My mother, the debutante Communist: An American family story of love, loss and J. Edgar Hoover

My Mother Was A Communist Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of author/Getty Images/Clever Pictures
My Mother Was A Communist Photo illustration by Salon/Photos courtesy of author/Getty Images/Clever Pictures
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The story I want to tell you begins with a woman in a car in the middle of the night, in the middle of the last century. To be specific, it is late in 1951 or early in 1952, in the parking lot of an apartment complex in southeast Washington, D.C., across the Anacostia River from Capitol Hill. The woman is young and pretty, or at least she looks that way from here. In fact she is about 30, which nobody thought was especially young at the time. If she were reading this right now, she would curl her lip slightly and say, “Well, dear — Striking or handsome, perhaps. I was never pretty.”

We’ll stick to the facts: She has fair skin and strawberry blonde hair. She is an old-line WASP whose ancestry stretches back past the American Revolution, all the way to the Salem witch trials and the Mayflower. She grew up in an Arts & Crafts house on a leafy suburban street in Northern California, and attended a private school meant to produce marriageable young women who could play the piano and speak a little French. She was a sorority girl at Berkeley for about a year and a half — and even then, decades before that campus became famous for student activism, there were “radicals” handing out leaflets in Sproul Plaza.

She dropped out of college and moved across the country to join the labor movement, an experience that will inspire her, many years after the story I’m telling you now, to write a novel that was nominated for a Pulitzer and optioned by Hollywood. (No movie was ever made, as is so often the case.) She has upright posture and what would then have been described as “good breeding” and a “nice figure.” In other words, she bears many of the markers of wealth and privilege, although when we find her on this rainy night in the early '50s, she has no money to speak of.

What I’m saying is that in a number of ways this woman appears dramatically out of place among the men in this car. I can’t identify them all, but it’s likely they are all Jewish, all immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, all raised in urban working-class neighborhoods by parents who spoke foreign languages and lived by making things or selling them.

There are at least three men in the car along with the young woman, probably four. It’s a rainy night but not especially cold; the windows are rolled up and the windshield is white with fog. Inside the car, the air is warm, damp and close. It smells of wet wool, body odor, cigarettes and heavy, half-digested dinners.

If this sounds like a scene from a movie, front-loaded with potential sex or violence, that’s fair enough, although nobody’s getting shot or taking their clothes off on this particular night. It’s more like a scene from another kind of movie, a slowly unfolding, densely plotted American thriller whose unfinished story we’re all still inside, many years later.

The woman in the car is my mother, as I imagine you have figured out by now — or at least she will become my mother, a decade or so into the future and thousands of miles away. She is sitting in the front passenger seat. She is part of an impromptu jury or tribunal assembled to pass judgment on the man who is sitting in the middle of the back seat, crying.

My mother always used the word “trial” when she told this story, and when she wrote about it in her own unpublished memoir. I always assumed that was a dramatic invention or an imprecise metaphor, but it turns out that was almost certainly the word used at the time to describe this kangaroo-court proceeding. In any case, the outcome was foreordained: The crying man in the back seat, a pharmacist who ran a nearby drugstore, was to be declared a traitor to the working class and expelled from the Communist Party USA.

Yes, my mother was a Communist, to borrow a phrase that today, in 2023, you can buy through Etsy emblazoned on a water bottle, a baseball cap or an iPad case. She never held an official position within the Party leadership — which you may not be surprised to learn was almost entirely male — but it’s fair to say she was being groomed for one, more because of her improbable pedigree and her photogenic qualities than because of any ideological devotion or organizational ability.

In later years, she said she found the Party’s internal politics dreary and most of her fellow Communists tedious and pedantic. She joined up, to put it bluntly, because in the heady atmosphere of the Washington labor movement right after World War II, it was the cool thing to do.

The CPUSA was like a secret inner clubhouse for the most dedicated people in the labor movement, people like the man she met and married not long after that. He was a handsome journalist from Brooklyn named Mel Fiske (originally Emanuel Fishkin), who styled himself after the movie star Cesar Romero — or, less flatteringly, after Joseph Stalin — and had fought with the Marine Corps in the famously brutal Pacific campaign. For the anti-Communist crusaders then emerging on the American right, Mel was a troubling and paradoxical figure: a decorated combat veteran whose patriotism could not be disputed, but who was also a proud member of a purportedly subversive political movement.

I doubt my mother ever made much headway in reading Marx or Lenin, or that Mel did either. She read modernist poetry; he favored the laborious historical-realist fiction deemed acceptable by the socialist left: John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Howard Fast. He cultivated a lifelong friendship with the writer John Sanford, who had published several acclaimed novels in the 1930s and ‘40s before the McCarthy-era blacklist essentially ended his career. (I mention that now because of something I had forgotten: Mel once wrote about Sanford for Salon.)

As I have suggested, the Communist Party’s commitment to equality for women was entirely theoretical, but its leaders intermittently perceived the propaganda value of a conspicuously non-Jewish, conventionally attractive woman who knew which fork to use for the fish course. My mother’s great triumph came as the impromptu leader of a “meat strike” among the wives of industrial workers in Cumberland, Maryland, which forced the company store to capitulate on price increases and led a local newspaper to describe her as “the Red redhead of Cumberland Gap.” On my living room wall, I have an enlarged print of a photograph published in the Washington Star, probably in 1948: She is leading a march against the Ku Klux Klan, wearing a sundress, heels and dark glasses. She is presumably pregnant with my big brother at the time, but doesn’t look it.

But let’s get back to the crying man in the car on that rainy night, which could be called an inciting incident. My mother, as she told the story, was disgusted by the cruelty and paranoia of that episode. By that point in the early 1950s, it was becoming a lot less fun to be an American Communist. Her brothers, my two uncles, neither of whom was politically active in any way, received visitors who told them they would have great difficulty finding any form of career-level employment as long as their sister kept doing what she was doing.

My mother and her husband faced a range of options that included going to jail, going to Europe or Mexico, or going “underground,” which meant abandoning your current life abruptly and establishing a new identity someplace where no one knew you, a difficult but not impossible task in those days. She chose none of the above. She left the Party, divorced her husband (who went underground for a while in upstate New York) and took their child — my older brother, then about 3 years old — to another city to build a different life.

That was more or less the official prehistory of my childhood, although I learned it only in bits and pieces over the years. But that version of the story has been so foreshortened that I think it skips over the most significant facts, not to mention the unanswered questions.

The woman we started out with in the front seat of that car was first a second-tier California debutante named Diana Farnham, then a prominent radical named Diana Fiske (or, to the FBI, "Mrs. Melvin Fishkin," a name she never used in her life) and then a teacher, poet and novelist named Diana O’Hehir. She led a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. She would cheerfully agree that her initial privilege had a lot to do with that: She grew up as the adored only daughter of, quite literally, an absent-minded Shakespeare professor, and if he was hardly the world’s most attentive father he gave her something not many women got in those days: the freedom and confidence to reinvent herself several times over and to narrate her own story on her own terms.

After leaving Washington and left-wing politics behind, she taught in a church school, became one of the first female graduate students at Johns Hopkins University, married another man (worlds apart from the first, although he too had  working-class New York City roots), moved across the country, had a second child (that would be me), earned a PhD in her 40s, wrote a Pulitzer-nominated novel in her 60s and then, more than 30 years later, married her first husband, the formerly prominent Communist, all over again.

I have several things to say here. The first one is that this is an amazing but true love story. It’s impossible to write those words without sounding facetious, but, reader: This time they fit.

Another one is that the murk that we can feel hanging over those people in that car, even from this distance, never went away: The climate of fear and anxiety created by the McCarthy years and the Stalin years — and by the uniquely American blend of arrogance and amnesia and maybe just by the perennial weakness of human nature — is still with us. It affected my family so deeply that we all pretended not to feel it and never talked about it. It is painful to admit that even now. I assume that’s what is meant by the trendy psychological term “intergenerational trauma.”

I also think this story is about something much bigger than one oddball amalgamated WASP-Jewish-Irish family, although it’s fair to say that my family’s peculiar qualities are distinctively American, and more than a little symbolic. It’s about the more general and more systemic consequences of that historical trauma, which this society and this nation have never even tried to address honestly.

