Bryant, Louise (1885–1936)
Bryant, Louise (1885–1936)
American journalist who witnessed the Soviet revolution in Russia and became one of its outspoken defenders. Born Anna Louisa Mohan on December 5, 1885, in San Francisco, California; died on January 6, 1936, in Paris, France; daughter of Hugh J. (a journalist) and Anna Louisa (Flick) Mohan (a dressmaker); attended University of Nevada, University of Oregon; married Paul Trullinger, November 13, 1909 (divorced, 1917); married John Reed, November 9, 1916 (died, October 19, 1920); married William C. Bullitt, December 23, 1923 (divorced, March 1930); children: (third marriage) Anne Bullitt (b. 1924).
Parents divorced (1888); mother married Sheridan Daniel Bryant (1892); entered liberal arts college, University of Nevada (1904); entered University of Oregon (1906); spoke for suffrage in Oregon (1912); served as society editor of the Portland Spectator (1913); moved to New York (1916); traveled to Russia (August 1917); returned to New York (February 1918); testified before Senate subcommittee on Russia (February 1919); joined suffrage picket of White House (1919); went on speaking tour of U.S. (1919); returned to Soviet Union (August 1919); traveled to Middle East (1920–21); diagnosed with incurable disease (1928).
Six Red Months in Russia (1918); Mirrors of Moscow (1923).
When Louise Bryant arrived in Petrograd in the summer of 1917, she found the ancient Russian city under the rule of a Provisional Government, which had replaced the tsar's regime after the February revolution. The city was threatened by reactionary forces. Quickly, Bryant and her companion, the poet and journalist John Reed, became persuaded that the future of the Russian Revolution lay not with the narrow base supporting the mildly socialist premier Alexander Kerensky
but with the urban working class and revolutionary socialists, especially the Bolsheviks, currently led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
Few American journalists were on the scene. Of them, Bryant, who had been steeped in the cultural radicalism of the New York avantgarde, was exceptionally observant of details relating to women and sexuality. "Russian women are peculiar in regard to dress," she wrote in one dispatch. "If they are interested in revolution they almost invariably refuse to think of dress at all, and go about looking noticeably shabby—if they are not interested, they care exceedingly for clothes and manage to array themselves in the most fantastic inspirations."
As she spoke with revolutionary leaders, Bryant was particularly impressed by the women. She was fond above all of Catherine Breshkovsky , who was known by the nickname "Grandmother of the Revolution." She also was struck by Alexandra Kollontai , the most prominent female Bolshevik: "She often disagrees with Lenin and Trotsky, but she told me herself that she would never desert the ranks of the proletariat, 'if they made every mistake on the calendar!'" Her support for the Russian Revolution did not deter Bryant from the frankest assessment of its partisans. She admired Lenin, while depicting him as "sheer intellect, … absorbed, cold, unattractive, impatient at interruption."
Louise Bryant was born Anna Louisa Mohan in 1885. Her father had also been a radical and journalist, but that familial legacy was shrouded from her knowledge. Bryant knew little about her father since he left the family when she was barely a toddler. Hugh Mohan, an Irish Roman Catholic, had grown up in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, where he worked in coal mines as a boy. In 1876, he was secretary of the Workingman's State Anti-Monopoly Convention in Harrisburg, and later he worked for three Catholic Congressional representatives in Washington. For most of his life, he was a journalist. His marriage to Anna Louisa Flick, a dressmaker in San Francisco, was brief. Their daughter Louise was only three years old when Anna Mohan was granted a divorce on the grounds that her husband was habitually drunk, improvident, and absent.
In 1892, when Louise was six, her mother married Sheridan Daniel Bryant, a brakeman and later conductor on the Southern Pacific railroad. Each of the three Mohan children took their new father's last name. Louise was sent for a time to be raised on the ranch of her mother's stepfather in the Nevada desert, where she was educated by an ancient Chinese overseer. At 14, she returned to her mother in Wadsworth, Nevada. She underwent rigorous preparation for higher education, which her mother thought very important, by attending Wadsworth High School and taking classes at the University of Nevada's high school in Reno.
In 1904, Bryant entered the liberal arts college of the University of Nevada, where she joined the staff of the Student Record and the literary magazine Chuckawalla. In September 1906, she registered as a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she stood out as a free spirit among her 500 contemporaries. With four other young women, she started the Chi Omega sorority chapter on campus, serving as its first president, and she created a small scandal as the first student to wear rouge.
