Ellen Perlo and
The Bold Shades of Red
Ellen and Victor Perlo
By John Pietaro
It was a noticeably chilly afternoon of September 2009 as I made my way over the winding path that outlines “Red Hill”, the once notorious revolutionary pocket of Croton-on-Hudson NY. I’d contacted Ellen Perlo the week prior to arrange for a visit to her upstate home, the one she’d shared since 1957 with her then recently deceased husband Victor. The couple were long-time members and activists of the Communist Party and it’s safe to say that they stood high among its intellectual base. He was a noted author and economist, she an artist dedicated to the radical cultural movement and for some years the leader of the CP’s Arts Club.
“Did you see the John Reed House on your way?”, she asked, wearing a beaming smile. “It’s just down the road from here. He and Louise Bryant lived there many years ago but it’s still remembered, especially after ‘Reds’ put us back on the map. We used to get a lot of traffic with visitors seeking it out after Warren Beatty made the film. When was that, ’80? ’81? But long before then, a lot of radical artists and writers were drawn to this area and that lasted decades. They’d started moving in with Reed and then it lasted through the 1940s and after, up and down this so-called ‘Red Hill’”.
Ellen Perlo attended New York University’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, graduating in 1938. When she entered school, Ellen was so focused on her art and studies that she was seen as apolitical, but this changed as the news of the Spanish Civil War broke out. She became active and increasingly radical in her political views, ultimately joining the Communist Party during World War Two. “I joined as everybody was leaving”, she added with a chuckle.
She and Victor Perlo married in 1943. He was then working for the US Treasury Department, so the pair resided in Washington DC for the duration of the war. “I had joined the Party officially in this period but Vic couldn’t become an actual member while he was working for the government”. However not long after VJ Day, the early frost of the cold war unleashed investigations into many on the federal payroll, decimating reputations and careers. After a few years, Perlo found himself among the victims; it is disputable whether or not he’d held Party membership before this period, but he was a close associate and authored articles and papers for the CP press and functions dating back to 1931. The investigations turned up enough information on Perlo to earn him prime target status.
“Vic was appointed as the US head of the United Nations relief agency for Europe; we were set to relocate to Paris but the FBI stopped that immediately”, she said, nonplussed after so many years of living with the reality of those times. But the commencement of this red scare came with a certain ferocity: Perlo, after being named in a Congressional hearing as ‘a Soviet spy’, was summarily fired from his government job and blacklisted. This, too, was the reality of this time of reaction, manipulation and division.
By 1948, the Perlos had left DC and moved to Flushing, Queens NY. Ellen became a staple of the anti-war movement, joining into actions then and in the decades which followed as a member of the Women’s Strike for Peace and WESPAC among other peace and social justice organizations. All during this time she remained an active visual artist and also worked closely with her husband, aiding his research and editing much of the work he was now free to publish under his own name. Ellen also holds co-authorship with Victor in their noted volume, ‘Dynamic Stability: The Soviet Economy Today’ (1980).
The couple were active in many aspects of Party academic and cultural work and as such became close friends and collaborators with historic figures, renowned for their work today but under constant fire in their time. These included Paul Robeson, Hugo Gellert, Walter Lowenfels, Rockwell Kent, Pete Seeger and William Gropper. For the uninitiated, it’s now hard to imagine that the American Communist Party maintained a powerful national Cultural Commission starting with the 1920s, lasting well into the HUAC witch hunts. The relevance of the arts is easily explained by the strength of the medium to carry messages, but its roots lie much deeper: two of the four founders of the Communist Party USA were John Reed and Louis Fraina (the latter is today lesser-known than his celebrated comrade, but Fraina was a journalist, editor, political organizer and strategist who later became a respected economist). At its height, the Party maintained a phalanx of leading authors, journalists, playwrights and poets in addition to noted visual artists, actors, directors, a host of modern dancers, designers and musicians, many of them stars of stage, radio, gallery and film. The Party’s cultural work was initially contained within its John Reed Clubs, the network of which had a national reach and sported famous names alongside the up and coming. It began as a Communist writers’ organization but spread widely through other disciplines almost immediately, ushering in many artists of conscience, particularly in the throes of the Great Depression and the rising tide of fascism. This organization was openly revolutionary in both its philosophy and reach and was succeeded in 1935 by the more widespread League of American Writers.
