Transcript:

Speaker When was the first time you met Paul Robeson and what was it like? What was the impact that he make on you?

Speaker The first time I really met him and spoke to him and was properly introduced as one. This was in forty six when I was working for the Progressive Movement and the Henry Wallace campaign at the Independent Citizen's Committee. It was called of the arts, sciences and professions. And he came to the office where he was friendly with many of the people. I had seen him around New York from the 20s and I was a girl and went to the Provincetown Theater and to concerts. And everybody knew he was a tall figure, but I didn't know him personally until forty six.

Speaker How would you describe his physical stature?

Speaker He was extremely handsome, a very tall, broad, straight man with a very warm and beguiling personality.

Speaker We have to stop because we have that looks menacing.

Speaker OK, OK, OK, could you could you just describe that again as physical?

Speaker I saw Paul and a fellow at the Provincetown and heard him sing at a concert and used to see him at Cafe Society, which was a gathering place for some people in the 30s and 40s. And he would be sitting at an adjacent table and we would sort of smile, but I didn't really know him. I think on my daughter's 14th of 15th birthday, we took her there that night to celebrate. And Paul was at the next table. And I remember going up to him, which was very presumptuous of me, I think, and saying, I know who you are, Mr Robson. And it would be such a wonderful thing for my daughter to meet you. May I do that? And I expected to bring her over to his table.

Speaker And he jumped up and came over to us and we sort of introduced ourselves, but that was not give me.

Speaker Oh, OK. Well, give me your impressions about his intelligence.

Speaker In discussion. Well, as I learned through the years, and it I certainly found out rather quickly, he was probably the most intelligent person I ever know because he could think through things and express things, express himself.

Speaker He had a clear view of things that I really was searching for myself, and so was my husband. We were active in a way, looking for answers. And I think Paul had been through a life that was very different from ours and we learned a lot from him. He who was an extremely well read, well educated thinking, human being good with all that.

Speaker Yeah, OK, we're good.

Speaker Now, tell me a little about his. Did he have a sense of humor?

Speaker Well, he loved a good joke and that was uproarious between my husband and him because my husband was a frustrated actor and used to imitate people and tell jokes, sometimes rather uproarious ones, let's call it. And Paul always liked that. He loved to laugh and he would imitate people. And then he would he used to read Langston Hughes to my children and howl as he was going through it. Really?

Speaker Well, the thing did you when he was did he ever show anger private in the private moments?

Speaker Well, if you knew Paul well, you knew he was a very angry man. I think there was deep seated anger in him, which sometimes burst out. He was very angry about people who were oppressed any place in the world, and especially here at home, his people, as he called it. And he would be angry at any injustice he saw perpetrated anyplace. He was angry at a fault in our society and in the education of people and the conditions of people, and he made no bones about what was Paul Robeson like when he relaxed because you're one of the few people who saw him in that mode. He had such warmth and charm that when he left, he was even more so. And he loved to laugh. And we had many times in front of the fire at our little house in Catona or in our apartment here on Lexington Avenue, where we would sit around telling jokes and sometimes he would imitate people or sing a raucous song. He was very at ease and very outgoing.

Speaker What do you remember most about him?

Speaker It's very hard to to say because one would have to differentiate about different periods in his life.

Speaker From the time we met him, when the anti American Activities Committee became rampant and a menace, he was a little different from the warm and gregarious person he'd been before because he was under such attack physically as well as intellectually and politically, and harassed and followed and and disapproved of. And that increased with the years, I think, for example, a. Sam and I never went out to dinner with him publicly. I certainly couldn't or didn't both for his protection on my own. And it wasn't until he got to his passport back and got to London that I even went to the theater with him. And the British treated him with respect and dignity, which he didn't have at home.

Speaker Hmm. Um, let's let's talk about you a little bit now. You and Sam. Give me tell me your political family background with you and Sam. I mean, what what did you how did you come to this political arena?

Speaker Sam grew up in Syracuse, a very poor immigrant family. That was a shock to my family, which was many generations of New York intelligent, educated Jewish people.

Speaker And I was looking for answers from the time I went to the Ethical Culture School and then to Wellesley. And I began to see that they were poor people as well as the people I was growing up with. And it bothered me. I had a strong sense of injustice also, I think, but I didn't know anything. And Sam had this inbred in him. But neither of us were activists or knew how to be. Actually, when I was at college, Sacco and Vanzetti were being tried in the next town. And that was a big shock to me because I felt they were Italian immigrants who were unjustly incriminated in something that had nothing to do with them. And I remember I joined a march in Boston to call by Heywood Broun. I think I didn't know anybody and I just felt I was showing what I felt. But with the years and with the having a family and with the Spanish Civil War, which made things very black and white in many ways, uh, I began to take a more active part of I campaign for Roosevelt, whom I thought was the best hope on the horizon.

Speaker Can you talk about how the Spanish Civil War impacted, you know, your generation, your political generation?

Speaker It had a large effect on many people, not the sort of people I grew up with particularly, but people in the arts, people like Dr. Harlow Shapley of Harvard, the great astronomer, people who had wider horizons, I think, and somebody like Frederic March and his wife excuse me, Florence Eldridge were involved and Lillian Hellman and people whom I respected a great deal. I remember Freddie, who was called by one of the committees you work, I guess, and he said, well, if you want to criticize me for giving an ambulance to help wounded people, go right ahead. And that was sort of the attitude of people from Danny Kaye to to some of the scientists. They were against injustice, they were they felt that Franco was a fascist. I think that was the first time I heard the word really, and I began to meet many Spanish refugees who came here.

Speaker So. So you became active, more active around that issue right around that time? Yes. OK, now, how does how and when does Paul Robeson fit into that, into your political development?

Speaker I didn't know him at that time, but he was in and out of New York, I think. And it was the time of his greatest role and career films. And I forget what year Othello was. I was about 42 or 43, I think. And that was after the Spanish war ended in 37. And Paul was a figure who was just well known everyplace. Of course, he was such a towering one anyhow. And Sam and I became very interested in China in thirty seven when Norman Bethune came on his way to China. He had been active in the Spanish War as a doctor. And I remember when we after we knew Paul well in 49, when we heard about the march into Beijing, the victory of the people, Paul and Sam and I stood up in and sang Chilly together. I had my nerve with me to sing with them or with him, but no one knew him and knew that he was an activist. But I didn't know him personally at that time.

