Top

news

Stories

 

Seeing Red

It was a small thing, really, just a signature on the back of a plain manila application card. At the time she endorsed it, in 1942, she had no way of knowing it would get her fired, arrested, thrown in jail and forced into hiding. But on the day she died in a Denver nursing home, Patricia Bell Blawis believed as she had the moment she declared her allegiance: She was, and would always be, a Communist.

It's cold outside, drizzling. The old man stares out the window of his sixth-floor apartment, collecting facts, gathering memories, watching it all pass before him like a movie.

Listen, he says. You have to understand something. This is a secret world she lived in, a place where people, by choice and by circumstance, learned to keep to themselves.

For years, if you were a Communist in this country and said the wrong thing to the wrong person, you could wind up ruined, or in some graveyard. He saw it happen.

The old man sips from a mug of strong black coffee.
So, he says, you have to understand, this is not an easy story to tell. Certain people and certain events should--and will--remain hidden. But Patricia Bell Blawis should not be among them. She was a remarkable woman. She shouldn't have been treated the way she was.

Pat, he says, smiling now, was a woman with a quick mind and an easy laugh who did not hesitate to speak her mind or stand behind her beliefs, even if they took her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which they did.

At the height of the Red Scare, she refused to incriminate herself and name her colleagues in the Communist Party. She pleaded the Fifth Amendment and won.

Afterward, her case became a defense for anyone--Communist and otherwise--fighting government persecution.

You won't find her name in the history books, though. And you won't find her obituary in the newspapers. To the people who ran this country during the Cold War--people who spent sixteen years trying to put her in federal prison--Pat was a "top Red organizer," a trained subversive who spent her life undermining the principles of this country, only to hide behind them when authorities got too close. To them, Pat was a criminal. Nothing more.

But this isn't their story. This isn't why the old man has come forward on this gray afternoon with his yellowed files and faded photographs. He's not here to challenge historical record or spread Marxist propaganda (not much, anyway). He's here to offer a view--his view--of life during Denver's Communist inquisition. He's here to tell a story about a woman who made a choice 56 years ago and stuck with it to the end.

His name is Jack Blawis. He is here to talk about his wife.
"There are those who would rather believe she never existed," he says. "But I can assure you that she did. And I can tell you something else: A great woman lived among us."

Every table, chair and counter in his living room is covered with newspapers, magazines and books. Outline of Political History in the United States. Friendly Fascism. The New Radicalism. On a stereo speaker stands a small portrait of Lenin. On a wall near his kitchen hangs a poster of Cesar Chavez. Plastered across his balcony window is a bumper sticker, "Arms Are for Hugging." Jack could be a caricature of The Grizzled Communist: rumpled sweater, rumpled hat, long white hair, white goatee. But at 85 years old, he is what he is, and fairly content about it. "Oh, I still have time to distribute a little propaganda once in a while," he says.

When he speaks, he sounds like a radio announcer. When he tells his story, it's as though he's reading the news.

Just after World War II, he says, Denver was all stockyards, packing plants and brick warehouses. No skyscrapers. No aerospace technology. No suburbs. But here, like everywhere else, people walked down the street with a sense of optimism. Anything seemed possible.

To the men and women who gathered in a back room above a shoe shop at 929 17th Street, that meant one thing: maintaining an alliance with the Soviet Union. That was the goal of the Communist Party of the United States, he says. Preserving the peace.

At the time, Communists weren't feared here, Jack says. They were considered a little bit odd. They had strange ideas. But to most people, Jack says, they were simply men and women who supported labor unions, circulated petitions, showed up at political protests and did what they could to enlist members. They weren't seen as the enemy. Yet.

Jack removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. He has a theory: In 1948 Harry Truman was running for president, largely on the policies of the Cold War. He saw the Progressive Party, which wanted peace with the Soviets and an end to the U.S. war machine, as a threat to that platform, and so set out to discredit it. One way to do it was linking the progressives with the Communist Party. Another way was enforcing the Smith Act of 1940, which had made it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow of the government through violent means.

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."

She also took her life underground.
The first time was in 1951. Senator Joe McCarthy was raging when the Smith Act convictions of the eleven New York Communists was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Party leaders gave Pat $20 and told her to disappear.

She went to Casper, Wyoming, a place she considered as far from public scrutiny as she could get. She and Irving took whatever jobs they could find. He operated a jackhammer and she became an insurance adjuster. They changed their names to Betty and Dick Miller.

A few years later, under orders of party headquarters, she moved to San Jose, California, then Los Angeles, remaking her life as she went.

The FBI found her anyway.

Newspapers called it "the biggest single blow against Communism in Colorado history."

On August 1, 1954, federal agents in Colorado and California arrested Pat and six other party members (several of them the same people who testified in 1948) and charged them with conspiring to overthrow the government.

