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(en) US, Obituary - The life of American Anarchist Mary Frohman by Jesse Walker

Date Sat, 11 Jun 2005 09:19:50 +0300


I came home Monday to a blinking red light on the answering
machine, a message from an old girlfriend I hadn't spoken to
in years. Her voice sounded shaky, haggard; she said she had
news, that I should call her to talk. I took down her number
and dialed her Nevada apartment; she told me Mary Frohman was dead.
It had been 14, maybe 15 years since I had met Mary. She had
been working as a security guard in a Michigan pizza parlor,
and we'd gotten into an improbable conversation about
anarcho-syndicalism. I didn't know then that she'd been
present at the infancy of the modern libertarian movement,
at that strange time when two tribes that by conventional
reckoning shouldn't have existed at all -- an antiwar wing
of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a
free-market contingent in the leftist Students for a
Democratic Society -- somehow emerged and then combined to
form something new. I didn't know that she'd had juicy but
essentially anonymous cameos in two, perhaps three, of the
books I'd been reading recently, or that her life was an
eccentric, unpredictable, and resonant American story. I
didn't even know that I'd meet her again, but it wasn't long
before we were friends.

Mary Frohman was born in 1947; her father was Charles
Frohman, a biochemist known for his work on serotonin. She
grew up in and around Detroit, where she ran with a
Polish-Italian street gang; according to Leslie Fish, her
lover from the late '60s through the early '80s, she would
"beat up the boys and make them respect her and then teach
them to read." As a teen she became active in the civil
rights movement and was briefly a member of the Communist
Party (or, by Fish's recollection, the Socialist Workers
Party), an affiliation I teased her for years later -- it
was Mary who had taught me the immortal couplet, "The only
good thing that Stalin did/was put an icepick in Trotsky's
head." She refused to take the bait, insisting that if you
wanted to oppose Jim Crow in that particular time and place,
the communists were "the only game in town."

It wasn't long, at any rate, before she became an anarchist
instead. She was living in Ann Arbor, singing folk music and
attending the University of Michigan, where her circle of
antiwar friends stretched from the New Left to the Goldwater
right. (They joked, sometimes, about starting a Leon
Czolgosz chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom, just to
see what would happen if it encountered a chapter named for
William McKinley.) The great radicalizing experience of her
life was the Chicago Democratic convention of 1968, where
she worked as a medic; she always insisted that eight
protestors had died in the police riot and that the
authorities had covered this up. Interviewed in 1989 by a
Michigan student named Meredith McGhan -- you've already met
Meredith, she was the voice on my answering machine -- Mary
recalled attending to a casualty, turning around, and
finding herself staring down the barrel of a .50 caliber
machine gun.* She said, "I just need to cross the street and
wash my hands"; and then she pushed the barrel very gently
out of her way. "I don't even remember how I got across the
street," she told Meredith. "I blacked out, and I came to in
a doorway, puking my guts out."

It was at the Democratic convention that Mary and Leslie
first encountered the Industrial Workers of the World,
better known as the Wobblies, a militant union that had been
a major force in the early 20th century but had dwindled
considerably since then. "We marched past this bench where
these old men were sitting, shaking their heads and looking
glum," Fish remembers. "We were thinking, 'Oh, here are the
Wallacites' -- until we got close enough to hear them. They
were saying, 'No, no, no. Not a weapon among them. Not even
anything hidden. And look how disorganized! How are you
going to smash the state with that kind of organization?'
Finally this one little old man jumped up on a bench and
waved his cane and said, 'Lee-sten!' He had a heavily
accented voice. 'Lee-sten! When the police come to shoot
you, you throw rocks at them! You knock them down! You take
their guns, and you shoot them with their own gun!'

"At that point," she concludes, "we started to look closer
at these guys, and we noticed the little pins they were
wearing: 'IWW.'"

A year later they were back in Chicago, at the final
national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society. The
group was split among three Stalinist factions, the most
infamous of which became the terrorist Weather Underground.
(It took its name from a Bob Dylan lyric, "You don't need a
weatherman to know which way the wind blows." It was Mary
who cracked that "You don't need a rectal thermometer to
know who the assholes are," a line that was quoted, without
her name attached, in Kirkpatrick Sale's history SDS.)
Outnumbered and disgusted, the anarchists, libertarians, and
miscellaneous anti-totalitarians retreated to Chicago's IWW
hall, where they planned to form a caucus of their own. SDS
was beyond salvage, though, and as the Young Americans for
Freedom purged its libertarians the same year, the two sets
of exiles were soon mixing at independent gatherings of
their own -- notably the New York Libertarian Conference of
October 1969, immortalized in Jerome Tuccille's entertaining
but unreliable memoir It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand.
Tuccille transmogrified Mary the anarcho-leftist into a
hard-core Objectivist, "Ayn Rand on a two-week binge," a
woman who wore "dollar-signed brooches" and started "beating
the shit out of a love child" because he dared to speak
disapprovingly of greed. (Frohman did say several times that
everyone should read Ayn Rand -- but only for "the
intellectual exercise of refuting her.")

Years later, Mary told me her own account of that
conference, which culminated with the most radical attendees
marching on Fort Dix, New Jersey, and getting dowsed with CS
gas. In his wrapup of the events for The Libertarian Forum,
Murray Rothbard wrote that Mary "rushed to the podium, fresh
from her gassing, to curse obscenely and hysterically at the
entire audience for being in New York rather than at the
barricades." Mary didn't dispute that version of events --
she blamed her disoriented behavior on the gas -- but she
couldn't forgive Tuccille for his distortions.

"I seriously considered suing him," Mary told me, expressing
a rather un-anarchist thought.

