Judy Gumbo’s Cultural Revolution

Judy Gumbo. Photo: Jonah Raskin.

Reading Judy Gumbo’s fast-moving, action packed, thoughtful memoir, Yippie Girl (Three Rooms Press: $18) felt like meeting and getting to know a longtime friend and comrade all over again. Let me explain and please allow me to introduce myself. I have known Gumbo, aka Judith Clavir, aka Judy Albert since 1970 when I was a Yippie and running in some of the same circles in which she was running. In those days we were always running.

I have known three of her four husbands, including her present partner, Art Eckstein, a retired professor and the author of a book about the Weather Underground and the FBI which says in a scholarly way, “a plague on both your houses.” I also knew, very well, Gumbo’s second husband, Stew Albert, my consigliore, with whom I traveled to Algiers on a mission from Bernardine Dohrn who was then on the “FBI Ten Most Wanted List.” I was to tell Eldridge Cleaver not to trust Timothy Leary, a slippery fellow if ever there was one. It was Eldridge who gave Judy Clavir her moniker, Gumbo. She was the female version of Stew. Get it?

Eldridge over-reacted to my message and placed Leary under house arrest. Later, he sent Leary and his entourage to the Middle East to befriend the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an expedition that turned into a fiasco. Years later, Leary and Cleaver both surrendered to the authorities and both named names they should not have named. Yes, they informed on former comrades and betrayed confidences. Leary snitched on his own lawyer, Michael Kennedy.

Betrayal is probably the last thing that Gumbo would ever do. The daughter of Canadian Communist Party members, she regards ratting as one of the most despicable acts a human can perform. She stops far short of ratting. She also chooses not to say things that might reveal some aspects of the Yippies and their friends in a less than flattering light. Or something illegal.

In the author’s note at the back of the book she writes, “of all the questions I faced writing Yippie Girl, I agonized most over how much information to disclose.”  I know where off she speaks. I agonized over the same questions when I wrote and published in 1974, Out of the Whale, an autobiography, chose to omit or else disguise my connections to the Weather Underground. My FBI files report that agents purchased two copies of the book.

In the author note at the back of her book, Gumbo writes what I did not write: “I have a duty to history, but I feel even more strongly that I not betray the confidence of friends.”

I have been told that her decision not to betray confidences delayed the publication of this book and prevented it from going into print from a bigger and more prestigious press than Three Rooms who have done everything to make this book attractive and to bring it to the reading public.

Yippie Girl is not a perfect memoir of the Sixties. Probably there will never be such a thing. Yippie Girl leaves much unsaid. But it’s the best account in existence of what life was like for a woman in the theatrical, goofy, messianic world of the Yippie boys: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Phil Ochs, Paul Krassner, Stew Albert and others. There were Yippie females besides Gumbo including Anita Hoffman and Nancy Kurshan but they didn’t kiss and tell.

Yippie Girl is a fun read and a valuable political document, long overdue. It’s cause for celebration. Abbie and Jerry, those two sibling rivals, wrote their best selling Yippie books—Revolution for the Hell of ItDo ItWoodstock Nation and We are Everywhere—in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they were in the news and the stars of the circus they invented.

The Yippie females were there, playing key roles, though at the time they were rarely acknowledged. The culture at large, which the subculture sometimes mimicked, was so fixated on the male animal that females were overlooked, excluded and covered up, though they were allowed to appear as sex symbols.

Gender matters greatly. That’s clear from reading Yippie Girl, which adds enormously to the picture of the American counterculture that has already been depicted in books in bits and pieces.

In her memoir, Gumbo is both a participant and an observer, an insider and an outsider, an actor on the stage and a critic of her own performances. She takes herself back into the past and she also locates herself in the present day, which is far more cognizant of gender, ethnicity and class than ever before in recent history.

The original Yippies were aware of sexism and racism, but they were also creatures of the time and place in which they lived: racist, sexist America during the Vietnam War.

