(CounterPunch, 20 February 2002)
Harvey Matusow: Death of a Snitch
by Bruce Jackson
Harvey Matusow, the most notorious of the paid perjurious snitches for the Communist witch-hunters in 1950s, died in New Hampshire on January 17 at the age of 75.
Matusow worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy and testified for the Senate Internal Security Committee, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and any other federal and state Commie witch-hunting committee that would have him. He testified in trials against people charged with being or having been Communists. He testified against the Girl Scouts and the New York Times. He testified against just about anything that moved, breathed, was incorporated, or that hung out now and then.
We talked for several hours in his Central Park West apartment one morning in late 1966 or 1967. I was working on a study of LSD users and he was then proselytizing for acid with the same religious fervor he’d sold subscriptions to The Daily Worker in his Communist days, had been an anti-Communist in his informer days, and then an anti-anti-Communist in his post-informer days.
That afternoon, I described the encounter to Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine. “Do I know him?” Irwin yelled, even though it was just two of us in the room “That sonofabitch turned me in!”
Later that day, I saw a musician friend, Hedy West, and I told her about the coincidence of my morning meeting with Matusow and Silber’s having been one of his victims. “Harvey Matusow turned my father in,” Hedy said."He testified that my father was organizing Communist Boy Scout troops in Georgia. They’d never met, but that didn’t matter to Matusow or the people he was working for. My father’s response was, ‘Where I was in Georgia, 12-year-old boys weren’t playing Boy Scout; they were working in the mines.’”
Matusow got the guiltys, recanted, and wrote a book about it, False Witness (1955). Because of that book, he went to prison for perjury – not for the countless acts of perjury he committed in saying hundreds of people he knew nothing about were Communists or Communist agents, but rather for having said he’d lied and that Roy Cohn knew about it which, according to all sources, was true. He did 44 months of a five-year sentence for that.
In September 1988, I had a conversation about Matusow with Emile de Antonio, who made several splendid films about the Cold War, including Point of Order (1964), the best documentary anyone has yet made about Senator Joseph McCarthy. I think he understood the goofy politics of that decade better than anyone I ever met. This is some of what De said about Harvey and his times:
De: It was scary in the 50's. Two ex-FBI men ran the great snitch sheet. They made a fortune out of clearing people. Communism is a business in America; anti-Communism is an industry. These two jokers had been making $25,000 a year in the FBI. They went out and they were the big experts on people infiltrating the media. They'd say to you, "Honey, I know that you were a member of the this and that. You give me $2,000 and you'll be cleared. You can go to work for CBS. You can go to work for the New York Times." They cleared people.
They would say “We have observed the documents and we understand what they really mean. She was an innocent victim and we guarantee it.”
I knew the two guys. They were two criminals, of course. They made a whole bunch of money. Amazing people. They lived in the biggest houses. Do you know what CBS paid those people? It was thousands of dollars a week. Just to prove that you weren't a Communist. Or that you had been a Communist but weren’t one now.“Now that you've come to talk to us, we know that you`ve repented sincerely.”
Bruce: And getting you to betray your friends who were still out there.
De: Or to make up people. That’s what you really had to do, because finally you’d run out of people, wouldn’t you? I mean how many Communists do you know? So you've gotta throw in a couple.
Bruce: Like Harvey Matusow. Do you remember Harvey?
De: He's a good friend of mine. I hate to say this, but I sent him $50 yesterday. He called up and I sent him $50.
He makes the most beautiful things. He makes my wife sleep. He's taken military shells of different heights and he makes Buddhist gongs of them and they make the most beautiful sounds. It's for peace, you know, and they make you fall asleep.
I was the only person on the Left who finally realized that Harvey went to jail for telling the truth. Harvey Matusow, who was the most famous informer in the history of America, went to jail for telling the truth. He lied. He was paid to say you were a Communist.
Matusow didn't know anything. He just wanted to be famous and have money. He didn't know a goddamned thing about anything. He's told me all of this. He's written about it. He's not ashamed of it. He'd go to Illinois and they’d say, "Now Mr. Matusow, you're an expert. You're a friend of Joseph McCarthy and of Roy Cohen and of HUAC and we want to clean Illinois of Communists. Can you tell us all the Communists in our schools here?"
And he'd say, "Of course I can." He didn't know one person in Illinois. What he did was, he went to the public library, he looked up the American Legion lists of supposed Communists in Illinois, and then he'd say, "Now these people, of my own knowledge I can certify that these people – you, you and you – are all Communists.” He gave four or five hundred names from the list that the American Legion had compiled of Communists, names that the American Legion had compiled over years. They were in the library. Then he would appear before the state senate or the house of representatives of the state of Illinois, or Ohio, wherever he was. He did this.
Then one day he couldn't stand himself.
He turned in a handsome wonderful left wing guy named Jenks, who was the head of the Mine Smelter's Union in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Jenks was sent to jail for five years.
And then Matusow went before the government and said, "I lied. I never knew Jenks. I don't know a goddam thing about Jenks. I don't know if he was a Communist or a Martian or an ape. I don't know anything about him." And the government gave him five years for lying. For lying. Lying! I don’t know if you can understand that. It's so crazy. Matusow did time for telling the truth about having lied.
Bruce: But the people who went to jail or lost their jobs because of his testimony didn't get anything reversed.
De: He came out of jail and came to New York and the only people in New York on the left who would speak to him were Mark Lane and me. The people on the left blackballed him. They said, "You were a bastard. You were an informer. You told all the time." But you had to see that he himself tried to get out and he told the truth, at the end at least. I'm not God, so therefore I can't condemn people that way.
Bruce: Before he became an informer, he sold more subscriptions than anybody to The Daily Worker, and he was very proud of that. He told me he was hurt when his former friends started saying that the only reason he sold so many subscriptions was because he was paying for them with FBI money. “I really did sell those subscriptions,” he said. “I sold more subscriptions than anybody.”
De: That was in the Bronx on the street.
You know why he called me yesterday? He's always hustling for a buck. He said, "De, both you and I knew Roy."
I said, "Yeah."
"Remember Roy lived up on such and such an avenue in the Bronx. His father was a judge and I lived only four blocks away."
I said, "How could you live only four blocks away when you were so poor and he was rich?"
He said, "Because the railroad came in between." Then he said, "You know, I used to know Phil Rizutto. I used to be the bat boy for the Yankees."
I said, "You were never the bat boy for the Yankees."
He said, "Well, no, but I offered to be the bat boy for the Yankees."
He lies all the time. I like him anyway. I can't help it. He's a great character.
So then he said, "I'm trying to get some money for this house. I don't have any money. I'll send you some bells."
I said, "I already have the bells."
He said, "I'll send you some more bells."
I said, "OK, I'll send you $50." That was yesterday.
What he wanted me to do was either to help him make a film or help him do a book about him and Roy Cohn. When he was an informer he was close to Cohn because he was close to McCarthy. That's really true. He wanted to talk about Cohn being gay and all that.
He's a character out of an early novel, an early American novel, a shabby thief who has a moment of honor and he's punished for it. The one time he tells the truth he goes to jail. He lies now, he lied before. But when he told the truth – out! That says something about our culture in the days of the Cold War.
Bruce: It also says something about Harvey.
De: Well, Harvey lies about everything.
copyright 2002 Bruce Jackson