Opening Up to the Family of Nations: A Conversation with Tom Fleming
PEN AMERICAN CENTER: Tell us a little about why you joined PEN and why you’ve stayed involved for so many years.
THOMAS FLEMING: The reason I joined PEN is really quite simple. I had been censored. My first novel, on which I had worked—like most first novelists—for three or four or five years was bought by a prominent New York publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, as they were called at that time. Bob Giroux, who was the editor, said it was the best first novel he’d read in twenty years. I was walking on air. Then he circulated it to the three partners. Sheila Cudahy was a very devout Catholic, and when she read it, she said, “If you publish this novel, I am going to take all my money out of the company.” The other two gentlemen decided to cancel the book. I was allowed to keep the small advance and they sent the book back to me. To put it mildly, that was a devastating experience.
These were the days of Cardinal Spellman. And to give you an idea of what that means, the same year my novel was turned down Cardinal Spellman took a great dislike to the film Baby Doll, which was running in Times Square with a gigantic marquee. It looked like it was going to be one of the big hits that year. Within one week of Cardinal Spellman’s denunciation, that film was withdrawn from two-thirds of the theatres in the country. Anyone accused of attacking the Catholic Church was not going to get anything published. In fact, it took fourteen years and several rewrites to finally get the book published in the ’70s. It was reviewed as a historical novel about the Catholic Church and sold three thousand copies. So you can see why I have always had a very, very deep hostility toward censorship.
PEN offered a marvelous opportunity to join an organization that was fighting censorship all around the world. I remained an active member of the Freedom to Write committee, even after I left the presidency. To me, that committee is the essence of PEN.
PEN: What about some of the writers you worked with at PEN? Had they joined for similar reasons?
FLEMING: Most the writers who joined PEN in my era, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, were looking for some feeling of community. Writing is a lonely job and in that period, PEN was consciously trying to provide a sense of community here in New York for writers. We had a weekly cocktail party at the Hotel Pierre, and we had conferences and the annual dinner. This was very important to an awful lot of people: to feel that they were part of a group, to have the chance to talk to fellow writers in a neutral atmosphere. That was the chief reason why we never had any problem rallying support when we fought for a writer in trouble.
PEN: Who were some of the writers you rallied behind?
FLEMING: One was the South Korean poet Kim Chi-Ha. At that time, South Korea was a military dictatorship and this guy persisted in writing insulting poems describing the general who happened to be in command that year. Kim had been jailed several times and each time we’d protest, hoping to get him released. The South Koreans were allies of the U.S, and that helped to get him out. But in a few months he’d write another poem and be back in the slammer. When Kim got thrown in jail for the third or fourth time, we decided to stage a demonstration outside the U.N. We persuaded some name writers to participate. Kurt Vonnegut stood out in front of the U.N. with this sign on his chest that said, “Free Kim Chi-Ha.” A middle-aged lady thought he was giving away samples and said, “I’ll take one.” We got Kim out of jail again. We had some influence with our allies at that time, during the Cold War.
One campaign I’m particularly proud of was for the Cuban poet María Elena Cruz Varela. She was thrown in jail in Cuba for asking for more democracy—it was a real horror story. She was in a “hell cell” with ten other people, several of whom were insane. Others were convicted murderers who threatened to kill her every day. María had two children. I vowed to get her out of jail. I spent a whole year writing letters. I went around to every churchman I could think of. I trekked to the offices of the National Council of Churches and said, “Can’t you get behind me on this? She’s a Catholic, a Christian, and she’s being crucified down there.”
Nobody wanted to say one word against Castro. It was amazing. He had a bulletproof vest as far as criticism went. At that time, I was a pretty well-known magazine writer. I’d published three or four hundred articles, and I couldn’t find anybody to publish an article, except the Jesuit magazine America. But their circulation is very small and it had little impact.
Meanwhile—and here’s the power of PEN—I was writing to PEN centers all over the world, and soon they were writing to Castro saying, “We’re horrified by this!”
Castro remained intransigent.
Then came a marvelous, golden moment. Castro was going to go attend an international meeting in Vienna. The German PEN Center wrote him a blazing letter saying, “Unless you let María Elena Cruz Varela out of jail we are going to stage the biggest demonstration you’ve ever seen in your life in Vienna. We’ve got Austrian PEN to back us up. We’re going to make your life miserable for every minute you’re in Vienna.” Suddenly María Elena Cruz Varela was out of jail and under house arrest. They eventually put her on a plane to Florida. This was such a tribute to the international aspect of PEN. We could have beaten our heads against the wall forever in Cuba—we Americans, I mean. But thanks to International PEN, we were able to do something.
PEN: What about locally, in the United States?
After the 1967 race riots in Newark, we protested the treatment of Amiri Baraka—who before he took that name was LeRoi Jones—when he defended the protestors who’d burned down a lot of Newark. The local authorities wanted to put him in jail. They argued that it was an incendiary situation, and he was like a man shouting fire in a crowded theater. It was a blatant gag rule. When they tried to silence Baraka, we launched a campaign to keep him out of jail. When it was over, I got a really nice letter from him. He said, “I couldn’t believe you guys really did that for me.”
PEN: At the end of the 1966 PEN Congress in New York City, a journalist asked Arthur Miller why Allen Ginsberg and other members of the avant-garde weren’t present. Miller’s response was that he hadn’t tried to involve them because PEN wasn’t doing relevant work. He then went on to say, “PEN isn’t doing its job. People like Ginsberg should be here.” In the ’70s, Ginsberg did join PEN and served on the board, along with Norman Mailer. Was this the start of a larger transition at PEN?
