Frank Wilkinson was a feisty soul. He led the fight for public housing in Los Angeles in the late 1930s and 1940s, which earned him the savage enmity of the Chandlers, and thus the Los Angeles Times. If his plans had gone right, we'd have public housing built by Richard Neutra instead of Dodger Stadium built over Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. He did time for refusing to testify before Congress, then went on to be a great campaigner for the First Amendment, just like his friend and fellow Communist, Dick Criley, who died a few years ago up in Carmel Highlands, also in his high 90s. Dick's sister, Cynthia Williams, is still peppy after a tremendous 90th (NOT a surprise) birthday party last fall in Carmel Highlands. Her wonderful piece of advice to the partygoers, "It's a great life if you don't weaken."
Sanora Babb obviously didn't weaken, though she endured some zingers in her long span, the worst being the fact that she wrote a novel about migrant workers in 1939 that was to be published by Random House, until Random House's other novelist on migrant workers, John Steinbeck, scored a huge hit with "The Grapes of Wrath." Bennett Cerf cancelled Babb's novel, "Whose Names Are Unknown." It had to wait 65 years until it was published to great acclaim in 2004. Babb thought she was a better writer than Steinbeck, and some smart people agree with her.
Her obit in the Los Angeles Times was vivid:
"Babb was born in an Otoe Indian community in Oklahoma in 1907, the year the state was admitted to the union. As a child she followed her itinerant father's restless path across Oklahoma to a broomcorn farm in Colorado, where her grandfather had homesteaded an arid tract of land. She and her family lived with him in a one-room dugout, an underground room dug out of the dirt. She was bitten by a rat, witnessed the stillbirth of a brother and gave up precious belongings to help her family survive repeated crop failures."
Reading on though the obit, I came to this passage:
"Babb joined the Communist Party and, like many other left-leaning writers of her generation, sought foreign adventures, visiting the Soviet Union in 1936 and reporting on the Spanish Civil War for the British journal This Week."
Now my father Claud's famous newsletter, which he published from the early '30s on, was called The Week. He fought in the Spanish Civil War. I asked myself, was there another journal, This Week? A day or two later, the LAT ran a correction, noting that "The journal was called The Week, and she did not report on the war but edited accounts of it."
So the beautiful Sanora (described as such in the obit) sat in London, in The Week's dingy offices on Victoria St., editing my father's dispatches from the front. Alas, the also beautiful Jean Ross, to whom my father was married at the time, is no longer around to ask for her memories, though I think she spent some time in Spain with my father. By 1938, Sanora was back in California, working for the Farm Security Administration, writing notes on the tent camps and protests of the migrant workers. She apparently showed these notes to Steinbeck, and, of course, also used them as factual buttress for her novel.
Jean, the woman whom Isherwood drew on for the character of Sally Bowles, was also a Communist, but fell far short of the lefty longevity I'm touting, dying in her early 60s, just like her daughter, Sarah, my half sister, whose marvelously witty detective stories should be on every shelf. They were certainly both women who never stopped thinking and, in Sarah's case at least, talking. Sarah smoked a pipe, which is what killed her. I don't know about Jean. A wonderful person, though hers was a quieter soul.
I should add that my father's first wife, Hope Hale Davis, my niece Laura Flanders' grandmother, has only just died. A Communist in the 1930s, Hope lived to be 100. I saw her in Cambridge, Mass., just after she had reached three digits, and she certainly hadn't stopped thinking, confiding her vitriolic views on Bush whom she reckoned "must be very bad in bed."
© Creators Syndicate
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January 18, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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