Connect with us

Books

The friendship between a first lady and a ‘Firebrand’

Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt bonded during civil rights movement

Published

on

Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade
Pauli Murray, gay news, Washington Blade

Patricia Bell-Scott explores the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray in her new book.

Most of us would be proud to have earned a degree, written an acclaimed book of poetry or memoir, worked tirelessly for civil rights and have been part of a friendship that fostered human rights.

Pauli Murray, the groundbreaking African-American activist, lawyer, writer and priest, who lived from 1910-1985 and was attracted to women, did all this and much more. For nearly 25 years, Murray the granddaughter of a mixed-race slave, was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose privileged background entitled her to belong to the Daughters of the American Revolution. (Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in 1939 when the group prohibited the renowned African-American singer Marian Anderson from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.)

In her compelling new book “The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice,” Patricia Bell-Scott, editor of the anthology “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave,” tells the story of this extraordinary relationship. Bell-Scott is professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia. Her previous books include: “Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women” and “Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers and Daughters,” which won the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize.

From 1938-1962, their friendship was sustained by some 300 postcards and letters as well as personal visits. The relationship began when Murray, 27, working for the WPA, a New Deal agency, sent Eleanor Roosevelt a letter protesting a speech Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made at the University of North Carolina. (The university had refused to admit Murray as a student because she was black.) The friendship continued until Roosevelt, 26 years older than Murray, died in 1962.

Murray earned three law degrees, organized sit-ins in the 1940s while a student at Howard University against eateries that discriminated against people of color, participated in bus boycotts 15 years before Rosa Parks and created the legal strategy that ensured that sex discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act.     

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Murray wrote the memoir “Proud Shoes,” the well-regarded poetry collection “Dark Testament” as well as numerous essays and books. In 1977, she became one of the first women to be ordained as a priest by the Episcopal Church. Though Murray hadn’t been involved in writing it, in 1971 Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in an homage to Murray’s work, listed her as a co-author in her first brief before the Supreme Court.

Born in Baltimore, Murray didn’t use her given name “Anna Pauline.” Her father was a teacher and her mother was a nurse. At age three, after her mother died, Murray went to Durham, N.C., where she lived with her grandparents and two of her aunts, one of whom became her adoptive mother. In her childhood, Murray’s father, after contracting what was thought to be encephalitis, suffered from “unpredictable attacks of depression and violent moods.” Murray wasn’t ashamed of her sexual orientation and was in a long-term relationship with Irene, “Renee” Barlow. Yet, because of homophobia and her race, she was often denied employment in the government and the private sector.

It’s no wonder that it took Bell-Scott 20 years to write “Firebrand.” Recently, she talked with the Blade about the book and the friendship between Murray and the woman, who Murray called “Mrs. R.”

“This was not something I intended to do,” Bell-Scott said of “Firebrand.” “I was working on another project at the time.”

Then in 1983, Bell-Scott asked Murray to serve as a consulting editor to “SAGE: A Scholarly Journal of Black Women,” of which she was a co-founding editor. Though Murray couldn’t do SAGE, she wrote a letter of “encouragement” to Bell-Scott. “Pauli wanted to work on her autobiography,” she said.

In a follow-up to this letter, Murray wrote to Bell-Scott, “You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on.”

She didn’t say, “know me better,” Bell-Scott said, “but she did say she took great pride in her work as a member of the subcommittee on legal rights of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. (President John F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt chair of the commission.)

Bell-Scott made notes of what she wanted to talk about with Murray when her writing project was finished. “But I didn’t get the chance —18 months later, she died of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Her letter haunted me. Quite a few years later, I decided I was still so haunted by her comment about knowing the veterans on whose shoulders you’re standing on.”

After examining the collection of Murray’s letters at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University and the collection of Roosevelt’s letters at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Bell-Scott said, she “immediately recognized that their relationship deserved attention.” Their friendship is mentioned only briefly by historians and biographers.

Despite the fact that Murray and Roosevelt came from very different backgrounds, they had a lot in common, Bell-Scott said. “To begin with, Anna was the given name for both of them and they never used it,” she said. “They both lost their parents before their teens and were sent to live with elderly kin.”

They were sensitive kids who grew up to be compassionate women with a thirst for justice, Bell-Scott said. “Even though she was first lady, people made fun of Eleanor’s appearance and ridiculed her teeth,” she added. “Pauli was boyish looking. People poked fun at how she looked.”

Murray and Roosevelt loved their fathers who suffered from mood disorders and alcoholism respectively. Though they were outspoken and highly energetic in their quest for social justice, “people were often surprised to learn that Pauli and Eleanor were both shy,” Bell-Scott said. “It took them tremendous psychic energy to overcome their shyness.”

Both were voracious readers and avid writers. Though she was a committed social justice activist, lawyer and priest, writing was what was closest to Murray’s heart, Bell-Scott said.  “Pauli couldn’t turn away from activism,” she said, “but if there were any regrets – she would have liked to have written more.”

