Interview with Mary Ellen Leary
Interview with Mary Ellen Leary
Interview Date: March 16, 1992

Camera Rolls: 318:59-63
Sound Rolls: 318:31-33
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Mary Ellen Leary , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 16, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.

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INTERVIEW
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[camera roll 318:59] [sound roll 318:31] [slate marker visible on screen]
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QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

I've got a lot of different things I'd like your thoughts on, but, but I'd like to start with, with what San Francisco is like. You got here in '34 to go, to go study at Sanford. And in '36 you started working at the news. What, what was San Francisco like in that period?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

My recollections of San Francisco in the '34 and '36 are colored by the fact that I was young. And I found it very exciting. And I'd never lived in a city where there was mixed race and as big a city. And I just found it all very exciting. And starting on a newspaper gave one access to that. You felt that it was all your territory. And...

INTERVIEWER:

Well, was it the atmosphere or things you did or what?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Actually, oh, it was about being young, starting out on a career that you really liked. But what, the city itself was very conscious of the, of organized labor. And the paper that I was on recently had organized the guild and had gotten a contract, so it was very organized labor conscious. And one of the reporters on the staff was very close to Harry Bridges. And there was a good deal of that sense. There was anxiety about employment, of course. [coughs] The first assignment that I had as, when I was starting out my three years as secretary to the city editor, waiting my turn to be the one woman on the staff of The Cityside... The first job they gave me was to go out and interview the people who were coming, asking for jobs, just to fend them off so that the city editor or the managing editor didn't have to. It was terribly unsettling as a young person in your first job to have to talk to men in their 40s and 50s who were long-experienced reporters who couldn't find work. But there was constant awareness of people hunting for jobs, but you did not have the visible homelessness. There were Hoovervilles as they were called, little camps of, by the roadside, of people who had arrived from out of the state or were transient within the state, and it would make a camp, kind of a group of them. But within the city itself you were not as visibly aware as you are today of a depression sense.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, as you said, you were young, and it was exciting. Talk to me a little bit more about, I mean, you weren't a tourist, but what was it that excited you about San Francisco?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

There was a vitality about the city. The sense, part of it, of course... social elite who were looking elegant downtown. quite unlike this modern city. And they had some really beautiful stores, Gumps and The City of Paris. And that was fun. But also the sense of corporate headquarters, business happening here, very important business. But there were also stories of, of heartbreak, and as a reporter, when I finally got out and covering things, the problems, for instance, of young people... that the paper was very interested in trying to get young persons convicted of a crime out of the prison system and into their, into what became the Youth Authority. I mentioned that as the sense of which the reporter could get, of the tensions of life in the city, and that was what I found exciting. Whether others would or not, I don't know. But that...

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QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

You told me one particularly provocative story about, about the assignment you got to, to dress up in your old clothes and explore what it was like to be a single woman. Tell me that story.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

There were many things that the paper did to try to bring home to people the reality of the Depression. And there would be interviews and all kinds of feature stories. And one day the city editors phoned me at home and said, "Come down in your raggedest clothes." I put on my old school uniform, which I wore in the convent when I went through college. And him coming out and kind of ragged shirt with it, and so forth... And he said, "I want you to go out and be a single woman. You just arrived in town. You hooked a ride with a truck driver, and he lets you off right outside of our office. See what you can find out about what happens to a single woman. You don't have any money at all. Where can you eat? Can you get anyplace to stay? This sort of thing." So the first thing I did was go up to the policeman on the corner and say, "I've just arrived in town and I'm hungry. Do you know anyplace where I might get something to eat?" He said, "Well, if you go down to the Ferry Building, Traveler's Aid will give you a ticket to go to a restaurant." So I walk all the way to the Ferry Building, and sure enough I got some breakfast. And then they gave me another slip that I could use for dinner at one or two restaurants, but they said I could find them easy in mid-city, but they had no idea where I could stay. And I went from one place to another. They did send me, then, to welfare office, and I waited in line to ask. I, you had to fill out all kinds of forms, and you had to wait to see whether you were going to be eligible or not, so I went through this and then went on. Nobody was giving me anyplace to stay. And finally I did, on my own initiative, went to a hospital and asked if they had a room I could use or a bed I could sleep in at night, that I had just arrived in town. I think it must have been still a little bit unique to have a single woman around asking. And they said, "No, absolutely not." And so I went away and as I walked away, I tried to make myself sound as pathetic as possible, when I said, "I don't know where I'll sleep tonight." And the woman I was talking to said, "Young lady, you come back here." She said, "If you don't have something at six o'clock tonight, OK, come back." So I felt that made a nice turn in my story. It was not going to be all so cold and heartless.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, that, that brings up another point that people make about San Francisco, which is, in terms of what, apart from what the government was doing, that people helped each other there during that period.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

