Wednesday, August 29, 2018

George Sylvester Viereck's Busy Life




George Sylvester Viereck's magazine, The Fatherland (1914)

Imagine the scene outside his father-in-law’s home, about 20 people milling around in the warm August night, shouting that he should leave the city and never return. 

Did George Sylvester Viereck push aside the drapes to peer out the parlor window?  Apparently the presence of two policemen guarding the front door did not reassure him of his own safety.

And so as the dog days waned in the summer of 1918, George left his wife and two sons with her father and returned to the city. From there he would continue to edit his two magazines, The International and The Fatherland.   In their pages he strongly supported Germany throughout the Great War, which the U. S. had entered in April 1917.

Later, his work would be labeled propaganda.

The child of a German actress and – purportedly – an unacknowledged son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, George immigrated to the U. S. at the age of 13.  Known as Sylvester or “G.S.V.,” he graduated from City College of New York with literary aspirations, having published a small volume of verse in 1904 while he was still a student.  In 1907, George published a second collection of poems which won national attention.

George Sylvester Viereck as a young man

After college, George traveled frequently to his native land.  He developed a particular interest in foreign affairs and became a German nationalist. 

In 1915, agitated by the debate over U. S. involvement in the war, George helped found a nationwide antiwar group called Friends of Peace.  The group immediately demanded that the U. S. stop supplying ammunition to England and that England lift its blockade of German ships. 

Friends of Peace wasn’t really a pacifist organization.  Rather, it intended to prevent an alliance between the U. S. and England.  Its members were largely Americans of German and Irish descent who had a natural – understandable – antipathy toward England.  They included scholars, clergy, publishers, and business executives.

The group held rallies in Chicago, New York, and other cities.  Meanwhile, President Wilson campaigned for a second term on the slogan, “He Kept Us out of War.”  Friends of Peace did not trust Wilson and endorsed the Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes (later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court).

George led a busy life.  A prolific writer – novels and memoirs in addition to poetry and international affairs – he also lectured widely.  Over time he developed a reputation for being anti-American – hence the angry neighbors outside his father-in-law’s home – but that did not seem to bother him.  

The Fatherland became The American Weekly (1918)

After the war, Congress investigated how Germany had used propaganda in the U. S., and George was named as a saboteur.  American agents showed evidence that he had advance knowledge of Germany’s plans to sink the Lusitania.  But there were no consequences, and George resumed writing, turning his anger toward Wilson, the League of Nations, and reparations. 

In the early 1920s, George made his first visit to Europe since before the war.  He stayed for eight months, scoring interviews with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Kaiser, who was now in exile in the Netherlands.
 
His 1923 interview with Hitler occurred just a few months before the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted Nazi coup in Munich.  But the putsch failed and Hitler was imprisoned for nine months, passing the time writing Mein Kampf.   

In the course of the interview, which did not see the light of day until 1932 when it was published in Liberty Magazine (another pro-German magazine), Hitler railed against Bolshevism and Marxism. 

“In my scheme of the German state, there will be no room for the alien, no use for the wastrel, for the usurer or the speculator, or anyone incapable of productive work,” he told George.

Back in the U. S., George emerged as an unabashed supporter of Hitler and registered as a foreign agent.  He established a publishing house that issued isolationist, Anglophobic and pro-German books. But things caught up with him.  In 1941, just a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, a grand jury indicted George for deliberately hiding the extent of his work as a propagandist.

He would serve about five years in prison, during which time his life fell apart.  His younger son was killed in the Battle of Anzio, and his wife left him after liquidating all of his assets and donating the money to Catholic and Jewish charities.  He died in the Berkshires in 1962.*

In his study hung portraits of Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, and Goebbels alongside those of Freud and Einstein.  “All these people I have known and admired,” he liked to tell visitors.  “The psychoanalyst, the scientist, and the dynamic force – all have been my friends.” 

