Our America

Flaminia Ocampo

The Argentine writer and literary publisher Victoria Ocampo and the American writer Waldo Frank saw each other for the last time in 1965, two years before the death of Waldo, who was already ill and depressed, inclined to think that his literary career, his astonishing early reputation, and his ideals were all going to sink into oblivion. He was right.

At the present time in the United States, his native country, almost no one remembers him and if they do it is as a pompous communist writer, and according to rumor as an informant for the CIA.

In 1929, Waldo and Victoria met at a lecture that he gave in Buenos Aires about his friend Charlie Chaplin. In his memoirs Frank recounts the beginnings of the friendship with Chaplin. At about four in the afternoon, somebody rang the bell of his home in Greenwich Village. It was Chaplin, who wanted to thank him personally for what he had written about his work. At this first encounter they kept talking until dawn.

After Frank had finished his lecture in Buenos Aires, the Argentinean writer Eduardo Mallea presented him to Victoria. It was Waldo’s first trip to Latin America; he was still young at forty, a man defined by his literary renown, his communist ideals, his love for the American continents, and his passion for women. According to Victoria he was as touchy as an Argentinean—that is to say, he could take offense at almost anything. He was at once egotistical and generous, and dreamed—a rare dream for someone from his country—of a single American continent, a great union of forces, not merely geographic but chiefly cultural and historical. This inspiration, he said, had come to him in Chartres cathedral when he felt strongly the unifying spiritual harmony of the medieval period.

At that final meeting in New York, Victoria, who was then 75 and still healthy enough to travel, arrived first at the restaurant on Lexington Avenue. She saw Waldo enter and stagger toward her. (Always attentive to what other people wore, she described him as sporting a blue beret.) She got up to greet him, afraid that he would stumble or fall. This was the man who was partly responsible for the magazine Sur [South]. Thirty-six years before, on a day in October, they had walked energetically through the Rosedal park in Buenos Aires accompanied by the scent of roses on a humid spring afternoon. Frank’s intention was to convince her of the necessity and importance of a literary magazine that would reflect “America Hispana” (as he called it), a proof of the continent’s generosity, an interest in other cultures being the first proof of such generosity; a magazine that would above all be a vehicle for the expression of all those who lacked such an outlet. Victoria was doubtful of her capacity for such a project.

Mallea, who had already suggested such an idea, encouraged her. When she consulted about it with her father, who probably suffered from the prudent miserliness of a rancher, Manuel Ocampo did not hesitate to tell his daughter that it would end in ruin. “You will bankrupt yourself,” he told her. “I know you.” (He was right.) Waldo insisted. “I await the magazine’s appearance with anxiety and joy. Sur is a splendid name, and I know it will be an excellent magazine. Keep working hard: if you let a few months go by you might get discouraged. Be persistent, so as not to lose heart and lose interest in the thing. Make Sur a permanent organ and you’ll see how with time it will be rewarded, and will become the creative organism that your America and my America both need.” In the first pages of the first issue, Victoria writes him a long letter: “Waldo, in a precise sense, this magazine is your magazine, and the magazine of all those who surround me and will surround me in the future: those who have come to America, those who think of America, and those who are of America.”

Sur was born as an idealistic project but later became the reflection of a reality, or rather the response to a cultural necessity that endured for more than forty years. It helped to discover writers like Jorge Luis Borges and was praised by Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Octavio Paz, who would say that it had been for him what the NRF (Nouvelle Revue Française) had been for the Europeans. Waldo had given her his support and enthusiasm. When the first issue came out, Victoria told him in a letter about some of the criticism it had received. Many years later, in 1975, Victoria would write in the newspaper La Opinión: “People said the magazine would not last long. It was a rich woman’s pastime, destined to come to an end as soon as she found a new toy. There was a parade of all of the usual commonplaces intended to discourage.”

Frank had heartened her so often when she lost enthusiasm. Thus it was logical that, nearly four decades later, in a Lexington Avenue restaurant, she would take his arm to guide him to a table, while he advanced with difficulty and with trembling hands.

