Lovestone was obsessively secretive, and it is only with the opening of his papers at the Hoover Institution, the freeing of access to Comintern files in Moscow, and the release of his 5,700-page FBI file that biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ted Morgan has been able to construct a full account of the remarkable events of Jay Lovestone's life.
The life Morgan describes is full of drama and intrigue. He recounts Lovestone's career in the faction-riven world of American Communism until he was spirited out of Moscow in 1929 after Stalin publicly attacked him for doctrinal unorthodoxy. As Lovestone veered away from Moscow, he came to work for the American Federation of Labor, managing a separate union foreign policy as well as maintaining his own intelligence operations for the CIA, many under the command of the legendary counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Lovestone also associated with Louise Page Morris, a spy known as "the American Mata Hari," who helped him undermine Communist advances in the developing world and whose own significant espionage career is detailed here. Lovestone's influence, always exercised from behind the scenes, survived to the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union.
A Covert Life has all the elements of a classic spy thriller: surveillance operations and stings, love affairs and bungled acts of sabotage, many thoroughly illegal. It is written with the easy hand of a fine biographer (The Washington Post Book World called Ted Morgan "a master storyteller") and provides a history of the Cold War and a glimpse into the machinery of the CIA while also revealing many hitherto hidden details of the superpower confrontation that dominated postwar global politics.
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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THE BLOND BEAST
As it often happened, the father came first with his oldest daughter to take care of the house, leaving the rest of the family behind. In the great hall of Ellis Island, divided by railings, they inched forward in the endless line, where federal inspectors processed as many as five thousand immigrants a day. Would they get through or be sent back? The father, his scraggly beard covering his shirt collar, had brought his prayer shawl and phylacteries. God did not refuse the pious. But was God present in the midst of this bustle, this polyglot confusion?
The doctors were the keepers of the gates, one inspecting their eyes, another asking them to cough. Not carrying trachoma or tuberculosis, they were let through, into another line, finding themselves at last before a uniformed man at a desk. Barnet Liebstein was allowed to keep his name, unlike so many others, such as the man who was told an Americanized name to give the inspector but forgot it and blurted out in Yiddish Shane vergesse (I forgot), ending up James Ferguson.
As for his age, or even his daughter Mary’s age, he wasn’t sure. In the old country Jews were not given birth certificates; they were nonpersons from the day they were born. He figured he was in his forties, while Mary was in her late teens. Once the rest of the family arrived, he would assign birthdays to all of them.
The year was 1906, in the second wave of Jewish migration from the Russian empire. In tsarist Russia, which included the Baltic states and part of Poland, Jews were assigned to a large boundaried district called a pale. They were not allowed to own land, or attend universities, or travel outside the district without papers. But they were allowed to serve in the tsar’s army. Essentially they were a minority under surveillance, the targets of a sly bureaucracy. Depending on the whim of the tsar, the pendulum swung from repression to relative ease.
America beckoned, with its policy of open immigration. In 1882 the United States had 100,000 Jews; by 1920 it had 4 million. The great bulk of them came from the Pale, which they fled for practical reasons: to avoid conscription, to travel without an internal passport, to escape a small life as a herring salesman at town fairs.
One of these immigrants seeking a fresh start was Barnet Liebstein, a pious and orthodox man who took his own food for the crossing because the food on the boat was not kosher, and who did not neglect his prayers amid the stench and blare of steerage. Barnet came from a village too small to figure on most maps: Molchad, in the then Polish (and later Lithuanian) province of Grodno, south of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and west of the Belorussian capital of Minsk. Barnet was the rabbi of Molchad, a respected figure to whom people came for more than religious services. They came to him in a marital dispute or over a contested inheritance, rather than go to the civil authority.
But in America he was no longer the head of his community. He was not even the head of a congregation, for there was a glut of rabbis on the Lower East Side, which offered by the time of his arrival in 1906 a ready-made Yiddish-speaking quarter, a reconstituted ghetto, not unlike Minsk. Hester Street, where he found a tenement, smelled of garlic and fish and rang with the calls of pushcart peddlers—“I cash old clothes,” and “Fresh pike for the Sabbath.” Here everyone was poor, and people haggled over a penny. And here the roofs were flat, with clothes on ropes fluttering in the wind.
Barnet found a place as sexton or shammes in one of the storefront synagogues. He was responsible for its care and upkeep, and lit the candles. In his spare hours he taught Hebrew. Detached from worldly things, uneasy in the new world, Barnet found a refuge in scrupulous orthodoxy. He never shaved his beard. He never touched a coin on the Sabbath, or lit a match, or used gas. He wrapped himself in protective Judaism.
But Mary had a good business sense; she managed the finances so that in little more than a year they had saved enough money to bring the rest of the family over: Barnet’s wife, Emma, who was about five years older than he was and who wore a wig that covered most of her brow, which she continued to wear in New York; and in descending order of birth, Morris, Sarah, Esther, and Jacob. They boarded the Zeeland in Antwerp and arrived in New York on September 15, 1907.
The family was reunited on Hester Street in the small-roomed building where the tenants moved often, when they found something better or couldn’t pay the rent. Jacob, born in 1897, was not quite ten. He was assigned December 15 as a birthday but when asked found it more dramatic to say he was born on Christmas Day.
Jacob was strikingly different in appearance from his siblings, who were brown-haired, brown-eyed, and more or less olive-skinned. In a childhood photograph he stands barefoot in a park with Sarah and Esther. The sisters are wearing what look like homemade rather than store-bought dresses, and their long, brown hair flows over their shoulders. Between them stands Jacob, in a T-shirt and short pants, flaxen-haired and blue-eyed, with his arms akimbo and one knee bent on sloping ground, suggesting the body language of the man being photographed after climbing Mount Everest.