FLEMING: I joined PEN in the late ’60s. They really weren’t interested in getting out there and brawling to make sure that this principle of no censorship was being obeyed. The organization was known mostly for dinners and cocktail parties. Nobody took PEN very seriously.
My predecessor, Charles Bracelen Flood, started changing PEN’s image. He invited me to join the Freedom to Write to Committee. When I became president, PEN was basically sustained by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was $70,000 or $80,000 a year, which sounds like chicken feed today. As president, I had to go down to Washington to appear before a board of cultural officials to argue the renewal of the grant. Toni Morrison happened to be on the board that year, and Toni was a good example of the kind of writers who weren’t involved with PEN at the time. She said the organization was just a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes that didn’t deserve federal funding. It wasn’t personal, so I didn’t lose my temper. I calmly said, “I’ve been at PEN now for several years, and I haven’t seen a single little old lady in tennis shoes.” I went on to tell Toni and the rest of the board about the very important things we were doing. The grant was issued with no problem whatsoever.
PEN: How did the organization begin to change while you were president?
FLEMING: I decided to have big-name authors from abroad for our annual dinners. We hosted an international conference in ’66 and we had a lot of foreign writers, but for our annual dinner we hadn’t had many. I invited Pablo Neruda, a tremendously gifted poet from Chile who was also very active politically. A communist himself, he was a strong backer of the communist party in Chile. He had been a diplomat, and he mixed in European politics at the height of the Cold War when people had violent and varying opinions.
I met Neruda and his wife at the airport. She was wearing a mink coat that went down to her ankles, and I thought to myself, “Communism pays in Chile.” That was nasty of me! Neruda couldn’t have been more charming. In the taxi ride from the airport he said he was amazed and very flattered that I had invited him.
At the dinner, Neruda and I and other members of the PEN board sat on a dais at the Hotel Pierre. Before the formal program began, I read telegrams from various VIPs. Lo and behold, totally unsought, one message was from President Richard Nixon. This was before Watergate, but he wasn’t very popular in New York City. I felt obligated to read the telegram, and huge boos filled the air of the main dining room. When the outburst subsided, and people had settled, I said, “Now that we’ve expressed ourselves, we can go on with the program.” I sat down next to Neruda and his face was absolutely pale. He was terrified. “Will the police come?” he said. He really thought that the event would be raided and all of us would end up in jail.
PEN: Why the interest in inviting foreign writers?
FLEMING: I thought that American PEN was in danger of not having enough contact with foreign PEN centers. Since I had gone to a couple of international conferences before I became president, I knew how important these contacts were. When I was president I always did my very best to get friendly with the prominent writers from those centers.
I became especially friendly with Heinrich Böll, the great German novelist. Germany was just emerging from the horrors of Nazism and the damage it had done to the reputation of all Germans. Böll had this huge sense of international responsibility. He was horrified by the censorship in Russia for instance. He seemed to me someone who would make a great international president. When we met in Lyon for our international conference we had to elect a new international president and I nominated him. The reaction of the French was not pretty. They absolutely blew their stacks.
PEN in those days was a mini-U.N. Many delegations from other countries, particularly South America, gravitated to the Americans. I knew a lot of these people and I was able to politic very, very assiduously for twenty-four hours to convince them that choosing Böll as president would be a contribution to international peace. We would be saying, “Germany is back in the family of nations; we believe that they are trying to expiate the horrors and the crimes of Nazism, and here is our testimony.” At the next meeting, one of the French delegates stood up and he said, “I have a proposal to make. There will be no secret ballot for this meeting. There will be voice voting. Everyone will have to testify who they vote for.” And he glared around the room, all but saying, “Does anybody here have the nerve to vote in public for a German?” I immediately protested. I said, “That is a ridiculous idea; we’ve always voted by secret ballot, why shouldn’t we now?” The Frenchman said, “A secret ballot is undemocratic!” That was voted down with a huge burst of laughter. Heinrich Böll became our international president.
A few months later, Böll did something that, as far as I know, no other international president has ever attempted. He decided to travel through Russia and talk not just to the top people in Moscow but to the mayors and politicians of small cities. He did finally go to Moscow and talked to some top officials there. He told them, “I’ve spoken with people all over Russia, and they don’t like your censorship any more than I do. They don’t think you need to silence writers. You are a great country. Why don’t you just give writers their freedom?” He got absolutely nowhere.
Back in Germany, Böll wrote me a wonderful letter. He wanted to let me know what he had tried to do. He was so heartbroken. It was so, so touching.
There was indeed a payoff. A year or so later, the Russians kicked Solzhenitsyn out of the country. He had been in Siberia and when he got back he started misbehaving all over again. When they exiled him, they gave him Böll’s address! As you can imagine, Solzhenitsyn was greeted with open arms and went on to have a great career as a dissident writer outside of Russia. It is all, I think, attributable to PEN. It made me proud to be a member.
Two or three years after Böll became president of International PEN, he won the Nobel Prize. He said to me once, “Tom, PEN purified me by making me international president.” He believed the Nobel board would never have given the prize to a German if he hadn’t been able to win PEN’s affirmation of his moral and literary merits. I felt that way, too. It was a very great and moving accomplishment of PEN’s to help bring Germany back into the family of nations that way.