[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Cooke: When I was a little younger, very much younger, we used to go to a lot of dances. Are you on?
Currie: Yes, we're on.
Cooke: Oh, I'm not going to talk, then. I'll tell you later.
Currie: Why not?
Cooke: I used to love to dress up. I had a beautiful evening dress, and some man told somebody, "You know, she was the most stunning person at that dance." And I used to see him coming down the street, and I would duck and go some other way around. I didn't want him to see me. [Laughter.]
Currie: How come?
Cooke: I felt embarrassed. I was just embarrassed.
Currie: You didn't like being regarded as an attractive woman?
Cooke: No, no. It upset me. I never thought I was. I said, "I don't want him to look at me." So I'd duck around corners to keep from running into him.
Currie: So you never thought of yourself as an attractive person?
Cooke: It was inbred in us, you know. The first thing was this [pointing to her head].
Currie: You had to be smart first.
Cooke: Yes, that's right.
Currie: That's interesting.
Currie: I thought maybe we could go back to the Compass and talk a little more about your experiences there. Tell me if I'm missing anything. This is the point in an interview where I get real nervous that I'm missing something.
Cooke: What would you have missed?
Currie: I have no idea.
Cooke: We talked about the slave market.
Cooke: And I told you about the series on prostitution.
Cooke: I went on any assignment that came across the desk. It was a mundane job.
Currie: Do you think they ever didn't give you an assignment because you were a woman?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, the Guild was very active, and even though it was a long time ago, that was a group of very progressive-minded people. I don't think that that was true. I know that when I went on that prostitution thing, I really wanted to see how a woman got picked up. I remember that Dick [Carter] said, "You're not going by yourself." That type of thing, you know. He really protected me.
Currie: So he volunteered to go with you.
Cooke: Yes. It turns out that socially, he and his wife are my very best friends. I don't know any people closer to me as Dick and Gladys, and it all started back there in the forties when we were active in the Guild.
Currie: Did you socialize with any of the other people on the Compass?
Cooke: I guess so, you know. We would go to parties at the Guild headquarters and things of that sort. Oh, Sol Abramson and his wife—he had two wives during the time I knew him—his first wife died. My husband and I socialized with them and the Carters and the Siens. But none of us liked the female Sien very much, so we weren't around them too much.
Currie: Who were the Siens?
Cooke: Max Sien. I think he's still living. I don't see him anymore. He was a reporter, as I was, on the staff, a very nice man. Dan Gilmore, who came from a very wealthy family, God knows what he was doing there working. He's the one I went to Brownsville with. We didn't socialize with him. He socialized with people on Park Avenue. Somebody I've run into recently, Hugh Deane, you know, I've been to the Deanes' house as a guest. He's been here. Yes, we did socialize.
Currie: Did you socialize primarily with newspaper people?
Cooke: No. That isn't the makeup, really, of Harlem. This house was at one time a very social-minded house. A lot of my friends lived here. My very best black woman friend lives down on 139th Street. I'm a member of a sorority, which I pay no attention to whatsoever. But in the early days, I did. When I first came here, I did make contact with them.
Currie: You mean Alpha Kappa Alpha?
Currie: The Compass, as a successor to PM—
Cooke: It didn't come that close to PM. It was PM, and when Marshall Field got all the tax break he could get out of it, he sold it to a group of people and they named it the Star. Then it became the Compass. Ted Thackery, whose wife was—I think she owned the Post, and they had separated, but anyway, he came over as the general manager. It's so long ago.
Currie: It was a long time ago. It was still a very progressive newspaper.
Cooke: Yes, it was.
Currie: When you went out on assignment for the Compass, how did the other reporters regard you, since you came from such a clearly progressive newspaper?
Cooke: The Compass was the progressive newspaper. Oh, you mean the People's Voice?
Currie: No, the Compass. I guess what I'm trying to get at is, how did the other reporters treat you since you came from a newspaper that so clearly had a progressive stand? Did they regard that as a little bit illegitimate in terms of journalism?
Cooke: Not the staff. I think I told you that we thought we'd done this wonderful story on Brownsville, and the general manager, who was not a part of the editorial staff, was the boss. He didn't like it. He thought that we—anyway, no other paper had printed this story. "What do you mean by sympathizing with this young man who shot up the place?" We repeated the things the mother had said. Who believes in anyone shooting up? He should never have been released from the institution where he had been held for several years. He was not a well person. This came through in the story, blaming society, rather than blaming him.
Sol Abramson, who was the city editor, thought it was great, but Ingersoll—his name wasn't Ingersoll.
Currie: Corliss Lamont?
Cooke: No. Corliss Lamont owned the paper, but Ted Thackery was the general manager. I think that he thought maybe—oh, Corliss Lamont's a progressive, you know. I don't think he would have—even though he's a millionaire, he's a progressive—I don't think he would have objected to the story. Corliss Lamont is on our board now, you know, American-Soviet Friendship Society.
Currie: I guess what I'm trying to ask is a different question, which is that other reporters, say, if you would go out on assignment and there would be a pool of reporters—
Cooke: It was such a small paper.
Currie: Reporters from other papers.
Cooke: Oh, from other papers.
Currie: Right. Say, reporters from the Daily News or the New York Times, how did they regard the reporters from the Compass?
Cooke: I think they thought we were a little mad, you know. Those that were members of the Guild, however, didn't feel that way. We were very close-knit in the Guild, in the early days of the Newspaper Guild.
Currie: When you say they thought you were a little mad, what do you mean?
Cooke: Well, that we were a little too progressive. But our friends in the other papers were all members of the Guild, so, you know, they didn't necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the papers they worked for. They were progressives that had to write the way they thought that—they knew the editors wanted it. But they were good trade unionists.
Currie: Other than that one experience with the Brownsville story, did you feel that on the Compass, you had room to express a progressive point of view?
Cooke: Oh, yes, yes. Editorially, it was progressive, and certainly when we went out into the street, we could report the way we saw it. Of course, there were discussions, and if there was anything that Sol, who was really one of us, thought was incorrect, after discussions, it was corrected. We had to be very careful, particularly in a series like the slave market. I think I said that before. Because I was in a Jewish community, and we didn't want it to be anti-Semitic.
Sol himself, who was Jewish, saw to it that none of that came through. He read it and there was no anti-Semitism in it.
Currie: What about racism? Was there ever a time when you felt that you needed to be super conscious of racism?
Cooke: I don't think so. You know, New York's a funny place. I don't know what you mean, whether in the work force I felt that?
Currie: In the stories.
Currie: If you ever felt that, for example, there was a story that was racist and you felt you needed to point that out and argue for it.
Cooke: Well, of course, as a reporter, you report facts; you don't report opinions. But the way you couch your questions or answers—I never had any feeling, you know. Maybe I'm not quite understanding your question.
Currie: Let me maybe put it a different way. If you felt that you had to be a watchdog on the Compass for racism.
Cooke: No, I never felt that. Well, as a matter of fact, some reactionary people referred to the Compass as the "Uptown Daily Worker." You know. It was known as a progressive paper with progressive viewpoints, certainly not a Communist paper. I don't mean that. But people would refer to it as the "Uptown Daily Worker."
Currie: So you felt that everyone was pretty aware of the fact that they were trying to report in a fair way?
Cooke: Yes, that's how I got my job, because as Dick put it to the Guild unit there, "Here we are reporting ills of the black community, and we don't even have a black person on the staff. It's ridiculous." You know. It was really a progressive paper, a nice, comfortable paper, place to work, for a person like me to work.
Currie: Do you think, for example, you could have worked for the New York Times or the New York Post?
Cooke: I think I could have, but only because I was already a union member. There were so many good people on all of the papers. When I say "good," you know what I mean, good reporters on all of the papers who did not like the political standpoint of their paper, but they produced what was necessary to produce. You don't editorialize a story.
Currie: How would you describe the political persuasion of the people who worked for the Compass?
Cooke: Well, I really wouldn't know, except they were progressive. I think every single person—I don't know their political affiliations, but I think every single person there was a progressive, a progressive Democrat, or there were several parties around then, the American Labor party. You know. They were progressive people, and I never questioned what their politics really were like.
Currie: Were there other people on the Compass who were members of the Communist party?
Cooke: I wouldn't know that. I really wouldn't know that, because my activity was mainly in Harlem, and the paper was downtown.
Currie: Can you describe how the Compass was set up physically?
