«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: The Internet is not the most reliable source.
Weiss: They were very generous, but it was only after he sold his company that he had—for me,
Q: Now, when you were at Fieldston, your mother was at home? She had not yet gone back to school?
Weiss: She was talking with many of our professional friends about what she would do. At one point, she was interested in going to medical school. A psychiatrist friend of ours suggested that she study anthropology as a pathway. It clicked, and she stayed there. She became a rather wellknown and wonderful anthropologist.
Weiss: She became a Caribbeanist anthropologist. She wrote a number of books. She wrote a book called Ganja in Jamaica, which I've just given to my oldest grandson, who is interested in Caribbean history. Probably he's interested in ganja, too! [laughter] Q: How old is he?
Weiss: He's twenty.
Q: He probably is. Yes.
Weiss: But she claims that she never touched the stuff. On the one hand I believe it, because in
years, with interviewing women at breakfast who were stirring ganja in their tea, so they could make it in the fields for a whole day under the sun? This was a very important support mechanism, to mix their tea with ganja.
Q: Well, that's one of the major themes of that book, is that it is used as a stimulant for work.
Q: For people going out to work.
Weiss: Exactly. Not to get high.
Q: Unlike hippies, who doze off.
Weiss: But she became the darling, for a little bit, of High Times, I think is the name of the magazine?
Weiss: I never saw it. Although I guess I must have seen the cover for the magazine, because I think we framed it at some point. But it was sort of the joke of the house that grandma's the darling of the High Times crowd. But they did it, because she would be in seventh heaven now to
Weiss: —for medical purposes.
Q: I looked at the compilation of essays that they put together—it was much later after the big conference. Your mother was the general editor of some, I don't know if it was forty or fifty essays. I mean, incredible run-down— Weiss: Wow!
Q: —of every aspect of marijuana use and production. It's an incredible volume.
Weiss: She was a big expert.
Q: Yes. The other thing that struck me, she worked with a coeditor of a book on youth in Trinidad.
Weiss: She did a lot of work in Trinidad. She loved TT [Trinidad and Tobago]. She worked there—I think she may have been, if not the first, the earliest to bring graduate students from the U.S. to the Caribbean for field studies. They would take their summer vacations doing field study
got it from. So, she did a book on youth. She did a book on plantation slavery, and on ganja.
She's done a lot of papers.
Q: Yes. Well, it just struck me— Weiss: She ran a fantastic conference at Hunter not long before she died.
Q: On Caribbean studies?
Q: Well, it just struck me that in the early '60s, '70s, she's writing about marijuana and youth culture, at exactly the right moment for all that kind of stuff.
Q: Yes. Yes.
Weiss: But it was also when she was in the heyday, in the highlight of her professional career, she got her doctorate when I got my BA. So, that would be '56, más o menos. She taught at Columbia sometimes, she got an honorary degree at Brooklyn College and delivered an extraordinary paper as the price of getting the honorary degree. She had an academic career, but
Michael Manley, he loved her. Eric Williams, another good memory, from Trinidad was a very close buddy. She produced for them. I think, in a way, it was a form of empowerment for the post-colonial islands.
She loved a woman named Lucille Mair, she was from Jamaica, who eventually became a U.N.
[United Nations] diplomat, and a woman named Nita Barrow, Dame Nita Barrow, who was the—what's the title when you represent the Queen? In any event, she was Dame Nita Barrow, from Barbados. She became the head of the 1985 Women's Forum, Third World Women's Forum in Nairobi, where I was a delegate. She established a lot of very good friendships. One day, she developed appendicitis, and she was in Jamaica, and she went to the hospital, and they said, "Do you want to be flown to New York, or do you want to have your appendectomy here?" She said, "Here." That put the crown on her head, I guess, with the West Indians, because when she died, she was called by a West Indian academic man, who came to speak, a "Caribbean woman," and that was the highest accolade she could hope for.
Q: Yes. You talk of her very fondly. Do you think in any way she was a role model for you?
Weiss: Oh, absolutely! How many other mothers drove a car? I think she even drove a convertible car! [laughing]
Weiss: I didn't know what I was going to do. I went to Wisconsin because of a very funny incident. I decided I didn't want to take SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test] exams, and there were only a few schools to pick from that didn't require them. I found Reed College in Oregon. And one day, we were with my father's mother, my grandmother, who didn't speak much English. My grandmother asked my mother, "And where is the first born—first born in this country—going to college?" My mother said, "Reed College." My grandmother said, "Where is that?" My mother thought and thought and thought and thought, and she said, "It's near Japan." So, that was the end of Reed College, and I had to find a compromise. Wisconsin not only sort of fell in the middle, but it had the legacy of La Follette. It had at least one, and maybe two, professors at the law school who had participated in writing the U.N. Charter. It was a very exciting place, and it didn't require an SAT exam.
Q: What was it like to be a Jew from New York in Madison at that point in time?
Weiss: There were probably a lot of other Jews from New York.
Q: Oh, yes?
Weiss: That wasn't the issue.
Q: In the state legislature, they were complaining about it.
Weiss: Oh, I didn't know that. Well, maybe I did. But I worked with a man named Leroy Gore, who was the editor of the Sauk City newspaper, because he decided that there was a constitutional way to recall Joe McCarthy from the Senate, who was plaguing America with McCarthyism. That intrigued me. So, I was partly responsible for setting up a Madison headquarters. It was a petition-gathering campaign, and we had to get X-percent of the electorate to sign the petition, and then that would constitute a legitimate reason for a recall. So I got in my car, which was made in Milwaukee, I think it was a Studebaker. But it had New York plates. I started driving through the state collecting petitions, collecting signatures for the petition. All of a sudden, I was pelted—this you can't forget—with tomatoes and potatoes and corn husks. I didn't understand quite why, until I realized it was my New York plates. So, that was a very important early lesson in political organizing. It's where I cut my teeth, I think, in political organizing.