Bryant secretly married Dr. Paul Trullinger, a dentist, in 1909 after she moved to Portland, the largest city in Oregon. One of their acquaintances at the time would later describe Trullinger as "a nice but unintellectual man, not the kind of man to hold a woman like Louise." The couple lived in a houseboat in the Oregon Yacht Club harbor on the Willamette River, but Bryant kept her name and maintained an independent studio, where she sketched. Two of Portland's prominent radicals, Sara Bard Field and C(harles) E(rskine) S. Wood, introduced Bryant to the fight for women's suffrage during the campaign of 1912 and to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Bryant began publishing sketches and occasional articles in the Spectator, a Portland weekly for which she became society editor in 1913, and she solicited subscriptions from her friends for The Masses, a left-wing magazine published in New York.
When John Reed, one of The Masses' most vivid writers, visited Oregon on a speaking and fundraising tour for the magazine in December 1915, Bryant sought him out. Reed had grown up in Portland, graduated from Harvard, and won national fame as a brilliant journalist. He was known as one of the finest writers of the American left, a daring correspondent who had ridden with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. He and Bryant immediately fell in love. "She's wild, brave and straight—and graceful and lovely to look at," Reed wrote to a friend. "I think she's the first person I ever loved without reservation."
Leaving her husband behind and shattered (he would divorce her in 1917), Bryant arrived at Grand Central Station in New York City on January 4, 1916. Reed was waiting for her on the platform. They lived together in an apartment off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Soon Bryant was immersed in Reed's world of poets, sexual radicals and revolutionaries. "I used to drop in on them," recalled Albert Boni, a bookstore owner whose shop was a magnet for Village literary life. "I'd go in and find them in bed and I'd just pull up a chair and we'd talk. Jack and Louise had a lovely relationship."
That summer, Reed and Bryant rented a furnished house along the Cape Cod shore at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where other writers and artists, including Max Eastman and Mary Heaton Vorse , were spending the season. After a week, Reed had to leave for Chicago and St. Louis to cover the Republicans' and Democrats' national political conventions. Bryant began to become a more serious writer. She wrote "The Poet's Revolution," an essay on the Easter Rebellion in Ireland that was published in The Masses, and when she sent Masses editor Floyd Dell six of her poems, he replied, "These poems hit me hard. I think they are almost terribly beautiful—like Greek fragments."
Theater was a focus of creativity for the Bohemian summer colony in Provincetown. Bryant wrote The Game: A Morality Play and portrayed the Dancer in Thirst, a drama by Eugene O'Neill, the hottest new talent in the circle of young artists and writers. Soon she and O'Neill could be seen talking for hours on the beach together. Bryant claimed she was trying to wean O'Neill from the bottle, but she was fascinated by him, and O'Neill had fallen head over heels. "When Louise touches me with the tip of her little finger it's like a flame," he wrote to a friend.
Despite rumors of an affair, Reed did not permit O'Neill to stand between himself and Bryant when he returned from his journalistic assignments. When summer ended, much of the group went back to New York. O'Neill took up an apartment close to Reed and Bryant. That fall, the Provincetown Players opened on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, showcasing for New York the experimental theatrical productions of the summer. Reed played death in Bryant's The Game, but the show was overshadowed by O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff.
In October, Reed bought a house at Crotonon-Hudson, 30 miles from New York, putting it in Bryant's name. On November 9, Reed and Bryant married in Peekskill, the union prompted by Reed's fear that he might die from diseases that troubled him from the time of his coverage of the war in Serbia. Bryant herself was afflicted with a tubular abscess. Though both kept writing—Bryant's poem, "Lost Music," appeared in the January Masses—they spent the winter recuperating.
Field, Sara Bard (b. 1882)
American poet. Born Sara Bard Field in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1882; sister of Mary Field Parton (head of a social settlement in Chicago); moved to Detroit at age three; married a minister named Ehrgott (1900); children: one son (b. 1901), another son and a daughter.
In 1900, Sara Bard Field married a minister named Ehrgott, many years her senior, who had just been accepted by a Eurasian Baptist Church in Rangoon, Burma. While there, Field beheld the English-Christian exploitation of a "brave, free, simple, and essentially spiritual people. I saw the famine sufferers from India whose distress, I knew, had drawn pennies from the ragged pockets of bootblacks and washerwomen in America, and watched quantities of rice, wheat, and tea being exported from the land by the wealthy landlords. I saw 'pagans' whose morality shamed many Christians. These things wakened my mind and soul. I grew up." Field's ill health forced the family's return to America, where she audited courses at Yale while living in New Haven, Connecticut; it was there, in a short span of a few months, that she was told by her professor that she was a poet.