The sweep began, a reporter wrote, with a "sidewalk rendezvous of four Reds near the Denver state capitol." Pat was arrested in Los Angeles, where she "masqueraded as a Red Runner with direct links to Moscow by quietly living as a bakery worker and housewife."

The sweep was announced in Washington, D.C., by J. Edgar Hoover himself. Federal prosecutors flew to Denver. Eighteen government witnesses came forward (including eight former Communists and five FBI informants). The government had a case.

Its argument was this: The Smith Act made it illegal to teach or advocate the violent overthrow of the government. Since Communist doctrine calls for armed revolution, all party members--including the seven accused--must therefore follow those directives.

Prosecutors claimed Pat and the others had attended "secret revolutionary schools," recruiting members of "basic Colorado industries" such as meatpacking and trying to organize Mexican and black workers into "dissatisfied revolutionary units."

"Why the emphasis on basic industries if Communism is based upon peaceful conversion from free enterprise?" prosecutors asked. "Why wouldn't a man in a shirt factory make a good Communist?"

U.S. Attorney Donald E. Kelley said the conspiracy was like a polluted stream. "Anyone who dives into that stream, knowing what he is doing," he said, "becomes contaminated."

Defense attorneys, however, considered the charges laughable. The FBI had trailed Pat and the others for six years. Where was the plot to violently overthrow the government? Their only evidence was seven men and women practicing free speech.

"Communism is the defendant's political opinion," said attorney John Evans. "Misguided and silly, perhaps, but we don't send people to jail because they are Republicans or Democrats."

"The evidence was books," Jack says. "Attorneys wheeled in cartloads of books, pulled one out and read something Lenin wrote in 1905 about overthrowing the czar. 'Did Pat Blau give you this book?' they'd ask. The informants would say, 'Yes.' 'Did you read it?' 'Yes.' And that was it. That was their case."

The trial lasted nine weeks.
In May 1955, Pat and the others were convicted of conspiracy, sentenced to prison terms of two to six years and fined $1,500 to $5,000.

But the case was far from over.
It would be appealed, retried, appealed and then retried again. Pat would be found guilty twice. Each time the conviction was overturned on technicalities.

Ten years passed before the case was resolved.

Jack doesn't remember how the news finally arrived. It could have been a call from an attorney, or maybe a blurb in the newspaper. "It all happened very quietly," he says. One day Pat was a subversive, and the next she was vindicated.

She and Jack were living in Greenwich Village. He worked as a contractor in Jersey, and she wrote for a magazine. They had left Denver five years earlier, after Pat divorced Irving and married Jack. First they went to El Paso and then, after being fired from a string of jobs, to New York City. There, on November 12, 1964, the ordeal ended.

The Justice Department couldn't muster enough evidence to prosecute Pat and the others again. A U.S. district judge dismissed the case.

The Smith Act, however, stayed on the books. All told, at least 145 people were indicted under it. Eleven went to prison.

"It's still there," Jack says, "for whenever the government wants to use it again."

Pat had always planned to write a book about her life. She'd even picked out the title, A Time of Trial. She wrote 30,000 words before Alzheimer's set in.

After New York, she and Jack moved to New Mexico, where they befriended land-rights activist Reyes Tijerena and wrote a book about him. Pat also traveled to Chile as a correspondent for a Communist newspaper and covered the Allende coup, barely escaping the firing squads herself. And for twelve years she and Jack lived in Tucson, where they owned a bookstore.

In 1985 they returned to Denver to be with Pat's daughters. They rented an apartment in the northwest part of town, where they could see the mountains. It was a different city from the Denver of 1948. No one remembered.

Pat worked on her memoir and Jack helped out, editing out the parts she accidentally wrote twice. They joined the local Communist club and hosted meetings at their dining-room table. They talked about the party newspaper and how to get more members.

Four years ago Pat checked into a nursing home in Lakewood. Jack visited as often as he could. Across the hall from Pat was gangster Clyde Smaldone. Jack saw his name on the door, but he never talked to him.

Pat died six weeks ago, on January 2. Smaldone died five days later. The dailies wrote sizable stories about him. Jack sent the papers a short item about Pat. He sent it in twice. She was never mentioned. Not even an obituary.

It's dusk now. Jack is tired. His eyes are watery. His face sags. He has nothing more to tell.

Pat wanted her body donated to science. When doctors are done with it, he says, they'll send back her ashes.

He hasn't planned a memorial service. Pat's daughters are in Florida for the winter, due back in April. There will probably be something for her then. Something nice. Maybe something small.

Contact Harrison Fletcher at his online address, harrison_fletcher@westword.com, or by phone at 303-293-3553.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...