There was a great heart in San Francisco. I felt that they had some very marvelous, and now quite, still in existence, family centers and children's centers, which were all voluntary and came right out of the philanthropic response of a number of quite wealthy families. And I have to say some marvelous Jewish families who gave abundantly, not just to the opera and the symphony, but they gave to the support of institutions that helped families and helped kids.

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QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

When, when you were reporting and seeing these people coming in, where, where were they from? What kind of people were they, the people who were having hard times?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Many of them were from Oklahoma and Texas and so forth, the Dust Bowlers who'd come in, but a lot of them, too, were people who'd lost their jobs. They were, it seems to me, the Depression at that time had a broader scope. It infected everybody. And people who had been very comfortable a couple of years before were absolutely broke. [coughs]

[cut][slate]
INTERVIEWER:

You were starting to say something else.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

The, there seems to me a difference in the general sweep of the Depression and of what we have today, the recession, because today you do get a sense that there are a lot of people who escape it, who are not touched at all, that the well, upper class are...

INTERVIEWER:

As opposed to what?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Whereas I think in the Depression, there was a sense of "We're all in this together." Compassion maybe was greater at that time than public compassion now. Today, I hear people be just annoyed with the homeless, and get-them-out-of-sight kind of thing. Whereas they weren't as visible then, but there was a sense that we're all suffering. That was the time, of course, when the government began moving into programs of assistance. And California with SRA, the State Relief Administration, moved even faster than the federal government, and began trying to take care of some of the absolute, urgent needs. But then the federal government began, you know, when I was a student at Stanford, I was on, on student relief where I could, I remember typing a book [laughs] of a professor in the Greek Department, fortunately not in Greek...

INTERVIEWER:

Let's stop for a second.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 318:60]
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QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

Talk to me a little bit, not about your own particular case, because you came up to go to school, and things were working well, but in general in terms of the people who went westward during the decade, the Okies, what did the west represent for them?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Oh, a lot of them came from the middle west, and it was better climate and more comfortable living. I think that, you know, all the Iowans who went to Southern California. And there was very much the same, I think, a sense of, of growth, of something happening here, which was more dynamic than lots of other parts of the country. I can remember a fellow that I met from New Hampshire, young, who said he was going to get out of here as fast as he could and go back home because he couldn't stand the pace and the, all of the frantic life. He wanted to go back and be quiet on a farm. And I thought that was the weirdest thing I'd ever heard of. I wanted... everybody that I knew wanted to be part of what was just exploding in California generally, the sense of growth and life being, business being big, and maybe you could find a job here where you couldn't anyplace else.

INTERVIEWER:

Was it a sense of hope? Or—

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

It was largely hope that gave people this expectation. There was a sense that this was a place things were going to happen in, not necessarily, or at least the people that I'm aware of, not necessarily thinking in terms of material well-being... yeah, a job, yes, and get along. Those were the days when you could have a marvelous dinner in San Francisco for a dollar, multi-course dinner. And I went to work at $17.50 a week and thought it was marvelous when I got up to $20. There were, the money value, it was not so much that everybody was going to be rich, but that everybody was going to have a good life in California. It was a symbol to people that drew them, and maybe the sunshine and weather. And of course when they got to San Francisco, found they didn't have sunshine, they had fog, but that had an allure about it, too.