In Victoria’s mind at that moment, as she would write later, Frank’s biggest mistake had been to support Fidel Castro and his revolution (from his traveling to Latin America, especially to Cuba and meeting with Castro, comes the CIA rumor). In 1961, two years after the revolution he had published The Prophetic Island: A Portrait of Cuba. Frank had often defended himself about his sympathy for Castro and his regime. (Supposedly Fidel Castro read and admired Frank’s book on Simón Bolivar.) It was easy to talk about human rights, but when Cuba before the revolution was the United States’ garbage or bordello as it was called, who was talking about a child’s right of not being hungry? Life magazine had shown him photographs of Cuba before Castro: hungry, undernourished children with their swollen abdomens, empty eyes, and hands that no longer bothered to brush flies away. All the same, Victoria had argued often with him that if he hadn’t been willing to give his hand to the Venezuelan dictator Perez Jimenez, he shouldn’t have given it to Castro. But of course in that last encounter she wouldn’t talk about that. What does it matter with whom you shook hands or with whom you didn’t when your hands are unable to hold a fork and a knife? (During that lunch, Victoria cut his meat.)

Frank’s mind at this last encounter might have been filled with memories. Perhaps Victoria’s presence brought back the pampa that had so impressed him: “One trait of the pampa is longing.” He had crossed Argentina from north to south, responding to the serious traveler’s need to explore all the reaches of his map. “You are a nation lost in the vastness of your land. Your sadness is this: to be lost.”

The pampa had inspired many of his pages. By contrast most Europeans had no taste for the wide spaces, permitting them to affirm glibly (like Michaux) that the pampa said everything it had to say in one square meter, a square meter that repeated itself for the thousands and thousands of kilometers that constituted the Republic of Argentina.

The geographic America that Victoria and Waldo shared was a vastness that for Europeans was a difficult concept to apprehend.

Frank’s first visit to Argentina in 1929 was part of a long trip through Latin America, in the course of which he gave lectures in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Colombia. Latin Americans are hospitable to foreigners and thus he was received with an enthusiasm that forty years later he would mention constantly in his memoirs, to a point where his insistence becomes almost sad; you want to whisper to him to stop and write no more. His compatriots, in any case, would not recognize the merit of what he had done: to explore and come to know Latin America and its people, in an era when U.S. intellectuals went by preference to Paris. The people of the U.S. in general knew nothing of those beyond their own southern border, a border that was already problematic.

Not long before Frank traveled to Mexico, as he recounts in his book Memoirs, the movie actress Marion Davies invited him to dinner at her home in Los Angeles on a night when the service staff had the night off. Her lover, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, brought the sumptuous meal to the table after taking it out of the fridge himself and tasting it. When Waldo informed his hosts that the University of Mexico had invited him to give six lectures, Hearst undertook to tell him “the simple truth” about Mexicans: “Conquer them. Wipe them out. Take the country over, which they’re not fit to govern.” Then he told Frank to forget about Mexico and stay with them at their famous villa San Simeon. Chaplin, who was also present at this dinner, insisted that he accept Hearst’s invitation; probably he would not have another opportunity to see the place, and there was nothing like it in the world. Nonetheless Frank went to Mexico. In making that kind of choice he showed the authenticity of his social and political vocation, and his sense of responsibility toward the whole American continent.

Hardly had Waldo Frank arrived in Mexico when the painter Diego Rivera invited him to dinner and selected from the menu all the dishes that Frank should try if he wanted to get an idea of Mexican cuisine: “My hosts at the long table watched me take on specialty after specialty. Innocently I delighted in them all… next day I was deathly sick.” When the newspapers found out about the matter they accused the Communist Rivera of trying to poison the visiting yankee, or at least of wanting to given him a diarrhea to remember. On his successive visits to Mexico, Frank did not forget “Montezuma’s revenge” and subsisted almost exclusively on papayas.

