Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Friend Stuart, Nelson Algren, The Haymarket Martyrs and My Folding Chairs

A few weeks ago, the cover story in the Chicago Reader was about the Nelson Algren memorial fountain that's in Wicker Park. The article focused on the complaints of a Polish-American guy who thought that the fountain should have honored the high number of Polish-Americans that have long inhabited the neighborhood. I disagreed with him. I'm all for honoring Polish-Americans or anybody else who's contributed to the rich cultural heritage of Wicker Park. But Nelson Algren was a great author, and an important part of Chicago's literary heritage and deserved the honor. He was a long-time resident of Wicker Park, where he hung out with his friends, the writer Simone de Beauvoir and her boyfriend, French philospher Jean-Paul Sartre-- and Stuart McCarrell. I disagreed with the gentleman in the article largely it was Algren's-- and my friend-- Stuart McCarrell who was responsible for the tribute to Algren.

That Algren tribute was what led, indirectly, to my meeting Stuart. Having successfully gotten a monument to Algren, my group figured that he might help us navigate the intricacies of getting statue honoring the Lincoln Brigade erected in Chicago.

For several years, I was co-chair of a Chicago group dedicated to preserving the memory of veterans of the "Lincoln Brigade," Americans who'd gone to Spain in the late thirties to try to save Spain's Republic from a fascist takeover that had been supported by Hitler and Mussolini. About 3,000 Americans had gone there to fight; nearly half of them died there. Their heroics were immortalized by the dispatches of Hemingway, Dos Passos and other writers who covered the war as journalists.

In the course of researching the possiblity of getting a Lincoln Brigade marker in Chicago, our group discovered that Eddie Balchowsky, a Lincoln Brigade vet, had been buried in an unmarked pauper's grave; he'd been indigent when he died in 1989. His friend Stuart McCarrell had had Eddie's ashes interred at Forest Home Cemetary (formerly Waldheim Cemetery) in Forest Park, Illinois. Forest Home is the resting place of many leftists, including Emma Goldman, Claude Lightfoot, Ben Reitman and of course most of the Haymarket Martyrs. There is a monument to them there. The picture at the top of the post is of me today in front of the monument to them at Forest Home Cemetery.

For most Americans, the significance of the Haymarket incident is little known. In the 1880's, Chicago was the center of the movement to bring about an eight hour workday. There were many labor and political activists in Chicago, many of them (though not all) German immigrants.

On May 4, 1886, there was a peaceful rally near Haymarket Square (where Des Plaines Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway meet now). The mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, Sr. had ordered the police to stay away-- he had, in fact, stopped by the demonstration. But Chicago's police chief, widely believed to be on the payroll of Joseph Medill and other powerful capitalists, ordered the police to harass the demonstrators. What happened next will be forever debated in history. What is known is that a bomb was thrown, killing Chicago policeman Mathias Degan. Six more policemen and four workers were killed-- all by police bullets, and many more were injured.

Eight men were rounded up and tried for the bombing. The eight-- August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oscar Neebe-- were proven to have been nowhere near the bombing, and almost certainly had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, they were tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Two, Fielden and Schwab, had their sentences commuted to life sentences by Illinois Governor James Oglesby. Lingg committed suicide the night before the execution by exploding a dynamite blasting cap in his mouth.

The others were hanged on November 11, 1887. As he went to the scaffold, August Spies stated the words that have now become legend:

"The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today."

Those words are inscribed now at the base of the monument.

The executions, undoubtedly influenced by Chicago's powerful capitalists, temporarily stopped the "Eight Hour Day" movement in its tracks, but the Haymarket Martyrs become heroes worldwide; May Day, May 1, is a day to honor them and the labor movement that has struggled to better the conditions of workers.

Lucy Parsons, the widow of Albert Parsons, spent the rest of her life as a political radical. Ironically, her husband Albert, had been a Confederate veteran from Texas; Lucy was of African, Mexican and Native-American ancestry. She's buried a few feet from the memorial.

I always kiddingly refer to Ms. Parsons as my "historical girlfriend." She was fiery, dedicated and quite beautiful. When I was student-teaching, I discovered that her final home was a couple of blocks from where I was living. Today, I couldn't resist getting a picture of myself with my historical girlfriend.

