Excerpt from 'Left of the left: my memories of Sam Dolgoff'

Excerpt from 'Left of the left: my memories of Sam Dolgoff'

An excerpt of Anatole Dolgoff’s memoir of growing up at the center of the twentieth-century anarchist movement. The book centers of Anatole’s dad, Sam Dolgoff, and includes a cast of dozens well known, forgotten and never known.

Road to Freedom had a nominal co-editor who seldom showed up, and never worked. His name was Hippolyte Havel. Sam did not know him “at the height of his career as a militant anarchist writer, editor, close friend of Emma Goldman, and well-known member of the Greenwich Village Bohemian community.” When Sam knew him he was pretty much incapable of doing anything, was entirely supported by comrades and what he could cadge from gullible strangers passing through. Sam remembered him as “an ill tempered, abusive alcoholic, a paranoiac who regarded even the slightest difference of opinion as a personal affront. Nor could he carry on a discussion on any subject for more than a few minutes without constant interruptions, abruptly launching into a tirade on totally unrelated matters. It was most painful to witness the deterioration of a once vibrant personality.”

Many years later, in the 1940s, Sam attended The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neil’s bitter commentary on lost illusions, cowardice, and betrayal. One of the characters spends the entire play sprawled across a table in Harry Hope’s funereal bar, drunk; every now and then he rises to spout something vehemently incomprehensible before collapsing again. “That’s Hippolyte Havel!” Sam exclaimed. There was no doubt!

Hippolyte Havel, flesh and blood human being, morphed into a character in an O’Neil play! That provides me the solution to a problem I have had. How to make accessible to people who were born after Sam died the breadth of his experience and the myriad people he knew so many years ago? Simple chronology—you know, first Sam did this, and then he said that—cannot convey to you the richness of Sam’s lifetime journey in the anarchist movement, which he embarked upon when he joined Road to Freedom. But we do have the movies, and a special one at that.

Reds was the film I dragged Sam to so many years later, in 1982, for he disliked going to the movies. The film was finishing a fairly long run and the only theater showing it was at a Mall in Northern New Jersey. I had to drive him there. He insisted on paying for his own small paper cup of coca-cola in the lobby. “A buck fifty? Why you can’t be serious man! Maybe you should wear a mask and gun?” Sam growled. The young fellow behind the counter, probably a suburban high school kid born into an entirely different world, caught the glint of humor in Sam’s eyes and smiled indulgently. That was the last bit of indulgence he received as he proceeded to wreck the film for the sparse audience scattered throughout the dark cavernous space that mid-week afternoon.

Reds is a three-hour long, romanticized but fundamentally accurate depiction of the life and times of the brilliant American journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty). The man cut quite a figure. He rode with the Mexican bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. He was closely associated with the Wobblies and good friends with Big Bill Haywood. He was active in the rich New York radical/ bohemian scene, knew everybody, was in on everything. He witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand; his Ten Days That Shook the World remains a classic account of that momentous event. He became a committed Bolshevik and was instrumental in founding the American Communist Party. He died young of a terrible illness, typhus, in Moscow where his remains were interred in the Kremlin Wall. Numerous old-time radicals and writers—themselves, not actors—appear throughout Reds and comment on the characters depicted in the film. I thought Sam would enjoy Reds and on the whole he did. (“Who ever thought Hollywood would make such a film?”)

The problem was in the details. Sam was nearly deaf at this stage so I had to trundle him up front, where, with his swollen belly, he sat on the edge of his too small seat, leaning forward on his wooden cane, breathing noisily, trying to catch the dialog. He knew personally or was familiar with nearly every character in Reds. This included many of the aged witnesses, who were, after all, his contemporaries. As the film got going, Sam became involved and growled comments on the proceedings, his gravel baritone blasting into the darkness. There followed from the audience, like a Greek Chorus, a call and response session.
Sam, viewing one of the old-timers on screen, blares: “Henry Miller! The man was a bohemian in Paris. He knows nothing about these things.”

Response: “Shhh!

An aged lady I do not remember appears on screen.
Sam: “Her!”

Response: “Quiet!

The scene shifts to Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union:
Sam: “Him I can respect. That’s more like it.”

Response: An intolerant “HISSS!”

