Seeing Red

In September 1948, six men and women were ordered before a federal grand jury convened in Denver to investigate Communist activity, which, according to one agent, was "far greater than any would realize." Local headlines screamed, "200 Reds Listed in State" and "More U.S. Workers Tagged as Red Spies." At Lowry Field, a civilian worker failed a "loyalty test" and admitted to being a former Communist.

One by one, the six, including Pat's husband, appeared before the grand jury and were asked to name party members and describe its organization. One by one, they refused. A federal judge charged them with contempt and sentenced them to jail terms of four to six months. "These are exactly the methods of Nazi Germany," cried one of the accused, Nancy Wertheimer. "I feel that this kind of justice must be routed out of the courts."

During the grand jury hearings, federal attorneys discovered that the secretary of the Denver Communist club--who had kept the membership lists--had fled the state when the others were subpoenaed. The six refused to say who or where she was. Newspapers called her "the mystery figure." It was Pat.

On September 11, 1912, a lumberjack named Arthur Bell lit the fuse on the only workable cannon in Fort Smith, Canada, and announced the birth of his daughter with a bang. And so Patricia Julia Bell entered the world, the first white child in a town of Cree Indians.

She was the oldest of four children. Her father fought in World War I, made a small timber fortune in Europe but died poor; her mother sang professionally and played piano. Pat spent her youth overseas, attending boarding school and learning French, Russian and Spanish.

In 1926 her family moved to New York, where she met and married a Puerto Rican telegraph worker named Jose Salva y Berga and had two daughters. Twelve years later she divorced Berga and married her divorce lawyer, Irving Blau.

In New York, Pat saw hundreds of unemployed men, some so desperate for work that they shoveled snow for $1 a day without shoes or gloves. She never forgot that. "No intelligent person can see something like that without wondering what is wrong with the system," Jack says. She joined the Communist Party in 1942.

Six years later she found herself standing before a Denver grand jury.

When the six Denver Communists were called before the grand jury in September 1948, Pat was in Trinidad, Colorado, campaigning for the Progressive Party. When she heard about the subpoenas, she fled to Yuma, Arizona, where she waited three months. When she returned to town, she found a note saying a package was waiting for her at the post office. She went to pick it up, and an agent popped up behind her with a subpoena.

Pat also refused to answer the attorney's questions, using what would later be called the fourteen magic words: "I refuse to answer upon the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me."

The judge accused her of being a "Communist martyr" and gave her a year in jail, a stiffer penalty than the others.

Pat appealed.
If she admitted any association with the Communist Party, she argued, she could be prosecuted for conspiracy under the Smith Act. Since eleven New York Communists had been recently convicted under that law, she could incriminate herself by answering truthfully.

On December 10, 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed and overturned her sentence.

Pat became a national figure. People all over the country, including gangsters, used the Fifth Amendment to avoid contempt charges.

"The government never forgave her," Jack says. "From that time on, it was out to get her."

Informants were everywhere.
People they considered friends, leaders of Communist chapters, neighbors and co-workers appeared before grand juries and special committees pointing fingers and naming names.

Jack remembers a tailor who had his shop across the hall from the Communist club on 17th Street. At all hours, there he was, door open, watching anyone who passed. He was an FBI agent. He kept a log of party visitors.

Once Jack came home from work and found a note in his mailbox saying, "Call this number." Jack called it and was talking to the FBI. At the agent's office, he was shown a six-inch-thick file with his name on it. The agent pulled out a sheet of paper and began to read: "At 6 p.m. on Thursday, you walked into a brick building at 929 17th Street, where you stayed an hour and a half. Afterward, you walked to a bar, where you drank three bottles of Schlitz." The message was clear: "We're watching you."

The strain was incredible. Marriages dissolved. Families disintegrated. People disappeared. Jack sought solace in booze. "A lot of people crumbled," he says. "I shudder to think how many lives were ruined."

Pat survived by being stubborn, by "being Irish," by opening herself to those around her. "She was totally an extroverted woman," Jack says. "She didn't have a private thought in her life. In fact, she thought having a private thought was mean. She couldn't live without talking to people. Stranger or not, within minutes of meeting someone, she would know their entire life histories. She took people into her life and brought others into hers."

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