Camera Rolls: 318:44-46
Sound Rolls: 318:22-23
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Shirley Triest , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 12, 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.*
Shirley Triest, take one.
Maybe we can just start out with some of your general memories or impressions about what the Depression was like here in San Francisco in the middle of the decade, in the 1930s.
I don't remember us getting really serious until after 1932 or 3 in spite of the fact that the crash had occurred in '29. Almost everyone that I knew at that time, no matter where they'd been before, were picking up their bags of groceries and receiving some kind of help. And it was a huge percentage of people who were doing that, and by then I'd left home, so all my friends were in that condition.
Was there any work?
Not that you could find, because people would get some jobs perhaps washing windows for twenty cents an hour, but that wouldn't be—they couldn't do it every day. They'd just stumble across it. I had a job where I worked for a couple of weeks for a tailor, and he gave me my carfare, and it seems to me it was something like, it was ten cents an hour, and then I might have worked for twenty-five cents an hour.
Put that in some sort of perspective. What do you think it would take—it sounds like nothing now. Could you barely live on it? Could you survive? What would it take to live on then?
Well, those things didn't hold you up for very long, but of course, but that was a time when you could get a five-course dinner for twenty-five cents, including wine. So that puts it more in perspective. Or you could get bread from five cents to eight cents a loaf.
Now, you weren't born here. You came from somewhere else, right?
Yeah, from Oakland.
Yeah, so the Bay Area was all in the same suit.
Oh definitely. But I was in San Francisco for that period.
In 1934, as Wall Street was getting in trouble, there was a lot of activity in San Francisco. That was the year of the general strike.
Did that really affect the climate of the city?
Well, it was unheard of. I don't know where they've had a total close-down like that since, of a whole city. I don't know if it would have happened somewhere other than San Francisco, except for the times being hard, and tremendous amount of feeling. I mean, emotions were very close to the surface, and it was an astonishing thing walking around the city, and there was absolutely nothing going on. There were restaurants that were delegated to remain open, for people who depended for their food on restaurants, and they'd be fifteen blocks or something apart and nothing was running. Streetcars, nothing. It was shut down, it really was, and that was impressive, believe me.
Did it seem to you as a young person that this was an important step in terms of working people organizing and somehow taking some control over their lives, that the strike helped these things?
Oh, I thought it would go on from there. It really looked to me as though that would be the only solution to the situation as it stood. The economics and so on, I couldn't imagine that it could go on from selling apples on the corner in '29 or '30. That was supposed to be a solution at that point, to the point where they had the general strike, and I thought that it would go on, and that the general strike would bring about a lot of settlements that didn't really occur.
But it kept up some momentum. That was what gave San Francisco the reputation for being a labor town. That's really where it started, wasn't it?
It might have been there before, but that's when I became aware of it.
Now, 1934 was when you got a job on a public art project, which was a rather important event. Maybe you didn't play a significant, major part in it, but Coit Tower was the start of art workers working for the government.
Well, there was a period before that, in '33 it was possible. They were giving jobs through PWA, and I had, maybe it was more than two or three weeks—there wasn't any guarantee that if you happened to land one of those jobs that this was permanent employment, because they would come and go as the government would, in a very experimental way trying to put some kind of forms together.
How did the general proposition that the government would put artists to work strike you?
Well, of course I thought it was a grand idea.
Can you say, that's one of these cases where you say, "Of course I thought artists getting government jobs was a grand idea." Because "it" doesn't mean anything to the people who are listening to this.
Getting jobs was a grand idea for artists. I suppose there are drawbacks to having artists—I mean people are struggling around about it now. If you get endowments, should you paint what they want you to. Well you have that sort of a hangup when you begin having—
Well that was—going back to 1934 and Coit Tower, the issue of what artists would paint when they were working for the government was alive then, wasn't it?
It was in there, and there was a lot of effort to do something different. A lot of people would deliberately do what they wanted to do and see if it would fly or not.
Sort of push the limits.
Was it, how did you feel in terms of your own life, starting to work as an assistant on Coit Tower? Did that seem important to you? Did it feel like you very part of something that was really important?
Oh, it was an absolutely wonderful job working there, and very unusual in the sense that you don't usually have artists working together. They tend to be a little more isolated. It was a very short job, actually. It was only, because a lot of work had been done previously in studios and I didn't do any work on that, so it was a matter of a couple of months or more and then it was, incredibly, painted.
Did it strike you that there was something special about artists actually contributing to society or painting for an everyday public as opposed to for museums and galleries? Was that an issue for you?
Well, we'd had Diego Rivera here before this started, the public works, and he had done a great deal of the work in Mexico. He'd already done a number of murals there, and that sort of established in more ways, I think I realize now than I did then, the way it was going and attitudes toward it, and that it was kind of a "of the people, by the people, for the people" program instead of just doing it to keep people off the streets.
