Trotsky on Ice


Trotsky on Ice

THE NEW CRITERION, April 12, 2019

Trotsky on Ice

On lunch with Trotsky’s murder weapon at the new International Spy Museum.

It isn’t every day you have lunch with the weapon that killed Leon Trotsky. Or that you find yourself seated next to Jonna Mendez, the former CIA Intelligence Officer, who with her husband, Tony (of Argo fame), served as the Agency’s Chief of Disguise. Then again, the International Spy Museum, my luncheon host, is not your everyday institution. Founded in 2002 by Milton Maltz, the broadcasting magnate and United States Navy veteran who once worked for the National Security Agency, the museum is designed to recognize the patriotic service of our country’s secret warriors while also telling the story of international espionage. 

When the International Spy Museum unveils its new 140,000-square-foot headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 12, at least one recent addition to the collection should drive home the point of Communism’s razor-sharp brutality: my unexpected lunch companion—the ice ax used in Mexico City in 1940 to murder Leon Trotsky.

The ax used to kill Leon Trotsky. Photo: James Panero.

The ax used to kill Leon Trotsky. Photo: James Panero.

H. Keith Melton, an expert on espionage stagecraft, pursued this storied object for years before acquiring it in the late 2000s. Now, in gifting it to the museum, he revealed just how this unlikely weapon was used to carry out one of the most infamous political assassinations of the last century. 

Once comrades in Marxism-Leninism, Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin split in the infamous schism that tore through the Bolshevik leadership and the many followers of its October Revolution. George Orwell based Animal Farm, of course, on their bitter clash of ideologies and personalities. Trotsky, the idealist represented by the character “Snowball,” sought continued international socialist revolution; Stalin, the thuggish “Napoleon,” wanted to consolidate power in Soviet Communism.

Trotsky was pushed out of the Soviet Union just as Snowball was driven off the farm. The one-time heir apparent to Vladimir Lenin was first exiled to the satellite Soviet states. He fled through Turkey, France, and Norway before ultimately being welcomed by the Socialist government of Mexico in 1937.

Leon Trotsky,  ca . 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

Leon Trotsky, ca. 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

First residing with the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (who became his lover), Trotsky and his family eventually moved into a fortified compound in the village of Coyoacán, near Mexico City. Armed guards supplied by his many supporters in the American Socialist Workers Party provided protection for the “Old Man,” as he was known. Trotsky wrote prolifically during the period. He also declared the Fourth International to support “permanent revolution” against the nationalist bureaucracy of Stalin and his Soviet Comintern. 

These public activities contributed to Stalin’s decision to order Trotsky’s assassination in 1939. Stalin tasked his secret police of the NKVD with the killing. Already the most powerful spy network in the world and the predecessor to the KGB, the nkvd set in action at least three autonomous plots against Trotsky.

Diego Rivera, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Trotsky,  ca.  1939. Photo: Princeton University.

Diego Rivera, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Trotsky, ca. 1939. Photo: Princeton University.

The first was an all-out assault, code-named horse, on the compound by twenty-four Communists battled-hardened by the Spanish Civil War. After a treacherous American guard gave them entry, in the early morning hours of May 24, 1940, an assault team quietly entered the compound dressed as Mexican policemen. They mounted a machine gun by a eucalyptus tree to pin down the guard quarters. Meanwhile, a raiding party shot up Trotsky’s bedroom from multiple directions, firing several hundred rounds. Seventy-three bullets entered the room. None other than the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Stalinist sympathizer and the public face of the operation, was the given the honor of firing the final rounds at Trotsky’s bedsheets from the doorway. Today, Siqueiros must be the only blue-chip artist to have headed up a Stalinist assassination attempt. 

Remarkably, Trotsky and his wife both survived the attack by hiding in a darkened corner of the room during the shootout. After the failed assault, the American Trotskyists strengthened the compound with electric gates and tightened protocols. The nkvd knew they would need new tactics to get inside Trotsky’s defenses.

Set in motion long before the failed raid, a second plot was already underway. Caridad and Ramón Mercader, a mother-son team of Catalan communists, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, were tapped by the NKVD to infiltrate Trotsky’s inner circle. With the help of Communist Party USA and disguised as a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Ramón seduced a New York Trotskyite named Sylvia Ageloff as she traveled in the summer of 1938 to Paris for Trotsky’s Fourth International. Taking a second cover as “Frank Jacson,” Ramón joined Ageloff in Mexico City and became Trotsky’s driver, offering up his Buick automobile for the compound’s use after Trotsky’s vehicles were stolen in the Siqueiros raid.