Speaker Howard, did he ever talk about his childhood or early life with you at all?

Speaker Yes, he did to some degree. He was, as I said, a man who kept things in many pockets. And we would never he never was deeply revealing of his early life, but he always talked with great praise of his father, who was an enormous influence on his work and his life. I think his father taught him how to speak or expected very good diction from him. And he was a pastor, a minister, and had almost a biblical sense of speech. I think he was a great influence on Paul, and he talked with sorrow of the death of his mother when he was four or five years old.

Speaker And he spoke of his brothers and his sister, Marian. He was very devoted to I think she sort of became the mother of the family after her mother's death.

Speaker The only one of his family. Well, I knew Ben and his wife, the pastor, the amazing church, and Marion who lived in Philadelphia, the others had died the way that he did.

Speaker He ever talk about his relationship with Essie and Paul Jr. in his family life?

Speaker Well, that was pretty obvious. He didn't have to talk much about it, as learned was an extremely intelligent, very forceful woman and very smart. And he knew he had a son, I don't think he was a very close fatherly person to his son, and in later years when he went back to England to do Othello, they lived in London for a while. And what I thought was a very ugly, small, flat land, it was sort of more in command than she had ever been. It's a matter of fact, I think she kept him from coming home when he was very eager to come really. Well, this was his country and he loved America and he hated some of the things that were going on and wanted to participate in what was going on, even though he was ill. But I think it's kind of like being in London and having him to herself or having the name or I don't know exactly what her reasons were.

Speaker You know, I got the feeling that the relationship which went through different phases, you know, and I was wondering if he like in the beginning, she chased him and basically got him and then managed them. And then it sort of separated and then he went back. I mean, what you know him as a human being. So did did he ever talk about that? And can you give you an impression?

Speaker Yes, he was quite open about it. And when he did Othello at Stratford, I stayed with Icelandair and I think was called the Swan Hotel or something, Stratford. And there was great deal of tension between them. But she had been a very patient woman in her way. She hung in there. And I don't think it was easy to be married to Paul. He was enormously attractive to women and women flocked to him. I think I was the only woman around who didn't want to marry him. So as Linda and I were friends, she was very smart about things like that.

Speaker What what do you think of Paul's relationship with Peter Diamond? Did you did you.

Speaker I really don't know much about his relationship to Frieda. I know that she was very active politically and she had been a member of a group of white people who befriended him, really, and surrounded him, mostly Jewish, in the 20s and 30s as he was developing his career. And he always spoke with Great. Appreciation of freedom, as did see, but I really don't know much about what was personal or private, but then I know that she cared a lot for Paul and at one point had hoped, I guess, that he and she would separate. There was that story around, but he never spoke of it.

Speaker Yeah, he he didn't seem to speak of a lot of things. I mean, it seems he was human. Can you talk a little about you said that he was a very private person. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Speaker I mean, how you saw that, how you observed that, Paul, in many ways, for all his warmth and charm and outgoing personality, was a very he was a loner in many ways. He could sit in a room and practice French verbs or Chinese characters hour after hour, or he'd borrow some of my books on music, which he didn't always return, by the way. But he had the quality of living in one room and being by himself, which was curious mixture with his personality, which just radiated through a room when he entered it.

Speaker And do you have any idea what. This is a very personal question. Do you have any idea why he confided in you? Do you have an idea why he talked, thought you and Sam so much? I mean, I know you said you are happy to have him in your presence, but do you know why he sort of adopted you as really personal?

Speaker I think we came into his life at a time that things were getting very difficult for him and he was being excluded from American culture, especially after Peekskill and 49 when he was notorious. And so we and I think he trusted us. And we we protected his privacy and his certainly his security.

Speaker And I think he received from us and because of us warmth and living, he loved my children and they adored him and he really enriched their lives. And we we sort of adopted him in a way.

Speaker Well, speaking of Peekskill, what was the relationship between the summer people who were basically liberals and the local people, you know, with.

Speaker That was a strange Summit County near Peekskill, I think it was called Mohegan, and I had never been there, though we lived 15 miles away. It was a very different area, the outskirts of Peekskill, which was an industrialized town that had seen better days, I think, and the Klu Klux Klan and the Burchett's and various organizations of that type were rampant there. But I never knew much about that. We sort of stayed in our own compound and people came to the security and warmth of our house. I think most of the people in Mohegan, as far as I found out at the time of Peekskill, were union people who'd built a little somewhat colony there, and they were mostly progressive people. And each summer for some years, Paul had given an outdoor concert there to which I had never been. I guess I didn't know about it. But in 49, it broke out into a riot and it was different.

Speaker Could you explain the tension in that community? Did you did you sense any tension in that community when the concert was announced?

Speaker I wasn't aware of anything. I didn't read the local paper. There was nothing on the radio. We had no contact with Peekskill. I'd never been there. The thing that happened that brought us into it was that Paul telephoned us from Grand Central. We had no plan saying that he was coming and he had heard that there was trouble, some kind of organizing against him or against the council or both. We had no plans to go. My husband was laid up with a broken knee and my son came home from camp that day. And Paul was going to come to our house after the concert. But he called and as I said, I said there was trouble there. And instead of him taking a taxi from the Peekskill Station to the concert grounds, which were a couple of miles away, thank heavens he did. And he asked that I need him. And I had an old wooden station wagon prevalent in that time. And I thought it was the better part of valor to have some kind of protective surroundings when we met him, because we turned on the radio and heard all this. Announcing of how people were going to break up the concert and how the National Guard might be called out and sheriffs had been appointed, it sounded dreadful. But I had three stalwart friends in the next town, Yorketown, with a better car than we had. And I asked them if they would also meet Paul at the station. They were great devotees of him, and these three men came in a decent sedan car and Paul got slightly off the train and we had a little conference at the station where there were absolutely no signs of anything going on. And I insisted that he sit in the back of the car with them. And John, my son and I drove in the old station wagon. I hardly knew my way to the concert grounds and certainly the others didn't either. But as we approached closer and closer, you could hear the shouting and the noise and some screaming. And as we got even closer, we saw broken glass on the way. These women in summer dresses lined up with children and piles of stones, which they were throwing at us. So I realize that mayhem was going on and, uh. It was dreadful, but they got Paul and I said to him, don't don't come to my house, go to New York, because we had had a protest meeting the day after. Oh, I'm getting mixed up. We were just well known in the neighborhood, should I say we'd had meetings there and I said, get him out of here and get him to New York, which they did. And so the content was broken up. It was not held. Then the next day, Howard fast called us, who was one of the lived in the neighborhood, I think, and may have been a member of the civil rights Congress, which held the conference. The concept, I'm not sure whether he was or not, but he called me and asked if they could have a meeting, protest meeting at our place because we had a large field surrounding the house. That was one reason I think Paul liked it there. He could walk around freely and we were hidden from any other house or far from the road. And it was a secure place. But we had a meeting in about a thousand people came, I think, sat on the lawn and they decided I had nothing to do with it, to hold the concert if they possibly could. The following Sunday, that meant that they had to find a place and somebody brave enough to have it and get Powell's assent to it. And they achieved both. And the concert was held the following Sunday, but with the same running of the gamut of of stones and bloodshed, it was dreadful.

