Ralph and Me

Joan Mellen’s former husband, Ralph Schoenman, died of complications of Parkinson’s disease on July 3. Here are her remarks at his memorial service. Ralph was the executive secretary of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell and the creator of the International War Crimes Tribunal against the war in Vietnam.

As Ralph would often open his talks, “Brothers and Sisters,” let me tell you about a magnificent human being, the Ralph Schoenman I knew. He was the sweetest most generous person, the kindest person I’ve ever met. His intellect was at genius level.

I met Ralph in London in 1967 at the “Dialectics of Liberation” conference, a slim dashing figure with spark ling hazel eyes, the unacknowledged head of the Left in England. He was mostly silent, modest, secure in his role. 

Ralph was kind to me at that first meeting; I was pathologically shy.  I was so shy that later in the presence of the celebrities who sought Ralph’s company I was silent. I remember dinners with film director Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, and even one at my house with Ralph’s Princeton classmate and friend the painter Frank Stella where I doubt that I spoke a single word. Ralph was patient and always understanding.

We were together for the next thirteen years. Married and apart, for the next 40 years we never lost sight of each other, until he was taken down by Parkinson’s disease this past July. We spoke on the telephone nearly every day. “What are all these telephone calls?” a rather stingy lover of mine demanded. Nothing could keep us apart.

I may have been socially damaged (Ralph never criticized me for this, only tried, slowly, to bring me out of my shell). But I had ambitions. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a film critic. 

Ralph set me on the task of collecting signatures for a petition protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  I called a long list of people. Tom Hayden said no. My PHD adviser, Irving Howe, wanted to know who else was signing this petition. He heard the name Jean Paul Sartre. Howe said no. “I don’t have to dance at every wedding,” he said.  

One day Ralph and I were at the Near East Library at Princeton University doing research on the Algerian war when he spied a notice on a bulletin board. “Japan and the Japanese,” it announced, an essay contest open to people in any country about how they viewed Japan and Japanese culture and identity. 

Swiftly Ralph took down the announcement and put it in his pocket. I was shocked, wasn’t that illegal? Within a week an essay I had written about the film director Akira Kurosawa had been sent off to the contest, and a few months later Ralph was on the telephone to a friend of his named Hirome Seki, who worked for the newspaper that sponsored the contest, the Mainichi Shimbun. When Seki replied, he was gleeful. My successes meant more to Ralph than his own. Yes, I was among the ten winners, the sole representative from the United States. 

For Ralph, the world was not a place to be feared, but encountered. It was Ralph’s credo, you had to speak up, take a stand, be heard. Life was not worth living otherwise. You might lose, a prospect Ralph never entertained on any subject, but, then again, you might win.

My prize was a research trip to Japan for a month. “I’m not going,” I said. Ralph began his campaign to get me to Japan slowly. We went to a gathering in NY at the Japan Society where Donald Richie, who had written the authoritative book on Kurosawa, was being honored.  Ralph stood behind, and I forced myself to talk to Richie. Had it not been for Ralph I would not have written six books about Japan, but there is more.

In Santa Barbara, where Ralph’s parents had retired, he found a Japanese woman who translated the interviews I did on my study tour of Japan. Then Ralph found a publisher, then Ralph telephoned luminaries to write blurbs. For my book about masculinity in American cinema, Ralph talked to the New York Knick’s basketball player Bill Bradley, and when Bradley telephoned, I was so astonished I thought this must be a hoax. 

We met actor James Earl Jones in his Philadelphia dressing room where he was playing Paul Robeson, and he gave us a quote about the treatment of black cinema in the book.  Ralph brought out the best in everyone. I was no longer the painfully shy person Ralph had met in London. He was proud of me. Later, he brought to my hospital room in New York his good friend, Dick Gregory who burned candles, ignoring the oxygen machines. I never felt alone.

Along the way, Ralph taught me how to be a better writer. He line edited every word I wrote, in his graceful handwriting. Sometimes I blanched. Mostly I incorporated his corrections, and there were many. Sometimes he imparted the advice of Bertrand Russell. Never begin a sentence with And or But. Never end a sentence with a preposition.

In London, Ralph had befriended the London representative of the Italian newspaper Paese Sera. When they exposed the CIA front, PERMINDEX, and that New Orleans CIA asset Clay Shaw, was on the board of directors. Ralph sent these papers to Jim Garrison in New Orleans. 

After the Shaw trial, Garrison invited us to New Orleans. Ralph did not brief me. I did not know that Garrison was district attorney of Orleans Parish. Or that three months earlier he had lost his big JFK assassination case. Garrison registered us at the Monteleone Hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson.” From that weekend I wrote my biography of Jim Garrison, “A Farewell to Justice.”

Garrison and Ralph were both talkers yet not a word was spoken about how Ralph had helped Garrison or what further needed to be done. We just sat in the center of the big room at Moran La Louisiane, the best restaurant in New Orleans, and happily spent the hours as comrades.

The most important of Ralph’s virtues was his abounding generosity, of spirit, of pocket. He was notorious for taking up the cause of political prisoners. Hearing of a situation, Ralph would be on the next plane at his own expense. This continued long after he could summon the assistance of Lord Russell. The black heads of state educated under colonialism, like Ralph’s friend Kwame Nkrumah, knew the name “Bertrand Russell.” Others did not. 

When Ralph sold Jim Garrison’s novel, “The Star Spangled Contract,” for $250,000, he refused to take the then customary 10 percent commission. Garrison, understanding Ralph, and the selfless person he was, insisted.

Ralph’s generosity was also personal. Whenever he drove to New York, he returned with a surprise gift for me: a blouse, a sweater, scarf, gloves, jewelry – all in good taste. My mother found herself entrapped in Florida with an abusive, mentally ill son. She called me, saying something uncharacteristic for her. “I’m miserable.” I called Ralph from whom I was separated at the time. He was on the next plane, and he remained in Florida until my brother was extracted from her home by the authorities. 

Did I mention Ralph’s physical no less than moral courage? It took many years before I would register how unique Ralph was, and, indeed how noble. Some of his efforts may seem quixotic, he hoped to get French radical Regis de Bray out of prison in Bolivia, and to save Che Guevara’s life. (Ralph broke with Fidel Castro because he would not make an effort to rescue Che). But his efforts were all based on his moral fiber and, indeed, true goodness. He fulfilled the Platonic ideal of the good man, wanting nothing for himself, each day making the world a more hospitable, a more civilized place.