“You are waiting to be born,” he told Argentineans on his first visit to the country. He had come to tell them— in the name of who knows what utopia, even if at the time his words had an air of certainty—that there was a possibility for a common America, if not economically (he was not that much of an idealist) at least in the intellectual sphere. He evoked an American continent that would offer a life of dignity to the socially underprivileged, the helpless—that was why he was a Communist—but above all an America made by the creative work of artists of every kind, intellectuals, writers, architects, painters, musicians. Only artists could create a continent that the people could then experience and appreciate. And this for him was the goal, to arrive at an America that was made, inhabited, and loved by many Americans, from the north, the center, and the south.

Thus, in his first voyage through the countries neighboring the United States, he felt obliged to explain his own country, and, in turn, his hosts felt the need to explain their own to him. During a banquet given by the Argentinean Society of Authors, the society’s president Leopoldo Lugones, a writer admired by Borges, began by saying that the Argentineans were Latin and Catholic. He went on to speak flatteringly of American democracy, but made it clear that it was not for Argentina. He also praised the U.S. constitution for establishing a government based on laws, but rejected such a system for Argentineans since they were by nature authoritarian and individualistic. Lugones ended by saying that Frank also was an anarchist and thus opposed to every form of law except the authority of strength and merit. (Later on, Lugones’ son would acquire a reputation as a torturer.)

Frank’s talent as a writer is his capacity to create a person on the page in all his roundness. His descriptions of the people he met are extraordinarily evocative. What is unusual is his ability, in a foreign country, to perceive truly, beyond differences of geography or idiom. There are, for example, certain insidious descriptions in his writing of the president Hipólito Yrigoyen and his government that almost make it possible to understand the fated Argentinean proclivity for political disaster:

His white hand trembles on the batch of papers. He doubts every deed of Congress and signs no bills; he doubts every report of his ministry and does not read it; he doubts the purity of diplomats and leaves the nation’s embassies unheaded. The great journals, La Nación, La Prensa, Crítica, attack him. Finance grows desperate. In the rich houses, in the cafes, the tide of talk rises against him. The army mutters. And at last the great student body, sick of their own lyrical support of a high mood that has ceased to be even a mood, since it has failed in action, turns against him.

Frank perceived it without difficulty: “Argentina is original in that it is peculiar.”

In 1932, three years after meeting Victoria, he made his first trip to Russia. (That same year he would publish Dawn in Russia: The Record of a Journey.) Like many intellectuals of the period and of the fifty years that followed, up until the “end” of communism, Frank’s suppositions about the world’s political future were wide of the mark. It is difficult to define precisely his brand of communism; he himself found it difficult and spoke of an “integral communism.” By the end of his life he felt surprised to have been part of a group whose ideology was alien to his essentially anarchist temperament. But he likewise despised a civilization whose central motor was the buying and selling of commodities and whose leaders were given over to the service of money. Frank’s communism consisted of participation in an egalitarian political system, while at the same time he believed in the profound connection of each individual with the cosmos—that is, in some sense, with God. If there were by chance anyone inclined to enlighten him on the incoherency of this mission, Waldo Frank did not listen. What attracted him to communism, as he would write at the end of his life, was the sense of community that the word carried in it. Like many writers, he gave too much weight to certain words.

Returning from his trip to Russia, he had arranged to meet Victoria in Paris, but doubted whether he wanted to visit a city that had once dazzled him but that had little by little begun to disappoint. Like Victoria, he expressed himself perfectly in French, and knowing a language allows a person to feel, at least from the periphery, that he belongs to the country where it is spoken.

He had been in France twice before. In the beginning of 1913 visiting Verdun, he was astonished by a spirit of dark resolution on the part of the French soldiers. When he crossed over to the German side of Alsace, that spirit, according to Frank, was transformed into arrogance.

Later, when the First World War began—Frank was already back in New York—he read in the papers about the bombardment of the cathedral of Rheims and reacted with such violent rage that he went to the French Consulate in New York and offered himself as a volunteer. But President Wilson had just signed a proclamation of neutrality and he was not accepted.

