Friday, September 23, 2016

Red Scare! "Amen Dell," Irving Mendell, the Federal Theatre Project and Johnny on the Spot (1943)

For eight years Mrs. Mildred Blauvelt, a "pert brunette" detective with the New York City Police Department, Bureau of Special Services, went undercover as a Red. 

Red Menace
As part of her assignment to catch out Communists in subversive acts, she first joined the Ninth A. D. [Assembly District] Club of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, under the alias "Mildred Brandt." 

Within a year she had been expelled from the club, but, undaunted, she became affiliated with another suspect group, this one in Brooklyn, remaining a member (under her new alias, "Sylvia Vogel") until her expulsion from this second group in 1951. 

Detective Blauvelt later testified several times in the 1950s before the House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], providing HUAC with a list of some 450 persons she had met over those eight years whom she identified as Communists.

HUAC was rather interested in the Ninth A. D. Club, and Detective Blauvelt was more than willing to dish up the dirt to Frank Tavenner, the Chief Counsel to the committee.  Among the sixteen men and women in the club (out of around 100 members) whom she identified by name as Reds was one "Pete Mendell," the chairman of the club.  Mendell, she noted, had appeared in the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker in 1943 under the name of Amen Dell.

"Amen Dell" was the cutely conceived concealing cognomen ("A Mendell") under which Irving "Pete" Mendell wrote his sole known crime novel, Johnny on the Spot, published by Mystery House in 1943.  It was highly praised by esteemed left-liberal mystery critic Anthony Boucher in the San Francisco Chronicle, as "fast, amusing and strongly pro-labor--a rare and needed note in whodunits."

For its part the Ninth A. D. Club's cheeky newsletter, the "News of the Ninth," in their bi-monthly May 1943 issue included the following notice about Amen Dell's new novel, under the headline "Belles Letters:"

For them as reads mysteries--Johnny on the Spot, by Amen Dell.  A swell mystery with a progressive slant.  At your lending library. 

Among films the newsletter also recommended Warner Studio's pro-Stalin wartime propaganda film Mission to Moscow.  Of their response to the latter production they enthusiastically wrote: "We editors sat hypnotized, magnetized, and electrified for 2 solid hours."

This newsletter was turned over to HUAC by Detective Blauvelt.  It was received as "Blauvelt Exhibit No. 12."

Martin Dies brings the gavel down, as the cameras obligingly flash

This was not the first time Amen Dell/Irving Mendell became an object of suspicion in a HUAC investigation.  Back in 1938, the year HUAC (as it came to be known in 1946) was formed, the committee, chaired by conservative, headline-grabbing Texas Democrat Martin Dies, had subpoenaed Hallie Flanagan, the national director of the Federal Theatre Project [FTP], an important New Deal Works Progress Administration [WPA] government program, calling on Flanagan to respond to charges that the FTP under her administration had become infested with Communists.

The FTP had been established in 1935.  National director Hallie Flanagan previously had been a theater professor at Vassar, an elite women's college.  As national director of the FTP, Flanagan was tasked with reviving moribund commercial theater, creating employment opportunities and hope for thousands of stage actors, directors, writers and technicians who had been thrown out-of-work not only by the impact of the Depression but by the rise in popularity of the cheaper mass entertainment alternatives of film and radio. 

the director
Hallie Flanagan of Vassar and the FTP
In 1935 Flanagan had made Irving Mendell head of FTP's personnel department and in 1937 she put him in charge of the FTP's "Living Newspaper," an innovative theatrical form designed to present factual information on current events to a popular audience.  Promoting social action was a conscious goal of the Living Newspaper, with plays such as Triple-A Plowed Under (1936), illustrating the plight of Dust Bowl Farmers; Injunction Granted (1936), championing workers' unions; Power (1937), detailing the struggle of the public consumer to find affordable electricity; Spirochete (1938), dramatizing the medical fight against the scourge of syphilis; and the popular One-Third of a Nation (1938), later adapted as a film, addressing the crisis in urban housing.

