A Trunkful Of History

Long Lost Papers Of A Foreign Correspondent Illuminate An Extraordinary 20th-century Rebel


There he lay, on a couch in the Winter Palace library, his face buried in his arms in complete exhaustion.

It was 1917, and Russian Prime Minister Aleksandr Kerensky was living under heavy guard in anticipation of another turn in the revolution -- this one to overthrow him. Radical journalists Louise Bryant and her husband, John Reed, finally had their chance at a long sought-after interview, but they could not bring themselves to disturb the man whose government was about to fall. They both stood in the library for a moment, then left, according to Bryant's notes.

"Socialism is here, whether we like it or not ... and it spreads with the years,'' she later wrote in her book ``Six Red Months in Russia,'' based on her reporting from the Russian Revolution. "In Russia the socialist state is an accomplished fact. We can never again call it an idle dream of longhaired philosophers.

"And if that growth has resembled the sudden upshooting of a mushroom, if it must fall because it is premature, it is nevertheless real and must have a tremendous effect on all that follows.''

It was in damp, overcast Russia that the 32-year-old Bryant found a place in the sun after being so frequently overshadowed by Reed, a renowned journalist and a prince of the burgeoning bohemian community back home in New York's Greenwich Village. Although Bryant became an accomplished journalist, one of the first international female correspondents, she did not achieve the acclaim of Reed or even of her third husband, diplomat William C. Bullitt.

Now, thanks to the discovery by Yale University researchers of a trunk of her papers, Bryant has emerged again to claim a place in history. (One of the last spikes of interest in her work followed from the 1981 movie ``Reds,'' in which Diane Keaton played Bryant, and Warren Beatty portrayed Reed.)

"It's a collection we never would have expected in terms of its richness,'' said William Massa, the head of special collections at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, which houses the papers. "It goes beyond anything we anticipated.

"There are never-before-seen poems from her affair with Eugene O'Neill; letters from Trotsky and (the) painter Marsden Hartley; the address book entries of Lenin, Freud and Helen Keller. We're ecstatic with its significance.''

It's also a collection that no one knew existed until a year ago.

In the spring of 2004, Massa said he received a call from a New York attorney for an ailing Anne M. Bullitt, Bryant's only child with Bullitt, a Yale graduate and the first ambassador to the Soviet Union under president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Yale had once kept Bullitt's papers, but after his death in 1967, his daughter asked for them back to write a biography. Last year, the family offered to return the papers to Yale, and when the archivists were preparing the collection, they found a trunk of Bryant's papers. They had apparently been sent to Bullitt upon his ex-wife's death in 1936.

In addition to signatures and photos of some of the world's most well-known figures, Bryant's collection contains articles and personal writings that document some of the early 20th century's most significant events: the Bolsheviks' successful takeover of the Russian government, Kemal Ataturk's succession as leader of post-war Turkey, and life in fascist Italy as seen through the eyes of Benito Mussolini, whom she interviewed. That trunk also held illustrations by Bryant as well as short stories and plays she wrote, primarily for the long-defunct Provincetown Players, which launched O'Neill's career.

The Sterling archivists are organizing the works, and an exhibit is planned next year.

"During her life, people criticized her, and history tended to make her out to be a lightweight. She was married to one of the most promising young men of the century and one of the century's well-known leaders,'' said Mary V. Dearborn, author of "Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant.'' "But when you look at this woman, you find an incredibly varied and rich life.

"She went against everything she was taught and the social climate at the time to take her place on a wider stage.''

Born Anna Louise Mohan on Dec. 5, 1885, Bryant was the third child of Louise Flick, a homemaker, and Hugh Mohan, a local journalist, politician and machinist who abandoned the family when Bryant was young. Her mother married a railroad conductor, Sheridan Bryant, who adopted the children.

After attending two local colleges, Louise Bryant moved to Oregon, where she graduated from the University of Oregon in 1909 before becoming an illustrator, then society editor for Portland's daily newspaper, the Spectator. About that time, she married Paul Trullinger, a dentist. Five years into their union, a handsome, adventuresome and completely unconventional John Reed swept her off her feet when he was home visiting relatives in Portland. Reed invited Bryant to New York, and she left her husband, never returning to Portland.

In the artistically and politically thriving climate of Greenwich Village in the late 1910s, Bryant flourished. With their offices next to each other in Reed's apartment, Bryant began writing articles for the radical journal The Masses and composing plays for the newly established Provincetown Players. Believers in the concept of free love, both Reed and Bryant had numerous affairs. Bryant's relationship with O'Neill continued for a number of years before ending painfully in 1918.

"For a year and a half -- perhaps for the rest of my life, too -- my love for you kept me in Hell,'' O'Neill wrote in one of his last letters to Bryant, discovered by Yale in the collection. "I lived only in that love, in the hope of those fleeting bits of Paradise you tossed me once in a while -- only to turn back to the other man the next moment.

"It is more than probable that you have burned yourself so deep into my soul that the wound will never heal and I stand condemned to love you forever -- and hate you for what you have done to my life.''

Their commitment to free love sometimes took a toll on Bryant and Reed's relationship, which was marked by separations and reconciliations. After her stint as a World War I correspondent in France for the newly formed Bell Syndicate, Bryant returned to Reed in the late summer of 1917; they reconciled and left for Russia four days later on a trip that would cement their relationship.

Arriving in Russia just two months before the Bolsheviks toppled Kerensky's provisional government and installed Vladimir Lenin as its premier, Bryant and Reed witnessed the upheaval from Petrograd, later interviewing its major players, including Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Catherine Breshkovsky. In that period, they compiled enough material for Reed's critically acclaimed book "Ten Days That Shook the World'' and Bryant's lesser known but in later years more heralded chronicle, "Six Red Months in Russia.''

Still, their time together was shorter than they might have thought. After a book tour and testimony on Bolshevism in the United States before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bryant returned in 1920 to Russia, and Reed. He had contracted typhus and soon afterward died. Overwhelmed by grief, Bryant threw herself into her work.

During the next two years, Bryant traveled throughout the world, filing cables for the International News Service from Turkey, Greece, Uzbekistan and other parts of the Central Asian territories of the Russian Empire. During that time, she caught the eye of Bullitt, who, according to Dearborn, "was in hot pursuit of Bryant and chased her all over Europe.''

In 1923, Bullitt finally caught her, and they moved to Paris, where they married. Bryant gave birth to Anne Moen Bullitt the following year.

By all accounts, the first years of their marriage were happy, though Bryant struggled with abandoning journalism for a return to the bourgeois domesticity she had escaped in Portland. She no longer reported regularly (aside from a few articles about Kemel Ataturk and Turkey), instead focusing on writing plays, short stories and poems, though few were published.

Three years later, doctors diagnosed Bryant with Dercum's Disease, a rare condition in which fatty deposits gather under the skin, and she began drinking heavily to relieve the pain. Citing her addiction and a lesbian relationship with sculptor Gwen La Gallienne, Bullitt divorced her in 1930 and took sole custody of their daughter. He supported Bryant financially but refused her visitation rights. She died just after the New Year in 1936 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Two years before she died, a group of Harvard scholars persuaded Bryant to give them several trunks of Reed's papers. She offered her own papers, but they were declined.

The trunk discovered by the Yale archivists apparently remained unexplored for nearly 60 years.