Born in 1904, Alvah Cecil Bessie was the second son of Adeline Schlesinger and Daniel Nathan Cohen Bessie, a successful New York City businessman. He was raised in Harlem and grew up attending public school, ultimately matriculating from DeWitt Clinton High School (then an all- boys school located on Tenth Avenue between 58th Street and 59th Street in Hell’s Kitchen) in 1920 to Columbia College, where he earned his degree in English in 1924. After his older brother died and left the Bessie family with significant financial baggage, the younger Bessie was for the first time free of his commanding father’s clutches and free to pursue what he wanted. After a four-year stint trying his hand at acting in the New York theater scene and subsequently recognizing his limited capabilities, Bessie decided to pursue writing. In 1928 he took a yearlong trip to France and translated avant-garde French literature while writing, and eventually publishing, his first short story “Redbird.” He returned to the United States in 1929, and over the following six years was married, moved to Vermont, and had two sons. During this time, as he published numerous stories, essays, and reviews for various magazines and newspapers, Bessie was also writing his first novel Dwell in the Wilderness (1935), which won him a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. This was also when he began studying Marxist theory, which, when coupled with his move back to the city in 1935, led to his joining the Communist Party in 1936.
Once back in New York (and living at a new residence: 164 Lexington Avenue in Kips Bay, according to his 1937 passport), Bessie was hired by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as an editor for their drama and book sections. His time there was ripe with disagreement, as his radical stance on several issues (most notably the Spanish Civil War) did not mesh with his superiors’ conservative views. The final straw, Bessie’s support of French novelist, aviator, and activist Andre Malraux’s efforts to organize and send a group of French flyers to help the Spanish Republic, led to his resignation from this post in 1937. Shortly thereafter, he found a new position working for the Spanish Information Bureau, a New York propaganda agency of the Spanish Republican government whose purpose was to distribute promotional materials that contained information directly from Spain in order to spread word about what was occurring abroad. During this turbulent period, Bessie’s marriage also began to dissipate, and he was shortly thereafter divorced from his wife.
After working for the Spanish Information Bureau all summer and consulting his ex-wife (who told him, “If you have to do it, do it”), Bessie decided, “Hell, I want to go there!” and sailed to Spain to join the International Brigade in January of 1938. Much like many of the other Brigade volunteers, Bessie saw the effort not only as a struggle for Spain, but also as a larger fight against fascism and what he deemed the “eternal enemy—oppression.” Indeed, years after the war he would say, “when I enlisted in the International Brigade of the Spanish Republican Army, I was convinced that I was helping to preserve my country from international fascism.”
Although Bessie had earned his pilot’s license before sailing over with the intention to become a flyer, he was put on the front lines with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He, along with the other new arrivals, quickly discovered that the war effort was not nearly as glamorous as they had envisioned. As he moved with the Brigade towards the Ebro River, Bessie wrote of a lack of adequate supplies (whether it be equipment, medical kits, or food), a near-complete lack of discipline, and seeds of self-doubt, wondering in his diary, “Will I be a coward?”
Bessie soon arrived at his answer when the Lincoln Brigade accidentally stumbled upon a Nationalist camp and had to flee for their lives. For several days, he and three companions straggled towards the Ebro River, whose far bank promised refuge and comrades. However, once there he found similarly destitute conditions amid streets “jammed with ragged and demoralized men, wandering idly about.” When word came of Nationalist tanks on the way, Bessie and the scraggly band of volunteers made their way to a town further eastward, which they found had at least some semblance of order. Here, they received copies of the International Brigades’ publication, The Volunteer for Liberty, for which Bessie was a correspondent.
As Franco’s troops advanced towards the Mediterranean Sea, Bessie and the rest of the Brigade knew their cause was becoming more hopeless by the day unless foreign nations provided much- needed aid. Alas, they did not, and by the summer of 1938, Franco’s forces controlled most of Spain, with the notable exceptions of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.
The dire circumstances and dearth of supplies forced the Republic to desperate measures. Commanders began preparing Bessie and the rest of the International Brigade to cross the Ebro River, whose journey promised difficulty enough, but whose destination promised both sure hostility from the Nationalist troops housed there and the foreboding certainty that survival depended solely on capturing enemy supplies (after crossing the Ebro, Bessie wrote in his diary of the lack of food and his and his comrades’ sleeping “in straw, in stone barn[s]; dead tired, hungry, wet with perspiration”). This, coupled with the vastly superior arms and numbers of the Nationalist force, made for a grim outlook for Bessie and the rest of the 80,000 troops carrying out the offensive.