Perturbed  by the success and perceived radicalism of the FTP and other New Deal programs, conservative congressmen used HUAC to investigate what it viewed as subversive, anti-American infiltration of them.  Under pressure form HUAC, the FTP--and with it the Living Newspaper--was defunded and disbanded in 1939. 

Controversial plays that were then in development, such as Liberty Deferred, detailing the dark history of slavery and lynchings in the United States, were never performed, much to the satisfaction of congressional conservatives, who didn't want such negative aspects of American history examined, at least at taxpayer expense.

the chairman
Texas Congressman Martin Dies
As the current supervisor of the Living Newspaper Unit, Irving Mendell was one of the "subversives" upon whom the hostile gaze of HUAC focused. 

In testimony before the committee, Wallace Stark, an obviously embittered former employee of the FTP, attacked Flanagan in part for having hired Mendell, whom he derided not only as a "candymaker from Brooklyn" but an "avowed Communist." 

Excepts from his congressional testimony follow:

Chairman Dies: While you were there working on that project, did you know personally of any communistic activity that took place there?

Mr. Stark: Yes.  At the very beginning of Mrs. Flanagan's taking over the office, she put in a man by the name of Irving Mendell, a candymaker from Brooklyn.

Dies: Was he a Communist?

Stark: Yes, an avowed Communist.

Dies: An admitted Communist?

Stark: Yes.

Dies: What position did he occupy?

Stark: She [Flanagan] put him at the head of the personnel department to induct people into the Federal Theater in the different units.

Dies: Did he bring other Communists into that project?

Stark: Yes; several from the unit of dance music and drama where I taught, even the students that I taught.

Dies: What took place with reference to communistic activities after he became head of the personnel division?

Stark: He was afterward transferred to the Living Newspaper, which was supposed to be the unit that advocated the overthrow of the Government type of plays on the Federal Theatre.

fiery on the stump
Dies delivering a stemwinder
Dies: Do you charge that Mrs. Flanagan participated in communistic activity?

Stark: I have seen reports on several plays and read several plays that she has produced up in Poughkeepsie [home of Vassar College].

J. Parnell Thomas [Republican Congressman from New Jersey]: Have you ever had any connection with Mrs. Flanagan?

Stark: No.  She has avoided every opportunity I have had to offer any constructive plans of mine, of my organization, which I represented, to have a veterans' project on the Federal Theater.

Dies: What organization do you represent?

Stark: I do not represent any at this time.

Dies: At one time did you represent an organization?

Stark: I was one of the deputies of the Veterans' Association.

Dies: And then you base your statement that she engaged in communistic activity upon these plays that were produced by the Federal Theatre Project?

Stark: I do, sir.

Dies: What were the political theories of the project?

Stark: From what I understand--

Dies: Not from what you understand, but from what you know.  What do you know?

Stark: The propaganda plays, the putting on of propaganda plays.

Dies: What kind of propaganda, to do what?

Stark: To advocate Communism, social-problem plays of a revolutionary nature.  And I hope you can suspend Mrs. Flanagan.

Dies: That is not within the province of this committee.

"The Honorable Martin Dies"
In 2004, Sean Patterson, then a graduate student at the University of New Orleans, drew on this testimony for his UNO thesis: a play entitled "Get Flanagan: The Rise and Fall of the Federal Theatre Project.

In his play he imagined an informal conversation among Wallace Stark and a trio of philistine HUAC members concerning Irving Mendell, Hallie Flanagan and the FTP as follows:

Stark: I worked for the Federal Theatre, briefly, around the time it started.  Do you realize Hallie Flanagan has employed known Communists in the project?

Dies: You have names?

Stark: Yes, I do.  Irving Mendell.  Flanagan put him in charge of placing people in different units of the project.

Thomas: Was he a Communist?

Stark: Yes, an avowed Communist.

Thomas: An admitted Communist?

Stark: That's what avowed means, sir.  And you know what's really insulting?  I'm a professional, right?  A professional in Manhattan.  Mendell was a candymaker.  From Brooklyn.

Joe Starnes [Democratic Congressman, infamous in real life for having questioned Hallie Flanagan about whether Christopher Marlowe and a "Mr. Euripides," whose plays the FTP had staged, were Communists]: And he worked for the Communists?