Cooke: It was not too unlike the setup I described at the People's Voice, except it was a great deal larger and we occupied at least two floors of a big barnlike building in DuWayne Street. It's down in the Village area. The front of the building was the editorial department—it was very much like the People's Voice. There was the office for the sports editor. Jack McManus was the editor. Behind us, the general manager had an office. It was a big floor, and we worked out in the open. That's all. It wasn't fine like the offices are now, but it was a nice place to work.
Currie: So you all had desks side by side?
Cooke: No, no. We worked around a big round desk. The city editor, who was Sol Abramson, had a desk of his own, but we worked around a circular table. I worked side by side with two Dicks, Dick Armstrong on one side and Dick Carter on the other.
Currie: So it was one complete circular desk that you sat at?
Currie: You typed your own stories?
Cooke: Oh, yes. Typewriters, and underneath there was a section that you could put your papers and stuff. It's so long ago. I know it was like that, but to tell you the details, I couldn't.
Currie: A lot of news rooms are very busy kinds of places with lots going on.
Cooke: Yes, I guess. It had to be, because we had a morning shift, an afternoon shift, and a lobster shift. It was busy.
Currie: So the morning shift—how many editions did you have?
Cooke: Only one. Only one, but we worked almost around the clock, so that when a story broke, there would be somebody there to cover it.
Currie: Did you work the same shift all the time?
Cooke: No, we alternated, because when I was on the lobster shift, my husband would meet me up at the top of the hill. I came home around ten o'clock at night.
Currie: Whose work did you admire when you were working on the Compass? Which other reporters' work did you admire?
Cooke: Hugh Deane's, Richard Carter's, certainly. All of them. They were all very good craftsmen. They'd all worked around on different papers here, the Herald Tribune. I don't think anyone there, while I was there, was from the Times. But the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the Post. They were glad to work at the Compass—they were just a compatible group of people, very progressive-minded. I don't know their political affiliations, but they were progressive, good trade unionists, and it was just a very pleasant place to work.
Currie: When you say they were craftsmen, what do you mean by a craftsman?
Cooke: I mean they wrote well. They wrote well. It was a challenge for me, you know. I first thought, "My heavens, I can't do this. I don't have the expertise for this." But they were very helpful. Did I say that my problem was going from a weekly to a daily? And they realized it. I didn't realize what my problem was, but they did. They took me under their wing and said, "Look, you know, you have to do this story in one day. You don't have two or three days to develop it."
Currie: What did they mean by, "You have to do this story in one day"? What did you have to do differently?
Cooke: Probably knowing what the lead really is and putting it there, and not expostulating, you know. I was too wordy, and I had to learn how to tighten up and present the story. You know, you didn't have forever to develop it. I was accustomed to taking my time: "I'd think about a lead sometime, you know. Tomorrow." But there are no tomorrows; it all had to be done today.
Currie: Also, I think a problem I would have, you have to do enough research to be able to write the story, so you have to know when to cut that off.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. Anyway, it was a new experience for me, and I certainly was in a highly competitive field, because all the reporters, even today, in today's market, would be considered good. They're fine reporters.
I was a little frightened when I first went there, you know. "How can I compete with these people?" But they were friends and they helped me.
Currie: Other than Jack McManus, was there anyone who gave you a hard time?
Cooke: No, not one. Not one. I see yet those who are still living, and that would be Hugh Deane and Richard Carter. I imagine Max Sien is still living, but the rest of them have died. They're not here.
Currie: How were decisions made about the stories that you covered? Why were you assigned the stories that you were assigned?
Cooke: I have no idea about that, but I never felt I was not assigned a story because I was a woman. If a story broke, whoever was available in the office, whoever was there and was available, would be sent out on it. I never felt that there was any discrimination.
Currie: Was there ever a story that you wanted to cover and they wouldn't let you cover?
Cooke: Not that I remember. Not that I remember. I remember, you know, the series I did, there were three or four of them. I suggested them and they were accepted. I never felt any type of discrimination there because I was a woman or because I was black.
Currie: Also, it's interesting that this slave market story was something that you did several places and finally did the series.
Cooke: What I did at the other places, it was something I knew was there, and it wasn't in-depth. There was nothing in-depth, but this time I really went to the market. I'd just seen it, driving by with my husband, but when I wrote about it before, it wasn't really serious. I just thought it was a shame that women should be standing up there doing that, and who I did it for, like the Crisis, I could even editorialize. You don't editorialize anything on a daily, but I just think it's a shame that these women are standing up here like this. I'd have to go back and read what I really said. But here I went and really experienced it myself.
Currie: That story stayed with you for a number of years.
Cooke: Well, I'll never forget it. As a matter of fact, I've threatened several times recently to go up there and see if it's still going on. I have a feeling that whenever our economy is at a low ebb, that that would go on, that that type of thing would go on.
Currie: I know it definitely goes on in Los Angeles with the Hispanics. There's a whole black market in that. I'm sure it goes on here.
Cooke: I'm sure, too.
Currie: There are a lot of illegal people who have to make some money on the economy.
Cooke: Most of those women were on relief. The women who were standing up there trying to get jobs were on relief and couldn't make it on what they got. So they worked for seventy-five cents an hour, which was, even at the rate one was paid as a worker then, it was dreadful. What could you do with seventy-five cents an hour?
Currie: Not much, but it was better than nothing.
Currie: I wanted to ask you, too, if the Rosenburg case was the last assignment you had at the Compass.
Currie: Did that bring up any feelings for you, having covered this trial, of two people whose politics essentially—
Cooke: I remember sitting there, listening to them, and thinking that, "There but for the grace of God, go I, because I'm progressive." I don't know, you know. I can't compare my feelings about the political setup in this country with theirs, but I remember saying, as I said in a case later, I actually said it in Angela's [Davis]* case, "There but for the grace of God go I." You know? It's hard not to personalize when you're out on a story like that, to bring yourself into it. It's hard not to. But I remember that Rosenberg* case so vividly. I wasn't on it very long. Somebody else had had it, and for some reason was pulled out, and I was delighted to—I wasn't delighted with it—but I was delighted to get that assignment.
Currie: But it was closer to home base than—
Currie: How did you write that story with these conflicting emotions?
Cooke: I think I had learned just to present a story on its merits, and I didn't try—you don't editorialize, anyway; you just present it. I think it's in the way you present it, the things that you emphasize, that you get across your message. The way, perhaps, I would have described Mrs. Rosenberg and how she appeared, you know, but you don't editorialize at all. You just present the—
Currie: This is interesting. So as a journalist, you think you could describe her in a way that would be more sympathetic than less sympathetic.
Cooke: That's right. That's right. If you use words correctly, I think you can do that. But you don't editorialize the content.
Currie: I think that's an interesting point to be made. I guess what I'm exploring is this whole idea of objective journalism, and is there such a thing.
* Angela Davis was a Communist and a political activist during the turbulent sixties, who was jailed and tried in California trumped-up charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy.
*Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage against the U.S. for the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953.
Cooke: Well, I do believe, on reflection—I wasn't on PM or the Star—but I do believe that the reporting at the Compass was objective and good, and yet it got across a story as well, or better, than other papers in the city were doing.
Currie: Did you ever approach public figures in a different way than you approached private figures? What I mean by that is, for example, did you treat the women that you covered in the slave market differently than you would, say, a public figure that you were covering?
Cooke: I don't think I could possibly do that. You know, I know that I am lucky to have had the kind of background I had, and I was utterly sympathetic with those women. They were more suspicious of me. I didn't look like them, you know. It was difficult for me to establish rapport with them, but I certainly, in writing about them, I'm sure I did it in a very sympathetic way.
Currie: Maybe another question would be: should you approach people who do not have experience with the press, give them more leeway than you would public figures who know about the press and deal with the press all the time?
Cooke: I don't know. It's difficult to answer. Can you ask me the question again?
Currie: For example, should you, in fact, be more protective of, say, "common people," average people, than you are a public figure, like a David Dinkins, for example, who deals with the press all the time? Should you have a different standard for dealing with those kinds of people?
Cooke: I don't think so. I think it should come through in your writing, where they are on the—I hate "the social scale," but so that the reader knows that these are good, honest, lovely human beings. I know I always had difficulty having anyone come and work for me, you know. I know how I feel about people. My husband used to say I worked harder getting the house ready for them to clean than they did, you know. [Laughter.]
Currie: I guess my question is a little different. Do reporters owe more consideration to people who are not versed in the ways of the press than they do the public figures?