Roosevelt, too, was committed to her writing, Bell-Scott said. “Eleanor wrote her ‘My Day’ column even when she was first lady,” she said. “After FDR’s death, she reported on Russia and pursued other writing projects.”

Their sense of well being was dependent on having meaningful work and exercise, Bell-Scott said. “They had a talent for friendship. And they loved dogs. Eleanor liked Scotties and Pauli liked mutts and strays.”

Murray would work herself into exhaustion and crash, Bell-Scott said. “She suffered from mood swings which weren’t properly diagnosed as a thyroid disorder until Pauli was in her 40s,” she said. “Eleanor suffered episodes of depression.”

Their friendship was the context that allowed Murray and Roosevelt to grow into the “transformative leaders that we know them as,” Bell-Scott said. “When they first met, Pauli was an impatient young radical … Eleanor felt it was important to always consider taking social justice action with great caution – to always follow the muted action on civil rights of the Roosevelt administration.” (FDR never publicly pushed Congress to speak out against lynching, Bell-Scott said.)

Later in their lives, Bell-Scott said, Murray had moved from radical left to left of center – voting for Lyndon Johnson as a registered Democrat after decades of voting for Socialist candidates. By the 1960s, Roosevelt had put her life on the line at civil rights workshops and demonstrations.

“When I look at the issue of Pauli’s sexuality, I think of the social context of the time. Here is a woman coming to adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s,” she said. “Homosexuality is defined as a mental disorder until the 1970s. Pauli, a very bright woman, reads the scientific literature.”

Added to this, Bell-Scott said, was the homophobia of McCarthyism, which considered LGBT people to be a security threat. “Pauli was a black woman lawyer,” she said, “ that’s an unconventional career for a woman. There are rumors about her sexuality and her mental health.  She is living with discrimination on so many fronts.”

But Murray wasn’t ashamed of who she was, Bell-Scott said. “She was raised as a child by elder kin with Victorian values. You didn’t talk about sexuality.”

From reading Murray’s letters and sermons from later in her life, “it seems to me that Pauli began to publicly embrace herself,” Bell-Scott said.

Firebrand_and_First_Lady_insert

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Books

Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

Published

on

(Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading

Books

New queer biographies make for ideal summer reading

Array of options, from somber to outlandish

Published

on

‘How You Get Famous’ by Nicole Pasulka is a fun read about drag in Brooklyn.

Another Pride month is in the can.

All that planning, preparation and execution of events is done, and now you find yourself with lots of time on your hands. So why not reach for one of these great memoirs to read?

A little bit of memoir, a little bit of sympathy, advice, and several biographies are at the heart of “Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life” by Rowan Ellis, illustrated by Jacky Sheridan (Quarto, $14.99). This book leans mostly on the serious-but-lighter side, with plenty of colorful artwork and suggestions for teen girls on figuring out who they are and what it means. There are fun activities, quizzes, essays, and tips inside; readers will find plenty of one-liners to take away, a comprehensive timeline of LGBTQ history, and biographies that reflect women of many ages and races. That all makes this a book that even adult women and, perhaps, some questioning boys will appreciate.


Speaking of lighthearted, try “Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute)” by Gary Janetti (Holt, $27.99). TV producer, writer, social media star, and sometimes curmudgeon Janetti is annoyed. Mighty annoyed in several essays here, but his aggravation is not meant to bring readers down. It’s meant to make you laugh and – with very funny, wry takes on finding the perfect tan and the perfect man, friendship with a nun, hotel rooms, mothers-in-law, “The Wizard of Oz,” vacations, weddings, and more – you will.


For something a little more somber, reach for “Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad” by Hil Malatino (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95). Honesty is at the root of this semi-biographical look at being trans: if you are trans, says Malatino, you may struggle with several righteously negative feelings you have — disconnect, anger, fear, numbness, burnout, exhaustion — feelings that exist, in part, because of the times in which we live now and the transphobia that seems to be everywhere. Counteracting these feelings – or, at least being able to survive and thrive despite them – may be as simple as some type of activism, and Malatino explains the details as he shares his own story as well as many case studies.


And finally, if you love watching or participating in drag, then you’ll absolutely love “How You Get Famous” by Nicole Pasulka (Simon & Schuster, $27.99). This book tells the story of a coat-check boy who loved performing in drag and who talked her bar-owning boss into letting her host a drag show in Brooklyn. But this was no one-night stand and soon, the event had a lot of fans – among them, dozens of “kids” who sneaked into the club to practice their acts next to experienced performers. But when you’re on the edge of what’s about to be a popular kind of entertainment, amateur status doesn’t last long enough – and neither does this upbeat, wonderful book.


And if these don’t fit the bill, be sure to ask your favorite booksellers or librarians for help. They’ve got your next best read in the can.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Popular

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]