The Portland Years of John Reed & Louise Bryant
By Michael Munk
Reed was a westerner and words meant what they said; when he said something standing with a classmate at the Harvard Club bar; he meant what he said from the soles of his feet to the waves of his untidy hair…Jack Reed was the best American writer of his time. — "Playboy" by John Dos Passos, 1919.
Reed was no theoretician; he could not learn from books. His education came through his eyes, which were the eyes of a poet..—Granville Hicks, 1935
I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World, with the greatest interest and close attention., I recommend it to the workers of the world without reservation. – Lenin, 1919
It was Oregon, all right: the place where stories begin that end someplace else. There are worse things. – H.L. Davis
At high noon on May 6, 2001 Portland welcomes the first site in the US to honor homeboy John Reed with a bench and plaque in Washington Park overlooking his birthplace. On that occasion, I offer this informal sketch of his and Louise Bryant’s life and times in the city. For those who want more, notes are provided.
If they know them at all, most Americans today would say they looked like Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, the romantic couple of Beatty’s 1981 film, "Reds." Although many younger Portlanders have never heard of him and some older ones continue to confuse his name with Reed College, the World Almanac insists John Reed is still one of Oregon’s "best known" natives. Still, despite a biography’s claim that "John Reed would never be a home-town Hero," Mayor Bud Clark officially declared his 100th birthday (October 22, 1987) as "John Reed Day" in Portland, and Multnomah County Chair Beverly Stein declared October 17-22, 1997 to be "John Reed and Louise Bryant Week."
Only the first few minutes of "Reds" depicts their meeting in the Portland of 1915, as Beatty devotes the rest of its generous length to their next five years of Bohemian art, love and political activism in New York, Cape Cod and France before ending with Jack’s death in the midst of the Soviet revolution.
But Jack (1887-1920) was, as Dos Passos also called him, a "robustious son of Oregon," all right; he lived more than half of his short life in Portland. That’s where he formed a view of the world that informed the rest of his life. And that’s where he met Louise Bryant (1885-1936) and where they became an item. But since the world knows them best for what they accomplished "someplace else," a look at where their stories began might help explain why they ended as they did.
Jack’s burial by the Kremlin wall with Soviet revolutionary honors famously ended his 33-year story of enthusiastic engagement in the passions of his time—expressed through poetry, literary and journalistic prose, and political action. And he’s still there by the Kremlin Wall, despite the efforts of some Russian restorers of capitalism to evict him, perhaps back to Portland. Although her own report on the Soviet revolution, Six Months in Red Russia, was published before Jack’s, Louise’s life after his death has not been judged a great success. Her gravestone, recently rehabilitated by Oregonians who don’t want the world to forget her, stands near Paris, where, in poor health for years, she died a sad and lonely death in 1936. But Davis is right: there are worse things…
Portland was Jack’s only home for the first 17 years of his life, when he was sent back east to boarding school. He called it his "home place," and returned for holiday visits and longer summer stays almost every year until he was 30. The last was a Christmas visit with his mother in 1915. That’s when he met Louise and she accepted his invitation to leave Portland and live with him in New York.
Louise did not share his Oregon roots. Already 20, she arrived from Nevada in 1907 to attend the University of Oregon —probably because her brother had been transferred to Eugene by the Southern Pacific Railroad. And right after meeting Jack in Portland eight years later, she left —with no evident regret—her husband, a new house, local career and the state. Louise never seems to have become a fan of what she called our "silly old town." Even on her last visit in 1919 to agitate against U.S. intervention in the Bolshevik Revolution before a packed house of 4,000 in the brand new Civic Auditorium, she was still complaining: "It gives me the cold shivers to even think of being in Portland." Still, she always remembered who she met there. Shortly before her death, in a hurriedly penciled postcard from Paris to the radical artist Art Young, she declared, "If I get [to heaven] before you do or later—tell Jack Reed I love him." Shortly before he died Reed wrote "A Letter to Louise" that ends
Let my longing lightly rest
On her flower petal breast
Till the red dawn set me free
To be with my sweet
Ever and forever…
Jack shared Louise’s contempt for the infamous political and artistic conservatism of Portland’s ruling class (he once declared that if he had to live here, "I’d go mad in a week!"), but he also often revealed his love for its natural environment and nostalgia for his adolescent haunts in Chinatown, Goose Hollow, Skid Road and the waterfront. His experiences in these working class neighborhoods provoked such dramatic contrasts with his own privileged environment that they surely opened the door to his later radical commitment to equality and justice. Perhaps his most poignant expression of his feelings for his "home place" came in his unlikely role of Oregon Journal art critic during his 1914 visit. Praising his new friend— the local painter and radical Carl Walters who was later to introduce him to Louise—he wrote
Portlanders understand and appreciate how differently beautiful is this part of the world—the white city against the deep evergreen of the hills, the snow mountains in the east, the everchanging river and its boat life—and the grays, blues and greens, the smoke dimmed sunsets and pearly hazes of August, so characteristic of the Pacific Northwest. Celebrating his identity with his native place, he pointedly declared, You don’t have to point out those things to our people."
