«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: If they did, I don't remember. And I kind of doubt that we ever did.
Weiss: You know, it's been interesting, that when you're busy doing, you think about what you're doing next. But I'm not sure that you speculate about what would happen.
Weiss: I'm not aware of ever having had that leisure. I did another thing at Wisconsin that was fun. We had a hard time getting good speakers to college, because the college was under the authority of the legislature, which was all very McCarthy. So, one day, I said, "Why don't we form a club and get it sponsored by a faculty member, and then we can have the authority, because we would be an official club of the college, the university, to invite people?" Because I had trouble getting Pete Seeger to come. So we formed something called the Folk Arts Club, I
who was simply fantastic, and it turned out that he invented Coumadin, Warfarin, for the University. So, we could get Pete Seeger and others to come and speak. But, retrospectively, I see it as a rather creative way of doing something totally non-violently, totally legitimately, legislatively-approvable way of having our voice heard on campus.
Q: Did they let him come?
Weiss: Oh, yes.
Q: Oh, yes.
Q: Yes. Where I went to school, we had trouble bringing Eleanor Roosevelt.
Weiss: That's a good one! Which school was that?
Q: University of Connecticut.
Weiss: Oh, my goodness!
Weiss: Now, speaking of role models, I think she probably had a bit of influence on me, also.
Q: Oh, really?
Weiss: Yes. She was a— Q: [crosstalk].
Weiss: —remarkable, remarkable woman.
Q: Yes. Your family politics were Democratic Party?
Weiss: Democratic Party. My mother worked for Roosevelt to be re-elected, Eleanor [Roosevelt] used to come to the house to do fundraising, and would fall asleep in her traditional cat nap, and wake up and know exactly where the conversation was. She didn't come often, but came sometime. Yes. We were Democrats.
Q: And in Wisconsin, obviously.
Weiss: Yes. But then, you had to wait until you were twenty-one to vote.
Weiss: So, I don't think I voted while I was there. I wasn't twenty-one until— Q: You wouldn't have voted in '56?
Weiss: —fifty-six. When was the election? In November.
Q: Yes. Right, in October, you would have been twenty-one.
Q: [laughs] I'm trying to figure that out, because I know that I first voted in '56.
Weiss: I would have been twenty-two.
Q: Or, did I vote in '52?
Weiss: No, in '52, you would have been eighteen.
Q: No. No. Fifty-six, yes. Because, yes, I turned twenty-one in '55.
Weiss: So, in 1955 I would have been twenty-one.
Weiss: There we are. So that would have been Eisenhower.
Q: Yes. Eisenhower/Stevenson, the second time around. But you hooked up with Ivan Nestingen?
Weiss: Ivan was remarkable. I loved his whole family.
Q: He must have been very young at the time.
Weiss: Yes. He died very young. It was very tragic, unfortunate. I think it was a heart attack.
But, in any event—I loved them, and they loved me. I used to babysit for their kid, one or two daughters. He ran for State Assembly, and for mayor. I believe I worked on his—I can't remember—one of the two campaigns. Bill Proxmire was the Senator. He gave Peter and me our engagement party. So, we had good friends. When [John F.] Kennedy was elected president, and most of the people in Wisconsin, I think, voted for [Hubert H.] Humphrey.
Q: Right. In the primary.
Weiss: In the primary.
Weiss: Ivan, because of his work for Kennedy in the state, got a plum. And he became the deputy secretary—you know, all of these titles are— Q: Yes. In HEW [Health, Education and Welfare].
Weiss: Oh, HEW, was it HEW then? Health, Education and Welfare?
Q: Yes. In your classes, you majored in anthropology. What particular courses—I gather it was the four fields at that time?
Weiss: Cultural— Q: Archaeology, cultural— Weiss: Yes, I didn't do archaeology.
Q: And [crosstalk]?
