The Romance of John Reed and Louise Bryant: New Documents Clarify How They Met

Article excerpt

LOUISE BRYANT AND JOHN "JACK" Reed's romance--if not their fidelity --endured beyond their initial 1915 meeting in Portland, Oregon, to the end of their lives, when they each expressed loving thoughts for each other. Shortly before her death, in a hurriedly penciled postcard from Paris to radical artist Art Young, Bryant declared, "If I get [to heaven] before you do or later--tell Jack Reed I love him." Shortly before typhus killed him at age thirty-three in Moscow, Reed expressed similar thoughts in a poem he wrote from prison. The poem, titled "A Letter to Louise," closes:

   Let my longing lightly rest
   On her flower petal breast
   Till the red dawn set me free
   To be with my sweet
   Ever and forever ... (1)

When Jack Reed and Louise Bryant took up with each other in Portland more than ninety years ago, their love affair quickly became one of the most notorious romances to have been born in Oregon. As their celebrity grew, world-wide curiosity inspired efforts to describe the meeting of a famous radical writer and a Portland journalist, a meeting that launched the couple on a romantic political journey that ended in Moscow in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Although we may never know the precise circumstance of their first accidental meeting, it most likely happened in Portland on December 15, 1915, a few hours before they expected to be introduced by mutual friends Carl and Helen Walters at dinner in their Labbe Building studio. (2) Scholarly biographies and popular-press accounts, including two Soviet films, an opera, and a play produced in the Soviet Union, have tried to depict the Reed-Bryant romance, but if Americans are aware of it today, it is probably because they are among the millions who saw Reds--the 1981 Oscar-winning Hollywood film that dramatized Bryant and Reed's lives and times. (3)


Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton play the couple in the film, which opens in "Portland, 1915." Its first ten minutes depict their initial few days together, and Beatty, who was also the film's director, devotes the rest of Reds' three hours to the couple's subsequent five years of Bohemian romance and literary and political activism in New York, Croton-on-Hudson, Cape Cod, and France. It ends tearfully, with Bryant attending Reed's death in a Moscow hospital room while Soviet revolutionaries struggle to succeed outside.

Neither Reed nor Bryant documented how they met, and their biographers have provided so many different versions that the event has acquired a mythological aura. Although they actually met about a year and a half later, Reds places the couple's first meeting after Reed's radical rant on class war that shocked the University Club (named "Liberal Club" in the film) during the summer of 1914. Beatty has Bryant accosting Reed as he was leaving the club and gaining his attention by aggressively declaring her radical literary credentials. The film's history advisor, Robert Rosenstone, remains among the most authoritative of Reed's biographers, and he likely had to sign off on Beatty's artistic license for that scene. (4)

The earliest of Reed's serious biographers, Granville Hicks, relied on Bryant's friend Helen Walters and accurately dated the meeting during Reed's 1915 Christmas visit to his mother in Portland. Hicks also correctly describes Bryant, who was attracted by Reed's radical reputation and was a booster of his articles in The Masses and the Metropolitan, as having hoped for some time to meet him. (5) Biographies of the couple offer other alternatives. Citing an informant, one tells readers they met at Bryant's friend Clara Wold's home. (6) Citing another, Mary Dearborn says they were "formally introduced" in 1914 at the home of Eva and Norma Graves (now the Rimsky-Korsakaffee House at 707 SE Twelfth Avenue). (7) Some are less precise. The earliest writer about their love story makes it at "one of the artists' meeting places. …