INTERVIEWER:

Now that there's sort of a, a dynamic between these great expectations and what actually happened. For example, the Okies came here, and not only were times rough, but people really were against them. There was a fair amount of...

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Oh yes, they ran into a good deal of hostility, of course. There, the Hoovervilles...

INTERVIEWER:

Say, say, start that over again. Say, "The Okies ran in..."

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

The Okies, the people who came off of farms and the Dust Bowl did encounter a lot of, well, resentment and hostility and feeling that they didn't belong, why did they have to intrude here. There, a little bit was the feeling of, you know, "Put up some barriers and stop them at the border." That maybe didn't affect people coming from, oh, Iowa or something so much, who were, kind of had enough money to come in. But I know a number of stories of friends of mine, my age now, telling about their parents coming, putting everybody in the car and just driving to California because they'd find a job there, ultimately did find a job, but there was a lot of risk-taking in coming.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you think, do you think that anti-migrant sentiment, mostly anti-Okie sentiment, was justified? Was it, was it a real fear or was it just a lack of charity, or what was it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Probably the people who resented the Okies, Okies coming in, didn't want their own pleasant life disturbed. I think it was a hostility to any intruder, anybody who brings in... I'm not sure whether they were afraid of losing their jobs to these people, but they just felt they didn't belong. On the other hand, I don't believe in Southern California that there was that same kind of resentment against people coming from the Middle West, who came, but they were not as absolutely impoverished, those who came from Iowa and so forth and formed little Iowa communities.

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QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

You've sort of alluded to that event which is called the bum blockade, where the cops were actually the border sending them back. Did you get a sense that people supported that?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

People did feel some sympathy. There were, there were others, of course, who thought it was awful to stop people at the border, but people did feel some sympathy with the idea of "Don't let everybody come in and flood in here and spoil our beautiful paradise by their wanting to share it. They don't make comfortable companions." I think there was a sense, not so much of worry about the impact on the state economically, but worry about the impact on their own culture, a sense that this wasn't some, they weren't people they wanted around. On the other hand, in Northern California, there wasn't, that wasn't quite as vivid. They did, of course, have block, blockades at the border, and then they went through the whole thing of always stopping cars to search them for fruit and that sort of thing, but, because there was the idea that you had to protect the agriculture of California, and so there was a long tolerance of stopping cars and examining them.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, but, you're, I mean, specialized in economic issues. And if you weren't aware of it there, I'm sure you were, but you're increasingly aware of the fact that there was an economic problem. The issue of who was going to take care of these people. Was there a sense that that was something the government should be doing, and it wasn't doing enough?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

In those days, the government was just moving into programs to take care of welfare recipients, and I suppose a lot of the resentment against the people coming across the border was that if anybody is going to get [clears throat], pardon me, if anybody is going to get help, it's going to be us Californians, and not other people coming in. There's an atmosphere that continues in this, to this very day of saying we don't want people coming and getting welfare now.

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QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

The other day you used the term which I guess was common back then that, well, you said, "Well, the native son would always get the job." Was that  [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]  that people talked then?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

[coughs] Pardon me.

INTERVIEWER:

Let's cut for a second.

[cut][slate]
INTERVIEWER:

You were going to give me a sense of what people meant when they talked about "native son."

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Well that's a terribly, native, and—the term "native son" which may have entered into their attitude about people intruding into the state welfare rolls, but the term "native son" is a very proud one for old Californians. And in fact there are organizations, "Native Sons of the Golden West," "Native Daughters of the Golden West". And when I first came, people were proud to belong to these organizations, either male or female, and very active in proclaiming the, well, importance and integrity of those born here. And there still is a tendency among Californians to say whether they're first generation, third generation, if they can say fourth generation Californian, that's a matter of great pride. But the attitude toward people coming in, I'm thinking, I guess, too much about young people, and young people out of college who had a full of hope and expectation and felt that this was going to be a great place to be, very few of them were like my friend from New Hampshire, wanting to go back to the quiet of a farm... most of them, yet most of them wanting to be part of this vital growth here.

