Bess Polin, New York City, December 21, 1978
Introduction: Bess Polin was a former Communist Party member whom I met in New York City in the late 1970s, through community organizing networks. I discovered that she had known Harry Hay and his wife, Anita, and children, in the 1930s and 1940s in Los Angeles. The interview provides some background on the Communist Party and homosexuality, and some memories of Anita Hay, the family, the divorce. Polin also knew Dale Jennings, another key member of the early Mattachine Society; she believed Jennings to be a CP member. The interview also, I think, gives some sense of how deep the closet was in those decades; many people had no idea that a friend or CP comrade was gay.
I asked what the party’s position on homosexuality was. Never thought to ask, she told me. Many probably were members. Only when the witchhunts started and homosexuality was singled out, did they have to deal with it. Then, very ambivalent. Nothing against their work in the CP. Worried that they wouldn’t know of member’s susceptibility.
As leadership chopped down, especially in Hollywood (Bess’s husband taught in Hollywood section; Bess in another section), Soviet Union was against homosexuality and this takes over their decision. Rationalize their anti-homosexuality in terms of security risk. Might be weaker in terms of loyalty to party.
Bess was a rank-and-filer; never even a section leader—an active club member. Worked as an open CP member, even in the PTA. Neighbors knew and protected her.
About Mexico: “a lot of people ran.” Bess was Jewish and CP; lived in a non-Jewish area. Her children isolated. Kids wouldn’t play with them. Trouble with teachers, credit. They came to NY late in 1952.
FBI contacted her neighbors. Never collected on medical insurance. Husband called by HUAC. Bess’s activities used against him. Nobody came to his help since he wasn’t open.
CP contribution to the war effort was enormous. Many worked in government, armed forces, propaganda. Hollywood especially a center of pro-war effort, and much CP involvement.
About Stalin: when you live through the kind of attacks that the party experienced, with the party leaders underground, and after that to face what happened in the Soviet Union, there was absolute silence for a time. It shattered the party.
Confirms that if you were committed to social justice, then you stayed with the party—it was doing the best work. E.g., Jessica Mitford. The top and the bottom stayed in the party—the middle echelons left.
Divorced around the time of the move to NY.
Anita Hay—CP, but not very solid. Couldn’t “orient” herself politically too well. Had two adopted children, from birth, needed a lot of help. Bess became really close.
Bess didn’t have foggiest idea that Harry was gay. Not in LA when Anita and Harry split. Heard from others of the split, but didn’t know why. Bess devastated by knowledge. Found out from her sister that Harry left Anita for a male lover.
Later from Anita: she knew he was gay. At marriage, decided that if he ever wanted homosexuality again, he would level with her. Claims she found out through a letter in Harry’s clothes—shocked, devastated.
Bess doesn’t know if there was awareness of Mattachine on Anita’s part. The divorce—Anita kept kids away from Harry. Horrendous rift. One girl, Katie, loved Harry.
Harry’s mother was close to the family, supported them financially. Harry much more active with the kids than Anita. Anita claimed that Harry was real mean to his mother, didn’t come to her funeral. Claims Harry transformed after coming out. Ignored her, didn’t visit.
Reasonably sure that Dale Jennings was a party member. He was around all the things that the party was doing. Lived a stone’s throw from Bess, on Lemoyne Avenue. Jennings worked hard on the recall of Los Angeles mayor, late 1930s maybe? In and out of work. Graphic arts, in a union. Gentle. Handsome. Bess didn’t know he was gay, or about the entrapment case.
Bess’s sister and brother-in-law knew him well. Brother-in-law didn’t know then or now that Jennings was gay.
Friend of Bess married a gay man, unknown to herself. He was arrested once. Woman, a teacher and a CP member. She finds out about husband through anonymous calls, FBI. Lost her teaching job due to CP.
Bess’s sister has a gay son. Went to a parents of gays meeting—was good for them. At one meeting, Harry and his lover appear. Harry criticizes parents, belligerently hostile, very destructive.
About Jennings: wouldn’t have known in a million years that he was gay. He dated Alice Greenfield, CP'er in charge of a Chicano zoot-suit frame-up case. Sleepy Lagoon case maybe?