I think that Kim is okay with me having a historical girlfriend, as long as she's a dead historical girlfriend.

Anyway, back to my friend Stuart. This picture of Stu and I was taken about seven years ago at the monument. (Yes, that's me about 40 pounds heavier than I am now) Stu, Jeff, who is a relative of Eddie Balchowsky's, and I had driven out to Forest Home to check out the plot we were planning to purchase with the money we were raising for Eddie's grave and headstone. As I mentioned, the project had started when Lincoln Brigade vet Chuck Hall, whom I was co-chair with in the Lincoln Brigade group, and his wife Bobby had introduced me to Stuart.

Stuart had been successful in getting the Algren memorial built in Wicker Park. Stu and Algren had been friends. Stuart later told me about taking the el down to Comiskey Park with Algren to see the White Sox. Though they lived on the North Side, they considered the White Sox to be the more blue collar team, and regularly went to their games.

The project to get the grave and headstone for Eddie was epic, and sometimes surreal.

First, we had to raise the money. A big chunk of that came when legendary folksinger and activist Utah Phillips came to our rescue.

Yes, that's Utah Phillips. I'm to the right, and that's Stuart to the right of me. The guy to the lower right is Chuck Hall, the Lincoln Brigade vet I mentioned. Jeff had contacted Phillips, who was coming to town to perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music in November, 2000. My now-ex-wife Cynthia and I offered the use of our dance studio, the Flamenco Arts Center, as a venue. And Stuart offered the use of his folding chairs.

Stuart was a true Frederick Engels-- a lifelong leftist who was a successful businessman. Stuart had invented an electric cauterizing scalpel that was much less expensive than others on the market. His factory was in a building in Wicker Park, right at the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee and North Avenues. When we were trying to figure out seating at the concert, Stuart offered the use of the folding chairs he owned for his business. One afternoon, I took the station wagon I'd inherited from my late grandmother, and hauled a bunch of the chairs over to the studio.

The concert was a huge success. Our little studio was packed, thanks to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times. We didn't charge for it; instead, we soliticited donations, and raised most of the money that we'd eventually need for Eddie's grave and marker. We soon paid for the plot and began planning for the marker. Jeff, Stu and I took that trip out to Forest Home to check out the site. Stu showed us the unmarked grave that he'd placed Eddie Balchowsky's cremation urn in. He also showed us the plot he'd purchased for himself, within site of the Haymarket Monument, and, as it turned out, across the access road from Eddie's plot.

At a meeting, we decided that despite the fact that none of Eddie's family had participated in his burial-- Stu had taken care of Eddie's cremation and burial-- we needed to contact the next of kin in order to move Eddie's ashes.

Eddie Balchowsky was somewhat of a legend in Chicago. If you've ever seen the documentary The Good Fight, he's prominently featured in it. Eddie was a talented pianist. In Spain, his right arm was wounded so badly that it eventually had to be amputated. Eddie continued playing through his lifetime with only his left hand.

Eddie was a fixture in bohemian Chicago for decades. My father met him in the sixties when my family lived in Lincoln Park; Eddie was a friend of our next-door neighbor and landlord, the artist and architect Tristan Meineke. Eddie would drop by Tristan's art studio and sip martinis with him. Eddie loved the good life. He was talented, charming and quite the partier. He died with not a dime to his name.

With some detective work, we were able to contact his two kids. His older daughter lived in Northern California. At first it seemed like things were going to be fine. As our contacts were with her became more and more bizarre and strained, we realized that she was mentally ill. And she suddenly began to object to our moving his ashes.

We tried to explain to her that we were moving not a body, but ashes. And that the ashes were being moved about 200 feet.

That left us with a dilemma. Not only had we purchased the plot, but we'd also collected several thousand dollars for the marker.

Jeff came up with a solution. He did a little research and discovered that often in wars, when the body of the soldier had died was missing for various reasons-- a sailor who'd been buried at sea, soldiers and airmen who were MIA, etc.-- the families would erect a cenotaph. The cenotaph he proposed would be a thirty second walk from where Eddie's ashes were already buried. And this is what we did. I had plans with my son the weekend they unveiled the marker, but I made plans to eventually go by and see it.

