JR'S Free Thought Pages
Alvah Bessie – Men in Battle (1939)
American writer and intellectual Alvah Bessie fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. His Men in Battle and Spanish Civil War Notebooks are two fascinating reads. The Spanish Civil War is a major area of interest for me and I can’t seem to get enough. I must have at least 40-50 books in my library on the event. Since it has been out of print since 1975, I had some difficulty in tracking down a decent copy of Bessie’s spellbinding 380 page Spanish Civil War epic “Men in Battle”. Another excellent book of this genre that is still in print is Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War by Harry Fisher. If you need a reaffirmation of the goodness in humanity, read these two books. Fascism, in many artful guises, still oppresses and exploits ordinary working people throughout the world. They give an insider’s insight to an extremely important and much-maligned historical event and lend a little optimism that there were and still are decent people in the world. Both of these books are comparable with George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a book everyone ought to read – as well as everything Orwell has written, something I finally managed to have time to do in my retirement.
I will scan the epilogue to Bessie’s book and send in a subsequent email as well as his insightful commentary to the 1975 edition in which he discusses the inexcusable horrendous unjust treatment he and his comrades who bravely and unselfishly fought against the Franco fascists received from their own United States government. Canadians who fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the democratic republic received similar vile treatment. During the late 1940s and early 1950s of the McCarthy witch hunts many of the Spanish Civil War vets (who also fought fascism in the Second World War) were denounced as "premature Antifascists" and “Reds” and consequently suffered under the treatment of police, the FBI and HUAC. The memory of the Spanish Civil War must be kept alive - never forget their heroic battle in the face of the indifference of the and deep cynicism of the Western Democracies. I can also recommend the book of James Yates Mississippi to Madrid - Memoir of a Black American in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. It’s interesting to note that of the many Black Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War, none were subjected to the racism and oppression they experienced back home. Several rose to the officer ranks such as Oliver Law (who also served in World War I and was killed in action leading his men on an attack during the Battle of Brunete in 1937) and was the first black American to command white troops. Here is an interesting film on Americans in the Spanish Civil War posted on You Tube: Part One, Part Two. Here is a beautiful collage on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Listen to a 92 year old British veteran of the War from October 2007 (not many are still alive).
After miraculously surviving the carnage of the last months of the Battle of the Ebro, Bessie returned to his wife and two children and soon moved to Hollywood. Two of his screenplays were produced by Warner Brothers, Northern Pursuit (1943) and The Very Thought of You (1944). His next screenplay, the extremely patriotic, Objective Burma (1945) was nominated for an Academy Award.
After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
Bessie appeared before the HUAC on 28th October, 1947, but like, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and John Howard Lawson, he refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten*, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. (*check out this interesting link)
The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Bessie was sentenced to twelve months in Texarkarna Prison and fined $1,000. Thousands of other writers, artists, actors, musicians and left leaning intellectuals like Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Studs Turkel were blacklisted and lost their careers during this period of what can be aptly described as American police state fascism. You can get more on the Hollywood Blacklist here if you have the stomach for it.
Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, Bessie worked as a stage manager in San Francisco. Bessie, who left the American Communist Party in 1954, resumed writing and published several novels including The Un-Americans (1957), The Symbol (1966) and One For My Baby (1980). He also wrote Inquisition in Eden (1965), an account of his experiences with the HUAC.
Alvah Bessie died of a heart attack in Terra Linda, California, on 21st July, 1985. His son, Dan Bessie, directed a movie, Hard Travelling (1986), based on his father's novel, Bread and Stone.
Alvah Bessie was born in New York City on June 4, 1904 to Daniel Nathan Cohen Bessie, a successful businessman and inventor, and Adeline Schlesinger. The younger of two boys, Bessie was raised in ease in the then-prosperous precincts of Harlem. He attended public school, graduated from Dewitt Clinton High School and, in 1920, enrolled in Columbia University. Bessie's rebellious nature often placed him at odds with his father's conservative values and authoritarian manner. When, in 1922, Daniel Bessie died after suffering a severe economic setback, he left his family in a precarious financial state, but Alvah Bessie free to pursue his own ambitions. Bessie completed his degree and graduated from Columbia in 1924 with a B.A. in English. Through a friend, he found work as an actor with Eugene O'Neill's Provincetown Players. For the next four years Bessie immersed himself in the New York theater scene, performing with the Provincetown Players, the Theatre Guild and with actor-manager Walter Hampden's repertory company in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac. Recognizing his limited talent as an actor, he left the theater and, in 1928, traveled to France to join the community of American expatriates in Paris intent on becoming a writer.