The League was an outgrowth of the vastly influential American Writers Congress which took place in New York City that year. The list of names of eager Congress participants included (listed alphabetically as they were on the Call for an American Writers Congress): Nelson Algren, Kenneth Burke, Erskine Caldwell, Malcolm Cowley, Theodore Dreiser, James T Farrell, Waldo Frank, Joseph Freeman, Michael Gold, Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, Langston Hughes, John Howard Lawson, Tillie Lerner (Olsen), Meridel Le Sueur, Joseph North, Samuel Ornitz, Lincoln Steffens, Richard Wright and so many more. It was a treasure trove of the pen, boasting the best within reportage, fiction, screenplay, drama, poetry and combinations thereof. To better illustrate the scope of Party culture and the Congress itself, the following comes from the Congress’ mission statement. This gathering called for literature as a means to ‘fight against imperialist war and fascism; to defend the Soviet Union against capitalist aggression; for the development and strengthening of the revolutionary labor movement; against white chauvinism (against all forms of Negro discrimination and persecution) and against the persecution of minority groups and the foreign born; solidarity with colonial people in their struggles for freedom; against the influence of bourgeois ideas in American liberalism; against the imprisonment of revolutionary writers and artists, as well as other class war prisoners throughout the world’ (“New Masses”, January 22, 1935).
The following year, there occurred the American Artists Congress which packed Town Hall during the cold of a New York February. In preparation for their Congress, a group of 110 noted painters and illustrators signed off on a Call which stated in part:
‘We artists must act. Individually we are powerless. Through collective action we can defend our interests. We must ally ourselves with all groups engaged in the common struggle against war and fascism…’ The dye was cast. The event drew such a crowd that it was extended into a three-day conference, with closed sessions occurring at the New School for Social Research on the last two days.. Delegations from Mexico, Peru and Germany joined in (Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams, eds., Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists Congress. Rutgers, 1986. Source: Lampert, Nicholas, A Peoples Art History of the United States, New Press, 2013)
Stuart Davis, by then a noted modernist painter, hosted the proceedings. Other speakers included Rockwell Kent, Max Webber, Margaret Bourke-White, Aaron Douglas, Peter Blume, George Biddle, Heywood Broun, and of course Hugo Gellert who was everywhere to be found in this period.
Though issues of aesthetics remained relevant as always, the aim of the Congress was to radicalize artists in the service of progressive struggle, particularly in the face of the growing fascist threat while the Depression was raging on. Davis’ opening remarks alerted the attendees of the need for a direct response to the social fallout people faced as well as the particular pains of professional artists in the hungry years. It was during this speech that plans for an Artists Union were first presented, as Davis stated, a collective voice for the artists left out of or underserved by the Works Progress Administration’s Arts Program. Max Webber, in a speech to the American Artists Congress body stated: “A truly modern art is yet to come, but not until the new life is here and not before the imminent emancipation of mankind that we can envisage.” (ibid)
This amazingly fertile ground also begat the Workers Music League, the Workers Theatre, the Workers Film and Photo League, the Red Dancers, Red Stage and aggregations such as the Group Theatre (founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasburg and featuring Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Will Geer, Stella Adler, Lee J Cobb, many more) and the Composers Collective of New York; within the latter’s ranks were Aaron Copland, Mark Blitzstein, Henry Cowell and Charles Lewis Seeger. Soon, Party cultural leaders VJ Jerome and Michael Gold were dispatched from the home base of Manhattan to the budding film capital of Hollywood, establishing CP clubs within the movie industry and standing with its unions which were embattled by the moguls as well as the gangsters often working on the inside. But even as the Party’s reach extended well into Hollywood, the other arts disciplines were becoming increasingly radicalized.