Jack and his family lived in at least five homes in Portland, none of which survive. Indeed, the existing sites associated with Jack and Louise’s Portland are all hers—a studio and two homes. All the others have given way to what our cheap gas culture calls "development" and are now apartment buildings, strip malls, parking lots and freeways. Also challenging our reconstruction of their Portland years is that some of their more dramatic encounters—especially their first meeting—have achieved such mythic status that few witnesses or researchers agree on either the dates or places. Still, their local history offers some insights into the lives so colorfully depicted in "Reds". To the extent that their revolutionary commitment and artistic sensibility were influenced by the context of their early experience, Portland was clearly a factor.
John Reed was born in 1887 in "Cedar Hill," his grandfather’s "big house on the hill above the city" where his parents had lived since their marriage and would for at least three more years. It was built by capitalist Henry Dodge Green, who "got rich by swindling Indian tribes out of precious furs and using the profits to build water, gas and iron empires," and died of "acute alcoholism" before Jack was born. Green, who ranked as the city’s fourth wealthiest resident in 1870, had embarked on his exploitative career when Portland was, as Jack described it, "less than 30 years old, a little town carved out of the Oregon forests, with streets deep in mud and the wilderness coming down close around it."
Green’s daughter Margaret married C.J. Reed, a rising salesman. Their son Jack later recalled his birthplace, built in 1873, as "A lordly gray mansion modeled on a French chateau, with its immense park, its formal gardens, lawn, stables, greenhouses and glass grape arbor, the tame deer among the trees…the lawn terrace below the house was surrounded on three sides by great fir trees. On summer evenings," Jack claimed to remember, "canvas was laid on the turf, and people danced, illuminated by flaming gas jets which seemed to sprout from the trees…There was something fantastic in all that."
In 1890, H.W. Scott’s guide valued Green’s five acres above today’s intersection of NW 23rd Avenue and Burnside Street at $28,000 — one of only two dozen or so properties in the city then worth over $10,000. Scott went on to commend Cedar Hill for its "mansion and grounds of delightful architectural and decorative elements almost submerged in a forest of beautiful trees, with large hot-houses filled with exotics." It was, he rhapsodized, "a match for the sun and agnomen to the whole city upon which they look down. The magnificent panorama of river, mountain and forest it commands is not excelled on the Pacific coast."
By the time Jack returned to Portland for an extended stay in 1912, the estate had already been subdivided. Today it is fully "developed" into desirable residential and commercial properties, and its original driveways have become SW Cedar Street and SW Cactus Drive. But Jack’s grandparents are still officially evoked by adjacent SW Green Avenue, and the "magnificent" concrete steps that probably led to the estate’s stables northeast of the manor house, today link the dead ends of Cedar Street and Cactus Drive. Aside from perhaps a few stones in the undergrowth along Washington Park’s northeastern entry road, those steps are the only physical survivors of Jack’s "lordly" birthplace. The bench to be placed by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission overlooks the site of Cedar Hill.
Jack’s parents were active Episcopalians and the baptismal font where he participated in his first religious ceremony is still in use in the Chapel of the Trinity Church at NW Trinity Place and Everett Street. It was salvaged from the previous church downtown where he was baptized and attended Sunday School. Probably because he was an atheist when he wrote his brief memoir "Almost Thirty," Jack ignored the uppercrust religious aspect of his Portland upbringing while reminiscing expansively about housing, health, schools, Goose Hollow gangs, Chinatown and Chinese servants.
But Jack must have relied mainly on his elders and his imagination for his descriptions of Cedar Hill because he was not yet three when his family moved down the hill to what Jack called "a little house down in town," rented from the Sherlock sisters. Although he thought his family moved out of the Green mansion in 1890 because "we were poor," their new home was a part of a row of respectable, nicely detailed Queen Annes where the Reeds were still able to afford Chinese staff. It was demolished by the Sherlock heirs for a strip mall in the late 1960s and today its site is commercial space at 119 NW 21st Avenue at NW Davis Street.
In fact, the Reeds left Cedar Hill because Henry Green’s widow sold the entire estate in 1890—six years after her husband’s death. She probably took temporary residence in the Portland Hotel (in whose bar her brother Harry had committed public suicide in 1895 by drinking poison ) before moving only a block from the Reeds.
The family moved again in 1896 to what Jack described as an "apartment hotel" (called "The Hill" for its proprietor, Mrs. S. Virginia Hill) at SW Jefferson Street and 14th Avenue. From there Jack defended his turf as a member of the Fourteenth Street Gang, whose leader was an Irish boy, later to become a cop, who lived across the street. Later, "The Hill" was purchased by the Catholic Church and renamed "Residence Jeanne d’Arc," and finally, as the "Princess" Apartments, torn down around 1970. Today, the site is a parking lot adjacent to the Lincoln High School grounds.
An evident improvement in C.J. Reed’s financial situation in 1899 enabled the family to move once more at least partly back up Kings Hill to a house he bought at 233 Stout Street (today’s SW 20th Avenue). Known as the Gaston-Green-Jackson House until it was demolished, the site is today’s Hadley House apartments at 2020 SW Salmon Street. It was from Stout Street that Jack attended the private Portland Academy, down the hill on SW 13th Avenue between Montgomery and Hall.
Jack recalled trying to dig a tunnel between his King’s Hill home and his school, which he estimated to be a mile apart. This project may have been an unsuccessful effort to avoid class warfare with the "brutal Irish boys, many of whom grew up to be prizefighters and baseball stars" of the Montgomery Street Gang down in Goose Hollow—which he described as "sort of slum district." He confessed that he paid a "Goose Hollowite" a nickel not to hit him. That traditional Portland class consciousness, sharpened by his attendance with other privileged children in the Friday Evening Dancing Class—a venerable institution intended to reproduce Blue Book society— was expunged when Jack developed his famous political conscience. But despite such efforts to properly socialize him, he never seemed to fit comfortably in the class assigned him by birth. Fellow Portland Academy student Lesley Smith (later L.S. Miller of Gearhart) remembered that, even as a young teen, "everyone thought he was sort of queer." And not only that, she judged him a poor dancer.
