There being only so long that even political junkies like me can watch a nominating convention, I found myself channel surfing last night and came upon a wonderful old 1981 movie, Reds, on Turner Classic Movies. This is a film starring Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty that tells the story of the great communist journalist John Reed. As I watched it, I experienced that odd thrill one gets from having a personal connection to an historical event. I have told this story in my autobiography, but that was 10 years ago and I don’t think it is too soon to tell it again.
In the first part of the 20th century the leading socialist newspaper in New York City was The Call. My paternal grandmother’s maiden sister, my great aunt Fanny, worked on The Call as a secretary. On October 31st, John Reed, who was in Petrograd reporting for The Call, filed a dramatic account of the Bolshevik uprising which the Call printed on page one with a banner headline. Reed unequivocally declared the Bolsheviks to be the wave of the future, and consigned Kerensky to the trash heap of history. He filed a twenty-five page cablegram, which the Call edited very lightly and published virtually verbatim. The cable, which is too long to include here, ends with a dramatic florish:
“Good to be alive. Trotsky and Lenin through CALL send to American revolutionary international socialists greeting from
first proletarian republic of the world and call to arms for international social revolution. Send me money."
How is it that I have the precise wording of this historic document? Therein lies a lovely story After Fanny had finished transcribing the cable, she asked the editor whether she could keep the original stack of cable pages, and he agreed. The cable, yellowed with age but still intact, was passed from her to my grandfather and grandmother, from them to my father, and from him to me as part of the mass of papers in my parents' attic. For many years, it simply sat on my shelf, but eventually, I decided to donate it to the John Reed Archives in Houghton Library at Harvard [Reed, of course, had been a Harvard graduate], in memory of my grandfather and grandmother. This is the same library in which I had sat, as a graduate student, reading the microfilm of the German translation of James Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, and thereby establishing an essential link in Immanuel Kant's knowledge of the sceptical arguments of David Hume. It seemed appropriate that I repay them in some way for their assistance during the writing of my doctoral dissertation.
There is an amusing coda to the story. When I came to write the book about my grandparents, I asked Houghton Library for a copy of the cable, so that I could quote it in my book. They charged me a fee, even though it was I who had donated it to the library. I wrote a restrainedly ironic letter to Harvard’s President, Neil Rudenstine, and received a very contrite apology. I urged him not to send the money back, as that would, I suggested, not be a classy thing to do, and he had the grace to accede to my suggestion. I gather that in future the donors of documents will be able to get copies of them gratis.