The family then moved to a poor parish in Cleveland, where she and her husband continued to mingle with liberals and socialists, meeting Clarence Darrow, and reading books supplied by her sister Mary Field Parton who was the head of a settlement house. When the "wealthy and orthodox" trustees of the church asked for their resignation, the family moved once more to Portland, Oregon. There, Field organized the College Equal Suffrage League, helped in the Nevada campaign for suffrage, and traveled throughout the country speaking in the interests of national suffrage. Called "one of the finest spirits of our time," by William Rose Benet, who found her poetry to be "coruscatingly imaginative" and "poignantly human," Field's writings included The Pale Woman (1927); Barabbas (1932); and Darkling Plain (1936).
sources and suggested reading:
Saturday Review. December 19, 1936.
In May 1918, Bryant visited O'Neill in Provincetown for a week but returned to Reed in Croton after receiving a telegram that read, "Peach trees blooming and wrens have taken their house." That was the last of her affair with O'Neill, which he may later have dramatized in his play Strange Interlude (1928), in which a man shares a lover with a friend.
After her return, Bryant learned that Reed, too, had had occasional brief affairs. Outraged by the news, she decided to leave for Europe as a war correspondent. Reed helped her get press credentials from the just-organized Bell Syndicate, and she sailed on June 9, 1917, passing through the submarine-ridden Atlantic. She and Reed began to write one another before her boat had left the harbor. "I have always loved you my darling ever since I first met you," wrote Reed, "and I guess I always will. This is more than I've ever felt for anyone, honestly. I know that the one thing I cannot bear any more is consciously to hurt you, honey." Bryant drafted a story that Reed combined with more vivid parts of her letters, rearranging more than rewriting, and sold to the New York American. The separation made both aware of their love. Consumed with loneliness and longing, Bryant returned home in August.
Within weeks, both were aboard a steamer bound for Russia by way of Stockholm. Bryant bore credentials from Metropolitan magazine and Bell Syndicate. Reed—one of the best-known and best-paid reporters in the country prior to the war—had achieved notoriety by his principled opposition to the war. His credentials were from The Masses and the New York Call, newspapers of the Socialist Party. From Stockholm, the couple took a train through the forests of northern Sweden into Russia, reaching the Finland Station in Petrograd at the end of August on the Russian calendar.
Revolutions do not run along set formulas.
Reed and Bryant made the Russian Revolution their own and eagerly pursued its every development. The Provisional Government was wobbly, beleaguered. The Bolsheviks had obtained a majority of delegates in the Moscow and Petrograd soviets—those multiparty councils organized by workers, peasants, and soldiers, which constituted a "dual power," as Lenin put it. Their publicity called for withdrawal from the European war, land for the peasantry, and bread for all. In late October (November 6–7 on the modern calendar), Bryant and Reed were present as the Bolsheviks initiated the Soviet Revolution in Petrograd. After six days, they traveled to Moscow on the first train to enter the city since the Soviet Revolution. They filed press reports all the while, and the dramatic scenes they witnessed would serve as the subject of Bryant's first book, Six Red Months in Russia (1918), and Reed's famous Ten Days that Shook the World (1919).
Russia was an inspiring new backdrop for the combination of romanticism and revolution, personal passion and radical ardor, that Reed and Bryant had cultivated in Greenwich Village. Bryant's poem to Reed in Christmas 1917 emphasized the tie between their comraderie and love:
I want you to know that sometimes when I am thinking
I have a lump in my throat
And I am a little bit awed.
You are the finest person I know
On both sides of the world
And it is a nice privilege to be your comrade.
When she returned to New York in February 1918, Bryant devoted herself to telling the American public what she had seen in Russia. Her 32 stories ran in over 100 papers in the U.S. and Canada, with publisher's interest high because eyewitness reports on events in Russia were rare. Bryant simultaneously strove to achieve the release of Reed, who had been detained in Norway on the trumped-up charge that he was a Bolshevik agent. None of Bryant's letters were permitted to reach him, and the State Department only allowed one of his to reach her. Finally, Reed reached the U.S. on April 28, 1918, where he was detained all day, and Naval Intelligence officers seized his papers, posters, clippings and notes on daily events in Russia.
Bryant and Reed, persuaded of the coming of world revolution, threw themselves into defense of the first workers' government in history. In October 1918, Bryant's book was published and favorably received. On February 2, 1919, she and Albert Rhys Williams, who had been a companion of Reed and Bryant in Moscow, spoke in Washington on "The Truth About Russia" to several thousand. Bryant was so engaging that the Washington Post called her a female Trotsky.