Stark: He recruited students from the dance and drama unit where I taught.  Then he was transferred to the "overthrow the Government" theater they do, the Living Newspapers.  That's Flanagan's doing as well.

Martin Dies drills down on a point
Joe Starnes, appearing impressed, looks on
Dies: So, you're saying that Mrs. Flanagan herself is a Communist?

Stark: I wouldn't say that exactly.

Dies: Not even off the record?

Stark: Read the reports about the plays she did up at that girl college in Poughkeepsie, before she was even part of the project.  That's enough for me.

Thomas: You ever talk to her about it?

Stark: No.  She avoided every opportunity to speak with me about anything constructive.  I had ideas about organizing a veterans' unit...

Thomas: So you don't know her personal political theories?

Stark: Look at the work, gentlemen!  They put on propaganda plays.  They advocate Communism.  All these social-problem plays that won't quit until they start a revolution.  All they do is find fault with the government and make it out to be an enemy of the people.  Apologies to Ibsen.

Dies: Who's that?  Is that another Communist?

Stark: Who, Ibsen?  He's a playwright.

Dies: Funny name.  He a Russian?

Stark: He's Norwegian.  He wrote
An Enemy of the People.

Dies: Never heard of it.

Stark: It's about a man who's shunned by the very community he's trying to help.  The same way our American government is being shunned by the Federal Theatre.

Dies: Thank you, Mr. Stark.  You're a good American.

Stark: I hope you're going to suspend Hallie Flanagan.

Dies: Uh, that's not within the province of this committee.

Thomas and Starnes: But we're gonna try!

Martin Dies takes center stage again
Sidekick Joe Starnes (right) tries to look pensive
Sean Patterson obviously detected some condescension in Wallace Stark's identification of the upstart Irving Mendell as a mere candymaker from Brooklyn, but just who was Irving Mendell in those days? 

Was he really a Communist candymaker from Brooklyn?  Here is what I have found.

Irving Mendell was born in New York in 1904.  His parents in 1910 were listed as Jacob and Roxie Mendell. 

Jacob Mendell migrated around 1890 to the United States, either from Russia or Romania, where he was born around 1866. (I'm guessing a borderland between the two countries, Bessarabia, or perhaps the port city of Odessa.)  Roxie, a college graduate, was born in New York, substantially later, around 1888; so seven of Jacob's nine children, including Irving, were presumably borne not by Roxie but by a first wife.  Irving was the youngest of this first set of children. 

Originally Jacob Mendell was a produce merchant, but by 1910 he had become, yes, a candymaker.  That year he patented the memorably named "Mendell's Jiu Jitsu Kandi Suker," the title alone of which is a mouthful.  Supposedly in the United States the mass manufacture of hard boiled sweets on sticks had been inaugurated only a couple of years earlier by a George Smith of New Haven, Connecticut, who named them after a popular racehorse of the time, "Lolly Pop.

In any event, Jacob Mendel obviously knew a sweet thing when he tasted it.  He, Roxie and an elder son, Alfred, incorporated the J. Mendell Candy Company, with capital stock of $40,000.  It was located at 1251 DeKalb Street, Brookyn, just three-tenths of a mile from the Mendell home in the neighborhood of Bushwick. (The Mendell home, originally built in 1899, still stands today, though the candy factory seems to have been torn down and replaced by a modern senior living center). 

Mendell home in Bushwick (center)

In 1926 Jacob Mendell died in his sixtieth year and was buried in Mount Zion cemetery, a large Jewish burial ground in the borough of Queens.  In 1930 the widowed Roxie still lived in the family home with her two daughters, Sylvia and Eleanor, supplementing her income by taking in a few gentleman lodgers. 

Alfred Mendell's patent
Son Alfred seems to have carried on in the candy business, having the same year patented an improvement in the merchandising display of "stick like articles, such as the so-called 'suckers' or 'pops." By 1940, the company appears to have been in receivership, however.

