The '30S

SOMETIMES THE YOUNG-DISCOURAGED, overwhelmed--ask me incredulously: "You mean you still have hope?" And I have myself saying, yes, I still have hope: beleaguered, starved, battered, based hope. Through horrors, blood, betrayals, apathy, callousness, retreats, defeats--in every decade of my now 82-year-old life that hope has been tested, affirmed. And more than hope: an exhaustless store of certainty, vision, belief-which came to me first in the time of my youthhood, the Depression '30s.

I live still with the ugliness of the decade: the degrading misery, the aloneness, the ravening hunger, despair: the violence of the clubbings, gassings, jailings, the then shocking killing of swelling numbers of our countryfolk. I live, too, with the beauty of the decade: its affirmation of democracy and action; the new fife given to assemble, petition, speak out; the use of the right to vote in unprecedented numbers (the first great attempt in the South to break the terror which kept black citizens from that right); the still unseen evidence of human greatness in words, spirit and deed; the burgeoning solidarity in the nation, bridging differences in color, background, creed, walk of life. Out of that visibility, that sense of identification, came our first body of literature, art, songs, photographs, film concerned with the lives and experiences of most of us.

For the first time, we began to have a sense of our country in all its hues, its wrongs and its rights, its unique diversity and likenesses, its pain, beauty, strengths, possibilities. We were no longer a country of individual helplessness and isolation. Millions in motion, acting together, might not always change their economic circumstances, but they could electrify the consciousness of the nation. And in 1932 we voted Franklin D. Roosevelt into office, who brought along with him not only Eleanor but also women (like Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins) and men of integrity with long histories of caring and public service.

Images were beginning to represent a decade: apples, the bread line, the migrant mother, the man with his sign, I WILL WORK FOR FOOD. The images helped rouse us to act, to say that hunger is morally wrong and that there must be another way. The familiar faces: pitted, seamed, lined, desperate, beaten, often shamed to be photographed with their poor possessions and their misery. But I also saw other expressions on such faces: stopping the evictions, putting the furniture back, on the picket lines, on the road, the pondering, questioning faces; the anguish not beaten.

Hard times indeed. No official figures were kept, but estimates were that about one fourth of the labor force (40 million human beings and their families) had no jobs or regular income. As Roosevelt said, "I see one third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." One of every four farms was foreclosed, and half a million farm families lived at starvation levels. At least a million transients--a third of them between 18 and 24 years old--were on the move, riding the "rattlers" to someplace that might be better. "Hoovervilles" were the human dumpheaps where nameless Frank Lloyd Wrights wrought their wondrous futuristic structures of flat battered tin cans, fruit boxes and gunny sacks, cardboard and mother earth, encrusting the banks of the rivers or mushrooming under the viaducts. Dog-kennel size, dog-kennel life. Sometimes shelter was any hole in the ground, covered with an old army coat or bit of canvas. One day in Sacramento, an old piecework quilt, already half rag, stunned me with its beauty, its feathering of colors, still lustrous in that freezing rain.

Many stories like that: The salt-pork relief--boiling it and boiling it to try to leach out the salt enough so we wouldn't gag on it. The bowl of coffee and milk, sometimes with three cinnamon buns, we lived on for a day. Corn-meal mush, beans if we could buy them, the pail of lard rancid. A neighbor in Stockton insisting that the family shacked up in the water tower behind us had eaten a stray dog.

I was jailed twice. First in Kansas City, winter, '32, for making loud and unusual noises." I'd been working at Armour's and now distributed leaflets to meatpackers at Swift's, in a near blizzard, for the Young Communist League. Plenty of communists then, before it got so bitter and confusing abroad. Pushing for a 10-cent-an-hour raise was "communist inspired." I languished five or six weeks--no money for bail--and got pleurisy then incipient TB, which took me to Minnesota and out of the movement.

The second time was in San Francisco, right after a general strike. Perfect order we kept, marching up Market Street. Two longshoremen had been killed and more than 100,000 people came to pay tribute. No one spoke. The only sound was the beat of our feet. Then came "The Terror"--bloody crackdowns by vigilantes who, with police giving them the power to arrest, wrecked encampments and beat strikers and "sympathizers." No warrants, up the stairs, the thunder of their feet. Five of us jailed, I the only one of my sex. One was a student who didn't tell us he was a Reynolds tobacco heir. Another was a young seaman aspiring to be a writer. The police deliberately smashed his precious ancient typewriter.

