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Life of the Party

From her Communist escapades in the 1920s to her twilight years at Stanford, Ella Wolfe was overshadowed by husband and friends. But the papers she left behind reveal the passions and politics of a remarkable woman.

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By Jeanene Harlick

The scene is a spellbound Mexico City in the Roaring Twenties. The characters are draft evaders, social idealists, astrology-spouting vegetarians and artists seeking a communal utopia. Here, fiestas rule, murals adorn the walls and measured time is a laughable notion. The pursuit of beauty is paramount—even the mules wear colorful serapes. Dante and Homer, popularized and paperbacked by a progressive government, are read over coffee alongside the morning paper.

In this bohemian setting, a young American woman reads and writes away the days, supporting her Spanish studies at the local university by teaching English. Her life looks idyllic. But there are complications.

Ella Goldberg Wolfe is living in exile, a fugitive from America’s anti-Communist dragnet during the “Red Scare” after World War I. One of her “students” is a Kremlin agent, whom she will later provide with a false passport. A passionate partisan still in her 20s, Wolfe eventually will rub shoulders with Trotsky in Mexico City, face off with Stalin in Moscow and devote years to “the Communist experiment,” then renounce it utterly and spend much of the rest of her life helping chronicle its history. Along the way, she will befriend some of the 20th century’s most colorful figures. And she will live to 103, the last remnant of a historic upheaval and a fixture around Stanford.

Yet Ella Wolfe’s life has remained mostly unexamined, a footnote to the well-documented stories of her husband and friends. Bertram Wolfe helped write the 1919 manifesto that led to the establishment of Communist parties in the United States. He first made a name for himself as an impassioned advocate of the working class; later—after the Soviet Union’s 1939 pact with Nazi Germany—as the far left’s greatest critic; and last as a historian who wrote the classic 1948 biography of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Three Who Made a Revolution. He became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution in 1966.

Ella was no appendage. Born in the Ukraine in 1896, she moved with her parents to Brooklyn around 1906; her marriage in 1917 didn’t interrupt her studies at Hunter College. While taking law courses at NYU, she worked for socialist causes. Over the years, apart from her own political activity and a career teaching Spanish literature in New York colleges and schools, she helped Bertram with research and editing. After his death in 1977, she spent 20 years organizing his papers and her own, housed in the Hoover Archives.

Still, until she died in January 2000, Ella Wolfe was never a subject, always a source, for biographers and historians—called upon to shed light on the male Communist leaders or her friend Frida Kahlo or the Red Scare, as she did for the screenwriters of Warren Beatty’s Reds. The longest reference to Ella in Bertram Wolfe’s autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries (1981), which she saw through to its posthumous publication, tells of her housewifelike service sewing money and documents inside his coat when he feared deportation from Mexico.

But history’s bit players often deserve a closer look. Hundreds of Ella Wolfe’s archived letters and an oral history taped by Hoover senior fellow Ramon Myers in 1982 offer the observations, insights and worldview of a fascinating character. Above all, they reveal a bright, energetic woman’s struggle for her own identity at a time when women were breaking free of Victorian restraints but hadn’t fully emerged from men’s shadows.

During the couple’s many sojourns in Mexico, Wolfe threw herself into Party work. She recruited members; prepared reports for Jay Lovestone, one of the American Communist Party’s founders; launched an anti-imperialist bulletin; served as a go-between for the Russian and Mexican Communists; and wrote for the Party press and Communist newspapers in Mexico. Much of the time she fended for herself, while Bertram traveled abroad on Party business.

In a letter dated August 16, 1924, she wrote provocatively of her exploits trying to locate “dope on American imperialism in Mexico” at the request of Party member Scott Nearing. “The only way to obtain things here is by personal pull,” she writes. “The original documents Nearing refers to are under lock and key in the Ministry of Foreign Relations. The government will not give any permission, especially at this time, to look at them. The only way is to make love to the man who holds the keys. I am arranging an ambush for him. You see, I have a pull with Señor Rafael Lopez, the Chief of the National Archives. He has some good friends in Foreign Relations, and we shall work these advantages for what they’re worth and watch for results.”

