Maggie Levenstein

Ann Arbor, Michigan

My first memories of what became the New England Free Press are associated with the Paper Tiger. I remember that my dad, Chuck Levenstein, worked on it. I think it always stuck with me because of the name. I had no clue what it meant, but I think I understood that the people who named the paper thought it was funny and ironic—though I did not know the word ironic at the time. I must have been about seven years old. I have a copy of its successor publication, Leviathan, in the attic somewhere. 

 

My next recollections of the Free Press are of going to help out at the Tremont location. I would bet that this was around 1970 or maybe 1971. I would have been about eight years old. I would go over to work with Don McKelvey. I can picture the inside of the place, the press, where the plates were made, and where the layout was done. I can smell the chemicals, maybe from the darkroom, but I think mainly from the making of the plates. I can also picture the kitchen sitting area and honestly have no idea why an eight-year-old was over there helping, but I certainly liked it, and I think Don gave me useful things to do.

I remember quite distinctly one time that Rosemarie Dupont came with me. Rose was two years older than I. Her dad, Dick Dupont was active in Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee—or rather the Cambridge Rent Control Referendum. As I recall he didn’t ever join CTOC (funny that I would even remember that). The thing I remember most distinctly about going with Rose to the Free Press was that we had open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches, mozzarella on white bread I think, that Don would make for us. Don ate hamburger for breakfast, which I thought was very odd. I was a vegetarian by then, so he had to feed us something else. Or maybe he just always had open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Rose loved the sandwiches. That was her favorite thing about our working there, and I think she wanted to come back just to have the sandwiches. I don’t think she ever did. I just remember her coming that one time. I have no idea how many times I went over to help—maybe twice, maybe 10 times. I don’t remember if I got there with Don or took the Dudley Street bus. I remember the place was very dark.

Later—this must’ve been the summer of 1978—I worked at the Free Press in the Union Square office. My summer employment was covered by a CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) summer youth employment program. The way the program worked was that it paid for kids to work in a local nonprofit, or maybe even a for-profit business. I don’t remember who all employed CETA folks. What I remember was that you had to live in the same city as the employer. I lived in Cambridge and the Free Press was in Union Square, in Somerville. But I wasn’t living with my family anyway, so my residence was a sort of gray area. We reported that I was living with someone, I think Tokio, a guy who was friends with Annie Butler, who was then working for the Free Press. So I got a job working there for the summer. 

 

One funny story about being employed by a war on poverty program: There was some kind of social worker assigned to me—a nice white woman with curly hair. I remember talking to her at the end of the summer and saying that I was really enjoying working at the Free Press and didn’t want to go back to school. She was clearly terrified that, rather than lifting me up from poverty into the middle class, this summer job was going to induce me to drop out of high school. I was amused watching her reaction. I don’t think anyone else in my entire life had ever worried that I might drop out of school. One had to have some pretty deep prejudices about what poor people are like to think that I—who was completely oriented to school and to getting the fuck out of poverty and Boston—was going to drop out of high school. (When I was thirteen I had gone through the Colliers Encyclopedia and made a list of colleges I was considering. I only included expensive private schools, and I eliminated all women's colleges and religiously-affiliated schools.)

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My thinking on some, but not all, of this changed by the time I enrolled at Barnard College four years later. When I was looking at colleges, Don had in fact suggested that I look at Bryn Mawr, the sister school to Haverford where he had gone. It was the first time someone from our community had validated, rather than questioned, my desire to go to an elite school.) After the summer program was over I continued to work at the Free Press—on the Free Press's dime—after school during my senior year of high school. I think I also worked there the summer after my senior year, but I don't remember for sure. I loved having lunch at the Italian restaurant/pizza place—Bella Ciao or something like that—across the street. I can still taste the spinach mushroom calzones that I used to get. And the folks from Dollars and Sense and Resist across the street would have lunch with us. Frank Brodhead is the one I remember, though I’m sure there were others; maybe Jim Kaplan came as well.


When I was in high school, my primary job at the Free Press was to fill mail orders. I remember that I didn’t get to do the more interesting—industrial and skilled—jobs like working on the press or preparing plates. I had been given the opportunity to do those things by Don McKelvey when I was younger. (Not working on the press, but preparing plates and working in the darkroom.) It was probably mostly that when I went back to work there in high school, the organization was more regularized and people had more specialized positions. I think Don had confidence that a kid could do anything, so he was happy to give me more opportunity even though I was quite young. There were others—Dan Hodges comes to mind—who easily and always treated me like an adult when I participated in Movement activities. Others, Jeff Petrucelly and Pat Cantor, for example, had a harder time with it. In retrospect, I participated in a lot of activities and discussions I didn't fully understand because of my youth. The inclusiveness and respect from those who offered it is something I remember and appreciate.) 