Gumbo and Stew Albert were, like many others in the movement and the counterculture, under the surveillance of the FBI. Agents kept tabs on me and my family, and on my friends, including Jennifer Dohrn, Bernardine’s younger sister; one agent, Mark Felt, the original Deep Throat, even removed Jennifer’s underwear from a dresser in her bedroom. Kinky.

Gumbo offers a passage from an FBI file about her that states “of the individuals connected with the anti-war movement… the subject… is considered to be the most vicious, then most anti-American, the most anti-establishment and the most dangerous to the internal security of the United States.” FBI agents made similar statements, no less false, misleading and libelous about many anti-war activists and radicals, including the members of the Beat Generation which Hoover described as one of the greatest threats to the U.S. along with the Communist Party, the Black Panthers and more.

Invasions of privacy and violations of civil rights by the FBI were rife. Lives were disrupted. Individuals were afraid of a knock on the door  and an inhospitable visit. Still, I think Abbie and others were correct when they insisted that what Hoover wanted more than anything else was good press and ample funding to keep hundreds of men employed.

Apprehending criminals was secondary. Agents filed reports with information tailored to meet Hoover’s needs and wants. The FBI spread the rumor that I died in the explosion that demolished a New York townhouse in 1970 and led to the death of three members of the Weather Underground.

Still, in my experience it was relatively easy to out fox the flatfooted FBI. Watch enough movies about crime, criminals and cops and you learn how to change trains and buses and alter one’s appearance, too. Gumbo and Stew outsmarted the G-Men and caught them red-handed, bugging them. Someone put a device under their car.

But the phrase in the subtitle of this book, “defeating the FBI,” doesn’t sound right to me. Gumbo and Stew won a battle. The FBI won the war against the Left through COINTELPRO and the like. Gumbo includes passages from her FBI files, and while they can be illuminating, the documents that mean the most to me are from the letters she received from the man she initially calls “her lover” and later identifies as Do Xuan Oanh, a Vietnamese Communist and diplomat. He fraternized with her and she fraternized with him near the height of the “American War” as the Vietnamese have called it, to distinguish it from the War with the Japanese and the War with the French.

One might say that Gumbo and Xuan Oanh both slept with the enemy. The parts about their romance would make for a Hollywood thriller, along with the time when Gumbo and Stew defended the Weather Underground’s bombing of the US Capitol and said publicly and fearlessly, “We didn’t do it but we dug it.” That took balls or whatever it is that Amazon warriors possessed.

In 1995 when I traveled to Hanoi, I carried a message from Gumbo to Xuan Oanh. I also delivered a fifth of Johnny Walker which we sipped little by little over the course of an afternoon while talking about Vietnamese and American literature, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which he translated.

In one chapter of her memoir, Gumbo offers Xuan Oanh’s criticisms of the Yippies and his suggestion that they ought to have been better organized and more serious and not aim to make a revolution for the hell of it.

Excuse me! The Yippies were great because they weren’t SDS or the MOBE. They were freewheeling rebels. They have not been accorded their rightful recognition by historians of the 1960s. Not until now. Yippie Girl honors the Yippie past, even as it acknowledges the flaws of Yippie. I’m sorry that Stew, Abbie, Jerry, Phil, Paul, Anita and more aren’t around to read Gumbo’s book. But there are tons of survivors from the Sixties who have remained true more or less to their youthful selves and can and should read Gumbo’s honest to goodness account of her wild days as a Yippie girl, and a Yippie woman who became a Yippie wife, a Yippie mother (of Jessica Albert) and a devoted Yippie grandmother, too

You’ve done it all, Gumbo. After Yippie, you played a big part in that section of the 1970s women’s movement that opposed the American War. The cover photo on your book shows you with your sisters in the street, where all good revolutionaries belong at some time or other.

Gumbo, near the end of the book, you quote Stew who wrote with prescience, “Judy is so good she might cheat fate,/she might get justice, get what she deserves/get recognition/get appreciation.” I am not sure about the justice part. Justice is hard to come by in America now as ever before. Still, Gumbo has cheated Fate for decades. Hopefully, with her memoir she will receive the recognition and appreciation she rightfully deserves.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.