This story is obviously personal for me, even though I’m not in it. We all have histories that shaped us before we were born, and this is mine. To misquote Faulkner only slightly, the past, in America, is never really past. I feel it as a living presence when I hear the former president of the United States, who seems increasingly likely to be the next president as well, vow to “root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country.” It is tempting, and at least somewhat reasonable, to assume that as usual that person has no idea what any of those words mean, no notion of their historical resonance, and nowhere near the executive function to turn his fantasies into reality. But none of that is terribly comforting.

I feel it in a more intimate and ironic sense when I hear self-described American liberals — people I likely agree with on 90 percent of political issues — embrace the FBI and other instruments of the national security state as allies in the purported struggle between the forces of democracy and right-wing authoritarianism. Given my family’s experience and the experience of a great many other perceived dissidents, radicals or revolutionaries — most of whom have not looked like me, or shared my family’s obvious advantages — I cannot help but see that as a uniquely American variety of willful blindness and ignorance.

My stepfather Mel’s FBI file, which he labored long and hard to acquire and is my most important source material, fills several banker’s boxes in the corner of my living room. It comprises hundreds of pages of documents, many of them heavily redacted, even years after the deaths of everyone involved. They include transcripts of private meetings attended by three or four people, copies of letters he wrote but never sent, and interviews with every employer who ever hired him and every landlord who ever rented him a room, along with speculative essays about his intentions and motivations. Several documents in his file were routed directly to the desk of J. Edgar Hoover — and if I told you what was in them and didn’t have the evidence, you wouldn’t believe me.

There is also a memo personally signed by Hoover in April 1949 and directed to the attorney general of the United States, "urgently" recommending "technical surveillance" on the apartment of "Melvin Fishkin and his wife" (her name is redacted), and describing them as "very prominent in the Communist movement." One of the facts noted by FBI agents was that Black people ("Negroes") were frequently seen visiting their apartment, which was deemed to be unusual.

At around the same time as the episode with the crying man in the car, a couple of years later, my mother had been nominated as lead organizer for the Communist Party in the District of Columbia. She may have held that title briefly, in fact; it’s not like there are personnel records to consult. But in her version of the story, she understood that she was at a crossroads in her life: She was disgusted with the Party and didn’t want the job, so she simply walked away. Not exactly a moral parable for the ages, but instructive enough in its way.

If the story I have told you so far feels a bit novelistic, well, it feels that way to me too. I know it’s true, in a general sense, but it’s also “based on a true story,” as they say.

I don’t actually know whether it was raining on that night in Washington, or what month it was, or how many people were in the car. I’m not quite sure what year it was either. My mother always placed it in 1952, which generally seemed to fit both historical events and her personal biography. But the documents in my stepfather's file appear to contradict that: FBI agents believed Mel and Diana had separated by the end of 1950, and their reports suggest that my mother's departure from the Communist Party was more gradual than sudden.

One possibility is that when the FBI questioned my mother, repeatedly and at length, about whether, when and why she had quit the Party and left her husband, she didn’t tell them the truth. (She is described in one memo as "not entirely cooperative.") Another possibility is that my mother borrowed or altered or embellished the tale of the weeping pharmacist, placing it in her story for maximum dramatic effect.

There is a third possibility which, understandably, I don’t much like but should acknowledge. It’s clear enough that those FBI agents tried to persuade or coerce my mother into providing them information — about Mel and others she knew in the Party — as the price of leaving her and her family alone. It's not clear whether they succeeded. But she was highly vulnerable, as a single mother with a young child who needed a job. And there's no question that happened to many other people, before and since — in the Communist Party and the labor movement, in the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, in the anti-globalization movement and the eco-anarchist movement and the Palestinian solidarity movement and so on. (It also happened to the backwoods losers who wanted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, or at least said they did.) So, yeah, my mom could have been an informant. I’ll probably never know for sure.

As any journalist with real-world experience could have told you long before the dark insights of postwar philosophy made such concepts fashionable, truth is a slippery, ambiguous thing. It’s out there somewhere, but we don’t always find it, don’t always recognize it when we see it and very often don’t agree about what it means. That's not a new problem. So the last thing I will say here is that I believe this story is true — but then again, I’m the person telling it, so I would say that. It’s definitely not the kind of story where every question gets answered and every secret gets revealed. Are any of the stories we tell about our families, or about the past, or about America, ever like that?