During his brief stay in France, he worked as a rewrite man at the Paris-Times, and wrote "Redbird," his first short story to receive publication. He returned to New York in 1929, and for the next six years, his stories, essays, and reviews appeared in The New Republic, Scribner's, Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Review of Literature, Collier's and Story. In July 1930, he married Mary Burnett, a puppet-maker and artist. The couple moved to Vermont and had two boys -- Daniel and David. Bessie began work on his first novel, Dwell in the Wilderness. During this time, Bessie also began to study Marxist theory and question his political convictions. Bessie was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship following the publication of his novel in 1935, and, with his family, returned to New York. Back in the City, Bessie began to move in more radical circles, and in 1936 he became a member of the Communist Party. In 1935 he joined the staff of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, serving as drama and book editor. His tenure at the paper was marked by dissent. His radical stance on striking maritime workers in 1936 and on the Spanish Civil War ran counter to management's more conservative views. A final dispute with the paper stemmed from his praise of French novelist and aviator Andre Malraux's efforts to organize a squadron of French flyers to aid the Spanish Republic. In 1937 he resigned from the Eagle and went to work in the public relations office of the Spanish Information Bureau, a New York agency of the Republican Government. During this period, the Bessies' marriage began to founder. The couple separated and soon after divorced after he returned from the Spanish Civil War.
On January 22, 1938, Bessie sailed to Spain on the S.S. Lafayette to join the International Brigade's fight against the Franco-led rebellion. Although he earned his pilot's license before leaving for Spain with the objective of serving as a flyer, he was assigned to a front-line combat unit with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, participating in the Ebro offensive from July to September 1938, and attaining the rank of sergeant-adjutant. He also served as a correspondent for the International Brigade's publication The Volunteer for Liberty. He daily chronicled his personal experiences in a series of notebooks, and upon his return to the United States, these jottings became the basis of his wartime memoirs, Men in Battle (1939). From 1939 to 1943, Bessie was film and theatre critic for the New Masses, and, under a pseudonym, wrote a regular column for a Young Communist League publication. He remained active in the Spanish Republican cause, working on behalf of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee writing articles and delivering speeches.
He started writing screenplays and moved to California in 1943 when Warner Brothers studios hired him as a contract writer. During World War II, he served as Second Lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, Los Angeles Squadron 3. In 1945 his original story that was the basis for the screenplay of "Objective Burma" was nominated for an Academy Award. His other screen credits from this time include, "Hotel Berlin," "The Very Thought of You," "Northern Pursuit, " and "Smart Woman." He was fired from Warner Brothers in 1945 in the wake of his outspoken support of striking studio workers. In September 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched an investigation on the influence of the Communist Party in the motion-picture industry. Over fifty people were called to testify and answer questions regarding political affiliations and associations. Bessie, along with nine other Hollywood figures, refused to comply with the Committee's demands. They were cited for contempt of Congress, given one-year prison sentences, and became known as the "Hollywood Ten." Bessie served out his term in a federal correctional facility in Texarkana, Texas and was blacklisted in Hollywood.
After his release from prison, Bessie relocated to San Francisco and found employment with the International Longshoremen's and Warehouseman's Union as editor of The Dispatcher, the union newspaper. In 1951 he edited, The Heart of Spain, an anthology of writings on the Spanish Civil War published and distributed by the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Throughout the 60s and 70s, Bessie worked as a publicist for San Francisco arts organizations including the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the San Francisco Film Festival. He also worked as stage manager and lighting technician for the hungry i nightclub, an experience that inspired the novel, One for My Baby (1980). He married Sylviane Muller in 1963. (Muller was his third wife; his second marriage, to Helen Clare Nelson, ended in divorce). In 1968, Bessie collaborated on the Spanish film, Espana otra vez, and offered an account of the production and his return to Spain in his memoir Spain Again. He remained active in the Bay Area Chapter of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and in 1975, he was honored at the 39th Anniversary Dinner. Before he could complete work on Our Fight, a VALB anthology devoted to the writings of Lincoln Brigade veterans, Bessie died of a heart attack on July 21, 1985. He was 81 years old.