With his straight blond hair cut short and his arched eyebrows, the resolute and unsmiling set of his mouth, and the direct stare of his blue eyes, young Jacob looks like a displaced little Aryan, and his expression seems to be saying: “You want to mess with me? You’ll get the worst of it.” In later years, after being told by Arthur Koestler about a tribe of blond Tatars in Central Asia who adopted the Jewish faith, Jacob claimed he was a throwback to that tribe.
In the year of Jacob’s arrival in New York, President Teddy Roosevelt, then in his second term, was going after the “malefactors of great wealth” and trying to make the Republican Party the party of reform. In New York the union movement was gaining momentum, and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union led the march. By 1904 there were two hundred thousand Jews in the garment industry. The Socialist Party was on the upsurge, running Eugene Debs for president in the 1900 and 1904 elections. In 1908 Debs came to New York and spoke in Hamilton Fish Park, but Tammany stole the vote with repeaters. By then the Jewish socialists in New York were themselves learning the machinery of electoral politics. Street meetings were a form of free entertainment and a part of neighborhood life. Registering to vote was a ritual of participation. The Jewish socialists grew their own leaders, among them Morris Hillquit, the garment union lawyer who ran for Congress in 1906 and 1908 (losing both times), and Meyer London, a Marxist who was elected to Congress three times, in 1914, 1916, and 1920.
With the Lower East Side overflowing, the Liebsteins moved to the Bronx, at 2155 Daly Avenue, close to the park and the newly built subway. Barnet and Emma, who by now were called Barney and Minnie, settled in. Barney found a better synagogue, the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, where he spent long hours teaching Hebrew. Minnie, as a good Orthodox housewife, cooked and took care of the children and parented by precept: “A Jewish boy doesn’t climb trees,” and “Why do you play stickball when you could play chess?”
A harsh decision had to be made. The boys, Morris and Jacob, would be educated while the three girls would work in the needle trades. Sarah went into millinery, the other two into dresses. They found work in the sweatshops, and spent ten hours a day bent over their machines, turning their wages over to their parents to help put the boys through school.
Morris took courses at the Cooper Union and then enrolled in the New York College of Eclectic Medicine, which took a holistic approach. He set up a practice on Central Park West and founded the Maimonides Hygienic Association, named after the great Hebrew scholar and physician who practiced in twelfth-century Spain. Morris saw himself as a latter-day Maimonides, “a public servant of ailing humanity,” as he said. Although bombastic and self-important, he was in some ways ahead of his time, for he recommended proper diet and herbal medicines, and recognized tobacco as a dangerously toxic substance. He was one of the first doctors in New York with a no-smoking sign in the window of his office.
As for young Jacob, he went to public school until midafternoon and after that to Hebrew school, trading baseball cards as the teacher droned on. His days were followed by long hours of homework in the evening. Of the old country, village life in Molchad, he retained only one or two mental snapshots: his mother baking cookies and selling them at fairs. Mornings, sneaking under the house where the chicken coop was, puncturing eggs with a pin and sucking out the contents.
Now he was a child of the city, playing stickball in the street, saving soap coupons until he could buy his own roller skates (over Minnie’s objections), and when he could get his hands on an extra quarter, renting a bicycle for an hour. His tsidderike (trembling with fear) mama worried herself sick. If he was five minutes late it was a calamity.
In high school, at Townsend Harris Hall, Jacob’s desire for spare change became acute. He needed those pennies and nickels to buy the newspapers and magazines his parents did not read—the Freiheit, the Call, The Masses. Jacob had developed into a strong, well-built young man. A natural pugnacity and the promise of prize money led him to take up boxing. In those days the tenement roof had many uses. Dances were held up there, to the music of a harmonica. Pigeons were kept in make-shift coops. Boxing rings were improvised with clotheslines tied to chimneys, and bouts were advertised in flyers by fledgling promoters. Jacob was billed as “The Blond Bum” or “The Blond Jew.” He didn’t have a knockout punch, but he was scrappy and fast on his feet, and the money was good—three dollars when he won, two when he lost.
He was making three more often than two and building up a neighborhood reputation when one sweltering summer evening he took on Dutch Schaefer, a muscle-bound lump of Teutonic granite who outweighed him by twenty pounds and who beat him up so badly that when he got home, swollen-eyed and bleeding, he had to tell his horrified mother that he’d fallen down the stairs. His boxing career came abruptly to a close.
His father, easygoing, lost in his thoughts, did not try to impose his orthodoxy on the children. Barney never learned English, never became a citizen, and never involved himself in the rough dynamics of American democracy. Jacob turned away from his heritage and his religion, forging his American identity. Jacob’s views on religion were sardonic. Once on a train he sat next to a rabbi who asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a pig bristle salesman,” he said.
Jacob’s three sisters married and moved out of the house. Mary ran a drugstore at 761 Gravesend Avenue in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Gavza. They owned the building the store was in and lived above it. Esther and her husband, Louis Matis (shortened from Manishevitz at Ellis Island) ran a pawnshop in Brooklyn. Their three-story house at 703 Ditmas Avenue became a sort of community center, where the warmhearted and welcoming Esther was always ready to feed an army.
Sarah, the youngest daughter, described as “the most placid of the five kids,” married Charles Gray (shortened from Grabow), known as Max. He had plenty of good ideas, but somehow they never panned out. At the time of his marriage to Sarah, he ran Graybow Silk in Paterson, New Jersey. Each year he laid out his capital to buy the silk in Japan. But one year an earthquake wiped out the silkworms and he was ruined.
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