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The Bohemian, the Bolsheviks, and the Old Blues
Louise Bryant’s long-lost papers shed light on a remarkable twentieth-century life.

S elected items from the William Christian Bullitt and Anne Moen Bullitt Papers at Yale University

You might have seen her in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds. Diane Keaton played her, in faux-peasant dresses and matching babushkas, accompanying Beatty’s John Reed as he explored Russian politics at the height of the Revolution. Reed is well known today; his masterful history of the 1917 upheaval—Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)—remains a standard text. But it is less likely you’ve heard of Louise Bryant, Reed’s wife and fellow journalist.

Louise Bryant, noted in her lifetime but slighted by history, may now come back into her own.

Bryant’s own account of the Revolution, Six Red Months in Russia, was the book of the hour when it came out in 1918. Its on-the-ground portrayal of Russian people and conditions is informative and rigorous—yet far more readable than Ten Days, with its facts, figures, and exhaustive discussions of political differences. Much of what historians have taken for granted in their accounts of the Revolution relies as much on Bryant’s book as her husband's, though without acknowledging her importance.

Bryant, noted in her lifetime but slighted by history, may now come back into her own. Her professional and personal papers—for decades believed lost—have been rediscovered and deposited at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. They illuminate a remarkable twentieth-century life.

Born in 1885 to a working-class Nevada family, Bryant emerged as an illustrator and aspiring writer in Portland, Oregon. She married a dentist, but after Jack Reed paid a visit to his hometown in 1914, she left her husband for him and for a new life in bohemian Greenwich Village. In New York Louise worked as a journalist, and she and Jack joined the Provincetown Players, the visionary theater group where Eugene O'Neill developed as a playwright.

Louise began her career as a foreign correspondent in 1917, covering the war in France. When she returned, Reed met her at the station and told her they were sailing for Russia in four days. She obtained press credentials from several publications, including the Bell Syndicate. The result was Six Red Months.

Louise rendered revolution as the drama it was. She conveyed Aleksandr Kerensky’s fatigue in the face of Bolshevik takeover: she and Reed, seeking an interview, found him “on a couch with his face buried in his arms. … We stood there for a minute or two and then went out. He did not notice us.” She portrayed Leon Trotsky’s oratory at a political assembly: “Flashing out of that remarkable gathering was [Trotsky’s] striking personality, like a Marat; vehement, serpent-like, he swayed the assembly as a strong wind stirs the long grass.” She describes how she and Reed, en route to Russia, first learned of the massacre that ended the Kornilov putsch. At a train station in Finland, they found crowds of soldiers arguing over the justice of killing the bourgeoisie. A young man next to Bryant blurted out, “in a sort of stage whisper, ‘It was terrible. … I heard them screaming!’” She questioned him anxiously: “‘Heard who?’ ‘The officers! The bright, pretty officers! They stamped on their faces with heavy boots, dragged them through the mud. … They have just finished it now,’ he said, still whispering, ‘they have killed 50, and I have heard them screaming.’”

Reed died of typhus in 1920 on another Russian trip, Louise attending him. Despite her grief, she soldiered ahead, traveling to Italy, Latvia, Uzbekistan, the Turkish region, and elsewhere as a foreign correspondent. Her second book, Mirrors of Moscow (1923), cemented her reputation.

Bullitt resolved to return to writing—in some exotic locale where he could “lie on the sand and watch the world go to hell.”

In the midst of this activity Louise met the wealthy journalist and diplomat William Bullitt '13. As assistant secretary of state in 1919, Bullitt had negotiated a peace proposal with Russia that Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George ignored; furious, he abandoned politics and resolved to return to writing—in some exotic locale where he could “lie on the sand and watch the world go to hell.” Instead, he fell in love with Louise and pursued her across Europe. They settled in Paris and married in 1923; their daughter, Anne, was born in 1924.

The marriage foundered around 1928, due in part to Bryant’s contraction of a rare, incurable disease, adiposis dolorosa, which causes extremely painful fatty deposits under the skin. Patients often turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve the pain. Louise’s drinking metamorphosed into alcoholism during these years. Her behavior became increasingly erratic after her divorce from Bill in 1930; she became a denizen of Left Bank cafes and showed signs of paranoia. Bill had gotten custody of Anne, and Louise Bryant lived her last six years alone, almost never seeing her daughter but constantly seeking news of her.

In 1934, Louise found herself the object of considerable interest from a group of Harvard scholars writing a biography of Reed (a Harvard graduate). Throughout her peripatetic existence in the 1920s and '30s, she had stored with Jack’s mother in Portland several trunks of his papers. The Harvard researchers were determined to obtain these papers; they feared she would burn them. Louise put them off—she hoped to write her own biography of Jack—but finally she sent for the trunks and, with considerable misgivings, turned them over. Though she stipulated that the material was a loan and should revert to Anne, the biographers donated it to Harvard. It was called the Louise Bryant Collection until 1936, when Louise died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Then it became the John Reed Papers. The Harvard Alumni John Reed Committee is still credited as donor.

Louise had also had a trunk of her own papers shipped to her studio in the rue d'Assas. She offered it to Reed’s biographers, but they were not interested. For years, historians believed it had disappeared. I interviewed Anne Bullitt several times in researching my biography of Bryant, but she never gave any sign of knowing where the papers were.

It is this material that has come to Yale. After Bryant’s death, the trunk made its way to William Bullitt, but he evidently did not tell his daughter. (Indeed, he never told her that he and Louise were divorced.) In 2004, Anne’s representatives chose Yale as the home for Bullitt’s extensive and important papers. The archivists who prepared the collection for transport found Louise’s lost trunk.

And so Yale, not Harvard, owns the Louise Bryant papers. There’s an additional irony here: Louise, who charmed artists, writers, politicians, and dictators, could not get on at all with Bullitt’s Yale friends. One acquaintance remembered finding her alone on the Yale Regatta Committee boat at the Yale-Harvard rowing race, clutching a stanchion, with Bullitt nowhere in sight. She told him miserably that she knew no one else on the boat. Now that 13 linear feet of her papers and photographs are archived in Sterling Library, Bryant’s life and work have been definitively accepted at Yale.

The jewelry may have been glass, but the photographs and historical records are rich and varied.

In Louise’s trunk was a genuine treasure trove; the jewelry may have been glass, but the photographs and historical records are rich and varied. Louise’s correspondents included the painter Marsden Hartley, the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, and O'Neill. Letters from Robert McAlmon, Ernest Hemingway’s publisher, mention such fixtures of expatriate Parisian life as Bricktop, Josephine Baker, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. A ledger containing Reed’s notes for future articles is here. Bryant’s own notebooks include copious notes on her interviews with Russian leaders; with Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic; with Gabriele d'Annunzio, Italian poet and political adventurer; and many others. Her address books alone are remarkable artifacts. Inked and penciled in are phone numbers and addresses for, among others, Lenin, Trotsky, Marcel Duchamp, Anita Loos, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell, Constantin Brancusi, Sigmund Freud, and Helen Keller.

Toward the end of her life, Bryant took up flying and liked to wear her aviatrix costume in Montparnasse cafes. Her brother William wrote her in 1928 that he was not surprised by her new endeavor, “for anything that is connected with nerve, or courage, I naturally connect with you.” Louise Bryant’s courageous life ended early, but the discovery of her records may reanimate the achievements and vicissitudes of her extraordinary career.  the end


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