Elinor Ferry (1916-1992)

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Nora Ruth Roberts

ONE OF THE best bits in John Sayles’ story “At the Anarchists’ Convention” involves a flock of Barnard students who descend upon the aging anarchists, oral history equipment in hand. Although I had known Elinor Ferry since 1957, it was not until a few years ago that I began taping her life story and, after that, sitting with her over a tub of wine coolers. Even without oral history equipment, I was enthralled.

Headstrong, iconoclastic, indomitable when ultrafemininity prevailed, Elinor determined at the age of eighteen to break from her equally headstrong Irish Catholic working-class family in Atlantic City and later Pittsburgh.

Escaping marriage by a narrow margin, she sold the Hearst press on giving her a job–and not one on the women’s page. She wound up as first stringer on the sports pages of the leading Pittsburgh press, reporting on off-the-field lives of prominent sports personalities.

This job she performed well, despite jokes from her male counterparts, until she was transferred to labor news. Philip Murray was then head of the steelworkers union. Elinor knew where he liked to have his breakfast and got  a job as a waitress with flirtation privileges.

For me, listening to Elinor tell it, the highlight of that stint came in 1936 when Gertrude Stein came to town and wanted to see, of all things, steel mills, raw furnaces, and laborers beating life into machines. Elinor arranged a tour for Stein by means of her connection with Philip Murray, and became Miss Stein’s escort.

A Political Odyssey

Elinor might have stayed in Pittsburgh but for a change to Reuters and an assignment as a war correspondent. It was among the underground French anti-fascist forces, the Maquis, that Elinor was first exposed to communism.

She came home committed and thereafter accepted assignments that ranged from helping left newspaperman Jack MacManus organize the Newspaper Guild to acting as bodyguard and public relations director for Transport Workers Union leader Mike Quill. Elinor was equal to both assignments.

As a young Trotskyist, I knew Elinor after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations. Elinor came marching into the hall of the Socialist Workers Party, looked up two prime leaders, Murray Weiss and George Novack, and demanded, “Now what is it you guys have been saying all along?”

There followed months of study with Weiss and Novack as coaches. It turns out Elinor was the harbinger of what was one of the richest periods on the traditional left. She had been married to Boston clothing store magnate George Kurstein, whose left-wing forays did not go much farther than part-time ownership of The Nation–and marrying Elinor.

Elinor continued to plague him, spending his money on radical friends among the intelligentsia, including Alger Hiss, the writer Josephine Herbst, and the photographer Weegee.

When I met her in 1957, she was on her own and eager for the Socialist Workers Party’s forays into radical regroupment. She threw herself into the electoral campaign and the attempt to put together a new coalition, the Independent Socialist Party, which did make it on the New York state ballot in 1958 with Jack MacManus as gubernatorial candidate, Corliss Lamont for Senator, the distinguished Marxist educator Annette T. Rubinstein as lieutenant gubernatorial candidate and the blacklisted Black sea captain Hugh Mulzak for controller.

In those days it seemed hopeful that we would be able to forge a new left coalition of those committed to socialism with democratic power structures.

With the advent of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the left seemed to take heart that this time we would see the kind of revolution that woud mean democratic growth and well being for its populace. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee was key to the united struggle in the United States to allow as many people as possible to see Cuba for themselves. Elinor threw herself into the organization, attending and organizing rallies and helping tour groups.

Her presence was a security against sectarianism. She made sure that there was room on the committee and in the tours for people of all political persuasions who wanted to find out more about Cuba. By this time she was herself a member of the Socialist Workers Party, but she never relinquished her dedication to enlarging the left around issues of importance.

In her early days of liaison with the SWP, she had been instrumental in organizing meetings and campaigns to clear the names and records of those who had been victimized by the House Un- American Activities Committee for choosing to invoke the Fifth Amendment. Most of those cases were eventually successfully concluded.

Elinor was not so lucky with Cuba. After a sectarian turn in the Socialist Workers Party discouraged any further regroupment efforts, Elinor found herself, for the first time since before World War II, without a movement with which to indentify. On her own, as an independent reporter, she went to Cuba (not long after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion), flashed her camera in some inconvenient places and wound up spending several months in a Cuban prison on scant rations and in confined quarters.

Not entirely disaffected, she was still somewhat deflated. She spent the last years of her life keeping in touch with friends she had made during the regroupment period and afterwards, and working on her massive collection of material on Alger Hiss. All that survives of her is the legacy of an indomitable radical woman.

January-February 1993, ATC 42