THE VISUAL ARTIST’S MEDIUM offers an immediate statement, one beyond the need for commentary, and as such, painters, designers, sculptors, cartoonists, sketch artists and other illustrators have been an integral aspect of the global revolutionary movement. The artists associated with Industrial Workers of the World, founded 1901, created a series of posters and placards for organizing campaigns that had the power to move anxious workers and leap over the boundaries of language. And some of their cartoon figures like ‘Mr. Block’ (drawn by Ernest Ried) as well as realist sketches and paintings continue to hold relevance. Often the illustrations were by anonymous artists or those using pseudonyms (such as “Man X”, “Bingo”, “El Picador”) however some of their celebrated songwriters like Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin also spent a good deal of time as illustrators. Visual art was a vital, universal statement of the struggle.
The relevance of visual art was even more profound in “The Masses”, a pre-CP organ which launched the careers of many future Party cultural workers. It is best recalled for its stirring illustrations, starkly depicting bloody labor battles, police violence and economic deprivation, but the magazine also championed Greenwich Village bohemianism and the hope of modernism. “The Masses” ran from 1911 through 1917. Many of its artists can be traced to the ‘Ashcan school’ which offered dark visions of inner city life, all too real for some but always imbuing a visceral connection for, if not a vehicle of, pride among the common man and woman. The magazine was a voice for the suffragettes’ movement, bold new philosophies and the oppressed. It championed the Industrial Workers of the World and free speech. Among its standout artists were Stuart Davis, Art Young, John French Sloan, Robert Minor, Alice Beach Winter, Boardman Robinson and George Bellows. “The Masses” staff was so radical that in 1916, the artists went out on strike. The magazine’s greatest fight, however, was with the federal government when its negative coverage the US build-up toward the First World War found its publishers, artists and writers indicted for conspiracy.
The demise of “The Masses” and the American entry into the war symbolized a crushing blow to the Left---just as the reaction against anarchism and socialism which followed culminated in the near destruction of the IWW, furious xenophobia, the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, rabid union busting and a wave of arrests and deportations. Revolutionary writers and artists, however, responded with increased radicalism and in ’22, a new journal. Initially “The Liberator” and then, of much greater importance, “New Masses” went considerably further than the earlier journals dared. Artists William Gropper (also known for his work in “Freiheit”) and Hugo Gellert, soon to become highly celebrated, were on the “New Masses” Executive Board, securing the illustrator’s place in the vision. Gellert also served as an editor, and he would be joined by Robert Minor before long. All three were champion Communist organizers as well as greatly talented creatives; the magazine was born in the main office of the John Reed Clubs. The circle was complete when Sloan, Robinson and Young, artists who’d been central to “The Masses”, joined the staff. Louis Lozowick was also readily hired. Much of the “New Masses” staff would also become central to the CP’s primary organ, “The Daily Worker”, founded in 1924, as well as its West Coast imprint “The People’s World” and the special Sunday editions of either title. But “New Masses”, initially conceived as a purely cultural journal for revolutionaries, maintained the strongest arts content among Communist periodicals, hence, it attracted some brilliant talent. Gellert’s incendiary drawing adorned the first issue’s cover, as it would for many later issues over as many years.
All this while, other revolutionary artists of many nations were creating works of social commentary and engaging in the struggle toward political and social change. Most were Communists, some were Socialists, but regardless of party affiliation, these intellectuals (using the parlance of the day) were driven by a force greater than mere art for art’s sake. Art was indeed a weapon in the class struggle. Much of the energy in the period of the ‘20s-‘30s originated with the early Soviet organization ProletCult and a number of internationalist artists’ coalitions which were again rooted in the Leninist model. Yet there were, simultaneously, any number of independent artists influenced by this activity. Perhaps the most prominent was Diego Rivera, the great Mexican artist who traveled to the New York in the early 1930s and laid the groundwork for a whole school of thought stemming from traditional Latino cultural expression in response to the toils of factory life. His impact, and that of his wife and partner, the artist Frieda Kahlo, was felt widely and deeply. Rivera’s series “Detroit Industry” and perhaps much more so, his infamous tryptic “Man at the Crossroads”--designed for Rockefeller Center in 1933 but then violently rejected by the wealthy industrialists--remain legendary. The time and place was nothing short of electric.
