When the party was over

Life was never dull for William Herrick. He was a young Communist, a critic of the party, a hobo who rode the rails, a union organizer and a novelist among other things

Staff writer

HOAGS CORNERS -- If you ask to see the scars left by the bullet wound, William Herrick will oblige.

He'll slowly lift his 83-year-old chin, cock his head to the right, fold down the collar of his denim shirt and let you have a look.

The first scar is a pencil line of puckered white flesh that begins just below the left side of Herrick's jawbone and plunges down through fleshy folds of neck wattle for six inches or so until the line disappears at the collarbone.

Herrick glances at you out of the corner of weary eyes the color of sea foam, measures your expression, but doesn't say a word.

It's the anarchist in him. He jettisoned his ideological baggage long ago. Tabula rasa. Make up your own mind. Or don't. The old man of the left has no agenda anymore. The spin is gone. Anything goes.

If you say you want to see more of the wound, Herrick will tuck his white-bearded chin into his chest, pull down the shirt collar in the back and let you see another tendril of surgical residue. It begins in the space where the back of the neck meets shoulder and reaches down for several inches.

Six decades have worn down Herrick's scars with the imperceptible force of wind on rock. The skin has loosened and sagged around them. The scars have faded and blended in, the way a birthmark does. Memory, however, unlike flesh, doesn't smooth out.

Life on paper

Herrick remembers in crisp detail the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1937. He was 22 years old, had enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion to fight Gen. Francisco Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. He was sent to the front in Spain. After a few weeks of combat, Herrick was hit.

"It was now deep into the afternoon; the battalion had moved into trenches to our right, and as we began to set the heavy gun in place, a sledgehammer hit me in the back of the head. As I fell, I wondered who could have hit me. I must have been unconscious for a few minutes, but as I came out of it I heard Kavorkian say, 'Poor Bill, he must be dead.'

Herrick writes those recollections in his new memoir, "Jumping The Line: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Radical.'' It will be published in May by The University of Wisconsin Press.

It is Herrick's first book of nonfiction after 10 published novels, the best-known of which is the award-winning "Hermanos!'' (1969), which fictionalizes Herrick's experiences in the Spanish Civil War.

The memoir wasn't Herrick's idea, and it didn't come as naturally as the novels.

"A couple of writers and historians I know kept after me to write this book,'' Herrick says, his words coming slowly and haltingly, the effects of recent health decline. "I think I was 79 when I started. I didn't know if it was a book at first. But I just kept going and it sort of grabbed hold of me.''

Herrick concedes that he had to keep catching himself as he went along, to refrain from employing a novelist's tools of scene building, heightened description, dramatic tension and pointed dialogue that didn't exist in fact.

Herrick intones Virginia Woolf's definition of memoir: "Lying, lying, lying.''

The writer drills you with that leonine gaze again, silently, sizing you up. It takes a moment to make the connection; you feel as though you're looking at Hume Cronyn, the bearded, craggy-faced "Cocoon'' actor who was married to the late Jessica Tandy.

The only sound in the converted 19th-century barn and blacksmith shop is the tick, tick, tick of an antique pendulum wall clock. It ricochets off wide-plank pine floorboards like buckshot.

Your mind wanders in the intervals of stillness, locking eyes with this grizzled revolutionary, a disillusioned old lefty who spits expletives at the party now, and you try to picture the arc of his life as so many ancient scars.

Unique childhood

Herrick, who lives in this one-intersection hamlet in Rensselaer County with his wife of 49 years, Jeannette, has packed several chapters into a robust life.

Born William Horvitz and raised in Trenton, N.J., Herrick grew up in the grip of the Communist Party. Portraits embossed on tin of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin hung over his crib and bed in his formative years. His father died when he was 4. His widowed mother never remarried, drifting through a series of party-approved free love assignations. Their family was a loosely organized proposition. Herrick became a child of the streets.

Herrick's story has the sweep of a Steinbeck novel, and all of its open-faced idealism that eventually gives way to a cranky pragmatism. Young Communist. Worker on a communal farm. Hobo riding the rails. Spanish Civil War enlistee. Union organizer for black sharecroppers in Georgia. Outspoken critic of the Communist Party. Court reporter. Novelist beginning in middle age.

There are plenty of famous personages, too, presented warts-and-all, who spice the pages of Herrick's memoir from Emma Goldman to Cole Porter to Orson Welles.

"Jumping the Line'' is a resonant title that captures the hobo slang of Herrick's literal freight train hopping, but it also refers to his defection from the Communist Party line, his departure from ideology of any kind.

"I'm a nonbeliever,'' Herrick says. "I'm at an age where I don't give a damn if you're left, right or center or what church you belong to. For all I know, maybe there is a God. But I think when you die, you die. End of story.''

This represents a kinder, gentler Herrick. "All of our friends say Bill has mellowed,'' says his wife, who is 75. "I'm the one who gets angry at the world now.''