Cooke: I think they do. I really believe they do. For instance, you just mentioned David Dinkins. Everybody knows who he is. He doesn't need to be—I'm very proud of him—but he doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves. I feel that I kind of owe it to my sister, who hasn't had the opportunities I have, not to insult her, not to make her feel insulted.
Currie: Do you think that reporters do that?
Cooke: I think the reporters I knew, and that was a long time ago, but I think that reporters I knew did that. Even Dan Gilmore, who came from a wealthy background. We were union-minded people. I don't know whether I'm getting—
Currie: Oh, no! I just wanted to know what you think. What do you think you learned from working on the Compass?
Cooke: Well, that's a hard question to answer. What did I learn? It's forty years later?
Currie: What year did you leave?
Cooke: No, it's not quite that. Thirty-five years later. We still don't have a paper in this community that treats the common man with dignity. That paper did, you know. The Times—I think the press is pretty brutal. The media. Not everybody, but just the media, generally, is pretty brutal. I wish I were younger and I wish I could work on a paper.
Currie: What in your life experience do you think helped you as a journalist? Other than the jobs you had, was there any life experience you had that helped you as a journalist?
Cooke: As a journalist?
Currie: For example, experience in the community or organizing or anything like that, that you think helped you as a journalist.
Cooke: It's difficult to answer. It seems to me my whole life, you know, because of the father and mother I had, my whole life and my work in the union and when I chose to work for the Domestic Workers Union, when Ben Davis came to us and wanted us to work for different people, different groups, I wanted to work with the Domestic Workers Union, because I felt it was difficult for them because of the kind of jobs they had, to have a union, and that they were kicked around.
I'm not answering your questions properly.
Currie: You're doing fine! Going back to the Compass, what do you think you learned in terms of being a reporter?
Cooke: What I learned, everything was so gradual. I started at the Amsterdam News and I handled copy at the People's Voice. Everything I did in the years during the thirties and forties was preparing me to work on a paper like the Compass. I find that a little difficult to answer.
Currie: What if you had been able to go and take a journalism degree or work on a school newspaper? Do you think that would have been helpful to you?
Cooke: When I was in college, had I done that, of course it would have been. I learned on the job, and that is difficult. I feel, in looking back, I feel that most of the black reporters I knew learned on the job. And I'm not sure that that wasn't true with the white reporters I knew, too. So it was a gradual getting to know what to do and how to do it. I wish I had taken courses in journalism. I read everything I could about how to present a story, and in the union, we would talk about it. So I think possibly I had as much training on the job as I might have got in the schoolroom, but it would have been easier.
Currie: What year did you leave the Compass?
Cooke: Let's see. It was an election year. Let's see. It was possibly 1952.
Currie: Then did you ever try to get another job in journalism after that?
Cooke: I didn't try to get any job. [Laughter.] It was during a period that my husband was doing—for us, very well. I didn't try to get a job in journalism, no. As a matter of fact, the next job I went to—I don't know whether you want to get into this. Are you through with the Compass?
Currie: I have a few more questions.
Cooke: All right. But when it closed, it was a shock to us, to everyone on the staff. As I said, I was jerked out of the courtroom where the Rosenbergs were on trial, and asked to come back to the office where the announcement was made that the paper was closing. It was an election year. Corliss Lamont obviously bought the paper so that he could get coverage. He was seeking some state position, and he didn't win. He lost, and he closed the paper. We were kind of incensed about it. I don't know that any one of them got jobs in journalism—I stayed close to Sol Abramson. All my life I will be close to Richard Carter and his wife. But Sol did not get another job on a newspaper and he was considered the best city editor in the whole city. He had that reputation in the Newspaper Guild, that he was the very best. Richard Carter was known as one of the cleverest and best writers in town. He never went back to a newspaper. Sol is now not with us; he's dead. I don't remember what he did. I know he used to meet me at my job and we'd have dinner together often. But he didn't work for a newspaper. The one who came more closely to working with a newspaper was Hugh Deane, who was interested in a Chinese organization.
It's like the one that we have. It's a peace organization. I don't know what it's called, but they have a magazine. I see articles in it by Hugh Deane. I have a few articles here by him. Richard Carter has done some writing. He's written several books, but he never went back into the newspaper field.
Currie: Why do you think these people didn't go back to newspapers?
Cooke: Well, actually, it was 1950, and you know, [Joseph R.] McCarthy was trying to make it difficult. What paper in New York could they have gone to? There was the Times, there was the Post, and there was the Daily News, and there was another paper here then. It was a tabloid—the Mirror. I imagine—I haven't talked with any of them, but I have certainly talked with Dick and Sol, as long as he lived. I don't think they wanted to really go back to working with any of these papers.
Currie: Let me switch the tape over.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Currie: So it's your guess that they didn't want to go work for any other newspapers in New York at that time?
Cooke: I have a feeling, certainly, there was no paper where they would have been comfortable working. Now, it could be that Max Sien did go back to a paper; I don't know, because I lost track of him. But I do know about the others.
Currie: Did you apply to any of these other papers?
Cooke: No. I didn't.
Currie: You didn't want to work for them, either?
Cooke: Well, in the first place, since I was the first black woman ever hired as a journeyman on a white daily in the country, I doubt seriously that there would have been any doors open for me. I could have gone to the Amsterdam News, I'm sure, had I wanted to. The Amsterdam News at that time was not—it's better now than it was a long time ago, but it was not a paper I really wanted to work on. I wasn't seeking work, anyway; work sought me.
Currie: This is sort of a general question, but what's the worst abuse you think you've ever seen done by a journalist in pursuit of a story?
Cooke: I don't even think I can answer that. I can't think of anything. I would be making something up. I'm pretty good about that, but—
Currie: I know! I don't want you to make anything up. Now we're getting into Janet Cooke and her nine-year-old or eight-year-old heroin addict.*
Cooke: Yes. But anyway, I can't think. Maybe I'm not very bright. I just can't think.
Currie: No, no. Also, have you ever passed up a story because you thought that it was just a story that should not be told, even though it was a good story? You felt that it might do more harm to tell the story than to—
Cooke: Well, I'm almost certain, being me, that I have done that. I can't think of any specific instance. I'm sure that that I would do. But actually, as a reporter, I was assigned to the stories,
* Janet Cooke was a Washington Post reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for an article she wrote about a child addicted to heroin. It later turned out that she had fabricated the story.
and I certainly did whatever I was assigned to and tried to approach it properly, as a journalist, not as a progressive, but as a journalist and then as a progressive. But I can't imagine passing up a story. I haven't had that experience, I don't think.
Currie: I think I'm about ready to leave the Compass for now.
Cooke: Well, the Compass didn't live very long, either.
Currie: No, it didn't.
Cooke: Which was a shame. Some things that happened. I don't know whether it ought to be on tape or not.
Currie: We can talk about them, and then you can expunge them later, if you'd like.
Cooke: There was a strange thing that happened at the Compass. Dick and his "we must have more black people on the staff," there was a secretarial job open in one of the departments. It was in the business department; it wasn't in the editorial department. He knew a young black girl who had worked with his wife. I think her name was Marguerite. I had met her. He said, "Don't you think Marguerite would be perfect for that job?"
I said, "Yeah! She's very bright." He knew it would be pulling a good worker away from his wife. She was in the news field, too. He proposed her for the job, and as things developed, instead of thanking Dick—you know, he really was doing it because he thought it was correct that we should have more black workers on that paper—she thought that he'd proposed her for a job that was too hot for a white worker. I've forgotten the circumstances. In the union, she brought him up on charges—she was a member of the Newspaper Guild—that he proposed her for a job that was too hot for—
Currie: "Too hot" meaning?
Cooke: Meaning it was too difficult.
Currie: He was setting her up.
Cooke: Yeah. She said that he didn't do it because he wanted to see more blacks in the newspaper industry. It was really awful. I never liked her after that, you know, because—
Currie: It put you in a very difficult position.
Cooke: It did. I know that the union had a meeting about it afterwards. I was asked a question, and I remember being angry at the question that was asked me, because I felt that Dick was unjustly treated—you know, he was really on a crusade: "Let's see that we get qualified Negroes into the newspaper field." We were not "black" yet. The meeting seemed to be about me. His wife had asked me, when she couldn't stay, they had a small child and lived in this area, she said, "Marvel, please, when this meeting breaks up (it was a union meeting), see that Dick gets home." This young woman said, "Instead of praising me for criticizing Richard, she put her arms around him and kissed him." I didn't kiss him. I said, "In other words, you're trying to call me an Uncle Tom?" And they couldn't handle that one, so the whole thing went away.
