By Stephen Siciliano
GERALD MEYER, the leading scholar on Vito Marcantonio, professor emeritus, and untiring LEFT-WING activist, passed away on the morning of November 10th. In his early ’80s, “Jerry” had fallen on the stairway outside his Brooklyn home some six weeks ago and never regained consciousness.
Beginning research for my novel, “The Goodfather,” I contacted Jerry after reading his seminal book, “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician.” He was thrilled to hear that someone might take on the novel format, confident a good piece of literature would help restore the congressman and his ideas to the public commons.
We met for lunch in Gotham’s Union Square and a long, voluminous correspondence began, always taking place where we each lived; at the intersection of literature and politics.
Later, I flew back to New York for the founding of the Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF) at his home and for 10 years after, that group accomplished a breathtaking amount of work capped with the naming of Lexington and 116th Street as “Vito Marcantonio Corner” by the City of New York.
During that time, Jerry sent me countless books – Richard Wright’s “American Hunger,” Rockwell Kent’s “Wilderness,” David Caute’s “The Communists and French Intellectuals” to name a few – and always had me subscribed to either of the socialist tribunes, “Science and Society,” or “Monthly Review.”
The books usually arrived with a card that had something to do with cats and, when I was in trouble, which was often, that card contained an unsolicited check. He seemed to sense when I was on the grill and would act with uncommon generosity.
Jerry was a professor at Hostos Community College in the Bronx and a leading organizer of the 1970s protests that secured its future as an educational institution. He was grooming my mind and, 50-something, I gladly submitted to the process.
He tapped me to give a talk on Michael Parenti’s “Growing Up in Italian Harlem,” and another on the relationship between Paul Robeson and Marcantonio. I was honored to share the spotlight with him on the symposium: “Vito Marcantonio and Annette Rubinstein: Beloved Comrades.”
His last words to me were on Facebook in response to a photo I’d posted of Wilshire Boulevard at sunset. “Prize-winning Photography. Masterful.” Which, of course, it wasn’t. Had Jerry passed a little earlier, his last words to me would have been, “Thank you. Now go to bed tonight thinking well of yourself,” and so on.
Your last words to someone will likely reflect many prior ones. A true educator, he was one to uplift.
Were I not to mention it, he would rage from the other side: Jerry was a communist, which he defined as “a very angry socialist.” Not a new-left communist from ‘60s campuses and communes, but the older kind with a stolid faith in the Party and its vanguard role, and in the virtues of the Soviet Union. He knew his stuff and was hard to knock down in debate on these opinions, which weren’t always shared by others in the left-leaning VMF, but never impeded the work at hand. He was the ultimate Popular Frontist.
While there were a handful of co-founders, and the group squeezed everything it could from an active core of members, it was, in most ways, Jerry’s baby. As with any good Bolchevique, he knew how to organize an outfit, run a meeting, dispense with favors and labors alike.
He had a most endearing way of thanking one for accepting a task before they had done so, and I know we have all learned from him.
For Jerry, Marcantonio was more than a subject of study, he was a prescription for living in action. He could be irascible and uncompromising; as was Marcantonio. These are the kind of people who align their fortunes and efforts with the side that loses the most.
His death comes on the heels of co-founder Gil Fagiani‘s passing two years ago and leaves the group without its two most forceful spirits.
With him goes an ENORMOUS amount of knowledge around Vito Marcantonio and, much more broadly, left-wing culture, about which he was encyclopedic. Having written a novel about Marcantonio and maintained a website dedicated to his work for 12 years now, Jerry’s death may (or not) leave me as the leading, semi-scholarly Dude on the radical congressman, and I don’t know one-fifth of what he knew. A tremendous loss for scholarship in this area of investigation. We thought, as is always the case, there’d be more time for me to learn what he had to teach.
Well, there wasn’t. It was a shocking, abrupt and terrible end for someone who had more future plans than perhaps anyone that age should, none of which included dying. My condolences to his son and my VMF comrade, Adam Milat-Meyer, Jerry’s partner Luis Romero, and all those who loved him as I did.