The Arts Section in today’s New York Times highlights the renewed interest in the work of Diego Rivera, exemplified by a series of exhibitions ongoing in New York. The theme is Rivera’s stepping out from behind the overwhelming interest in his third wife, Frida Kahlo. Our family takes a special interest in all things Rivera and Kahlo as a result of a particular historical interlude: their four year stay in Detroit, beginning in 1929, when, at the behest of Edsel B. Ford, Rivera painted his monumental murals on the walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
We have hanging in our living room three prints signed by Rivera, part of a collection of ten he gave to my wife’s grandfather, Nathan Milstein, a lawyer in Detroit, who did work for and befriended Rivera and Kahlo. (Family legend has it that Kahlo made a pass at him, but this is unconfirmed.) Nathan was born in 1907, graduated from Detroit Central High School in 1924, and attended the Detroit College of Law (then the Detroit City Law School and now the Michigan State University College of Law) and Wayne University Law School, receiving his LL.B. at age 21 in 1929. Nathan passed away in 2003, having continued to practice until his late eighties, and his seventy-four year tenure as a member of the bar is supposedly one of the longest in Michigan history.
Alene and I spent many hours going through his voluminous files. One truly appreciates the historian’s and the biographer’s art of distilling the story from the data when looking at records like these. The documents are tantalizing. For example, Nathan was a bachelor until 1946, when he married Alene’s grandmother, who was a widow with two children. Before that, he was supporting his mother and sisters. When the war broke out, he tried for years to find a way to serve without being drafted as a private (which in 1941 paid $21 a month, not enough to support the family.) Ultimately he found a job as a civilian flight instructor, but the file of letters and rejections to almost every branch of the military and government agency is about two inches thick. I have framed in my office my personal favorite: the letter signed by John Edgar Hoover advising Nathan he had failed the F.B.I entrance exam, which I had first interpreted as having been on account of Nathan’s being Jewish while taking it.
The Rivera piece inspired me to go back through some of the files this morning (a quiet Christmas task). I realize now it’s entirely likely Hoover objected to Nathan not only because of his ethnicity, but also because he consorted, in the course of his immigration practice, with all sorts of “undesirables,” and espoused public positions to which the F.B.I. director of long memory must have objected.
As to his practice, I’m just now organizing a series of correspondence relating to his representation in late 1932 of one Halvard Lange Bojer, the son of noted Norwegian author, Johan Bojer. The younger Bojer, an engineer who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1928, was working for General Electric in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he was arrested by the Immigration Service, and transported to the Wayne County Jail in Detroit, on the grounds that he was a member of the Communist Party. Bojer himself described it to a reporter as follows: “They tell me that I’m a Communist. . .It so happens that I’m a member of the Communist Party Opposition, whose headquarters is in New York. Members of that Party, though glad to take Moscow’s advice, refuse to take Moscow’s dictation. There are other differences, such as our belief that the worker’s solution is in the organization of a Labor Party, comprised of Trade Unions, similar to that of England. Also, we disbelieve in Moscow’s theory that existing labor organizations, such as the A.F. of L., should be wrecked for the formation of Communist units.” (The Communist Party (Opposition), or the Communist Party (Majority Group) as it was originally called, was a splinter group from the main Communist Party USA, organized by Jay Lovestone. Lovestone shows up here; he visited Detroit, and met with Nathan and Bojer.)
The American Civil Liberties Union was interested in intervening on Bojer’s behalf. On December 12, 1932, Roger Baldwin, the ACLU Director, wrote to Nathan, urging Bojer to fight deportation as a test case. Baldwin stated: “The issue is far more than personal to him. This is the first case, so far as we are aware, when a member of his particular Communist group has been held for deportation on the ground of membership. It is worth fighting through because it offers a test of the application of the law to other than members of the Communist Party.” Nathan met with Bojer in the Wayne County jail, where Bojer, “a very affable and highly cultured young man,” advised that he had no desire to appeal the deportation, and was willing to return to Norway. He was released pursuant to a bond posted by his friends in Fort Wayne, and joined an “East bound deportation party” on December 29, 1932.
As to Nathan’s political views, here’s an excerpt from his tribute to Judge Arthur C. Denison on the occasion of his retirement from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in January, 1932:
Humanizing the enforcement of existing laws relating to admission and deportation of aliens has become a serious problem confronting social leaders throughout the country. In the present delirium of unemployment when a vague terror seizes the nation, this fear is translated into alien hatred. Public discontent must be directed away from the cause of the unrest and to accomplish this, a counter irritant is administered. The ever oppressed alien is again victimized. The term alien becomes synonymous with undesirable. Deportation “drives” and “spectacular raids” then become common occurrences. Wholesale deportation follows as a panacea for what ails the nation. This national hysteria influences the action of public officials and finds expression in more rigid and relentless enforcement of deportation laws. Even the courts are sometimes swept into the whirling cyclone, marring the annals of juridical science with unprecedented decisions. To espouse the cause of the under-privileged requires great courage. Those who bear the courage of their convictions and refuse to be swayed, belong to the school of Holmes and Brandeis. So few do they number that a loss in the ranks is keenly felt by liberty loving citizens.
Just an ordinary kid from an ordinary school in an ordinary city. Whose parents had been aliens.
(Cross-posted at Legal Profession Blog.)