But there was a dearth of black workers in the white press—almost none, even in secretarial positions at that time. Of course, since then, Roger [Wilkins] has had a very good job at the New York Times. He was on the editorial board. And I see on the Daily News, there's a black gentleman by the name of Caldwell.
Currie: There are a number of key blacks.
Cooke: Yes. But at that time, there weren't any.
Currie: So in 1952, when you left the Compass, you decided not to find another job?
Cooke: I didn't decide that; I didn't know where to apply. I did not want to go back to the Amsterdam News.
Cooke: All of my work, after I came to New York, had been in the writing field in some way. There was no People's Voice. I don't know that I would have applied at any of the white dailies around. You know, I don't know. So I just sat home for a while, and jobs started coming to me, but not in the journalistic field.
Currie: What was your husband doing at that point?
Cooke: He was the area manager for Ruppert Beer. He had this whole area, the whole of New York and northern New Jersey, Westchester County.
Currie: He was at one point fired from that job. That was while you were on the Compass?
Cooke: Yes. What was he doing? You're right. That was almost at the end of the Compass, too. He was fired from that. Then he went to the Parks Department.
Currie: So he had a government job?
Cooke: It was city government. He was director of—not gymnastics. He was—
Cooke: Recreation, for the Parks Department. He was in charge of the borough of the Bronx.
Currie: So he had a good, stable job.
Cooke: A good job.
Currie: So you stayed home for a while?
Currie: You didn't need to find a job right away.
Cooke: No, I didn't. I wanted a job, but I didn't need one. A professor up at Columbia, whose name escapes me right now, who had known me somehow or other, was interested in the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions [ASP], which was pretty—it thrived even after FDR.
Currie: What was the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions?
Cooke: It was an organization of people who worked in the arts of any kind, writing, visual arts, or science, or other professions, which also encompassed doctors and lawyers. As a matter of fact, Arthur Miller was a member. I used to see him coming in the office. That's where I met John Randolph*. He was a member. The groups of artists or groups of writers would meet to talk about their problems, and they were politically active, too, you know. So anyway, this man asked me if I would be the New York director.
* John Randolph is a Tony-Award winning actor who is active in many progressive causes. He was black listed during the McCarthy era.
I had never directed anything like that, never had thought of any such job. But when I went to talk to him about it, there was a young black woman secretary who couldn't spell "cat." I had known her when she worked at the NAACP. She was highly incompetent. And he told me I would have a secretary; the secretary would be this woman. I couldn't see myself saying anything about her. I never talked about, you know, people who were in the work force to a boss. Of course, this man wasn't a boss; he was just interested in getting people in the arts and sciences involved in political issues. So this job was not for me, because I knew that I could not work with her. I knew her as a highly incompetent person. Some blacks can be incompetent.
Currie: Like some whites.
Cooke: So I refused the job. They kept after me. Finally, they moved to a new location on West Sixty-fourth Street, between Central Park West, and I guess the next street is maybe Broadway. Anyway, I went to see him again. I knew I was going to say no. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: You said they moved to West Sixty-fourth Street.
Cooke: Right. He said, "We really want somebody like you. You're known and you've been active in the Newspaper Guild. We would like to have you here as the New York director of the Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions."
So I said, "Well, I'm looking for a newspaper job or a writing job." I think I said, "I'm working on my novel," which was kind of true.
Currie: So you would still pick up that novel and work on it?
Cooke: I'd have to do some more research now, but it has an interesting subject.
Currie: But over the years, you worked on this?
Cooke: Yes, I did. So anyway, to get back to this, I kept looking around. "Where is—" I'm not going to mention her name. "Where is she?" I didn't see her. So I said, "Is Miss So and So still here?"
He said, "Oh, no, we let her go last night." [Laughter.]
The job was interesting. A lot of people whom I'd known belonged to it, not too many black people, but people I had known and people I would want to know, like John Randolph. So I started thinking about the job seriously. "Am I qualified for such a job?" "Oh, yes, you're really qualified." So I finally took it, and it was really an interesting job to have, a position to have. I met a lot of my old friends, some I had known in the Communist party, some of them in jobs I'd had. I met many new friends whose names I had known. It was really quite a nice job.
Currie: What did you do in this job?
Cooke: Just supervise activities.
Currie: So the purpose was to get groups of people in these—
Cooke: In these different professions, to motivate them to get into political action of some kind.
Currie: And this was a paid job?
Cooke: Yes, it was a paid job.
Currie: You would characterize it as progressive?
Cooke: Oh, it was progressive. As a matter of fact, it would have been impossible—it wouldn't have been impossible if I hadn't had someone to pay the rent, help me pay the rent—but it would have been impossible for me to take a job that was not progressive or didn't have the possibility of being progressive. I couldn't have done it.
Currie: Was there anything about your job as a journalist that helped you in this new job?
Cooke: Well, I'm sure that's how I got it. I'd had enough by-lines around, and they knew me. By working in the Guild as I did, helped prepare me for this kind of job.
Currie: How long did you stay at this job?
Cooke: I imagine three years. We've talked about my going to East Germany to a peace meeting?
Currie: This is when you went for Paul Robeson*, right?
Cooke: Yes, and I was still working there then, because I remember a friend, she's still living, said, "We're so proud of you for going," because it was during the difficult McCarthy period. She said, "We're so proud of you for going."
Are we into that yet?
Currie: Yes. This might be a good time to talk about the McCarthy period and the effect it had on you.
Cooke: A prelude to that, my getting into the face-to-face confrontation with Senator McCarthy, was the fact that I did go to a peace meeting in East Germany to represent Paul.
Currie: Paul Robeson couldn't go?
Cooke: He couldn't go because his passport had been lifted. I had a passport, for what reason I don't know, but I had a passport, and he knew I had a passport. He was quite a good friend of my husband's and mine. So I went, really wondering, "What am I doing over here?" What I did, I took his speech over. He wrote the speech that he would have given over there. It was very exciting. Did we talk about this before? It seems to me we did.
Currie: It seems to me we did, too. One of the reasons I was hesitating, I was trying to make sure that we had. If we have, we can expunge it from one side or the other, but go ahead and tell me about it.
Cooke: Up to that point in my life, it was the most exciting thing that I had ever done. The meeting was held in a huge, huge hall, and people from all over the world were there, from Africa, from Asia, from Canada. I was the only American there. But every other country had at least six or seven representatives. The Sudan came in with at least eighteen—in their beautiful, beautiful costumes. It was a very interesting meeting, a peace meeting. The theme was people must work together in peace in order for the world to exist.
Currie: Who sponsored it?
Cooke: There was a World Peace Organization. The headquarters were in Austria. It was in Vienna. Because I was invited to go to Vienna—that's the first time I'd been to Europe—and it was an exciting meeting devoted to world peace. That was the theme. I know we talked about this,
* Paul Robeson was a well-known black actor, singer, and political activist who was a McCarthy victim.
because [Dimitri] Shastakovich* was on the podium the whole time. My husband was a music buff, and he loved Shastakovich. I thought, "If I could only just get close enough to him to see him." The last day of the conference, Shastakovich got down off the dias and came down the aisle in which I was sitting. I said, "At least I'll get a good look at him." When he got to me, he came up to me and said, "We are so proud of the American that came to this meeting." I had been pointed out as the only American who got to this conference. "We're so proud. Here's a gift for you. Please give this one to Mrs. Robeson." He handed me two packages. Well, I don't think any moment of my life has been as exciting.
I was invited by—I knew little about the peace movement, as such, you know—I know I believed in peace, but anyway, I was invited to go to the World Peace headquarters. I was in a small group of people, and I'm sure this is what caused me to be invited to Vienna. An American woman had attended a peace meeting in Europe the year before. I happened to have known her. It was the height of the McCarthy period. She had made a statement that there was no fight-back in this country.
Currie: What did she mean?
Cooke: She meant that the McCarthyites could put anything over, and there was no organized fight back. And I took exception to that. I said, "That's not true. It's true that we're a rich country dominated by Wall Street, but there are a lot of people in the country who want the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to dominate our society. There are a lot of people in the United States, including me, who don't feel like that." And I think it was that statement that caused me to be invited to Vienna. I did go to Vienna before I came back.