I was a single mother then. In that pre-Pill time, even information on contraception was often illegal. Abortion was wholly illegal. Yet for the first time in our history, the birthrate was falling. How? Yes, there were secret, dangerous abortions--if one could find an abortionist, if one had the money. For those ignorant of their bodies there were these stratagems: turpentine, falling down stairs, lifting heavy furniture. The more informed tried a medication made from the ergot fungus. We still nursed each other's babies when needed.

Wages were cut in half. The workweek was six days. It was the era of the stretchout--sometimes called "The Beedo system"--in which the idea was to work one's employees to exhaustion in order to extract maximum profit out of the human body. At the beginning, there were few if any rights on the job to safety or against truly inhuman working conditions. An accident? Too bad. No responsibility by management. It took years of work to earn even one week's vacation. Unemployment was one's own fault. In March of '31 Henry Ford said, "There's plenty of work to do if people would do it." A few weeks later he laid off 75,000.

Most Americans alive then were not what is called well educated. At. least 80 percent of us were out of school by the eighth grade. We were not the "best and the brightest." What we aspired to, struggled for and sometimes actually brought into being in the '30s was forming a new consciousness as to what the next great step for humanity must be--not only "the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" but the establishment of the mean--the social, economic, cultural, educational means to give pulsing, enabling life to those rights. Seemingly disregarded, unknown by most, these are articulated in FDR's annual message to Congress in the month before we lost him, and more fully (in what Eleanor dedicated the remaining years of her life to) in the last portion of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What transformed the '30s was that the president of the United States became part of our struggle. How simply and directly he spoke to us from the beginning: Relief, Recovery, Reform. "Our great primary task is to put people to work," he said. And he acted in a dazzling 100 days: banking reform, farm credits, the National Industrial Recovery Act (new jobs, reduced hours and raised wages). Later came insurance of bank deposits, Social Security and the Wagner Act, with its right to organize unions written into law, and much more.

FDR knew that the system was not working, that there was a correlation between the accepted, respected (fawned upon, cringed before) powerful in America and the brutality and corruption all around us. Roosevelt came from them, he understood them and he denounced them in terms so much more direct than his successors in office. Campaigning in 1936, he said: "We know that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob." In a remarkable April 1938 address to Congress, he warned that "private enterprise is ceasing to be free enterprise," noting that I percent of the nation's corporations were taking 50 percent of the profits.

From the beginning, FDR moved and acted and spoke with us, and he did not call out the army or use his office to crush resistance. In inaugural Addresses, State of the Union Messages, fireside chats, speeches, he always, always said hunger is wrong, joblessness is wrong. This was at a time when everything from a minimum wage to unemployment insurance was denounced as sovietizing the country, as the destruction of industry, as "un-American." Roosevelt's achievement was to redefine what being American meant. For all the New Deal legislation and regulation, the decade ended with the same crowd in power and in profit, but they now had to contend with a federal government that consistently intervened on the side of the people.

FDR genuinely believed in capitalism, and he saved it. Yet he grew and changed, and especially with the help of Eleanor he connected to larger themes of human rights. Some of us, bruised by the Fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, were ahead of him in anticipating the conflict to come. But he was ahead of most of the country in preparing for war.

Today, the vision of full humanhood is battered, scorned, deemed "unrealistic." But I still remember what people can achieve when we act together. The 1930s were full of torture and brutality, but in this country, at least, history was more than a boot in the face. It was a time of human flowering, when the country was transformed by the hopes, dreams, actions of numerous, nameless human beings, hungry for more than food.


I left Germany after the Reichstag fire, went to Paris and arrived in the United States in January 1934, where I was put up in Baldwin, Long Island. It was snowing very hard and suddenly a Cadillac pulled up and a paperboy threw out a newspaper. I thought, "This is America, paperboys are driving Cadillacs." It turned out the paperboy had a cold and his parents were driving him around. Soon I learned how things ere done in America--not Cadillacs, hard work. Hard work.

I'd sold a story idea from Europe, so I went to Hollywood a week later. My English was full of holes-- you would have thought it was Bulgarian. But I felt safe. Many of mu friends fled to Austria and other places where German was the language I had this feeling that wasn't far enough. But I didn't want to write about political theories. Like everyone else during the Depression, I just wanted some decent housing and some food in my stomach. We wrote movies that were diversions to get people out of the doldrums--to get a smile or an inner connection to a story.