1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

 

When my first husband, labeled Madman Murphy by his Princeton colleagues, came to the end of his Sociology degree in 1968, the campus uncharacteristically fire-cracked with small anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations and teach-ins on avoiding the draft. I spent all my free time campaigning for the Democratic Presidential peace candidate, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, in nearby Trenton with our toddler Joe hanging in an Army surplus knapsack on my back. Campus memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr. ignited nascent embers in the Ivy League gentleman conscience. Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed by Princeton Junction on the weekend Madman Murphy graduated. We partied through the summer at the Jersey Shore. Murphy lifeguarded, Baby Joe and I frolicked on the beach, and we delighted in the safety of the light of day.

At night Murphy and I took turns babysitting and joining friends at our favorite watering holes. I started smoking pot and argued with everyone over the Viet Nam war. Jersey Shore barflies had nothing on me, after all, I’d been schooled by Princeton peace activists and Ramparts Magazine.

President Lyndon Johnson did not seek reelection. After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June, Eugene McCarthy, the intellectual standard-bearer of peace and justice, was left to shepherd the world toward a Democratic victory in his frenzied campaign for President.

In the summer, I tutored a young cousin in elementary arithmetic and sentence structure. I used my cash to buy stationery and postage stamps and took to writing letters to Bobby Kennedy delegates asking them to vote for McCarthy at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. I’d pontificate daily to friends and strangers on the beach and in the bars to test out new reasons to support McCarthy over the late-arriving establishment candidate Senator Hubert Humphrey. I fully expected my work to pay off at the Convention and longed to be at the youth festival planned in my hometown to celebrate McCarthy’s victory.

By the time I joined friends at a neighborhood Jersey Shore saloon to watch the Convention on TV, news accounts of the protests and riots were interrupting coverage of the political speeches inside the Convention Hall. But that didn’t matter to me. Soon all would be well. McCarthy would clinch the nomination and beat Richard Nixon in November. No doubt about it.

The unthinkable startled me out of innocent political bliss. The TV flashed back and forth between white men bullying peace delegates inside and police beating peace activists outside. Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the police to shoot to kill. People who looked like me were dripping in blood.

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Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at 1968 Democratic National Convention

What was happening? Eighty percent of primary voters were anti-war. We won the battle and I was sure we’d beaten back the war machine. The delegates rejected McCarthy and his peace plank, nominated Hubert Humphrey and iced out Democratic activists. 

And me? I added martinis, LSD, mescaline, speed, librium and cocaine to my diet. I could see no future. By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 1972, AA meetings monopolized my time and I did nothing but slap a George McGovern for President bumper sticker on my VW.

Caught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

Caught in a Naive Web on the Window of Reality

In 1973 and ’74 Adele, the feminist, challenged our church elders to explain exactly what Bible passages like “wives, submit to your husbands,” had to do with us. She steadfastly refused to “wear a head covering” as proscribed in verses familiar to anyone who’s been ensnared by a church that adheres to literal interpretations of the Bible. Adele, my role model for a brief time, taught me how to live in a conservative Christian extremist community as a sincere provocateur who loved God.

“You should get a real estate license and work with me in that new subdivision,”  Adele suggested, knowing wives were discouraged by church elders from working. I trusted her counsel because she was on her third marriage and knew that financial independence was the first step to freedom from my bad marriage.

And so I sat in the makeshift office of the model home in a planned development of half-built single family homes on ⅓-acre parcels in Ocean County, New Jersey — answering phones, staffing open houses, tidying up the office, running errands. Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, buoyed by Adele’s words,“You only need one sale.”

Then one day a couple appeared when I was alone in the office. I leapt to my feet, obtained some qualifying information and showed them around. The Princeton University professors picked out their dream house-to-be-built, and I called the Owner of the development to bring a contract. Not only was I going to make a few thousand dollars, but I would be playing a bit part in helping to integrate our all-white community.

I had been a political activist since high school, and at age 27, I had no evidence to suggest that all of America wasn’t heeding the call of social change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It just never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The pro forma Owner arrived with a contract but doubted that he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. I always found him encumbered with cunning so nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusual. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor. The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, then found me a part-time job making stained glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the Owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discriminating against the black couple. All they wanted was a house near the ocean where they could raise their boys in a good school and send them to Little League. Guilt squeezed my chest with thoughts that I was complicit in killing their dream. “This is Adele’s fault,” I irrationally concluded.Unknown

It never went to court. One day Adele brought me a news article that the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending couples to white neighborhoods to purchase property. “See?” she said, “they were shills.”

Appraising this explanation, I thought, “Good for them.”