Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alvin Josephy in Mexico--1937

Alvin Josephy Taluca, Mexico, 1937

Doug Erickson, Special Collections Librarian at Lewis and Clark College, just sent me a PDF file of Alvin Josephy’s 1937 Ken Magazine interview with Leon Trotsky in Mexico City.

Which brought a rush of memories and sent me back to the pages of Alvin’s memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon. I first heard the story the second year of Summer Fishtrap, when Alvin was on a panel with Herb Mitgang of the New York Times and Jonathan Nicholas, then at the Oregonian. The panel was about fact and fiction, and, after listening to the two journalists talk, Alvin rose to recall the long ago trip to Mexico.

"When I interviewed Trotsky in Mexico in 1937," he began, and we in the audience looked at him and each other with small gasps and big smiles. Here we were in a meeting room at a Methodist church camp at Wallowa Lake, Oregon in 1989, being thrust back to major events in Twentieth Century history—to the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and a man who was a prime player in the first and a sideline jockey maybe looking for a role in the second.

His interviewer, Alvin Josephy, was a 22 year old Harvard dropout with a stint as a junior screenwriter in Hollywood and a few months coordinating high school essays and WOR radio interviews with newspaper employees for the New York Herald Tribune. At the end of the school year, Alvin had talked his way into a Herald Tribune press card and arranged a trip to Mexico with the intention of interviewing the new President of the country, Caesar Cardenas, and Trotsky. Using political skills he’d picked up in student politics with a national bent at Harvard, and writing skills he’d begun honing as a high school student at Horace Mann, Josephy scheduled an interview—sending several written questions ahead—with Trotsky and began making the connections that would allow him to meet the new President.

Josephy wanted to know whether Trotsky would support a “liberal front” alongside Stalin in Spain, what Trotsky thought of the eventual outcome of events there and in Germany and Italy, where Hitler and Mussolini were on the rise, and whether he was engaged still—or his partisans were engaged still—in battle with Stalin. He came away thinking that Trotsky was “muddled” in his thinking, but that he was also sincere, and saw himself as the true practitioner of Marxism waiting for the proletariat to rise and throw out all despots and capitalist masters.

Ken Magazine later printed Trotsky’s contentious reply to Josephy—he had not included all of his (Trotsky’s) written answers to questions, and he incorrectly asserted that there was a rift between Trotsky and his host, the great muralist Diego Rivera—and noted that they had already heard from the “communists,” who thought the article was biased toward Trotsky. “Ken gets it both ways,” they announced alongside Trotsky’s reply.

A train trip with one of Cardenas’ cabinet members and a brief interview with the President followed. In his memoir, Alvin remarks that he was unable to get an interview with dissident General Cedillo, who had resigned and retreated, and was reportedly conspiring with American oil interests to overthrow the populist and anti-clerical Cardenas. The great novelist Graham Greene, ascribing his success to his Catholicism, managed the interview with Cedillo a few months later—before Cedillo was assassinated.

The mind boggling thing about all of this is that Alvin was 22 years old, and smack in the middle of his century’s history! The portents of things to come are the incredible amount of research and preparation he did before the trip—about the Russian Revolution, current events in Europe and the U.S., and the history and culture of Mexico, his firm belief in democracy, and his interest in fair play and justice for all citizens, and especially for the indigenous peoples who had been swept aside by European conquerors.

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picture of Alvin in Mexico courtesy Al Josephy; photo of Trotsky from Ken Magazine article.

and, check out Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Lacuna, a historical novel which follows events in Mexico City in the Rivera-Kahlo household in the time of Trotsky!

2 comments :

  1. this post is from barrie qualle, a retired rancher who now lives in the county--and says he will figure out how to post his own comments eventually. but i thougth this one interesting, and another that i will post after it if i figure it out myself!
    rich wandschneider

    I remember reading about Trotsky in Alvins book " A walk toward Oregon". Those earlier generations were pretty gutsy. In 1910 my Grandfather sold his ranches in Saskatchewan and retired to California at the age of 31. After a couple of years of inactivity he and my Grandmothers cousins that were large landowers around Ceres Ca. toured Mexico for 8 months with the intention of buying several large Ranchos. I asked Grandpa why I wasn't a Mexican and he told me that he loved the country but the political climate was too unstable. Pancho Villa was working at revolucion. Grandpa said a lot of the towns and Estancias showed evidence of conflict between the Govt. and Pancho. Bullet holes in buildings etc. Not much different than now. Anyway, in 1918 the brothers that had bought the ranches in Saskatchewan died in the Spanish influenza epidemic and he got the ranches back after they were almost paid for. I traveled a lot in Mexico in the late sixties and early seventies. A beautiful culture and country. Too bad they can't figure out how to make the most of it.

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  2. another story from barrie qualle:

    Concerning Mexico. An old friend of mine from California (Phil Stadtler) was one of the pioneers of crossing cattle from Mexico to stock the grass country in California and other areas. He wrote a great book about it "I made a lot of tracks". In his biggest year he crossed 265,000 head of Mexican cattle. They made a movie about Phil and Terrill Spence called "Pocket Money" starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin. The movie was from a couple of chapters out of a book called Jim Kane written by a fellow trader named Brown. Phil had no fear and was broke and rich many times. In the 70's he was down 8 million at one point but everyone stayed with him and he eventurally paid it back. He never did go bankrupt. Phil is in his 90's now and lives in Ca.
    Terrill Spence traded a lot of cattle out of Sonora and Chihuahua. He told me that he and a Mexican partner would hire a Pistolero and take a bag of money and head off into the Sierra Madre. They would buy 10 here 16 there etc and put together 6 or 8 hundred head. When they got high in the mountains he said they had to translate from Indian to Spanish and then English on many of the deals. The Pistolero had to be double tough and everyone had to know it. If he wasn't, they would lose the bag of money or when they came back to collect the cattle they had bought, they wouldn't be there. The Pistolero was paid 5 dollars a head to collect all the cattle purchased and drive them to Hermosillo. From there they were trucked to Nogales and crossed. A few years ago Terrill told me that when he was there, Mexico was the wild west and pretty exciting. He then told me he would not venture into the Sierra Madre now as any place with water is a Marijuana plantation protected by ak47's.
    Phil was probably one of the best loved Gringos in Mexico. He helped a lot of the ranchers improve their ranchos and cattle. He would send a windmill at no charge to someone he dealt with and tell them where to put it on their rancho so they could utilize other grazing areas. He also sent pedigreed bulls to improe their herds. Again, no charge. If anyone ever got in trouble in Mexico, a call from Phil would get them out.
    Phil had a rancho in Mexico adjacent to ranch in Arizona. The border never closed for Phil.
    I lent my copy of Phil's book to someone and if I ever get it back, I will loan it to you.

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