Speaker What happens after that?

Speaker It was pretty awful, some union guys moved in with us to slept on the veranda because we were under vicious attack by telephone and post card and anonymous threats on their own.

Speaker Yeah. Could you describe the kind of harassment you received earlier?

Speaker Sam was a busy doctor and the telephone was sort of our line out and in. And people who wanted to call us [Unrecognized] lovers and dirty Jews and nasty commies or whatever they could think of and try to usurp our phone. I found out years later if it's true that the some of the operators, local telephone operators were in a conspiracy to tie up our phone so that people could get through their threats and it wasn't safe for Paul to come there for a while, which was too bad. And after a week or 10 days, we had to move back to New York because I couldn't feed and keep everybody. And it was just too tense time.

Speaker You did. You did you did you think that there would be this much reaction to this kind of. Do you have any idea there was this much resistance?

Speaker I really had no notion of it. I didn't know that there was that kind of organization in a small, dusty town like that. I knew about Burchett's. I certainly knew about the Klan, but I didn't realize that it would be unleashed and so furious and personal away. And we were very worried about Paul's safety at that point. So we just closed up the house and moved to our little apartment in New York. And he held spoke at a meeting in Harlem to protest what had gone on. And he still could come to our apartment and he sort of at that point, had his room there to himself and lived a large part of those days with us because. He felt secure. He couldn't walk around by himself and we didn't let him and we lived on the second floor. He could enter the building and run up the stairs without getting into an elevator, for example. Things were that tense.

Speaker Who accompanied him? Who accompanied him? Where did he get his support from at this time?

Speaker Usually somebody like Revel's Katan or one of the union guys or. Or a friendly taxicab would bring him or we'd go get him, and he used to say when he got in the car to go to Catona, which we opened up again after a few weeks, that the moment he got into the car, he felt better, felt safer because he loved that place. As I said, he could walk around and he could be by himself in the woods, or he could, after the viciousness of the first attacks had worn down a bit.

Speaker Did he ever mention maybe cooling it, you know, maybe kind of backing off, being less at the pole?

Speaker Never would you say that? No.

Speaker He if anything, became more angry, more directed in his thinking and his outspokenness. And no, I don't think he regretted anything. He felt strongly about bigotry, strongly about war, strongly about the rights of people. And that increased with the years, if anything.

Speaker And so he didn't express any fears at all about being hurt or being shot?

Speaker Well, no, he didn't. We were the ones who were worried about him and so was everybody else who loved him and was around. But he he was the tallest tree in the forest in many ways. He just walked through it. What he felt inside himself, I think his anger sometimes. Does she get very angry? You're not afraid. And I have found that in my own life. And maybe that spurred along.

Speaker I don't know how the we. Were you under government scrutiny.

Speaker You I mean. Oh, we were followed. There were usually two men outside his office who we knew were FBI people now and then they'd come knock on our door at the apartment, either looking for one of the Hollywood ten or friends of ours or Paul. But I never let anybody in. And we were under great scrutiny. Even when my daughter was at college, I was called in by the dean and she wanted to know if we were communists or not. That was rather extraordinary, but that's the way it was. It was a terrible time of the.

Speaker And what did when Paul found out that you are under scrutiny, what was his reaction to that since you were close friends?

Speaker I think he accepted it as par for the course, anybody who was close to him, as a matter of fact, he won some people, some of their people or to stay away from him because they would lose their careers. And they did.

Speaker And he but he and he knew that. And he said to people, well, he was already a persona non grata and.

Speaker He couldn't render a place, a studio to do a recording, he couldn't sing any place except the Amy Zion Church, which was always warm and friendly to him, and he could after he lost his passport. After the Paris Penn. Asian, I forget the name of Congress, the Dr. Dubois called, he was persona non grata here.

Speaker Yeah, could you talk about that? What was his reaction to his being reported about what he said during the Paris speech?

Speaker Well, first of all, I think it was taken out of context. What he said and what he said was perfectly true. Many people have said it, but when he said it, it was particularly scathing, I guess. But what he meant to say was that any blacks who went to Europe to fight a war or battle. Should begin at home, of course, it was a very anti Soviet time, it was the Cold War period when Truman and Churchill made their famous Fulton, Missouri, speech, where they used the word Iron Curtain and that had clamped down and clamped down. And it was a bad time in America.

Speaker Paul would sing a ballad for Americans or the house I live in, in spite of all of the.

Speaker So essentially, he was a patriot under duress.

Speaker I guess I think a real one, not of the same term for Noonday or Sun Patriots or something. He was really a patriot because he believed in the fundamental decency of people and of America, and he helped to make it better.

Speaker You've said that Paul had a particular friendship with your family, the kids. Could you give us some anecdotes and little stories about, like the one about playing football with his son or the jokes?

