A former Communist and lifelong dissident ends up rich and beloved in capitalist America
By Ken Gross
Howard Fast is rich. Not filthy rich, like the plutocrats he has denounced in such left-leaning novels as Freedom Road and Spartacus. He just has a portfolio of a million or two. "Government bonds," he says defiantly. "Not a penny in unearned wealth. Just the sweat of my own labor and some Treasury notes."
It is no small paradox, considering that this is a stone-stubborn leftist who went to jail rather than surrender names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, then went broke publishing his own books when he was blacklisted. Afterward he reconstructed his career by outwriting the right. (Worldwide sales of more than 50 novels are estimated to exceed 80 million copies, and he has also written 20 nonfiction books and 10 plays.) He used the pen name E.V. Cunningham for a mystery series and his own name for a string of best-selling historical novels.
Fast's latest book, Being Red, A Memoir, is an unapologetic chronicle of this odyssey, inspired, he says, by his son, Jonathan, 42, also a writer. "I wanted something to show my children," says Jonathan, a liberal Democrat, who has one daughter, Molly, 12, from his marriage to writer Erica Jong, and two sons, Ben, 7, and Daniel, 3, with his present wife, Barbara, an attorney.
Still, when he read the book, Jonathan was shocked to learn that his father's political beliefs had not radically changed - that he still expects a workers' paradise to evolve in the U.S., putting an end to hunger and injustice. "I realized that in his heart of hearts, my father was still a Red," says Jonathan. "I had no idea."
This Red, however, lives in a splendid colonial house in a Connecticut suburb on the shore of Long Island Sound. He considers it a form of exile from the gritty life of an urban activist. Today's climate of crime and his own age, 76, have made living in New York City impractical. "Ideally I would prefer to spend my life on the third floor of a tenement in a run-down neighborhood surrounded by left-wing lunatics," says Fast, a member of the Communist Party from 1944 to 1957. What's worse, he has been wooed in recent years by the right. William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative's intellectual Delta Force, "wants to be my friend," Fast reports. "He had me and [wife] Bette to dinner and he was charming. Charming!"
They argued capitalism versus communism, without venom. "I always thought that socialism here would be peculiarly American, with some reasonable, post-industrial evolution between working-class needs and market forces," Fast says. "It won't be bloody like the Russian Revolution. I told Bill Buckley, 'You know, my side is going to beat your side because we're open to the future and your side is holding on to the past.'"
Fast's own past lies in the streets of New York City, where his father, Barney, a staunch union man, helped forge the wrought-iron filigree of gates and fences that stitched together brownstone neighborhoods. When his mother, Ida Miller, died in 1923, the adhesive force went out of the family's life. Drifting from job to job, his father sent his youngest son, Julius, then 4, away to live with relatives, while Jerome, 9, and Howard, 8, became street urchins, delivering newspapers, begging outside the Polo Grounds (the Harlem home of the old New York Giants baseball team) and stealing food to survive.
When he was 12, Fast watched a 13-year-old black youth lynched by a white gang during a neighborhood Halloween rumble in Manhattan, and it sealed forever his social conscience. He was already working as a runner in a library and devouring Jack London, Dickens and Hawthorne. He wrote about the lynching for Story magazine; the issue was banned in Boston, which in turn guaranteed the tale's literary status. With no education except the library, Fast began writing novels and published his first, Two Valleys, at 19.
On a blind date in 1936, he met Bette Cohen, a painter, who would later become a sculptor and his loyal and long-suffering wife. "He is a man of strong and virtuous opinions," says Bette, a woman of infectious calm who acts as a soothing ointment on her scrappy husband. She joined Fast on picket lines and campaigned with him when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket in 1952. She also tolerated his infidelities. "We have a marriage that endures in spite of everything because we love each other and because we agree about almost everything," she says. "Not that he's easy to get along with. But, listen, I took my marriage seriously. I understand about his affairs. Creative guys are like that."