In the meantime, Stu and I became good friends. He, like me, loved Macintosh computers. Whenever he had an issue with his Mac, he'd give me a call, and I'd drive over to his office to help him out. As thanks, he always took me out for dinner. I suspect he knew that I was broke, and that having dinner out was a rare treat. I loved talking to him. He'd done so much in his life-- political activism, hanging out with Nelson Algren and other interesting characters, running a successful business-- he was full of great stories.

In 2002, Cynthia and I split. I started working as a sixth grade teacher in Cicero, Illinois, not far from the Forest Home Cemetery. And one day, I opened up the Chicago Sun-Times and saw an article about my friend Stuart; it was an obituary.

I called Robert, the young guy who helped Stu run his company. He told me that he'd walked into Stu's office a couple of days before and discovered him dead at his desk. He'd had a massive stroke, and hadn't even had a chance to call for help. As I talked to Robert, it occurred to me-- the folding chairs. I asked Robert if I could drop the chairs, about a dozen of them, off sometime. He chuckled and said that actually they had about a hundred more. He didn't need them back. In fact, he said, if I knew anyone who wanted some folding chairs...

Eventually, I ran most of the folding chairs to Goodwill, along with other stuff from my basement. I saved a few of them for parties and other occasions.

Eventually, in 2003, I made it out to Forest Home to see Eddie's cenotaph and to visit Stuart's grave. I discovered that there wasn't yet a marker on Stuart's grave. I assumed that there would be one eventually.

Today, I had a rare day off of work. After my class this morning, I had a late breakfast, and ran out to Forest Home to get a picture of Eddie Balchowsky's cenotaph and to visit Stuart.

It was nice seeing the cenotaph that Stu, Jeff and I had successfully brought about. It was nice to know that it'll be there a hundred years from now, within sight of the Haymarket Monument, honoring Eddie. Somehow, it made it more special that it had a great-- and a little bit absurd-- story attached to it.

I looked around today for Stuart's headstone. His plot, I remembered, was near where we'd placed Eddie's cenotaph. Surely, four years later, they'd gotten it in place. I couldn't find it, and so went to the cemetery office to get directions to Stu's plot. I discovered, to my dismay, that there was no marker. The lady in the office looked him up and told me that no marker had been placed. She gave me a map, indicating where Stu was buried-- the plot nearest the road, next to Joseph Powers, who did have a marker.

I walked back down the access road and found where Stu is buried.

I was stunned and sad to realize that Stuart, who'd made sure that his friend Eddie got a grave marker, still did not have one.

Stuart was one of the most marvelously unique, spirited and interesting people I'd ever had the good fortune to meet. He was a person who lived for his beliefs, made the world a more interesting place and cared about the people in his life-- even after they'd died. I don't know why his family hasn't taken care of putting a marker on his grave-- he had no children, but had two sisters who survived him.

It appears that it'll be up to someone else to make sure he gets a marker on his grave, and that in all liklihood, it'll have to be me. I don't know how I'll do it, but somehow, I'm going to get a marker on his grave. If only to make him easier to find when I visit him.


Splotchy said...

In a weird way, this post itself is sort of a marker.

Nice story.

Erik Donald France said...

Yeah, this would make a good historical pamphlet. Epic!

I saw the Haymarket Martyrs' memorial and some of the others about nine years ago. Sort of stumbled on it looking at various cemeteries.

Great post!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Wow! One of the things I love about Chicago is how it is still such a small town, and how everything is still so connected. Your post demonstrates that.

dmarks said...

I hadn't thought about the Lincoln Brigade for a while, but I do recall that they were run by Stalin.

Quite an interesting post; I need to check your blog more often.

Johnny Yen said...



Cemeteries are fascinating places. I posted recently about a trip my stepdaughter and I took to Chicago's historic Graceland Cemetery-- a lot of old capitalists are buried there, as well as Mies van der Rohe, the fighter Jack Johnson.

I've heard Chicago called the "biggest small town in the world" more than once.

Thanks for stopping by.

Actually, though the Soviet Union had a hand in organizing the International Brigades, their control over them was minimal. One of the Soviet advisors to the Spanish army, I.G. Starinov published a book in the early nineties and discussed his role and that of the other Soviet advisors. At no time did the Soviets control the Spanish army.

Raena Balchowsky said...

~Despair Is No Longer An Option~

...........Change your train of thought; change the world..................

Exercising the will to change one’s thoughts deliberately is powerful exercise fit for any, and for every, moment........


Thinking clearly regarding one’s ideals and ideas of a moral universe is not doing nothing.........To the contrary, it is the powerful first effort toward focussed, effective action of any kind....

Never doubt that you are ‘exercising’ free will by choosing upbuilding in thought, word, or deed, rather than the opposite.... 

Why are we here?......Perhaps, to discover why we are here.......
When we have thought our way through to our selves, we will then know better what good work to do for others......
Meanwhile, simple service of any kind earns us our keep.......

 ............As we think, so we become.......

If we are to be useful stepping into the future, which is, after all, every next second, then we had better make our thoughts our own....If you think, wonder, or even suspect, that there is nothing you can something!

Addiction to negativity is the greatest danger, as it leads only to further delusion followed by more, and yet more, suffering.....

Upbuild, friends, with all your determined free will.....Upbuild...and please, courageously…

....................Strive On!.......................

Sincerely, and With Warmest Good Will,
Raena Balchowsky...
Eddie B's "mentally ill" daughter, here in glorious Northern California...

PS...I refused to move the ashes because:
Of all the people who "knew" Eddie, I am the one who actually knew what mattered....that, given the Choice, Eddie simply would not want his remains messed with....He had a sense of 'sacred ground', and furthermore, would very much have appreciated and treasured the tenderness and intimacy possible with each of those who choose to walk that 30-second distance to have a private visit..

PS#2... I know, too, that he absolutely would appreciate, enjoy, be cheered by and probably, be a wee bit startled by, the efforts and energies of so many friends and fans and fellow artists and vets, toward honoring his memory, as do I, and the entire (right down to the latest, great-great grandson) Balchowsky family, as well..

Thank you, Mr. Yen, for this most informative and interesting essay, and most especially, for your energy toward doing the good for my father in his beloved Chicago....It is because of these efforts of yours that I respectfully write to you now....

It will be 20 years, late in this coming November of 2009, since he departed from the company of his fellow travellers, and his body then fell off of that el platform..
This happpened the day after he returned to Chicago after having spent his last few months here in California with us...We have a noir family joke that he would have loved....that he went back because he had a train to catch...(He even left a pot of vegetable soup simmering on his stove...)

My sister, Liz, identified his body the following day, and movingly remarked to me that, while his body was shredded, his marvelous face was a vision of peace and serenity...He really had known for quite some time that this was coming soon.
Eddie is alive in our home, in our hearts, and in our lives, at all times, and in all ways.

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dczward said...


I just stumbled across your article. Great stuff, as I also knew Stuart from about 1986-1995. I lost touch with him, and was sad to hear about his death. I'd love to learn if you had any follow up about a marker for his grave, etc.

dugg said...

I had the great good fortune to hear Eddie play, and to work with Utah a number of times over the years....
it's a pleasure to read your stories about them...
all the best,

Milton Rogovin said...

Johnny/Friends, I'm hunting for information for a brief bio on Chicago playright and inventor Stewart McCarrell.

In 1994 I coauthored the booklet, The Day Will Come--its about the Haymarket Martyrs and the men and women buried (or ashes scattered) alongside the monument. Among others, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Eddie Balchowsky and Stewart McCarrell will be in the new online version.

Please help me gather info on Stu McCarrell.

Sincerely, Mark Rogovin

Joseph R. Lewis said...

I work with an Arts Advocacy group called The Underground Multiplex and we're working on a massive research project about Tristan Meinecke. Would you please contact me at as I would be very excited to discuss your recollections of being neighbors to Tristan Meinecke at his home on Cleveland, which we on the team affectionately refer to as 'The Jazz Castle'.