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Harry Bridges [1953]

For a world-famous city, San Francisco has a surprisingly small coterie of so-called “celebrities” (a celebrity being, I would say, someone who is widely known outside his own community and his own field of endeavor). There are dozens of purely local celebrities, shaking hands and being pointed out every time they walk down the street, but as for the large, economy-size celebrity, as likely to pop up in Winchell’s column as my own, I can think of only a handful—for example, Lefty O’Doul, Harry Bridges, William Saroyan, Kathleen Norris, Joe DiMaggio, Pierre Monteux.

There are more, of course, but these are the first that come to mind, perhaps because they pass the sternest test for qualification as celebrities. Their names need no appositional identification. You know by this time that Kathleen Norris is a writer, whether you've read her stuff or not. Harry Bridges can be described as “well-known” or “widely known,” depending on your point of view. And if there’s a better symphony conductor in the world than Pierre Monteux, San Franciscans would rather not hear about him.

On the fringe of this select circle is a group of satellite celebrities. I’m not quite sure whether the citizens of Oshkosh or Peoria ever heard of Roger Dearborn Lapham, but stories about him fill envelopes in newspaper “morgues” all over the country. Shipowner, mayor, administrator of economic aid to China, “Roger Dodger” Lapham has made his mark.

He is especially celebrated along the water front as  the first employer willing to trade verbiage on a public debating platform with Harry Bridges, a notoriously quick thinker on his feet. The historic encounter took place before a mob of 10,000 in Civic Auditorium in» the mid-30s, and Roger gave a good account of himself, even drawing a cheer now and then from the antagonistic longshoremen.

It was around this time that an automobile accident of more than passing interest took place at Howard and Beale streets, near the Embarcadero. A sleek sedan traded blows with a truck, then turned over and came  to a precarious halt on its top. A crowd collected (yes, as if by magic). A couple of longshoremen yanked open the doors of the sedan and pulled out the driver, a gray-haired portly gentleman still smoking his cigar. He and it were uninjured.

“Say,” said one of the rescuing longshoremen, “you're Roger Lapham, aren’t you?” 

Lapham nodded.

“Well,” snapped the water fronter, “I saw the accident, pal. And for the first time in your life—you're right!”

It seems peculiarly typical of San Francisco that the headquarters of both Big Business and its pet hate should have been located within a few blocks of each other on the same street—Montgomery. For here, in drab contrast to the marble-halled splendor of the nearby Bank of America, was the office of Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union of the CIO, and for fifteen . years San Francisco’s most controversial figure. 

To his supporters, hard-boiled, Australian-born Harry Bridges is the most slashing and forthright leader West Coast labor has ever known. To those who fear his power and suspect his political motives, Bridges is nothing more than a long-standing threat to what they like to call “The American Way of Life” (no further explanation needed). 

Somewhere in between lie the obvious truths. He is an able unionist who has improved the lot of the waterfront worker one-hundredfold. He is so personally honest that scores of investigators have been unable to pin a shady maneuver on him. And he is an extreme lett-winger whose politics and policies usually run parallel to “the Party line.”

Considered merely as one of the dominant figures in present-day San Francisco, Harry Bridges is a strong, colorful, and at times sharply amusing character. For. instance, when he refused to sign a non-Communist affidavit under the Taft-lartley Act a friend asked him whether this refusal might not indicate to the public that he is, actually, a Communist.

“How can it?” snapped Bridges. “The Supreme Court of the United States has already decided twice that I’m not,” which it did in voiding two strenuous attempts to deport him back to Australia as a man plotting the overthrow of the Government.

It was during the first of these deportation hearings that Estolv Ward, chief of the Bridges Defense Committee ran across one of the best of the Bridges legends. “The story went that at one point early in his career he was shipwrecked in the Pacitic and managed to struggle to safety by hanging onto a mandolin that happened to flooat by from the wreckage.

Ward told Bridges that he'd like to release that story in a short, “human-interest” biography of the waterfront leader—a suggestion that brought a loud groan of disapproval. 

“Listen, Estolv,” said Bridges, “if you use that silly  story they won't have to hold any deportation hearing  for me. I'll just leave town by myself!”