Speaker Well, I was working at the Progressive Party then, and I'd come home in the afternoon sometimes. And John was home from school and he and Paul would be scrimmaging on the living room floor. He taught them something called I've never forgotten the Statue of Liberty play. I still don't know what it was. And he and Sam talked football, baseball that Paul was vitally interested in sports. And Sam had seen him first in Syracuse, where Rutgers played Syracuse and won the game. Right. And Sam would watch through the fence at the gym in Syracuse to see the teams come out. And he remembered vividly how the Rutgers team and the Syracuse team people had walked out of the gym, their arms around each other, laughing and joking and going off to some party or other. And ten minutes later, Paul walked out by himself and he had won the game for them. And that made a terrific impression on him. And he loved sports. So they talked about that a lot. I was deeply involved with music and concerts and we talked a lot about that. He my daughter played the piano beautifully and I loved him and he loved her a great deal. And she would play sometimes and he would sing or hum.

Speaker We never asked him to because you don't ask close friend to performance like I never I took one snapshot of him and all those years, but he I think he enjoyed the fact that he could say, I'd like a hamburger, please, or I kept peanut brittle in the house which he loved, or we had a part time domestic, a black man and a woman, and he used to go in the kitchen and show them how he liked his eggs fried. He was very much at home and part of the family. And it was it was lovely.

Speaker Did he ever talk about his relationship to the Communist Party and his relationship to.

Speaker I know that he was very friendly with some people who were Communist Party people. I don't I know that he was never a party member. And I think the first committee hearing he went to in Washington, where he was subpoenaed to come, he said that he wasn't a member, but that wasn't enough for the congressional people. They had to get it in writing or call him back or pursue the quest for connections, which I don't think they ever found. But at that time, with the progressive movement, many communists were part of it and were doing fighting for the right things and the same thing so that we all knew people in the party. At that point. I met my first member of the party when I was working in the lab at Mount Sinai Hospital. But Paul was very friendly with Ben Davis, who was an avowed communist and Sigerson who was a member of the city council, here is a strange mixing of things.

Speaker What was what was his reaction? I mean, what kind of things did he say to you when he lost his passport, when they took his passport away?

Speaker It was a very sad happening, and it meant that he couldn't travel, which he knew, and he was sort of under house arrest in a way, and I think he spent more and more time with us and more and more time by himself. He did some traveling in this country. He sang and I think in Vancouver at the Piecyk by telephone to the Canadian people. And once he recorded in our living room there, we lived on the second floor and it was noisy. So I bought some velvet draperies in a thrift shop and we hung them around the walls to muffle sound from the street. And my daughter played half the program with him. Her name is on the last disc he did. I think Judy Rubin and I think the other accomplished was Allen Booth and he did a fine recording.

Speaker There was with his recordings self-made or were these recordings, in other words, that he made these as a way of getting his art out of these folks? Did a record company paying him to do that?

Speaker Oh, I don't think he was paid by any record company at that time, though. I really don't know about that. Rose Rubin, who was head of Stealer's, I guess. I think it's Mercury. I'm not sure what the name is now was very faithful and did as many tapes of him as were possible and kept them alive, I think. But I don't know much about that.

Speaker What was Robson's during his time? What was his physical condition and what effect do you think all these hassles had on his physical condition?

Speaker And then talk about the you know, the breakdown, the depression, if you could, if there's a connection.

Speaker I think it had a profound effect on and I think the conspiracy that the government was this is important. Yeah, it's important.

Speaker I get so thirsty the.

Speaker Yeah, so let's talk about the progression of his physical health and how you think the the effect of this harassment had on his health.

Speaker I think that the what I call a conspiracy of the government to keep him and make him and keep him a non-person was very successful. A man who loved to sing, who love people love to travel, love to learn to give, was very much kept down, enslaved in a way. And I think that had a deep effect on him, though surface wise, it didn't show particularly. I think he had a streak of sadness in him which was engaged in increased with the years. And at one point he was quite depressed. Uh. I'm vague about what it was, I think it was the early 50s, but I'm not sure. And that had a tendency to reappear that kind of siege or sadness as he grew older. And he did too much physically, in a way, the trip to Australia was sort of the last straw and he had a breakdown when he was in Moscow. Sam and I were working in Romania and we flew there to see him when he was in Barbic, and it was sad. Rebecca Malvika was a sanitarium outside of Moscow where he stayed for some weeks as planned, came from London and stayed there with him. And Paulie came. And it was not a very happy time for anybody. Uh, do.

Speaker Can you when was the prostate surgery, was that that was afterwards.

Speaker Yeah, that was that was in that early period of the 50s, I think, and unfortunately that was. Arranged in a way that wasn't really what we thought was the best for Paul. It was done in two stages and there was a more modern, quicker, more successful operation. Paul didn't take pain well, and the discomfort was enormous. And I think that demolished him somewhat diminished in some quarters.

Speaker But I mean, why why did that other process why was that? So how did that come about?

Speaker I really only know what little Paul told us about that, and I think it was done because his good friends thought that he should have it done at a hospital uptown where they could secure his safety better than bringing him to perhaps a downtown hospital with where Sam was or letting some surgeon operate on the theory of his security and safety was so great that that made them decide that way. And he acquiesced. He acquiesced. But he had a long and sort of painful recovery.

Speaker So in the long run, I mean, very possibly that that was as dangerous as. That selection proved to be dangerous for him as any possible imagined attack. I.

Speaker I well, I'm just wondering if what do you think about that decision? I think it was the wrong decision.

Speaker But then I'm medically oriented and I think he should have had a more modern young surgeon in different circumstances and surroundings. And I think he would have been as safe or safer, certainly medically and surgically. And as far as taking care of him in the hospital, we would have seen to that.

Speaker I know this is very painful, but you could you go into some detail about that sanitarium in Russia that what the conditions and what happened to the woman? I reacted what you saw.

Speaker I know we saw him, there was a beautiful place in a wooded section outside of Moscow and the place where they took diplomats who had the flu or heart attacks or whatever, and they treated him beautifully and wonderfully as far as that capacity went to treat that. I have a memory of him sitting in his room with islanded next to him and they were on straight chairs. And it's like to say, now we must do our exercises poor and my heart broke. It was so sad. But he recouped from that well enough to go back to London with her. And the Russians weren't. Just loved him and looked after him as well as they knew how could.

Speaker Do you think that it would have been better had he gone somewhere else or do you think he got the best treatment?