Big Bill Haywood shows up in little more than a bit part for a line or two.

Sam waves his hand in disgust at the actor. “Nothing like him! The man has no stature. Haywood had stature! Haywood had one eye, but he never wore a patch like this fella!”

Response: Shut the fuck up! Call the manager!…

Then, toward the end, there is the touching if slightly absurd montage of the devoted Diane Keaton, in the attempt to reach the dying Beatty, hiking through the Soviet snow in a blizzard. Apparently, she is not allowed to enter Moscow directly.

Sam: “Now that is ridiculous. Those days anyone could get in! The regime was looking for support. Did you know that Bryant married the American Ambassador after Reed died?”

The audience response ends here; instead a ash light skips through the darkness and two young ushers find us up front. “Sir, we must ask you to leave!”

“Why? What did we do?”

“Come on, it is almost over anyway,” I say.

Outside, in the bright sunlight of the parking lot, some of the film’s patrons can barely contain spitting at us; seeing an old man in suspenders with white socks showing beneath the cuffs of his pants made them angrier. Their fury was directed at a character that could have walked directly out of the film.

On the way home, in the car, I search for something about which Sam and I can agree: “How did you like the guy who plays Eugene O’Neill?” It was Jack Nicholson, who has an affair with Bryant in the film. I enjoyed his performance.

“No good!”

“No good? I thought he was very good. Why?”

“Too gloomy.”

“Well, O’Neill must have been a gloomy guy, right? Look at his plays!”

“But he was not gloomy in that way.” Sam insisted, “He was a good fella to have a drink with. He had that Irish wit. He didn’t wear his troubles in public like a hair shirt, going around depressing everybody!”

Their paths had intersected in the radical, artistic, bohemian circles of the time. Early on O’Neill had shipped-out—that is, worked as a merchant seaman—and had been a Wobbly, and hung out with anarchists. He was not yet Eugene O’Neill.

Sam’s off-hand comment surprised me. “You know that? You knew Eugene O’Neill? You drank with him? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt, while not hurt, put-out.

“Why should I tell you? What earthly difference does it make if I knew Eugene O’Neill?”

I suppose he was right in the scheme of things.
Sam was always pulling surprises like that. He did not think that knowing famous people was important. Sometime later, I mentioned a PBS documentary on Diego Rivera. Sam smiled and said simply, “Diego was a good guy. You couldn’t help but like him.” They had met several times in the early thirties at radical meeting halls on lower Broadway and at a Union Square diner so infested with Communists it was called The Kremlin.

As I’ve mentioned, the purpose of my autobiographical, cinematic diversion is to make accessible the richness of Sam’s life nearly a century ago. He came to know personally virtually everyone who mattered in the radical movement of his day or he came to know of them intimately through their friends and enemies. Not that he thought his life was rich; it was simply his life.

Originally posted: May 17, 2016 at Revolution By the Book

Posted By

Juan Conatz
May 20 2016 05:12

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syndicalist
Jul 22 2016 14:32

I hear you, mostly. Time does not allow me to write a longer reply
Within the piece there's a criticism of Israel and the state in general
A call for Arab-Jewish unity. And a certain viewpoint or softness that comes
from those who have survive or lived through the immense tradegy of the concentration camps and ghettos. I think there are lots of sad nuances and tradegies on both sides of the human
Palestinian and Jewish experiances post WW 2 that get lump together in a black and white fashion
But the transgressions if imperialism and Zionism, as well as those if the grand muftis, over shadow whatever small and positive experiments that early kibbutzniks carried out (and did so in a cooperative, fair and reasonable manner with their Palestinian neighbors).
The post Ww2 world changed the whole course of events and lives forever.
Just trying to understand a near extinct generation thinking, not defending their words or beliefs

Steven.
Jul 25 2016 11:06

Just to echo the earlier poster that I always really enjoy syndicalist's recollections and anecdotes so don't hold back!

Hieronymus:

Hieronymous wrote:
Both books also talk about how the experience of that cross-sectoral mass strike set the tone for the 1936-1937 national seaman's strike, where 40,000 workers from all the maritime trades (including longshoring) went on a 99-day strike to win a hiring hall for sailors like the one West Coast dockers won in 1934. The strike completely paralyzed East, West and Gulf Coasts, but management's response was brutal -- often working closely with reactionary AFL bureaucrats -- and it cost the lives of 27 workers.

