Louise Bryant's name is nearly forgotten in American history books, effaced by any number of historians for a wide variety of reasons. Much information about the life of this remarkable and courageous journalist, who carved out a vivid and extraordinary life for herself, has nearly been lost to the record. Many of the facts of her life are unknown, partly because, in re-creating herself as a twentieth-century American heroine, she mythologized her past, concealing some details and omitting or changing others. She often gave her birth date as December 5, 1885 - though that cannot be verified, because her record did not survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake - and she often changed the date to present herself as younger than she was.
On her father's side, she was descended from Irish immigrants who settled in the coal mining hills of western Pennsylvania; her father, Hugh Mohan, was a minor politician, journalist, and orator. She was brought up in and near Reno, Nevada, where her mother had relocated because of its proximity to her own stepfather, James Say, at whose ranch Louise spent several years as a little girl, largely on her own, riding horses and participating in ranch life. Her parents divorced when she was four, but she claimed that her father died then. She may in fact have believed it. Her mother remarried Sheridan Bryant whose name Louise adopted; he was a stable railroad man.
Bryant's last two years in high school were given accreditation for attendance at the University of Nevada. She turned to teaching for a time before following a sister and brother northward, where she enrolled at the University of Oregon. A good student, known as a considerable flirt, she had grown into a beautiful woman, with auburn hair, creamy skin, and very long lashes of which she was vain. Bryant wrote a senior thesis on the Modoc Indian Wars and graduated in 1909.
Casting about for work, she landed a job in Portland at a frivolous society magazine, the Spectator. There she rose from an illustrator - she showed talent, and could have become a good commercial artist - to the position of society editor.
She married a handsome blond dentist named Paul Trullinger of a good family. He was not the respectable, bourgeois professional man he seemed; they took up residence in a houseboat on the Willamette. On Friday afternoons Trullinger and his colleagues threw martini parties in their waiting rooms and invited their wives, the party often repairing to Paul's offices to inhale ether. But Trullinger became more staid as time went on, and established Bryant in a series of ever-more-respectable homes. Bryant chafed at this, and, with the strong encouragement of a new friend, the poet Sara Bard Field, became an active suffragist. Field commented at the time on Bryant's predicament: "I opened the door to her ability.
Louise hated housework. It seemed that Louise felt she was condemned to wash windows, punch up pillows all day long. I said to her, 'Well, yes, if you are not very much in love and trying to make a lovely home, that is hard for a girl of your brains.' She was not in love with her husbandand she didn't feel she was accomplishing the work she could do." The arrival of John Reed into her life must have seemed a godsend. She had heard of him before they met; once, on a streetcar, she grew so mesmerized reading his story in Metropolitan magazine that she read on past her stop, and suddenly realized she had fallen in love with the man who'd written it.
John Reed, born in 1887, was not exactly Portland's favorite son, though his family was eminently respectable, one of the most prominent in Portland. Descended from a frontier capitalist on his mother's side, Reed's father was a local businessman. Jack, as he was known, had a lackluster existence in Portland schools - his childhood was marked by long periods of poor health - but made his way to Morristown Academy in the East, and from there to Harvard, where he thrived. Though he was a small fish in a big pond, and never really accepted by the Eastern prep school students, he went out for countless activities, most notably the Socialist Club. Reed's classmates were part of a new generation that fought off the constraints of convention, struggling to transform themselves and the world around them. After his graduation Reed wisely sought out the journalist and reformer Lincoln Steffens for guidance, who provided this remarkable comment of Reed as he appeared then:
When Jack Reed came, big and growing, handsome outside and beautiful inside, when that boy came to New York, it seemed to me I had never seen anything so near to pure joy. No ray of sunshine, no drop of foam, no young animal, bird or fish, and no star, was as happy as that boy was. If only we could keep him so, we might have a poet at last who would see and sing nothing but joy.
