rosenberg case and returned to the Communist Party milieu. I met and interviewed the living person closest to the Rosenbergs, Morton Sobell, who was tried with them in 1951 of conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. I interviewed his wife, the late Helen Sobell, Ethel Appel, the sister of Julius Rosenberg, historian Nathan Glazer, who'd written about the case, scores of Communist Party activists, Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and a former member of the Young Communist League, Herbert Aptheker, historian and Communist Party leader, and almost a hundred others. Since I had not lived through the Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany and neo-fascist American movements personified by Father Coughlin and America First, I needed to understand the mindset of people like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by searching out those who believed as they did, who had felt, like Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, that Stalin “was the new Moses.”

I did not want to echo the viewpoint of far right writers who concluded that the Rosenbergs and their comrades were solely motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism. Being anti-fascist for the Rosenbergs and Morton Sobell was inseparable from being pro-Soviet at that time. I came to understand that the utopian view of the USSR deeply appealed to Jews growing up in the Depression, frightened by the seeming collapse of capitalism, gradually learning of the existence of concentration camps and of Hitler's plans for the Final Solution. The only hope seemed to be the Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the fighting against fascism.

During the same period, I worked as a writer/researcher for the Anti-Defamation League focusing on far right and far left organizations. That experience further consolidated my understanding of the ways in which totalitarian visions interconnected. And with the help of the ADL, I traveled to Israel and Switzerland to interview the family of Peretz Markish, the great Yiddish poet and a Communist true believer murdered by Stalin and beaten to death in the prisons of the NKVD. For me the reality of Markish's fate underscored the sad paradox and irony of what Communist true believers were enduring in the Soviet Union at the same time their American counterparts were devoting their lives to celebrating “Soviet justice.”

Julius and Ethel Rosenbeg
And so I set out on a journey of understanding. I concluded that I would not deny the guilt of the Rosenbergs or Morton Sobell, but I would not deny their humanity either, the facts of how American Communists put themselves on the front lines in the struggle for civil rights in the South and for better working conditions. Nor would I ignore the forces of the anti-Semitic far right on American soil that were the other side of the coin during those terrible years. And far from American shores, I would document a twentieth century that gave us both the Final Solution and the Gulag. We needed a more nuanced understanding of the Rosenbergs within the context of those terrifying times. The Rosenbergs were not the saints their supporters imagined them to be, but they did not deserve to be executed or demonized either.
 

When Morton Sobell confessed in 2008 that he had, indeed, spied for the Soviets and admitted that so had Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I was not at all surprised. I knew from my meetings with Sobell in 1982 that, in the silences between his words, (and some of his actual words as well) that he was guilty. I wrote of him with compassion and affection in Red Love, and felt very fortunate that the insights I brought to my book came partly from the understanding he gave me.

I believe that Red Love is saturated with a love and understanding of my characters—even if laced with humor and irreverence—an understanding that came from immersing myself for ten years in the lives of the American Communists who experienced events and times that I never went through and who conveyed that history to me. As a result, as Lucy Dawidowicz wrote, the reader of Red Love “grieves for the many thousands whose years were squandered on false hopes, betrayed ideals, messianic delusions.”

Read more about David Evanier here.