The Little Red School House
Born on Sept. 29, 1928, Liza wasn’t then even Elizabeth Lehrman.
As she once pointed out, Liza started out life as “Elizabeth Glass,” her mother’s maiden last name, suggesting that Alex and Hattie had not yet married at the time of Liza’s birth, even though by 1930 they appear to have done so.
Alex and Hattie were radicals in every sense of the world, political revolutionaries that supported the overthrow if not of the American government, then certainly, the international capitalistic tyranny that gave rise to Fascists like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
Although Alex would later take the brunt for his public protest of rising Fascism in the United States when he got called before Senator McCarthy’s hearings in the 1950s, it appears that Hattie was at Alex’s side every step of the way, and was perhaps more culpable than he was, making solo trips overseas at critical times during the Spanish Civil War and later World War II. These were people who sometimes brought revolutionaries into their home.
But more importantly in regards to Liza, Alex and Hattie were also social revolutionaries, part of a Bohemian movement that began to filter into Greenwich Village after the first World War, people dissatisfied with the basic structures of American society, and in particular, the structure of education and the family.
In both, Alex and Hattie opposed the hierarchical structure of the family that became the larger model for society has a whole, and believed that children had “rights” rather than responsibilities, and thus needed an educational system that fostered individual thought rather than obedience to authority.
“Marriage,” as one sociological study of the Village for that time, “was not a sacrament, but a temporal arrangement. Even its legal aspects seemed to many to be whole superfluous.”
Hattie and Alex, along with a number of other bohemian couples, tried to establish relationships that avoided the subordination of the traditional American family or even the trap of the more modern concept of marriages built on romantic love.
“Neither fate nor romance was responsible (for their coming together, but the intelligence and the physiology of two very mundane people.”
Love played a part, but it was not the central issue, and they understood that once the two people involved were no longer compatible, the marriage would end.
This kind of marriage was based on mutual interests – which Alex and Hattie clearly had. Both were communists, both were teachers who had a new vision of education, both were artists – she painted, he took photographs. Both supported the anti-fascist movements around the world. Both supported Trotsky’s vision of world communism, over Stalin’s, and apparently made at least one trip to Mexico as a couple to connect with the survivors of the Trotsky tribe that still resided there.
And from hints Liza dropped in her writing about her upbringing, her parents tried to share the responsibilities associated with raising her, although from these same hints, Hattie was better suited for it, than Alex, and had more time for it since she tended to work part time,
Hattie, however, was fiercely independent, coming of age just at the height of success of the suffragette movement and its successful campaign for women’s rights and in particular their right to vote.
In 1924, she went on a cruise to Europe unescorted by any family member, a trip she would later repeat with Alex in 1927 in what might or might not have been their honeymoon. But she took a number of trips alone while married to Alex, a possible trip to Casablanca in 1937 – a hive of anti-fascism even then and no doubt in support of the Lincoln Brigade then in combat with Franco and Nazi forces in Spain.
In 1942, during the height of World War II, Hattie signed on as crew on a cargo ship bound for Chili, where she no doubt made contact with revolutionaries there.
These trips may have inspired Liza when she also took off to see the world, although when she booked passage on the City of Paris cargo ship in 1955 in South Africa to return to London to have her baby (where her mother lived at the time) she booked passage as a passenger not as a crew member.
Although stern in her own way, Hattie indulged Liza, seeking to give her daughter the personal freedom she seemed not to have under her own father, and made sure Liza had the best progressive education possible.
At the time, the most progressive schools in the nation were located in Greenwich Village.
The invasion of first Irish and later Italian immigrants early in the century had chased out many of the wealthy who had previously lived there, sending them scurrying uptown and leaving Greenwich Village in decline. Rents fell, and as the Irish and Italian families moved out, low rents attracted artists, social rebels and misfits often called the new bohemians.
They came to the Village to escape the growing conservatism that had started up again in America after World War I and in reaction to the rise of the Soviet Union and the gains made by unions in America. Many were social outcasts who could not tolerate the strict social rules society was imposing, some were artists, and some like Alex and Hattie, free thinkers who needed an environment conducive to their own more liberal social views.
Some of the more progressive families with jobs and wealth, dissatisfied with the Catholic and public schools, started their own.
Although there is no firm documentation in Liza’s writings or public records, it seems almost certain that Alex and Hattie moved into their West 15th apartment in order to be close to The Little Red School House – one of the premier progressive elementary schools of that time, founded in 1921 by Elizabeth Irwin and John Dewey, and just as Liza came of age, Irwin opened a high school as a college prep school a few blocks farther down town – from which Liza apparently graduated near the end of the war, and apparently influenced by her aunt and uncle who were themselves prominent artists, Liza steered herself towards a career as a fine artist – at about the same time, the Beats were making their way downtown from their haunts around Columbia University and Spanish Harlem.