Speaker I don't really know about that. I know that at the last when he was on his way home, he just before he came home, he was in a sanitarium outside of London. And Sam and I visited him there. And we both, from what little we knew about his particular need for treatment at that time, it seemed to me, it seemed to Sam, that he was being very well cared for and he was that much closer to coming home, which he wanted very much to do and should have done it really at that time.

Speaker What was his relationship with Sam or poorly with them?

Speaker So he doesn't like to be called that, I should say. Paul Jr. A.

Speaker I think it was strained, but Islanded, if you could start off with the relationship between Paul and S.E., because nobody knows what it was, you know, they just did.

Speaker It seems to me that at that time, this land was very much the general of the operation and she liked being in London and she liked being Mrs. Paul Robeson and she liked having him. I must say, she was valiant. She trotted out to that place, I think it was called the Priory every day with some on the bus. And you had to change buses. I went with her for a week or 10 days when I was asked by her to fly over. And of course, I did that immediately. And she was in command at that point and like so being even though the circumstances were rough. But then she made the decision to stop in East Germany on the way, and that was Sam went to see him there and we were hoping to get him back. We thought that where his roots were and where his friends were. For the most part, though, he had many, many friends in England. Of course, we thought he'd be happier and I think we were right. But he had very good care there, too, as far as I know. Sometimes it's been criticized, but I don't understand that. I think it's been criticized by people who don't know enough.

Speaker Could you talk a little about these German? Why, you know, why did she go there and what?

Speaker Well, I think she was looking for a diagnosis or a treatment or perhaps politically more friendly place, though I think the British treated him with enormous respect and dignity and care. But I think she thought that maybe the medical standards were different or better or his treatment would be I don't really know the motivation of it.

Speaker And what about Paul? Julia?

Speaker What Paul Junior had very little to do with that. When? After the time in Moscow, I think when Paul wasn't well, Islanded didn't want Polly to know or to participate.

Speaker And what was and I guess Paul Senior, didn't you?

Speaker He had nothing much to do with it one way or the other, but there was not a great closeness between the three of them.

Speaker Yes, we were we were close and she was a very smart woman, as I said, she she came to Catona a few times. She wanted to see this place where he was so happy.

Speaker And she kept up a very, I would say formal but nice relationship with me. And she liked Sam.

Speaker Did you ever visit Anfield, you know that house? No, I never saw that. Paul hated it was that Paul hated it.

Speaker Why? Because he said it was like an upper middle class estate and it was suitable for him, you know, but he loved it.

Speaker Do you think that spoke to their differences about.

Speaker I don't know what part it had in it, but I don't think he got that very often.

Speaker But.

Speaker She enjoyed a certain way of life more than he did or was more important to her.

Speaker Um.

Speaker What do you think the effect of the prostate surgery was on and what did he say? How do you see the difference in the way he acted?

Speaker I think he was depressed after it and weakened by it. And, uh.

Speaker I don't know, I understand that some men have a psychological reaction to prostate surgery that they feel we have to cut.

Speaker Right. Yeah, yeah, could you just talk about the effect of the prostate surgery?

Speaker I think it had an effect on him psychologically. I'm told that some men do have that after prostate prostate surgery. But I think the whole experience had been very difficult for Sam went to see him several times. I never went while he was in the hospital, but did. He was somewhat a little quieter and a little more depressed, I think, after.

Speaker But he recouped a lot of his energy and certainly his his attitudes were not particularly not changed in any way.

Speaker How did he then how did you what reaction did you see when he got his passport restored?

Speaker That was terribly exciting because he and Rockwool candidate sued the government.

Speaker You probably know that.

Speaker And, uh, he felt released and it had the. Offer or whatever you call it, from Tony Richardson in London to do Othello, it was open invitation, I think.

Speaker So he immediately arranged to go to England to do Othello and that was terribly exciting. I flew out of the opening. Went to their apartment and he left me a note with that he was out in Stratford already, they were rehearsing. He left me a note with a telephone number and how to get there. So as soon as I could recuperate from the flight in those days, it took longer to get to London than it does now. And I took a train and went out there and it was very exciting for me because it was a victory finally. He was magnificent in it. Some of the production was criticized by people who know more about the theater than I do. But when he walked on the stage, there was such an aura about him and he was so magnificent that he carried the whole performance, as far as I could see.

Speaker Was was there that point with him? Oh, yes. And she was staying at the inn. And Paul, did you start over again?

Speaker She was there and she was staying in the at the end, I forget what was called the swan or something, probably. And Paul was staying in an apartment or a small villa, which he had rented.

Speaker And the man who'd been his dresser or now I don't know exactly what you call his position was staying there with him. And Paul was really sort of in seclusion, studying the role of resting. He had a knee, which was painful. And one day we drove to Oxford for him to see a doctor. It was an old football injury. So he was resting his knee and he'd been plus or minus health and seclusion for years. This was a big undertaking.

Speaker But it was I remember that first night audience went mad with excitement and praise and people came down from London and it's it was rather wonderful.

Speaker Uh, so so during this time, what essentially was his relationship with?

Speaker I mean, they were apart, but she seems to be near him. So what was the deal there?

Speaker Well, remember that for 10 years, he'd been mostly in New York.

Speaker They had the house in Tumelo Terrace, lovely old house. And he went in and out of it, and they superficially were on friendly terms, but I think she was a little diminished by.

Speaker His search for his own activities. And. It couldn't have been easy for her. She was a very forceful lady. But on the surface, they appeared to be friendly, if not intimate.

Speaker It wasn't her health failing at this time.

Speaker She had trouble when she was in Russia, in the Soviet Union, and I think it was diagnosed as cancer. I don't particularly remember the sequence of it, but she had radiology there and evidently too much so that she forever after until her death had a painful rear end. I think she handled it very well. Her health wasn't obviously diminished, but I think she was very uncomfortable.

Speaker What was, uh, what was Roques in state of mind during the UK tour, as reflected in the letter zero? I'm sorry, I didn't. What was the state of mind of Paul during the U.K.? The tour, as reflected in the letters that he wrote?

Speaker The letters he wrote to me.

Speaker Yeah, and what what was his how was his head and what did he, uh.

Speaker Well, it's very interesting. I think the first letter I got from him was in 1949, right after the Paris Congress.

