It is one of those “I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales” connections. John Reed, the American journalist who gave the world a first-hand account of the events of the Russian Revolution in November 1917 is featured in articles to commemorate the centenary of the Bolshevik Rising. From 1916, until his death in 1920, Reed was married to Louise Bryant, an American feminist and socialist writer. Bryant’s second husband was another American journalist – William Bullitt. It was Bullitt’s name that allowed the identification of the tenuous connection with the events in Petrograd one hundred years ago.
Driving from a funeral in Co Wexford in 2006, I listened to the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4. It was about Harpo Marx, the silent of the brothers, visiting the Soviet Union on a tour in 1933. Harpo is recruited as an agent by the American ambassador to carry secret papers from Stalinist Russia back to the intelligence service in the United States. A more unlikely spy than Harpo, it was hard to imagine, but he plays his role perfectly and US agents meet him when he arrives back in New York.
At the end of the play there was a historical postscript describing how the ambassador, William Bullitt, had left Moscow in 1936 to take up ambassadorial duties in Paris, where he gained repute for his liaisons with the Duchess of Windsor.
It was at that point, just before the three o’clock news on the BBC that I realised that a lady I had visited in an Alzheimer’s Clinic once a month for seven years was the daughter of the same man. I had been told her father had been American ambassador to France just before the war, but assuming diplomats to be low profile, discreet characters, I assumed her life had been similarly private.
Checking through her father’s biography made astonishing reading; it was a life lived in the fastest lane in the most colourful style. Her mother had been Louise Bryant, the inspiration behind the film Reds starring Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty. The marriage had broken up and her mother had spent her remaining years trying to communicate with her daughter who was in the ambassador’s custody. When France had fallen, he had joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces to fight against the Nazis. After the war, he lived out his remaining years in France.
The ambassador’s daughter had enjoyed a remarkable career as a couturier and as a racehorse breeder. She had married three times and had lived around the world. If the lady who sat each day vacantly staring could have recalled one fraction of her history, what a story she might have told; to have been told stories by someone whose mother had experienced the Russian Revolution at first-hand would have been a rare privilege.