Jack Shulman on William Z. Foster

Section 3) MEETING FOSTER AND WORKING AS HIS SECRETARY

INTERVIEWER: So, you’re back in New York. What year are we up to?
JS: Um. Maybe About ….About ’56 or ’57……………..

INTERVIEWER: And when you got back to New York, is that when you met William Z ???
JS: Um, yeah. Subsequently. ….. It wasn’t a year, when this friend of ours in the party, who was related indirectly to Foster, got hold of me for lunch and propositioned me — if I would go to work as Foster’s secretary & driver.

INTERVIEWER: Was he head of the party at this time?
JS: Who?

INTERVIEWER: Foster.
JS: Nominally, yes, but it is questionable how much authority he had in the party. Actually revisionism was very strong. He advised against the party leaders going underground. They didn’t listen to him. The Russians were making deep inroads into the party and winning over one after another to the Khruschev line.

INTERVIEWER: Where were you — were you in the South when the speech was made by Khrushchev attacking Stalin? ………..

JS: ….. That was about the time when I was either in the South or just coming out of the South.

INTERVIEWER: What did you think about that, when you heard those attacks?
JS: Bullshit. I didn’t fall for that at all. First of all I knew he was a revisionist clown.

INTERVIEWER: How’d you know that?
JS: Well, from his previous speeches and things that were going on over there. I think by then — ’56 — I’d already been in contact with Foster and Foster would drop a few remarks. What year was it when Khrushchev came to the United Nations and made his speech there?

INTERVIEWER: I’m not sure
JS: Maybe a year or two later after ’56. Probably ’58. Yeah, it was ’58. By that time I was already working for Foster and he was lying in bed. He was paralyzed on half his side and watching T.V. and we saw on T.V. Khrushchev at the UN banging his shoe. His face was — ?? — Foster’s face was very dark.

INTERVIEWER: Very what?
JS: Dark. He was very unhappy with that. He made it plain that he didn’t think it was very smart. He didn’t have much use for Khrushchev as a whole and this business of attacking Stalin he did not approve of; and then the way he behaved at the UN and the way he was making inroads into our party and converting all the leadership, one after the other, into following his line. Some of them who were good Marxists and were followers of Foster, Foster’s line, he would invite them over to come to — his honored guests — to the Soviet Union, keep them there 2 months, 3 months, 4 months, whatever it took. Propagandize them and wined them and dined them and give them a good time and when they come back, they were no longer friends of Foster. They were praising Khrushchev. This happened to all of those who had before supported Foster.

INTERVIEWER: What exactly did you do with Foster and how much time did you spend with him?
JS: Well, all day. I had to get there in the morning and stay until after supper. First of all, if he had to go anywhere, I had to help him get out of bed and get dressed and get into the elevator, into the car. I was his driver, I was his chauffeur. I had this car, it was an old car, but it was good. It was supplied by the party for Foster’s use. So I took care of it and I kept it in a garage around the corner where I lived and I lived in Washington Heights until I come to Riverside Drive. It wasn’t too far from the Bronx. Not far from the Shay Stadium. So I would get him into the car and that was quite a job — cane, what not. I don’t remember. I would drive him where he had to go. Usually he would go down to the party headquarters, Manhattan and 26th Street, and attend some of the leadership meetings and fret and fume and get enraged and blow his fuse and have another stroke or something every time he went to one of those meetings.

INTERVIEWER: Would you sit in on those meetings?
JS: Oh, no. They were closed. But I was in the office next to — the reception office, and I could hear when they were arguing and fighting- could hear through the walls, through the door. There was commotion going on there and he was a fighter and he would fight with them.

INTERVIEWER: Who was he fighting against?
JS: All the rest of the leadership.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember any names of who was in leadership at that time?
JS: Well, there was Gus Hall, Eugene Dennis, and what’s his name? John Gates and people like that. Weinstein, and who was that other top leader? The name escapes me.

INTERVIEWER: Was there anybody on Foster’s side?
JS: Oh, around that time there was practically nobody. One guy was very sympathetic. That was Benjamin Davis. He was very close to Foster and he admired him and he knew he was right.

