In July of 1936, the Fascist army, led by General Francisco Franco, launched a coup against the democratically elected Republic of Spain. The great powers of the West—the United States, England, France, Germany, and Italy, signed a neutrality agreement, promising not to arm either side. Germany and Italy violated the agreement, providing arms and other aid to Franco’s armies; the United States, England, and France remained neutral. The Soviet Union, which had also signed the agreement, provided arms to the Republicans—their only source of military aid. Thousands of foreign volunteers fought on both sides. The International Brigades and the corps of medical volunteers were organized by the Communist Party to join in the Republican struggle, although not all who participated were communists. The Americans who fought on the Republican side were known as the Lincoln Brigade. The left was split into two camps: the anarchists, who believed that social change must be accomplished at the same time as the war was being fought; and the communists, who believed that the war must be won before social change could be effected. Along with fighting soldiers, Stalin sent a cadre of secret police, who made sure that the Spanish cause was in league with his own.
Unable to resist the superior arms provided by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the support of the Fascist army, the Republican forces surrendered in 1939. Franco became dictator of Spain and remained in power until his death in 1975.
THE SS NORMANDIE, 1937
GREENWICH VILLAGE, 1936
He offers her a coat.
She takes it, making a cradle of her arms.
Shy, small, scurrying, he backs away.
She sees him take his place beside the man with the megaphone.
All of them are standing on the pier, some of them, like her, waiting to board the SS Normandie, pride of the French line, which will carry them to France. But they will not stay in France; it is Spain they’re bound for. Medical volunteers, to serve the army of the Republic, to defeat the fascists, Franco’s rebels, nearly a year after the coup against the democratically elected government.
The man with the megaphone is getting ready now to speak. Ben Gold, president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union.
She can’t concentrate on his words; she is looking at the beautiful ship. The Normandie, the newest, the fastest, the most glamorous of the great ocean liners. She’s glad it’s the Normandie and not one she took with her parents. But it seems wrong: to be traveling on a ship famed for its luxury when they are not on holiday, they are going to Spain to work beside the men who are fighting for its freedom.
This is what the man with the megaphone is saying, but she can’t keep her eyes off the three huge black-and-red-striped funnels, the three layers of what seems like a gigantic cake: dark blue on the bottom, the lacy center, rows of slender columns, glistening like packed sugar in the uninflected sun. The open top deck, gleaming silver, everything capped by a stiff equilateral triangle whose only purpose seems to be the support of red, white, and blue pennants that snap extravagantly in the warm spring wind. She’s afraid there’s something wrong with her—perhaps she doesn’t deserve to be here—because only scraps of what the union president is saying get hold of her attention.
“Fellow workers . . . you will be victorious over the fascists . . . Our cause is just . . . a war not only of the proletariat against the capitalist . . . a war of the poor against the rich, the lovers of freedom against those who would enslave us . . . The people will prevail . . . the people of Spain and the freedom-loving Americans . . . men and women of courage.”
He holds up a coat, which the small man beside him provided at a secret signal that Marian had not been able to make out.
“And so, to show you our support, the workers of our union, as a token of our esteem, present each of you brave ladies with the fruits of our labor. A fur coat for each of you, compliments of the Fur and Leather Workers Union. Wear them to victory—the victory of the people, the workers, the makers of a great new world.”
She understands now why she was given the coat.
Marian strokes the rich, hot fur. Not mink, not sable, nothing like her mother’s coat, which she had loved to put her face against, hiding in her mother’s closet, breathing in the scent—part of the warmth, the darkness—of her mother’s perfume: Ombre Rose. Rose Shadow. Rose Shade. What is this fur? Fox, perhaps, or muskrat. It is May and warm, but she puts the coat on. It would seem ungrateful not to wear it. She is glad to have it, although she’s afraid that it will make her sweat. This fur does not smell of perfume; it’s not possible, as it was with her mother’s coat, to forget that this was once the covering of an animal, keeping it warm, keeping it alive.
Everyone claps and cheers for the man with the megaphone. Some of the women are crying. One says, “I never thought I’d have a fur coat, I never even dreamed of it.”