One of the criticisms that was leveled against the artists and the theatre workers—that when people tried to do relevant art, the usual way to discredit it was to say that it was a Communist movement and that Communists were doing it, and it was somehow "Un-American." Did that happen on Coit Tower?
Oh, it happened. It happened.
What was the response to that?
Well, there was a conservative element, and the press was very conservative, and the Hearst papers were well-known for being very conservative. So the—and then there was a lot of union back-up and this high feeling that I mentioned, so that you could have some pretty good conflicts and arguments going on then, in regard to how far you could get with your radicalism.
Well, I mean, I guess what I'm asking is, were those legitimate attacks or was that just a way to try and discredit what you were doing, what artists were doing?
Well, I think that depends upon the point of view that the people who didn't like it were maintaining. My dear mother really didn't think that this was an appropriate way for good people to be acting, that they should do as they're told, sit and stay and everything.
And not paint controversial art?
Right, right. After all, they're paying you, and you're making all this uproar.
Because its a theme that runs through the decades. Whenever anyone doesn't like it, it was Communist. Now, let's move on a little later in the decade. How did things feel, say in '38 and '39? Were things getting better? Was the Depression over, or was it still bad?
There were jobs to be had, and they were fifty cent an hour jobs. I don't remember when they started on the bridges, but there was somewhere around in there, maybe even as early as '37, and those made a lot of simple laboring jobs for a lot of people. Just preparing the approaches to the bridges, and things of that sort. So that it loosened up there, and in other places too.
So things looked like they were getting a little better?
They got a little better. Well, as soon as people were having enough to eat, you could see that the radicalism faded in exact relationship to how much they were eating per day.
Do you think Treasure Island and the Fair was thought of something that was going to help the local economy?
End of the sound roll.
Shirley Triest, take two up.
How would one get on WPA? Could anyone get on?
Well, it was a matter of application. I can't remember that well. And it was very disorderly, really, in the sense that, I was married to someone at that time who had the job and had an accident and couldn't work on it, and I just went out and did it. Just walked in and did it. And eventually it worked out that I held the job. And I didn't apply anywhere for anything on that. It's just like you're standing there, so you sit down and do it.
But I mean in general you'd have to be relatively poor to qualify.
Oh, definitely. Yes, you'd have to be a lot more than relatively poor. You'd have to be flat-out broke. There were people who had supervisors jobs, and they were not destitute, but they didn't make very much money. Their salaries weren't much, but they didn't have to be without anything at all.
In 1937 there were some major WPA cuts and people got laid off. Do you remember any of that at all?
No, because the atmosphere was that you might get laid off any time. It was this,
there was always the cloud that you might be laid off, and there were always rumors that next week or next month there would be cuts, and you'd never know if it would be you or not.
** And I knew people during that process where they'd get laid off and then get back on again, but it meant that one never had the slightest sense of security about the job, whatever one it was.
Did you ever get laid off from any of the jobs?
No I didn't.
But you knew people who were laid off?
Oh, definitely. It had nothing to do with my virtues. It was just the way it fell.
It was pretty arbitrary.
Was WPA enough to live on? Could you survive?
Did you have to take a second or third job?
There wasn't any second or third job, at all. Not a chance of that. The eighteen or twenty dollars a week, I think it was running somewhere around in there, I'm that sure. But that covered a lot, because I remember for a period of time in '34 we were renting a room on Montgomery Street and the rent was around seven dollars a month. So you can see, if that's all you were paying for rent, you were weren't supporting a car and you didn't pay insurance and you didn't pay Kaisers, this was a lot of cash left over.
Let's go on now to when you were at Treasure Island. Was that a WPA job too? Were you—how did you get the WPA job at the fair?
Well, I got requested, because I had a friend who was doing a mural there, and they frequently had the power to choose their own gang, because you would be at some other kind of a job on WPA art project. If you were requested then you'd be transferred and that's how that one came to me. Although, before that I'd had a job where I was sent by the lithographic project to demonstrate lithography at the fair.
One of the things you were telling me before is that, one of the things that happened at the fair that made you uncomfortable was this sense of patriotism or militarism. Was that—?
It was there and it was growing, and you could feel it.
This is one of those places where I want you to start and say what was there, what was growing.
Well, it seems to me that perhaps it was every day at noon and at five o'clock or some regular time when a band would start out, and there would be a great deal of playing of the Star Spangled Banner, whereupon everybody, almost everybody would stop and take off their hats and do whatever other ritual they might be going through to respect that. The feeling was there throughout the country, I think, but where I was it was certainly there, and it was at the fair too. That the tensions were rising and there was a lot of military activity going on in the world, and the degrees of dissension about whether this country would go in or not go in was quite a factor even then. So it was, I thought, very, very apparent. I could feel it a lot.