When Jack was on the editorial board of his school’s literary magazine, The Troubadour, he confessed another kind of early cowardliness by heeding a schoolmate’s warning to censor a joke about him. The magazine’s editor, Ike Hunt, refined Smith’s characterization of Jack to "peculiar". MacCormac Snow, described as "Jack’s best boyhood friend," put it more sharply: "Portland, "he said, "generally was horrified" by him.
Jack’s writing career began in The Troubadour. In 1902, his "Columbia River" appeared in which the 15 year-old poet managed to relate three Northwest iconic images—the river of the title, local Indian tribes and Mount St. Helens—that remained important for him for the rest of his life.
Thus it was the tribe of Clatsops
In the dawn of living beings,
Was swept almost from existence
But across that deep, dark valley.
Flows a river, broad and lovely.
To the east the Smoking Mountain
Robed in Liao’s snowy blanket
Rises smokeless now to heaven,
Covered with eternal whiteness.
Another early writing effort, probably his first as prospective journalist, was composed for a local newspaper competition, "The Best Camping Experience," in June, 1903. Jack and four teenage friends, who called themselves "The High Fives," set out on a camping trip along the Willamette River, launching their rowboats near today’s Jennings Lodge and camping on a island two miles from Oregon City. Jack entered his essay but failed to win. Alan Cheuse begins his biographical novel about Reed with a recreation of that adventure based on Jack’s original text.
In the fall of 1904, Jack left Portland to attend Morristown School in New Jersey. Looking back in his most personally intimate essay from the vantage point of "Almost Thirty," Jack summed up his first 16 Portland years in these introspective words:
I was neither one thing nor the other, neither altogether coward nor brave, neither manly nor sissified, neither ashamed nor unashamed. I think that is why my impression of my childhood is an unhappy one, and why I have so few close friends in Portland, and why I don’t want ever again to live there.
But after his second year in New Jersey, he recovered enough affection for the more dramatic surroundings of his childhood in another poem, "Twilight" (1905).
The wind has stirred the mighty pines
That cling along Mt. Shasta’s side,
Has hurled the broad Pacific surf
Against the rocks of Tillamook;
And o’er the snow-fields of Mt. Hood
Has caught the bitter cold and roared.
While at Harvard, Jack’s literary career began with Oregon as background. His short story, "Infinities," an account of a boat trip from Portland to Seattle, was published in Portland’s "magazine of education and progress," Pacific Monthly. Jack mentioned Albina, Klatskanie (Clatskanie) and Tillamook, and with the competitive instinct of a native Portlander, observed that "it was enough punishment for any man to have to live in Seattle." Jack also published at least three stories about the Oregon coast in the Harvard Monthly. Descriptions of Tillamook Head, Elk (Ecola) Creek, Hug Point, Cove Beach, False Tillamook Head (Oswald West State Park) and Nekarney (Neahkahnie) Mountain all reflect his appreciation of their dramatic beauty. Another story in the Pacific Monthly was entitled "Willamette" in which he called Portland the "star-white city of my birth."
One of Jack’s youthful romances bloomed in 1909 during his Oregon summer vacation. Jack’s blind date at a Portland Heights Club dance was Frances Nelson (later Mrs. Phillip H. Carroll), a University of Oregon student from Albany. Clearly smitten, Jack took Frances away from what was presumably a gathering of his Dancing Class graduates, and they rode the streetcar to the amusement park at the top of Council Crest. Recalling that evening on the spectacular site 1,000 feet above Portland, he wrote her in a letter from Harvard, "I thought the other night about Council Crest and the way you looked with the hair about your face and your eyes so bright."
Jack’s summer idyll with Frances included dances at the Waverly Country Club, and an opera date in early September when Frances stayed at the Reed home on Kings Hill. When she went to spend time with her family in Albany in August, Jack and three buddies took another long camping trip along the Oregon coast, hiking south from Seaside. He wrote her from today’s Oswald West State Park that "every night when we camp on the beach I’ll send a vibration."
Frances remembered their summer of ‘09 as "something out of Beowulf. I was full of poetry." Jack also made clear to her his ambiguous relation with the upper class. Entitled by birth as a member of Portland society, he was invited to the exclusive wedding of Leslie Smith’s sister Alta into the City’s leading family. But, as its budding critic, Jack shocked Frances by declaring, "The unfortunate Alta is entering the sacred portals of the Corbett family, but I’m going swimming."
Indeed, Jack’s passion for swimming, indulged in vigorously at Harvard, began in the Willamette River well before his schoolboy camping trip. Later, one of his swimming companions was Floyd Ramp, who became a fellow radical imprisoned for agitating against World War I. Ramp found Jack to be an "an expert swimmer and diver" and impressive as "a wonderful specimen of manhood in a red bathing suit from top to bottom." But at Captain Bundy’s swimming hole for the elite in Sellwood on the banks of the Willamette, Jack’s errant dive off the high tower injured Ramp’s ear. And by the time he left for the East to finish high school, another swimming accident had left a small scar in a corner of one of his eyes.