It was like the other day, I walked into this room and here are all these various people from various countries, various races, and lots of lights and stuff, and I was the celebrity because I'd made this statement that there was fight-back. I wasn't prepared to really back up the statements that I made, but I knew from my heart that there are a lot of us in this country who are dedicated to working for a peaceful world. As a matter of fact, there would be no use for the Communist party here if we could get poverty and all these things straightened out.
Anyway, I was there for a week. And then I was invited to go to the Soviet Union and China! I really wanted to go, but I had promised Paul that I would be back at a certain date to report to him what had happened. So I said I was very flattered by this invitation, but I couldn't take it because I had to get back to the United States.
Currie: Who invited you to the Soviet Union and China?
Cooke: The committee that ran the peace organization asked me would I not like to go to the Soviet Union. I was very curious about the Soviet Union, and I would have liked to have gone, and also to China, but I didn't go.
So when I came back and made my report to Paul, I mentioned this. It wasn't that important, but I mentioned it. He said, "Well, why didn't you go?"
I said, "Because you said you wanted me to be back here by such and such a date."
But he said, "You should have used your head and gone."
Currie: How did you know Paul Robeson?
Cooke: Let me go way back. Eric [Walrond], my boyfriend, had known him, and I was introduced to him. I had no idea that he had the potential of being the great world-renowned artist and activist that he did become. It was on a trip to—he was going to Europe with his small son,
* Dimitri Shastakovich was a Soviet composer.
Paulie, and his wife, and I went with Eric down to the boat to see them off. That's when I first saw him. After that, many of the people I got to know, knew him. He grew as an artist very rapidly. He already had stature, but he grew. I don't know, I just have always known Paul ever since I've been here.
Currie: Were you politically simpatico?
Cooke: Well, you know, Paul was—I must say this, he never was a member of the Communist party. He was a progressive. As a matter of fact, it's my belief, though no one has told me this, it's my belief that he wasn't, not because he didn't believe in the tenets of the party, but because it would have, at that moment, hurt him as an artist. He would not have got to be Othello, he would not have got the world-renowned—he wouldn't have been accepted as an artist. I think that the Communist party, by and large, is very—what's the word I want? They don't make any rash moves. I think they would have discouraged his membership, because they realized that with the country being the way it was at that time, when McCarthy was just running us ragged—I think that they would have thought first about Paul's best interests. They wouldn't have wanted to stop his being able to sing and to speak out freely and to be the political activist he was.
Currie: So you never approached him about it?
Cooke: No, I wouldn't. I'm very hesitant even now about talking to people. I don't know why I'm talking to you.
Currie: Well, I guess I'm asking.
Cooke: No, you asked me, and I—
Currie: Why are you hesitant, even now?
Cooke: Well, because I think that we're in a regressive state in this country, and I think that it would be easy for a McCarthy to poison the air again. I think that a person's politics is their own business. I don't say that I wouldn't love to have people think the way I do, and I think there are a lot of people who do, but they are hesitant to accept the party designation. As a matter of fact, I feel that if my family ever saw this, some members of my family, not Roger, they might say, "I wish she hadn't said that. I wish she hadn't admitted that." I'm sure that there would be some that feel that way.
Currie: So you were always very conscious? What's the right way to put it? It sounds like you were a little ginger about bringing the subject up with people, and you would only do it—
Cooke: No, I'm not ginger. You know, I have a lot of friends who know my political identity. And if I feel a person—well, my young friends—are ready for it, certainly I tell them. I'm very proud of my party identity. But I don't try to push it on anybody.
Currie: Of course, at this time in the early fifties, were you feeling—at one point, the Communist party was a much more accepted part of political life, and then it got less accepted as we moved into the fifties.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Were you feeling that attack in the fifties?
Cooke: I think we were beginning to feel it then. Not only me; everybody. I don't mean people who are activists. I'm not a party functionary, never have been, you know. But I certainly believe in their presentation of what life should be like more than I do the Republicans or the Democrats. I'm a registered Democrat.
Currie: Did you go to meetings? Did you actually have meetings?
Currie: The Communist party. Did they have meetings?
Cooke: I guess they do, but I have never—as a matter of fact, I think I was protected. During this period, in the fifties, I could not have moved around as freely if I had been known as a Communist, you know. I knew most of the heads of the party. I've met Gus Hall*. He calls me "Minnesota" when he sees me. He's from Minnesota. But I never was in top level meetings. I was never a party functionary.
Currie: So you never had things that you were doing to organize the party?
Cooke: No, never anything like that. What can I say?
Currie: What was your role, then, in the party?
Cooke: Well, my role was to be a good trade unionist, you know, just to be a good trade unionist. In my relationship, for instance, with a person like Safiya, I would never try to impose my political views on her or anybody—or anybody! You or anybody else. But if after discussion—a long discussion—we seemed to see eye to eye, I might broach it. "Why haven't you?" You know. But that wasn't my role.
Currie: But that was something you decided you would do for yourself?
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: That was not—
Cooke: I've never been a functionary, and I wouldn't. I don't think I would be good as a functionary.
Currie: I can't see you taking orders from anyone.
Cooke: You can't? Well, anyway. I don't know that that's the way the Communist party is. I have a feeling that they build their common program out of wide discussion, but I don't know that. It's just a feeling that I have.
Currie: So you're not really quite sure how it's organized?
Cooke: Well, if I did know, I don't think it's my—I shouldn't say that. I've never been a part of the inner organization. I've been a member of the party who was active in the Newspaper Guild, for instance. I know that, for instance—and we'll talk about it later—I'm sure that I was asked to work in the Angela [Davis] campaign because the Communist party trusted me. But I have never been a functionary, and I don't think I would do well as a functionary. I mean, that isn't the way I work, anyway.
Currie: But you say your role was to be a good trade unionist. Was that because they said, "Someone says—"?
Cooke: Nobody said anything to me ever. I have never been given any sort of—I know people within the Newspaper Guild who were already Communists, and I knew them before I became a Communist. I knew them as trade unionists in the Guild. When I actually joined and I found out So-and-so and So-and-so and So-and-so, I said, "I should have known," because they work in a
* Gus Hall is head of the Communist party, USA.
very organized, gentle way, not trying to force thoughts. I said, "I should have known." You know? I did know a few, but I didn't know their identity until after I had joined.
Currie: So after you joined, then they told you they were also members?
Cooke: No. There was a meeting, and I was introduced as a newcomer.
Currie: Oh, I see.
Cooke: As a matter of fact, the black people who were in the party when I joined were not people who wore evening clothes or lived on 409 Edgecombe Avenue. I think I was not asked for a long time, because people like me just don't join the party. I mean, that seemed to have been the feeling then; it is not true any longer. I'm talking about in the fifties.
Currie: Of course, you had joined much earlier.
Cooke: That's right.
Currie: Maybe now is a good time, since we've now sort of set the scene, you went to the meeting in East Germany to represent Paul Robeson, and you think that may have been the spark that got you called up before the McCarthy hearings?
Cooke: I'm not sure. How would anyone know, you know? But I think that that could have been, you know, because soon after I got back, I was living in this apartment—
Currie: This very apartment?
Cooke: This very apartment. The doorbell rang one morning, and two very nice-looking, well-clad white men, young, were at the door. They flashed their identification. They were with the FBI. I wasn't prepared for anything like this. Actually, I hope you realize I'm a pretty gentle person. I was shocked. They said, "We came to pick up your passport." It was soon after I returned from East Germany, so I believe, you know—they'll never tell you, but I believe it was that. I can lie. I said, "I don't have my passport here. It's in my safety deposit box." And they said, "Well, will you get it for us?" I said, "I'll have to talk with my lawyer." [Laughter.] So they left.
Currie: Let me change the tape.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Cooke: I closed the door and then I opened it. The elevator, when it's working, is right next to this door. So I opened the door right away and I said to them—and this is almost quote-unquote—"Didn't your parents have anything better to do with their money than to send you through college to become spies?" I remember saying that to them. They didn't answer me. But I went and called a lawyer that I know and trust very much, and told him what had happened, that the FBI had come here to get my passport.
He said, "You're going to have to give it up." He was a progressive lawyer. "You're going to have to give it up. So whenever they come, you just might as well give it to them."
Currie: Why did he tell you you'd have to give your passport up?
Cooke: Because there was no way, at that time, no legal way I could have kept it. He didn't want me to have to have a hassle with them, so he said, "You're going to have to. Then we'll have to fight to get your passport back." We'll apply for it and go at it.
Currie: Did they say why they were lifting your passport?
