Warren Beatty’s 1981 love story Reds about American Communist Party founding father Jack Reed and paramour Louise Bryant left a crucial, embarrassing detail on the cutting room floor.
Jack Reed, the playboy of the Greenwich Village Left who practiced the free love that he preached, infected his wife with a dangerous venereal disease. Neither Reds nor the two major American biographies about Reed — Granville Hicks’s John Reed and Roger Rosenstone’s Romantic Revolutionary — note this inconvenient detail. Who has time for VD when there’s a free-love love story to be told?
“I’d like to know what your idea of freedom is,” Warren Beatty’s Reed asks Diane Keaton’s Bryant. Then married to a Portland dentist, Bryant bluntly answers: “I’d like to see you with your pants off, Mr. Reed.” Easy sex didn’t start in the 1960s.
Nominated for more Academy Awards than any film since 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Reds devotes the first half of a three-hour-plus movie to the theme of open relationships among the freewheeling characters of the Greenwich Village Left of the 1910s.
Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill lustfully confronts Bryant. If Reed’s girl were his girl, he declares, she would be his and his alone. “Possessive,” a moralistic Bryant responds. “That’s something else. It’s a waste of time. I’m not. Neither is Jack for that matter,” “Ah, yes! I know,” the famous playwright responds. “You and Jack have your own thing.”
An annoyed Bryant lectures, “He has the freedom to do the things that he wants to, and so do I. And I think anyone afraid of that kind of freedom is really afraid of his own emptiness.”
Bryant’s arguments win the day, and the pair immediately commence upon a sexual affair in Reed’s absence. The fictional Reed responds to the discovery of his girlfriend’s relationship with O’Neill by asking for her hand in marriage, which, along with awkwardness and the occasional possessive impulse, is about as complicated as promiscuity gets in Reds.
THAT’S THE FREE-LOVE story Beatty wanted to tell. In Bryant’s and Reed’s real life, their ideals crashed into harder realities.
In the extant correspondence between the First Couple of American Communism, the theme of infidelity and the health consequences unleashed by it pervade. I relied on these letters, currently housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, for a chapter focusing on Reed and the origins of American Communism in my new book. A Conservative History of the American Left.
They are open to the public’s inspection, and were available to Hicks and Rosenstone. Reds, in fact, includes a montage of Beatty-Keaton voiceovers of love-letters. But neither the consequences of Reed’s free-love philosophy, nor the casual racism in his letters that denigrated African Americans as “niggers” and “coons,” made it into their first draft of history.
“My whole left insides (ovaries, etc.) seem to be inflamed and infected,” the real Bryant wrote to the real Reed in December, 1916. “They think maybe I got it from your condition.” Noting the prospect of surgery, Bryant concluded by wishing her husband, then convalescing after an operation to remove a kidney, to get well.
An obtuse Reed replied that his wife’s delay in seeing a doctor “wasn’t fair to me.” “I didn’t mind what you said about my infecting you — if it were true,” Reed wrote Bryant. “But honey, it’s awful to remove your ovaries, isn’t it? Doesn’t it make you incapable of having children and everything like that? I never heard of that being done to anybody but dogs, cats and horses.”
The letters never mention a disease by name. The subject is delicately, though frequently, addressed. (And Bryant, thankfully, never had her ovaries removed, evidence of which most glaringly displayed in the ironic birth of a baby girl to William Bullit, first U.S. ambassador to Soviet Russia.)
The missives show Reed and Bryant getting sick at roughly the same time, an ovarian infection afflicting Bryant, a doctor informing Bryant that a disease had been transmitted to her, and Reed repeatedly pledging fidelity. For instance, after detailing the sad case of a fallen actress with the same medical condition that Bryant had suffered from, Reed wrote his wife on June 14, 1917 that she “may believe that nevermore is there going to be any chance of any girl coming between me and my honey.”
The promise, coming after his description of a woman afflicted with the malady Bryant suffered from the year prior, makes sense only if Reed’s philandering had caused Bryant’s condition.
The following month, Reed reports of a young temptress’s advances, which he repels. He reports that “she wanted to make love. I didn’t + couldn’t.” Reed explains that women have made him weak, and “now without a mate I am half a man, and sterile.”
Ten days later, Reed writes: “I know, my lover — I realize how disappointed + cruelly disillusioned you have been. You thought you were getting a hero — and you only got a vicious little person who is fast losing any spark he may have had.” In the margin, Reed adds as a postscript: “Don’t be alarmed by this last. I have kept my word to you — lover.”
THE POSSIBILITY OF Reed contracting syphilis, let alone transmitting it to Bryant, is dismissed out of hand by biographer Roger Rosenstone and not addressed at all by biographer Granville Hicks. Both authors quote from the letters that indicate such a scenario and do no more than that.
But a European doctor diagnosed Reed, a notorious benefactor of whores, with syphilis and an American doctor subsequently diagnosed Bryant with a venereal disease as well. Do Reed’s biographers, and his Hollywood hagiographer, know something that these doctors did not?
The methodology is one Jack Reed knew well. Never the detached observer, John Reed’s journalism always reeked of the interested partisan.
Reed covered the Paterson strike of 1912 with such passion that he was arrested with the strikers and later organized a disastrous consciousness-raising pageant in Madison Square Garden in which the picketing laborers played themselves. Riding with Pancho Villa’s band in Mexico, an exuberant Reed reported the fall of Torreon a week before it occurred. From the German trenches during the Great War, “journalist” Reed took shots at French soldiers.
Reed’s most famous work of advocacy journalism, Ten Days That Shook the World, is perhaps the most famous book on the Bolshevik Coup and the tome that launched dreams of Soviet Russia as a heaven-on-earth in the making. Reed picked up a gun alongside those he covered, invented third-person accounts of events when first-person accounts stood to harm commissars, and snitched on Russians foolish enough to give him their negative opinions of the Bolsheviks.
Declining George Creel’s job offer on Woodrow Wilson’s wartime propaganda board, Reed nevertheless accepted the Bolsheviks’ subsequent job offer in their propaganda outfit. That John Reed wrote Ten Days That Shook the World as an employee of the Soviet Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda has strangely not detracted from its reputation.
At century’s end, a panel of prestigious journalists convened by New York University named it as the seventh best work of U.S. journalism in the twentieth century. In Reds, one of the senior-citizen talking heads whose reminiscences are deftly interspersed with the cinematic drama, recalls, “As a journalist, Jack Reed topped them all.”
But Jack Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World is as much journalism as Warren Beatty’s Reds is history. Soviet Russia turned out not to be the heaven on earth prophesied in Reed’s book, Warren Beatty wasn’t Jack Reed and Diane Keaton wasn’t Louise Bryant, and free love rarely turns out as uncomplicated in real life as it does on the silver screen.
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