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QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

Now the other dynamic that we're interested in tracking is that in the midst of this vitality as the decade draws to an end, there's this—

[production discussion]
INTERVIEWER:

—there's this sense that war clouds are gathering. Does that, and at what point does that really intrude on people's lives and they start thinking about those things?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

San Francisco had a good deal of early awareness of the threat of war because of the longshoremen's protest against loading steel for Japan. And they made, where many other places might not have been so vividly aware, they made the public aware that this was in a sense sending over munitions that were going, making over munitions that would come back to haunt us. And by strikes and refusing to load ships, and things like that, they made it very visible. The imminence of war was not felt as early as the impact of jobs when we began a lot of the work on behalf of England. And we, there was a new pulse to industry here as jobs opened up. Shipbuilding and so forth got a big spurt, way ahead of our actually being at war. And the Bay Area, with its harbors, was very aware of that. But there was, through the Depression itself, there was acceptance of government coming in and having a role in helping meet the problems.

INTERVIEWER:

And that was another example of that?

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INTERVIEWER:

We were talking a little bit about this, this growing sense or concern about war issues the fact that steel wasn't being loaded, and that sort of brought it to the fore, but in general when people thought about coming war, they didn't think about Japan, they thought about Europe, didn't they?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Right, entirely, except for the longshoremen, and some of the very active labor people did fear Japan.

INTERVIEWER:

But weren't people worried about Europe?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

But generally there was, whether—of course, the question was to whether to be sympathetic with FDR and his approach towards support or whether to be so worried about war coming that you wished that you'd pull away. And the America First and the movement of withdrawal from any kind of intervention, and hauling out of all of the old speeches that warned us about getting involved in Europe. There was a great deal of that, and the radio was full of debate, really, harangues about, "We must stay clear of this and not get trapped into a European war," and a good deal of antipathy to Roosevelt. In fact, I encountered in San Francisco some very odd attitudes, some very hostile antagonism among ultra-conservatives against Roosevelt. At the same time, I was astonished at the time to find one branch of people who were quite pro-Italy, pro-Spain, I would say pro-fascist, really, honestly arguing that there was something advantageous about the fascist approach toward life and jobs and so forth. I was pretty shocked at that although I wasn't sophisticated enough to know how to argue back about it, but I felt that was not the way to go.

INTERVIEWER:

There was no consensus.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

There was not really. There were, there were, there were arguments of, very hot arguments, of many different kinds about what our relationship should be with Europe and what we should be doing in terms of the war, the war, their war over there.

INTERVIEWER:

Was there a turning point where, where, as the decade goes on, people begin to get a sense that we can't stay out of it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Many people felt that from the beginning. Many people felt from the beginning that there was no escape from an involvement with... maybe to some extent that was assumed to be an East Coast attitude, the linkage with Europe was something that was being contrived in Washington and supported in New York, but that there were Westerners who wanted to say free of that, and felt... so I think there was quite a bit of the anti-war sentiment in California. All that changed, of course, on December seventh, immediately.

INTERVIEWER:

Now one of the things. Sorry. Oh, let's stop for a second.