The mellow Herrick is just a phase. He'll get over it.

"William Herrick is our American Orwell,'' author Paul Berman writes in his introduction to Herrick's memoir, making comparisons to the English author lionized for his books "Animal Farm,'' "Nineteen Eighty-Four'' and others.

Both went to Spain during the Civil War of the 1930s to fight against the Fascists. Both were shot at the front and narrowly survived. Both joined the Loyalists' cause in Spain as supporters of the Communist Party. At the front, both witnessed abuses by Communist forces, who exploited the Spanish people as efficiently as anything Stalin could have conjured murder included. Both men returned to the United States, disillusioned, and determined to expose Communist lies in their writing.

In his book-lined, second-floor writing space, above a Royal Satellite electric typewriter that anchors a homemade plywood desk, Herrick has hung a black-and-white portrait of his idol. The caption reads: "George Orwell. 1903-1950.''

Herrick takes the picture off the wall and shakes his head. "Geez. Look at that. Forty-seven years old,'' Herrick says. "Think of what more Orwell might have written.''

A rural home

Behind the house on a recent warm and sunny spring afternoon, the water of the Tsatsawassa Creek rushed over smooth, mossy rocks in a frothy behind the house. It sounded eager to yield stories of the past.

"It looks like winter is finally over,'' his wife says.

"Oh, don't bet on it,'' Herrick replies.

The optimist wears khakis spattered with plaster and paint from her sculptor's studio, an olive drab mock turtleneck and white sneakers.

The pessimist's shoes are black Reeboks. A black L.L. Bean polar fleece jacket covers a denim shirt and navy blue chinos.

Inside, the converted barn is filled with antiques and paintings. It overflows with books and art and a cultured sensibility. Skulls of birds bleached white from the sun decorate a bathroom. A retired psychiatrist, Jeannette works on her whimsical series of bas-relief faces and a 6-foot abstract totem pole in the old blacksmith shop. He writes upstairs. They maintain clearly delineated and separate work spaces.

Each summer for the past 38 years, they return to the little beach house on Martha's Vineyard they built for $10,000.

"I call it an artistic life,'' she says.

"Aw, come on. Face it. It's a bourgeois life,'' he says.

Jewish roots stifled

Her light and his shadow merged in the mid-1940s, when they both worked as court reporters in New York City. Both had fingers that could fly. Both were raised under the stern control of the Communist Party. Both had their Jewish roots stifled.

"My mom wanted to go to synagogue, but my father was a hard-bitten socialist and refused to let her go,'' Jeanette says.

The couple talked about the blinders the party put on them growing up. They were told which books they could and could not read. The same for movies. Their friends were picked for them.

"It was a kind of brain washing, really,'' Herrick says. "It was a religion. The world's worst.''

When he finally broke with the party, it was anti-climactic, featuring none of the cataclysm associated with leaving a cult.

"It was a gradual thing that started in Spain,'' Herrick says. "It's not easy because you're born into it. Then I tried to believe in just the pure part. But there was less and less to believe in and I put it all behind me. For the first time in my life, I was a free person.''

Jeannette made the break around the same time, the 1940s in New York City. She started reading Camus and other previously censored writers. She felt exonerated by the book "The God That Failed,'' a series of essays by ex-Communist Party members.

Their old Commie friends deserted them. They were blacklisted by the party.

"I could give a damn,'' Herrick says.

On their living-room mantle rests a Jewish menorah neither saw while growing up. Nearby sits a pre-Colombian figurine.

The Herricks have three children and four grandchildren. Two of their kids became psychologists and the other is a house builder in Seattle. One son follows the teachings of Zen Buddhism.

"I guess he didn't get the formal spirituality he was seeking growing up in our house,'' Jeannette says.

William believes the best thing he leaves behind is his writing. His 10 novels were widely reviewed and praised by critics but sold mostly in the range of a few thousand copies.

"It bothered me a lot at first, but then I stopped worrying about it,'' he says. "You can't force people to buy your book.''

Along with his wife's salary, writing and a little teaching has paid the bills slowly but surely. The one big payday was "Hermanos!'' in 1969. With paperback, foreign and movie rights (no film was made), Herrick earned more than $100,000 on that book. That was the kind of crazy money he never conceived of growing up poor. He was ecstatic not to give a penny of it to the party.

The bullet that struck Herrick in the back of the neck during the Spanish Civil War, by the way, stopped one-sixteenth of an inch from the spinal cord. Surgical efforts to remove the bullet were unsuccessful.

"The damn thing's still there below my skull,'' he croaks.

It's a big piece of lead, a machine gun slug. A totem of the party he carries with him, cussing all the way.

William Herrick will read from his work on Tuesday April 21, as part of the New York State Writers Institute's visiting writers series. Herrick's reading will begin at 8 p.m. in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center on the University at Albany uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave. For more information, call 442-5620.

First published on Sunday, April 19, 1998

Life & Leisure

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

William Herrick