Bryant joined a picket line outside the White House for women's suffrage, and on February 20, 1919, she testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Bolshevik propaganda, headed by Senator Lee S. Overman (Dem., S.C.). The first witness to criticize the senators' presumptions about the new republic to the East, she was frequently interrupted and bullied by committee members. Asked a series of questions about her religious beliefs, Bryant replied drily, "It seems to me as if I were being tried for witchcraft." She appealed for non-intervention: "I think the Russians ought to settle their internal troubles, and I think it is a shame to have American boys killed determining what form of government there should be in Russia."
Catapulted to renown by her testimony, Bryant embarked on a national speaking tour in 1919. From Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis, where Sinclair Lewis came to hear her speak, she proceeded as far west as Spokane, Seattle, and Tacoma. She addressed thousands of people hungry for reliable knowledge about the newborn revolution, often in union halls. In Tacoma, still vibrant from Seattle's recent general strike, Bryant called the Soviet revolution "one great general strike against the governments of the whole world." In her old haunt, Portland, 4,000 filled the Civic Auditorium and watched as Bryant tossed back her cape at the end of her oration to reveal that it was lined in red.
Bryant had told the Overman subcommittee that she was a socialist, but she did not join the Socialist Party. In a personal letter in 1919 to the editor of Soviet Russia, she explained that she had kept beyond "the limits of any organization, … even the Socialist Party," because of her belief that it was the only way "to be honest with my own conscience." She was sanguine about the prospects of revolution in the U.S., even though 1919, a year of massive strikes in steel and other basic U.S. industries, also brought the Palmer raids and Red Scare. Bryant, in an article in Voice of Labor, declared, "Jails full of political prisoners are the most faithful indicators of how near a country is to revolution."
When the left wing of the Socialist Party split into bickering factions and both factions sought to join the Communist International, Reed, a Socialist Party member, left for Russia as representative of the newly created Communist Labor Party to compete for Comintern affiliation with his erstwhile comrade Louis Fraina, now representative of the Communist Party. The Comintern instructed the two groups to merge. In March 1920, while he tried to return from Russia, Reed was captured in Finland, a nation controlled by counter-revolutionary forces. On April 9, newspapers carried the erroneous report that he had been executed. In June, Reed was finally delivered into Russian hands in exchange for three Finnish professors returned by the Soviets.
Bryant decided to rejoin Reed. Refused a passport, she posed as a Swedish businessman's wife, passing through Scandinavia to Petrograd in August. But when she got there she found Reed gone, removed by train to Baku in the Caucasus for the "first congress of the peoples of the East," where he delivered a speech against U.S. imperialism in Cuba, the Philippines, and Central America.
When they were at last reunited on September 15, Bryant and Reed promised each other that they would never again be separated and talked of having children. At the Second Congress of the Comintern, Reed had pleaded the cause of blacks in the U.S. and had lost a stiff fight on trade union policy, but when Reed took Bryant to meet Lenin she sensed warmth between the two men despite their recent strategic disagreements. Lenin's interview with Bryant was the first he had granted to an American newspaper or press association, and Reed also introduced her to Trotsky and Bela Kun, whom she interviewed for Hearst's International News Service.
In mid-October, Reed fell ill. His disease, at first mistaken for influenza, was typhus contracted during his journey to Baku, and he became delirious and unable to speak. After Bryant spent five days by his bedside, Reed clenching her hand, he died on October 17, 1920, at age 32, a victim of the capitalist blockade that had deprived Moscow hospitals of medications. During the funeral procession from the Labor Temple to Red Square—with Alexandra Kollontai, Emma Goldman , Alexander Berkman, Big Bill Haywood, Nikolai Bukharin and Karl Radek in attendance—Bryant fainted and was removed to her hotel room to rest. "Jack's illness and his death brought me closer to him than all our life together did," she wrote. "And when he had gone I found myself alone in a strange world and everything smashed to hell."
Bryant paid a visit to Lenin and told him she wished to travel to the Middle East. He readily assented, giving her a letter insuring passage on any train and a room in any government hotel, as well as a two-soldier escort. Her train, moving across the icy steppes, was stopped by snowfall at night. Going as far as the "edge of Persia and Afghanistan, … the only reporter who has been there in six years," Bryant found Soviet policy toward the Muslims remarkably sensitive, particularly in comparison to the tsarist past and British present. In the Ukraine, she met Christian Rakovsky, the region's most powerful Communist, who spoke frankly of ongoing problems: pogroms against Jews, banditry, feudal residues.