Speaker And I had worked on a piece Congress here at the what it was called the World of Peace conference, and some of the people who had come from Britain went back and told Paul that it had been very successful here. And he wrote me such a letter.

Speaker And said he wanted to come home soon. He always said and the letters through.

Speaker After he returned to England were full of, oh, I'd like to get back and have one of your hamburgers or I'd like to get back and see Odesa, who is a woman who worked for us then, or remember this in a sense. I had the feeling for years that he was wanted to come back, certainly in the early 60s. That was very true.

Speaker Did he ever talk about himself and how he felt? I mean, other than, you know, not particularly.

Speaker But if you knew him well and could read the letters, you'd know that he he loved London and he loved the way he was treated there by the British people. We could go into a restaurant and the head waiter would say, I have a nice table for you, Mr. Robson. Well, I never heard such a thing here in all those years. And he was on home radio in London all through England, sang for the Welsh miners, things like that. It was wonderful rebirth in many ways. But he always yearned to come back here. He wanted to go back to the Amisi in church. He wanted to walk around Harlem if he could. He wanted to visit us more.

Speaker And he wrote sort of nostalgic letters. They were all at Howard University.

Speaker Know you think he had gotten over the effects of the breakdown and the Depression by then? I mean, in the letter, did you get a sense that he had gotten over that?

Speaker I think there was sort of a yearning and a streak of sadness in them.

Speaker He he was out of his element, basically.

Speaker And what do you mean?

Speaker Well, he was homesick and he didn't want to come back and he was too weak to fuss, I think, and.

Speaker It was a very difficult time for him. I believe his letters were full of.

Speaker Oh, I miss my daughter used to say that she had circles around him, he would always be protected and he is and he wrote, I want to get back into those circles or things like that. I don't remember them very well. I think I put them in another part of my mind.

Speaker You know, one question, one question and one last question about the breakdowns. Paul Junior has a theory that the the shock treatment was too much.

Speaker Well, shock treatment also that he was subject to, uh, conspiracy theories.

Speaker They shower him with praise and it was deliberate. What do you think?

Speaker I think that's fanciful. Heaven knows, I believe in conspiracies, but medically, my husband was a very smart person, even though he was just an oncologist and he never saw any signs of that.

Speaker And he went very carefully into the records at the Priory or discussions at the V.A. or even here.

Speaker But when he came back here, I think Paul, he was more in command than he had been and more in and out of the house and more fanciful in many ways, more fanciful or fance fanciful. He had his own theories about what was going on. And they I don't think they were always accurate.

Speaker Could you describe that? There was an incident when Paul was riding by the embassy in London and he sort of what would be called freaked out, kind of, uh, became very frightened.

Speaker And that was.

Speaker That was when he was ill in London and was I had arrived from America and it was all arranged as he had arranged it all with Paul's agent Harold something and his doctor to take him to the Priory. And a car came that morning when I arrived with two very nice male nurses who helped him get dressed and escorted him down into a car, and I said sat in the back seat with slander.

Speaker And if you know where my blotch is in the road that goes out of London, we were passing some wooded place. I didn't know what it was. And I found out afterwards from Essi that it was the Russian embassy or consulate. And Paul threw himself over me and said, you don't know what you're doing.

Speaker And I didn't know what he was talking about because I didn't know what that place was or why he did that, and Paulie says that never happened, that I lied about.

Speaker That happened.

Speaker And I don't know why he felt that, except I think he felt menaced every place. And probably have some associations with the with that place recognized. Um.

Speaker Now, upon his return to the country, what was his physical and emotional state? Basically.

Speaker When he when he got back, he was diminished by what he had, but what had caught up with him, I think, and those things were a little less pressing than they had been. And the trip to and the Othello's success and other conflicts had refreshed him somewhat. He was very tired, man. And I remember once going he made no public appearances. And so a few people.

Speaker And somehow I can't remember exactly what it was, it was either a snake or civil rights or something, had a dinner and they wanted terribly for him to come.

Speaker And he has already agreed to come.

Speaker And I went with him and it's lined. I've never forgotten this incident and John Lewis, who's now congressman who had been in the Selma march and whom I had met then, uh, came to me and said, would you introduce me to Paul Robeson? That would be the greatest thing that could ever happen to me. He had never met him before. And I took John and he crouched down next to Paul at the table and said, it's my honor to be with you and to meet you. And it was very moving. But I think that was the last public appearance he made. We did have a birthday party for him. It must have been.

Speaker 63 or 64 at our apartment and, uh, had a few people actually selected by Polly and me, I guess, uh, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Yip Harburg, and he wrote Over the Rainbow. And Paul loved his songs. And he and his wife, Edie, loved Paul. And it was very quiet dinner. And that was the last time he was in our house.

Speaker Now, when I have one other sensitive question to ask, there was, I believe, a suicide attempt when he got back here.

Speaker I think that happened in Moscow.

Speaker He cut his wrists, uh, and one could see the scars.

Speaker But he never talked about it. He never mentioned it to you. I used to feel room and.

Speaker They were so obvious, the scars, but we never talked about I never brought up anything like that and he sure didn't. And so and so now.

Speaker Uh. His his relationship with Paul Genessee at the time when he's back here. You mentioned that he was, uh, they were living in a house in Jimal terrorists, but not as husband and wife more as roommates, I suppose.

Speaker Well, I think that probably had gone on for some time, but I never lived there. I don't know. I did live with them in the flat in London whenever I went to London. So and I did a lot of traveling. Teaching is surgery in those days. And we always started in London and ended in London so we could be with Paul.

Speaker Once when I came from Africa, I was hospitalised.

Speaker And in London, and he came to see me there, but.

Speaker I don't know what their intimate relations were.

Speaker I doubt that there were any. So he always had a lot of respect for this land is intelligence, I think, and she she kept every clipping. I remember when I went to clean out that house, when they were coming back, I went with Maryland and poorly and they were all yellowing newspapers and cartons around the house. She kept anything that ever had the ropes and name on.

Speaker Do you think that she tried to live her life through him or did she have her own life?