Jack continued to write Frances after returning to Harvard, insulting Portland with his collegiate humor: "Is Portland still the same giddy bewildering place," he asked her, "that makes people leave New York in the gay season and come here for fun?" But more seriously, he reflected on a contrast between the American East and West. "Out there the strength of body, here the fire of the mind. It thrills you to feel and think as we here think and feel together," he went on, and pointedly excepted her from his conclusion that "that’s something you cannot get out West…. " Perhaps acknowledging his teenage reputation and the paucity of Portland soul mates, he asked Frances, "Don’t you often feel that hunger for people to open your heart and mind to, and not to be laughed at or misunderstood." Looking back many years later, Frances confirmed that "Jack Reed wasn’t well thought of in Portland."
But there were notable exceptions. One Portland Academy classmate who regarded Jack more charitably was Nina Lane, daughter of Sen. Harry Lane and granddaughter of Gen. Joseph Lane, the first Governor of the Oregon Territory. In a confused 1960 interview, Nina Lane Faubioner thought she had been one of a group of anti-war radicals who had plastered Portland with "Jack London’s anti-war posters" which U.S. Marshal C.J. Reed was forced to spend all night tearing down. Since C.J. had died before such an event could have occurred after 1914, he also could not have told his son (who last saw his father on his deathbed in 1912), what Nina imagined. "Nina and those radicals," she said C.J. told Jack, "will wind up in jail."
Jack’s father received his federal appointment from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, when special US attorney Francis Heney asked for his help to prosecute Oregon’s ruling class in the Timber and Land Fraud trials. C.J.’s office was in room 202 of the Post Office Building—today’s Pioneer Court House—where, Jack recounts with pride, "a man came around to browbeat my father into contributing to the Republican campaign fund, and he kicked the collector down the courthouse stairs." The man who later defeated him for the Republican nomination for Congress, A.W. Lafferty, related that C.J. once fired his pistol by accident through the window of his office into the Meier & Frank store across the street. That, he joked, "was the first shot against capitalism fired by a Reed."
C.J.’s reputation in Portland was mixed. Well-regarded as a popular speaker, he became a leader of that bastion of the local ruling class, the Arlington Club. But when he helped prosecute some of its members in those Timber Fraud trials, the Club ostracized him as a "traitor to his class." It was several years before C.J. set foot in the Arlington Club and on that occasion he defiantly brought his radical friend Lincoln Steffens to see "the crowd that got the timber." Still, when banker Roderick Macleay paid C.J.’s delinquent Club dues, Jack wrote to thank him for his help. Jack’s gratitude wasn’t enough to prevent Macleay from writing on that letter that Jack "was a radical of the worst sort."
Macleay was, of course, simply reflecting the Portland’s elite opinion of its errant son. But besides Nina Lane other younger Portlanders also defied their elders. Sculptor Mary Louise Feldenheimer, as a young Bohemian before WW1, shared Jack’s alienation from the local social milieu. "Social life in Portland was extremely closed and snobbish," she recalled, "The whole structure of society was a closed circle. That is what I rebelled against and Colonel Wood, Louise [Bryant] and Paul [Trullinger] broke out of this all the time."
Another admirer was Barbara Bartlett, who attended the Portland Academy a few years after Jack. Years later, as Mrs. Morton Hartwell, she vividly recalled her attraction to him when he showed up at a Portland Heights party "wearing a red necktie. He had enough aura to be somebody—at that age, I liked to latch on such a person. He was so different from his brother, Harry Reed, not as finished an article, but he was magnetic. [Jack was] able to break out of the [local] pattern, involved in something beyond our horizon involving a terrific world movement."
In 1910, when Jack graduated from Harvard, C.J. and Margaret Reed moved back down to their former neighborhood, this time to today’s 2169 NW Everett Street, now part of the Rose Plaza apartments. Jack visited them there briefly on his return from his first visit to Europe in the winter of 1911, when he saw his father in good health for the last time.
While in Europe, Jack fell for and got engaged to a French woman, Madeleine Filon. The controversy that news caused in Portland inspired him once again to express his contempt for local mores. "The good people of Portland, " he declared to a friend, "seem to attach an opprobrious significance to the adjective ‘French’ when applied to a girl and mother has received more condolences than I have congratulations." But he continued to be torn between his scorn for the values of Portland society and his love for its place in the sun, especially after returning to New York. Found by his friend Thomas Beer on Riverside Drive gazing through a damp winter evening at the Hudson River, he talked to him about his favorite Northwest scenes, especially remembering "the smell of burning cedar bark in Portland. " Beer noted that Jack "said nothing profound, but he made beauty talking. Men do that when they talk about things they loved much…"
Jack came home with his brother Harry in late June 1912 to attend his father’s death and burial before a thousand mourners under the tall stone Green family marker at the center of Riverview Cemetery. Local folklore whispers that each year from 1920 until 1972, a woman in a black veil laid flowers with Jack’s name to the side of the family plot at the cemetery, "as if they were not for the Reeds whose dust lies there, but for the one in the Kremlin Wall." That woman, a concealed observer of the ceremony related, closely resembled Frances Carroll.