In 1921, Bryant returned to the U.S. A new series of 16 of her stories ran in Hearst newspapers in August. Of the Soviet leadership, she wrote, "Lenin I knew best and liked most," for he was "a terrific fighter" with "the tenacity of a bulldog." The mood of her writing, though still evocative and impressionistic, was more sober than the rapture of her earliest reports. Kollontai, Bryant reported, had talked of "the gray days of the revolution" and warned her, "If you look for that high elation you saw here in 1917 you will be disappointed." Bryant spoke at a memorial meeting of 2,000 for John Reed on October 17, 1921, in the Central Opera House of New York, appealing for an end to the starvation of Russia by blockade. Shortly after a stroke paralyzed Lenin in 1922, Bryant wrote a series of stories on him and his lieutenants called "Mirrors of Moscow," and she gave the same title to a book of her portraits of Soviet leaders published the following year.
In 1922, Bryant returned to Russia, still without passport, and then journeyed to Italy, where she interviewed Benito Mussolini. Sometime during this period, while in Paris, Bryant met William Christian Bullitt, offspring of a distinguished Philadelphia family. Few of her radical acquaintances could believe she had become involved with a high society scion, even though Bullitt was a former diplomat under Woodrow Wilson who had resigned in protest of Wilson's policy toward Russia and advocated U.S. recognition of the USSR. After marrying in Paris on December 10, 1923, the two spent their honeymoon in a Constantinople palace. In 1924, a daughter Anne was born to Bryant (who kept her maiden name through all her marriages).
When Bryant returned briefly with Bullitt and the child to the U.S. in September 1926, she granted an interview to the New York American. Not only did she reaffirm her opposition to Wilsonian policy—noting the ineffectuality of the League of Nations in the face of Italian imperialism and the issuance of dictatorship instead of democracy after the war in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Belgium—but she gave a caustic and prescient assessment of the course of Russia under Stalin. "I look to see Russia become one of the conservative nations of the world," she told her interviewer, "and I believe all signs point toward this and most certainly against any possibility of the much-planned realization of the slogan, 'Workers of the World, Unite.'"
Bullitt, it turned out, was an extremely intricate and erratic figure. Fearing that he had a suicide complex, he sought analysis under Sigmund Freud in Vienna. (Eventually he would co-author a book with Freud on Woodrow Wilson.) Bryant's own life was increasingly miserable. Like many expatriates in Paris during the 1920s, she drank heavily. She encouraged young voices, such as Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, but her own work tapered off. Bryant suffered from a baffling illness that doctors in 1928 finally diagnosed as adiposis dolorosa, a rare, incurable, disfiguring disease that is not fatal but induces misery.
At a hearing without Bryant present, William Bullitt sought a divorce in Philadelphia in December 1929; he alleged, without foundation, that she was guilty of lesbianism, excessive drinking, and attempted suicide, never mentioning her chronic disease. Bullitt, who went on to become an ambassador under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, was granted the divorce in March 1930 and full custody of Anne. Bryant was never permitted to see her daughter again.
Bryant's criticism of the new conservatism and dictatorship in Soviet Russia never led her to renounce the goals of 1917. She gave thought to writing a biography of John Reed and began work on a memoir of her life, but she was emotionally volatile and experienced great fluctuations in weight due to her disease. Friends suspected that she was escaping her pain through heavy drinking and drug use. On January 6, 1936, at the age of 50, Louise Bryant died in a Paris hospital of a cerebral hemorrhage soon after collapsing while climbing the stairs to her modest room in the Hotel Liberia.
Bryant, Louise. Six Red Months in Russia (1918). London: Journeyman, 1982.
——. Mirrors of Moscow. NY: Thomas Seltzer, 1923.
Gardner, Virginia. "Friend and Lover": The Life of Louise Bryant. NY: Horizon, 1982.
Homberger, Eric, ed. John Reed and the Russian Revolution. NY: St. Martin's, 1992 (contains article jointly written by Reed and Bryant).
Balabanoff, Angelica. My Life as a Rebel. NY: Harper, 1938.
Dearborn, Mary V. Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Goldman, Emma. Living My Life (1931). Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1934.
Hicks, Granville. John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary. NY: Macmillan, 1937.
O'Connor, Richard, and Dale L. Walker. The Lost Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed. NY: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967.
Robbins, Jack Alan, ed. The Complete Poetry of John Reed. Washington: University Press of America, 1983.
Rosenstone, Robert A. Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (1975). NY: Vintage, 1981.
John Reed Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Reds (3 hrs.), an epic Hollywood film directed and produced by Warren Beatty, with Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, Paramount Pictures, 1981.
Christopher Phelps , Rush Rhees fellow in U.S. history, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York