Weiss: Right. So, I did cultural. But I think you had to do one class in archaeology to get your degree, because I remember the professor, whose name also began with a B. But my friend, the professor, was Milton Barnett, who was incredible, brilliant guy, who ended up at Cornell. I didn't follow him much longer than that. Yes, I did cultural anthropology. I made a lot of good
Q: I've got a list here, but I don't see it.
Weiss: Some of whom I still remember, but not too many. I haven't kept up with the university. I went back to speak at Wisconsin during the Vietnam War, as I was speaking around the country.
But I haven't paid much attention beyond that. Wisconsin is also where I cut my teeth in civil rights, because there was a group of young African American families who literally lived on the other side of the tracks, with young children. There are all these gorgeous lakes. So, I decided to start a little integrated summer camp, which I did, I think, once.
Q: Where did that idea come from?
Weiss: I have no idea. But I have a photograph from the Cap Times of me and little black children and little white children, and we're all sitting around in bathing suits. It's a nice picture, I'm amazed that you can still see it. It's where my back started to go out. Actually, I was in law school, then. So, it was '56. I was swimming with some kids on my back, and stupidly, instead of dumping them off my back to get up out of the water, I got up with them on my back. I've had lower back trouble ever since! I took my law school finals in my first year, I only went one year, standing up because it hurt too much to sit down.
Q: Nina Serrano in that interview said something like, in the "Joe Must Go" office, that two or
Weiss: Probably. That was prescient! [laughing] Q: Was that part and parcel of the politics of the time?
Weiss: I think inevitably. You know, that's what McCarthyism was all about.
Weiss: It was terrible that people had to be marginalized, but otherwise, you would all be tainted.
Q: Yes, I remember— Weiss: Is that the right word to use?
Q: Yes. I remember— Weiss: Guilt by association.
Q: Yes. When the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] National dropped their antiCommunist clause, it just caused a great furor among the people I knew.
Q: We'll get to that.
Q: I can understand why! [laughter] Weiss: It's too bad.
Q: What did you think you were going to do with an anthropology degree? Were you going to do field work?
Weiss: I was going to go to law school and become a lawyer.
Weiss: I think my father had it all arranged that I was going to work with Porter, the Porter Law Firm. There was another partner who became— Q: Abe Fortas, yes.
Weiss: Abe Fortas, yes. Fortas Porter, something like that. But I disappointed him.
Weiss: Because in 1956, a lawyer woman and a lawyer man didn't get married.
Weiss: I don't think there was—I mean, there obviously were some, but there were barely any married lawyer couples.
Q: Now, did your husband move to Madison?
Weiss: I moved to New York.
Q: You moved to New York. After law school?
Weiss: I went to Hunter College School of Social Work.
Q: You were living in Madison, Peter was in New York?
Weiss: I came back to New York.
Q: Did you commute back and forth while you were in law school? Or, you were just on your own?
Weiss: We weren't married yet.
Q: Oh, you weren't married yet. So you got married after law school.
Weiss: I didn't get married until June of '56.
Q: Aha. Aha. So, you left law school and came east to get married?
Weiss: Right. I packed it all in.
Q: [laughter] What was the plan then? What kind of conversations did you have about— Weiss: BA. MRS. I went to Hunter College School of Social Work, because I wasn't going to be
second year, before graduation. I was working on the lower East Side under the three bridges, with groups of boy gangs. It was just the beginning of drugs.
Q: Now, those would have been Puerto Rican at the time?
Weiss: Or Irish.
Q: Irish. Oh, yes. It was still an Irish neighborhood down there? Yes. Yes, that's right. That's right.
Weiss: That's not a memory that sticks, but— Q: Yes, that's right.
Weiss: One of my experiences was on the Upper East Side in Yorkville. I did a clinical experience there, with single mother households. They were having baby after baby after baby. I said to them, "Do you know about birth control?" "Oh, no!" So I introduced them to birth control. I was soundly reprimanded by my supervisors, who were good Italian Catholic. I think the Department of Welfare, what's the name of the guy who was the commissioner? African American and gay? Oh, I can't remember, don't—
Weiss: It would have been '57.