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QUESTION 8
[slate]
INTERVIEWER:

Let's talk about after Pearl Harbor a little bit, and specifically the, the issue of how people felt about the Japanese evacuation, whether they really felt it was justified then, or how did they see it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

The Japanese order was a shock, a terrible shock. I walked out of my apartment and found it nailed up on the light post and could not believe it, because almost everybody knew somebody Japanese and found them pleasant people. I had just done a feature story a little bit before about the Tea Ceremony, about some Japanese families that were trying to keep their daughters trained in their old customs. And I was astounded and called these people to find out what they were going to do. Well, of course, they didn't even have any option of what they were going to do. They had to go down and report right away. But there was enough fear, it was a very strong fear, of an imminent invasion here. That was sold as a reality. And having this sudden bit of blackouts at night and the alarms constantly coming out of the Presidio, that this, we have to be very careful, and maybe coming in, submarines may be coming in through the Golden Gates. That was before they got the submarine nets laid down. So there was a paranoia that was built up. And I think people accepted that, except for a handful of those who were very concerned about civil rights, who were then considered extremists, but I think people on the whole accepted that this was a necessary precaution. Of course, there were others, Germans and Italians, who also while not sent into camps, were ordered to leave here. And many of them went East, at least as far as Utah, that sort of thing. I know someone who was teaching a school at Utah had a sudden influx of Italian and German students because they'd been ordered to move away.

INTERVIEWER:

Do you think there were, there were some other political forces at work here that, in terms of anti-Japanese sentiment or people who felt they could take some advantage of the situation?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

It's always been a question whether any of the big agricultural interests wanted to get the Japanese out. I might even wonder whether some of the Mexican workers wanted them out. At that point we didn't have so many Mexican workers. My guess is that there—I'm not one who generally believes in there being a lot of secret plots and connivings in government that involves big affect on culture and society, but my general feeling is that people felt this was a war necessity and tolerated it, that they did not initially hate Japanese. Now I say that even though we had laws that prohibited them from owning property, and there was a historic labor attitude of antipathy toward them, so that there were large segments of California population who definitely didn't want the Japanese here at all as workers. Organized labor to a great extent, but the population as a whole, I think, accepted the idea of the camps and driving them out as a necessary precaution. At least it was sold to them that way.

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QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

Now we just, we just, the magic word 'organized labor' just came up. I'd like to shift gears a little bit and talk about labor on the West Coast, and specifically, you told me that, that you recall visiting Angel Island during the Bridges deportation hearings. Tell me, tell me about that experience.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I guess on a, one, one time on my days off I would try to go to places to broaden my experience of things. I used to go and listen to trials so that I could see what that was like. And one time I took the opportunity to go over and listen to one day at least, of the Harry Bridges trial where his—

INTERVIEWER:

Could you start over again and say, "I went over to Angel Island".

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I went over to Angel Island.

INTERVIEWER:

Start, start all over again. Go ahead.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

One day, I took the opportunity to go to Angel Island to listen to one day, anyway, of hearings, extended hearings that were going on into whether Harry Bridges should be forced back to his native Australia because, on the allegation that he was a communist and a threat to the country. It was a very interesting thing, because I heard him on the stand saying, acknowledging that he had accepted money from communists and assistance, because he said nobody else helped him organize the longshoremen. And he was trying to move them out of their very primitive kind of working conditions into better situation, particularly in employment, better job approach. Well, the, the trial, the hearing was packed, of course. And hearing him testify himself that he had accepted their support was dramatic, but he made it very clear he had not joined them, he did not belong to the Communist Party. And whether or not people believed him, he had, I heard him make the assertion. And I never did think that he did belong to the Communist Party. I thought he was able to use them. It always amused me then that he became a republican, a member of the Port Commission after a while. [laughs]

INTERVIEWER:

What do you think? Do you think—we talked about the... Let's change here.

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QUESTION 10
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INTERVIEWER:

I'd like to continue with, with Bridges a little bit. You told me about, you know, your impressions of being there that day, but give me a sense of what that, what his trial represented to the labor movement. What was it all about?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

It was a threat to the labor movement. There was a fear that—

INTERVIEWER:

Start over again and say "Harry Bridges".

