The life of Mary Frohman
I came home Monday to a blinking red light on the answering machine, a message from an old girlfriend I hadn't spoken to in years. Her voice sounded shaky, haggard; she said she had news, that I should call her to talk. I took down her number and dialed her Nevada apartment; she told me Mary Frohman was dead.
It had been 14, maybe 15 years since I had met Mary. She had been working as a security guard in a Michigan pizza parlor, and we'd gotten into an improbable conversation about anarcho-syndicalism. I didn't know then that she'd been present at the infancy of the modern libertarian movement, at that strange time when two tribes that by conventional reckoning shouldn't have existed at all—an antiwar wing of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a free-market contingent in the leftist Students for a Democratic Society—somehow emerged and then combined to form something new. I didn't know that she'd had juicy but essentially anonymous cameos in two, perhaps three, of the books I'd been reading recently, or that her life was an eccentric, unpredictable, and resonant American story. I didn't even know that I'd meet her again, but it wasn't long before we were friends.
Mary Frohman was born in 1947; her father was Charles Frohman, a biochemist known for his work on serotonin. She grew up in and around Detroit, where she ran with a Polish-Italian street gang; according to Leslie Fish, her lover from the late '60s through the early '80s, she would "beat up the boys and make them respect her and then teach them to read." As a teen she became active in the civil rights movement and was briefly a member of the Communist Party (or, by Fish's recollection, the Socialist Workers Party), an affiliation I teased her for years later—it was Mary who had taught me the immortal couplet, "The only good thing that Stalin did/was put an icepick in Trotsky's head." She refused to take the bait, insisting that if you wanted to oppose Jim Crow in that particular time and place, the communists were "the only game in town."
It wasn't long, at any rate, before she became an anarchist instead. She was living in Ann Arbor, singing folk music and attending the University of Michigan, where her circle of antiwar friends stretched from the New Left to the Goldwater right. (They joked, sometimes, about starting a Leon Czolgosz chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom, just to see what would happen if it encountered a chapter named for William McKinley.) The great radicalizing experience of her life was the Chicago Democratic convention of 1968, where she worked as a medic; she always insisted that eight protestors had died in the police riot and that the authorities had covered this up. Interviewed in 1989 by a Michigan student named Meredith McGhan—you've already met Meredith, she was the voice on my answering machine—Mary recalled attending to a casualty, turning around, and finding herself staring down the barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun.* She said, "I just need to cross the street and wash my hands"; and then she pushed the barrel very gently out of her way. "I don't even remember how I got across the street," she told Meredith. "I blacked out, and I came to in a doorway, puking my guts out."
It was at the Democratic convention that Mary and Leslie first encountered the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, a militant union that had been a major force in the early 20th century but had dwindled considerably since then. "We marched past this bench where these old men were sitting, shaking their heads and looking glum," Fish remembers. "We were thinking, 'Oh, here are the Wallacites'—until we got close enough to hear them. They were saying, 'No, no, no. Not a weapon among them. Not even anything hidden. And look how disorganized! How are you going to smash the state with that kind of organization?' Finally this one little old man jumped up on a bench and waved his cane and said, 'Lee-sten!' He had a heavily accented voice. 'Lee-sten! When the police come to shoot you, you throw rocks at them! You knock them down! You take their guns, and you shoot them with their own gun!'
"At that point," she concludes, "we started to look closer at these guys, and we noticed the little pins they were wearing: 'IWW.'"
A year later they were back in Chicago, at the final national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society. The group was split among three Stalinist factions, the most infamous of which became the terrorist Weather Underground. (It took its name from a Bob Dylan lyric, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." It was Mary who cracked that "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are," a line that was quoted, without her name attached, in Kirkpatrick Sale's history SDS .) Outnumbered and disgusted, the anarchists, libertarians, and miscellaneous anti-totalitarians retreated to Chicago's IWW hall, where they planned to form a caucus of their own. SDS was beyond salvage, though, and as the Young Americans for Freedom purged its libertarians the same year, the two sets of exiles were soon mixing at independent gatherings of their own—notably the New York Libertarian Conference of October 1969, immortalized in Jerome Tuccille's entertaining but unreliable memoir It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Tuccille transmogrified Mary the anarcho-leftist into a hard-core Objectivist, "Ayn Rand on a two-week binge," a woman who wore "dollar-signed brooches" and started "beating the shit out of a love child" because he dared to speak disapprovingly of greed. (Frohman did say several times that everyone should read Ayn Rand—but only for "the intellectual exercise of refuting her.")
Years later, Mary told me her own account of that conference, which culminated with the most radical attendees marching on Fort Dix, New Jersey, and getting dowsed with CS gas. In his wrapup of the events for The Libertarian Forum, Murray Rothbard wrote that Mary "rushed to the podium, fresh from her gassing, to curse obscenely and hysterically at the entire audience for being in New York rather than at the barricades." Mary didn't dispute that version of events—she blamed her disoriented behavior on the gas—but she couldn't forgive Tuccille for his distortions.
"I seriously considered suing him," Mary told me, expressing a rather un-anarchist thought.
"Other than the libel," I asked, "what did you think of the book?"
"Oh, it's a scream," she said. "It's one of the funniest things I've read."