Speaker I think she very much had her own life, but it was always a fight to establish herself as the Mrs. Paul Robeson, and that meant a lot to her. I think that was one reason she liked London. She was more so there than here, where he had many friends, all companions and a. He is gay every now and then I remember once in London, we went to see Andy Young, who'd been his companion in Stratford, and we had a very joyous, silly afternoon talking and laughing. But his landlord wouldn't have done that. She didn't like Andy.

Speaker But here she wasn't so well herself and he had so many friends in her life was more constricted.

Speaker What do you know about Marion Forsyth's relationship with Paul Robeson? What do I know Marion, for, say, Marion?

Speaker Oh, you mean her sister? Yeah. Oh, she was a lovely woman, deeply loving and caring. As far as Paul was concerned, he might have been her child, really.

Speaker She brought him up after his mother died and she lived in retirement with her daughter, Paulina, who was named for him in Philadelphia in a row of houses on some street named for a tree. I forget which one, maybe walnut. And she took infinite care of him. And it was a good place for him to live at that time because there were people from Somerville and from Princeton who'd been old friends of his when he was growing up and when he was at Rutgers, and now and then she would allow one of them in the house or take them for a little ride in a car or something. Easy going like that. And some of his old friends from New York or maybe California. I don't know exactly. Would come to see him when Paulie would let them and Marion was the hostess and she fed you and she fed him and made him eat and saw to it that he was well dressed and really fussed over. And sometimes he'd get very annoyed. But but it was rather wonderful to see. What a.

Speaker What did people say to you when she died, I mean, uh, how do they what are they reveal himself to you? He really didn't.

Speaker And.

Speaker It was then that it was after that, that we thought some of us thought that in some ways maybe he'd feel less tense but less strained, but it didn't seem to have that effect particularly. And then it was a question of where he could live.

Speaker They should give out.

Speaker You know, yeah, so could you talk about that again, could you start off again? Well, what about the the effect of his death on Paul?

Speaker I didn't really see or sense anything deeply hurt by it.

Speaker He was already a bit in his own world and it became a question of where he would live poorly, took an apartment on 86 Street on the west side and fixed up a room for him. And then it was a question of having a companion for him. And I think Andy Andy, I forget his last name came from London to try out living there, but the whole experiment didn't work. I don't think it was easy for Marilyn and Paula, and it certainly wasn't the right place for Paul. So at that point, it was decided, I guess, by Marion that he go to Philadelphia to live and that was the best solution.

Speaker But he when you see his opinions on world, was he basically withdrawn?

Speaker I mean, he was withdrawn. He was said, if you talk to him about the theater or all times or about his music or music, and Sam would talk to him about football and baseball endlessly, he would come alive and alert. But for the most part, he was quiet and sad. How often did you visit Sam and I went every two or three weeks whenever we could spend a day getting there on the train and. We sit with him, we'd have lunch or dinner. Marian always put out a banquet and Paul would be at the head of the table or we'd sit in the living room and talk with Paul in the hallway, talk about political current politics. Not very much. In some ways, we would give him a brief account of what was going on very superficially. I don't think I don't know how much he kept abreast of the news, particularly. There was a lot going on and civil rights around sixty five people died and oh, he died in 76.

Speaker Right. And how did you find out? We were there in the hospital. He was taken to the hospital supposedly with pneumonia, I think. And Marian called us that morning and said not to come to the house. Paul was in the hospital. So Sam and I went directly to the hospital. And while we were talking to the nurse, somebody came out of his room and said he had just died. And it was pretty awful. It's great. We knew he wouldn't last forever, but.

Speaker Somehow it was hard to take.

Speaker So we went to my parents house and then we came back to New York. How did you feel? Awful. A great loss and, you know, America needs some heroes. This man was a hero. I think we were very lucky family. I was a very lucky woman. He loved us and we loved him. And we were very privileged to have him in our laws the way we did.

Speaker Could you put it sort of I'm going to ask you what you just answered, but why do you think it's important for people in America to know about Paul Robeson?

Speaker As I said, I think America needs heroes and I feel sorry for every black kid and white kid, for that matter, who never heard that wonderful voice or never heard him speak out about the better America for which we thought we were all working towards. And, uh. When you hear some of the so-called singers on television or you see some levels of American culture, this man was a towering figure of intellect, debility.

Speaker Achievement.

Speaker A great intellect and a great figure with the word charisma is something I don't like very much, I always say he had an aura. Even James Earl Jones said that to me once when he was doing a sort of play about Paul. And the tragedy of Othello in many ways parallels his own tragedy because it was a Iago's plot against him. I guess you could say, I don't know what would have happened to him if it hadn't been for this terrible campaign against him.

Speaker He probably would have lived out his life still singing a bit and traveling a bit and been more at peace than he was. I don't think there was ever a moment when he regretted anything that he had done or been, but he paid a very heavy price. And it's hard to see somebody who looms so big in your life or such a towering figure to be cut down like that. And he was. It's a great loss to America. I think all this is not to. Felt his warmth and his goodness.

Speaker Well, uh, uh, at the funeral, did, uh, did you cry or did I mean, I'm not trying to be like a tabloid television, but what was your emotions during the funeral?

Speaker Oh, I was sick and sad, my husband made was the only white man who spoke at the funeral at the church and my son and son-In-Law were both pallbearers. And, uh.

Speaker I try not to cry in public, so I sat there really I think Lena Horne story was sitting next to me and my daughter on the other side of me, and we held hands.

Speaker It was awful and beautiful at the same time. But you can't help but think of all the intervening years and some of the happy times and they were over.

Speaker He was a tremendous loss to more people who didn't even know him or didn't think that, then they will let her know.

Speaker Just one last question. Did he ever mention the fact that he ever mentioned.

Speaker How he felt about some of the black leadership that didn't support him when he was going through his roughest times, what did he keep it inside or.

Speaker Well, he was very aware of it, and he was very I think inside himself, he knew everything, but he was very seldom critical and an expressed way. He I think he knew a lot about what was going on in the Soviet Union probably before any of us did. But I never heard him criticize the Soviet Union.

Speaker He certainly knew about the black press and he was used to being shunned and criticized. And I guess in some ways, in spite of his anger and his disappointment, he he accepted it as a fact.

Speaker And it's interesting that when I think of it, that.

Speaker That he expressed so little hatred except against injustice and against what he thought was happening to its people.

