«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Q: They let you play a second and third time?
Q: Yes. And what did you think you would do with your life? Did you ever sit back and speculate when you were fifteen, sixteen, or something about where your life was going to go, what you were going to do?
Weiss: I doubt it. Everything was very much the here and now. I probably was told, or it was suggested to me, that I could become a lawyer if I wanted to, and that was pretty unusual for a young woman.
Q: Did you think it unusual then?
Q: You mentioned that many people visited your house, and the conversations were wonderful.
What did they talk about? Can you remember any of the— Weiss: Politics, politics, politics.
Q: This would have been politics, Roosevelt— Weiss: In the '40s. Right.
Q: —Truman, and the war?
Weiss: Right. A couple who were very close friends of the family were both psychiatrists; one was a psychiatric social worker and her husband was a psychiatrist. So, we talked psychiatry, somehow. We talked community politics, what was happening in Croton, in the community. And later, in the community of Riverdale.
Q: What was happening in your community?
Weiss: There was a lot of racism in Riverdale. There was a lot of racism in housing, in particular.
What else? At Fieldston, I was involved with the men who were the porters in the school, who were all African American.
Weiss: Well, they liked me, I liked them, and we talked to each other a lot.
Q: About what?
Weiss: Well, eventually, it was about, how come you're not in a labor union? And I don't know how I got to that, but I did.
Q: [laughs] I won't tease you anymore, but you get to think about, you know, the personal side of things.
Q: Any anecdotes that you might recall? Conversations? Funny things that happened? Sad things that happened?
Weiss: I can do that later.
Q: What moved you?
Weiss: Later in life, it's hard.
Weiss: In those early days.
Q: Yes. There's a natural inclination to apply today's terminology to yesterday.
Weiss: To yesterday's? Right. I understand that.
Q: You know, what did yesterday think its problems were? What was the question, what were the questions asked then?
Weiss: Anti-Semitism was rife, racism was rife, the war was rife. Ice skating was good. We had a lot of—the family had a lot of friends in the community, and a lot of interaction with them.
There were always people for either dinner or Sunday breakfast, or— Q: And you would sit in on the conversations?
Weiss: Or sit on, if it was at night, sit on the stairs and listen. I remember that. We were supposed to be in bed.
Q: Yes. You had rigid hours about going to bed?
Weiss: Well, most school children have to go to bed at a certain time so that they can get up in
Q: Oh, were you?
Weiss: No, we weren't rigid. We were flexible flyers. I'll tell you one quick story. I have no idea how old I was. We were living in Croton, so it had to be somewhere between—somewhere up to eighth grade, or through eighth grade, because we moved at that point. We used to go sleigh riding. We lived on top of a hill with a big forest of trees below us. There was a young man who was probably two or three years older than I, who would come on skis, and he would ski slalom through the trees. One day, I decided to follow him on my sled. I couldn't slalom with the sled— Q: [laughs] Weiss: —so I went [crashing noise] crashing into a tree and broke my front teeth, and I don't know what else happened. But in any event, the consequence of breaking my front teeth—oh, I never had any consequence with the young man. That was the extent of my fondness for him.
But the consequence of my front teeth breaking was that I went to a dentist in the city who had a grant from the Department of the Navy to do research on using acrylic for repairing broken teeth.
I was one of his experiments. I'm not the experiment, he did the experiment, I was his victim.
Q: Yes, right.
Weiss: He painted this stuff on my two front teeth, which was terrific. I kept them for many
would stain, and so I'd have to have them redone, repaired. It wasn't until I was seventy-eight or nine years old [phone ringing] that I got a new kind of front teeth that don't stain. Now I'm not ashamed of opening my mouth, or smiling!
Q: All those years, were you?
Weiss: All those years. All of my photographs have my upper lip covering my upper teeth. Or my lower lip. One of my lips.
Q: Right. And those were the years when you were doing an enormous amount of public speaking!
Weiss: Huge. But I was very tooth-conscious. And it all started because I was following a guy down a hill! [laughs] Q: Now, when you were public speaking, were you aware of your teeth when you were— Weiss: It just became totally unconsciously habit.
Q: OK. Now, I'd like to move you ahead a little. Now, let's go—
Q: Yes. That's what I want. Stories!
Weiss: Life is just one big story, isn't it?
Q: Absolutely! Absolutely!
Q: I can give you a lot of theoretical stuff which argues that, that that is life. But let's move ahead now to the Joe Must Go. Exactly where were you, what were you doing, when you became aware that there was this movement to recall Senator McCarthy? Who told you? Did you read about it?
Weiss: That's a tough one. I was very good friends with a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, Ivan Nestingen and his family.
Q: Now, you had met him earlier. How did you meet him?
Weiss: I have no idea. You know, I was an adventurous young woman, and I read the local Cap Times newspaper while I was going to school in Madison. I had interests beyond the classroom, and they just came with my DNA and with me.
Weiss: I have no idea. I just have no idea. Let's go fast forward. I knew him. I liked him very much, and I supported his democratic politics, and he was running for office, and I was helping him. I think he probably told me about Leroy Gore, who was the editor of the Sauk City paper. I don't even remember meeting Gore, I just remember picking up the petitions and starting to work around Madison with them. I did a lot of that.
Q: That was in the Madison office?
Q: Now, was he in the Madison office?
Weiss: No, Gore was in Sauk City.
Q: At Sauk City. Now, did you go to Sauk City to meet him?
Weiss: I don't think so. I mean, if I did, I certainly don't remember.
Q: How many people worked in that Madison office?
Weiss: I have no clue. Everybody was a volunteer, and they came and went.
Q: What were the jobs?