INTERVIEWER: He was African-American?
JS: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: – and he after ran for – was it City Council?
JS: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And was he elected in New York?
JS: Yeah, I think so. You know, his whole life – – his livelihood depended on the party. He had no – he was a lawyer, but he never practiced law. ……………….

JS: And he (Benjamin Davis-Editor) was a good guy, but he had no way of earning a living except the job he had with the party as a leader of the party. Well, he couldn’t go against the party. So he would come by once in a while to visit Foster. I had to arrange all the visits, etc. Sort of a social secretary and sometimes pick up people and bring them there, like I did with Davis and others. He made it plain that he was ideologically — he was with Foster, but he had to go along, officially, with the party leadership to save his job, to save his livelihood. He had a wife, he had a kid and he had no way to earn a living and in those days an African-American, ex-communist leader, didn’t have much opportunity to earn a living.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what the issues were that they were fighting about?
JS: I don’t remember the exact stuff, but it was the usual questions of legality, working within the bourgeois system, whether revolution had to take place as a violent revolution, whether socialism could be achieved peacefully and issues like that. And Benjamin Davis certainly had the right instinct and supported Foster, but he couldn’t do it publicly. He died shortly after that, maybe 5, 6, 7, years later of cancer. Ruth went up to visit him in his hospital just a few days before he died. They were alone and he sort of apologized to her for what he had done and how he had behaved.

INTERVIEWER: In terms of what?
JS: In terms of his taking positions against Foster and with the revisionists and he practically asked for forgiveness for what he had done. That was that. That was about the only sympathy he got, Foster got, out of those leadership meetings and it didn’t amount to very much and he would get it from a way, you know. The man, who had two strokes before, three heart attacks. It’s surprising that he was able to survive. I would get him back home, get him up the elevator with great difficulty. It was hard for him to walk; one side was paralyzed practically. I remember once he would ask me all sorts of — find certain books for him. In his shelves he had a good selection of history books that he would do a lot of reading while he was lying in bed and trying to write articles and he would — fairly good articles. Sent them in but they never printed them. Or else they doctored them up so they ruined the meaning. He would ask me to go to the library and get some books for him because he was always working, always studying, even when he was sick, an invalid in bed.

INTERVIEWER: What kind of a man was he?
JS: He was an old Irish man from way back. He told me stories about the good old days. I think originally they came from Boston, but then they settled down around the turn of the century in Philadelphia. As a kid, as a youngster he was working in a fertiliser plant and that’s where he picked up a touch of TB or something. Working a fertiliser pants. Very poor living conditions. All those Irish lived in shanties. Tell some amusing stories about that….So then something…………

INTERVIEWER: Sense of humor?
JS: He had a very good sense of humor. He was full of quips, stories and jokes and so forth. He had stories — he really had them and they were very humorous. He was a Wobbly and he built the rails and he worked on the West Coast in lumbering and was a seaman. He was in Seattle. He signed on a sailing ship. An old sailing ship. This was the beginning of the century, before the steam ship. He spent three years — two years or three years, I’m not sure –going to Shanghai and places like that and came back and his TB was cured. He was there, I think, in 1912 when Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was leading the Seattle general strike, if you remember what happened. I think it was 1912.

INTERVIEWER: I think it was later. I’ll have to check the date. For some reason I think it was like 1919.
JS: Yes, you may be right. 1919. So he had worked with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was one of the party leaders, too, that he was fighting with afterward.

INTERVIEWER: Wasn’t the Great Steel Strike in 1919? Maybe the Seattle General Strike was 1918 and then the Steel strike was — I’ll have to look that up.
JS: You’re probably right. I — my memory for dates is not very good. Anyway, he was a nice guy. He was very warm, friendly to his friends. To his wife. They were married — I don’t know how long — 50, 60 years. They were very devoted to each other. She was 5 years older than he, I think. She was also an old anarchist from the old anarchist groups that came over from Europe. Jewish, Russian anarchist groups. She was Jewish and 100% Irish on both sides.