In his following trip to Paris in 1921, according to Frank’s memoir, the writer André Gide invited him to lunch. Gide arrived late at the N.R.F’s office (Nouvelle Revue Française) where they had to meet. He was terribly excited: the big store Le Printemps was bursting into flames and Gide loved fires. He dragged Frank to the scene and for a while they both observed how the flames risked spreading to other buildings until Gide got tired of the spectacle and offered Frank to have lunch in England. In Saint Lazaire they took a train to Calais to cross the channel. Did they carry their passports all the time with them? Did they need one back then to go to England, Frank didn’t say. All the events of his day with Gide—the fire, the channel crossing, the restaurant where they ate—made him think of a mise en scène that Gide had staged for the American writer.

During this trip, Frank met some French intellectuals: Copeau, Jouvet, Gallimard. At thirty two, he had published two novels The Unwelcome Man and The Dark Mother, and his manifesto Our America. This last title, as he would learn later on, had already been used by two writers: one Argentinean and one Cuban: Carlos Bunge and José Martí.

No sooner had he tired of Paris than he fell in love with Spain. He felt toward Paris a malaise, as he defined it. “The gods of literary Paris were not my gods. Their feasts left me hungry; their clever talk deepened my silence.” Back then he started feeling that he had more in common not with the French but with the Hispanics he knew, and he decided to travel to Spain with the idea of getting more acquainted with their roots. Frank took a train to Marseilles and from there crossed to Algeria and then on to Spain—according to him, a more logical way of reaching Spain than directly from France. Right away he found that in Spain, more than in any western country, more even than in Italy, every town, every city had its own style, its own identity and at the same time could be only Spanish. Everywhere he went—Malaga, Granada, Sevilla, Toledo, Valencia, Zaragoza, Segovia, Burgos and Salamanca—he felt that particularity. In Salamanca he met Miguel de Unamuno and Federico de Onís (who directed the department of Spanish Literature at Columbia). Onís’ family in Spain bred bulls for bullfights, and in their house’s kitchen, eating meat and drinking Rioja wine with Unamuno, Onís and some peasants, Frank felt another Spanish particularity. The illiterate peasants, the Columbia intellectual professor and the mystical poet “were of one body”. In 1926, Frank published Virgin Spain: Scenes from the Spiritual Drama of a Great People.

In 1932, after his trip to Russia, he reluctantly came back to Paris to meet Victoria. She had organized a dinner attended by the poet Anne de Noailles, a woman defined by her lyrical excesses and lack of common sense. To give an idea of her, when she was young Marcel Proust sent her letter after letter praising her poetry and she didn’t even open one envelope. Later on, when Proust was dead and she was dying of “extinguished vanity” as Virginia Woolf would say, Noailles had his letters read to her as if she had just received them. Victoria wasn’t able to understand this woman’s witticism and irreverence. Of course she recognized her talent, but more than common sense is needed to decipher eccentricity. Anne de Noailles started a conversation with Waldo Frank addressing him as cher monsieur. Her cher [dear] was a way to put men down, she never said monsieur alone. In fact there is an anecdote of her in despair for having told a man monsieur without the cher. After the cher monsieur directed to Frank, she explained to him that all his ideas about an interconnected American continent were completely absurd. The Americas had nothing in common and to give more weight to her argument she pointed to Victoria. “Look at her, here is the proof. South American women are birds from the islands, your North American women are bikes.” She had never set foot on an American continent, yet spoke with complete assurance as if she knew the subject of the Americas better than anyone. Waldo Frank seemed amused with such resolute ignorance. What did de Noailles care about reality, I wonder, if she had words to name and define and recreate everything that existed as she pleased?

Waldo Frank saw Victoria again in 1942 in Argentina when he went to speak at several conferences. This time, the Argentinean Communist Party forbade its members to attend his conferences, and went so far as to publish a booklet of some twenty pages trying to prove that Frank was a fascist. The reasons were the following: he believed in intuition and in fascist philosophers like Heidegger, he opposed dialectical materialism –in truth he opposed the dogmatism of this concept –and in none of his lectures, all focused on Inter-American relationships, had he mentioned the Soviet Union, and this definitely demonstrated that he was a fascist and not a communist.