A few years after, when Ellen Perlo had joined the ranks of the CPUSA, the tumult was raging in multiple directions. The Spanish Civil War bore a passionate anti-fascism throughout the Left, one which easily symbolized the economic and social displace of oppressed peoples. Thousands were driven to the cause yet this period of activation ran into that of Stalin’s purges, the first clarification of the extent the Soviet leader would go to in order to hold unchallenged power. As broken, sporadic news reports of his despotic rule became increasingly known, many would refute the Communist Party, but the desperation of the time in the face of a harsh US reactionary campaign against the Left, saw a new wave of interest in the American CP. And it was in this period in which the Party arts programs matured and became thoroughly aligned with the unions such as the United Mural Painters (organized by Hugo Gellert) and Screenwriters Guild (re-founded by gifted author and Party organizer John Howard Lawson), and the final period of the Works Progress Administration’s creative arms. During the war years, cultural worker organizations with an accent on visual art such as Artists for the Defense and Artists for Victory held important anti-fascist voices.
Ellen maintained an ongoing relationship with the cultural workers of the Party and in 1948, after the Perlos had moved to Queens, New York, their relationship with many increased further. Victor Perlo was an important advisor to the Henry Wallace presidential campaign that year and as a result, his comradeship with creative artists such as Paul Robeson brought them further into the circle---and, as it turned out, the center of the tumult.
The infamous Peekskill NY concert by the beloved Robeson, hosted by Howard Fast and also featuring an assortment of other progressive performers (indeed, this was the debut gig of the Weavers) occurred the following summer. The terrible reality of how the event devolved into a brutal riot by right-wing locals supported by area police against the families who attended has long overshadowed the music. Ellen Perlo explained:
“Vic and I flipped a coin to see which of us would have to stay home with the kids. I won. So I traveled up to Peekskill with friends. We got up to the site and joined in on a lovely picnic. Pete (Seeger) sang and led everyone in a singalong. It was a beautiful day with many children in attendance. The concert itself was wonderful”.
Photographs from this event show Robeson in performance on the makeshift stage surrounded by a phalanx of unionists acting as guards. The threats against Robeson by the forces of reaction had been well-established and an earlier planned concert in Peekskill had to be cancelled, thus on this occasion, the Party and its allies in attendance sought to take no chances. However, the event took an ominous turn at the conclusion. Ellen Perlo explained: “On the way out, as we walked to our cars, we saw a wall of cops and then we were encountered by these men – they were yelling out such filth to us. We all got into our cars and the drivers were directed by the police to one small road”. The dozens and dozens of cars were instructed to exit by way of a single-lane wooded path flanked by thickets of trees. The car Ellen was in was about mid-way through the long, slow-moving caravan when it came under assault: “These men began pounding the car with rocks. The windshield was immediately smashed! I was furious. Someone said, “Lie down, Ellen” but I was too angry, I shouted back at them. Later I had to comb shards of glass out of my hair. This was fascism—like what we are starting to see again today”, Perlo stated.
Resistance to the rising tide of fascism had led her into the Party’s ranks and then kept her deeply active within it. Post-World War Two, the Perlos had to contend with a uniquely American kind of rightist oppression: McCarthyism, the Red Scare and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In this period, the right-wing coalition of government and industry posed enough of a threat that many Communists either left the Party or went underground. In addition to the public hearings of the Hollywood Ten, many other progressive artists and other activists were hounded, blacklisted and subject to arrest if their testimony wasn’t very carefully navigated. Leaders of the Communist Party, too, were flagrantly harassed and then charged under the Smith Act with ‘the attempt to violently overthrow the US government’. These were, indeed, dark days.
By the earliest 1960s, as the Civil Rights struggle was coming to its initial boiling point, the left parties became driven by this pressing issue. Many Communists who’d been demoralized by the arch-right a decade before, took an open stand in this fight for equality. The Perlos were prominent among them. And Ellen also became a mover and shaker in both the Party’s Arts Club and within the staff of “World Magazine”, the Sunday insert to the CP newspaper--initially known as “The Daily Worker” by this time the paper had become “The Daily World”. Perlo recalls Joseph North, one of the deans of the Party’s cultural work for decades, still on staff as an editor. “We also had Seymour Joseph, Margaret Pittman and Marla Hoffman among others. The staff did everything: write, lay-out, proof-read”.
