MY GOD, EMMA, HOW CAN YOU STAND BEN?
The ordinary things that make radicals did not make an
anarchist of me.
Emma Goldman made me an anarchist.
From "Following the Monkey", 1925
My sisters and I knew Emma Goldman as the woman portrayed in bas relief on her headstone, located near my father's grave in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery. As children we played on the grass by Emma's headstone, and we swung on the chains and climbed on the marble of the nearby monument to the martyrs of the Haymarket Riot.
My mother told us only that my father and Emma had worked together teaching people about birth control and anarchism (without ever explaining the term) and that he and Emma had been sweethearts long before my mother met him. He had also been "tarred and feathered" by a vigilante mob while he was with Emma, she told us. I wasn't clear why, but I knew that he was very brave to stand up for what he believed in.
Of all the other women in my father's life, Emma was the one my mother could have told us most about—had she cared to. In 1934, when Emma was touring the country, my mother read her autobiography and attended one of her lectures in New York. She wrote my father at the time that Emma's autobiography was "more generous to herself and a little less generous to you, perhaps, than I expected," but that he should "remember the things that the menopause does to a woman."
But by the time my father died, my mother had had more than enough of anarchism and Emma. Her silence to us about Emma could be easily explained by her jealousy of my father's incessant praise and his habit of sending her Emma's letters despite my mother's protests. But it was Emma's radical politics as well as her constant arguments with my father over who-had-wronged-whom in their long-dead love affair that were more than my mother could tolerate. She hated arguments and was completely apolitical. "Movements such as the labor movement, the birth control movement, the atomic scientists' movement interest me but I remain true to character," she wrote after my father's death. "The only movement I insist on is the daily evacuation."
The passage of time has also given me, and most Americans, a different perspective on Emma than my mother's and her contemporaries had when I was growing up. After Emma's death in 1940, "the most notorious woman in America" was remembered primarily in anarchist circles. But with the women's rights movement in the late 1960s, and subsequent research and publications about her, Emma has assumed a more respectable place in American history. With the exception of her banner cause, anarchism, many of the radical ideas for which Emma was despised and persecuted in the early part of the century—organized labor, improved working conditions, free speech, birth control, and equal rights for women—are now central (if still controversial) in American life. Even her stand on draft resistance, for which she was deported in 1919, was an idea supported by a sizable segment of the American population during the Vietnam War.
My father met "Red Emma" Goldman in 1908 when she was thirty-nine, ten years older than he. She was already established nationally as a fiery anarchist orator and a champion of free speech and free love. Widely read and at ease with European culture, she also spoke on modern literature and drama during her lecture tours. Her career as an anarchist had begun almost twenty years earlier. As a young Russian immigrant working in the clothing sweatshops in Syracuse, New York, Emma had been profoundly affected by the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1887. She considered it the cause of her "spiritual birth" to anarchism.
As Emma describes the events in her autobiography, in 1886, workers began calling labor strikes all over the country to bring about the eight-hour work day. During a strike at the McCormick Harvester Company in Chicago, the police attacked a group of strikers, killing several of them. At the mass protest meeting that followed, immigrant anarchists addressed the crowd. The police appeared and began clubbing the crowd to disperse it. In the confusion, someone threw a bomb, wounding and killing a number of policemen.
Because of the local opposition to anarchism, the eight-hour work day and foreigners, five of these anarchists were sentenced to death; three others were given long-term or life sentences. The last words of August Spies, one of the anarchists sentenced to death, which are commemorated on the Haymarket Monument, were a message my sisters and I read often as children: "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today."
Emma married a fellow immigrant, Jacob Kershner, but had the courage to leave her unsatisfactory marriage and move to New York City. There she became a political agitator for anarchism and labor rights under the tutelage of the anarchist publisher and speaker, Johann Most. In 1892, Emma aided her, by then, comrade lover Alexander (Sasha) Berkman in an attempted assassination of Henry Frick, who had been responsible for violent strikebreaking at the Homestead steel mills in Pennsylvania. Emma and Berkman hoped that Frick's death would be an "Attentat," a call to action world-wide to right the injustices done to workers by the capitalist owners. But Berkman only wounded Frick. He claimed sole responsibility for the act and was imprisoned for fourteen years. During that time Emma corresponded with him faithfully. She also developed her own philosophy of anarchism and gained increased public visibility as a speaker and labor organizer.
By the time Emma met Ben, Berkman had been out of prison for several years. Though he and Emma were no longer lovers, they continued to live and work together in New York, along with other comrades. Among their activities was the publication of Mother Earth magazine and other anarchist literature. Emma also toured the country raising funds for Mother Earth and a variety of unpopular political causes.