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Pardon me. Harry Bridges, the, the attack on Bridges and the allegation that he was a communist and that he represented an infiltration of the Communist Party into the labor movement, was something that made all the labor movement extremely nervous. And even though,you didn't have the CIO necessarily involved yet, the feeling that the labor, a labor organizer, a strong labor figure could be tainted with communism hurt a lot of the strong labor leaders who, many of them were Irish and Irish Catholic and not at all communist sympathizers, but they had in this allegation a rallying point for big business. And for instance, at the Legislature, when I was covering the Legislature as a political reporter, I discovered that the big growers, and the big bankers from the central valley and so forth were constantly haranguing spokesmen for the AFL-CIO about, well, Bridges and how much you had communist, people there. Course the people's daily had their reporter at the Legislature, too.

INTERVIEWER:

Well, I'm trying to think of it more in terms of say, ordinary workers. Did they, did ordinary workers consider that an attack on them or what they'd done?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I don't think the ordinary worker translated that into his own approach towards labor or his own self. Bridges became a symbol to the antipathetic corporate leadership, but I think he was, many in labor kind of admired him because he did not take a big salary, he lived at a modest scale, and represented a kind of healthy, democratic, every man kind of approach. Certainly, I always thought of him with admiration because he did not become a fat cat in the labor movement. He was devoted to his men.

INTERVIEWER:

Try and put it in context for me. If Bridges was attacked for being a communist, that's sort of a thread that runs throughout the decade, the anti-communist, that's a way to discredit the New Deal and all those things, isn't it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Oh the fear...alarms about communism infiltrated so many, many different parts of life. Of course, the California Legislature had their Un-American Activities Committee just as Congress did. The San Francisco News supported Franck Havenner for Congress, and the Un-American Activities Committee alleged that he was a communist. And, we had all kinds of angry editorials defending him. He was, Havenner was a liberal democrat, and by no means involved in anything conspiratorial.

INTERVIEWER:

The anti, the communist charge was sort of a club that was used to attack a whole range of things, wasn't it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I found it so one time when I was covering the Legislature and wrote a story: Jack Tenney was the Chairman of the Un-American Activities Committee at the Legislature. And in looking through bills at the start of a session, trying to find what would make a nice story, I discovered a bill that, authored by Tenney, would bar the teaching of sex in the, any grammar schools at all, up until high school. No, none. Because, Tenney argued, teaching of sex was destructive to our social culture and un-American. And I had a great time with a story about it. It ran on page one: "Tenney Says Sex is Un-American". And he actually carried an allegation against me with the suggestion that I was a communist because of that story. So in his next report, his annual reports about the threat of communism, there I figured. [laughs]

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QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

Let's switch gears a little bit.

[cut][slate]
INTERVIEWER:

Let's switch gears to something else that was happening here, the Exposition at Treasure Island. When that was coming nominally to celebrate the, the opening of the Bridge, but did it represent some sort of economic hope for the Bay Area?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

The Exposition that, the Fair, the World's Fair, which was run actually for two years, even defying the fact that New York was going to have one...It was a cultural center for this whole area. It was a delight. It was a playground. It was watching the building of Treasure Island as a, created this next to Yerba Buena Island, this great flat area, was a kind of symbol of a new day for San Franciscans. There was a lot of skepticism, "Oh, it'll never work. It'll never be anything." But when it did open, it had beautiful, beautiful segments, park-like here, and lots of things that were fun. And the buildings were delightful, and the different cultural exhibits were good. So it, again, caught the sense of San Francisco area being on the edge of the world and in touch with the world, particularly the Orient. Also, a little bit of the bawdiness, the, the slightly risqué entertainment.

INTERVIEWER:

What did it represent economically to the area?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I think it was a big help. I think it drew tourists. It was a great stimulus to tourism, so the hotels loved it and the restaurants loved it. I think it did give San Francisco, this is prior to the war now, and so I think it was a, a very big shot in the arm. Now whether the, it, it sort of epitomized this area as, as a place of beauty and of culture. It had wonderful symphonies that got much more attention. And band concerts and then jazz concerts, so that there was more attention to the arts in the spotlight than just the usual opera, so forth, season in San Francisco. And I think it gave a sense of pride in, what is it, our own culture here. Now, how much it actually meant to business, it must have meant a good deal as far as the tourist element of business. Whether it—banks must have loved it.