After World War II

*He lived out his years with his son, Peter, a professor at Mt. Holyoke College, and Peter's family.

http://www.throughthehourglass.com/

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Our Public Library

Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Public Library, 1930s

Growing up in the 1960s, my brother and I visited the public library nearly every week. Sliding around the back seat of the car, pre-seat belt, we traveled across the city along streets named for great men like Lincoln.  My mother drove.

We always perked up when the car merged into a traffic circle with a Spanish-American War monument at its center.  That war lay in the deep unknown past.  But the various enterprises surrounding the circle were intensely familiar.  Coming first into view, a Congregational church with bright red doors.

"The Circle" -- 1980s

Further round the circle was the Artuso Pastry Shop, famous for its cannoli.  And then there was Chicken Delight.

“Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” according to the radio jingle, which our mother never heeded.

Oh, how we longed for Chicken Delight, fried or barbecued, delivery or 15-minute pickup.  No pots or pans – “just open and eat!”

Too bad.  On to the library.

Mount Vernon Public Library, 1920s

Founded in 1904 with a gift from the industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, the library was located on the south side of the city in a neighborhood that had declined as de facto segregation set in.

At the time of Carnegie’s gift, grand houses and spreading elms lined the blocks that would surround the library.  Nearby, commerce bustled along “the Avenue,” as residents called it. 

A small African-American community also flourished on this side of town.  However, by the end of World War II the black population had multiplied and many middle and upper class white residents of the south side had moved across the railroad tracks to the north side.

I’m sure some white people wanted to take the library with them.  But Grace Greene Baker would have opposed that idea.



Grace and her husband, Herbert, came out of small-town Ohio – a town called Bellevue, about 70 miles west of Cleveland.  She had already lived in several cities by the time she arrived at ours.  That was because Herbert was a rising executive in the printing business who previously held positions in St. Paul, Buffalo and other places.

Born in 1861, Grace became deeply interested in civic affairs while in her mid-30s.  She volunteered first with the National Consumers League, a reform organization co-founded by Jane Addams.  The group tackled the minimum wage, child labor laws, and other social problems.  By the time the Bakers landed in our suburb in 1900, it came naturally to Grace to commit herself as a public servant.  She plunged in while rearing four children.

What called to Grace Baker?  Two things: children’s welfare and the public library, both quintessential initiatives of the Progressive Era.  I imagine her steering a Model A along the Bronx River Parkway, on the way to address the county legislature about juvenile delinquency, newsboys and truancy. 

Eventually the public library would consume all of Grace’s time.  She served as board president for nearly 20 years and led a campaign for a much-needed addition to the building. 

As fiercely as the local paper editorialized against the addition, Grace fiercely explained its importance.  Just imagine the space – an expansive children’s department filled with light, plus large meeting rooms where members of the community could discuss issues and listen to lectures.  In the 1930s, however, persuading people to vote for a bigger library was like trying to get a new high school.  No one wanted to pay.

Finally, the bond referendum passed in 1936.

The 1936 addition 

Four years later, the city bestowed upon Grace its “Good Citizen” award.  On top of that, one of the paneled meeting rooms in the library addition was named the Grace Greene Baker Community Room.  

I now realize that this is where my father took me, in 1969, to hear a young woman named Anne Moody who had recently published a book called Coming of Age in Mississippi.  Anne Moody was a civil rights activist who worked with the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.  It made sense for her to speak in our city so riven by race.  The room was packed.

She started by reading the first paragraph of her book:

I’m still haunted by dreams of the time we lived on Mr. Carter’s plantation.  Lots of Negroes lived on his place.  Like Mama and Daddy they were all farmers.  We all lived in rotten two-room shacks.

Often statues and spaces memorialize people whose contributions to public life are modest to imperceptible.  But Grace Greene Baker absolutely deserved that room, and many years later so did Anne Moody.

Original dust jacket

*Grace Greene Baker died in 1949 and is buried in Bellevue, Ohio.  
**Anne Moody (1940-2015)