But following his communist ideals, Frank kept on insisting that no matter the merits of the production and distribution of riches, a capitalist social order based in profit and power was malignant and destined for collapse. Frank felt that in his trips to remote places of Latin America he was telling people used to being forgotten that if they all wanted to succeed in a community of Americas, everyone had to participate. For many, including Victoria, Frank sounded like a prophet (she defined him often as “the prophetic Frank”), if a prophet is the one who brings hope talking about a possible future even if nothing indicates that it can happen. “I have come here to learn. I have not come here on a new mission. I have come here to continue my old mission of many years in America Hispana. That mission, as you know, consists of trying to understand Argentina; and of telling the truth about my own country, about Argentina, about the world. It means, as I see it, ignoring frontiers: on the premise that no man of an American Republic is a foreigner in any American Republic.”

Frank was the prophet who suddenly made life more hopeful for those who felt forgotten. Providentially there are people able to give hope to others. Frank imagined a logical reality, if this were possible. Perhaps, after all, his mission had been simply to serve as a Quixotic visionary. “I have not come to preach, to pray, or to pry,” he said, but he did exactly these three things.

On his first visit to Argentina in 1929, according to him, everything was agreeable, festive; the Argentineans had a special way of enjoying life. Even on his second visit in 1934, when he accepted an invitation from Victoria to stay at her summer house in Mar del Plata, he felt that Argentineans were still happy with themselves. However, by his third visit during World War II, the atmosphere in the country was too charged with the European situation and with the military’s obvious favoring of the Axis Powers.

In 1942 he stayed alone at one of Victoria’s homes, an apartment in the center of town, and the Czech superintendent (with the very Spanish name of José despite his Czech origin), was charged with protecting Frank against the gangs of the extreme right wing. One night, after showing police credentials, some thugs entered the apartment and demanded to see his passport. When Frank turned his back to take it from a drawer, they hit him on the head, knocking him out. In his memoir Frank noted that he should have looked at their shoes to know they were not policemen, but he doesn’t describe what kind of shoes they wore or what detail of them would have given him the clue that they were not who they pretended to be. They left him hurt and bleeding. One of the apartment’s white walls was stained with his blood (a detail that the obsessively clean Victoria gave in her account of the incident). The following day, the newspaper El Pampero led with the headline: “Adiós miserable Waldo Frank. Fuera el judío, fuera el yankee.” [“Goodbye miserable Waldo Frank. Out the Jew, out with the yankee.”]. From Chile where he traveled next, Frank wrote to Victoria saying that it was an act of God they didn’t kill him. A strange thought for a communist.

While at the restaurant on Lexington Avenue during their last encounter, Victoria could see the physical toll Parkinson’s disease had taken on Waldo. He had written to a mutual friend that he suffered from dizziness, didn’t drive anymore, and had a hard time finding the strength to follow the chronology of his memory. To write his autobiography was his way of understanding why he had been buried alive in his own country, his way of searching for answers. He attempted to understand his quick, early rise to fame and his equally swift, vertiginous downfall. Was his mysticism, or his distinct and different vision in a country that fomented original thinking and at the same time didn’t tolerate it, responsible for his failure? Had he been too forceful in arguing that his compatriots seemed to see a sort of curse in the idea of the south beyond their own borders as a frontier that shouldn’t be crossed? “None of the countries of Latin America looked with clarity to the United States, whose role, slow-forged of savior of democracy, did not fit the Hispano-American conception of the part we had played not so long ago in Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua.” (Now other Latin-Americans countries could be added to these examples.)