Mary moved from Ann Arbor to Lansing, and also briefly to Tucson, where she worked for the anarchist paper The Match!; around 1970, after she came back to Michigan, a friend in the Windy City told Fish that "there's always work in Chicago." And so they moved there, and ended up working for the Wobblies. It wasn't a big organization, but it was bigger than it had been just a few years earlier, when the local branch couldn't produce a quorum of seven members for three months straight; there was an influx of younger activists and fresh causes, including an IWW-assisted civil disobedience campaign that blocked one of Chicago's urban renewal schemes.
Frohman went to work in the national office, while Fish wrote for the union paper. "The Wobblies would organize job shops that nobody else would touch," Fish remembers. "A machine shop of five guys had written the UAW, begging them to organize them. The UAW thought this wasn't worth their time, and as a joke they passed it on to the Wobblies. And a good job we did, too." The union organized taxi drivers, movie ushers, reporters for underground newspapers, even the people who worked for cooperatives: "Little shops. The odd shops. And what's more, we'd strike for things that other unions wouldn't think of. Not just wages and bennies, but working conditions."
Fish was also acquiring some fame in the science-fiction community, wherein she wrote fan fiction and sang futuristic "filk" songs. Mary wasn't very interested in fandom—more on that later—but she was a singer and a guitarist, and she was a part of Fish's band, the DeHorn Crew. In one of those deeply strange moments of cultural mixing, the DeHorn Crew was both the Chicago IWW's house band and a filk outfit, and some of its repertoire appeared in Wobbly publications. And so it was that the nation's most militant labor organization, the brotherhood of Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, came to publish the lyrics of "Run, Cthulhu, Run," a Lovecraftian parody of the bluegrass standard "Molly and Tenbrooks."
The IWW hall also hosted an anarchist discussion group. The participants included Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, two Playboy staffers who were writing the comic cult novel Illuminatus! Mary, for whatever it's worth, believed she was the basis for the book's fortune-telling character Mama Sutra. Shea, alas, isn't alive to confirm or deny that, and Wilson tells me he doesn't remember Mary; Fish doubts that the story is true. Oh, well.
I mentioned that Fish had written fan fiction. In Textual Poachers, his landmark study of fan communities, MIT's Henry Jenkins described Fish's anarchist-feminist Star Trek novel The Weight as a "compelling narrative" that's "remarkable in the scope and complexity of its conception, the precision of its execution, and the explicitness of its political orientation." Frohman didn't have much patience for Star Trek or fan fiction, and grew disgusted when the household started to contain not just Trekkie literature but Starsky and Hutch fanzines. Inspired, angry, and hopped up on speed, she started to write an epic parody of fan writing, in which a villainous Starsky and Hutch attempt to infiltrate the IWW in one of the great Chicago blizzards. I think the bubonic plague was involved somehow as well.
Or something like that: It's been a while since she told me the plot, and I never did get a chance to read the novel. She had set aside the 700-page monster when she gave up amphetamines and didn't return to it until after I'd left Ann Arbor, but in 1998 I got an unexpected e-mail from her, telling me she'd finally finished a draft of the book and asking for editorial advice. There followed a mammoth attachment that crashed my computer, and it wouldn't open after I rebooted the machine; I asked her to resend it but got no reply. (She was, I gathered, new to the Internet.) A tiny press in Michigan—in Lansing, maybe?—was supposed to publish the book; I don't know if it ever did. I hope so. I'd like to read it someday.
There was, eventually, an acrimonious breakup, and in the early '80s Leslie moved west while Mary returned to Ann Arbor. It was there that I met her, first at that pizza joint where she worked as a guard and then, more formally, at her 44th birthday party. (Meredith, who had already known Frohman for nearly a decade, had brought me along as a date.) At 44, she could have passed for 60: Her days of drink and drugs were behind her, and she wasn't getting tear-gassed anymore, but she smoked heavily, ate poorly, and coughed constantly.
But she was a lively woman, a spirited debater and a raconteur, brimming over with stories of the old days and with impromptu political rants. She wasn't exactly a libertarian—not the capitalist kind, anyway—but she had the same unwillingness to fit into any ordinary political pigeonhole. Discuss the family or the workplace, and she'd stake out a position well to the left of even Ann Arbor's mainstream. But if the talk turned to taxes or guns, she wouldn't be out of place at a militia meeting. We agreed on enough to be friends, and we disagreed on enough for the friendship to be interesting. Friendship was, in fact, her highest ideal: She had told Meredith, in that '89 interview, that "because the best relationships are voluntarily chosen, the highest and purest relationship is friendship; there is no one down and it's voluntary on both sides."
On Friday, June 3, 2005, Mary Frohman had a heart attack while she waited for a bus. Her death wasn't a surprise, but it was very sad news. "She practiced what she preached about being a family of friends," Meredith remembers. "She took care of people. She made sure that people were fed and clothed, and when people were sick, she made sure that they got attention." That wasn't a small feat, given the poverty in which she and many of those friends lived. The revolution she worked for never did come, but with the simple, radical act of living by her principles, she helped create a small island of the society she wanted to live in.
*The text originally read "a Chicago cop's .50 caliber machine gun." While Frohman recalls the incident as involving a machine gun, she did not specify that the person holding it was a Chicago police officer.