While the American security team urged Trotsky to search compound visitors, the Old Man refused to do so for his “trusted” insiders even after the raid. Mercader therefore knew he could smuggle small weapons inside. While he had a pistol (and brought it along at the time of the assassination), Mercader and his NKVD handlers looked for an instrument that could deliver a more silent blow, one that would allow an assassin to make his escape. They settled on a 1920s ice-climbing ax, or piolet. Seasoned in deadly hand-to-hand combat from the Spanish Civil War, Mercader believe he could deliver a single direct blow to Trotsky’s skull with the pick end of the instrument that would kill him instantly.

On August 20, 1940, as his mother waited for him outside in a getaway car, Mercader went to meet Trotsky, nominally for advice on an editorial he was writing. Under his raincoat he carried a .45-caliber Star pistol and the ice ax, with its ash handle cut down to 12 inches. As Trotsky began reading his article, Mercader dealt him a single blow from behind. But the assassin closed his eyes during the hit, striking a glancing blow that cracked Trotsky’s skull but did not kill him immediately. “Trotsky gave a cry that I shall never forget,” he later testified. “It was a long ‘Aaaa,’ endlessly long, and I think it still echoes in my brain. Trotsky jumped up jerkily, rushed at me, and bit my hand. Look, you can still see the marks of his teeth. I pushed him away and he fell to the floor. Then he rose and stumbled out of the room.” Trotsky died in a nearby hospital the day after the attack.

The murder scene where Ramón Mercader assassinated Leon Trotsky. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis.

The murder scene where Ramón Mercader assassinated Leon Trotsky. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis.

Hearing the noise, Trotsky’s guards rushed in and beat Mercader, who was arrested, tried, and convicted for murder. Through the trial and his nineteen-year imprisonment, he continued to call himself a Trotsky sympathizer. It was only after his release and his hero’s welcome back in the Soviet Union in 1960 that Mercader’s true identity became known. Meanwhile, the murder weapon he dropped to the floor was entered into evidence and wound up as a retirement gift to a Mexico City police chief. Kept under a bed for decades, the weapon resurfaced in 2005 as he daughter brokered a deal to sell it to Melton.

At the International Spy Museum on May 12, the ice ax will join Mercader’s gold watch—engraved and awarded by the Soviet Union in 1965—his eyeglasses, which were broken in his beating and arrest, a pair of binoculars used in the plot, and a self-portrait by his mother.

“The aging revolutionary, who believed that all means—lying, treachery, violence, or murder—were acceptable to achieve an end,” Melton says of Trotsky, became a “victim of the same ruthlessness.”


Music for young and old


Music for young and old

THE NEW CRITERION, April 9, 2019

Music for young and old

On the Very Young People’s Concerts by the New York Philharmonic.

If you ever worry about the future of classical music, just attend a children’s concert. They are filled with eager audiences. And not just parents eager for student enrichment outside of the test-boxes formerly known as our schools. It’s the children who are most eager to be there as they commune through the ageless language of music, through sounds that are made without a battery in sight. As one youngster asked the bassoonist at a children’s concert I recently attended, “How do you turn it on and off?” The wondrous answer should be a tagline for orchestras everywhere: Classical music has no switch.

This sweet exchange occurred at a Very Young People’s Concert produced by the New York Philharmonic. Now in its fourteenth season, the series is pitched to children aged three through six. Very Young distinguishes these performances from the Philharmonic’s legendary Young People’s Concerts, made famous through Leonard Bernstein’s television appearances. I wrote about the phenomenon of those culture-changing performances, which are now available on dvd. In their seriousness of purpose and whimsy of presentation, Bernstein’s concerts continue to serve as touchstones for children’s music programming today.

It comes as welcome news that the Very Young People’s Concerts draw their inspiration from Bernstein’s legacy. It also explains why this series is so successful. The Philharmonic violist Rebecca Young hosts these performances. Born in New Jersey, Young grew up with Bernstein as her music teacher—through his children’s concerts. She attended her first Bernstein Young People’s Concert at age two and a half. She says it is her earliest musical memory. “I used to roll up the programs, put one under my chin, and use the other as a bow,” she recalls. “Not only did I always know I would be a musician—except for a short flirtation with the idea of medical school—I always knew I would be in the New York Philharmonic.”