Cooke: They didn't say. They came back to get it in a week or so. It was right here all the time. I can put my hand on my passport right this minute. I gave it to them. They said, "Thank you for being cooperative." I said, "You're welcome." That was the end of that passport. [Tape interruption.]
Currie: So they took your passport and that was that.
Cooke: That's the end of that. The lawyer I spoke to, whose name I won't give you, but I knew him as being as progressive as I was.
Currie: Was he also a party member?
Cooke: Yes. I trusted him. I still trust him.
Currie: So what happened next?
Cooke: I was working for ASP [Arts, Sciences, and Politics], and I continued working there until it closed.
Currie: Why did it close?
Cooke: Lack of money. It was the McCarthy period. Lack of money. Couldn't keep a program like that without solid financial back-up. It thrived during the Roosevelt years, because Roosevelt had become known as a progressive president, people were excited and afraid he wouldn't get in again. But without a person like that to work for, a progressive organization like ASP could not thrive. It costs a lot of money to run organizations, as I found out this morning [referring to a committee meeting for another organization which she had attended that morning]. So it closed. Not because it wasn't a good organization with a lot of wonderful people supporting it, but it takes a lot of money to run an organization in this town.
Currie: Yes. So when were you called up before the McCarthy hearings?
Cooke: I think before I finish, I should tell the story—or did I tell the story—about how John Randolph was running around, trying to get—I've told that story so much, trying to get someone to propose to the—what's the actor's organization?
Currie: Actor's Equity?
Cooke: Did I tell that story?
Currie: I think you did.
Cooke: I think so, too. John Randolph didn't know Ossie Davis at that time; neither did I. But Ossie got up and made a motion at an Actor's Equity meeting to support Paul in his fight for the return of his passport. Ralph Belamy, who was the chairman of the Actor's Equity then, was very angry with all of them and would have liked to have thrown them out. But the motion passed by a huge margin. But it was just sad about Paul during those days.
Currie: How was it to be his friend during that time? What was it like?
Cooke: I think he gained more friends. I don't think he lost anybody who was really a friend. He had grown so as an artist, and as a political activist. I think it did something to him, however. He lived in this area, you know.
One day I was on Amsterdam Avenue and accosted by a friend who wanted me to go to a $500 Democratic dinner. I could go for nothing, she said. However, it was a political dinner that I wasn't interested in. I knew somebody was standing in a doorway behind me. It was dusk, about like now. When we broke up, I heard this voice say, "Marvel." It was Paul!
I said, "What on earth are you doing that for?"
He said, "I wouldn't want to hurt you." He was being protective of me. Then people were saying, "He's a communist," which he never was, you know, but he was protecting me.
I said, "I am so proud to be your friend, that you call me a friend, that you can speak to me in the middle Times Square or anyplace. Just speak to me." But I think that that whole period did something to him.
Currie: Altered his personality?
Cooke: No. He was a very sweet person. He was being concerned that his friendship might hurt me. He was just being protective.
Currie: That is sad.
Cooke: It is sad. But it could happen again, with the way things are going.
Currie: Speaking of which, how did you get called before the McCarthy hearings? Do you remember how that happened?
Cooke: I'm trying to figure out who's involved in that. I, of course, had been reading what McCarthy was doing during this period. It never occurred to me that I would ever be involved with him.
One morning, I was getting ready to go to work down at ASP. It's funny, I haven't thought about this for a long time. My husband, Cecil, was on his way to work, and I was taking a bath. I had been at a meeting the night before at ASP. The doorbell rang and Cecil answered the door. A white man was standing at the door. He said, "I have a message for Mrs. Cooke."
Cecil thought it was somebody who had been at this meeting I'd been at the night before, and it must be important. He said, "Come in." He came to the bathroom door, and he said, "There's somebody who wants to see you."
I got my robe on quickly and came out, and the man handed me a subpoena. He said, "Senator McCarthy would like to see you in Foley Square at nine o'clock." This was 7:00. If I had been just obedient and thought I had to, you know, I could have made it. I was then riding the subways. I don't like them any longer. And he left.
So I started calling this lawyer friend, and he said, "You're going to have to answer that. I can't represent you, because I've got a case this morning, but I can find somebody." And he did find me a lawyer. I don't want to mention his name, either, because I don't know anything about his present affiliations. But anyway, this lawyer called me and told me to meet him at his office. His offices were down in the Foley Square area. He said, "Meet me down there and we'll try to figure out what this is about."
So I met him. I was really frightened, frightened to death, you know. I remember how Cecil was feeling. He said, "I just don't know." He put his arms around me. He said, "You'll be all right."
So I met this lawyer, and we went over my life with a fine-tooth comb—from the time I was born. You see, we couldn't understand why they were calling me before the Army-McCarthy Committee. My husband wasn't a citizen at that time. Yes, he was. He wasn't a citizen at the time of World War II. After that he became a citizen. I have no brothers. My father died in 1927. And we couldn't figure out what on earth would they want me for, the Army-McCarthy hearings. So he instructed me about the use of the Fifth Amendment.
He told me, "If you feel that the question they're asking you is going to open up a long discussion of any kind, call on the Fifth Amendment."
Currie: A long discussion of anything particular?
Cooke: No, political, any political questions. But if it was just, you know, an ordinary question, I could answer it. "I'll be there at your side," he said. "But if you think it's leading to anything that might reflect on you politically or anybody else politically, call on the Fifth Amendment." He had some other work to do. He said, "I'll meet you over at the court at one o'clock." He had postponed this meeting until one. "I'll meet you at one o'clock."
So I remember I bought a [New York] Post, and I went through it to see what on earth McCarthy was doing in New York, trying to see if any of the stories would reveal to me, or give me any hint as to what he wanted with me. So I got over to the court at one o'clock, and my lawyer was there. I had the Post and this large pocketbook. I always carry great big things. When I walked in, there was Senator McCarthy, Cohn, and Schein sitting there. Anyway, I folded the paper and I put my pocketbook down on top of the paper. He said, "Mrs. Cooke, what is that paper you've got there?"
I said, "Oh, it's the Post." I knew he thought it was the Daily Worker, because it was a tabloid. The Post was a tabloid. So was the Daily Worker. So I picked up my pocketbook and said, "Oh, Senator McCarthy, this is a New York Post. There are several stories in it about you. Would you like to have it?" My lawyer said afterwards he knew I was going to be all right, you, know, because I was flip.
He asked me a lot of questions. I couldn't possibly tell you what they were, but a lot of questions that didn't seem like anything to me, you know. So I answered them. So finally, he said, "Mrs. Cooke, where were you working in 1947?" Well, that was the end of the People's Voice. The People's Voice was dead. So I said, "Oh, I was working at the People's Voice." What did I say that for? That's what he wanted.
There was a young woman, who was a red-baiter, who worked in the business office of the People's Voice. Anytime we would have a union meeting and a progressive motion came before the floor, you would hear this sibilant whisper, "CP! CP! CP!" I hated that woman! Her name was Doris Walters.
He said, "Well, you worked at the People's Voice. Did you know a person by the name of Doris Walters Powell?" I didn't know that she had married, that she was now Powell. I did know Doris Walters. A day or two before that, I'd seen in the Daily News a headline "Red Aide to Army Fired." That's what it said: "Red Aide to Army." And I read the story. I wondered what red aide this was. It was Doris Walters. Not even a good trade unionist.
Currie: And certainly not a Communist.
Cooke: And certainly not a Communist. She had been fired as red aide because she had worked at the People's Voice, where Doxey Wilkerson, a known Communist was employed. She lost her job because she had worked at the People's Voice! I mean, the army job.
So when they asked me did I know a person by the name of Doris Walters Powell, I knew exactly what they were after, because I'd seen the story that she had been fired as a red aide to the army. So I called on the Fifth Amendment, and Senator McCarthy looked at me and said, "Mrs. Cooke, you opened this subject matter. It's on the table because you did say you worked at the People's Voice. And anything that happened at the People's Voice, anything we ask you about the People's Voice, you must answer."
I said, "I'm may go to jail for this, but I still call on the Fifth Amendment." So they couldn't get anything out of me.
My lawyer, I could just see him smiling. He said, "You were magnificent, but what did you answer that for?"
I said, "Because the People's Voice was closed. It's a dead issue." You know.
But anyway, he said, "You did well. Don't worry about it." This was 1953, I think. So I came home pretty content about this whole thing. I reported it to my husband.
Currie: You were thinking they were really after this other woman.