After his father’s death, Jack Reed remained with his mother through October in his most extended stay in Portland since leaving for boarding school in 1904. He half-jokingly told friends, "I have become an IWW and am now in favor of dynamiting," but actually spent most of his time writing, beginning a novel tentatively called "The Bohemians." The novel was never finished but his sojourn in that house on Everett Street produced two of his most famous poems. "The Day in Bohemia" was an affectionate but sharply observed rhythmic take on the life and times of his Greenwich Village crew of writers, activists and artists, while "Sangar" celebrated Lincoln Steffens’ efforts to defend the radicals accused of the deadly bombing of the Los Angeles Times.
Now responsible for his mother’s welfare, Jack briefly considered remaining in Portland, as he had in 1909 after meeting Frances. But while he loved the Portland with its "flowers by the millions, woods and mountains and such air," he wrote a friend, "there was no one to talk to, and I’d go mad in a week." So, late in the fall of 1912, Jack preserved his sanity by fleeing back to New York.
His next visit came in July 1914, after he had achieved celebrity status with his eyewitness report on the Mexican Revolution, Insurgent Mexico. His outraged report on John D. Rockefeller’s massacre of striking miners’ families at Ludlow, Colorado also confirmed his development into a political radical. That also explains why the local Industrial Workers of the World Hall, then at 521 NW Davis was especially congenial to him. Jack recalled that "In my native place, Portland, Oregon, the IWW Hall was the liveliest intellectual center in town."
It was at the Wobbly Hall, in the neighborhood he had roamed as a schoolboy for the excitement of Skid Road, the waterfront and Chinatown, that Jack the celebrity found kindred spirits in the summer of 1914. He attended lectures by Emma Goldman and renewed his friendship with C.E.S. Wood, his family’s former neighbor on Kings Hill and father of childhood friends at the Portland Academy. Years later, Wood was moved by the emotional meeting:
"[Reed] told me, very simply, that I had been a great influence in his life, though he did not appreciate it at the time, but only as he grew older and began to remember my views and utterances. I was surprised at this and the almost emotional though very quiet feeling with which it was said. When he had written me from college he did not write anything of this kind. Usually he asked questions about writing poetry and sometimes submitted verses for criticism. So we parted. I never saw him again. He lies in the Kremlin by the side of Lenin."
It was probably at those Goldman lectures in August that Wood introduced Jack to the painter (and subscription agent for the radical monthly The Masses) Carl Walters, whom Wood was championing. And it was also there that another Portland agent for the magazine and a fan of Jack’s articles, Louise Bryant, may have "caught a glance of him." Like Wood, Jack was also impressed by Walters’ work, and in the Oregon Journal article in which he declared his love for his city and its people, he concluded that Walters had painted its scenes "with more affection and understanding than they have yet been painted." His special picks among Walters’ pictures included an oil of the Oregon Yacht Club ("a bit of the upper river in the sun, with a little colony of houseboats resting on it"), and a "lovely canvas of St. Johns, seen across the sunny Willamette through the branches of a thicket of alder." Still, his top choice reminds us of his lifelong passion for China. It was a "lovely aquarelle of that old Chinatown which some of us remember and love, but which is now rapidly disappearing."
Shortly before her death, an ill and disoriented Louise Bryant dictated in her memoirs that she had fallen in love with Jack soon after her arrival in Portland. "I bought a Metropolitan magazine one day. I began to read a story by Jack. I sat on the street car, passed my station, not caring whether I ever reached my destination or not, and suddenly realized that I must have fallen in love with somebody—whoever wrote that story." She also claimed their affair began during his 1914 visit when Jack spoke at a benefit for the unemployed. She imagines "a great hall filled with men in the shabbiest of costumes, and all sorts of people, from every walk of life, including Portland’s smart set, and also the men who had been going up and down the streets of Portland crying ‘Ten cents to hear Jack Reed.’" Afterwards, she improbably claims Jack told her, "I’ll be back in a year…I did wait and he came back."
Whether Louise’s memoir is otherwise accurate, Jack did return to Portland after his reputation had grown worldwide with the publication of his reportage The War in Eastern Europe. He came, rather reluctantly, to spend Christmas 1915 with his mother. Finding the town "as dull as ever," he complained to a friend, "I have been here one day and it is awful beyond words. Mother is so kind, loving, and so absolutely hopeless in her point of view...I wish I were home!" Invited to speak on the war in Europe before Portland’s upper crust at the University Club (still standing downtown), he took the opportunity to provoke its members with a bitter attack on the "imperialist war" and his hopes of turning it into a class war. But, as in 1909, his attention was distracted as Portland presented him with another woman of interest, and when he left several weeks later Jack was in love with Louise Bryant.
Reds has Louise attending that talk at the "Liberal Club" and introducing herself to him afterwards. But while the more credible of the couple’s biographers agree that Jack Reed and Louise Bryant met and became an item during that 1915 visit, they make that an accidental meeting on a downtown street. Indeed attracted by Jack’s articles in The Masses and the Metropolitan, Louise had hoped to meet him for some time. So when Carl and Helen Walters, now their mutual friends, told her of his impending Christmas visit, she asked them to introduce her to Jack. The Walterses were glad to oblige and the two were guests of honor at dinner in their studio-home in the Labbe Building at SW First Avenue and Washington Street (now a ramp from the Morrison Bridge). Before the dinner, "Reds" has Diane Keaton’s Louise trying to impress Warren Beatty’s Jack by declaring she doesn’t believe in marriage. So at the dinner, Beatty has fun by having the hostess introduce Louise to Jack as "the wife of Portland’s leading dentist."