 

Officially I was made the vice president or treasurer—some officer of the Free Press while I was working there in high school. Jim O'Brien was completing paperwork for the organization and needed to list someone, so he listed me. I remember this largely because I reported it as an activity on my college applications. I always wondered what colleges thought when they saw that I was listed as the executive officer of a small, nonprofit business. I wondered if they thought it was made up or if they were actually impressed by it. 


There were a number of substantive political discussions the Free Press while I was in high school, mostly about particular publications. I remember the decision to stop disseminating certain publications because of what they said about the birth control pill. We had been disseminating an out-of-date edition of Our Bodies, Our Selves, which said that there were no health risks from using the pill, and that claims otherwise were an attack on women’s control of their sexuality, or something to that effect. By this time, 1978, we knew that there were negative side effects to taking the pill, so we decided to throw away all of those old newsprint copies of OBOS. We also were disseminating a pamphlet that was written by an African American man, I don’t remember the group that had produced it, but it claimed that the pill was an attack on African Americans, well Blacks it probably said at the time, by trying to control the fertility of Black women. Again, as I recall, we decided that this was not a position we were willing to support, because we felt that the way it was phrased attacked black women’s legitimate self-determination in deciding whether or not to use birth control. I also remember a long debate about a publication that we did print and disseminate while I was there, probably in 1979, that was written by a lesbian—I don’t think it was affiliated with a lesbian organization, but it was explicitly about lesbians. It had lots of graphics as I recall, very different from the dense wordiness of most of our pamphlets. As I recall there was a page or a section, "what do lesbians do in bed?" I was struck in part because I had never given any thought to the question. I had come of age in time and community in which sex was not defined as heterosexual intercourse, so the idea that one would wonder about what the alternatives were just seemed bizarre. The really controversial issue about that publication for the Free Press was that it suggested at the end of the pamphlet that women should defend themselves, or protect themselves, from sexual assault by carrying a gun. I think there was even a graphic of a woman with a gun on the last page. There was quite a bit of discussion about this, but also a sense that this wasn’t something that we should, as heterosexuals, impose our perspective on. The whole pamphlet was developed and designed externally to the Free Press, though I don’t remember where it came from or why it was coming to the Free Press. After much discussion, we published it. It was a very glossy thing with a bright red cover. Much glossier than other things that we produced.

 

I believe most of the articles at that time were reprints from Monthly Review or publications like that. Many of the orders that I filled were for college bookstores. Bowling Green sticks out in my mind. I probably had never heard of Bowling Green before, but we regularly sent their bookstore stuff at the beginning of the semester. Lots of other college bookstores too. We also got regular requests for free pamphlets from prisoners. I would always select things to send to them, including things that weren't selling well, and include a nice note. There were a number of times that I got back letters from prisoners who clearly wanted to correspond with a woman. There was one who described his genitals to me. I just tossed those letters out. 

 

I remember one time we got an order from Shere Hite. I wrote a note to her with her order saying I loved her book. I felt like I had broken the rules a little bit, and I didn’t sign my name because I didn’t think that was appropriate, but I wanted to let her know. The pamphlets were all in the basement and lined the walls. There was a desk in the middle where I processed the orders.


I loved working with Jim O'Brien. He was a decent, open, honest guy. What I remember most distinctly about Jim was the way he wrote out our paychecks. I was paid $35 a week, I guess when I was working after school my senior year. And he would write “thirty-five only,” instead of “35 and 00 cents.” I thought that was very smart and I have written checks out that way ever since. I think of him every time I write, "only" on a check with zero cents—though I don’t write checks very often anymore.

 

I remember two pamphlets—big, fairly bulky things—by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. “Witches, Midwives, Goddesses and Whores” was one. There was another, also about women's health and history I think, but I can't remember the name. And there was the "Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm" with its pretty pink flowery design cover. The old Monthly Review articles didn't have pretty, fun covers. There was a pamphlet on a rent strike in the 1930s and something about southern tenant farmers. And things by Linda Gordon on women's history and reproductive rights. And Lise Vogel, whom I met when she interviewed for a job in Women's Studies at Barnard and went on to run the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival…I think. There were a number of labor historians whose work we published, and whose work I read when I got to college and grad school. I hadn't read those pamphlets when I worked at the Free Press, but I always feel personally connected to people whose work we published. I think there was something from Dana Densmore and No More Fun and Games too.

 

Jim O'Brien taught me a version of “If I were a carpenter and you were a lady” that went, “If I were a Stalinist, and you were a Trot, would you marry me anyway or would you rather not?” There was verse about the split in the International Socialists, when the Workers Power folks left/got expelled. I loved stuff like that. Not the getting expelled or the divisions. I loved music about our community, my extended family.