One of Alfred's and Irving's sisters, Rose, was a public high school teacher, while another, Martha, became a physician at the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn.  In 2008 it was reported that Martha Mendell had vociferously protested in 1952 against the American Medical Association's exclusion of black doctors from its ranks, damning the racist policy as an "international disgrace."  In the 1940s she also was a vocal advocate of national health insurance.

So, what of Irving Mendell himself?  Contrary to Wallace Stark's dismissive reference to him as a candymaker from Brooklyn, Irving seems to have had nothing to do with the candy business, at least an an adult. (As a youngster he may have labored as a messenger boy there.)  Jacob Mendell died when Irving was 22, and three years later the young man had married a woman named Anne, originally from Chicago, and had found employment as a life insurance salesman. 

Power: one of the more popular
living newspapers of the Thirties

How Irving Mendell came to the notice of Hallie Flanagan in the mid-thirties is not clear to me.  He seems to have become involved in theatricals, himself writing three plays, which, sadly, went unproduced.  By 1937 Mendell had become the managing supervisor of the Living Newspaper unit, which put him front and center in the political controversies embroiling the FTP. 

In February 1939 Mendell was dismissed from his post by George Kondolf, New York City director of the FTP, Kondolf declaring that Mendell was "completely and utterly incompetent" and that Hallie Flanagan agreed with him in this assessment. Kondolf claimed that in the previous eighteen months Mendell had submitted to him not one "acceptable" Living Newspaper script." (This would be since Power and One-Third of a Nation.)

A Congress of Industrial Organizations [C.I.O.] union of WPA supervisors countered that Mendell's dismissal was "part of a a campaign to wipe out the unions in the Federal Theatre."  They pointed out that, contrary to Kondolf's claims, Mendell's work had been praised in the WPA brief prepared in answer to charges that had been made against the FTP in testimony before HUAC. Mendell himself had been an outspoken defender of union rights during his tenure at the FTP. 

We know at some point that Mendell joined the Ninth A.D. Club and that by 1943, the year Mildred Blauvelt infiltrated this group of evident Communists, Mendell had become its chair.  During this period he had also become a father, Anne having given birth in 1940 to a daughter, Judith, after a decade of marriage. 

Irving and Anne Miller lived here
in the West Village in the 1930s
Until Judith's birth Irving and Anne, who worked as a stenographer for a private welfare agency, lived in an apartment on Charles Street in Greenwich Village, the setting for his crime thriller Johnny on the Spot.  Distinguished literary denizens of Charles Street for briefer periods of time include James M. Cain, Sinclair Lewis, Woody Guthrie and Hart Crane.  Around the corner lived noted academic (and mystery fiction fan) Mark Van Doren. (See Forgotten New York.)

After Anne's birth the small family removed to "the fresh air of uptown New York," where Mendell worked on his novel.  

On the back jacket flap of Johnny on the Spot, "Amen Dell" was unapologetic about his labor advocacy, avowing that in the labor movement there were "organized millions" who had "formed a bulwark against Fascism" and offered "a promise of a fuller, more complete Democracy.

The author pronounced that he had launched on writing mysteries because "they are the average man's type of reading," amplifying thus:

Stenographers, housewives, students, teachers, truckmen, mechanics, war workers, electricians, cashiers and dozens of other categories--all like mysteries.  I like them--because they are America.  So, I write mysteries.

tenement set in One-Third of a Nation

In a time when so many mystery writers were concerned to show how highbrow, really, mystery writing could be and how  mysteries were read by the world's elites--intellectuals, statesmen (i.e., politicians), judges and captains of industry--it's interesting to see an American mystery writer from the left taking an entirely different point of view, defending crime writing on the grounds that it appeals to the popular masses.

Unfortunately, no other mystery is known to have appeared from Irving Mendell's hand, and I don't know what happened to him or his family after 1943, except that it appears he died in 1979, when he was 75 years old.  Anthony Boucher, who had pronounced that "Amen Dell" was one of the most promising crime writing newcomers of 1943, was wondering what had become of him three years later, in 1946.  "Only their draft boards know," he wrote of Amen Dell and other vanished crime writers of promise.

Although I may not be able currently to tell you anything more about Irving Mendell, I definitely can provide you with a review of Johnny on the Spot!  It's coming soon.

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