From Main St. to Fleet St. (1)
Washington — GEORGE and I shuffled uneasily, adjusted our uniforms, and clumped up the stairs of 1697 Cambridge St. to the evening weekly meeting of the class listed as Government 20-0.
It was winter 1918. The war was over, and we were in full uniform, minus the second lieutenant's gilt bars. We returned as seniors (or thought we were if we made adjustment with Harvard University for class time lost due to war). All we had to do now was to make the world safe for democracy.
About 20 sat in chairs or on the floor. Our instructor, Harold Laski, had retracted himself into a Morris chair after a friendly apple-cheeked greeting from behind big glasses. His body seemed to have gone all to head. The meteoric young Englishman was throwing off dazzling scholarly papers, and it was hinted (hush!) that he was a Socialist. A funny thing was that he was only 26 years old while we were almost that. When a break came and his wife, Freda, served tea and daughter Diana romped around, he expressed enthusiasm at my idea of somehow traveling to England next summer and said he had a brother in Manchester. (He said nothing of a father.) Later he told me that when George and I clumped up the stairs in our khaki outfits, he thought he was being raided.
It was those uniforms. I might as well dispose of them first. But I had a problem - I was broke.
The army outfits its regular soldiers, but officers must buy their own clothes. Well, if I was going to offer my all for my country, I thought at the time, I might as well do it in style. I bought elegant, whip-cord riding britches, an overcoat so heavy that it stood by itself, and cordovan leather puttees that my wife to this day is still trying to throw away. I looked exactly like Gen. John J. Pershing. I was still paying for the clothes when the war ended. If only they could have kept it going a little longer. . . .
I blushed at that thought. Even then I felt guilty; I always felt guilty. The burden of being 20 was to keep the secret of one's incompetence hidden (and I thought I had fooled most people pretty well, so far). But we were left with our uniforms. George was in the same fix: Surely we could squeeze a little additional use out of the extravagance we had made for our country.
But the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, carried a snippy editorial asking why undergraduates in uniform strutted around the yard. Didn't we know the war was over? Sure we did. George and I looked at our regalia sorrowfully. Maybe we could use it a little longer if we kept to the dark side of streets.
Laski talked, and asked questions about authority in the modern state and who had it in Massachusetts: Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters, or Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis, or was it Gov. Calvin Coolidge? The police were unhappy over pay. We were drawn into the discussion. At that time Laski was carrying on an affectionate correspondence with US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Washington in which the two considered matters of philosophy and exchanged Greek quotations.
The letters with Justice Holmes, like those between Laski and Sir Frederick Pollack, noted British law professor, have been published. Holmes spoke of Laski with delight as the most remarkable of the many young men he had known. Laski amused, stimulated, and astonished him. It was easy to see why as we talked that evening. One student (could he have been Crane Brinton, later Harvard professor?) raised a quotation, and Laski with evident satisfaction directed him to the source: It was the book there on the shelf, and with equally evident satisfaction he cited the exact page number from memory. Laski was like a musician enjoying his own virtuosity.
An observer of the time noted of his platform delivery: ''His sentences were labyrinthine and he seemed to tangle himself up, as Gladstone did, in order to show how an agile and powerful mind can find its way, successfully, out of any maze. The cadences were dictated by the length of the parentheses. You found yourself saying comma, semicolon, bracket, close the bracket, comma . . . now he's lost it . . . no, Gad, I believe he's found a way out . . . comma, another parenthesis, dash . . . here's the verb after all . . . he's going to make it . . . full stop.''
The effect he had on students who were just peering over the edge of their careers can be imagined. He observed casually, for example, that he had just been down in New York, getting out the next issue of The New Republic, the new magazine of Herbert Croly. He knew everybody.
For me, Laski opened unexpected vistas. He was a signpost pointing to England , where I should probably have gone anyway.
The ocean swell lifted us and put us down again that next summer after we left Boston Harbor. I peeled some more potatoes on the deck of the little grain ship Lake Gravett. The captain and I had cleared up a semantic difficulty: Did ''AB'' mean ''able bodied'' or college graduate? He said the cook needed another messman and he would overlook the Harvard degree. That was fine. The urge to get abroad that summer was almost reckless in America: The world was coming apart or coming together (people disagreed). For young men who hadn't made Europe in the war, the challenge to travel there now was irresistable.
Our vessel came up a sort of canal between stone piers at Leith, Scotland, and a boy in shorts who said ''Aye'' and ''Nicht'' asked his father if we were Yanks? In the sentry box stood a soldier in kilts, and the vendor who came aboard to sell picture postcards wore a hard bosom shirt. Suddenly we were the foreigners, not they. At home it was not a source of comment that I was 6-feet-2 inches tall. Here, it was. And now I was down in Manchester, looking for work with a letter of introduction from Harold to Neville Laski.
It was a gracious Victorian room where Harold's brother warmly received me. I was the only one at the party who did not know of the Laski family drama, and I did not fully understand it for 40 years after. I was introduced as ''a friend of Harold's.'' If there was a particular intonation, I was too naive to catch it. I knew I was on display. I would do the best I could for him. I was also a just-landed American in a world where war posters still clung to the walls and where sugar was rationed, and people asked why Sens. Henry Cabot Lodge and William A. Borah opposed President Wilson's League of Nations?