She was right. Young not only joined the orchestra as its youngest member in 1986, but also became the host of her own children’s series. The Very Young People’s Concerts are very much about Young. She is a superb performer for children, with a comedic presence that fills the stage with her joy for music. She is joined by a quintet of Philharmonic musicians, several props, and an animated penguin named Philippe, who is occasionally projected on a screen, giving children another welcome object of focus.

The performances are made up of three half-hour sessions. The first gets the children in the door with small groups of musicians playing throughout the lobby and auditorium. Children sit on the floor or the performance stage as they acclimate to the hall. The second session is the concert itself, with the audience now well settled in their assigned seats (while also allowing for late arrivals). The third segment offers a chance for the children to see the musicians and instruments up close again in breakout groups.

The programs come with a lesson structured around musical vocabulary. The first concert this season was “Allegro and Adagio.” The terms “accelerando” and “ritardando” also made appearances here, along with homespun props in this concert about tempo, as the performers played Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Rebecca Young’s very ably delivered rendition of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The second concert in the series introduced “Forte and Piano,” again through “Dance of the Hours,” here followed by an interactive arrangement called “The Forte and Piano Song,” where the forte players get called out one by one, and ending with selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46. In this concert about musical dynamics, “pizzicato” and “crescendo” were introduced, along with such mnemonic jingles as “Right near Lincoln Center, just behind the Apple Store, live a piano and a forte and the best musicians four.” As with the concert on allegro and adagio, the children were each given two cards with the thematic words—piano and forte—and encouraged to hold them up at the right times.

A small quibble: the color coding of these cards did not always align with the matching signs on the stage. In at least one case they were reversed. And in a concert called “allegro and adagio” or “forte and piano,” if the words appear onstage, they should be arranged in the same order, left to right. For an age group that in most cases cannot read, such visual alignments can be crucial.

The series’s venue, Merkin Hall, just a few blocks from the Philharmonic’s home at David Geffen Hall, also remains a detraction. With frayed carpet and peeling paint, this downtrodden auditorium does little to elevate young audiences or prepare them for the visual delights of a great music hall.

Thankfully, through the music of the Philharmonic and the dynamic presence of Rebecca Young, the young audience still rose to the occasion—and so did the older audience members. The New York Philharmonic Very Young People’s Concerts convey not only the joy of music but also the music of joy. The final concerts in the series, on “Treble and Bass,” will take place on June 2 and 3.


Jeffrey Hart, 1930-2019


Jeffrey Hart, 1930-2019


Jeffrey Hart, 1930-2019

Remembering the literary scholar, teacher, and mentor.

Jeffrey Hart, who died in February, was a literary scholar whose genius was to bring you into the storyline. He was a character who could demonstrate your own role in the life of the mind. “The knowledge of the great narrative and other possible narratives . . . that kind of knowledge is the goal of liberal education,” he wrote in his 2001 book Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe. “I am grateful to the generations of students both at Columbia and at Dartmouth who entered the conversation to my great benefit.” For the generations who came to know him as a teacher, writer, editor, and mentor, the conversation was learned, sly, and bracingly novel.

Hart, like Whitman, contained multitudes. An Ivy League professor of English as well as a Senior Editor at National Review, a speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, and the founding advisor of The Dartmouth Review, the conservative student newspaper, he embraced contradiction. He was a conservative who turned away from ideology—and away from the Republican Party, in the end—to look to the lessons of literature and history to glean the realities of human experience.

The realities of Hart’s own experience could make their own fiction. In When the Going Was Good!, his paean to the 1950s and his most personal and ebullient book, published in 1982, Hart wrote frequently of his own upbringing. The thirties wrecked the family fortunes. Hart’s father, a graduate of Dartmouth College, was an out-of-work architect who taught in the public schools. His mother, who danced and sang in the great musicals of the twenties and once “rode on a swing in one of the Ziegfeld Follies,” settled the family “in a thirty-five-dollar-a-month apartment in Queens.”