By 1908, the year of Emma's arrival in Chicago, my father had already acquired a national reputation as a hobo reformer. Following his fledgling start with the Hobo College, and a well-publicized dinner for hoboes, he had begun more serious efforts to collect information on the men of the road, and to speak and write on their behalf. Based on his observations as he tramped across the country, he concluded that his fellow hoboes were not primarily hardened criminals but, instead, young runaways seeking adventure or a better life. These boys and young men, he argued, deserved society's assistance in finding work and a more stable existence.
During the winter of 1907-1908, there was widespread unemployment and labor unrest in Chicago and throughout the country. My father's boldness in leading a march of unemployed men on the Chicago City Hall added to his notoriety. The unrest made the civic authorities in Chicago uneasy. Although Emma was not connected with the event, two days before her arrival in Chicago a young Russian immigrant attempted to assassinate the Chicago chief of police. It was all the police needed to close all meeting halls and to keep Emma under close surveillance.
When Ben read in the newspaper that Emma would have no place to speak, he contacted her host, a former medical school classmate of his, to offer the Hobo College for a hall. He also notified the newspapers that Emma would be speaking there. A reporter contacted the police, and the fire marshal immediately closed the hall to crowds.
Ben went to meet Emma with the bad news. Twenty years later, both of them remembered that meeting vividly. Ben recalled, "She had a powerful face, beautiful, strong, clear, blue eyes, a nose that was not Jewish, and a strong, firm jaw. She was somewhat nearsighted and wore heavy glasses. Her hair was blond and silken and she wore it in a simple knot on the back of her head."
Emma's description was much more evocative of her feelings:
My visitor was a tall man with a finely shaped head, covered by a mass of black curly hair, which had evidently not been washed for some time. His eyes were brown, large and dreamy. His lips, disclosing beautiful teeth when he smiled, were full and passionate. He looked a handsome brute. His hands, narrow and white, exerted a particular fascination. His fingernails, like his hair, seemed to be on strike against soap and brush. I could not take my eyes off his hands. A strange charm seemed to emanate from them, caressing and stirring.
Emma was not able to speak in Chicago, but Ben went to hear her in Minneapolis. "She had the voice of the Angel Gabriel," he later recalled. "It was a clarion call for the people to rise and bethink themselves. It was an appeal to humanity to organize, to educate, to emancipate, to throw off tyranny, exploitation and ignorance. Friend and foe knew her power on the lecture platform." Without being asked, Ben took charge of the pamphlet sales in the back of the room.
They became lovers on their return to Chicago. Later Emma wrote, "That night . . . I was caught in the torrent of elemental passion I had never dreamed any man could rouse in me. I responded shamelessly to its primitive call, its naked beauty, its ecstatic joy."
Emma was brought back to reality the following evening when she saw Ben exchange pleasantries with a police captain in the restaurant where she and her friends were having dinner. She left without speaking to him. After Ben begged in letters and telegrams for a chance to explain, Emma had a dream about him. "Flames were shooting from his fingertips and slowly enveloping my body," she recalled. "I made no attempt to escape them. I strained toward them, craving to be consumed by their fire." She decided she could inspire Ben to work in the world of her "social ideals" and wired him: "Come."
When they met, Emma accepted Ben's explanation that he was friendly with the police because he frequently pleaded for the hoboes with the authorities. He offered to pay his own fare if he could be with her, and Emma agreed to take him on tour as her manager. They left for California in spite of Emma's misgivings about what her comrades would think of Ben. "I resolved to have him," she wrote later. "Let the rest take care of itself."
Thanks to Ben's untiring efforts, their first trip was immensely successful and a forerunner of tours to come. Emma had always depended on local comrades to arrange for halls and to handle publicity. With Ben's flair for the dramatic and shocking, and his skill at providing good copy for newspaper editors, Emma drew thousands in the larger cities. More importantly, these new audiences came from middle-class America, a public Emma had not attracted earlier.
Ben also excelled at working a crowd for pamphlet and book sales. He recalled his sales pitch for Ibsen's The Doll's House at Emma's talk on modern drama:
I have another little pamphlet here, friends. . . . It's about a woman named Nora. Nora got tired of living with her husband and taking care of the kids. One day she said to her old man, "You are just like the rest of men, always trying to boss me and never giving me an even break. I am going to get the hell out of here and leave you to take care of the kids." Now, if there is anybody in this audience who wishes his wife to leave him let him take this pamphlet home and give it to her. Who'll be the next? Thank you. I have only six more of these left, friends.
Ben added that, in the ten years he was with Emma, "we sold more books and works of literature than any two propagandists in the United States. . . . The publisher of Whitman's Leaves of Grass told us that for several years Emma was his best customer." Pamphlet sales were equally good. "What I Believe" sold more than 50,000 copies. "Love and Marriage" and "The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation" also did well. "The ordinary listener . . . would take one of her pamphlets even if he had to walk home," Ben recalled.