When Steffens asked what he wanted to do, Reed replied that he didn't know, except that he wanted to write. "Steffens looked at me with that lovely smile," Reed remembered, "and answered, 'You can do anything you want to.' "
Reed embarked on a vigorous career of journalism and activism. He helped stage the Paterson Silk Worker's Pageant in Madison Square Garden, following a strike by those workers in the course of which Reed was thrown in jail. He covered Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution in 1914 for a series of articles in the Metropolitan, which became the book Insurgent Mexico. He was sowing his oats liberally as well, first in an engagement with a French girl and later in a liaison with celebrated hostess Mabel Dodge. All that was behind him, however, when he returned to Portland in the summer of 1914 and he met Bryant.
Louise, for her part, felt as if she had been waiting for him all her life. "I always wanted," she later remembered, "somebody who wouldn't care when you went to bed or what hour you got up, and who lived in the way Jack did." Louise watched Jack speak that summer, and was introduced to him formally, but it was not until the following summer, on another of Reed's visits home, that they became lovers. Reed left for New York, as planned, just after Christmas - but he had left Bryant train fare East, and she departed on New Year's Eve. Meanwhile, Reed had written to a friend while on the train:
This is to say, chiefly, that I have fallen in love and I think I've found her at last She's wild and brave and straight, and graceful and lovely to look at. A lover of all adventure of spirit and of mind, a result with the most silver scorn of changelessness or fixity. Refuses to be bound, or to bound And in this spiritual vacuum, this unfertilized soil, she has grown (how, I can't imagine) into an artist, a joyous, rampant individualist, a poet and revolutionary.
In New York, Bryant began writing for The Masses, developing her revolutionary views and finding her voice. Reed was away a lot, which was difficult, and, as both believed in free love, jealousies often surfaced. But they remained terribly in love. She and Reed shared a thrilling summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1916 when George Cram "Jig" Cook and his wife Susan Glaspell, formed the Provincetown Players, arguably the beginning of modern theatre in the U.S. Reed, Bryant, and Eugene O'Neill each had dramatic work staged in Provincetown's first season. Her brief affair with O'Neill further complicated all their lives. A photograph of Bryant in the dunes taken that summer shows a naked and lovely woman lying on the sand, her face thrust ecstatically up toward the sun, her long, unruly hair streaming behind her.
On their return they bought a little cottage outside the city in Croton-on-Hudson, on a road the locals called "Red Hill," because of the radicals who peopled it. But trouble loomed: Reed had to have a kidney removed. Almost on the eve of the operation, he and Bryant married and Reed put the house in her name, as the operation was life-threatening. On his safe return, he found that Bryant had suffered gynecological problems, possibly an abortion or a venereal disease. When he retaliated with an affair, a hurt Bryant got credentialed by the newly formed Bell Syndicate and sailed for France to cover the Great War. While she landed no journalistic coups there, she acquired new confidence, shifting for herself professionally. When she returned Reed met her at the dock, gathered her up and told her they must buy winter clothes and in four days sail for Russia, where revolution was imminent.
This trip to Russia was a turning point in their lives, both in terms of their political consciousness and their careers as journalists. With Reed carrying credentials from the socialist New York Call and the cultural monthly Seven Arts, and Bryant from the Metropolitan, Seven Arts, and Every Week, they were present for the most stirring events of the time: they interviewed Kerensky, leader of the provisional government; they heard of Lenin's disguised re-entry into the country in October. And they saw and reported the events leading up to the Revolution: the Bolsheviks' walkout from the pre-Parliament preparing for the Constituent Assembly, and Lenin's insistence that the Bolshevik Central Committee place armed insurrection on the agenda. The appointment by the Bolsheviks of a Military Revolutionary Committee to protect the garrison, after rumors that Kerensky meant to move the capital to Moscow in order to cede Petrograd to the Germans.
The actual Revolution took place, by all accounts, surprisingly easily, triggered by Kerensky shutting down the Bolshevik newspapers, a sure sign of counterrevolution. The Bolsheviks called out the troops and the Red Guard, which held Petrograd by nightfall on November 6.