Weiss: Collecting petitions, handing out petitions, getting the petitions sent to their proper resting place, wherever that was. Maybe it was Sauk City, whoever was doing the collecting of the signatures.
Q: So, you would be in the office, and people would come in and pick up the petitions, and they would go out and door knock the neighborhood?
Weiss: I was mostly door knocking.
Q: You were door knocking.
Weiss: Well, there were three options. Either someone said, "Sure, I'll sign!" Or, someone said—usually a woman, "I'll have to ask my husband." Or somebody closed the door in your face. It was a very important lesson for me, in the many lessons I learned in college.
Q: Did you have a spiel? "Hello, I am your—" Weiss: That's interesting. I have no idea what I said. I probably did. You'd have to, in order to do it, but I can't remember that. At least I'm honest about what I can't remember.
Q: Right, yes. Now, one of the issues, which was not a political issue, in that campaign, was McCarthy's failure to fully agitate for dairy subsidies. Do you remember anything about that? Or making an appeal to people, not on the basis of his politics, but on this basis that— Weiss: You know, you've read that probably recently.
Q: Yes, right. I— Weiss: So you know about it.
Q: I looked at a history of the—
Weiss: Well, I haven't read up on the history of Wisconsin in 1950!
Q: You were there!
Weiss: I know. That— Q: I know only from reading. You know from experience.
Weiss: But memory interferes. So, I remember the petitions, I remember the failure, I remember the extraordinary courage that this guy in Sauk City had. Somewhere I should have a book called Joe Must Go.
Weiss: I hope I have it. Unfortunately, a whole box of books disappeared.
Q: You can get it on—Amazon has it for sale.
Weiss: Oh, really?
Weiss: Oh, bravo! Thank you! OK.
Q: OK. You know, I have had a lot of experience interviewing activists. Most of them are really concerned with what is happening now, what they're doing tomorrow, what next month's agenda is, what organizations they're working with. It's difficult for them to go back to that time when they weren't engaged in those particular kinds of issues, because they're so caught up in today's activities.
Weiss: I've been plowing through my files, not knowing why, what I'm going to do with them, but knowing that they have to be organized. After several years of asking around, I decided to organize them chronologically. I have boxes full of papers. It seems to me that from the very beginning, I've been organizing. I started speaking very early in life.
Q: Do you recall the first time— Weiss: No.
Q: —you went to a public meeting?
Weiss: No. But I probably have my first speech written out. I decided early on to write everything out, because if I were challenged, I wanted to have the evidence of what I said. That
pencil on legal paper, yellow lined paper. They had no date, and they had no place and no time, because who thought any of that was important? We had no sense of history, ever. We just did it.
[laughs] So, when I was chair of the Speaker's Bureau of the International Club at Wisconsin, I might have talked at some point, somewhere. But I don't have those, even in legal pad size.
[laughter] But I do after that, when I started speaking with Women Strike for Peace [WSP], 1961.
Q: Now, you said that you had no sense of history, but—you had some sense of history. What is the history that you then had? When you invited a speaker, what did you know about his or her past? What did you imagine about the country they came from, the economy—the place that they lived?
Weiss: I had a set of values. I had an internationally, or globalized, head, largely because my mother took us on trips when we were younger, or I went abroad in high school during the summers. So, we invited people to speak who shared those values, values of justice and equality, and not anti-Semitic people, and not racist people.
Q: How did you round up the audience?
Weiss: Well, there was no email. I guess there were posters, flyers that we mimeographed. My mother used to say you can't do anything if you don't know how to use a mimeograph machine.
Q: And you knew how to use it?
Weiss: I certainly did learn fast!
Q: Did you stand out and hand out the flyers? Or did you post them in dormitories?
Weiss: Probably, whatever you have to do. I don't know. I mean, really, I don't, can't—I don't want to lie. [laughter] Q: Did you ever think, generally, when you went door knocking and somebody answered, did you have some impression of that person with whom it was going to be easier to talk to?
Difficult to talk to? Someone similar to yourself? Someone different from yourself?
Weiss: No, we just went up and down the blocks. We had no way of knowing who we were going to meet. There were no lists, there were no voter registration lists with addresses to look at.
The important thing that I remember is, that we collectively, all around the state, everybody doing the Joe Must Go campaign, had gotten the requisite number of signatures, which was based on the percentage of the electorate. Whoever was responsible for making a decision about whether they were legitimate or not, or whether McCarthy would be recalled or not, decided that they were not legible. That is what stuck with me through the years.
Weiss: Oh, we were furious!
Q: When it was broadcast, or—?
Weiss: It was a great and very important lesson in corruption, or cronyism.
Q: It was just absorbed as a lesson?
Weiss: It had to be, because there was no appeal.
Weiss: I don't think there was an appeal.
Q: You didn't have a march, or you didn't— Weiss: No.
Q: …what people would do today.
Q: Fine. You know, some of this is awkward, but it really does give a much better sense of where you are in the world, who you are in the world, in the sense of, you know, obviously much more concerned with acting instead of remembering.
Weiss: Clearly. Sure.
Q: Yes. Kind of remarkable.
Weiss: But I remember the lessons learned, right? That's important, because we don't repeat our mistakes twice, we hope.
Q: Well, let's, then, move on to Women Strike for Peace. Got you thinking about the past, et cetera, Can you recall exactly when you heard about the initial strike, how you heard about it, who told you about it, where you were, et cetera? Give me the picture.
Weiss: Women Strike for Peace was not a strike in the sense of the Greek Goddess, what's her name, with an "L," who did strike against men.
Q: Oh, Lysistrata?
Weiss: Lysistrata, thank you very much! My age of blocking is showing.