In 1965 when Waldo Frank and Victoria Ocampo met for the last time, he was sadly aware that he no longer wrote what people liked to read. He had two completed novels, but no publishing house was interested in them. For a writer who had once been cherished, this was akin to death. All the books he had written would fall into oblivion. At least he knew that writers of talent had appreciated him. In 1916, 1917, Frank was the associate editor of Seven Arts. Writers started sending him contributions that they knew were too good for other magazines (according to Frank). Jack London, when he was asked if he wanted to contribute to Seven Arts, answered that it was too late; the lack of a quality publication for which he could have written had caused him to stop writing. Frank knew that an editor’s job was not just to look for talented writers, but to find them. He heard of a man who worked in advertising and wrote fiction in his free time. When Sherwood Anderson sent him one of his short stories, Frank published it under the headline “Emerging Greatness.” He had also a special gift for giving encouragement to writers. Dreiser was one of them. He used to tell Frank: “If my name were Dreiservski what a success I would be.” According to Frank, Dreiser was constantly hurt by criticism of his books and always licking his wounds. Frank also encouraged Hart Crane and for Crane, Frank’s words mattered. “He needed reassurance and I seemed able to give it.” Crane needed most of all for someone he respected to tell him that his poetry justified the despair of living. When Crane went to Mexico, Frank alerted him to the death cult that Mexicans had inherited from the Aztecs. In Mexico, death was hiding everywhere. He made Crane promised that he wouldn’t drink. Alcohol and the call of death were not a good combination. Crane promised, but some time later the Spaniard poet Leon Felipe told Frank that by chance he had met Crane in a bar in Mexico and that Crane was completely drunk, unable to control his aggressiveness and more desperate than ever.

The publication of Seven Arts ended during the First World War. The editors opposed America’s entry into the war and wanted it to remain neutral. If we believe Frank’s words, the woman who subsidized the magazine, Annette Rankine, reacted in the following way: “Poor Mrs. Rankine, a gentle woman of modest goals whose money had always cleared the surface pressure of her life confining her to the interior betrayals of her neurosis, suddenly found herself attacked by her relatives, her friends, the whole class in which her comforts grew and her life had been lived.” Accused of being pro-German and a traitor to her country, people stopped inviting her to their social gatherings, and friends ostracized her. Some years after defunding the magazine, suffering from depression, she committed suicide jumping into the East River.

Probably in that last meeting between Victoria and Frank, they preferred to avoid the subject of death. In one of her numerous memoirs, Victoria wrote: “We talked about the good old times (that back then seemed bad to us) and of the present sorrows. I felt as if he were detached from life.” Frank had two years left to live.

In America Hispana Waldo had already written about Victoria, describing her house. In his final memoir he wrote about her again. He started with the kind of compliments he knew she would like: her beauty, wealth, and ancestors. He mentioned that she spoke French and English perfectly.

While I was reading all this I was wondering when the stabbing would start. Frank’s style had always been marked by the habit of intellectually attacking anyone whom he liked or emotionally appreciated. One Yale professor encouraged his early writing, and was repaid for his kindness in an article for The New Yorker, where Frank said that the professor’s generosity toward his students made him praise writing that was on the level of the Ladies’ Home Journal tastes. In Ocampo’s case, he wrote: “This fabulous creature, with her three curses upon her head—the curse of beauty, of intelligence and of wealth—had her weaknesses.” One of them, according to him, was to overappreciate her friends: Rabindranath Tagore, Virginia Woolf, T.E. Lawrence, André Malraux, the coteries of London and Paris, but she didn’t appreciate enough writers from the American continents. “That she appreciated so much did not make it fair to demand that she appreciate more,” he argued. His superior tone and condescending style make it clear what he thinks of her.

After reading his posthumously published memoirs, Ocampo commented on what he had written, and pointed to the fact that she had published in her magazine more American authors from both the north and south than writers from other continents. All the same, she completely agreed with what Lewis Mumford had written in the introduction of Frank’s autobiography. Without a doubt, Frank was one of the most cultivated men among his contemporaries. None of them, according to Mumford, had read so much, reflected so deeply, traveled as extensively, or known so many people as Frank had.

By 1975, eight years after his death and two years before hers, Victoria had completely forgiven him: “I think that as much in the north as in the south (of the Americas) to forget this writer is not only unfair, but a symbol of ingratitude from those of us who know what Frank did for the reciprocal understanding and recognition of our countries. To his enthusiasm for us Frank added a kind of fraternal treatment. He wanted, he dreamt with an undivided America.”

Evidently his dream has not come to pass.

Flaminia Ocampo’s stories have appeared in Spanish as La locura de los otros (2003) and in English as Other People’s Phobias (2013). Her other books include the novel Siete Vidas (2004) and a biographical study of Victoria Ocampo Victoria y sus amigos (Buenos Aires; Ediciones Aquilina, 2009) from which this essay is taken.