The next morning, after shuttling back and forth all night between the Winter Palace (home to the provisional government) and the Smolny Institute (where the Bolsheviks were headquartered) Reed and Bryant emerged from their hotel to be handed leaflets proclaiming, "Citizens! The provisional government is deposed. State power has passed into the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies." When Reed asked a soldier on guard whether he was on the side of the government, he replied triumphantly, "No more Government! Slava Bogu! Glory to God!"
A Second Congress of Soviets ratified the Bolshevik coup, and local soviets did the same, with little armed resistance except in Moscow. The Soviet government issued its new decrees, all confirmations of the profound changes that had taken place: Private property was abolished, and the land was given to the landless farmers who worked on it. The Bolsheviks announced that they would see peace with Germany without annexations or indemnities. Banks were nationalized, courts abolished in favor of revolutionary tribunals and workers' militias. Equality between the sexes was decreed. Jews and other previously subject peoples were granted equality, and ownership of the means of production was vested in the workers.
These reforms, which would have been unimaginable and unachievable under the previous regime, seemed to be happening overnight. To onlookers like Louise and Jack, a classic revolution had succeeded: "backward" Russia had outstripped the United States as a progressive country, simply because the people had called for it. The change in daily life was fantastic, marvelous because it had seemed so unimaginable. The working class had awakened to its class role, just as Marx had predicted. Workers refused tips and people helped each other in the streets. Everyone was addressed as "comrade" (tovarisch) or "citizen," a revolutionary change in a country noted for its rigid class hierarchies. Amazing in themselves, these changes convinced onlookers like Bryant and Reed that Russia held lessons to be learned, and conveyed in turn to revolutionaries at home. The disorganized American left had been unable to reach the person on the street with its ideas - ideas that in Russia seemed to be transformed spontaneously into action. "The Bolsheviks took Petrograd and Jack and I were part of it all," Bryant later wrote proudly in an unpublished memoir.
Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World and Bryant's Six Red Months in Russia are the offspring of their experience. They are two very different books. Though both writers shared an enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause, and though both were steeped in the nuances of events and personalities and had a highly developed sense of the politics that went on just before, during, and in the wake of the Revolution, they had widely differing agendas.
Bryant had been charged by her news services to give "the woman's point of view," while Reed had no specific charge. Bryant was an equality feminist, believing that total equality between the sexes must be a key goal of any reform, radical, or revolutionary politics. She scorned such reforms as legislation that would protect women, seeing that such reforms would emphasize and re-inscribe differences between men and woman. So to her the charge given to write "from a woman's point of view" excluded absolutely nothing. Although her book includes portraits of the educator Aleksandra Kollontay and the revolutionary Marie Spirodnova that are insightful and meaningful models of intellectual reportage, Bryant was more interested in painting a picture of a society in which equality of the sexes had been mandated and was becoming a reality.
Reed's account was meant for the history books. He collected documents of all kinds, republishing them in Ten Days; he recorded speeches and included them, sometimes without comment. The book, then, is an invaluable piece of reportage, a historical document that is almost totally accurate. But much of this material is undigested in any way; Reed did not see comment and interpretation as among his historical duties. To the contemporary reader the account seems laden down by details, an un-synthesized historical record. The work of a master journalist and historian, Ten Days was intended to be the first installment of a life work on Russian history. Reed's single-minded goal - to recreate that history - informs every page of the book.
While striving for accuracy as assiduously as Reed, Bryant saw her mission in Six Red Days in Russia as something quite different. More the work of a talented journalist than Ten Days' historian, Bryant's Six Red Months is an attempt to observe, record, and interpret events, personalities, political issues, and daily life before and after the Revolution. If Reed's book gives the "big picture," history as made by great men, Bryant is more interested in looking at and describing Russian life as it was lived by the masses themselves.