Cooke: Yes. It had nothing to do with me. So I went along like that for a few days. It was just before Labor Day of 1953, when I got a telegram inviting me to be a witness at the Army-McCarthy hearings in Washington on Labor Day. They didn't even take Labor Day off. On Labor Day. Well, I was scared stiff. So I called my lawyer. And to tell you, I never realized why he did this, but I think I know. He didn't ask me to come down to his office; he said, "I'll meet you in Central Park." You know, there was a lot of bugging and stuff going on then. So I met him. This was on a Friday. I was to be in Washington on Monday morning. He said, "You know, there's no way that I think that you can get out of this. I think that you must go. The government is inviting you, and you've got to go."
I looked at him and said—I'm like you, I don't carry a lot of money. I said, "I don't even have enough money to get to Washington."
Currie: On short notice.
Cooke: No. "It's Friday. The banks are closed. I can't do it."
He said, "That's good. Go home and do it from home. Send a telegram stating this. Act like you're a good person, you would do it, but you don't have the money,"—which I did.
It wasn't ten minutes later that the phone rang and this male voice said, "Mrs. Cooke, there will be a ticket waiting for you," at one of the airlines. I don't remember which one. "At the counter at La Guardia on Monday morning. What time are you coming down?"
So I said, "Well, I'll leave on the seven o'clock plane. They were going to Washington every half-hour then." Then I remembered the Rosenbergs. I always felt they were set up, you know. I was scared. I don't hesitate to tell you, I was very frightened. Cecil wasn't home. He finally came home. I called the lawyer and told him what had happened. He said, "You want me to go?" I said, "Certainly." He said, "I'll meet you."
And in the meantime, I got another call. It was from Doxey. Doxey, as I told you, always called me Lady. "Lady, Yolanda and I just came home from our vacation." They had been in Jersey, vacationing, last part of the summer vacation. He said, "When we got here, I got a subpoena. There was a man waiting for me." He lived in Brooklyn. "A man waiting for me at the door, and he gave me a subpoena." He called the first lawyer I told you about, and he said, "What is this?" The lawyer said to him, "I think Marvel knows what it's all about. I really don't know." And that's why he called me.
Currie: Oh, I see.
Cooke: So I told him what had happened to me, you know. He said, "I guess I'll have to go." I said, "Well, that's what they tell me, I have to go." So we made arrangements to meet on, let's see, the seven o'clock plane. That's when I was going down with my lawyer. It wasn't ten minutes after this call, I got another call saying, "Mrs. Cooke, we're very sorry that there isn't a reservation on the seven o'clock. You'll have to come down on 7:30." Doxey got a call that there wasn't anything on the 7:30 plane. He'd have to come at 7:00. No, I was the first one. I went at 7:00. They sent us down on three different planes a half-hour apart. They knew from—the phones were obviously tapped.
I remember spending that weekend getting as beautiful as I know how to get, getting a very conservative, but beautiful dress out to wear. I felt so sorry for my husband. Here he is, married to this girl who looked like she was going to be a society somebody, and she gets herself in all this mess. I remember looking at him and feeling so sorry for him. He took me to the airport. I said, "Babe, if you—" Everybody called him Babe and called me Baby, because he was known, as an athlete, as Babe Cooke. So I said, "Babe, if you would divorce me tomorrow, I wouldn't blame you." I think that's quote-unquote. And he said, "Baby, you are beautiful." That's all he said. And I went to Washington. I had enough sense to stand there in the airport until the next New York plane came. On the next plane was the lawyer, and we stood there and waited till the next one came, and there was Doxey. So Doxey was filled in by the lawyer and me as to what had gone on.
Currie: About your being called before—
Cooke: Before McCarthy, in executive session. I should tell you I read in the New York Times the day after I saw him in executive session, that McCarthy—I wanted to see what he was doing—McCarthy had interrogated a woman so powerful in the Communist party that she gave directions to the leadership. So I knew somebody in the party had been interrogated by McCarthy. I have never wanted any designation or anything; I just wanted to do my little job at the polls. So I said, "Oh, they caught Claudia. Poor Claudia."
My lawyer called me, the one that had gone with me to the executive session, and said, "Did you see your publicity in the Times this morning?"
I said, "No. They didn't even mention it."
He said, "You didn't see that story? They're talking about you!" [Laughter.] You know, it was so ridiculous! Because I am more mentally an activist. I do my job, but I have never been a party functionary of any kind.
Currie: But you were the one they were referring to?
Cooke: Yes! And I couldn't believe it. He said, "Of course that's you they're talking about."
I said, "Well, that's no description of me."
He said, "They're talking about you."
So anyway, we were in Washington. By this time, I was pretty calm about McCarthy. I thought he was a little sleaze ball, you know, and I felt so superior to him. So he started asking me all the questions he had asked me in executive session. There was quite an audience there. It was the very first day of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
Currie: Can you describe what it looked like?
Cooke: Big courtroom.
Currie: It was on Capitol Hill, wasn't it?
Cooke: Yes, it was on Capitol Hill. I really can't remember much about it. I just remember what it looked like and how I felt about it. I was up on an incline of some kind. Where I was seated was higher than where McCarthy was—I looked down at him. He asked me a lot of inane questions that weren't very important.
Currie: Like what?
Cooke: Oh, where did I work, just questions like that. Well, I invoked the Fifth Amendment from the time he opened his mouth. I said, "I'm not going to let him catch me in anything."
So he turned me over to Senator [Everett] Dirksen. Well, Dirksen was something. His voice was frightening. He had a deep, sonorous voice. He said, "Mrs. Cooke, where are you from?" Well, there had been a lot of black people who had come over here illegally during that period. I didn't really know what he meant.
I said, "Do you mean where do I live now or where was I born?"
He said, "Where were you born?"
I said, "Oh, I was born in Minnesota, across the St. Croix River from where Senator McCarthy comes, but we're not all the same out that way." It just came out like that. And the place just howled, you know. Then I felt very content—it was nothing. When you think how much money is wasted, there was no reason for this at all, trying to get rid of poor little Doris. I would have liked to have got rid of her. She was a pain in the neck, but certainly in a situation like this, I had to be true to myself and protect her.
Currie: So after that, did you hear anything more from them?
Cooke: No. That was the end of that.
Currie: You never heard another thing?
Cooke: Not another thing. Our money is wasted like this, you know. They had to pay for my ticket down to Washington and back. Just wasting money. I had nothing to tell them. As a matter of fact, that little gal was so far away from the Communist party, the Socialist party, the Democratic party, you know, she was a little nothing. She just had worked in a place where a known Communist worked. I didn't stay long enough to hear Doxey's testimony. I just got out of Washington as fast as I could.
Currie: Did you get your passport back?
Cooke: Well, that was some time later. I didn't get it back until 1960. I wasn't going anyplace, and I didn't bother about it. In 1960, I started working for Dr. Samuel Rosen. He called me down to his office. He knew me. He was a very good friend of Paul's, he and his wife both. I knew both of them socially. As a matter of fact, Sam knew my husband, because Sam was a Syracuse graduate, and Cecil was well-known in Syracuse. So Sam called me down to his office. He had offices in East Seventy-third Street. I had seen him at social gatherings where Paul was, you know, and I knew him that way. So he offered me a job, and I said, "Sam, what can I do for you?" I'd never worked in a medical office. Any stenographic skills I had, except typing, had long since passed. I hardly ever used shorthand. So I said, "What could I do for you?"
He said, "There are many things you can do for me. You'd be a great asset in this office." In a way, financially it's the best job I ever had. Sam paid me better than anybody had ever paid me. There were five of us in the office, and we did anything that needed to be done, like if an article had to be written, if you had to act as a receptionist. We just did anything. It was a very pleasant place to work.
There were two other women who worked in that office. One of them was the wife of Max Sien. I think I mentioned his name. Belle Sien. And another Italian woman, whose name escapes me. There were two audiologists. There were five of us in the office. It was very pleasant. The atmosphere was pleasant, and Sam—I don't know his political identity—but he was a progressive, and it was nice. So I did a little medical writing for him and did a little being receptionist.
He called me up one Saturday and I thought, "Oh, God, he's going to want me to go down to that office and work over this weekend. He wants something done." He said, "How would you like to go to London, Brussels, Budapest, Bucharest, and Moscow?"
I said, "I've got my bag packed." I thought he was joking.
He said, "No, I mean it. I want to take you and two others from the office on this trip." So I didn't have a passport, and I didn't tell him, because I wanted to go. I thought, "Let me see about trying to get this passport." So I had difficulty, but Kunstler had found out about it, and he called and said he was in Washington and could he help.