That sounds really interesting. I have never heard of that strike before, and we don't have anything on libcom about it. Do you know of any decent texts with a history of it which could be posted to our history section? Or if not, would anyone be willing to write one? As that would be great (eventually we want to have a decent history of every major strike on this website, as well as as many minor ones as possible…)

syndicalist
Jul 25 2016 21:57

Very much the "standard" interview myself and many others heard over the years as Esther and Sam became known to newer generations of comrades .... Please scroll down to Page 64

http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/anarchist_archives/journals/blackrose/blackro...

syndicalist
Jul 25 2016 23:47
Steven. wrote:
Hieronymus:

Hieronymous wrote:
Both books also talk about how the experience of that cross-sectoral mass strike set the tone for the 1936-1937 national seaman's strike, where 40,000 workers from all the maritime trades (including longshoring) went on a 99-day strike to win a hiring hall for sailors like the one West Coast dockers won in 1934. The strike completely paralyzed East, West and Gulf Coasts, but management's response was brutal -- often working closely with reactionary AFL bureaucrats -- and it cost the lives of 27 workers.

That sounds really interesting. I have never heard of that strike before, and we don't have anything on libcom about it. Do you know of any decent texts with a history of it which could be posted to our history section? Or if not, would anyone be willing to write one? As that would be great (eventually we want to have a decent history of every major strike on this website, as well as as many minor ones as possible…)

This book is worthwhile read - "Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s" By Bruce Nelson. Doubt it's on line. I'll look and see the condition of my book and how much he has on that fight. No promises, maybe i can scan some thing.

In the recently posted "The Marine Worker" there's an "Official statement of the MTWIU no. 510 of the IWW concerning the proposed Copeland Fink book for seamen"
https://libcom.org/library/marine-worker-vol-3-no-3-july-1936

Sam Dolgoff in "The Vanguard" - "War on the waterfront by Sam Weiner"
https://libcom.org/library/vanguard-vol-3-no-5-december-1936

Bill Baily, CPer, account of the Pacific coast strike, 1936:
http://www.larkspring.com/Kid/Book2/2-18.html
On-line, "book Two": "The Kid from Hoboken"

Trotskyist perspective by Frederick J. Lang [Frank Lovell] (SWP),
"Maritime: A Historical Sketch and a Workers’ Program"
https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/lovell/1943/maritime-ch4.h...
[Full book: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/lovell/1943/maritime.htm]

From the "Socialist Appeal" announcing workers victory against the Copland Fink Book:
https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/themilitant/socialist-app...

Very brief coverage in the IWW "OBU Monthly" "Labor is on the move: an analysis of the labor struggles of 1936" by Charles Velsek
https://libcom.org/files/The%20One%20Big%20Union%20Monthly%20(January%201937).pdf

"Marine Transport Workers' Union, No. 510 was active in Philadelphia, particularly, but also at New York, Galveston, Jacksonville and Tampa. They were protesting the use of the Copeland “Fink” Books. These books, known as "Continuous Discharge Books" were required under the Copeland Act. The I.W.W. objected to these books, because they believed the books would facilitate "blacklisting." "
https://libcom.org/book/export/html/54320

The CP oriented Bay Area "The Waterfront Worker"
http://archive.ilwu.org/?page_id=1863

Workers Pin/badge against the Copland Fink Book --- https://www.hakes.com/Auction/ItemDetail/52604/MERCHANT-MARINE-SEAMENS-1...

Edit: During the "Cold War" the government used a process called "screening" in maritime (and electronics) to wed our radicals. Here's a short piece on how the ILWU related it to the Copland Fink Book: http://archive.ilwu.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/19501110.pdf

fnbrilll
Jul 26 2016 02:45

Ottilie Markholt's "social memoir" - Long time IWW and west coast labor militant. Had been married to one of the active 1934 strikers/militants:
PDF can be downloaded here:
http://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/cdm/ref/collection/pnwhm/id...