INTERVIEWER:

I wonder if it was, if it was sort of slightly on a fantasy level, if it was really pretending things were better than they really were?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Oh definitely. It was a show. It didn't pretend to be real. It was a place of entertainment and fun. I don't think that it had—I think it was an escape valve for people who were either still suffering the remnants of depression or anxiety about forthcoming international conflicts. This was a place to forget everything and go and just have a good time. And it served the area well for that, I think, but maybe that was a handicap. I don't know, maybe we should have been more serious at that point.

INTERVIEWER:

The other thing that's, I don't know, I read somewhere, it was suggested that the business leaders in the Chamber of Commerce who promoted the Fair were concerned that because of San Francisco's history as a labor town that somehow it had this atmosphere of being not a successful place or not a good place to come to, and they wanted to erase that. Is that true?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

My feeling about the effects of it on the public's attitude toward San Francisco is that it, it gave the City a great spurt as a tourist attraction. And whether this might have overcome some of the feelings that... Well, the whole world and certainly the whole United States knew of the great demonstrations by labor and the waterfront fights and so forth, Bloody Thursday. They knew that there had been, this was a labor centered city, and that there was apprehensions about that. They also felt maybe that San Francisco was a little bit too risqué and that there was, it was naughty [laughs]. And the Fair managed, I think, to overcome some of this identification of San Francisco and make it a glamour place. And glamour was what, no doubt, the Chamber wanted to invest the City with. Whether, whether it was necessary to overcome some attitudes of skepticism about the City, I'm not sure.

[cut]
[missing figure]SWFAt87mrkY
QUESTION 12
[slate][change to camera roll 318:63][change to sound roll 318:33]
INTERVIEWER:

Let's talk a little bit about something you, you said to us last time. We were talking about the WPA and specifically about artists being on the public payroll. And artists themselves were glad about it, but there were very mixed feelings among other people, weren't there?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

The introduction, of course, that I had to government programs to help the needy was at school, when I was on a student program. I think maybe I got $20 a month or something like that. And then, the proliferation of government programs began and then the WPA, and people used to be very scornful of leaf rakers, as they called them, and people who just had minimal jobs. But, there was some compassion in the sense that they at least were getting food, something to live on. But the place in San Francisco where there was a very great appreciation of WPA was in the art colony and drama. There were lots of actors able to put together shows and put them on thanks to the WPA. And then, particularly visible, the artists. And the post office that used to be the Rincon Annex Post Office had some wonderful great wall history of San Francisco pictures put up by WPA. And then Court Tower also was decorated, thanks to the WPA artists.

INTERVIEWER:

But, but there wasn't, there wasn't—some people felt that artists were another form of leaf raking, right?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Oh, there, yes. Actually, lots of people with solid jobs felt this was unfair to have government paying mere artists. What was a poet doing with government money? That was absurd. And then artists—because I think through the Depression, there had not been very much appreciation of the arts. There was a feeling life was so grubby and so hard and so down to earth, that anything about the arts was trivial and unimportant, but when the idea came forth of the government, the WPA program actually supporting artists, there were lots of people who felt that this was an absolute waste of public money and entertaining people who should be out doing some decent work instead of this kind of thing.

INTERVIEWER:

But they didn't actually see it as work, right? Hard work?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

No, no.

INTERVIEWER:

Give me some... Do you want to stop or no? You want to stop and do a rain loop right now? Let's cut, yeah.