Ben found the clashes with the police exciting. Years later he wrote to a friend, "Before Emma Goldman, most of my crimes were vagrancy, riding on freight trains without permission and panhandling. With Emma Goldman I was often arrested, charged with anarchy, denouncing the government as unnecessary, speaking without a permit, and conspiracy to destroy the government." In time, "preaching birth control" was added to the list, and my father drew a longer jail sentence for that offense than anyone else in America.
Ben also enjoyed the writers, labor agitators, and radicals he met through Emma. However, he was hardly the ideal companion. His deliberate efforts to shock people made Emma uneasy. Ben's idea of an icebreaker at a dinner party was to loudly ask a strange woman, "Sister, how old was the baby before you got married?" When one embarrassed woman asked her husband, "Sam, why did you tell him that?" the husband punched Ben in the jaw.
To make Ben more acceptable, Emma tried to educate him through their conversations and the books she read to him on their long train rides. Later he wrote:
Much that I know about the world and life I learned from Emma or at her guidance. The significance of history, the meaning of literature and the beauty of art all came to me while I nestled securely under the tutelage of Emma. . . . She picked me up an intellectual ragamuffin and a bankrupt social reformer, and to use her own terms, she made me a "playboy of the western world," intellectually and socially solvent.
I'm sure Emma's tutoring had a major effect on my father, but she was not so satisfied with her pupil's progress as he was, particularly years later.
However, no one would dispute that their passionate relationship fueled the productivity of their work. Emma described Ben as the one man she had met "who would love the woman in me and yet who would be able to share my work. . . . Ben had come when I had greatest need of him." Ben called the years with Emma "the most emphatic chapter in my life." What Emma did not know on the first tour, however, was that she was not Ben's only lover. From the beginning, he found women—sometimes at her lectures—for casual sexual encounters.
When the first tour was over, Emma returned to Berkman and her other comrades in New York, and Ben returned to Chicago to see his mother.
Emma's fears about Ben's acceptability were realized after he rejoined her in New York. Ben did not fit in with her intellectual, primarily European comrades at the Mother Earth headquarters. Berkman, in particular, distrusted and criticized Ben and even wrote for confirmation of his medical degree. Late in life my father recalled his reception by Emma's friends to Leonard Abbott, a former comrade of Emma and Ben's:
Voltairine de Cleyre used to say to Emma Goldman, "My God, Emma, how can you stand Ben?" Most of Emma's friends agreed with you that I was the most vulgar and impossible man they'd ever met. . . . Emma Goldman dwelt on the fact. There have been so many people like you, alternately disgusted with me, and then attracted to me. . . . But I never meant to be disgusting to you or anybody else.
This ability to intensely attract people and then repel them by his behavior would stay with my father throughout his life.
While he was in New York, Ben spent much of his time in Greenwich Village, where his open pursuit of sex was acceptable to its bohemian residents. In contrast, the more serious anarchists found that aspect of his behavior offensive, not only then but years later. Near the end of my father's life, Abbott wrote to him, "You are too ready to assume that every man wants to copulate with every woman he meets and vice versa. You do not sufficiently differentiate between sacred and profane love." Ben agreed.
Ben's unhappiness around Emma's friends led her to consider a tour out of the country. She decided to put Berkman in charge of Mother Earth and leave for Australia with Ben at the end of their second American tour.
What prompted my father's next move is unclear. Perhaps he was testing Emma to see how outrageous he could be. Perhaps he was caught in one of his impulsive changes of heart. In any case, according to Emma's autobiography, a few days before he was to leave to do the advance publicity, Ben wrote her a long letter. The letter explained that he had been the one who informed a reporter she would be speaking at the Hobo College in Chicago, and that the reporter had notified the police; that he had borrowed money to pay for his fare on the first tour and was gradually paying it back from the literature sales receipts; and that he was also supporting his mother from the same money. He also confessed that he had had numerous lovers on the tour, including women whose names he did not even know. "I sat numb," Emma remembered. "The terrible letter seemed to creep over me, word by word, and drawing me into its slime."
After the publication of Emma's autobiography in 1931, Ben offered his own version of their early financial arrangements:
If Emma Goldman could live and work with me for ten years and then intimate that I was a thief because out of the tens of thousands of dollars we earned together, I sent a few dollars to my mother while Emma sent thousands of dollars to Berkman and other comrades I have no objections.
Whatever the truth of their finances, the most difficult problem for Emma was Ben's infidelity. She wrote:
I have propagated freedom in sex. I have had many men myself. But I loved them. . . . It will be painful, lacerating to feel myself one of many in Ben's life. It will be a fearful price to pay for my love. But nothing worth while is gained except at heavy cost. I've paid dearly for the right to myself, for my social ideal, for everything I have achieved. Is my love for him so weak that I shall not be able to pay the price his freedom of action demands?
