Dorothy Day: The One-Woman Revolution

I was introduced to a quietly imposing woman without makeup who wore her grey hair in a braid around her head, like a peasant or one of those strong Midwestern farm women painted by Grant Wood, or portrayed by Willa Cather in O Pioneers. She was Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and guiding spirit of the movement of the same name. Dorothy greeted me politely, reservedly and rather sternly. and let me see a copy of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which sold for a penny, and was published on May Day of 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression. When I read the first editorial, one that she wrote, I had to sit down and copy it into my notebook. It said the paper would not be restricted to the people of of any one religion or political belief, any one color of skin or cut of clothes, but that it was   

“For those who are sitting on benches in he warm spring sunlight.
“For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain.
“For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work
“For those who think there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight.”

I felt a tinge from the power of the words and of the woman who wrote them. When I looked up, she was gone.

The Catholic Worker had a “Hospitality House” in the Bowery – unlike the “Mission Houses” in the Bower – the section of Manhattan where the winos and derelicts gathered – you didn’t have to declare yourself “saved by Jesus” to get fed. You didn’t have to sing a hymn. All you had to do was be hungry.

I wrote about Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker in my second article published in The Nation magazine (“Miracle in the Bowery”) and I got to be friends with some of the young volunteers who had come from all across the country to live and work there – Michael Harrington, who went on to write The Other America that inspired the LBJ poverty program, and Ned O’Gorman, the poet who wrote reviews for Commonweal magazine. I also met Mary Ann McCoy, Eileen Fantino and Helen Russell, who had started a day care center for children in East Harlem, where I went to live and write my first book Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem.

After my article about The Catholic Worker came out in The Nation, Dorothy wouldn’t speak to me. I was shocked, because I had praised her and her work. Finally, I learned that she was upset that I had cited a fact from her Bohemian past that I had learned from Malcolm Cowley’s book Exile’s Return, about the writers who had lived in Paris in the ‘Twenties and came home to America in the next decade. Cowley had written that in the Village in the ‘Twenties, “Dorothy Day was the only one who could drink Eugene O’Neill under the table.” I though that was a great achievement; she felt it glamorized the destructive fantasy of my era of the ‘Fifties that drinking yourself to an early death was a literary achievement.  I hope that anecdote does not derail the movement for her canonization which began in the ‘Seventies and continues to this day.

Pope Francis became the first pontiff to comment on Dorothy Day in September of 2015 when he spoke to the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court. He spoke of the challenges of environmental collapse, poverty and migration, and singled out four Americans who gave us “a way of seeing and interpreting reality” that he said is desperately needed in our time: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

The information on the Pope’s talk to Congress is from the excellent new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (Simon and Schuster).


New trailer for Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

My friend Bob Weide has a new documentary about Kurt coming called Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. He writes:

I first approached Vonnegut about making this film in 1982, when I was 23 and he was an old man of 60. As we now put the finishing touches on the film, I am, myself, in my 60th year.

Time flies. Fate happens.

This started out as a rather conventional biographical author documentary, but as years turned into decades, and my relationship to my subject continued to evolve, it became something quite different.

You’ll see.

My co-director, Don Argott and I were getting ready to approach distributors and submit to festivals in February when the world changed. Now that festivals are on hold, and nobody is putting films in cinemas for the foreseeable future, we’re rethinking our game plan. For the time being, we’re eager to get the word out that this film is about to become a reality after 38 years, so if you’re active on social media, we’d be thankful if you can help us by posting the Youtube link wherever you can.

But that would be a bonus. The main thing is that you simply enjoy this sneak preview of my latest effort.


Thelonious Explains…

This post is part two of a series about New York in the ’50s. You can read the first here.

A proud and private man, known as an eccentric, even in the jazz world, Thelonious Monk was given to wearing capes, an assortment of hats and caps from silk to fur, and sunglasses with bamboo rims. One night in 1957 he was playing his solo set of the evening at The Five Spot when he was interrupted by a shout from the audience.  A man who must have had far too many of the Five Spot’s fifteen cent beers yelled “We wanna hear Coltrane!” 

Monk said “Coltrane bust up his horn.” 

After the intermission, when Monk came out again and began to play, the heckler became more hostile and asked Monk what he meant when he said Coltrane “bust up his horn.”   Monk stood up at the piano and delivered the following dissertation:     

NY in the 50s

“Mr. Coltrane plays a wind instrument. The sound is produced by blowing into it and opening different holes to let air out. Over some of these holes is a felt pad. One of Mr. Coltrane’s felt pads has fallen off, and in order for him to get the sound he wants, so that we can make better music for you, he is in the back making a new one. . .you dig?” 

The jazz critic Nat Hentoff called The Five Spot ‘the most significant jazz club since the clubs of Chicago in the twenties where Louise Armstrong played. The house group was Thelonious Monk and and John Coltrane. Musicians and lay people lined up three and four deep to get in.”  

Coltrane and Monk were followed by the bass player Charles Mingus and his group.

Allen Ginsberg told me “I got to know Charlie Mingus when he played at The Five Spot, and later at his wedding in Milbook, New York. I’d just come back from India and I knew monochromatic chanting – there were a lot of musicians interested in that mode, like Coltrane. I did a recording of it with Coltrane’s drummer. At Mingus’s wedding I was chanting mantras to Shiva, to Buddha. . .”

I heard Mingus more than once at The Five Spot. If people in the audience were talking, he stopped playing and waited for the talking to stop. He said if people wanted to talk they should go outside. If people continued talking, he ushered them out. The jazz musicians of New York in the Fifties brought dignity to their performances. One of the best and most creative groups was The Modern Jazz Quartet. They did not play in clubs or bars. They gave concerts. They wore tuxedos when they played. 

When I want to bring back the feel of the era, evoke the people and places, I play The Modern Jazz Quartet recording of their own composition, “No Sun in Venice.” Margot Hentoff, wife of the jazz critic and herself a fine writer said “The MJQ was the Fifties.”        There is a dvd documentary about Thelonious Monk called “Straight, No Chaser.” It shows his travels in New York and Europe and sometimes he sits down at the piano and plays songs like “Just a Gigolo” and “I Should Care.” He plays with an eloquence that makes the songs new. Still. Now. 

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield