Gloria Steinem Told A Joke
by Tom Manoff
This is an excerpt from Chase the White Horse: a political memoir of a family across an American century
The Joke – New York City 1967
“I heard Gloria Steinem tell a joke on T.V. about your father ,” my friend said as he walked into the Claremont Street apartment, a few months after
Lisa had left the place for Chicago.
“Gloria Steinem didn’t know my father,” I said.
“No, it was a joke that your mother, Lee Grant, told Gloria Steinem about your father.
“Lee Grant is not my mother. She was my stepmother,” I said. Why wouldn’t he remember who was who in my family? He’d known me for years, back when Lee was my step – mother, the wife of my father Arnold Manoff.
“Your stepmother, right.” But he continued as if my qualification meant nothing. He was unable to slow down the delivery of the joke about my father. He said it.
“Gloria Steinem said that Lee Grant said that first she’d married a communist and then she married a fascist and neither one took out the garbage.”
“Neither did Lee,” I said reflexively, ” our black maid took out the garbage.”
He laughed at his punchline, I laughed inwardly at mine. No point saying more. He heard the joke on television, and whatever was said on television becomes official. The joke about my father was a celebrity joke, words from the mouths of two famous people, (though today Lee’s fame is mostly forgotten, and she certainly never ever attained the iconic fame enjoyed rightly be Gloria Steinem.)
The appetite for celebrity creates new realities, erasing others, dissolving even shared memories among families and friends.
The joke hurt.
It was tough to hear anything dismissive about my father. Arnold Manoff, a blacklisted writer who died of a heart attack at 50 only a few years earlier.
My father wrote for half his life through his early death under “fronts, “ not his real name.
As a blacklisted writer, Arnold Manoff was in a real sense nameless. And in Lee’s joke, Daddy had no name again. He was just “the communist.”
As others in the early 60’s from our circle of communist families had done, Lee Grant came back from the blacklist to act under her real name. Many blacklisted writers lived long enough to write under their real names and see their names restored to their scripts. But not my father. Arnie Manoff lived long enough to see his ex-wife get off the blacklist, while he still wrote under his last front, “Joel Carpenter.”
Nameless daddy. Blacklisted, and now “joke-listed, “ a set-up man for Lee Grant and Gloria Steinem on T.V. He wouldn’t have liked that. I didn’t like it. My loyalty for Daddy has always been strong when it came to his scripts and his name. I am a Manoff, too.
Lee never made an effort to restore my father’s name to his scripts after he died. I would do that in 1993 with the help Robert Siegel at NPR, and my family stopped speaking to me for years because of it. And I’m off my family guest list again for writing the truth about my brother’s death. Lee had a part in that and my sister Dinah too.
Nothing to be done here. Truth is the truth. Let’s just tell it. Love is a deep truth. Blood is love sometimes. But blood is always truth.
Lee’s joke was funny because she’s funny, and in the broader cultural context, the message of the joke has truth. Lee’s joke has become part of official feminist lore, as it should. Arnold Manoff was an abusive man to Lee, and also to my mother Marjorie Jean McGregor (his third wife.)
Daddy was famous as a womanizer. Once in Hollywood the communist party called him before a Stalinist- style committee on charges of womanizing. He got off. Daddy had charm and smarts. He wasn’t brave in the traditional way. He was absent when anything really dangerous (a war, for example) was going on. But he could handle any political fight. A committee ? Christ, Daddy lived for that kind of thing !
My father’s worst history with women was with my mother. When she moved the our small family (my mother, brother Mikey and me) to New York to be near him, Daddy refused to support her. He (and by consent his new wife Lee Grant) kept my mother and us kids poor. Mikey and I lived in slums for a time. That was a tough time, especially for Mikey. The tenement in Hell’s Kitchen.He was always scared.
As the older brother by 13 months, I took care of him. And with my mother working all day, I was responsible for us until she came home. Long days then for Mikey and I. I was in Kindergarten. He was in whatever came before that. Mikey once peed in his pants at school and the teacher called me in. I took us both home early, embarrassed and waited for hours at out apartment door (had no key) from my mother to come home. It was a long time, those hours at the door waiting for Marjorie Jean.
Lee talked about her cooperation with my father’s economic abandonment of my mother when I wrote the music for Lee’s first documentary for HBO 1986. She said that Daddy’s “plan” was keeping my mother poor,so that he and Lee would get us kids. Lee talked rthen about helping with my book which would tell the real history of my mother, Marjorie Jean McGregor.
That offer fell a part a few years later. We’re not friends, Lee and I, her last words spoken to me in 1993 about my book were quite clear: “Fuck you, Tommy. I don’t care what you write.”
Anyone who knows Lee’s career knows that her suffering during the blacklist is a central issue. The story goes that when called before HUAC in the early 50’s, Lee was asked to name one name — her husband’s, my father, Arnold Manoff.
Daddy had already been named many times by informers. HUAC was just exacting blood. Lee refused (true) to name Daddy and became blacklisted for it. She became a HUAC blacklist martyr. That was the story. And it was partially true.
But during their bitter divorce , my father told Mikey and me that Lee named him to HUAC to get off the blacklist in 1961.
I have lived with Daddy’s words for many years — he died Feb, 10, 1965. The issue was never resolved.
What had really happened with Lee and the committee ? It was clear that she had made some kind of “deal” while Daddy was still alive.
She spoke openly of meeting with Washington insiders and celebrities in the Fall of 1964, a few monthes before Arnie died. Had she really named him ?
Just as I wanted to know and write about the real history of the McGregors and Sam Fisher (see opening of the book), I wanted to understand and write about the full pattern of Lee and the committee, of a wife who, ieven in divorce, could name a husband to the House Unamerican Activities Committee.
Daddy could have been lying about Lee. They were vicious and abusive to each other during that divorce in terrible ways. What was worse ? A father who lied about his ex-wife informing on him before HUAC, or a step-mother who really did it ?
Chase the White Horse is my search for answers for what happened to my family and me beyond what we were told and beyond the official sanitized history, as told especially by the Left.
I have always known that betrayal is a constant pattern in my family.
Betrayal is part of the human pattern. But is it an inevitable for all humankind? What ancient myth tells that joke ?
Lee’s story has become part of official feminist lore, as it should. And Arnold Manoff, who who kept my mother poor , is finally doing his bit for feminism as Gloria Steinem’s unnamed communist. That’s fair. He owes us all that much. And even Daddy might have laughed, if the story were about another man.
I miss Arnie Manoff, my father, dead in his coffin now almost 50 years. He was not without charm.