Unexpectedly, the slightly inexperienced Nationalist troops on the other side were taken by surprise and shock when the Republic’s troops first made their move. But soon after the initial Republican victory, the Nationalists struck back so furiously that Bessie wrote of a full week without taking off his boots, even when resting. The back and forth dragged on and continued through the sweltering summer heat of August, which Bessie described as having drenched the men “from head to foot with sweat.” The rocky terrain did them no favors either, making digging trenches (and much-needed graves) an impossible endeavor. Food was both scarce and bad (Bessie particularly recalled “a petrified sort of blood-sausage that was more gristle than meat”), and diarrhea was rampant in the camp. But through it all, Bessie found both time and energy to put into writing his thoughts and experiences, writing one afternoon as he sat awaiting the call to action, “At such times the tension is intolerable… Your stomach clenches and unclenches… and there is a deep ache in your chest. You look around and you see other men sitting, talking calmly, showing no fear in their faces, acting as though they were on a picnic in the woods… For men do not like to show fear in the presence of other men, and they put on a good act.”
Bessie noted that he would act just as coolly as the other men, but knew inside as he watched more and more drafted, spiritless, and unfit Spanish reinforcements arrive that the Republic was becoming increasingly more desperate in its likewise increasingly futile efforts. The Americans remained steadfastly loyal to their cause, but Spanish men began deserting. Even when the Republican side received a rare piece of good news in the form of new anti-aircraft guns, they did almost nothing against the vastly superior Nationalist aircraft, a fact which Bessie described as “heart-breaking” and only added to his waning confidence.
Rare breaks in the constant fighting brought even worse horrors than the chaos it replaced; Bessie recalled trying to “[rise] from the narrow niche in which you had been lying in all day[;] it was almost impossible… you had to look at [your legs] to assure yourself that they were still there, and will them to move.” The misfortunes piled on: Bessie’s best friend was shot in the eye and shortly thereafter died, a Nationalist shell finding its mark that was a Republican food truck resulted in no food for the night, and, perhaps worst of all, word reached the men of France and Britain’s eagerness to placate the increasingly hostile Hitler, which meant that any previous shred of hope for aid from the Western democracies had now all but disappeared.
Also taking notice of these happenings was Stalin, who was growing continuously convinced that Hitler would be quite a formidable enemy, and one that would need to be faced without the help of France and Britain. Stalin began diverting attention away from Spain, withdrawing Soviet officers and ceasing the shipment of arms.
Spain’s government took note of this and, clinging onto desperate hopes of pressuring Franco into similarly withdrawing his foreign troops, declared in front of the League of Nations that all International Brigaders would be withdrawn from and pushed out of Spain. Bessie knew the Spanish government’s gamble was one of low stakes, for of the mere few thousand worn-out Brigaders left, most lay in hospital beds rather than on the frontlines.
And so, Bessie and the rest of the Americans’ time in Spain ended in October of 1938, with their efforts culminating in a celebratory march down one of Barcelona’s most splendid streets for an official farewell. In their mismatched footwear and run-down attire, the men cried and marched to the tune of raucous cheering from Spanish civilians mingled with the sounds of the Republican planes flying overhead.
Though his time in Spain had come to an end, Bessie’s impact was far from over. Upon his return to the States, his Spanish Civil War journals became the basis of his famous wartime memoir, Men in Battle (1939), which Ernest Hemingway would commend as a “true, honest, [and] fine book. Bessie writes truly and finely of all that he could see… and he saw enough.” Bessie would go on to become a celebrated novelist and screenwriter, the latter of which would lead him to a prominent role in the 1940s as one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten that resisted anti-communist investigations into the film industry by the House of Representatives. Even when not fighting for Spain in uniform, Bessie remained unwaveringly loyal to his Communist and anti-fascist beliefs, continuing the greater fight and purpose of the Spanish Civil War.
“Alvah Bessie.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, www.alba-valb.org/volunteers/alvah-bessie.
Folkart, Burt A. “Alvah Bessie, Blacklisted by Studios, Dies.” Los Angeles Times, 25 July 1985, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1903/05/10/issue.html.
Gerassi, John, and Alvah Cecil Bessie. “Alvah Bessie.” Tamiment Library, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archive, 1980, digitaltamiment.hosting.nyu.edu/s/digtam/item/3185. Accessed 2020.
History.com Editors. “Hollywood Ten.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 16 Dec. 2009, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/hollywood-ten.
Hochschild, Adam. Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War 1936 - 1939. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, OverDrive, Inc., browse.nypl.org/iii/encore/record/C__Rb20931895__Sspain%20in%20our%20hearts__P0%2C2_ _Orightresult__U__X7?lang=eng&suite=def.
“TO OPEN DEWITT CLINTON HIGH SCHOOL BIDS: Detailed Plan for New Structure on Tenth Avenue. Designed to be the Largest Building and One of the Best Appointed for Such an Institution in the Country.” The New York Times, 10 May 1903, p. 24, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1903/05/10/issue.html.
Montanyà, Xavier. “Alvah Bessie's Men in Battle Published in Spain.” Translated by Sebastiaan Faber, The Volunteer, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 5 Aug. 2019, albavolunteer.org/2019/08/alvah-bessies-men-in-battle-published-in-spain/
Zinnamon, Jerrold I. Alvah Bessie: A Study of One of the Hollywood Ten. June 1978. California State University, Northridge. CSUN ScholarWorks, http://scholarworks.csun.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/124891/ZinnamonJerold19 78.pdf?sequence=1.