Hieronymous
Jul 26 2016 06:11
syndicalist wrote:
This book is worthwhile read - "Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s" By Bruce Nelson. Doubt it's on line. I'll look and see the condition of my book and how much he has on that fight. No promises, maybe i can scan some thing.

Nelson's Workers on the Waterfront talks about the nationwide maritime strike on pages 213-218. Also, his book is singularly the all-time best book about waterfront militancy I've ever read. As syndicalist says, it is truly a worthwhile read; I can't recommend it highly enough.

And another book to add to fnbrill's suggestion, is Ottilie Markholt's Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938. Her book has one of the best accounts in Chapter 13, "The 1936-1937 Strike," on pages 273-292.

Another two excellent books on this period of waterfront militancy are both by Charles Larrowe, his earlier Shape-Up and Hiring Hall: A Comparison of Hiring Methods and Labor Relations on the New York and Seattle Waterfront (1955) and Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S. (1974) [with an interesting account of Bridges feud with Stan Weir].

Lastly, another crucial comparison of lefty west coast longshore workers and mobbed up ones in the east is Howard Kimeldorf's Reds or Rackets: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront.

syndicalist
Jul 26 2016 15:26
Hieronymous wrote:
syndicalist wrote:
This book is worthwhile read - "Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s" By Bruce Nelson. Doubt it's on line. I'll look and see the condition of my book and how much he has on that fight. No promises, maybe i can scan some thing.

Nelson's Workers on the Waterfront talks about the nationwide maritime strike on pages 213-218. Also, his book is singularly the all-time best book about waterfront militancy I've ever read. As syndicalist says, it is truly a worthwhile read; I can't recommend it highly enough.

And another book to add to fnbrill's suggestion, is Ottilie Markholt's Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938. Her book has one of the best accounts in Chapter 13, "The 1936-1937 Strike," on pages 273-292.

Another two excellent books on this period of waterfront militancy are both by Charles Larrowe, his earlier Shape-Up and Hiring Hall: A Comparison of Hiring Methods and Labor Relations on the New York and Seattle Waterfront (1955) and Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S. (1974) [with an interesting account of Bridges feud with Stan Weir].

Lastly, another crucial comparison of lefty west coast longshore workers and mobbed up ones in the east is Howard Kimeldorf's Reds or Rackets: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront.

If I can scan those pages without breaking the binding I'll make that attempt.

I was actually gojng to mention Kimeldorf's book, but age is creeping up. Thanks for that posting.
Totally forgot about the bridges book. I have a decrepit and falling apart copy of the Bridges's
book. Since the binding is shot on that, let me see if I can do the "B-man" section and somehow lash that up with the Wier piece.

Frank posted the Markholt piece, which I was unaware and look forward to reading that.

Another person we seem to forget is Golbert Mers "Working the Waterfront: The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman". Also, not in the same historical period or same vain, but Arthur Miller's
"Yardbird Blues" -- https://www.iww.org/history/library/AJMiller/yardbird

Hmmm...maybe we should do a marine workers something here, instead of diverting convo from Sam's book?

Jeff Stein
Aug 1 2016 20:47

I would like "syndicalist" to prove that either I or ASR wrote any part of Anatole's book. Anatole Dolgoff is wholly responsible for the contents of his book. I was interviewed for the book as were a number of his former comrades. What Anatole chose to put in the book or not was entirely his call. It is insulting to suggest otherwise.

Sam Dolgoff wrote for ASR (formerly "Libertarian Labor Review" for the first 9 issues and was an active member of the editorial collective. It is only natural that Anatole Dolgoff would seek out his father's former friends and colleagues when writing about him. Perhaps "syndicalist" is unhappy he was not asked for his opinion, but as I recall they were not close comrades and "syndicalist" did not agree with Dolgoff's views, in particular about the revolutionary potential of the IWW.

Far more time is spent on discussing other things in the book than the relationship of LWG to ASR. It is wholly a misrepresentation of the book to suggest it has much of anything to do with LWG. "Syndicalist", however, is free to write his own book about what he was up to the 1970s and 1980s. I am sure it will be a fascinating read.

SIncerely, Jeff Stein

syndicalist
Aug 1 2016 21:10

I am not unhappy that I wasn't asked to submit anything for the book. In the end, my respect for the Dolgoff's remained, but we were not close. So, no, I had no expectations and did not even know about the book. I just think what you said about us was the same tired stuff you have been peddling for decades. Anyway, I guess Sam thought we (Libertarian Workers Group) had some good qualities, in spite of the differences, as we were mentioned in his book in a positive way.