Even those who have a multitude of reasons for opposing Bridges concede that he is an able man. During lunch one day at Jack’s, skyscraper developer Louis Lurie needled George Killion, president of the American President Lines: “George, if you were as smart as Bridges, you'd have him working for APL,” to which Killion merely nodded solemnly. 

At the height of a waterfront strike, with the Bay virtually empty of shipping, Paul C. Smith, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, invited Bridges up to his Telegraph Hill apartment, which commands a sweeping view of the harbor.

“Something has to be done about this, Harry,” said Smith kiddingly, leading Bridges onto a balcony. “I used to be able to bring my guests out here during a party and show them the lights of a hundred ships at anchor. Now, as you see, there’s nothing—nothing but blackness. You’re ruining my view.”

“Tell you what, Paul,” returned Bridges. “Let me know sometime when you’re having a really big party, and I'll tie up every ship on the Pacific coast right here in your front yard!”

It was during a Sunday brunch at Paul Smith’s that Bridges first met the famed wit, Dorothy Parker. Miss Parker, it seems, had newly discovered her own social consciousness and was eager to lend a helping hand to the then still-faltering cause of labor.

“I’m going from here to Hollywood,” she told Bridges in all sincerity, “and if there’s anything I can do for you down there—anything—just let me know.” 

Bridges shook his head and thanked her, but throughout the meal she kept asking for some slight mission to perform for him in Hollywood.

At last, as he was leaving, Bridges had an idea. He  paused at the door, turned to Miss Parker, and said: “Come to think of it, there is something you can do for  me in Hollywood.”

“Anything,” repeated Miss Parker, eyes ashine. “Anything.” 

“Okay, get me an autographed picture of Shirley Temple,” said Bridges, and out he went. 

Curiously enough, it was an autographed picture sent by Shirley Temple to Bridges’ daughter Betty that helped put the screen star under momentary, if ridiculous, scrutiny by the Martin Dies Committee investigating subversive activities.

Betty Bridges, by the way, often found opportunity to use her father’s “bad” name to good advantage. One day, I remember, a couple of tough little kids in her neighborhood tried to steal her pet dog, Flashlight  Battery, away from her. “You better let go,” warned Betty, tugging manfully at the dog, “my father’s Harry Bridges!” The kids immediately dropped their half of the pup and fled.

Bridges himself is not unaware of his own unpopularity in certain circles. At the Bal Tabarin night club I introduced him to Russell L. Wolden, the young assessor of the City and County of San Francisco, whereupon Bridges began pumping Wolden’s hand heartily and beaming. “I’m certainly glad to know you. You have no idea what a great pleasure this is.”

Somewhat taken back and yet slightly flattered, Assessor Wolden wondered: “Yeah? Why?”

“Because,” returned Bridges happily, “a lot of people hate you too.”

Today, in his mid-forties, Harry Bridges is a sallow-faced balding man who is plagued by ulcers, recurrent revolts in his own unions, and apparently untiring efforts on the part of his enemies to label him a “Communist.” Of the three, his ulcers have pained him most, keeping him out of night clubs where he once diligently pursued his favorite indoor sport of the  rumba. He now sits at home with his second wife, an  ex-professional dancer, and plays chess and drinks enough milk to inspire Mrs. Bridges to join any and all organizations dedicated to the cause of lower milk prices.

In Philadelphia, during the Henry Wallace nominating convention, he was walking along a downtown street when suddenly a policeman began following him, as is not unusual with cops and Bridges.

“Hey, waitaminute, are you Harry Bridges?” shouted the officer. Bridges nodded. “Well, slow down,” said the copper, “I wanna talk to vou.” "

“Yeah? What about?” asked Bridges suspiciously.

“Ulcers,” said the cop. “I got ’em too.”

Thus has nationwide fame come at last to Harry Bridges.

One Comment

  1. Robert O Williams November 3, 2023

    That’s the Harry Bridge’s many of our families remember today that led us upwards into the middle classes. Locally here and in Oakland we can try and remember the Finn Halls —-Red Finns—–White Finns divide that newcomers have never had the words whispered between their ears.

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