The author of Six Red Months is free with her opinions, and ever attuned to the need to communicate with her readers. The book is filled with phrases like "We must somehow make an honest attempt to understand what is happening in Russia" and "We have here in America an all too obvious and objectionable view of Russia. And this, you will agree, is based on fear." Such language puts her on the same footing as her readers, someone who will tell the truth and make sure she is understood. She never hesitates to broach an opinion: in describing Spirodonova's belief that women are more conscientious than men, and Angelica Balabanov's belief that women treasure freedom more than men do, Bryant objected in her narrative. "I wish I could believe it," she wrote, but I can never see spiritual difference between men and women inside or outside of politics. They act and react very much alike; they certainly did in the Russian revolution. It is one of the best arguments I know in favour of women's suffrage."
The narrative of Six Red Months in Russia is engrossing and vivid. While few might admit it, many historians of this period seem to have relied more heavily on Bryant's account than on Ten Days. Her sweep was large: she described her journey into Russia, conditions in Petrograd, the tense atmosphere at the Winter Palace before its overthrow, the formation of the constituent assembly, the state of the military camps, free speech in the new regime, the decline of the church, and even her journey out of Russia by way of Sweden. Little escaped her eye.
During the four months she spent in Russia (not six), Bryant came into her own as a journalist and a professional. She was aware of her great luck that she was working side by side with Reed; their presence together no doubt invested their respective narratives in inestimable ways. A poem she gave to Reed for Christmas, in the wake of the Revolution, conveys her love for him, her pride in what they had been through together, and the joy in working side by side, as reporters and as fellow revolutionaries:
What I most want to tell you
Is that I love you
And I want more than anything
To have you strong and clear-visioned
In all this world madness
You are the finest person I know
On both sides of the world
And it is a nice privilege to be your comrade.
The love story had an unhappy ending. Reed, on a 1920 trip to Baku in southern Russia, contracted typhus and died back in Moscow, Bryant at his side. She rebounded from his death to cover events in central Asia and published a second book, Mirrors of Moscow, in 1923. Becoming a first-rate foreign correspondent, she reported the first interview by a non-Italian with Mussolini, and another ground-breaking story with Turkish leader Enver Pasha.
She married a third time, to the wealthy former diplomat William C. Bullitt, and in 1924 bore him her only child, Anne. After a bitter divorce, Bullitt took custody of Anne, and denied Bryant access to her daughter. Bryant lived on in Paris, stricken with Dercum's disease. It causes its sufferers so much pain that they frequently resort, as did Bryant, to drugs or alcohol.
In her last days, she worked with a Harvard-trained biographer of Reed and his Communist Party friends, who were trying to make Reed into some kind of saint to further their ends. Bryant died in 1936 of a cerebral hemorrhage. To this day, Marxist cultural critics insist that Bryant has no proper place in history, or argue, as anarchist Emma Goldman famously did, "Louise was never a Communist; she only slept with a Communist."
With her talent, energy, and phenomenal personality, Bryant was an explosion on the twentieth-century scene. A terrible irony is at work here - in spite of, perhaps even because of - her dramatic impact as a journalist and a progressive women, her presence has nearly been expunged from the rolls. A rekindled appreciation of her life, both with John Reed, and as a creative and capable journalist, feminist, and free spirit, is overdue. Recovering her story and reviving books like Six Red Months in Russia and Mirrors of Moscow is to realize how gender politics has influenced the making of history.
The life Bryant made for herself - the choices she made, the risks she took, the battles she sought to take up, and those she declined to enter - show us that women do and should enter history not only for their achievements but also through the way they choose to shape their own lives. Recovering Louise Bryant's work and her life is not only an act of feminist and humanist recovery. It discovers a real twentieth-century heroine whose journalism has been unavailable far too long.
Mary V. Dearborn holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has written five books, including biographies of Henry Miller (The Happiest Man Alive), Louise Bryant (Queen of Bohemia), and Norman Mailer (Mailer: A Biography). She is currently at work on a biography of art patron Peggy Guggenheim.
Books by Louise Bryant:
Six Red Months in Russia. William Heinemann, London, 1919
Mirrors of Moscow. Thomas Seltzer, New York, 1923 Books on Louise Bryant
Friend and Lover: The Life of Louise Bryant. Horizon Press, New York, 1982
So Short a Time: A Biography of John Reed and Louise Bryant. Berkeley Books, New York, 1981
Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996