Currie: A counselor?
Cooke: Kunstler. William Kunstler*.
Currie: Oh, William Kunstler. Oh, that's interesting.
Cooke: Anyway, he managed to get my passport. Roger [Wilkins] had tried. He was just a new, young lawyer at that time, and he couldn't. He didn't have the—he really wasn't equipped to do it. Kunstler was already in Washington and he got it for me.
Currie: Do you know how he got it?
Cooke: I don't know. I just know I got my passport and I've had it ever since.
So we made the trip. Sam took his daughter, Judy, on that trip, too. We stopped first in London, where we visited the Robesons. It was just great. It was so wonderful. Paul had had such a lousy experience here in New York, you know, in this country. When we would be on the streets of Soho, or we would be in a restaurant, he was recognized by everybody. I've seen cabbies jump out of their cabs and say, "Oh, there's Robeson!" and run to get his autograph. It always happened. We were there five days, and we stayed in a hotel near the Robeson apartment. Anytime we went out and Paul was with us, somebody would stop and say, "I want an autograph." In the restaurants, he could hardly eat his dinner, you know. He was such a popular person. He was popular here, too, but not with our government.
Currie: So what had you done between 1955 and 1960 for a job?
Cooke: The only jobs I've ever had—I guess I was doing nothing. Because I haven't had a lot of jobs. I know every one I've had. I enjoyed working with Sam. I don't think I worked at all during that time.
Currie: Then you worked for Dr. Rosen.
Cooke: Then I worked for Dr. Rosen.
Currie: How long did you work for him?
Cooke: Well, I worked for him maybe five or six years. It was very pleasant, except Belle Sien did not like me. I don't know. Have you ever worked anyplace where you got the feeling that somebody didn't like you?
Currie: I think everyone has.
Cooke: But she did not like me. For instance, this is the type of thing she'd do. Sam often went on teaching trips to Europe or to Africa. The audiologists could test and do things like that,
* William Kunstler is a well-known liberal attorney.
but there wasn't much to do around the office. Belle, who was the head of the office staff, always took time off to have vacations, you know. I'm very regular. If I tell you I'm going to be a place at a certain time, I'll be there unless something has happened that's not my fault.
So anyway, I always went to the office. I felt I owed it to Sam to see that that office was open and things were attended to. If I would write a note to him, a memo to him about anything, Belle would tear it up and rewrite it. She had very bold handwriting, very much like yours, what you just showed me. I don't know that that's your regular handwriting. Hers was like that. Mine is not like that. She'd tear up my memo and copy it exactly, and leave it for Sam. So I got to the point where I thought I just couldn't work with her any longer. It had nothing to do with Sam, because I really feel even yet I owe him so much. He's now not with us; he's dead. He was a wonderful person.
So I finally told him I just couldn't stand working with Belle any longer. I knew that she was his office—she'd been there long before I. So he said, "Please don't leave."
I said, "Sam, if it ever happens again, I've got to leave. I can't stand working like this." He must have had a talk with her and things went on very well for a couple of years.
Then I think she forgot that she'd promised not to do that. So I went in one day when he was out of the country, and he had left a message. There was an article that we had worked on that was to appear in one of the medical journals. When it appeared, "Please call Dr. So and So and tell him that it's in and what page it's on." I found it, and I called the doctor and told him this article was in this journal, and I wrote Sam a note telling him that I had called Dr. So and So. Belle saw it, and she tore it up and wrote it over in her handwriting—that she had called Dr. So and So.
When Sam came back, I told him I really couldn't work there any longer. It was probably 1968. So I said, "I really can't work here any longer, because the same thing has happened." It was insulting to me, you know.
Currie: So what did you do then?
Cooke: So I came home. It was near Christmas time. I became a nice little housewife. I experimented with my cooking and stuff. One day, this man—
Currie: Let me turn the tape.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Currie: I think we'll probably finish the chronological, and tomorrow we'll come back and sum up everything.
Currie: I don't want to keep you.
Cooke: I am perfectly all right.
Currie: Okay. But I think it might be good to get at least the outline down. Anyway, you were a nice housewife in 1968.
Currie: And one day—
Cooke: It was Christmas time, I know, because I'm very Christmasy. My door, at Christmas, you know, at home we had a Christmas tree. This apartment is small, but I always decorate my door.
It's always the best door in the house, you know. I have a gorgeous wreath and I always have a peace message on the door, not a political one, but just a peace message of some kind. I had my Christmas door up, and I got this telephone call from William L. Patterson. Bobby spoke about him, asked me did I know him. His daughter has children about the same age as William Patterson's daughter. He was a party functionary, and I was very much in awe of William L. Patterson. But anyway, he called me and said he wanted to see me, and could he come up. I said, "Certainly." I've known him for a number of years. I thought, "Oh, that Christmas door. He'll think I'm frivolous, a door like that." I started to take it down. I said, "No, he's going to see that door." And he came with another party functionary that I didn't know. Angela had got into difficulty during—
Currie: Angela Davis.
Cooke: Davis. They talked about Angela and Angela's case, and they asked me if I would work for Angela. Well, I was delighted, because I was very angry about what had happened to Angela. I didn't know her, you know. She could be my daughter easily. But I thought that but for the difference in age, difference in place of birth and occupation, if I had as much talent as she had, there go I. I could see myself getting into a situation like that.
Currie: Let's go back and explain how you saw the situation she was in.
Cooke: Well, she was arrested for helping some activist. Wasn't the man in jail or something? She was active in their defense. Something like that. I would have to research it. But anyway, I had read about her case and I felt, "Yes, this is somebody I'd like to work with." I'd never met her and knew only what I'd read in the newspapers. But anyway, I thought this would be a good activity for me. I wasn't doing anything. I thought I would be writing letters. They knew that I had some facility with words, and I thought maybe I'd just be writing letters and stuff like that. A New York office was being set up in her behalf. I thought, "Well, yes, I think I would like to do this." They asked me about salary. I said I couldn't take anything for this, but I would need my expenses. So I worked for expenses.
Before they found an office, there was a story in—I don't know what the name of the paper was then—Daily Worker, saying that I was going to be the national legal defense secretary for Angela Davis. They didn't explain what my job would be. I only knew I would be working for Angela, for her case. One day I got a letter from some little women in Austria, enclosing $4,000 in my mailbox here.
Currie: In cash?
Cooke: No, it was a check, $4,000, these little workers in Austria had sent. It was really thrilling.
Currie: Was it your job to raise money?
Cooke: Yes, it was to coordinate the work with what was going on in California. Ossie Davis was the chairman, and I was the legal defense secretary. We had meetings to discuss the case and what could be done about it, and suggested ways to fund-raise. We were at One Union Square. It was a thrilling period.
Currie: How long did you work on that?
Cooke: Until the case was over. There was no need for it any longer. It wasn't a cause case like that. She was freed. The interesting thing about that, we wanted to raise a good amount of money, and I had never thought of having an affair at a place like Madison Square Garden. You know, I'd been involved in small affairs, but never anything like that. Somebody suggested we should have a big rally at Madison Square Garden for Angela, to raise money. This was before
she was freed. I'll never forget feeling so insignificant. I was the only woman in the group that went to the management of Madison Square Garden to ask if we could have an affair there. We'd been turned down in a couple of places, but we got Madison Square Garden for $40,000. That amount scared the life out of me! But the men said, "No, we must do this. We've got to fill that Garden." We didn't fill it, but we had a very good representative crowd there.
Angela was acquitted about a week before our rally, so she was our main speaker. That's when I met Angela for the first time. It was felt in the committee—not I, because I was so naive, I really didn't know about these things—but they felt that it was possible some fanatic out there might try to harm her. She's quite a beautiful woman. We paid $700 for some sort of glass—
Currie: Probably bullet-proof glass.
Cooke: Yes. For her. I remember that. It was quite a good rally, but that was the end, because she was freed and there was no more Angela to fight for.
Currie: Maybe this is a good time to stop, and we can pick up from here tomorrow.
Cooke: I have one more thing I have to talk about, and that's the—
Currie: National Council for Soviet-American Friendship.
Cooke: Yes. I went from Angela to that.
Currie: Well, maybe we could start with that tomorrow and then we can finish that up and then wrap up. That shouldn't take us too terribly long.
Currie: Maybe this is a good place. It's now almost 5:30. We've been at it for about two and a half hours, which is a long time.
Cooke: No kidding?
Cooke: I hope I've been all right.