February 19, 2013
Alice Rosenthal grew up in the Bronx, in the 1950s, with parents who were (unbeknownst to many of their colleagues, and some friends) card-carrying Communists. I know this because Alice’s older sister, Barbara, is my mother.
When I discovered that Alice was writing a novel, loosely based on her own childhood, I was eager to read it. I’ve long been fascinated by the extremes of American paranoia. What I had not expected when I picked up Take the D Train was how piercingly it would explore the complexity of the Fifties, especially for women with independent minds and inconvenient political views.
The novel focuses on the cautious, married Frima and her more impulsive sister-in-law Beth. The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage provides a harrowing backdrop to much of the action, which is conveyed in prose that is thrilling both for its restraint and precision.
I was curious to know more about how Alice produced such a riveting novel, after years of writing.
You do an amazing job of capturing the texture of America, and NYC, during the Fifties, especially for women like Frima and Beth, Jewish women with some education. How much of it was inspired by real-life events?
“Ethel Rosenberg couldn’t be a spy. I went to school with her and she was the sweetest girl.” I remember this comment vividly. A Bronx Jewish housewife told me this as she was at the stove preparing dinner, dressed in the ubiquitous flowered housecoat. Days later I noticed this same woman step into the sunshine in a slinky grey suit and high heels, ignoring the wolf whistles of a group of teenage boys. Revelation! A woman in her early thirties could still be attractive—could even have mystery about her. She was the prototype for Frima.
Where I see Beth, I also see my Aunt Madeline, who actually worked in the office of the National Maritime Union, like Beth. Madeline met her husband there. I have an early memory of this young couple taking my sister and me to a concert. The proceeds were for war orphans, you needed kids to get in, so at four I was already enjoying of the fun and creativity of the Old Left. Leftist talent of the Forties also produced my favorite record as a child, Herman Ermine in Rabbit Town (a musical fable in which two rabbits defeat racism), narrated by Hollywood tough-guy and heartthrob John Garfield.
Did you feel the kind of excitement as a young women about Manhattan that Frima did in the novel?
Yes, but it was different. Frima loves the diversity, the freedom and anonymity downtown offers, but for her there was no social stigma to living in the Bronx. For me there was, and I wanted out.
By the Sixties, if you were a single, educated young adult, living in the Bronx marked you as locationally undesirable and unhip. The only acceptable roost within city limits was an apartment in Manhattan, far from parental eyes. Manhattan beckoned so powerfully that you gladly abandoned your family’s comfortable apartment to crowd in with roommates in some roach haven downtown. You hoped to land a rent-controlled pad on a desirable street, but almost anything was better than the Bronx. Forget all the glamorous jobs and cultural attractions of Manhattan; the real issue was finding a fulfilling partner, and for this purpose the Bronx was a dead end. Frima could settle down with the boy next door, but twenty years later that was impossible. If he existed at all, he had already fled to Bedford Street or West 82nd.
Your folks were pretty active on the left, in a way that caused a lot of anxiety in the family. How did your memories of that tension inspire the book?
The book is set in New York City at the height of the Cold War, and everyone breathes in this atmosphere. How could they not? Two powerful nations, former allies, are now trying to scare each other to death. In the United States, anticommunist propaganda was so virulent and indiscriminate that the Left, relatively open in the Forties, was forced underground. Secrecy became a modus vivendi. We called ourselves progressives—adults and kids alike—not Reds, or Leftists, and never communists—the ideology that dare not speak its name. You can understand why when the most popular comic book displayed these headlines: “Superman battles the Red Crusher!” “Take that, you commie cur!” The word commie, itself, was awful. It was an invective as venomous as the N-word.
Now to me, progressives were, above all, antifascist, antiracist, pro-union, and lots of other good things I believed in—and still do. I’ve heard a whole lot about how doctrinaire this movement was and how Soviet influenced. Well, that got right past me as a kid. The real tension for progressive kids came from leading double lives. The barrage of Red-Scare tactics meant you had to keep secrets other kids didn’t even think about for fear of getting people you knew in trouble.
Keeping your mouth shut was an enormous issue, for adult or child. My mother suffered loss of the career she loved because she wouldn’t testify against fellow teachers to a state board. Name names, or else. She never considered naming anyone—Destroy a life?—and she had a healthy contempt for anyone who did. It must have been a hugely worrisome time, yet I don’t recall having any real fear because my folks kept their anxieties hidden from me. This had to be a heroic effort for my mother. She was the most dedicated of teachers and suffered greatly from the loss of identity her career gave her.