[cut]
[missing figure]SWFAt87mrkY
QUESTION 13
[slate]
INTERVIEWER:

I wanted to get a little more, in terms of looking back on the whole experience, the whole thing that the country went through during that decade, whether, whether first of all you think that the country really changed in any significant ways. By the time we got to the end of decade, were we really a different country?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

I think the relationship—what you had as a result of the Depression was a different relationship between people and government, I think. And it seems to me that an acceptance of government involvement in one's life grew. And you had people beginning to feel that it was perfectly proper and right, both for government to regulate business more, to be sensitive about anti-trust, to be far more careful about regulating banks, and then the idea of providing unemployment insurance, providing welfare, and, out of California ultimately, we had the whole sense of old age pensions come. I think that the Depression era completely changed people's attitudes about the, where they stand in relation to government. Now, we're at a different point now with, I think, the majority of people today saying, "There's too much government. Get government out of our lives."

INTERVIEWER:

Now when you talk about the role of government, you remember to bring up to talk about the role of FDR, his function, making these things happen. What, looking back at his role in the decade, do you think it was essentially positive? Or how do you see it?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

When I was living through the Depression, I must say that I was a fan of FDR's, and felt that he was sensitive to the needs of people who were in great depression, who were really deprived. However, I had some friends who were just as hostile as could be. They used to make these perfectly dreadful jokes about Eleanor getting into everybody's bedroom and determining how many children you could have and all this kind of thing. There was lots of cocktail laughter over how far the government was intruding into people's lives. I have felt, I suppose, a kind of a little bit of a socialism acceptance here of saying that there are some things that the whole of government, the whole of the people, can do together better than leaving it all to private enterprise. This is not a particularly popular attitude today, but in that era where for many desperate needs could not be met, Milton Friedman to the contrary, could not be met by private volunteer, voluntary efforts, there were lots and lots of private voluntary efforts to assuage the hurt, but it couldn't be mounted on a big enough level. Now, whether, this was a change in the public's attitude. And then there was a revulsion that's come against it. FDR was a symbol of a, perhaps a paternalistic government, that may be it. As a journalist, I've always been absolutely dumbfounded at the success with which he managed to hide his confinement to a wheelchair. There never were pictures that showed him being wheeled anywhere or that showed the braces on his legs. And today with the far greater expose of everything about politicians, it's just dumbfounding.

INTERVIEWER:

Stop for a second. Do we have, how much to we have left?

[cut]
[missing figure]SWFAt87mrkY
QUESTION 14
[slate]
INTERVIEWER:

Talk a little bit about how people felt about bums in the Depression period?

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

There was some fear of them actually, a fear of bums and hobos. There was a fear about the clusters of people in Hoovervilles that would be lining many of the streets, the roads, back roads anyway, those days. But also there was a sense that they were resented because they didn't fit... It was a conformist era. They didn't fit into the social patterns that were accepted and acceptable. And I think that made people uneasy. They were, it was an era, and still there's a lot of Victorianism, I think in it, and you were supposed to follow appropriate styles of life. Anybody who, you know, hardly any flower children in those days. You couldn't believe people would accept and tolerate as much deviation in culture as we have in the 60s and since.

INTERVIEWER:

Well that was the big issue really, in a sense, that it was hard to change during that period.

MARY ELLEN LEARY:

Yes, there was, change was difficult in that period and was difficult to accept. And not only the change, but just the acceptance of people who deviated from the regular pattern that you knew in life. One of the things about that whole Sinclair era was, and of course, Olson became governor and kind of brought some of the Sinclair attitudes into the public administration in California, but I have heard lobbyists for the newspaper industry, for instance, tell about how they defeated Sinclair and organized. The first time, apparently, that the telephone banks have been organized, and the first time they used film in movies, movie houses, newsreels and so forth, to approach the public attitude in defeat of a political candidate. But the general feeling towards hobos, as a child, they came to the back door, and people would always give them a meal, and maybe even give them a little local rake the back yard or something, a little bit of work. It wasn't, when I was a child and, and hobos came, there wasn't fear of them. It was sympathy and help them out. But, but don't let them stay around much. [laughs] There were all the stories about, "Did they mark your house as one that you were going to be sympathetic, you could get a meal?"

[cut]
[end of interview]