When the U.S. entered World War II, Fast - not yet 30 - was recruited by Elmer Davis to help launch the Voice of America. Just as his seventh and eighth novels, The Unvanquished and Citizen Tom Paine, were being published, Fast was writing 15-minute broadcasts for occupied Europe. But suddenly, in 1944, he was pressured to resign because he associated with left-wing sympathizers such as playwright Arthur Miller. Russia was our ally at the time, but already there were those who forecast the cold war, and the bleak, outcast years began for Howard Fast. "It was embarrassing how quickly we were dropped by friends," he says.
Already branded a "pink," Fast considered it a matter of pride not to denounce the Communist Party. Besides, the CP was on the right side of all the causes he held dear: the union movement, civil rights and the fight against fascism. So the same year he left VOA, he became a party member. "I seemed to run out of reasons not to join," he says. In addition to the usual rallies and marches, Fast attended a communist-sponsored peace conference in Paris in 1949 and wrote columns for the Daily Worker. Yet he often bridled at the party's ideological rigidity - its unswerving loyalty to Joseph Stalin and its dogmatic approach to his writing.
In 1950, after refusing to provide HUAC with a list of contributors to Spanish War Relief, Fast became one of the first of several artists and writers to be imprisoned. He served three months in jail. "But I decided to do useful work in jail and made the best of things," he says. "I got to know people from the other side of the fence, and they were not all villains - not even the wardens and the guards." Still, he developed crippling headaches that to this day require him to keep a tank of oxygen in his bedroom.
When he got out of jail, Fast was blacklisted by mainstream publishers, who would suddenly receive a visit from an emissary of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover each time they considered a Howard Fast manuscript. To survive, Fast wrote under a pseudonym and started his own small press. He also continued his political activities and was constantly being observed and harassed by federal agents.
The result was an odd and frightening childhood for Jonathan and his elder sister, Rachel, a psychoanalyst who is now halfway through her own 1,000-page novel. Rachel recalls the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for spying. "We were in a room somewhere - maybe just waiting for a verdict - and I saw the [Rosenberg] children, and I started to cry," she says.
But there are warm memories too. "I remember sitting on Paul Robeson's knee while he sang 'My Curly-Headed Baby,'" says Rachel. "I loved him beyond description - he glowed." And Fast, Rachel says, was a doting father. "We would come in when he was working, and he would stop and play with us," she says.
"It was an exciting childhood," recalls Jonathan. "I remember a generalized fear, and I remember feeling like a terrible outsider. But that was long ago."
During the early '50s, the CP backed a production of Fast's play The Hammer but insisted on the unlikely casting of a young James Earl Jones as the child of a Jewish family. It was an ideological test of faith that a black could play a Jew, but the artistic contortion became one of the last straws for Fast, who had begun to criticize the Soviet regime. ("Stalin slaughtered millions in his collectivization scheme," he says, "thus ensuring that the Russians would not be able to feed themselves.") Fast quit the party, and the story made the front page of the New York Times. "In the party, I found ambition, rigidity, narrowness and hatred," he writes of those unquiet times. "I also found love and dedication and high courage and integrity - and some of the noblest human beings I have ever known." He would never betray a former comrade. "A man who will traduce those who stood with him in battle is not worth much," he writes.
In 1974, lured by money and ease, the family moved to California for six years. Fast became financially secure writing TV scripts, including The Ambassador, an Emmy-winning production about Ben Franklin, and a TV movie about the 1972 Olympic massacre. Fast also became a pacifist and a student of Zen meditation. Dismayed by events in the Middle East, he says, "I can't see getting your child killed in the gulf. I couldn't bear that - losing my son."
As he strolls along the clipped Connecticut lanes after lunch, passing the guarded estates of merchant princes, there is no place to find that romantic left turn back to his social-activist roots. The tenements of New York City have become crack houses, the left has withdrawn into a spoor state, publishers bid on his books, Hollywood beckons. And worst of all, he says between clenched teeth, only half joking, "I am beloved." And rich.