Nov. 14, 1990
Author reflects on years as a communist
by Susan Rubinowitz
New York -- Vladimir Kirdyanov, third secretary of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, confessed to Howard Fast that he was embarrassed not to have read Fast's memoir "Being Red."
Kirdyanov told Fast he had majored in foreign literature at a Soviet university, but had not seen any of Fast's books.
"You're too young," Fast said last night. "In the 1940s, there were millions of my books in Russia. I wasn't eliminated until '56. I ceased to exist in every way."
"Why was that?" Kirdyanov asked.
"Because I left the Communist Party."
Fast and his wife, Bette, who live in Greenwich, were at a party at the Central Park West home of longtime friend Caroline Stoessinger. The occasion marked Fast's 76th birthday and the publication this week of "Being Red," a work that traces Fast's years from 1944 to 1956 as an active member of the Communist Party in the United States.
In the work, published by Houghton Mifflin, Fast recounts his attraction as a young writer to the idealism that communism seemed to represent amid the suffering of the Great Depression, his testimony in 1946 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the prison term he served for not revealing before the committee the names of his political friends.
Fast, who was already a prolific and successful writer of historical novels and plays, found himself blacklisted by publishers and Hollywood into the 1950s, but, he writes, it was increasingly alarming revelations about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's abuses and anti-Semitic policies -- Fast is Jewish -- that soured him on the cause.
Fast, who was raised in poverty in upper Manhattan as the child of a Russian immigrant, admits in the book that he put himself and his career in danger by openly pursuing his political passions. He calls he younger self "an innocent" and "a romantic," and writes that he drove off friends who did not agree with him.
Fast offers no apologies for his communist affiliation. He insists American communists never aimed to overthrow democracy in the United States. Though they sought to move the country toward socialism, they were not directed by the Soviet regime, he states.
"Rigidity, insensitivity, stupidity -- we were guilty of all these," he writes. "But cruelty, harm to other human beings -- never, and in all the years of our existence, we had fought to organize working people, to build trade unions, to increase wages, to prevent evictions of the poor."
Asked last night whether he thought the moves toward democracy in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe demonstrated communism's failure, Fast said, "Communism was a name for Russian socialism. Socialism is not dead. It is something that will come inevitably, but it will not come in the form it came in the Soviet Union."
He said he wrote the memoir because his children had prodded him for years to set the record straight. "My kids drove me crazy, and the only way I could stop them was to write this."
His wife, a sculptor, said she is not concerned about her husband's detailed revelations. "You know," she said, "If I were a new bride, I'd worry about it. I've been around him 55 years."
Fast, who writes a column for the Manhattan weekly The New York Observer, said he is at work on a screenplay of his much earlier novel, "The Proud and the Free." He wrote the novels "Spartacus," "Freedom Road" and "Citizen Tom Paine," which was produced as a play in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s.
The Fasts had driven to New York from Greenwich with Leatrice Fountain, a Greenwich resident who wrote a biography of her late father, the actor John Gilbert, and Fountain's friend, Warren Shaw, the author of "The Encyclopedia of the Soviet Union."
Warren thought the fact that the Soviet Mission had sent Kirdyanov to the party was a signal that Fast is no longer held in contempt in the Soviet Union for rejecting communism. "It indicates that the grandfather is forgiving at last -- it's a gesture," he said.