Marian takes her husband’s arm. “Ready?” he says. “You okay?”
“Never better,” she says.
Because it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world: to know that you’re doing exactly the right thing.
That you’re exactly where you’re meant to be, which is also where you want to be, that you are nineteen, healthy, on the way to Spain to save the world. Married, free of your parents, and, if the marriage is a sham, isn’t that part of the fun of it, a secret they can giggle over in their bed instead of making love? And, after all, they love each other; they’re each other’s favorite person in the world.
What a surprise, what a shock for her family. That Marian Therese Taylor, of the Newport and Park Avenue Taylors, is here on this ship with people she calls comrades. Now Marian Rabinowitz, wife of Russell, one of what her family nastily refers to as “the chosen people,” her husband, Russell, former lover of her brother, dead by his own hand.
But she won’t think of that now, she must not think of Johnny now. It’s why she’s here, with people who believe that there are more important things in the world than private life, that the large sorrows of the world are more important than the private sorrows, that the great murderous injustices are more important than the intimate and individually killing slights.
Never has she felt more alive, never has she felt more at home in the world. Words like exultation, exaltation are real now . . . and she wonders, does she mean exaltation or exultation or both, does it matter which vowel is in the middle of the word if the feelings are so similar, as if your body had given up its heaviness and it would be quite possible for you to spread your arms and take to the air simply, as in her favorite dream, to fly?
She no longer agonizes about being a daughter of privilege; she is a worker among workers; she has skills that are valued. She is fluent in Spanish. Working with her Spanish teacher at Vassar, an Andalusian (her brother a doctor in Connecticut), Marian has compiled a Spanish-English dictionary of medical terms and made ten carbon copies. She is a fearless driver; she knows how to fix cars. Would she have been allowed to join the volunteers because of these skills? She knows that the most important reason she was approved is that she is Russell’s wife and he is a doctor specializing in infectious diseases. She tells him she doesn’t want to just tag along. He says the same thing to her that he says when she expresses her unease that they are traveling on a luxury liner. “You just have to stop questioning everything. The guys in charge know what they’re doing, that’s why they’re in charge.” He doesn’t say who the guys are, but they both know who he means, the men at the head of “the party” who have organized the volunteers. The party, the only one deserving the definite article. The Communist Party: the only hope for the future of the workers of the world.
They make their way to the gangplank where the third-class passengers are meant to board. The man in charge, who has checked the others’ tickets and told them where they should proceed, looks at their tickets and says, “There’s been a change in your accommodations.”
Marian is frightened. She knows how powerful her father is, how far his tentacles reach. Does he know somehow that her marriage can be declared invalid, on the most unassailable of grounds? How has he found out? Who did he bribe, what favor did he call in, to stop her?
“We’re overfull in third class,” says the sailor in his perfect French uniform, cocking his head, twisting his mouth into a sly insider’s half smile, the company’s resident Maurice Chevalier. “And so we have put you into what we call our ‘interchangeable quarters.’ What that means is they’re first class on some trips, but if we don’t have sufficient first-class bookings, they become tourist or even third class on others. As you see.”
Marian looks at Russell, certain that within the next few seconds—she hopes not too insultingly—he will refuse. It is from him that she learned the horrors of class distinctions, of riches hoarded by the rich, kept from the ones who have to produce their wealth.
And so she can’t believe what she hears him say. “Well, I guess this is our lucky day.”
They make their way over to the first-class gangplank. She is trembling . . . and she doesn’t know if it’s from disbelief or anger. “Russell, how can you do this? It makes a mockery of everything we stand for.”
“Look, toots, the last trip your parents took across the ocean was on the Île de France. The last trip my parents took was on a filthy ship in steerage. I’m doing it for them, to thumb my nose at everything and everyone who kept them down.”
“I don’t like it, Russell,” she says, wondering if this will be their first disagreement as husband and wife.
“It’s the privilege of the privileged to refuse privilege,” he says, and once again, abashed by her heritage, she walks behind him to the bank of golden elevators, more glorious than the Waldorf’s.