INTERVIEWER: Did they have any children?
JS: Yes. Yes and no. She had a daughter from a previous marriage, but they didn’t have any children between them. And the daughter’s name was Sylvia. She was sort of a dominant influence in their daily lives. At any rate — I remember once I was home and I get a frantic call from Esther, Foster’s wife. “Come over quick. Bill is in trouble.” So I run, get dressed and go get the car and drive over there and I find Bill Foster lying on a pillow in the hall and trying to get up. It turns out that he was rash and he got out of bed himself and he was trying to go to the bathroom or something like that and lost his balance, because he was only on one leg and fell down on the floor and he couldn’t get up. So he called me. So I had to go over there and with Esther’s help, to get him up. He was a big guy. Tall and heavy and we got him up and back in the bed. There were little incidents like that. He was a very interesting guy, very intelligent, very smart although I don’t think he ever finished grade school. He was studying, reading history books, the original manuscripts and what not.

INTERVIEWER: Did he ever speak to you about his concerns about what was happening to the party and where it was going and what was happening in the Soviet Union?
JS: No, he didn’t speak to me directly about it. I mean — he made remarks about what he was saying to the other leaders. What he was writing and I helped him write. He would dictate to me and I would type as he was dictating. So I was sort of a secretary and I would get the drift of what he was thinking from that. But the party leadership didn’t accept those things. But he wrote them anyway and I’d deliver them. I’d drive over to the office to deliver those letters. After a while I could see that whenever I went into party headquarters they’d call out the guards and they’d look at me with suspicion like an enemy agent.

INTERVIEWER: During the time that you were working with Foster, was he visited by the FBI or harassed by government agents? Did you get any sense of that?
JS: No, not during those years he was sick, he was bedridden, etc. I don’t think the FBI came into the apartment, although they were certainly watching his movements, and he’d go into the car I’m sure there were FBI agents who were following him and seeing where he was going, etc. But they didn’t harass him directly in those years. They would harass me and Ruth, etc.

INTERVIEWER: How?
JS: We’d get up, go to work. Was working in a bank building. There would be two, at least two FBI guys would meet me at the door, on the street, start talking to me. Offer me all kinds of inducements.

INTERVIEWER: If you’d do what?
JS: Uh, threatening — Well, they didn’t say specifically, but, you know, to work for them and give them information, etc. And I’d chase them away. They were very persistent. A few times they would come right into the lobby of the building where my office was. I worked in a building on 42nd Street. I’d be going in to go to work and there would be a couple men.

INTERVIEWER: When was that?
JS: Around that time.
…………..

JS: …. Once I went to work for Bill Foster I disappeared as far as (my brother) was concerned. Because I couldn’t publicise that, either, even in my own family. So I just disappeared again. That’s about three times. I was working for my brother – I would disappear without a word. He didn’t know where I was or anything. And he just forgot about it. And then later on, a year or two years, three years later, I would show up and ask him for a job and he would give me a job back without asking any questions. That was convenient.

INTERVIEWER: I was going to say
JS: That was very helpful. Without that we would have been much worse off.

INTERVIEWER: So how long did you continue working with Bill Foster?
JS: It was, I think, three years. And he was getting physically in pretty bad shape. His leg was beginning to get infected. There was speculation — what to do about that leg. And he thought — he had an idea — it would be a good idea for him to go to Russia and have Russian doctors treat him because he still had a lot of confidence in Russia and Russian doctors; and he wanted to get over there to talk and argue with Khrushchev and the other leaders and try to convince them that their line was wrong, that their line was revisionist. He thought: he went to Moscow several times in the past when he had arguments with other leaders in the party. Way back in the 20’s and ’29 and ’30. I forget the names of these people and the party leadership would be split and then he would go to Moscow and lay it all out before Stalin and the other Russian party leaders and they would have a kind of a trial on the issues. And each time his side won. And that’s how he maintained leadership from the ’20s — 1920, ’21. Up until that time there were two — at least twice that I remember, cases where they were threatening to throw him out of the leadership and revisionist forces were practically taking over the leadership. He beat them by going to Russia and at that time Stalin was there and they listened to both sides and they ruled in favor of Foster’s position. So he had a run into a memory and he thought it could work again that way — that he would go over there and layout the issues before the leadership and discuss them and thrash it out and then they would probably change their minds. But he was dead wrong; he didn’t realize how bad it was until he got there. Meanwhile, when he got there — before he left, he had a big struggle with lawyers and the courts to restore his passport. He was practically held prisoner legally. He couldn’t leave the country. He wanted to go to Moscow for treatment and they wouldn’t allow it. And he asked to go to Czechoslovakia and they wouldn’t allow him. Then he asked to go to China and they wouldn’t allow him. Something later was going on in the courts and with the revisionist lawyers and they managed to get a favorable judgment somehow that allowed Foster to go to Moscow for medical treatment. I was still working for him as a secretary. But the party set down some conditions before they would let him come. One of the conditions was they had to get rid of me.

