Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Two Reds Scare

A small paperback called RED CHANNELS was published in 1950.

Subtitled "The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television," the book fed into the era's "Red Scare" hysteria -- the belief that communist sympathizers were infiltrating American society. RED CHANNELS listed over 150 actors, directors, and writers believed to be "subversives"; many would eventually be blacklisted by the entertainment industry.

Among the writers listed in RED CHANNELS were Lillian Hellman, Irwin Shaw, and Arthur Miller. No children's authors were included, though a couple of the mentioned writers -- such as Louis Untermeyer and Langston Hughes -- had published the occasional volume for kids.

This doesn't mean, however, that children's books were immune to McCarthy era scandals.

1950 also saw the publication of the picture book THE TWO REDS by Will and Nicolas.

Will was William Lipkind, an anthropoligist, and Nicolas was Nicolas Mordvinoff, an artist who left Russia as a boy and, after stops in France and Tahiti, arrived in New York in 1946.

The two men met through Mr. Lipkind's wife, who worked for the New York Public Library. Over a drink, Will and Nicolas discussed writing a picture book together -- though they had no idea what to write about. At that point Nicolas saw a red cat on the windowsill and said, "Let's do a book about that." Will said the story needed something more. Later that night Nicolas saw a boy with red hair on the street and suggested he be added to the story as well. The result was THE TWO REDS.

This mild story of a lonely city boy and a neighborhood cat is distinguished by Nicholas's loose black-and-white illustrations, judiciously -- but vibrantly -- splashed with red and yellow.

When THE TWO REDS was published, a window dresser at New York's famed F.A.O. Schwarz, whom Will later remembered as a "nice young man," devoted the store's Fifth Avenue windows to displaying the book.

Almost immediately the president of F.A.O. Schwarz demanded that the display be taken down.

A book called THE TWO REDS?

Illustrated by an artist with a Russian name?

Nyet, nyet!!!

The window display was taken down.

But people continued to whisper that the book was subversive.

And THE TWO REDS would eventually be banned in Boston.

Fortunately, the TWO REDS controvery never exploded onto the national consciousness; Will and Nicolas were never called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (A silly thought? Not so silly when you consider that, during the early fifties the Cincinnatti Reds even had to change their name to the "Cincinnatti Redlegs" to avoid the stain of communism.) One of the factors that may have kept the controversy from boiling over is the support this book received from the children's literary community. In MINDERS OF MAKE-BELIEVE, Leonard Marcus reports that Louise Seaman Bechtel wrote in her newspaper column, "The publication of this book restores one's faith in the experimental daring of American publishers."

And Fritz Eichenberg said, "It takes great courage, for reasons too numerous and obvious to mention, to name a children's book THE TWO REDS."

"Or to publish one," Leonard Marcus adds, in a nod to Harcourt publisher Margaret K. McElderry.

THE TWO REDS went on to be named a Caldecott Honor -- an acknowledgement that, when all was said and done, THE TWO REDS was simply a good book.

Of course it wasn't communist propaganda.

And of course the display set up by the that "nice young man" at F.A.O. Schwarz wasn't a political statement, but an acknowledgement of the book's excellence.

That window decorator clearly knew his stuff.

Of course he did.

He was twenty-two year old Maurice Sendak.


skynyc said...

Interesting that the spine of the first edition of The Two Reds was blank. No title, no author/illustrator, no publisher. I wonder if this was intentional. (I also wonder if they added any words for later printings.)

Anonymous said...

And now you know...the rest of the story. Thanks.

Gene in Tacoma

Jil Casey said...

How interesting, thank's for this post. I have included a link to it on a post I did on a story by Will and Nicolas.

Julia said...

Thanks for the post! I enjoyed the story. I am reading my way thru the Caldecotts and was doing research about this book. Very interesting, I enjoy the extra stories like the one you have provided.

Paula said...

thank you so much for sharing the history of this book...