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The Angel in the Story

In response to:

Queen of the Golden Age from the March 21, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

In Gore Vidal’s admirable review of The Diaries of Dawn Powell [NYR, March 21] his references to her dearest friend, Margaret DeSilver, seem to (incorrectly) imply that Margaret’s political views were pro-Communist. There is also an error about the trust fund Margaret established for Dawn and her son, Jojo. This was created in Margaret’s will, not after Dawn’s eviction. Further, Jojo is more correctly characterized as an “idiot savant” than retarded.

As the wife of Margaret’s younger son, George Burnham DeSilver, and a friend and great admirer of both Dawn and Margaret, I can assure you that the implication that they were in any way “at the center of the American Communist world” is the exact opposite of the truth. Both were at the center of the New York intellectual, literary, and artistic world, and Dawn was, as Vidal stated, apolitical. Margaret, a 1913 Vassar graduate, was definitely not apolitical. True to her Quaker heritage, she, as well as her mother, marched in suffrage parades; she was a lifelong supporter of equal rights, civil liberties, and philosophical justice. She had a tolerant, curious, and open mind.

Margaret’s husband, Albert, was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, a graduate of Yale and Columbia University Law School. He was destined to be a conventional Wall Street lawyer, but his concern about humanitarian and civil rights issues was intensified by his Quaker wife. After Albert’s untimely death in a terrible train accident, Margaret sat on the Board of the ACLU for many years, but eventually chose to resign because of Communist influence on the Board. This influence in the ACLU ended nearly fifty years ago.

Vidal’s use of the word “mistress” diminishes the more than ten-year alliance between Margaret and Carlo Tresca, until his murder. More aptly, they were lovers but she was his patron. Carlo was editor of Il Martello, an Italian language anti-fascist and anti-Communist newspaper. (See ‘All the Right Enemies’: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca, by Dorothy Gallagher, Rutgers University Press, 1988.) Neither Albert, Carlo, nor Margaret were ever duped by the Communists, as were so many other intellectuals of the time.

Claire DeSilver
Naples, Florida

Gore Vidal replies:

I confess that most of what I know of DeSilver I got from the notes of the editor of Dawn Powell’s diaries, and he is the one who should profit from these clarifications. I will say that while recently researching the Hiss-Chambers case, the DeSilver name often crops up as—tangential?—to the central John Howard Lawson group. I have never heard Jojo referred to as an “idiot savant.” I prefer the more succinct “wisdom-challenged.” DeSilver not the “mistress” but the “lover” of Tresca? OK by me. “Mistress” is a period word Powell would have used. What about the rumor that they were secretly married? Anyway DeSilver is the angel in the Dawn Powell story.

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