What a Literary Left-Wing Legend Left Behind

Frances Goldin was my friend for nearly 20 years, and my wife’s friend and mentor for 45. She died in May 2020, just short of her 96th birthday, and short of New York’s Gay Pride Parade, which didn’t happen anyway, because of COVID-19. 

For decades, Fran carried her sign, “I adore my lesbian daughters: Keep them safe,” written in gracious script, enhanced with glitter, to the march. She had two, who had left their New York birthplace for California and upstate. But whoever went to the march with her could be one of her lesbian daughters for the day. She stood on the side and later sat in her wheelchair, her hair a radiant purple. People rushed up to embrace her, weeping, wishing their parents could express such wholehearted public approval of them. Until a few years ago, she would offer to call their parents, tell them what a wonderful son or daughter they had. 

When someone dies, disassembling their home with others is a chance to reminisce. We share memories of their cooking associated with particular bowls, perhaps, as people take those bowls home to savor the memories, or wrap them in newspaper for the thrift shop. I remember the power of a supportive community of friends around me when I took apart my mother’s apartment, decades ago. 

Fran, a meticulous planner of events and activities, had told us that $500 should be used to cover food for memorial gathering in her Lower East Side apartment, where people could take memorabilia and items they wanted or needed or that she had designated for them, while celebrating her life. A potluck shiva. One last time of sitting in her collection of folding chairs, reclaimed from her old boyfriend’s apartment when he died, used for so many meetings. 

When someone dies, disassembling their home with others is a chance to reminisce… But there has been no such gathering.

But there has been no such gathering. People came alone in masks for over a month to help Fran’s East Coast daughter and her wife sort and distribute. Joyce and I came nearly weekly to help. The apartment held layers of her life and work. At first, it was as though she could be back any minute, explaining the photos – raising her fist at demonstrations for fair, affordable housing or at Occupy Wall Street; her posters to free Mumia abu Jamal, the framed newspaper clippings showing her at the opening of the Frances Goldin Senior Residence, a new building named to honor her decades of activism in favor of good, affordable housing. She could offer a pink or yellow button from the heaps of Tax the Rich, or Keep My Muslim Neighbors Safe pins she commissioned and gave out – in large, clear type, because as she said, people have to be able to read them. She could come back and tell you about her clients’ books on the shelves, from her years as a literary agent – by Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, or Marty Duberman. 

But soon, through all our separate efforts, the apartment lost its shape. The chairs and sofas still molded to our bodies, as we remembered them from years of sitting to plan and organize, but as plants gradually left for new homes new gaps in the great window of flourishing greenery revealed rusty trays, the stagecraft of grow-lights. Friends came by and took a purple hat or scarf from the wall for remembrance. Fran started wearing purple in the 1990s after she read Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning,” which begins, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.” She added a streak of Manic Panic purple to her already dramatic white hair around the year2000. Her hair went fully purple with the help of one of her aides, perhaps two years before her death. 

Friends took protest signs from her large stock, until a cousin gathered the rest for a memorial project. I didn’t see where the lavender cloth signs she pinned to her back – “Dump Trump,” “No War,” “Impeach Bush,” went. Soon the small “I’m 95 and Mad as Hell”––handy to carry, pasted on a cardboard fan, with the number revised every year after 87––was gone.

Fran’s signs continue to be timely. Joyce hung “Disarm Racist Police” on her bicycle. Nine-year-old Zuri, daughter of Fran’s client and friend Staceyann Chin, and now our granddaughter by invitation, carried the always needed “No Housing, No Peace” to a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Staceyann packed most of Fran’s books for a Black women’s community library in Chicago, a cause Fran would have celebrated. Papers from her life as an organizer are headed to NYU’s Tamiment Library, where anyone can enter the otherwise restricted building to look at them. 

The reminiscing has been stretched out, a series of drips, not a pool to explore. The stories are truncated. . Frances taught Joyce to cut hair. Packing up her barbering scissors, there’s no one to ask whether Fran learned that skill just to cut her husband’s hair when they were low on money because he was blacklisted. Did she already know how? I don’t know who took the chair she sat in when a Cuomo campaign staffer phoned with a pitch, and she precisely enunciated, “I’m 94 years old. You can tell your boss that I don’t support Andrew Cuomo because he’s a whore.” 

When did she start saying that when his name came up? She’d have had something to say about the COVID19-induced Cuomo adulation–and his subsequent downfall. No chance to talk over the container she used for bringing deviled eggs to parties. Did anyone actually like them? At an in-person gathering, everyone would learn the story of the container, take those newly flavored memories home with them. Some would become part of the history of the Lower East Side movement. 

Funerals are capacious and miscellaneous. Anyone can go who feels a connection to the deceased, however slight. We’ve talked about a memorial gathering later, when gatherings are possible again. Fran was never one to be lost in a crowd, but by the time we gather in person, there may be many other losses to mourn. And we lost Fran over a long period, as declined over time. Yet even a year before her death, she knew all the words to “Lift Every Voice.” Until a month before her death, she could still rouse to a singing of the Internationale on the phone. She remembered the lyrics, though in the last few years she’d reverted to the version of the chorus from her youth, “the international soviet shall be the human race,” instead of the way she’d sung it for decades, “the international working class shall be the human race.” Throughout, always the optimist, she came down hard on “For justice thunders condemnation:/A better world’s in birth!”

Lately, I imagine that somehow ordinary life is going on somewhere else––that emails I receive come from offices where coworkers are popping in and out, bending over one another’s desks. For a blink, I imagine a gathering at Fran’s.  There’s always the hope that taking something of Fran’s will keep her with us, get us through the sadness.  As for us, we have been entrusted with “I Adore My Lesbian Daughters: Keep Them Safe.” The 3-foot wide, 2-foot tall placard is stapled to a stick, encased in an old purple sock to make it easier to hold, and maybe to hide the wooden stick, illegal at New York demonstrations. The other side reads “Difference Enriches Us All––a Proud Parent of Lesbians.” For a while, the front said only “I Adore My Lesbian Daughter,” then Daughters when the second one came out. When she took it to an LGBTQ march on Washington, she wanted to include a demand, because a demonstration should always make a demand. So she added: “Keep Them Safe.” 

It was our job to deliver this historic sign to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, which occupies a Park Slope row house. I first reverently visited the Archives when it was in the maid’s room of an Upper West Side apartment. It sprawled into the bedrooms, and then moved. It holds organizational records, shelves of 1950s pulp novels with lurid covers, memorabilia of lesbian bars, photos of dykes on bikes, of demonstrations, and intimate diaries. In the files and shelves are accounts of parents committing daughters to mental hospitals or kicking them out of the house for being a lesbian. No one carried a sign affirming the lives and choices of the women who wrote those accounts. 

The caretaker, whose name was DYV, gave us instructions. The foyer of the building has become a socially distanced airlock. We texted, and she opened the front door and closed the second one. We left Fran’s sign there, amid the hand sanitizer bottles and wipes. After we left, DYV gave it its place in history.

Ellen Gruber Garvey is the author of Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2013). Her work has appeared on CNN, in The Forward, The Washington Post, and the New York Times Disunion column.

All photos copyright/courtesy of the author.