As the twentieth century came to an end last December, an extraordinary man, whose life spanned the century, died at the age of ninety-seven. His name was Sender Garlin. I first met Sender, ten years before his death, when he was only eighty-seven years old. It was the fall of 1989, and I had traveled to Boulder to give a talk at the University of Colorado. One of the chief organizers of my stay was a man named Sender Garlin, a longtime radical journalist and pamphleteer. I did not know him, and so I was not prepared for the excitement of my encounter with him.
We met for lunch at the faculty dining room. I assumed this would take an hour, but it lasted for two hours and could have gone on for six, so animated was the conversation, so high the energy, so full of questions was I, so full of the history of this century was Sender Garlin. He kept saying: “It’s my turn to question you. Equal time, you know.” But I knew we were not equals in what we had to say.
I am a historian, and Sender, born in 1903, had lived through some of the most exciting historical moments of our time. He had covered the Moscow purge trials of the 1930s for three leftwing newspapers, the only Western correspondent to be present at all those bizarre proceedings, in which Stalin methodically disposed of his former fellow revolutionaries. In this country, he reported on a different kind of lynching, the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black youths falsely accused of rape in Alabama during the Depression years and sentenced to death.
He grew up in a working class environment in Vermont and upstate New York, his father a baker who, according to Sender, was “an equal opportunity employer,” enlisting the services “of my mother and my three older brothers.” He studied with Scott Nearing and other blacklisted academics at the Rand School of Social Science and spent several years in college and law school. He had no degrees, but his education in the world was first class. He found college libraries more enlightening than classroom exercises.
Reading The Appeal to Reason and the writings of Upton Sinclair, Sender at thirteen or fourteen considered himself a socialist. He said: “In later years, it was Karl Marx who recreated me with his criticism of this cruel, unjust society… No one has refuted his fundamental critique.” Covering the bitter labor struggles of the twenties and thirties (the textile strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, the turbulent strikes in California as editor of the Western Worker), he was deeply affected. Sender Garlin could never be the detached professional journalist, above the battle, any more than John Reed covering the Paterson mill strike of 1913, or Theodore Dreiser, writing about the mine struggles in Kentucky.
As a reporter, he interviewed such diverse figures as Clarence Darrow, Emma Goldman, Lucy Parsons, Huey Long, Lenin’s widow Krupskaya, and Olga Kniper Chekhova, the Moscow theater star and widow of the great Russian writer. Sender helped form the John Reed Club in the early 1930s and was a founding editor of Partisan Review before he moved on to write for The Masses.
In subsequent visits to Boulder, I got together with Sender whenever I could, and I was reminded each time of his delicious sense of humor, his endless supply of anecdotes. I recall him telling me of his time as reporter for the Bronx Home News, which insisted on a “local angle” in every story, so when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, its headline read: “Lindbergh flies over the Bronx on the way to Paris.”
But Sender Garlin’s main thrust and satirical barbs were always against the system: the exploitation, the racism, the militaristic nationalism that have plagued this century, whether in the extreme form of Fascism or in more disguised form.
After moving to Boulder in 1980 with his wife, the poet Martha Millet Garlin, he immediately became involved with political activities in the area. He worked energetically with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) to protest the Reagan Administration’s policy of sending arms to the death squads there. A colleague of his in CISPES, Gonzalo Santos, hearing of Sender’s death, wrote: “I will miss Sender. He was the greatest role model of an organizer of, and fighter for, the people that I have ever encountered. He was a mentor and a good friend, a valuable and uplifting comrade in arms. May he rest in peace for a while, and then shake and straighten things up where he is, even if the Good Lordess Herself has to suffer the sting of his irreverent but true views on heavenly inequities and pomposities. I only hope that as I grow old, I’ll be able to emulate such a rich, full life of commitment, activism, intellectual inquiry, joy of life, and loving mentorship to younger generations, as my dear compañero, Sender Garlin, lived.”
That speaks for so many of us who knew this remarkable human being.
Published by ZCommunications • March 9, 2000