In her autobiography written twenty years later, Emma stated that being with Ben was worth the pain, and that she accepted the person that he was. According to her current biographers, however, Emma's letters to Ben at the time reveal that she was tormented by Ben's relationships with other women for the rest of their time together. This conflict between the public Emma Goldman who lectured on free love, and the private woman who doubted her work because she was tortured by Ben's infidelity is, for me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Emma's life.
Why Emma chose to return to my father again and again over nine years is clear from their passionate correspondence that neither would repeat with other lovers. Treasure box (t-b) became the code words for Emma's vagina, mountains (m) for her breasts, willie (w) for Ben's penis. Sample exchanges include:
Emma: Please, please write me every day and tell me you love me. Tell me that you want the t-b and m. You don't know what you are missing Hobo dear. The m. are tremendous, always keeping their heads erect on guard for Hobo. The t-b is full of red wine and wails for w- to drink it all. . . .
You are like Anarchism to me. The more I struggle for it the further it grows away from me. The more I struggle for your love, your devotion, the further away it seems from me. Yet struggle I must. For like liberty, you are the highest Goal to me, the most precious treasure.
Ben: I hold you close. I bite you and pledge you that I want to and will try so hard in my own fool way to make you happy. . . . Tell the mountains to look out for Hobo is going to eat them and tell the dear treasure box to prepare for great floods.
Despite her turmoil, Emma and Ben started on their tour. But when they reached California, they heard that Emma's estranged husband's citizenship had been revoked. Since Emma was no longer a citizen, if she left the country she would not be readmitted. They canceled their Australian tour, and returned to New York where she began work on publishing some of her lectures.
When Emma was unable to find a publisher, it was Ben who encouraged her to publish the book herself. Long used to living on borrowed money, he predicted they could pay back the loan for the printing from sales on the next tour. Apparently Emma did not object in this case. Berkman edited and proofread the manuscript and Anarchism and Other Essays came off the press in time for the next tour in 1912.
Along with Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma and Ben strongly supported the activities of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a labor group that encompassed striking textile-mill workers in the East and migratory workers in the West. Their tour included San Diego, a city where IWW members, or "Wobblies," had been subjected to extreme harassment, including capture and torture, by a group of vigilantes. Emma and Ben arrived in Los Angeles in time for a public demonstration to protest the killing of Joseph Mikolasek, an IWW "soapboxer," by the police in his San Diego home.
On the evening Ben and Emma arrived in San Diego, Emma was decoyed into leaving their hotel room. Armed men then entered the room and forced Ben to drive out into the desert with them. In the glare of car headlights, the men stripped Ben, beat and kicked him severely, poured tar on him, and lacking feathers, rubbed sagebrush in the tar. For good measure, they burned "IWW" on his buttocks with a lit cigar. They weren't done. As Ben later described it, "One very gentle businessman who is active in church work very deliberately attempted to push my cane into my rectum. One unassuming banker twisted my testicles."
The vigilantes left Ben his vest with his money, railroad ticket and watch, as well as his underwear, afraid, Ben thought, that he would meet some women. After they left, he stumbled back to a small town where he was able to buy some clothes and turpentine. He walked on to Escondido, telegraphed Emma, and caught the next train to Los Angeles. Emma had left San Diego for Los Angeles after Ben's capture, fearful that he might be killed. She recalled later when the train pulled into Los Angeles, "Ben lay in a rear car, all huddled up. He was in blue overalls, his face deathly pale, a terrified look in his eyes. . . . At the sight of me he cried: 'Oh, Mommy, I'm with you at last! Take me away, take me home!'"
Whether my father's statements were as dramatic as Emma remembered, there's no question he was terrified by the experience. Compounding the unpopularity of the IWW cause, on the day before Ben and Emma's arrival, a San Diego newspaper had run a story about my father's abandonment of May Reitman and his baby daughter in 1902. I'm sure he considered himself lucky to have escaped the vigilantes with his life.
Whatever his feelings were while he lay in the baggage car, it did not take my father long to recover. In his later years he would entertain his friends with the story of the protest meeting that followed. The large crowd of radicals in Los Angeles was in a sober mood after hearing Emma and the other speakers. But Ben's speech, full of humorous suggestions about showing the scars on his buttocks, if only there were no ladies present, left the crowd laughing.
Not everyone was amused, however. An editorial in the May 19, 1912, edition of the Los Angeles Times read:
The Times does not commend the fowl[sic] treatment accorded by the San Diegans to the anarchist doctor, but it does not attempt to sit in judgment on those who discouraged his longer stay. . . . Maybe he got, on the whole, what was coming to him.
Socialist Eugene Debs disagreed: "The cannibals who tarred and darkened Ben Reitman in the name of 'law and order' are below the level of a tribe of head hunters . . . and a time will come when their children will blush with shame to hear their names."