Clearly the character who most resembles me is the adolescent Rebecca. I, too, was warned not to talk to strangers at the door when my parents weren’t home. The strangers were the FBI, of course, but I didn’t lose sleep over this, and I don’t remember being very worried. Still, convinced as I am of the power of the unconscious mind, I now believe my sangfroid was an emotional defense—denial or repression. I had myself more firmly in control than did Rebecca. In her responses I embody feelings I would have had, were I able to react with emotional freedom.
The trial of the Rosenbergs for espionage is one of the historical threads that runs through the book. What were your memories of this trial growing up?
I knew the Rosenbergs had been accused of giving atomic secrets to the Russians and that my parents didn’t believe they were guilty. That much I had picked up at the dinner table, but I was only nine when they were convicted, and I didn’t think about it much. I became very aware of them some two years later when their execution drew near, at which time they had become an international cause celebre and often in the headlines.
I also know that some time later my folks doubted the Rosenbergs’ complete innocence, but they still felt the death sentence was unjust. My parents were both gone before the real involvement of Julius Rosenberg in Soviet espionage came to light, many years later.
Like my reaction to the Red Scare, my response to the Rosenberg execution was muted, and it was decades before I had anything resembling the strong responses Frima and Beth had to the executions. This finally happened while I was reading E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, that dark powerful fictional reimagining of the Rosenbergs and their kids. When I came to his unflinching description of the “Eisenbergs” in the electric chair, I broke into a sweat, began retching, and burst into tears. Just like Frima, I was breaking through unconscious barriers.
It feels very much like you’re trying to commemorate a time and place in American history.
I’m trying to hold the lens still on a time and place that obviously shaped me. My views have shifted often, but there are two characteristics that still define the Fifties for me. First is this pervading approval of the superficial—an earnest denial of substance and a pressure to be one-dimensional and neatly delineated. Your outside should be the same as your inside. Mainstream pop radio blares out “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window,” or “Cry,” achy-breaky, without any real ache or break. Doris Day is Calamity Jane, a perky gal who dresses in britches, totes a rifle, and runs a saloon. She secretly loves Wild Bill Hickcock whom she lands by singing and learning “a woman’s touch” and switching to frilly skirts. She’s now a fulfilled woman. At the same time Marlon Brando is “The Wild One.” The girls—all of us—swoon at this rebellious, moody motorcycle gang leader, and soon virtually every teenage boy in the neighborhood is sporting tight jeans, a black leather jacket—the whole ensemble—and, just like Marlon, showing that he is rebellious, moody and tortured. About what? Even Marlon couldn’t say—the script didn’t give him anything to work with. His image as a biker, an icon of the fifties, is as flat as the poster it’s printed on. What you see is what you get.
The other defining ethos: Orthodoxy reigns. Be you Marxist, Capitalist, or Druid, as a true believer you could live pretty comfortably, without doubt, conflict, or irony. A questioner could not. Frima and Beth are questioners who fight the tide, as are the men they turn to for love and emotional support. They know that to grow they must learn to live with uncertainty. That’s why they interest me and why I write about them.
Still, I look back to the 1950s with affection and new respect. The Tea Party and other such aberrations will do that to you. If, like me, you were white, middle class, straight, and healthy, and not, say, in need of an abortion, life was manageable. Most problems had solutions, and institutions had some accountability. You were well fed, and middle class neighborhoods like those in the Bronx were pleasant and affordable. Cheap, safe buses and trains gave you mobility; parks and public spaces were well maintained for you to enjoy. The safety net was solid and effective, and not even rightwing politicians were tampering with it. For all the political fear mongering, your right to vote was unassailable, and you felt that the Constitution of the United States had your back. And when you sent your kids to school you expected them to be well and safely educated. Not in your worst nightmare would you dream that a child leaving for school at eight AM would never again come home after the three PM bell rings. And that is saying a lot.
It’s inspiring that you wrote and published the book later in life. Can you comment on that?
Well, first, obviously, you are facing a different kind of deadline than a younger writer. You might croak before you finish, or worse yet lose some of your precious brain cells and synaptic connections. But beyond that it really is a kick and a new lease on life, and I never made a better decision than to quit teaching while I was still healthy and energetic and do this instead.
It’s also a distinction to be one of the world’s latest bloomers. There are actually more than a few of us, and for this we can thank the digital age and self publishing. At my first publishing workshop I was struck that the people attending were either very young or seniors, both groups determined to take a chance. You won’t make much money unless you’re already rich enough to manipulate the market, but you say what you want to say and how you want to say it. And, as I’ve said before, that’s saying a lot.