In Cheuse’s pseudo-autobiography of Reed, Jack accepts "an invitation Carl Walters extended over the telephone. Walters, an old friend, told me there was going to be a fine group of people over the next evening… Colonel Wood and some others I’d like to see would be there." Cheuse chooses to have the two meet by accident outside a downtown shop where Jack is pawning a ring given to him by Mabel Dodge, a previous lover. Evidently referring to his 1914 visit, Louise tells him, "we came close to meeting one night at the I.W.W. hall when Emma Goldman came to speak." Between their meeting earlier in the day and the Walterses’ dinner that evening, both Cheuse and Beatty follow them to Louise’s studio in the Elton Court apartments —still standing as the Professional Building at 1033 SW Yamhill. Reds is historically accurate when Louise (Keaton) tells Jack (Beatty), "I live in a house by the river and use this as my studio."
Before she met Jack, one of Louise’s Portland friends was Sara Bard Ehrgott , for whom C.E.S. Wood later left his wife and Portland to live with in California. Writing Louise in consolation on Jack’s death, Sara recalls their trip after the 1912 Rose Parade when, as Mrs.(Rev.) Albert Ehrgott and Mrs. (Dr.) Paul Trullinger, they went to Astoria to speak for suffrage at Redmen’s Hall. Now, in 1922, she reminded Louise about "the long talk about things of Beauty and Longing we had together on the cold dim ride on the street car [sic: it would have been a train] to some tiny town whose name I had forgotten where we spoke for suffrage." Sara Bard Field (as she called herself then) suggested that perhaps Louise did not leave her husband as lightly as her biographers have concluded. "I think of your coming to me at the Multnomah [Hotel] with that tremulous wistful story of your love for Jack," she wrote, and "of your heart-ache over all that would mean to the other boy who loved you."
As we have already seen, Jack and Louise’s first meeting is subject of differing recollections and, especially after the impact of Reds, substantial mythology. Mary Dearborn uncritically insists they met in 1914, relying on Ms. Brownell Frasier’s account that they were formally introduced at the home of the Eva and Norma Graves, which still stands at 707 SE 12th Avenue. In fact, Bryant’s first biographer Virginia Gardner, just as mistakenly, quotes Miss Frasier as saying, "It was at Clara Wold’s house that Miss Frasier poured tea when Louise met John Reed." Perhaps referring to the Walterses’ dinner, Sara Bard Field also claimed credit for introducing them "at a dinner party at a friend’s home." Barbara Gelb gives no source for placing their meeting at "one of the artists’ meeting places." Quite late in his life, Floyd Ramp thought they might have met at a political meeting as early as 1912. Frances Nelson Carroll didn’t locate a precise place or date, but offered that Louise met Jack’s mother in her husband’s dental office while Paul Trullinger was fixing Margaret Reed’s teeth. Her version has Mrs. Reed planting the seed by telling Louise, "You must meet my son. You would be interested in him. He has the same ideas." Historian Alfred Powers places the meeting at a party, attended by both Paul and Louise, where Jack spoke. He quotes Anne M. Lang, a friend of Jack’s mother, as saying that after the party, Louise told her, "I’m going to get him." Finally, Howard Hughes contributes to the speculation by claiming they met "at a Portland cocktail party." Since a party emerges as the most common location of Jack and Louise’s meeting, it suggests variations on the documented one at Carl and Helen Walters studio home in the Labbe Building shortly before Christmas of 1915.
But Jack’s letter to Boardman Robinson’s wife, should set the matter of when they met to rest. Writing on December 18, 1915, he joyously announced "I have found her at last!" Several years later, he ended his reflections on his own life by noting that for most people, including himself, "love plays a tremendous part…But at last I have found my friend and lover, thrilling and satisfying, closer to me than anyone has ever been. And now I don’t care what comes."
Since they serve to encourage interest in a romantic myth, perhaps it might be well to leave the variations about how as recorded. After all, neither Jack nor Louise found the precise circumstance of their first meeting significant enough to reminisce about themselves—at least not on paper. Nor in the heat of their brand-new love did they regard it sufficiently romantic to temper their harsh attitudes toward the social and political atmosphere in which they first met. In the same December 18 letter Jack enthusiastically describes Louise as "wild and brave and straight and graceful and lovely to look at" and praises her accomplishments in Portland somewhat over generously. His familiar animus toward his hometown required him to invent many local successes for his new love and affect to be puzzled that, "in this spiritual vacuum, in this unfertilized soil, she has grown (how, I can’t imagine) into an artist, a rampant, joyous individualist, a poet and a revolutionary." In Reds, Beatty makes the same point more bluntly, "You’re going to waste in Portland, " he tells Keaton, "Come to New York where you have freedom."
Louise shared his feeling of being repressed by Portland’s rules for behavior, absence of writing outlets and probably her marriage as well, and eagerly accepted both his advice and his love. In late December, a few days before she was to leave town and follow him to New York, Louise wrote Jack to recall that she had given him milk and honey for his cold in her Yamhill Street studio as an act of "disinterested courtesy. " Her letter continued
It is nice and warm in my room where I am writing. The sides of the little stove are all red. I think it is the only warm thing left in Portland. This evening when I came home the streets were all slippery with ice and now when the first light of day is coming through my window the world seems quite frozen. —This is all as it should be—silly old town—it had your glowing presence here for weeks without appreciating it—now a capricious old winter has turned it to ice as soon as you are gone.
