Free Radical: The Lesson of Louise Bryant

A Russian Revolution Chronicler’s Extraordinary Life

Moscow Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Moscow
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

I am late to the life of Louise Bryant. I become interested in her long after watching Reds, and reading her husband’s book, Ten Days That Shook the World, and going to Russia, where she reported on its revolution, and going to Paris, where she died at the relatively young age of 50. I am even late to her biography, Mary V. Dearborn’s Queen of Bohemia, which was published back in 1996.

Bryant seems to have been famous for being the wife of John Reed; the two were the subject of the Warren Beatty film, Reds (1981), but that film, to me, diminished her contribution. According to Dearborn’s biography, any number of people diminished Bryant’s contribution. Bryant seems to have suffered from being female, being married, and being beautiful. One famous activist famously criticized Bryant for not being a communist but just sleeping with one. Cattiness apparently does not end with efforts to change the world.

I am drawn to Bryant’s story because she was a writer trying to write when women in the United States did not even have the right to vote. I am drawn to Bryant’s story because she was interested in altering the way the world ran in the early 1900s; she seemed to seek a planet where artists ruled and societal norms were stretched to incorporate far more personal freedoms than most previously exercised. I am drawn to Bryant’s story because she managed to find her way to Russia more than once when getting there was not exactly an easy thing to do and because she was courageous enough to testify before the U.S. Congress and not let some imposing figures wear her down. I am drawn to Bryant’s story because she survived the aftermath of the Russian revolution but Reed did not. He died in 1920 and is supposedly buried in the Kremlin.

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I am intrigued by Bryant’s life because she reported on and wrote two books on Russia (Six Red Months in Russia and Mirrors of Moscow), and they might just have been better than her husband’s. I am intrigued by Bryant because she went on to marry a wealthy American who himself was a Reed admirer and who became an ambassador to the Soviet Union. I am curious about Bryant because she went on to live in Paris, to have a lesbian affair, and to lose custody of her daughter, and to die seemingly quite off after suffering an unusual illness and perhaps drinking far too much.

She lived an extraordinary life, though, and it shines a different light on what happened in Russia in the late 1910s and early 1920s from a perspective not sufficiently pondered. Far from being a bashful adventurer, Bryant was very much a courageous one, and we could all learn something from her life and work.

—Lori Tripoli

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