What were your own personal feelings about the threat of war, participating?
Well, I'm very ant-war. I always have been, and so I didn't appreciate this very much. I didn't...I felt very uncomfortable with it.
Were there a lot of people who shared your view?
My friends. I thought it was a lot of people.
When people thought about war, what were they thinking about? Were they thinking about Europe or the East? Where did feel that?
They were thinking about Europe. They were thinking about Hitler, primarily, and then we had the war in Spain also, and there wasn't much of a dip from that military activity, which was kind of a little showcase job in a way, to move right over into the further military activity. So this was a dominant thing. It rose in, when? When did Hitler start talking, up so that we heard him here? I can remember the first time I heard him on the radio, and it scared me a lot, the sound of his voice. So this was a steady thread running through there, and it was just increasing steadily.
Was there a sense that we could stay out of the war? Did people think that was possible?
Don't say yes. Say "people thought."
People really thought that it was possible not to go,
** and there strong movements, so that you...it would get a lot if attention in the newspapers and so on. It wasn't just tiny little sections of people who felt that way. There was a dominant feeling that, against going into the war.
And it was a constantly rising—
And it kept rising. Everybody knows how it was nudged on over, but you can see just going through the years how it would build there.
Shirley Triest, take three up.
Something else was going on in '39. I wonder if you were aware of it, or if you thought it was significant. Harry Bridges, the guy who had led the general strike in '34, went on trial. The government tried to deport him for the first time in 1939. Did that mean much to people?
Oh, it mean a great deal, because there'd been '34, but there was also the strike in '36, the maritime strike.
So what did them trying to deport Harry Bridges mean to you? What did he represent?
It represented an expected attitude toward him, but it seemed, because he had done a great deal for the city and for a lot of union members, so that to begin picking on him in that way was really like a persecution. And it certainly didn't seem justified to me.
Did it, some people, I wonder if you agree with this? Some people have said that they saw it not as just an attack on him [Harry Bridges] but as an attack on the labor movement in general. Did you see it that way?
Oh, I think so. I don't think that attacks on the labor movement ever stop, as a matter of fact. Except that, at that time, things like that would have a lot more "umph" to them.
So was it an issue that really concerned people in San Francisco?
Yes. There were ever so many people who had very strong union feelings at that time, that you certainly can't find a trace of now. I don't know what it is, is it twenty percent or something less than that. Maybe its fifteen percent of union membership anywhere now, so that's—and at that time it was a very strong pro-union feeling.
And has pro-union meant "pro-Bridges?"
Pretty much. Pretty much...support Harry too.
I mean, the union people didn't buy the fact that "We'll kick him out 'cause he's a Communist?" They thought there was something else going on?
I think so. I don't know exactly when it was. It may have been in '36, but I heard Harry Bridges in a debate with Mayor Lapham in the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. That place was absolutely jammed with people. You couldn't possibly find a seat. I don't know when I've seen so many people in one place, and it was absolutely electric, and that was the feeling, that intensity of union feeling. And anti-union feeling was right at a peak in that place that night.
And then in '39 they went after him. Did people—again, did anyone see that coming? Did they say, "Oh they're going to settle scores with Harry [Bridges]. They're going to get him one day."?
I think so. They would know that he would be pursued for as long as he was influential, at all.
Shirley Triest, take four up.
I've got a couple of other things that I wondered if you can give me some things about. Looking back at the whole decade, how do you think, or what do you think FDR did? Did Roosevelt really help the country and bring it together and get it through a crisis, or just muddle along? How do you feel about Roosevelt during this period?
Well, he was the man for the job at that place, and I think he might have done it otherwise, and I didn't like him, but I believe it took someone with enough gall to bring off some of his moves to make any kind of sense of the condition that the country was in at that time. Because they were, when you have trouble on the streets you really have problems. And he made some very, very bold moves and got away with it, with a tremendous amount of protest, of course. But installing the eight-hour day was an enormous move. Everybody was used to everybody working twelve hours a day. Well, that means you put on, no matter what business you're running, you put on a third man or woman.
So in general you see him as more of a positive force than a negative force, right?
I think he was necessary. I think the things he did were necessary at the time. Not all of them, but it's hard for me to imagine what would have happened without him. I can't even begin to think about "was there another way to handle it."
One of his decisions once we got into the war which seemed appropriate then has later become much more controversial, which is the decision to remove the Japanese from the West Coast. Do you have any feelings about that process?