Q: Were there places where you were warmly received and people signed?
Weiss: Well, we got thousands of signatures. I wasn't the only one collecting them, by any means.
Weiss: We certainly had the requisite amount to constitute a legitimate recall. But the judges of the State of Wisconsin were undoubtedly either picked by, appointed by or influenced by Mr.
McCarthy, and all of a sudden, most of the signatures turned out to be not legible. So, it didn't work. But it was a wonderful campaign, it was called "Joe Must Go."
Weiss: Leroy Gore wrote a little book called Joe Must Go, which I'm sorry I've lost, but— Q: He was a rock-ribbed Republican.
Weiss: I wasn't rock-ribbed anything! [laughter] But he was very courageous and very reassuring, that there are good pockets of terrific people, who were not going to let this country down. So, it was part of my education. I didn't get a credit for it.
Q: [laughs] How many people were in the Madison office of the "Joe Must Go?" Weiss: Oh, I don't know.
Q: Because in that interview, Nina Serrano talks about—
Q: Was it usual to have a car as a coed in Wisconsin at that time?
Weiss: A lot of things weren't usual. I lived in a dormitory in the first year that I was there, because it was required. The dormitories were really sort of old, private houses that had rooms for ten or fifteen students. We had to write a little essay, so that the dormitory mother could know who she was getting. As a result of my essay, and I have no idea what I said, she assigned me to a room. My roommate was Carolyn Parker [phonetic], who was the only African American in the building. We got along very well. I think she was from Indiana, and I've tried to find her since then, and the university doesn't have a record of her in their alumni files, because I'd like to know what she did in life. Anyway, I decided that dorm life was not for me, and I rented an apartment for the rest of the time.
Q: You could do that?
Weiss: Well, let's say I did it. [laughter] Q: As I remember about college at that time— Weiss: I'm sure it was illegal.
Q: —the girls had to be in at 10:00 at night, and that was it. You know?
Weiss: Well, they were unusual years.
Q: The feeling that you gave me was an incredible array of activities. Various kinds of committees for the U.N., various kinds of student government committees, different kinds of committees, et cetera. When did you study?
Weiss: I got through, I got a degree. I took exams. But those were years of experimenting and discovering. They were important. There were a group of African students on campus, and they had no money. And they were poor.
Q: Now, how did you meet them?
Weiss: Probably in the Student Union, I have no idea. But we created an African Student Union.
It may have been the first African Student Union in the country, I don't know. I'm not going to be sure about a lot of things, because I really don't know.
Weiss: I decided that maybe they could earn money if they went out into the town and gave talks about their countries, and they would pick up $10, or $5, whatever. It would become their pin money. That worked. That was wonderful.
Q: Well, how did you organize that?
Weiss: Oh, I have no idea.
Q: Various Rotary clubs? Kiwanis clubs?
Q: How did you do that?
Weiss: Or, stories in the local newspapers.
Weiss: I think we did it together. So that was one thing that happened. Another thing that happened was that I had already been abroad four or five times in my life, and I was interested in international affairs, or life. I became the Chair of the International Speaker's Bureau, I think, for
Weiss: In my third year, I think it was my third year, I invited a man named Peter Weiss who was escorting a woman named Ashadevi Arayanakam, who turned out to be one of Gandhi's cousins. She ran a fundamental education school in India, not fundamentalist, the difference between Islamic and Islamist. I invited them to come and speak. Well, I met them and took them to the cafeteria for lunch. On the lunch line, we talked, and this man named Peter Weiss explained to me that he ran the International Development Placement Association [IDPA], which would place skilled Americans in developing countries at local wages and under local conditions.
Q: He was a lawyer?
Weiss: He was, but he had graduated from law school and started this IDPA organization because he, too, was interested in international development and relations. Before we finished lunch, I asked him if he gave internships for students in the summer. To make a rather longer story shorter, I went to work for him— Q: No, we want the long version.
Weiss: You want the long version?
Q: This is what it's about. The long version, not the short version.
Weiss: OK. So, that summer, of my third year, if it wasn't the third it was the second. But anyway, I came to work for him in a building facing the U.N., which was a Carnegie building, but I can't remember, a Carnegie Endowment, some kind—one of the Carnegies—where he had two rooms, and one room had a bookcase and I was supposed to be the librarian, and there were probably thirty or forty books. [laughs] Anyway, I worked for him that summer, and then I went back to school. I came home for Christmas vacation, and I got a phone call and asked if I would like to go out on New Year's Day. I think I said, "What's wrong with New Year's Eve?" But anyway, it was New Year's Day. I went out, that was January 1st. By February something, we were engaged, and the rest is fifty-eight years of marriage. We lived happily ever after! It's been a good ride!
Q: Yes. It's remarkable that you were so simpatico, so fast. Interested in the same kinds of things—what was his political background?
Weiss: Peter was born in Vienna, came to this country when he was twelve or thirteen. He went to Straub Muller Textile High School, which was a trade school, textile trade school, because his mother was concerned that he should have a skill to get a job. He was admitted to Harvard, but they didn't offer him a scholarship, so he went to St. John's in Annapolis, the Great Books
the Army, his mother would send him a newspaper that he could fit into the back pocket of his Army fatigues. It was P.M., which was a liberal, left-liberal newspaper in New York. That's basically, I think, where he started to get his politics.
Q: Back, for a moment, to the "Joe Must Go," did anyone there ever speculate on what would have happened if you had been successful?