Louise had moved into that studio in the Elton Court at the beginning of 1909, when she came up to Portland after graduating from the University of Oregon. At first, she shared her Eugene friend Gaeta Wold’s (society editor of the Oregon Journal) apartment until she rented her own studio. She probably met Paul Trullinger when he lived in a houseboat at the Oregon Yacht Club but kept her studio after they married in 1910. The OYC, established in 1898, still exists at the same location on the Willamette’s east bank north of Oaks Park and some of its older boats resemble the "round-roofed" ones depicted in a Carl Walters’ c. 1914 oil painting.
The Elton Court was known for its "Irish janitor" who looked out for single women tenants, and it was also home to some of Gaeta Wold’s three other Wold sisters. Louise later kept a studio in the Murlark Building below Jack’s birthplace, where the Dosch brothers and Raymond Duncan (Isadora’s brother) also worked. That building was torn down in the 1960s and the site is occupied today by a real estate office.
Louise wrote for the local society weekly, The Spectator, when it was located in the old Chamber of Commerce Building (pulled down in the 1930s, it also contained one of C.E.S. Wood’s offices). While married to Louise, Paul’s dental office was not far away on the 8th floor of the Selling Building, today’s Oregon National Building. Louise was an active suffragette and one of the "eight pretty maidens" decorating a float in a 1912 Rose Festival parade, after which the younger women paid their respects to Abigail Scott Duniway by stopping at her home. That year, the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association and the College Equal Suffrage League had their offices several floors below her husband’s office.
While their first home may have been Paul’s houseboat, by 1914 they were living in the northern half of his uncle John Henry Trullinger’s house which still stands at 2226 NE 53rd Avenue. John Henry was a well-known artist who painted a celebrated study of Louise around the time she shared his house, and whose portrait of his wife Sadie Gilbert, Lady with a Parasol, was exhibited in the 1909 Paris Salon.
The Trullinger’s new home in Dunthorpe was completed in 1915 and remains above the west bank of the Willamette at 11801 SW Riverwood Road. Portlander Donald H. Frank recalls that his parents rented the house in the 1920s from Paul Trullinger’s close friend, the prominent journalist Dean Collins, who himself had turned down Reed’s invitation in 1914 to cover the European war with him. As they were moving, Mr. Frank’s mother Irene found some of Louise’s poems, Spectator columns and other items in the attic but it is not clear whether she left them there.
That prestigious house was not her home for long because, as we know, Louise left Portland at the end of that year. Lesley Miller recalled she saw Jack for the last time just before his departure and he asked whether she knew Louise. “She has not been east," Jack told her, “and I would like to give her a letter of introduction. She has so much on the ball. She wants to write and she is going east." Seeing her off at Union Station were a handful of close friends: Carl and Helen Walters, Clara and Jean Wold and Marguerite Dosch Campbell and her brother Roswell Dosch. Marguerite said Louise wore a bunch of violets given her by her husband Paul, although she does not say he was there. A few years later, Trullinger sold the house, eventually married Ruth Palmer and moved his practice to the Oregon coast.
Jack never returned to Portland. While considering a visit in February 1918, his mother warned him about the local "Red Scare" and urged him not to come because "They are arresting Bolsheviks out here." Now more outspoken than ever in his radical socialist and anti-war views, Jack rather harshly admonished her that the Red Scare was not confined to Portland. He never saw his mother again. But had not forgotten his "homeplace": his poem America, 1918 begins with an affectionate evocation of Oregon and the west.
By my free boyhood in the wide West,
The powerful sweet river, fish-wheels, log-rafts,
Ships from behind the sunset, Lascar-manned,
Chinatown, throbbing with mysterious gongs,
The blue thunderous Pacific, blaring sunsets,
Black smoking forests on surf-beaten headlands,
Lost beaches, camp-fires,wail of hunting cougars...
Fishermen putting out from Astoria in the foggy dawn
In their double-bowed boats,
Lean cow-punchers jogging south from Burns, with faces
burned leathery and silent…
Hunters coming out of the brush at night-fall on the
brink of the Lewis and Clark canyon…
Forest rangers standing on a bald peak and sweeping
the wilderness for smoke,
Big-gloved brakemen walking the top of a swaying freight,
spanner in hand, biting off a hunk of plug,
Lumbermen with spiked boots and timber-hook, riding
the broken jam in white water,
Indians on the street-corner in Pocatello, pulling out
chin-whiskers with a pair of tweezers and a pocket-
Or down on the Siuslaw, squatting behind their summer
lodges listening to Caruso on a two-hundred-dollar
Loud-roaring Alaska miners..
Keepers of dance-halls in construction camps, bar-keeps,
Bums riding the rods, wobblies singing their defiant
songs, unafraid of death,
Card-sharps and real estate agents, timber-kings,
wheat-kings, cattle kings...
I know ye, Americans!
Soon after arriving in New York, Louise published her first article in the April, 1916 issue of The Masses—presumably at the suggestion of her lover, its contributing editor. The article honored two Portland judges. John Stevenson earned her praise for suddenly reversing his habit of sentencing homeless men arrested for sleeping in that "breezy tabernacle that was built for Gypsy Smith’s revival meetings" to break rocks at the Rocky Butte Jail because "they can’t get jobs when there are no jobs." She quoted Judge Stevenson as declaring from the bench before resigning that "crime is a relative proposition. Environment, opportunity and temptation converge together in making a man a criminal; not alone is it human weakness. Under the same conditions and circumstances I would probably have done the same things as the men I sentence."