Oh, I have lots of feelings about that. I had some connections with organizations who were generally opposed to the war, and we were able to take in a Japanese person so that she wasn't shipped off. We kept her long enough that she was able just to go to the East Coast where there was no such stuff going on. It was astonishing that was done. I can't imagine, well in retrospect you wonder how did they ever get away with it? And I still don't know how they got away with it. But they did, and this lasted a long time, and
I was at the YMCA in Japan town the day that most of them were evacuated, and here are these people carrying bags. Things wrapped up, say in a blanket, that was all they were taking, what they could carry. And it was a perfectly awful thing to look at. Just perfectly awful,
** and it happened.
Some people we've talked to have tried to explain that we didn't understand how tense things were, and how fearful people were. Do you think that explains it?
No. No, I don't think so at all. I don't think that explains anything. All kinds of rumors would go through as to Japanese boats running up and down the coast, and doing this and doing that, and all kinds of things that never were proved. A tremendous amount of propaganda that I feel was fed in order to make this move possible. And of course this material was never-properties and so on-it was never returned to the people. I mean, the loss for all of them was tremendous. Perfectly good citizens.
Yeah, these were American citizens.
Yes, sure. American citizens.
People who really agree with you point to a long history of anti-Japanese feeling in California, so that people were just looking for an excuse to do that. Will you go that far?
Well, there would be some people who would be looking to do that, but you can say that anytime about a minority. When I was a child there was a lot of feeling against the Irish. My mother had no prejudices except Catholics, and if Irish were Catholics then they were out. Well, what are you going to say about that?
Well, that's true, but I mean, for example did you ever see prejudice expressed Japanese before the war, or was it just something that occurred after Pearl Harbor?
I didn't see it until it was propagandized.
And then you saw it everywhere, right?
I saw a lot of it.
When you look back at the whole experience, the whole decade, how does it strike you? Does it strike you as good times or bad times?
What period are we talking about?
The 1930s, the whole depression. From the crash on up until World War II.
Well, I think probably because my age, I thought it was tremendous, because it was very exciting. It was very difficult, but tremendously exciting because it looked like big things were happening and all of them looked good to me. The war didn't look good to me, but there was opposition to the war and I could feel good about that. My mother didn't feel good about any of it, and it was considerably later that I could look at her particular position and see that they were her worst times. And they were physically difficult for me but for her it was the loss of everything she'd worked for. My father lost a large accumulation of property that had been his life work, and it was just...and then he died, conveniently for him because I don't know how he would have made his way through all the Depression. It was terribly hard on men, to see that happen.
Do you think the country changed for living through that experience? Was it a different country in 1940 than it was in 1930?
I think so. I think from that time on people were very much more for their own interests rather than any group interest, and I felt I saw a degree of moral deterioration that really shocked me. The degree to which people had grabbed what they could get for themselves, and it wasn't true when people were hungry but it was true after all the war money and all of that came in, because people were quite kind to one another, when they were all hungry.
And things did change during the war?
It changed radically, tremendously. And on the whole, the nature of the population in San Francisco changed, because of people coming from other places to work in the ship yards, and so it did change, a lot.
But that was sort of diversity, right—I think that might be. Do you have any other things that you want to add? I'm quite happy with what we've done so far.
Shirley Triest, take five up.
Go ahead with what you were saying about those times.
My first child was born in 1942, and economics were such that they were extremely tight then, and to find fifty dollars for a child to be born, you really looked around and go and ask relatives if they had a couple of twenties sitting around somewhere. And I was pregnant at a time where we had the total black out and had to run around and put up all the curtains and we got all the leaflets telling us how to deliver ourselves in the bath tub. That does sharpen up your vision of life. Nobody went out and ran around, and there were people to see to it that you didn't do that. Wardens running up and down the streets.
You were telling me that you were trying to find work during the war, but you didn't want to take a war job.
No, I didn't want anything that had really anything to do with the war, and it was very hard because it seemed as though almost everything was connected with it somehow. So I went to work for a liquor company, and did photography for them. That worked out all right.
So it was your principles.
Trying to make my principles work.
You were saying it was an exciting time.
It was a very exciting time, and I really wish there were enough people now who realized the condition this country is getting into now, so that they could do more reasonable things, rather than having another war, to make it economically feasible.
That's the danger. People say we got out of that Depression with World War II.
Well, some people got out of it.
Well, when you try and explain it to people who weren't through it, how do you make that reality for them?
I don't think its possible, unless people got as hungry as they were then, because it really means something in your gut when you're hungry and your kids are hungry and you can't feed your pets and so on. You really feel as though something has to be done, and when I hear people now saying "Something has to be done," it doesn't have the same ring. Because they're eating, and I think that's probably where it's at, because then there was an awful lot of hunger and very short meals. Ten cent can of tuna for two.