File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1996/96-11-22.061, message 1


Date: Sun, 17 Nov 1996 11:15:45 -0500 (EST)
Subject: M-I: Dinner with Fred Baker


Last night I met Fred Baker for dinner. The two of us took his video 
camera and tripod and walked about ten blocks up 10th Avenue to one 
of his favorite Chinese restaurants. I was to interview him and he 
would tape me interviewing him.

Fred is a short, plump 65 year old man who delivers non-stop patter in 
a pleasant New York accent spiced with Yiddishisms. Anybody who 
has heard Lenny Bruce will recognize the delivery right away. Since 
Fred produced and directed the award-winning documentary "Lenny 
Bruce Without Tears", his affinity with the martyred comedian comes 
as no surprise.

Fred is an outgoing, passionate sort. As we walk up 10th Avenue, we 
run into a Latin-Jazz flute player named Hector Nieves who he has
known for years. They embrace and Fred immediately starts talking up 
the possibility of setting up a gig for Hector's band at a nearby hotel.

We next pass a group of homeless people on the street and Fred starts 
a friendly conversation immediately. He promises to stop on his way 
back from dinner and film them. He's making a movie about his life, 
he tells them, and wants to include them. They smile.

Fred's mood stays elevated as we walk into the restaurant and he starts 
raving about how great the food is. Fred is a sensualist. His favorite 
topics are sex, art, food and politics. I share his interest in politics. We 
put in an order for a huge spread of food: watercress, duck, seafood 
dumplings, scallops. He then sets up the camera and we began the 
interview.

Fred is the son of Harry Baker, a Romanian Jew who worked as a 
furrier. This trade was organized in one of the Reddest unions in the 
CIO. Harry Baker was a Communist and deeply involved in union 
affairs. Fred recalls speaking to his father in a hospital bed as the old 
man lay dying of arteriosclerosis in 1978. As he drifted in an out of 
consciousness, he spoke about preparations for a big union convention 
in Atlantic City as if it were occurring that day. The meeting had 
taken place nearly forty years earlier but it was still on his mind.

There had been a big melee at this convention where the CP and its 
supporters fought it out with anti-Communists. Fred remembers his 
father and his comrades lurching out of the convention arena with 
their clothes torn and faces bruised. They paid no attention to their 
wounds and immediately starting caucusing to figure out what to do 
next in the fight.

Fred, his two sisters and his mother stood outside on the boardwalk 
and tried to pass the time as the union faction fights continued inside. 
They struck up a conversation with a group of vacationing 
Midwesterners who soon joined them in singing the popular song 
"Roll Out the Barrel". Fred's mother was worried that the vacationers 
had stuck a new verse into the song, "Let's get the Jews on the run." It 
was 1938 after all.

Everybody in the family was a Communist. The three children, Fred 
and his two sisters, were all members of the Young Communist 
League. His sister Esther was 6 years older than Fred, while Rosalie 
was 2 years older. Esther was the real spark-plug of the three. At the 
age of 13, she wore a Young Communist League uniform after school --a gray 
jumper with red stripes-- and organized the three of them to go 
out on the streets of their working-class Brooklyn neighborhood to 
promote the Communist cause. The three would begin singing Spanish 
Civil War anthems and as a crowd gathered, they would start to sell 
the Daily Worker.

Theirs was a close-knit happy family. They shared political 
enthusiasms and a zest for life. Fred recalls the family trading 
sarcastic but good-natured wise-cracks over dinner.

The Bakers were part of an extended clan of mostly Jewish 
Communist families in the neighborhood. Many of the men worked in 
the garment industry and shared political beliefs from an early age. 
Each had experienced the ravages of the depression and were deeply 
sensitive to religious and racial persecution.

The neighborhood itself, called Bathbeach, was near Bensonhurst, the 
site of Jackie Gleason's memorable "Honeymooners" a TV show that 
commemorated the life and times of a bus-driver named Ralph 
Kramden. This was one of the few television shows in the 1950s that 
described working-class life in an honest manner. The Kramdens are 
always worried about money and dream of moving into the middle-
class.

I had relatives who worked in the fur-trade and lived in the 
neighborhood. Thinking back now I suspect that they were party 
members as well. When I was very young and visiting them once, I made 
the mistake of turning on "Amos and Andy". My uncle came into the 
living-room and asked me to watch something else. The show was 
prejudiced, he said. I was six or seven and it was the first time I had 
ever heard the word.