Hart was a child of the Great Depression, but he lived life like someone out to restore the Roaring Twenties. America is a “willingness of the heart,” he liked to quote from Fitzgerald. On the grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Hart found his proving ground. Tennis became “an activity to which I totally committed myself during my most impressionable years,” he wrote. On the subway, seeing his racket, kids mocked his athletic choice as effete. Yet “beneath the off-white, monogrammed polo shirts and cable-stitch sweaters, there beat the fierce heart of a Cromwellian.”

Tennis took Hart from Stuyvesant, the city’s great specialized high school, to Dartmouth, where he aced the varsity team and quickly burned out the coaching staff. Since the age of five, Hart had attended every Dartmouth–Princeton football game. He liked to say he was enrolled in the New Hampshire college since birth, but as a student he found the postwar campus both violent and boring. So he dropped out to write fiction and landed a job with a publisher back in New York. Through the city’s literary scene, he then connected with professors at Columbia and enrolled there, this time not in pre-med but as an English major.

After four years in Navy intelligence during the Korean War, Hart returned to Columbia to earn his doctorate, specializing in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English literature. His first book, Political Writers of Eighteenth-Century England, was published by Knopf in 1964. Hart found himself on Columbia’s fast track, but his tenure chances were derailed when he started writing book reviews for National Review. His mentor Lionel Trilling tried to convince him to quit the publication. Instead, he returned to his father’s alma mater, joining the English Department at Dartmouth in 1963 after John Sloan Dickey, the college’s president out to improve its academics, put him in line for tenure. When Hart joined National Review as a Senior Editor in 1969, he began flying to New York twice a month for editorial meetings and dinners with William F. Buckley Jr., working around his teaching schedule. Buckley took note of the “universality of his knowledge,” his “eclectic enthusiasm,” and his “high-spiritedness” as Hart became National Review’s in-house scholar. For his regular visits, Hart stayed in the smallest room at the Yale Club and kept his typewriter in a gym locker.

Back at Dartmouth, Hart ran college administrators and fellow faculty around the court of public opinion to great undergraduate delight. He wrote a twice-weekly column for King Features Syndicate that went out to five-hundred newspapers. He was given Buckley’s old stretch limousine and parked it in front of Dartmouth’s Sanborn Library, taking up multiple spaces. He brought a mechanical wooden hand to faculty meetings that tapped its fingers with the turn of a crank. When his son Benjamin was a Dartmouth undergraduate, he and other disaffected writers from the college daily founded their own independent newspaper. When Dinesh D’Souza became its student editor, he lived for a time at the Hart home. “More or less, The Dartmouth Review was launched in the living room of my house,” Hart wrote. He served as its advisor for the rest of his life. “One definition of good journalism is printing things that someone does not want printed,” he said of the outspoken publication. “Independence is an indispensable quality for anyone who would be a writer, that is, indispensable for finding one’s own voice.”

Through thirty years of teaching and well into his retirement, animated with ribald humor and the belief that old books were filled with youthful spirit, Hart cast a larger-than-life presence over the New England campus. “To be Jeffrey Hart’s student was to be initiated into the culture of the West by an unashamed partisan,” writes Scott Johnson, who arrived at Dartmouth in 1969.

Iowe my career as an editor and writer to Professor Hart. It is a noteworthy datum that a majority of the editors now at this publication can trace their arrival here in some way to his effect. Hart was a mentor in the Homeric sense: a wise deity disguised as an old friend who saves young Telemachus from the suitors of the age. Lit by an inner illumination, which regularly showed through the glimmer of his blue eyes, he checked his politics at the door and let the lyricism of “books, arts, and manners” lead the way for students. “In all of his courses Hart stressed two skills, reading and writing,” says Peter Robinson, a Hart student who went on to craft Reagan’s exhortation to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” “Do your reading. Experience the characters the author presents. Enter his world.”

We were always in Hart’s world, even those of us who passed through campus after his retirement. I arrived a year after his final 1993 lecture to six hundred undergraduates on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Eliot. At Columbia, in 1957, Hart had attended a reading of The Waste Landby Eliot himself that was “witchdoctor stuff, mysterious, reaching way back to primitive emotion through sound, powerful in its mysteriousness. All the resurrected gods of myth and the resurrected God of history seemed present in McMillin Theater. Eliot was the West that night.”

