A Proud Red Diaper Baby
by Nora (Straus) Albert
I was six when the McCarthy era hit our family the hardest. My father, Dudley Straus, a much-admired English instructor, was teaching a class at Queens College. A messenger interrupted the class to deliver a note requesting that my father report to the provost’s office immediately. When he got there he was summarily fired. I’m guessing that to some extent he saw this coming – that is I hope he did. It’s very hard for me to bear the thought that he didn’t see it coming. Either way he was a father of two, a World War II veteran suddenly unemployed and for the foreseeable future unable to provide for his family. Other neighbors, mostly teachers, were experiencing the same fate.
My parents met at Queens College where my father was a teacher and my mother a student. Ironically after coming to NY at age eight my mother, Helen Sullivan Straus, lived in Phipps Garden Apartments on 39th Avenue in Sunnyside. The daughter of Irish Catholic parents, she went to St. Sebastian’s Elementary School and went on to attend Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, a school for girls who whose academic promise was above average. I remember clearly her saying that her political views were not because “capitalism was moribund” but rather because the principles embodied in Marxism were morally right.
After my father was fired there was an ocean of anxiety swirling around our family and seeping into our everyday lives. Accounts of the firings were showing up in the newspapers and our phone line was bombarded with hate calls. I was only six at the time but my brother, Peter Straus, was ten - old enough to understand and process much of what was going on. The details explained to me were blessedly sparse. I knew my father had been fired – the explanation was that his employer asked questions about his personal life that he felt were none of their business. I was indignant – to the extent that a child can be – harboring the belief that the questions must have been about sex – the one area of life I knew was private. I knew for sure that people should not have to answer questions about such a private part of a their life.
My brother and I spent much of that summer at camp. I think my parents felt it would be good for us to be away from anxiety and struggles as they looked for ways to address their new circumstances. I spent a month in the summer of 1954 at Higley Hill - a camp in Vermont where everybody shared the values of my family. Looking back, I think I was a bit on the young side to be away from home for so long but felt safe surrounded by people who knew what was happening with my family and provided a safe and loving environment for me.
My father had to find a job and my mother had to look for work as well. My father was willing to take any job and with the help of friends worked and tried several including delivering yearbooks to schools, working at an insurance agency, teaching at a Yeshiva. Ultimately he was hired as a writer at Medical Tribune. He stayed there until he retired. My mother also got a job at the Phelps-Stokes Fund and never went back to being a stay-at-home mom. She eventually went back to Queens College to finish her degree and then went on to graduate school at Columbia to earn a Master’s Degree of Social Work.
The laws that were the basis of his firing were overturned as unconstitutional in the 1960's, and in 1982 he, along with colleagues Oscar Shaftel and Vera Shlakman won a major settlement from the city. In 2003 Queens College hosted an exhibit McCarthyism at Queens College 1947-1955, installed in the Rotunda of the Benjamin Rosenthal Library at Queens College. A digital version of the exhibit can be found at http://qcmccarthyism.blogspot.com/
The Lehman Brothers factor
I take great pleasure in the fact that Lehman Brothers had a part to play in the survival of my family and others struggling to make ends meet. My grandmother, Nellie Sullivan, was the manager of the partners' dining room at Lehman Brothers. Every Friday she would arrive at our house via limousine with bags of groceries and gourmet leftovers from the Lehman Brothers dining room. I’m glad I didn’t know this at the time because it would have been unsettling to me. The Lehman Brothers chef was French so our leftovers included things like apple tarts and crème brulee.
Nora Straus Albert lived in Sunnyside until 1968. She received her BA from City College, her BS in Nursing and MA in Psychiatric Nursing from Rutgers. Married to Ken Albert in 1968, they raised two daughters in Englewood,NJ. They now live in Northampton, MA near their grandchildren.