Speaker He reserved criticism, a spoken criticism for most other things.

Speaker But why? Why do you think he did not admit to the problems with Russia? You know, especially when they thought they were crucifying for.

Speaker I think he felt that he had walked there in dignity and respect, and there was something about the warmth of the Russian people and the language they liked. He sang sometimes in Russian, as he did in French and German and Yiddish even, I think. But he.

Speaker I think he had sort of this idea of what the world could be, and he thought that maybe it was going to happen there and probably was vastly disappointed, but if he had spoken out against in his time. It might have seemed as if he were praising something else and he didn't, he just let it go at that, I think.

Speaker What was it, something else? It would have been crazy.

Speaker Well, it was the Cold War and he would have been praising some of the things in America which he abhorred, but he wouldn't join the the crowd in that anti Soviet way. He had what he had done. He did. And. And I'm sure he was knowledgeable. He was too smart not to be.

Speaker Could you describe that anecdote that happened at Guantanamo? Paul was visiting and Lillian Hellman arrived.

Speaker If you started at the beginning, so you give us the fact that very few people were allowed to come to our house when Paul was visiting and Paul was there because that was one way we had of protecting him not only physically, but any other way from people who might be offensive. There were many people who wouldn't have wanted to be in the same room with him anyhow, or shake his hand. And Lillian was somebody I had been close to for many years, and Dashiell Hammett lived in a cottage cheese, used to come up to see him and, of course, come and have dinner with us.

Speaker And that incident happened when she had appeared before the House un-American Activities Committee, either that day or the day before sometime recent, and had made up a historical answer to those people saying, oh, she kept giving her name and she stopped by. But I guess it was the First Amendment. I'm not sure now. She'd say, I'm Lillian Hellman. I live in such and such. And then they'd ask her question and she didn't answer except to say like a prisoner of war does her. No, no. And then finally, she ended with the statement, I will not. Cut my conscience to this year's fashions. And after that hearing, she came up to Catona and Paul, of course, was there was a weekend and I don't know what happened to her, but we used to go into the kitchen to have a drink. She and I, because Dash wasn't drinking and it was easier for him and she gave me the devil. She said, how can you have me here when Paul is here? And I didn't know what she was talking. Really, to this day, I haven't understood it. Maybe she felt she was being followed. Maybe she thought it was too soon to see him or or be exposed in any way. I don't know why she's but she was furious with me and stalked out of the house.

Speaker How did you hear that story from Paul, Paul, Paul, Paul, I mentioned and he said he never forgot that he had heard about it. That's fascinating.

Speaker I don't think I ever told anybody, but he probably knew about.

Speaker In the Duberman book you mentioned, and it's interesting. Paul is talking to you about the internal bickering and differences within the Communist Party USA, how miserable.

Speaker Do you remember that or how he.

Speaker He's talking about that. I really don't remember much about that.

Speaker I know that there were differences and there were factions. I don't know much about it, I must say, and I have no particular view of it.

Speaker And I don't know.

Speaker Really, what I'm talking about, if I say anything that I don't know what Paul thought and I don't think I know exactly what is meant by it, when he got his passport renewed and he was about to go back to, it wasn't renewed.

Speaker It was reestablished with him.

Speaker And you had a dinner party the night before he left for London at your house.

Speaker When did he go to London?

Speaker This was nineteen fifty eight in July.

Speaker Mm hmm. And this is a do remember you had mentioned the dinner party and Paul's finally sort of speaking out on the privacy of that dinner party against the government. And not feeling grateful that have been restored, just feeling kind of anger that you saw a real.

Speaker I don't remember that particularly well, I, I do remember that he was very relieved to get it and very pleased he and Rockwool can both and. But I think he was full of anger, that's true and angry that had been withheld all those years and he's so frustrated. He.

Speaker I don't remember that pretty picture that he was he made a point of saying he was taken and that is why he made a point of saying he was taking a video you see playing. Over to London instead of an American plane, isn't it funny I have no recollection of the. What about the two I you saw the New York Othello. Yes, yes. How do you compare the two or just what are your memories of both, especially the New York itself? That's interesting question.

Speaker I think the first one I was. I didn't know Paul, and I was completely taken aback by his presence as Thelo and Uta Hagen's performance, which was magnificent and it was a very exciting sort of tense production. I seen him in the Emperor Jones and other things that he did, and certainly some of those poor class old movies. But the London production was quite different. Mary, you are is very different from Ouda Hagen and I don't think was quite as.

Speaker It's interesting, a character in the play.

Speaker It was such a triumph to have it open and be the celebration that it was that I was just carried away by it, if that performance had any or that production had any flaws, I wouldn't have known them. I was very emotional about it, I think. And Paul and I had a hard time doing it. He rehearsed. He had to get himself physically in shape. A seen in at Stratford before it opened, but I saw the dress rehearsal.

Speaker And it was an entirely different experience. As far as he was concerned, somebody said all he has to do is walk on the stage. He doesn't have to do anything and he's a presence. And that that was true.

Speaker And they do remember looking at Howard University, some of the letters that Paul wrote you, a lot of the letters are just beautiful, beautiful love letters to me, to you. I mean, just expressing a real love.

Speaker What was your reaction when you got these letters or what do you remember? Was there a change in the relationship or how did you regard those letters?

Speaker As gifts from a great man whom I loved, and I think it is why he loved me and certainly loved my husband and my children and our way of life and the.

Speaker With great surprise because he wasn't a letter writer and he it's a matter of fact, I'm amazed that there are any papers around as he must have kept them all because he certainly didn't write much. As a matter of fact, his handwriting was terrible, but the.

Speaker It was wonderful to hear from them and I kept the letters.

Helen Rosen
Interview Date:
1998-04-07
Runtime:
1:46:25
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-4m91834n0n, cpb-aacip-504-r20rr1qb3p, cpb-aacip-504-2804x5501c, cpb-aacip-504-t14th8cc0j
MLA CITATIONS:
"Helen Rosen, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 07 Apr. 1998, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1194
APA CITATIONS:
(1998, April 07). Helen Rosen, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1194
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Helen Rosen, Paul Robeson: Here I Stand." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). April 07, 1998. Accessed May 20, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1194

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