Louise’s other local hero was District Court Judge William N. Gatens, who dismissed the charge of distributing "obscene" birth control literature against Emma Goldman with these words: "Ignorance and prudery are the millstones about the neck of progress. Everyone knows that we are all shocked by things publicly stated that we know privately ourselves." Perhaps with an eye on her own marital status, Louise also praised Gatens for his willingness to "give you a divorce in his court if you don’t love the person you are legally tied to."
As already noted, Louise made a triumphal final visit to Portland in April, 1919, part of her lecture tour to rally public opinion against President Wilson’s military intervention against the Soviet revolution. From the Multnomah Hotel, where she stayed with his mother, she sent Jack another of their joking put-downs, pretending "it gives me the cold chills to think of even being in Portland." The Portland Central Labor Council had to overcome official city opposition to rent the new Civic Auditorium for her talk. The Oregon Labor Press headlined her speech against US intervention in the Russian civil war, "LOUISE BRYANT TALKS TO 4000 AT AUDITORIUM/ An Enthusiastic Audience Hears Story of Russia from Home Girl." Its report noted, "It has been a long time since any speaker in the Auditorium received the ovation extended her…time after time ["the crowd made up largely of working people but with a generous sprinkling of business and professional people"] rocked the magnificent public building with applause."
In her final farewell to Portland, Louise introduced herself as "a prodigal daughter speaking with the kind permission of the city fathers on a very delicate subject," and urged the US to give the fledgling Soviet republic a chance. With the exception of the Labor Press, which printed her remarks verbatim, the hostile daily press followed its usual practice of reporting a radical’s appearance rather than her words. The Oregonian chose to tell its readers that Louise "flourished a red cape that dared Portland to imagine her political beliefs, and that, "aside from her George Sand haircut, she is the same little radicalist and vigorous performer that left Portland three years ago."
During his lifetime, only a few Oregonians stood up for Reed when his radical views subjected him to persecution and exile from the mainstream press. When he was imprisoned in 1918 by the anti-Bolshevik regime in Finland, Sen. Charles McNary, W.S. U’Ren and his uncle, Gen. Edward Burr, wrote US officials to seek his release. And his final visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, according to one account, was made possible with financial support from his old Kings Hill neighbor, C.E.S. Wood.
"John Reed Had Eyes"
Immediately after Jack had lain in state in Moscow’s Labor Temple and was buried beside the walls of the Kremlin, his death generated a political struggle. It continues to this day between those who want to believe he became disillusioned with the Soviet Revolution before he died or speculated that he would have been had he lived longer, and those whose hope in the revolution was strengthened by Reed’s endorsement. In the 1930s, Jack’s mother, who had never shared but always supported his right to his beliefs, expressed to Lincoln Steffens her distress that the US Communist party had named its cultural clubs for Jack. But Steffens responded, "Mrs. Reed, I’m afraid that you are wrong about his not standing for the use of his name by the clubs. My impression is that Jack would approve of that or, if he objected, he would have complained only that the John Reed Clubs do not go far enough."
Others have argued over what aspect of Reed’s legacy should be primarily celebrated. For example, historian Diane Allen is concerned that the memorial in Washington Park doesn’t "tell you the man was a revolutionary." His classmate Walter Lippman pointed out back in 1914 that such debates missed the point. John Reed, he declared, "is many men at once, and those who have tried to bank on some phase of him, to regard him as a writer, a correspondent, a poet, a revolutionist, or a lover, lose him. There is no line between the play of his fancy and his responsibility to fact; he is for the time the person he imagines himself to be…"
Jack’s formative years in Portland had a special influence on his ideology because it developed mainly from his experience. He confessed that "on the whole, ideas alone don’t mean much to me. I had to see.…It didn’t come to me from books that the workers produced all the wealth in the world, which went to those who did not earn it." As Hicks observed, "John Reed had eyes. He was never a theoretician, but he could learn from what he saw and he learned extremely well." As the song, "John Reed" goes, "And he wrote what he saw, That was all."
Before the Soviet Revolution, Jack admitted that the wartime slaughter inflicted by workers divided by national ruling classes on each other had been a "terrible shatterer of faith." And while he continued to "wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights," his confident hope in that class had begun to waiver: "But I am not sure any more that the working class is capable of revolution, peaceful or otherwise;" he wrote, "the workers are so divided and bitterly hostile to each other, so badly led, so blind to their class interest."
Still, Jack kept hope alive. "And yet I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world—richer, braver, freer, more beautiful. As for me, I don’t know what I can do to help—I don’t know yet." And he went on— in words that Bertolt Brecht was to paraphrase 20 years later —to recall his privileged years in Portland, when he came down from Kings Hill to hang out on Burnside’s Skidroad:
All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others, so that I eat because others go hungry, that I am clothed when other people go almost naked through the frozen cities in winter; and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play…
Three years later, he had witnessed the Soviet Revolution with his own eyes and what he saw restored his faith in the working class. Linking that defining experience to what he had seen on Skidroad, New York, Paterson and Ludlow, he finally understood that to "tell the story of those great days …as I saw it" was what he could do to help bring about that new world. As Hicks concludes, John Reed "might, under other circumstances, have written great revolutionary poetry. As it was, he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. It is enough."