Sam and Esther had a lot to offer, I am glad that I had a chance to learn some things from them.
I will recall the good things about them and express disagreement where there was.

Suffice it to say that I do not agree with anything Jeff has written about the differences we have.
The ending of our friendship was not pleasant and we basically have completely opposite views of most events and differences.

I will just agree to disagree with you about the IWW and views thereof.

And, yes, Jeff, "syndicalist" will be writing about those years.

fnbrilll
Aug 2 2016 05:59

Stein:

I was the one who asked if ASR wrote part of the book because someone had told me that. It was curiousity. Syndicalist wasn't trying to claim anything.

try breathing into a paper bag.

syndicalist
Aug 18 2016 18:10

Had a chance to dig into this over vacation. Thus far, I could hear the voices of those I knew as if it was yesterday. The main thing I am liking is that it fills in aspects of the Dolgoff's lives and of Sam in particular, that I either did not know or suspected.

Hope to actually read the whole thing and maybe write a review. Scratch that, I never write anything I say I want to. Trusting I can finish the book from cover soon.

syndicalist
Aug 18 2016 19:13

Fo those reading this book or have plans too, let me suggest that you read this along with Sam's "Fragments" .... The two go hand in glove in so many ways.... https://libcom.org/history/fragments-memoir-sam-dolgoff

The stuff about MTW "Five-Ten" really fills in some stuff for me. I heard a lot of it from Sam, but I thought how the closing of shop, so to speak, really spoke to the core of how militants feel when its time to close up. The sense of loss, the sense of something missing. The sense that there was something special that may not or can be replicated. The personalization of lots of things makes this book special for me.

syndicalist
Aug 18 2016 23:01

One thing I didn't know, Sam was a self employed painter for, it seems, many years.
The drinking aspect I suspected, never brouched it, just small things here and there
And Esther always seemed be warry of boozing. Not socializing, but hard core boozing

One thing that seems to be clear was his dual personality when he came to people
He'd loved to rip you a new bung hole, and did in the most nasty ways, yet he usually find something good in a person and say as much. Even the one he had ripped. Not for all people, but for most.

Lastly, while I knew about the bad blood over a love relationship
gone sour, but I always figured the break up of the Vanguard group was more political
then personal But even the group minutes I've seen don't much indicate political disagreement
Though they do not indicate Sams group involvement either by the late 1930s

syndicalist
Aug 31 2016 17:59

Haphazardly reading Anatole Dolgoff s "left of the left". I didn't see Sam or Esther much in the mid-late 1980s. Roger would tell us about them and how age and infirmities were talking their toll, but "who knew", as we say. Damn near started to cry when reading the extent that their health and dignity were robbed. And as a son who loved his parents, I can't imagine having to watch this unfold in live time.

syndicalist
Sep 1 2016 18:44

Trying to think of how to write a respectful review. From my small perch,having known the Dolgoff's and working with them up until an unfortunate but necessary separation, there's a bunch of levels to this, the personal, the political, the historical. Almost each one deserving of their own little review.

syndicalist
Sep 18 2016 18:41

Finally finished the book. Of deep appreciation for Anatoly's very down to earth and realistic writing about Sam and Esther. I enjoyed what he wrote, but walk away with both sad feelings and mixed feelings. Sad, because the end of both Sam and Esther's lives were physically and personally difficult.

The most interesting parts were all the early years and by gone eras. The Five-ten stuff and touring the coal filed in the 1930s really rounded out for me Sam's appreciation and personal dedication to the IWW. For some of us who may not have stayed wobblies for our own reasons, I can absolutely appreciate why Sam and others continued to belong and hold the fort.

The worst part of the book, was the submission by Jeff Stein. I get why Anatoly asked for submissions by those who knew and maybe worked with Sam in their closing years.

Perhaps a book review to follow.

syndicalist
Jun 23 2019 23:41

Finally finished reading this book. Prolly gonna reread some of the chapters again. Whether you loved or hated Sam, the book is worth reading (for the most part).