In addition to regular meetings which involved discussions on socio-political matters and the arts, the Arts Club was called on to create placards for demonstrations. “When the Party needed anything to do with art, they called us. Often we included the credit “Arts Club” under the slogan or imagery we created”, she explained. “There were so many people involved in the cause, not all of them were members of the CP but sometimes came to Club meetings and engaged in some of our projects”. When asked about this treasure trove of creative activists, Ellen’s eyes lit up. “Well, William Gropper lived right in Croton, but he wasn’t a member of the Club. We all knew and admired him, but he drifted in and out. Bob Minor’s widow Lydia also lived here; we were very close. Seymour Joseph the cartoonist of “The Daily World”: he was a lovely guy with a great sense of humor. Bill Andrews and Charles Keller were also gifted cartoonists who worked on the paper. One day in the early ‘70s Bill left, went home to Arizona and never said ‘goodbye’”, she recalled sadly.
And what of the celebrated Rockwell Kent and Hugo Gellert? “Rockwell, around 1960 when the worst of the McCarthy business was over, had his passport returned to him. We’d become friends in the mid-50s or so. Vic and I called on Rockwell and his wife Sally to congratulate him and our family spent a lot of time together at their place in the Adirondacks during summers. I have some of his artwork here”, she said, pointing to a moving framed sketch. He was not a Communist Party member but he was an outspoken social justice activist. And Gellert was a lovely fellow, a small man whose bright white hair I can still see. He was a member of the Party, of course, and the Club”.
“Another member was Ollie Harrington who used to work on the paper before my time. He migrated to East Germany but air-mailed his cartoons in twice per week. He had an intense, dark look about him and his artwork was always full, finished in appearance, never sketchy. And Harry Gottlieb was a charming guy who was an overt Party member. He did beautiful silk screens. And of course we had Bob Ekins, a fabulous sculptor from Connecticut. He was very political and became one of the original Smith Act victims. One of his best known pieces depicted a little girl in the segregated south”.
The Arts Club also held an Artists’ Workshop in which outside artists were invited in to silkscreen. A wide reach of visual arts were presented to inspire creativity, particularly in the service of social change. But not everyone associated with the club was a visual artist. Perlo explained: “Walter Lowenfels, the great poet, was a close friend of ours”. She smiled while recalling him. “He always wore a beret and was always full of life. But more than anything, he was ALWAYS writing poetry no matter where he was”.
The Communist Party Arts Club met weekly during the 1960s and ‘70s, offering educational and experiential activities as well as powerful discussion. Ultimately, with members moving away from the area, it morphed into a more general Party club. In recent times, it has dwindled. Victor Perlo continued to be a highly visible Communist economist and wrote a regular column for the paper that became “The Peoples Weekly World” (these days it’s online as “The People’s World” – www.peoplesworld.org) for the rest of his days.
Though Red Hill ceased to be a revolutionary stronghold, residents like Ellen Perlo kept the faith and remained active. She became a member, too, of Artists for Nuclear Disarmament and participated in the mass demonstrations of the 1980s and beyond. The Perlos spoke out against the Reagan and Bush administrations, war and inequity, and fought for workers’ rights through actions, art and the books they often wrote or edited together. And their collection of literature and artwork served for decades as a veritable museum of the intellectual Left. “After Vic passed away, I gave quite a lot of our collection to the Party and they in turn had these items transferred to a CP archive at Frostburg State University (http://www.frostburg.edu/lewis-ort-library/aboutlib/depts/arch/perlo/). But I still enjoy surrounding myself with the special memories and the paintings, sketches, books, photographs and journals which hold them. We came through a lot”, she explained. “And these things are a little bit of history”.
As this article goes to press in 2016, seven years following my visit with Ellen Perlo up on Red Hill, it coincides with her one-hundredth birthday. Less active perhaps, but still immersed in her core beliefs in real social change through socialism, she extends her reach through the little bits of history she affected and may inspire for decades to come.