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Thursday, April 5, 2018

Happy birthday, Alice McGrath

Alice McGrath, in a scene I saw many times at her home.
Today is the birthday of my wonderful friend Alice McGrath. Had she lived, she would be 101 years old. But she died in 2009, leaving behind a group of loyal friends who loved her dearly. I was very privileged to be among them.

Alice was a passionate and life-long political activist. She is probably best known as the "secretary" of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, organized to defend 22 Mexican-American young men who were accused of murder in this famous 1940s case. Luis Valdez turned the historic episode into the play "Zoot Suit" in the late 1970s, which later became a film. (Tyne Daly played Alice, whose last name was changed to Bloomfield; if I recall correctly, it was partly because Alice objected to suggestions in the play and film that she became romantically involved with one of the defendants, although Valdez relied closely on Alice's memories in constructing his plot.)

I got to know Alice around 1984, when the UCLA Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. I was living in Los Angeles, and every week or so for several months I would drive up to her beautiful home in Ventura for our recording sessions (these are now held in the UCLA Research Library's special collections, and they were transcribed in written form as well.)

That oral history was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Alice's death. Although I moved to Paris in 1988, I would visit California very year, and each trip included a visit with Alice. I would stay for a night or two at her house, and in the morning she would make me coffee and toast and we would talk for hours. Alice was a very loyal friend, but she could really speak her mind, and she often did. I remember how stung I was when I told her that I had fallen in love with a wonderful English woman and was moving to Paris, and her first reaction was to call me a "coward" for escaping the struggle for justice in the United States. She took it back almost immediately, but it stayed with me for a long time.

Recently, after nearly 30 years' exile in Paris, I returned to the United States. There are many reasons, but one of them was to join our daughter, a political activist of considerable courage and insight, in the struggle against the disaster that Trump's election has brought to our country. I can't help thinking that Alice would be very proud of me.

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