The neighborhood also included a big contingent of Italian-
Americans. They tended to be less progressive as a group and even 
held racist attitudes toward the black families clustered in a near-by 
ghetto. The racism sometimes exploded into violent attacks upon 
blacks who strayed accidentally into Italian turf. But they also had 
their share of radicals, many of whom were Sicilians who brought 
socialist beliefs along with them as they made the boat trip across the 
Atlantic to New York.

Camp Wochica in Peekskill, New York was where Fred discovered his 
talents as a singer and actor. This camp was a Communist Party 
institution that tried in its own way to suggest the possibilities of a 
future socialist and racially tolerant world. Each year busloads of 
children would be greeted at the gate by a camp chorus singing an 
anthem of black and white, working-class unity. Fred was to discover 
that the words of the song were set to an old Russian favorite "Moscow 
Mine".

One of the counselors was famed African-American dancer Pearl 
Primus, who taught the children African dance. One day she noticed 
Fred tapping out some rhythms on a dining-hall table and she invited 
him out to the camp's playhouse and showed him a set of drums. She 
started teaching him the rudiments of drumming, an art that he has 
kept up with his entire life.

Belief in racial unity was something that Communist children held to 
deeply. This extended into interpersonal relationships as well. Fred 
recalls going up to the Teresa Hotel in Harlem with a black girlfriend 
>from camp to make love. He was only 17 at the time and a little 
frightened and excited at the same time.

His musical and acting skills were honed at the camp and soon he 
became part of the Communist Party's cultural wing. He remembers 
being the soloist before a chorus at a rally in Union Square in 1942 to 
build support for opening up a second front against Hitler. This was 
shortly after the German invasion of the USSR and the collapse of the 
Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. The chorus was led by legendary 
songwriter Earl Robinson who wrote "This is the House I Live in", a
populist ballad that Frank Sinatra made into a hit in the mid 1940s. This
and other moderately progressive deeds earned the superstar a reputation 
of being a fellow-traveler. To Sinatra's credit, he never became a
red-baiter as the CP grew unpopular.

It was Fred's rapid development as a performer in various CP dramatic 
skits and musicals that persuaded him to make a career in theater. He 
entered the University of Miami in 1950 as a theater major. He also had
the intention of spending at much time on the beach and at parties that 
he could find time for. He remained an open communist during this time,
but as the years passed, this became harder.

After the war, tensions had begun to develop between an aggressive 
Western imperialism and the war-battered Soviet state. This soon led 
to a witch-hunt that drove CP leaders underground and the rank-and-
file into apathy and submission.

This process took a while to unfold. I was surprised to learn from Fred 
that many of the Borscht Belt hotels from my childhood had 
reputations as being progressive. It took some time for them to be 
turned into the mind-numbing voluptuaries of the mid-1950s. Hotels 
as famous as the Tamiment and Kutscher's were decidedly open to left-
wing and artistic influences. Kutscher's made a point of housing works 
by the famed Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipschitz. One leftish hotel, the 
President, was run by Dora Eager, the mother of legendary Jazz 
saxophonist Alan Eager. 

Eager was a junkie who died earlier and who belonged to the same generation 
as other talent white musicians who were strongly influenced by Lester Young, 
the seminal African-American horn-player. This group included Gerry Mulligan, 
as well as three other Jews: Lee Konitz, Serge Chaloff and Stan Getz. They 
pioneered the "cool" sound, a style that defined the sensibilities of the 
1950s. Dave Brubeck took this style and popularized it.

It was 11:15 and I told Fred that I couldn't absorb any more 
information for the time being. My head was swimming with images 
of Communist bebop musicians in the Catskill Mountains in the 
1950s. This was an apocryphal America that belonged to a Thomas 
Pynchon novel. I wanted to dig deep into this past and reveal it to 
others. I had discovered a parallel universe, one that was a lot more 
interesting and humane than the one that shaped me. It was the link 
between the great radicalization of the 1930s and the 1960s 
radicalization that I was a part of.

I walked Fred back to his house, told him I would phone him to 
arrange our next interview, shook his hand and then grabbed the next 
cab back up to the upper east side.

Louis Proyect



     --- from list marxism-international-AT-lists.village.virginia.edu ---



   

Driftline Main Page

 

Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005