We moved into the adjoining room where I discovered the entertainment of the evening was a roulette wheel. It was utterly outside my range of experience. The disturbing thing was that I had $160 hidden on my person - my insurance back to America. The game progressed; inevitably the moment came when eyes turned on me to make my wager. With an imitation of nonchalance and a worldly air I tossed down sixpence on the challenging table, to the commiserating glances of everyone , and a more friendly response this time, perhaps, from Nathan Laski Sr., father of the brothers, the powerful cotton factor, and head of the clan. He inquired, more directly than before, about his absent son and the granddaughter he had never met. I responded warmly.
The fact was that Nathan Laski had disowned Harold. Unbeknownst to me, I was playing a role in a family drama. Nathan Laski Sr. followed the strict ritual of orthodox Judaism and (as Kingsley Martin tells in his biography, Harold Laski ( 1958)) was a leader of the compact Jewish community in the textile city of Manchester. When the precocious Harold, age 18, who had not yet begun his college career, informed his parents that he was going to Scotland to marry Freda Kerry, eight years his senior and a Christian, Nathan took to his bed. The bridegroom went on and in two years finished Oxford. Harold and Freda could not be separated: They had fallen deeply and permanently in love. Ultimately the pair came to Canada, and after a pause at McGill University, came to Cambridge, Mass., and Harvard University.
Meanwhile, would my money run out? There was so much to see. Everywhere were signs of recent war. It was startling to American eyes. At home, 2 million soldiers had been mobilized and then quietly disappeared again. Here were troops , partial rationing was still in force, and artillery shells were piled at ports waiting to be melted down. People relished the wonder of Americans. Here was a new audience and youth and hope. It seemed sometimes that in every English home, in a kind of shrine, there was the picture of a soldier on the mantlepiece, often with name of battlefield underneath - and a date. Everything awed me, including meeting the world-famous editor of the Manchester Guardian, C. P. Scott - majestic and Olympian.
''Try Sheffield,'' he commanded. He wrote me another letter. There was a young editor there, he said, just taking over one of the newspapers.
But let me take a final look at Cambridge, Mass., from which I had just come. A week or two before the Lake Gravett carried us out of Boston Harbor, the Boston police went on strike. This was intolerable, cried Police Commissioner Curtis. Nevertheless a walkout occurred, mobs looted, and there was loss of life. On Sept. 9, the Boston Transcript declared that ''Behind Boston in this skirmish with Bolshevism stands Massachusetts, and behind Massachusetts stands America.''
On Oct. 15, Harvard's Laski addressed a meeting of policemen's wives and told them to be of good heart, ''The commissioner has learned that labor is more united than ever as a result of this issue. Labor will never surrender.''
There was an explosion. It was intolerable. In fact, the strike was all but over. This disrupter was young, foreign, a radical intellectual, and a Jew. What was he teaching? A committee of the university's Board of Overseers interviewed him in a downtown club. Self-consciously George Wigglesworth put the question: ''Do you believe in bloody revolution?'' Laski described it later. ''Do I look as though I did?'' He added, ''We all laughed and had a good dinner.''
He made light of it, but it may have hastened his decision to return to England next summer. The venerable Justice Holmes wrote, ''But, oh, my dear lad, I shall miss you sadly. There is no other man I should miss so much. Your intellectual companionship, your suggestiveness, your encouragement and affection have enriched life to me very greatly, and it will be hard not to look forward to seeing you in bodily presence.''
Not long after, I received a letter in Sheffield written in an unmistakable, minute-but-readable script.
''Your letter has been a source of joy not only to myself, but to many of my friends,'' Laski began. ''You seem to have fallen on your feet, and I find myself almost envying many of your experiences. I'm glad you saw my people, and that they looked after you. It's so long since I had any contact with them that a knowledge of their intellectual processes is rather dim; but my brother wrote of you with warm appreciation so I imagine your charms pierced the panoplied dignity of his front armour.''
There also is national and personal news in his letter. He has tossed off another volume for the home university library, ''and there is a big book booming in my head though I shan't begin it until the new year.''
It is as thrilling as when George and I clumped into his living room the first evening.
He adds, ''My wife and Diana are splendid. Diana went to school for the first time last week - a Dewey play school, and we learn of things no human mind ever knew before. She talks incessantly of you and Ram (a fellow student) and evidently you found a resting place in at least one heart in America.''
And so in those turbulent far-off days at the end of a war America hesitates and then turns slowly back to isolationism. Young men secure civilian jobs, and one of them finds a niche in the sooty city of Sheffield, England. Harold Laski continues his career as professor in England and ultimately becomes secretary of the British Labour Party. And in Massachusetts a small, wizened, sharp-eyed governor writes to US labor leader Samuel Gompers of the police strike, ''There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere.'' The governor becomes president of the United States.
Next: Basic training at the Sheffield (England) Independent