In fact, Wolfe helped advance the anti-imperialist movement in Mexico. At critical junctures, she often served as the diplomatic liaison between the American and Mexican Communist parties, as well as a valued source of inside information gleaned from her contacts.

Later, she accompanied Bertram to Moscow, where he was a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928. After a stormy dispute with Stalin over what he considered the American Party’s too-democratic policies, Bertram fell out with the Soviets. Two years later, Ella quit the Party herself rather than denounce her husband as a traitor. But the two did not renounce communist ideals until 1939. A passage she wrote in 1924 sets forth the critical distinction: “My communism is much more of a faith, a religion if you will, than a rational striving.”

For all her organizational zeal, Wolfe didn’t lose sight of the common laborer whose plight inspired her politics. In one letter to Lovestone from Mexico, she told of an eight-day trip to an Indian village:

“I had the feeling that I had gone back four centuries. . . . You can see the broad sombrero and a colorful serape (blanket) following the overburdened donkeys . . . from before sunrise until late into the night. . . . The class that suffers most are the servants, especially in the small villages, where they work without end for two to three pesos a month—that is from one to two dollars. They are absolutely enslaved. And I see no hope for the Mexican revolutions—they are struggles for personal power. They have done nothing for the people in whose name they are fought. Until Mexico develops industrially and lays the foundation for a true workers’ organization that can struggle and fight from the point of view of classes—and not mere personalities—I see no hope for the Mexico Indian.”

Wolfe’s letters to Lovestone also expressed her frustration with the sexism of the times, displayed even by the Party and Lovestone himself. On one occasion, he wrote of his surprise at her facility in Spanish: “To tell you the truth, I was not surprised that Bert is doing well in his new venture. It’s just like him to swallow up languages. Yet, I did not think that you were so ravenously inclined in that direction. However, under Bert’s inspiration you can do anything and everything very well. I am not kidding about it either.”

Her reaction was sharp. “The world—even our radical world—seems to feel that when a woman marries she is completely lost—that whatever charm or ability she may have had before marriage upon marriage either disappears or is attributed to the husband. Curiously enough I feel that my personality has remained unchanged. Influenced—yes, modified, perhaps, but at bottom the same. Do you think I am studying because Bert wants me to? Do you think I love books because Bert reads? Do you think my mastery of Spanish is due to Bert’s acquisition of a large vocabulary of Spanish? As a matter of fact (unbelievable as it may sound to you), everybody here says I speak Spanish better than Bert does. And you never suspected that I had any such capacity.”

Back in New York in 1928, Ella railed against the treatment of women by the Lovestone faction of the American Communists. “They are looked upon and treated as fourth class citizens, although I consider the native ability of most of them at least on the same level as the native ability of some of the mediocre peacocks strutting about 14th Street. I consider you [Lovestone] completely responsible; for you are the one who sets that tone and mode. The women of our group . . . are given no opportunity for growth and development. On the contrary, should they show some special aptitude, they are squashed.”

Wolfe may have been reacting to more than the sting of sexism, for some of her correspondence with Lovestone suggested she had deeper feelings than friendship toward this charismatic figure. She called him her “dear blond beast.” She took his offhand comments as personal insults and defended herself with disproportionate rage. But whatever feelings she had, the letters indicate that Wolfe and Lovestone respected each other’s intelligence and enjoyed verbal sparring. Like the Wolfes, Lovestone turned against Communism, working behind the scenes with the AFL-CIO and CIA during the Cold War.

Wolfe took it upon herself to lend a common touch to both Lovestone’s and her husband’s writings, which she often thought assumed too much political and historical knowledge on the part of readers. In her interviews with Myers, she described poring over the rough drafts of all Bertram’s books. “I would say, ‘You know, Bert, no man on the street would understand this unless you cut this up,’ or whatever. And then he would have a tantrum every time. . . . two or three days later, he would correct it and bring it back for another reading. . . . I found that very interesting.”