Hart was similarly mysterious, even incantatory, the West incarnate. For the student editors of The Dartmouth Review like me, his lessons came out of Friday lunches in “Hart’s Corner” at Murphy’s tavern on Hanover’s Main Street, drinks at the tiny home he shared with his wife Nancy in Lyme, New Hampshire, and whirling dispatches by facsimile machine. Through these meetings, which he usually held while wearing a green fleece jacket he claimed to be made out of “recycled ping pong balls,” he developed uncanny insights into our young interests, even if we did not know those interests ourselves.

When I was a freshman, he introduced me to The New Criterion. When I became editor of The DartmouthReview in my sophomore year, he suggested I call up Roger Kimball and interview him about postmodern architecture. In my junior year, he showed a film review of mine to Bill Buckley and brought me to National Review as an intern. Upon graduation, I joined Hart as an editor there. Sensing my own predilections, he suggested I focus on cultural criticism and, in particular, art criticism. Such guidance was the norm for all even as it was unique to each of us. He was also laugh-out-loud funny. Within an aging frame, Hart maintained a youthful exuberance that kept him smiling, as he put it, through the cultural catastrophe.

Hart’s stationery carried a telling quote by the literary critic John Crowe Ransom: “In manners, aristocratic; in religion, ritualistic; in art, traditional.” We saw it often. Hart was a tireless faxer. Over the years I collected several reams of fax paper with the quote but only recently discovered that Ransom was describing Eliot. Hart’s electronic missives always came with a handwritten note of encouragement along with a copy of some academic correspondence or manuscript. “Egad,” he might write, “Zounds!” We were part of the conversation.

Like Russell Kirk, Hart’s conservative mind was concerned not with winning elections but with understanding a canon from Burke to Eliot, and more broadly from “Athens and Jerusalem” on through “Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” Hart often structured his lectures and essays around such juxtapositions. He believed in old orders and in the power of culture to reveal order, but he also understood the breadth of cultural contradiction. “Argument meeting with counterargument has been a refining fire,” he wrote approvingly in The Making of the American Conservative Mind, his 2005 history of National Review.

That book proved to be Hart’s last grand statement. It also announced his most unexpected change of game. Timed to the fiftieth anniversary of National Review, his history remains a fascinating appreciation of the fusionism of the magazine with profiles of its disparate founders—from the managerial James Burnham to the majoritarian Willmoore Kendall, the individualist Frank Meyer to the Burkean Russell Kirk. The book was also meant to be a promotional vehicle for the publication at the height of the Iraq War and neoconservative ascendancy. Yet Hart concluded it with an attack on President Bush, whom he called the “bottom among American Presidents.” While the denunciation now appears only in the paperback edition, the statement signaled a break with conservative colleagues, whom Hart considered to be in lockstep with a Republican Party that had gone from Burkean to Wilsonian. “I suppose I have always been a conservative of some sort,” Hart wrote in When the Going Was Good! Yet in his final years, he campaigned for Obama and stem-cell research in a way that perplexed many, including me.

In retrospect, this Hart-break was an early indicator of the breakup of conservative consensus. What began in fusion ended in fission. Hart’s young protégé Joseph Rago, the brilliant Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist who graduated from Dartmouth in 2005 and died just twelve years later, called Hart’s dissent “the most rigorous, utterly principled, and intellectually stimulating ever set down.” In both style and substance, starting with its title, Hart’s book on National Reviewreferenced Kirk’s 1953 TheConservative Mind. Hart’s eccentric political choices also tracked closely with Kirk’s own anti-interventionist aristocratic conservatism; in the 1976 presidential election, Kirk similarly voted for Eugene McCarthy.

With the 2016 election, Hart may not have seen eye-to-eye with the other famous kid from Queens, but his Republican disaffection, self-invention, and self-possession shared affinities with the political outsider now in the White House. Hart went one way, while many of the students he mentored at The Dartmouth Review, such as Laura Ingraham, have gone the other, becoming outspoken pundits and supporters of a president known for his pragmatism and candor.

Argument, Hart believed, restored culture from the forces of occlusion and egalitarianism. “The goal of intellect is always there: cognition, the self-cleansing act of trying to see the object of knowledge as clearly as possible.” Like Matthew Arnold, “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science,” Hart lived life to “see the object as in itself it really is” and to teach us how to see it for ourselves.