INTERVIEWER: Is this the American party?
JS: No, the Russian party.

INTERVIEWER: OK.
JS: And the American party both. They were both in cahoots. The condition was that he had to get rid of me.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think that was?
JS: Because they figured that I was too staunch a friend and I would spill the beans of what was going on and I would be defense barrier against their manipulations. So they wanted me out of the way. So we invented some excuse and I said Bill wasn’t satisfied with some of the work I was doing and they wanted to replace me. So they replaced me just a couple of months before he left.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever talk with him about this, that you were not going to be working for him anymore?
JS: Oh yeah. He was planning on it. They convinced him that he had to get rid of me if he wanted to go to Moscow, so he had to go along with them. And then they put in some hack in my place who was a yes man from the bureaucracy, for the machinery and was very reliable from the revisionist leadership point of view and they sent him off and he was allowed to take his private doctor along with him, who was a nice guy. A good guy.

INTERVIEWER: Bill was, Bill took his private doctor?
JS: Yeah but he couldn’t stay there too long. Stay there 2, 3 weeks and orient the Russian doctors on his history and everything and then he had to go back, back home to work. I think that Foster’s wife went along and also her daughter. Before long, Foster began to realize that he was a prisoner there. He couldn’t get out; it was one of these fancy hospitals where leaders and others were prisoners and what not. Surrounded by this big area, surrounded by a wall and fence and guards and what not. Nobody could get in and nobody could get out. So things went bad. He began to distrust the doctors, and didn’t trust them anymore. He knew a lot of good guys who were eliminated with the help of some doctors. So he refused to take his medicine.

INTERVIEWER: How did you know about this?
JS: Oh, I heard it later on from the doctor, from other people. He refused to take his medicine. The doctor, his home doctor, was already home and his leg was getting bad, getting gangrenous. They put in an emergency call and told his doctor in the Bronx to come back and his wife also to come back and before we knew it, they had amputated his leg. Before that he was begging the doctor to get him out of there and get him back home, get him anywhere, get him to China, but get him out of there. Doctor said ‘”How can I do it? You can’t leave this place without an official permit or pass'” or something and there’s a wall, there are gates.'” He said — he was desperate — he said “Get in the car and smash the gates down and get out and take me to the airport. Well, he was a little delirious and they rushed him out — it couldn’t be done in Soviet Russia. So there he was with his leg amputated and his condition deteriorated very rapidly after that.

INTERVIEWER: When did he die?
JS: November, 1961. He went to Russia in the end of 1960, maybe December ’60, or something like that. And at that time I was visiting as a guest in Albania. Ruth and I had a two week vacation and travelling around and then we were allowed to come into Albania for a few days. Four or five days. Turned out we had to stay there about two weeks because we couldn’t get an exit visa to get out for very complicated reasons. So one night — this was November 1961, I remember that date — there’s a knock on the door at the hotel and the guy that wakes us up — he was one of the leaders of the party of Albania — and brought me the bad news that Foster had died. He just found it on the wire. And he thought that I should know about it.

INTERVIEWER: Was there some suspicion that he, in fact, had been murdered?
JS: Well, of course, but not automatically and not instantaneously, but over a period of time, through the doctors’ ministrations and his arguments with leadership. They wore him down.

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