Leslie  Fiedler and Me

Emanuel Fried

Leslie Fiedler befriended me when it was difficult for anyone to do.

To explain the magnitude of what he did for me I must tell you that I had been a member of the Communist Party.  That began in the Thirties when I was an actor in New York City.  I came back to Buffalo to direct the Buffalo Contemporary Theatre and, with WW II breaking up the theatre, I went to work at Curtiss Aircraft, headed a drive to organize workers there into a union, was fired, and became a union organizer for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers, a union charged with being communist-dominated. 

As a union organizer and a member of the Communist Party, I organized heavy industry workers into unions and negotiated contracts to improve their lives. I ended up as the national rep for the UE union representing 30,000 workers in this area.   

Summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 and 1964, I refused to answer any questions, charging that the enabling resolution establishing their committee was unconstitutional. I sought to be indicted so courts could decide whether I go to jail or HUAC was to go out of existence.  HUAC ducked and did not ask Congress to indict me.

I tell this to help those who were not even alive back then understand where I was at in my life when Leslie Fiedler went out of his way to help me. The labor reporter for the Buffalo Evening News told me the FBI had decided I was the symbol of the Left in the community and they must break me. A priest at Canisius College, the college where I’d played freshman football, publicly labeled me the most dangerous man in Western New York and called for a boycott of The Park Lane because at that time my wife was one of the owners of The Park Lane Apartments and Restaurant.

In 1933 Nelson Rockefeller, disturbed by Diego Rivera’s refusal to take the head of Lenin out of the mural in Rockefeller Center, had the mural destroyed and spent millions to make abstract work the mainstream in painting.  Thirty-odd years later, when Governor Rockefeller had begun his project of making SUNY-Buffalo The Berkeley of the East, Albert Cook was given the charge of assembling a first-rate English Department for the school.  Al Cook, in line with Nelson Rockefeller’s thinking, tried to bring together in that department noted writers who he thought were anti-communist or who did not include the working class—unions, labor, factory workers—in their writing.

Let me quickly insert here that I believe this was Al Cook’s intent, not that of all the writers he brought here. I know some of them personally and I think that you can’t find more decent and honest writers than Robert Creely, Bill Sylvester, and of course Leslie Fiedler.  And this may be true of a few others I didn’t know,

And there was Lionel Abel. Either he or someone else got the idea that he and I should debate on the radio about the direction of literature in our country. He red-baited me and my writing about working people, making fast-talking references to past literary works to overwhelm me with his erudition.  That decided me. I had to attend classes at the University of Buffalo and get to know English and American literature as well as he did.

In my late 50’s, with only one year of college under my belt, forced out of the union and blacklisted because of my militancy—no longer a member of the Communist Party, but not an anti-communist—I was selling life insurance door to door to support my family.

I registered for classes with Joe Fradin, Lionel Abel and Leslie Fiedler.  In Lionel Abel’s class he red-baited me at every opportunity. At one point when I disagreed with him he yelled that he was going to have the police come in and carry me off campus.

Leslie seemed to respect what I said in the several courses I took with him, and we became friends. The name of Elia Kazan came up in our conversation. Kazan had directed me when I played the lead in the “Young Go First” in New York. But then he had cooperated with HUAC and named names. I expressed my disapproval of that, and Leslie said, “Manny, be kind. You don’t know the pressures that are exerted on someone.”

My labor play “The Dodo Bird” had not yet been done in New York, where later it received excellent reviews. I approached Leslie about having a reading of the play on campus. He suggested I ask President Ketter to send a letter to all area colleges, inviting their faculty and students to the reading.

President Ketter’s secretary suggested I get supporting letters to the president from UB faculty members. Leslie said he’d write and suggested I ask Lionel Abel to write. Skeptical, I asked Lionel Abel and he agreed to write.  President Ketter’s secretary told me that in his letter Lionel Abel red-baited me and urged Ketter to kill the project. She said she’d lost his letter in the wastebasket. Leslie and I laughed about that. Ketter approved the project.

Albert Cook refused to accept me into the Ph.D. program, saying I was too old. The secretary in the English department told me to go for my M.A. and then slide over into the Ph.D. program.

The title of my Ph.D. dissertation was “Pardon Me, Your Class is Showing”— which embodied what I’d learned from my opponents about the class nature of the arts.  Leslie, chairing my doctoral committee, approved the dissertation.  Marcus Klein, refusing to approve it, resigned from my committee.  Leslie arranged for me to meet Klein, who objected that I’d not given any sources for my material. When I explained that the source was my own personal experience, he withdrew his resignation and approved the dissertation. I got my Ph.D.

My play “The Dead Hand,” about McCarthyism, won the Western New York play competition. Re-named “Rose,” it was produced Off Broadway in New York. Several critics there took off on me. One wrote that any actor who appeared in a play of mine would never be asked to act by any other producer. Another critic wrote that—after I’d just been hired to teach Creative Writing at Buffalo State College—I should be fired and not allowed to teach because of my political background.

I was devastated and depressed, suicidal, unable to continue writing. Talking with Leslie brought me out of that valley of doom and kept me writing.

“The Dodo Bird” was published with a quote Leslie gave me for the cover:—“The Dodo Bird brings union and working class life into the arts in a way deserving of whole hearted support of anyone who is serious about developing an American literature of any lasting consequence.”

Responding to a question from his nephew, Henry James said: “ The three most important principles in life are:—One, to be kind—Two, to be kind—Three, to be kind.”

Leslie embodied that kindness and has inspired me to try to emulate that.  I owe that to him, and much more. 

© 2003 Emanuel Fried. All rights reserved.

Note: This essay is scheduled for inclusion in the volume Fifties Fiction edited by Josh Lukin and Samuel R. Delany.

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Uploaded 27 July 2003
Updated 21 June 2011

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