Barbara Garson came to Berkeley from New York in 1962. She was ours for seven years. She left with fame in her pocket as a result of the success of her satirical play, MacBird. This is an review of those seven years.
Garson and her then-husband, Marvin, honeymooned in Cuba after the triumph of the revolution in January 1959. They supported the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, founded in 1960 by two CBS reporters, Robert Taber and Richard Gibson. Garson supported the goals but wasn’t naive — she saw the FPPC as a front for the Young Socialist Alliance, a Trotskyist youth group of the Socialist Workers Party. At its zenith, the YSA had 1,434 members.
When she and Marvin arrived in Berkeley, they had seen Operation Abolition, a short film produced by the House Committee on Un-American Activities documenting demonstration and rioting during the San Francisco hearings in May 1960. The film was produced in an attempt to discredit the protesters at the HUAC hearings. Operation Abolition was shown around the country during 1960 and 1961. It was clumsy propaganda at best and it did more to build the young movement than to demonize it as Communist-inspired. Berkeley became a beacon and a magnet, the place to inspire and the place to go for young people feeling the awakening of the political forces that would shape the ’60s. It was a draw for Garson, and it was a draw for others.
Garson enrolled at Cal with a major in history, focusing on classical history. Swept up by the many political groups in Berkeley, she dropped out of the Young Socialist Alliance. She says, “I got to know San Francisco through demonstrations.” I
n 1960, grassroots black organizations and students from UC Berkeley’s CORE Chapter began to pressure local Bay Area companies to hire more minority employees. Their tactics were based on those of the southern civil rights movement — well-coordinated non-violent protests paired with an offer of negotiations over jobs.
Beginning in late 1963, Berkeley students conducted marches in Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley and Richmond. Garson was very involved. Garson was all in. She demonstrated. She went to meetings. She spoke. She edited the Free Speech Newsletter. She worked with David Lance Goines and others printing it.
On Oct. 26, 1984, Garson, and several hundred members of the CORE chapter, picketed the White Citizens Council at their first meeting in Northern California. It surprises us today to learn that Alameda County had a chapter of the overtly racist White Citizens Council.
On Dec. 4, 1964, Garson was arrested as part of the Sproul Hall sit-in and taken to Santa Rita jail. Garson explains what happened at Santa Rita with her and her friend Anita Medal: “The courts set million-dollar appeal bail bonds for the FSM supporters after they were convicted. To test the legality of such high bails for first offense trespassing, Antia Medal and I went directly to jail to force a quick habeas corpus decision. We lost the case. But we were having so much fun in Santa Rita prison that we both decided to stay and serve out our full sentences right then rather than appeal or pay fines. It was such a relief. It was wonderful. There was somebody taking care of you. You had free time, no schedule, no work. It was a holiday. It was better than life at home.”
In 1965 came what the press leapt to call the Filthy Speech Movement — students and non-students pushing the limits of free speech by demanding the right to use profanity at will. Garson saw it all as a conundrum: “It was a terrible trap. Some felt the Free Speech Movement had to defend the arrested man. Free speech is free speech. But most believed we should let it pass. We were worried that it would obscure what we really stood for. Besides, if we entered a battle on an issue that so divided us, the FSM would be weak, giving [Clark] Kerr the signal to roll back everything we’d won.”
In Garson’s eyes, this led to the dissolution of the Free Speech Movement.
“I don’t think Mario cared much about the right to use four letter words. But he was distressed that we, himself included, should be making decisions based on what fights we could ‘afford’ to take on. If the FSM couldn’t afford to loose, perhaps the larger movement couldn’t afford the FSM. We must disband, we decided, and let younger people (most of us were over 20) launch future battles unfettered. I agreed. But let me confess to more ignoble motives. We were tired: we had lived totally public lives for ten months; the private was so alluring. So for high-minded, low-minded and just pure lazy reasons, we officially disbanded the Free Speech Movement. The only structure left is a more recently formed archives and reunion committee.”
For the one-year anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Garson wrote a play for two puppets (Mario Savio and Chancellor Kerr) called Mario and the Magician. It was performed on the steps of Sproul Hall, and ended with several thousand students snake-dancing through Sproul Hall. Garson was stunned by the response.
“I’ve never had another theatrical success like that. Indeed I’ve never had another moment of power and glory like that in all my life. The drama worked because I knew the crowd, and we knew ourselves. No matter what the newspapers wrote about ‘Berkeley Rebels,’ we FSMers were as naïve as that awkward Styrofoam puppet. Yes, some of us had been to places where civil-rights workers and grape strikers were arrested, beaten and even killed. But we still couldn’t believe that our own university officials would try to deceive and actually lie to us. Being lied to by those folks in locus parentis was the most radicalizing thing that happened to most students on the Berkeley campus that year. It’s what motivated us back into action, time and again. We grew older, but not wiser enough, thank goodness, to give up our efforts to change the world.”