Q: Yes, [James R.] Dumpson. Yes.
Weiss: With a D-P, D-U-M...
Q: From Harlem, yes. Yes. Right.
Weiss: Yes. He didn't like it.
Weiss: Anyway, I worked as a social worker for two—I mean, I tried to get a social work degree, but I quit, eight-five or ninety percent of the way in to the end, partly because, a) I was pregnant,
Beekman Downtown Hospital where we had an out-patient mental health clinic that I was attached to, when I announced to her that I was pregnant and I would be leaving, she said, "Oh! I hope I had something to do with it!" I was shocked! [laughter] And ran faster away than I would have run! [laughs] Q: Were there incidents where she was doing things that were undermining you in any way?
Weiss: I think she was probably—they had this whole gathering, group of sort of fraudulent marriage counselors, fake psycho, psychologist something-or-other. She was just nuts! Anyway, I left. But I also had an experience there that affected me for quite a while. I used to work at night, and I'd come home at 10:00 or so. Peter also worked at night, so that was not a problem.
Q: He was establishing his law practice.
Weiss: Yes. Young lawyers worked around the clock.
Weiss: Terribly exploited. As I was putting the key into the door to get into our apartment, I was mugged from behind. Apparently, I bit the mugger very, very hard on the hand. So, he let go. I went in. I was two or three months' pregnant, and very anxious about the pregnancy. I called Peter, and I called the police, and whatever. The police found him, because he went to sit on the
turned out to be—I hope I'm getting this right—S. J. [Sidney Joseph] Perelman's son, I'm pretty sure that's right, but I'm going to check it just to make sure.
Q: The son.
Weiss: Yes. He had been in a state home for youth offenders. But he apparently had gone up and down 10th Street and 9th Street in the village attacking blonde women. I was blonde at the time.
Either he wanted to go back into the reform school because he couldn't handle freedom, or he just enjoyed attacking women. Who will ever know? But it became a kind of little notoriety, because his daddy was a writer.
Weiss: I went to court to press charges. We had a newspaper then called the World Telegram, and it got into the Telegram. I couldn't work with my team, my gangs anymore, because they lost trust in me, for good reason.
Weiss: They didn't want to have charges pressed against them for anything. So the whole thing ended on a bad note. But I decided I couldn't solve the world's problems [laughs] on a one-to-one
Q: In the world of social work? Right.
Weiss: So, I quit.
Q: In the 1950s, the social work profession in New York, there was a great deal of red baiting, because from the 1930s, there were many, many very progressive social workers. Was there any evidence of that?
Weiss: I wasn't yet a social worker. I was a student.
Q: Yes. Yes, yes.
Weiss: The group of people who most impressed me was the young men who had done the Korean War, because this was '56. There was a bill called 56 something-something, where you could get a free tertiary education.
Weiss: If you had been a veteran.
Weiss: Exactly. So the boys, the young men in my class were Korean vets. It was '56, '57. That stays with me. But I had not yet gotten into the world of organized social workers. It's true, they were a progressive group of people.
Q: Right. What were you going to do then, when you left social work? Was there a career?
Weiss: Well, then I had a baby. I took care of my baby. But then we moved to Riverdale, and I met a woman from Women Strike for Peace, that was 1961. I joined Women Strike, and that was a huge activity for me. I mean, that's where I learned to do everything I know.
Q: Before I move onto that, as a continuation, your work with the African students at Wisconsin, I wonder if we can move into the— Weiss: AASF [African American Students Foundation]?
Q: African American Students Foundation.
Weiss: That's a good idea.
Q: Am I right in assuming that there's a certain—
Q: —kind of continuity— Weiss: There has to be. Yes.
Q: Yes. How does that all happen?