Tito Gerassi lived one of the great lives of the 20th century. John Gerassi – called Tito by his friends well before that other Tito, the former head of State of united Yugoslavia took the name as well, died last night in a New York hospital. His daughters from two marriages informed his enormously long email list of close friends and comrades.
Gerassi was my professor at Bard College in the late 1970s, when we thought the victory of the revolution was still just a matter of time, before the crap that now passes for serious thought and still dominates the world, the revival of capitalist idiocy as “common sense” had come back into fashion. Liberal Democrats were the right at Bard in those days (I hate to tell you what passes for the left there now) and Tito was the far-left among our professors – not easy given that the film department led by the late Adolphus Mekas had a hammer and sickle on the door.
My friends and I gravitated toward him pretty quickly. He was the best public speaker I have ever heard, in and out of the classroom. Many of his former students remained close friends and in fact two of his current students – he was still a professor at Queens College up to his death yesterday – were with him when he passed away.
The night he was born in Paris, a who’s who of 20th century artists and writers were at the bar downstairs with Gerassi’s father, Fernando Gerassi, an accomplished artist in his own right, and when the rest got drunk only Jean-Paul Sartre went upstairs in time to see the moment of birth of the person who later would right a biography of him rightly called by a NY Times reviewer “dazzingly original” (here: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/09/books/sartre-without-apologies.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm), and who would just this past year publish an invaluable volume of their conversations over the years on politics, philosophy, war, literature, culture, art and everything else, “Conversations with Sartre” which is already in print in French and Italian as well.
Gerassi’s parent’s remained best friends with Sartre and Simone di Beauvoir all their lives. Fernando was the model for the French intellectual character in Sartre’s “Roads to Freedom” trilogy, and was the last Republican commander of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. Tito told the story many times of how he and his mother were escaping with false IDs from the Germans as the Spanish Republic fell and he, 8 years old at the time, pointed to a Wanted poster of his father and proudly told the Nazi commander who he was. The German officer saluted Tito’s mother and let them through.
The legendary Wild Bill Donovan, founder of OSS recruited Tito’s father for espionage during the war and this helped the family, through the intervention of Robert F. Kennedy, to gain US citizenship.
Tito worked his way through Columbia working in the office of leftist Congressman Vito Marcantonio and writing pornographic novels under a pseudonym. He would never tell me the pen name used, so I have never read them, the only works of his I have missed out on.
He was a womanizer, a lover of life, a man who could pick the right horse at the race track, convince me to bet on it, then change his mind on a hunch at the last minute, and blow his money on a loser even as I collected my winnings from his flawless analysis of how to win at the race track.
He was a friend of Che Guevara and had a lifelong allergy to shell fish after being poisoned and nearly killed at the table with Fidel Castro during one of the CIA’s incompetent attempts to do in Fidel during a dinner for radical foreign journalists in Havana.
He met Ho Chi Minh and when asked about what the American antiwar movement was doing, was so embarrassed by how little it seemed compared with the sufferings and struggles of the Vietnamese people that he embellished a little more and a little more, each time seeing Ho more and more impressed, until finally the great Vietnamese leader exclaimed “But don’t you American activists ever find time to have fun ?”
He was the greatest story-teller I ever met and more than half of the stories were true, such as how Sartre wrote the whole Critique of Dialectical Reason while on LSD and talking to imaginary crabs.
He went to Iran with Ramsey Clark to see the revolution there but left early – officially taken ill but in fact convinced that Clark was there as part of a Carter administration attempt to free the US hostages rather than to hear Iran’s side of the story as to the US support for the Shah and his atrocities.
I miss him. No more double espressos in sidewalk cafes in New York, Paris, Venice. No more stories, even the ones I had heard a million times because they were so good you never got tired of hearing of them – like how Che became Minister of the Economy – Fidel at an early post-revolution meeting asked “who is an economist?” and Che raised his hand so Fidel named him to be in charge of the economy. Later, Fidel went up to Che and said “Che, I didn’t know you were an economist – economista in Spanish – and Che replied “economist? I thought you said “who is a communista ? A communist !”
July has been a bad month: Alexander Cockburn is dead, now Tito Gerassi. My best Italian friend’s brother died at age 52, my own age and so I went to my second funeral in two weeks, a number of us, old comrades, to support our friend who wrote a brilliant analysis of the blocked and thwarted life that had led his brother to break down while writing his master’s thesis on Marx, a testimony read beautifully by a leftist priest at the mass. A chance for old comrades who used to occupy university buildings, organize strikes, start radical journals together to meet, for our kids to play together in the cemetery, an excuse to have a drink together. The first funeral this month I attended was of my father-in-law, Paride Bedulli, who as a young man joined the Resistance against Mussolini and the Nazis, and later engaged in progressive and decent political activity that a local paper wrote never involved a seat in parliament for himself but rather the needs of the people.
Now Tito. Some July, and I can’t be there for a memorial for him as I live far away. But his ashes will be spread over the ocean that he loved so much. And Tito once said of July that it was a good month to be born, as he was and as I was, telling me “There will be more Cancers on the barricades when the time comes than any other sign.” There will be one less now, although knowing how Tito hated the world’s oppression, if there is a god wherever he is now, that guy better watch out.
Steven Colatrella can be reached at: email@example.com.