For the next year, Garson withdrew somewhat from the fray. She and about 30,000 others participated in the Vietnam Day Committee’s (VDC) 36-hour teach-in on May 21-23, 1965. Dr. Benjamin Spock, Norman Mailer, Norman Thomas, Alan Watts, Bob Moses, Dick Gregory, Mario Savio, Phil Ochs and I.F. Stone were among the well-known who spoke.
In October 1967, Garson took part in a VDC march that was planned to go from Berkeley to the Army Induction Center in Oakland. Oakland police formed a line at the Berkeley-Oakland border and refused to let the Berkeley marchers enter Oakland. The Oakland police then allowed pro-war Hells Angels to maraud into the Berkeley protesters. Attorney Bob Treuhaft, who represented the Berkeley marchers, asked Oakland Police Chief Charles Gaines to control the Hells Angels. Gaines answered, ‘They have their constitutional rights.”
And, in the middle of all that, came MacBird. Garson had tried to get the leaders of the VDC teach-in to let her have a skit performed. It didn’t happen — the theater group fell through and she had differences with Jerry Rubin who was one of the leaders of the VDC. She kept at it.
“I discovered that I loved writing in iambic pentameter. Things just fit in. It is one of the greatest sources of pride in my life.”
The conceit was Shakespeare’s MacBeth recast with President Kennedy and President Johnson.
She explains the original idea: “During the Free Speech Movement I was at a big rally. I made a slip of the tongue and referred to Lady Bird Johnson as Lady MacBird. Then the whole thing just clicked.”
The play is often seen as an indictment of Johnson and his possible role in the Kennedy assassination. Garson disputes this. “This play wasn’t anti-LBJ, and it didn’t seriously suggest that he had President Kennedy killed. What I saw was that the Kennedy family and Johnson had the same politics, yet the Kennedy men were considered so beautiful and Johnson was considered so ugly. Why was that? My ultimate message was — let us on the Left not jump on the Democratic party bandwagon so quickly and easily.”
“As it evolved from a skit to a play, I sold hundreds of thousands of copies, more than half a million,” Garson continued. “The wonderful illustrations are by my fellow Berkeley FSMer Lisa Lyons.”
The play was never seriously performed in Berkeley, going straight to New York, where it opened at the Village Gate in 1967 with a cast including Stacey Keach, William Devane, Clevon Little and Rue McClanahan. There were plans to take MacBird on the road, but the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 put the brakes on that so it was not produced in many cities.
The critics were boffo. Dwight MacDonald in the New York Review of Books said that it was “the funniest, toughest-minded, most ingenious political satire I’ve read in years.” Robert Brustein wrote in The New Republic that “it will probably go down as one of the brutally provocative works in the American theater as well as one of the most grimly amusing.” He called Garson “an extraordinarily gifted parodist.” Life magazine, in its March 17, 1967 issue, told America that “a young housewife, Barbara Garson” had written a “little skit that grew too big for its britches” and had become “one of the oddest wonders of the American stage.”
So there she was, not yet 30 years old, a superstar. Garson left Berkeley right after the 1969 Memorial Day March in support of People’s Park.
“With the National Guard occupying Berkeley, it felt like the funeral of People’s Park.”
She moved Tacoma, Washington, to work in anti-war GI coffee house. She was tired of the cult of personality and the MacBird fame. The coffee house was named the Shelter Half. It operated at 1902 Tacoma Ave. from 1968 to 1974 and served as an anti-war headquarters, publishing underground anti-war newspapers, organizing boycotts, connecting civilian activists with local GIs, and leading peace marches.
Garson moved back home to New York in 1974 and has stayed there since. She wrote other plays and non-fiction – a series of books describing American working lives at historical turning points. These books, including All the Livelong Day and the Electronic Sweatshop, document the historical trend we have come to call “inequality.” She has remained a dedicated social activist working for peace and freedom and justice and equality.
Garson has been back to Berkeley a few times.
“At one point, it seemed like Telegraph Avenue was a teenage slum. Free speech now had been appropriated by vendors and religion and more recently an occasional right winger using Berkeley as a prop.” She still has many friends in Berkeley and enjoyed her recent visit for the FSM reunion.
Garson lived in Berkeley at an extraordinary time and was fully engaged in a series of history-changing movements. We were lucky to have had her with us.
Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,000 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-plus-year resident muses on what it all means. A longer and more idiosyncratic version of this post may be seen at Quirky Berkeley.