Ella Wolfe’s social life was as active as her politics. In Mexico City in the 1920s, the Wolfes became staunch members of the bohemian crowd and grew popular for their Friday night dinner parties. Soon the two were hiking lava-pocked mountains with the muralist Diego Rivera, who always walked with sketchbook in tow. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In 1939, Bertram’s biography Diego Rivera: His Life and Times was published.

In her oral history, Wolfe described to Ramon Myers a telling scene at the painter’s studio. She’d discovered a box of unopened letters and offered to look at them for Rivera. “Listen, Ramon, I opened those 75 letters which had been lying there for several years. Each one of them had a check—for $500, $1,000, $2,000—checks that people had sent in for things they’d purchased. That was really something!”

The couple also came to know Rivera’s second wife, the fiery Frida Kahlo. An unlikely bond formed between Ella and the sensual, bisexual, foul-mouthed painter, whose numerous paramours included Leon Trotsky.

Perhaps it was a shared lust for the beautiful that drew the two women together. When each of them had a near-fatal experience, neither thought first of her health. “Que precioso [How beautiful!],” cried a hemorrhaging Kahlo after a miscarriage, as she was wheeled to a basement operating room and saw a kaleidoscope of colored pipes above. Wolfe, recounting a traffic accident that left her lying on the ground with 30 shards of glass piercing her lungs, said to Myers: “I looked at the sky, and it was the most beautiful blue sky in June, and I said to myself, ‘What a shame to die on a day like this.’”

Whatever cemented their friendship, it survived the communication lapses that mar less hardy relationships. Until Kahlo’s death in 1954, Wolfe was a confidante, as Kahlo’s correspondence, also housed in the Hoover Archives, shows.

“Beautiful Ella,” Kahlo wrote in 1934, “I don’t know why I feel such a relief by telling you what is happening to me. Maybe it is because you love me a little and so I take advantage to unload on you a bit of the burden on my shoulders . . . . Write to me, beautiful, and tell me what you have been doing, how you are, and when you are coming so you can take away Chicua’s bad mood. . . .”

Overshadowed by her husband in politics and letters, Ella Wolfe finally found her own place in the field of Spanish literature—a love discovered in Mexico. She told Myers about her first visit to the Mexico City library, where she and Bertram discovered hundreds of books and manuscripts piled every which way behind a large Chinese screen. When they asked the librarian about them, she replied that they had been brought to Mexico by Cortez and his men, and the librarians simply hadn’t had a chance to catalog them yet. Wolfe was captivated by that response and by “a culture and a civilization where time has stood still.” In June 1923, she wrote Lovestone: “The university courses [she was taking in Mexico] have opened up fields of rich treasures.” Her socialist compassion for the common laborer and her love of Spanish letters came together in her postgraduate work at Columbia University in the 1940s, when she discovered Argentinian literature, with its heroic depiction of the peasant class.

Wolfe seemed proudest of her teaching years—Spanish literature at Columbia, Hunter College and New York City public schools and English to foreign students at the city’s Rand School of Social Science. “That was my province,” she told Myers. “I loved what I was doing . . .[teaching] the love of excellence and truth and integrity . . . you had a feeling that you were doing the best that you could.”

Still, Ella Wolfe’s voluminous correspondence suggests an unfulfilled potential. Her niece, Beth Rubino, says that Ella’s “pride and joy was Bert . . . what gave her value was Bert’s value” but concedes things might have been different in a different era. “I tend to believe that, if he had died earlier, she would have pursued more of her independence. It probably was fear that she as Ella Wolfe would not have succeeded.”

Indeed, when Ramon Myers asked Wolfe if there would ever be a project to publish her papers, she seemed dumbfounded. After a moment of silence, the 86-year-old laughed awkwardly and said, “They have no importance, really.”

Jeanene Harlick is a former Hoover Institution research assistant now writing for the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel.

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