"Other than the libel," I asked, "what did you think of the
book?"

"Oh, it's a scream," she said. "It's one of the funniest
things I've read."

Mary moved from Ann Arbor to Lansing, and also briefly to
Tucson, where she worked for the anarchist paper The Match!;
around 1970, after she came back to Michigan, a friend in
the Windy City told Fish that "there's always work in
Chicago." And so they moved there, and ended up working for
the Wobblies. It wasn't a big organization, but it was
bigger than it had been just a few years earlier, when the
local branch couldn't produce a quorum of seven members for
three months straight; there was an influx of younger
activists and fresh causes, including an IWW-assisted civil
disobedience campaign that blocked one of Chicago's urban
renewal schemes.

Frohman went to work in the national office, while Fish
wrote for the union paper. "The Wobblies would organize job
shops that nobody else would touch," Fish remembers. "A
machine shop of five guys had written the UAW, begging them
to organize them. The UAW thought this wasn't worth their
time, and as a joke they passed it on to the Wobblies. And a
good job we did, too." The union organized taxi drivers,
movie ushers, reporters for underground newspapers, even the
people who worked for cooperatives: "Little shops. The odd
shops. And what's more, we'd strike for things that other
unions wouldn't think of. Not just wages and bennies, but
working conditions."

Fish was also acquiring some fame in the science-fiction
community, wherein she wrote fan fiction and sang futuristic
"filk" songs. Mary wasn't very interested in fandom -- more
on that later -- but she was a singer and a guitarist, and
she was a part of Fish's band, the DeHorn Crew. In one of
those deeply strange moments of cultural mixing, the DeHorn
Crew was both the Chicago IWW's house band and a filk
outfit, and some of its repertoire appeared in Wobbly
publications. And so it was that the nation's most militant
labor organization, the brotherhood of Big Bill Haywood and
Joe Hill, came to publish the lyrics of "Run, Cthulhu, Run,"
a Lovecraftian parody of the bluegrass standard "Molly and
Tenbrooks."

The IWW hall also hosted an anarchist discussion group. The
participants included Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson,
two Playboy staffers who were writing the comic cult novel
Illuminatus! Mary, for whatever it's worth, believed she was
the basis for the book's fortune-telling character Mama
Sutra. Shea, alas, isn't alive to confirm or deny that, and
Wilson tells me he doesn't remember Mary; Fish doubts that
the story is true. Oh, well.

I mentioned that Fish had written fan fiction. In Textual
Poachers, his landmark study of fan communities, MIT's Henry
Jenkins described Fish's anarchist-feminist Star Trek novel
The Weight as a "compelling narrative" that's "remarkable in
the scope and complexity of its conception, the precision of
its execution, and the explicitness of its political
orientation." Frohman didn't have much patience for Star
Trek or fan fiction, and grew disgusted when the household
started to contain not just Trekkie literature but Starsky
and Hutch fanzines. Inspired, angry, and hopped up on speed,
she started to write an epic parody of fan writing, in which
a villainous Starsky and Hutch attempt to infiltrate the IWW
in one of the great Chicago blizzards. I think the bubonic
plague was involved somehow as well.

Or something like that: It's been a while since she told me
the plot, and I never did get a chance to read the novel.
She had set aside the 700-page monster when she gave up
amphetamines and didn't return to it until after I'd left
Ann Arbor, but in 1998 I got an unexpected e-mail from her,
telling me she'd finally finished a draft of the book and
asking for editorial advice. There followed a mammoth
attachment that crashed my computer, and it wouldn't open
after I rebooted the machine; I asked her to resend it but
got no reply. (She was, I gathered, new to the Internet.) A
tiny press in Michigan -- in Lansing, maybe? -- was supposed
to publish the book; I don't know if it ever did. I hope so.
I'd like to read it someday.

There was, eventually, an acrimonious breakup, and in the
early '80s Leslie moved west while Mary returned to Ann
Arbor. It was there that I met her, first at that pizza
joint where she worked as a guard and then, more formally,
at her 44th birthday party. (Meredith, who had already known
Frohman for nearly a decade, had brought me along as a
date.) At 44, she could have passed for 60: Her days of
drink and drugs were behind her, and she wasn't getting
tear-gassed anymore, but she smoked heavily, ate poorly, and
coughed constantly.

But she was a lively woman, a spirited debater and a
raconteur, brimming over with stories of the old days and
with impromptu political rants. She wasn't exactly a
libertarian -- not the capitalist kind, anyway -- but she
had the same unwillingness to fit into any ordinary
political pigeonhole. Discuss the family or the workplace,
and she'd stake out a position well to the left of even Ann
Arbor's mainstream. But if the talk turned to taxes or guns,
she wouldn't be out of place at a militia meeting. We agreed
on enough to be friends, and we disagreed on enough for the
friendship to be interesting. Friendship was, in fact, her
highest ideal: She had told Meredith, in that '89 interview,
that "because the best relationships are voluntarily chosen,
the highest and purest relationship is friendship; there is
no one down and it's voluntary on both sides."

On Friday, June 3, 2005, Mary Frohman had a heart attack
while she waited for a bus. Her death wasn't a surprise, but
it was very sad news. "She practiced what she preached about
being a family of friends," Meredith remembers. "She took
care of people. She made sure that people were fed and
clothed, and when people were sick, she made sure that they
got attention." That wasn't a small feat, given the poverty
in which she and many of those friends lived. The revolution
she worked for never did come, but with the simple, radical
act of living by her principles, she helped create a small
island of the society she wanted to live in.

*The text originally read "a Chicago cop's .50 caliber
machine gun." While Frohman recalls the incident as
involving a machine gun, she did not specify that the person
holding it was a Chicago police officer.


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