Of course it’s possible to make generalizations about numbered ten-year slots, thought they don’t much work until after the fact. “We’re not in ‘the eighties,'” said Abbie Hoffman about a later decade, “we’re in a delicatessen in New York City.” You could say the fifties were the end of the era when chauvinism was still about countries and a dip was something you did on the dance floor, not stuck your crudités into; before smoking officially killed you and food, air, sex, and water generally didn’t; when the drugs in circulation were legal and it was safe to walk alone at night. But such observations have no significance at the time to a person who is simply swamped by the whole thing. When you are growing up in it, it isn’t the fifties or the sixties or anything else–it’s just a part, your part, of some terrible, vast ocean. You don’t give any thought to whether the waves are Atlantic or Pacific; if they’re about to drown you, who cares if they started in the Black Sea or the Red, or are saltier or tougher than the Caribbean? In the decade of your youth, the first wave merges with the last, and you know nothing about the time’s distinctness: your job is just to keep afloat.
Sally Belfrage’s Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties is both one of the funniest and one of the saddest books. Growing up in an America where fitting in seemed a higher goal even than getting rich, Belfrage was cursed with some seemingly insurmountable obstacles: “My parents were foreigners and got married a lot, they went in for weird food and funny clothes, they were always moving.” Her mother, Molly Castle, had been the hottest young columnist in England in the 1930s, “The Girl Everyone Reads,” a voice of authority on style, glamor and celebrity. Her father, Cedric Belfrage, had been a film critic, a press agent for Sam Goldwyn, a screenwriter in Hollywood, an operative for M.I.6 in New York City, an agent for the Americans in post-war Germany, setting up democratically-oriented newspapers, and–oh, yeah, an ardent leftist and one-time Communist. He also had a mistress he’d brought back from Europe and set up apartment with, leaving his family to fend for themselves much of the time. She was the only kid in her class whose phone was tapped and whose house was regularly visited by F.B.I. agents.
“When my teens began, it dawned on me: the only untried, unheard-of, truly original ambition I might pursue was to be normal.” Much of Un-American Activities is devoted to recalling her earnest efforts to fit in. She had the help of her downstairs neighbor, Debbie, who knew everything from how to keep boys from getting past first base to when and when not to wear lipstick. Tall, blonde and beautiful, Sally should have had an easy time achieving a survivable level of popularity, but her academic abilities landed her in the Bronx High School of Science, where she still the oddball, the lone shiksa in a school full of geeky Jewish guys.
And there was the matter of her parents. Despite the fact that the half-life of Cedric Belfrage’s Communist Party membership could be measured in days, he was an open and unabashed pinko, the kind of radical who befriended emigrant European intellectuals, partied with Paul Robeson, and kept on founding left-wing magazines. He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He simply would not keep a low-profile. Ironically, it was his wife who was the first to be deported.
Despite all this turmoil, however, Sally managed to get a boyfriend–a West Point cadet, no less. He offers her the promise of a life complete with two kids and a station wagon. All she has to do is keep his mother, who’s torn between hating her for being the daughter of Communists and hating her for being Goy. But then, when her father is finally kicked out of the country, Walter Winchell blasts out the news on his nightly radio show: “Flash. Pinko Cedric Belfrage, who edits a smelly sheet in NYC, will be taken from West Street jail to be deported, probably tomorrow. Good riddance!”
Un-American Activities ends with an epilogue in which Sally revisits her parents, both remarried (her father several times over) thirty-some years later, nurses her father in his final days, and has a whirlwind affair with her old West Point boyfriend, now a two-star general involved in Reagan’s Star Wars program. It is something of a let-down, offering little in the way of added perspective on the preceding story.
Which is unfortunate, because her story after her parents’ deportation–if she’d been a little more willing to go into the details–is that of a life far more interesting and individualistic than either of her parents. In the late 1950s, she played hooky from an escorted tour to the Soviet Union and ended up spending six months on her own in Moscow, telling the tale in her first book, A Room in Moscow (1958). A few years later, she joined the Freedom Riders, traveling through the segregated South and helping blacks register to vote, which she wrote about in Freedom Summer (1966). In the late 1970s, she left her husband (Bernard Pomerance, author of The Elephant Man) and spent time on guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram, an experience she described in Flowers of Emptiness (1981). In the mid-1980s, she traveled to Belfast to collect the impressions of resident on all sides of the conflict for her 1987 book, The Crack: A Belfast Year. None of her books made much money, and when she died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 57, she was living in a tiny flat in Maida Vale. She was fondly remembered by her friends, however. Ceremonies were organized in her honor, including a tribute in New York City hosted by Maya Angelou.