Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: Does Irna Phillips Know?

Chapter #16: It’s a lot more dangerous for you than it is for me.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

“I went to Spain. To fight with the Republicans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the Nationalists.” It was clearly not what Jonas expected to hear.

“I didn’t really fight,” she admitted. “I arrived toward the end. We didn’t know how close we were to losing. There were colored soldiers,” she recalled, a detail Rose hadn’t remembered up till that moment but suddenly saw as significant.

Jonas nodded, “Langston Hughes wrote about them. Said he saw no difference between the Nationalists and men in white hoods.”

“Yes, our forces were integrated. Everyone was equal, men and women, too. Though the one time an all-women anarchist delegation tried to attend the National Confederation of Labour Congress, they were told their presence would undermine working-class interests, but…” Rose dropped that train of thought in favor of, “Workmen’s Circle, it’s a Socialist organization. Except the Socialist Youth of Spain group refused to send women to the front lines. Anyone who wanted to participate in the fighting had to switch allegiance to the Communists.”

That last word caught Jonas’s attention. It was 1952, how could it not? “Is that what you did?” he asked cautiously. Rose nodded and swallowed hard. Jonas exhaled, briefly closing his eyes and running a hand through his hair. “Then what happened?”

“Then the war ended, and I came home.” That sounded convincing. Nothing to question. “A couple of months later, Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. We had speakers from the American Communist Party come to Workmen’s Circle to tell us why we should support it, but I’d had enough. I quit, I went to college, and never really looked back. Well, I did work for WEVD, but that was – it was a soap opera. It was barely political. I work for Procter & Gamble now! It doesn’t get more all-American than that!”

“Does Miss Phillips know?”

“No. The one time somebody mentioned the loyalty oath to Irna, they ended up slinking out of her office like The Burghers of Calais.” Jonas should appreciate the Rodin imagery.

“So you’re in no danger.”

“Not at the moment. But who knows what might happen tomorrow? Phillip Loeb, he was in The Goldbergs on Broadway, then on television. Red Channels called him a Communist and General Foods insisted Gertrude Berg fire him or they’d drop their sponsorship. Pert Kelton had to leave The Honeymooners. Jackie Gleason covered for her, said it was heart trouble, but she was listed in Red Channels, too. Lucille Ball only got away with keeping her show because Desi claimed she was too dumb to know what she was doing when she registered as a Communist.”

“You’ve been keeping a close watch.”

Rose shrugged. “I had to. The Hollywood 10, they were all writers, all blacklisted.”

“Any colored folks on that list of theirs?”

“Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Harry Belafonte, Hazel Scott, Canada Lee,” Rose rattled off. She hadn’t realized she’d been keeping track.

“So we all can’t claim to be too stupid? Hardly seems fair, seeing as how we’re judged too stupid to do anything else.”

She wondered if Jonas were truly offended, but his laugh quenched that fear.

“So now that you know, if somebody asks you about me – “

“If someone asks me about you,” Jonas shifted his weight to turn towards her, kissing Rose’s shoulder, the crook of her neck, her collarbone, the base of her throat, murmuring, “I’ll tell them you’re a beautiful woman, a brilliant writer, and a compassionate human being. That’s all they’re going to get out of me.”

And that’s all Jonas was going to get out of her. Because, no matter how smoothly this part went, Rose had no intention of ever telling anybody what really happened in Spain.

***

“Not that I mind holing up with you indefinitely,” Jonas told Rose after the fifth weekend they spent exclusively in his apartment, living off pre-purchased food, only popping out to buy the Sunday New York Times because that was non-negotiable. “But aren’t you getting bored?”

“No.” Rose couldn’t imagine that happening. She couldn’t imagine ever needing more than Jonas – and, well, the Sunday New York Times.

“I saw what happened with that woman at Smalls.”

“It was an accident.”

“It wasn’t.”

“It’s a lot more dangerous for you than it is for me. So I get jostled a little, so what? You could be…” Rose thought of Billie Holiday singing about Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

“Been thinking about that,” Jonas simultaneously intuited her concerns and dismissed them. “The East Side is out, the West Side is out. Harlem is out.” Rose opened her mouth to insist that she was fine with…. “What about the Village?”

“Cafe Society closed five years ago.” It was the first integrated club in Greenwich Village. The founder, Barney Josephson, a New Jersey Jew, founded it in the name of Negro liberation. Billie Holiday sang at his opening in 1938. He was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 but received no support from the American Communist Party due to being a Marxist. Back in her Workmen’s Circle days, Rose overheard debates among members as to whether Josephson was truly committed to the issue of equal rights for Negros, or whether he just saw opening an integrated club as an opportunity to double his customers and his profits. If it was capitalism that brought about equality for the downtrodden, then Workmen’s Circle wanted no part of it.

“Cafe Society was intentionally integrated. Most Village clubs are passively integrated now.” Jonas bopped his arm up and down, snapping his fingers. “Jazz, beatniks, poetry, music. Black turtleneck sweaters! Berets! It could be fun. What do you say?”

He looked so enthusiastic, how could Rose say anything but, “Sure. Fun.”

***

They opted for Village Vanguard on 7th Avenue South, ducking in under the red awning that stretched the width of the street and, once again, descending into the basement. This one called itself “the most famous basement in New York City,” claiming the low ceilings and limited space – fitting exactly 123 people, not 124 and certainly not 125 – made for the best acoustics. Round white tables, each surrounded by more chairs that should have been possible to fit were barely visible beneath the packed crush of people, men in jackets and ties, women in cocktail dresses – not nearly as many black turtlenecks and berets as they’d expected. In the dim lights, made even dimmer by the fog of cigarette smoke, you navigated your way to the restroom by following a red line on the floor, past the kitchen, where it was best not to peek in. A piano stood wedged at the furthest end of the windowless room, a microphone stand and a tiny performance space set up in front of it.

Jonas and Rose found a spot by the wall. It was presumably the worst seat in the house, as it offered an obscured, side-view of the performers, and muffled sound. But they preferred anonymity. In between jazz singers, spoken word poets, and stand-up comics, Rose told Jonas, covering her mouth to cough, then waving her hand in front of her face to disperse the smoke, “I need to let Irna know about us. It’s the professional thing to do.”

“You think she’ll take umbrage?”

“I don’t know. Irna always says that the show must come first. If she thinks this might create friction with the other actors or the sponsors…”

“We cannot possibly be the first couple in the history of commercial radio production. With the kinds of hours we keep, when would we ever get the chance to meet someone who isn’t a co-worker?!”

“Well, yes, obviously,” Rose concurred, “but those other couples, they’re…”

“The same race?”

“No. I mean, yes. That’s not the issue, though. Not the main one, anyway. All of those other couples, it’s the man who’s the boss, and the woman who’s…”

“The underling?”

“The employee.”

“That makes the relationship more palatable?”

“Yes,” Rose said simply. She’d only lied to Jonas about one thing. A lie of omission. And she intended to keep it that way.

***

Click here for Chapter #17!

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To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.

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Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now!

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