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An 'Intimate Portrait' Of Dorothy Day, The Catholic Activist With A Bohemian Past


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. If I were to tell you we're going to talk about one of the most important American Catholic leaders of the 20th century, you might not picture a woman whose early years included a Bohemian lifestyle in New York, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. But Dorothy Day's story is anything but predictable.

She co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist faith-based movement for social change that still exists today. They led the Catholic Worker Movement from its beginnings in the Great Depression through the Vietnam War era. Day fed thousands of people, wrote newspaper columns, novels and plays, was arrested several times in protests, chain smoked for years, at a time lived on farms as part of an agrarian Back-to-the-Land strand of the Catholic Worker Movement.

She died in 1980 and is now a candidate for sainthood in the church. A new biography that illuminates Day's activism and her complex personal life comes from someone who knows both well. Writer Kate Hennessy is Day's youngest granddaughter, and she relied on family letters and diaries, interviews and her own memories for her new book "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty."

Well, Kate Hennessy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about Dorothy's teenage and early adult years. I mean, she had some amazingly rich experiences, but it was decidedly not a life of piety. Give us a sense of the kinds of people that she associated with, what she did.

KATE HENNESSY: When she was still a teenager, her parents moved back to New York City. They had been living in Chicago. My grandmother moved back with them. She was actually a college student at that time. She dropped out of university, moved back to New York with them and then decided to become a journalist. Her father was a journalist, her two older brothers were journalists. And that is definitely what she felt called to be.

Unfortunately, her father didn't believe that women should be journalists - or she - he didn't believe that women should work, so it was a very tense moment between the two of them. But she was determined. Her first job was with The Call, a Socialist paper. At that paper, that's when she started to meet very interesting people beginning with Mike Gold, who was a communist and longtime friend of hers. They were actually engaged to be married briefly. And through that, she and Mike Gold interviewed Leon Trotsky.

At that time, this was in the teens. There was a lot of activity both with the socialists and the communists and the IWW, lot of union activity. It was a very radical time. Union Square would have protests, demonstrations. It was quite powerful, and she covered a lot of those stories for The Call. She then moved on to helping out with The Masses, and that opened a whole new door for meeting the big names of the time. But...

DAVIES: The Masses being another publication, not just the people (laughter).

HENNESSY: Yes. Yes. Sorry. It was - it is a publication that was more of a - The Call was definitely more of a political paper. The Masses liked to cross the line into literature and art, so it kind of opened - she was very much first involved with the the radical parts of New York City. And then with The Masses, she kind of moved into the more literature, the Bohemian elements. She was introduced to Eugene O'Neill at that time. He was writing plays for the Provincetown Playhouse.

DAVIES: At age 20, she's arrested for the first time. This would become a pattern in her life because she was a social activist. This was for being at a suffragist rally - right? - and it was quite an experience. Tell us about that.

HENNESSY: Well, she was kind of loose ends. Her job at The Masses had ended because this was during the beginning of World War I when they started to do - to conscript people. And The Masses came out against that, and they were shut down for that very reason. So my grandmother was at loose ends, and she was hanging around one of the favorite haunts of Greenwich Village.

And her very good friend Peggy Baird walked in, and she - Peggy had just come from Washington, D.C. She had just served, I think, a 15-day sentence for protesting demanding women's rights - women's vote. And she came and said we need more women. And Dorothy said why not? And so they headed down to D.C. They went on the picket line, and it just happened to be at that time the worst of the arrests.

So when my grandmother was arrested, they had decided to use this as a - an example - to make an example of the women and make it very difficult, put them under extreme stress, so that, you know, that they would back off. So she was sent to this notorious workhouse in Virginia where she was beaten. They went on a hunger strike for 10 days.

And during that time - I mean, she was only 20 years old. She really didn't have any idea of how hard this was - would be. And she turned to the Psalms at that time to help her through that period. And when she came back to New York, I think she was a - she was an older, wiser person from that experience.

DAVIES: I believe you write that before the arrest there was - it got violent on the picket line. She actually fought the police which was one of the reasons she was taken into custody, not a shrinking flower.

HENNESSY: No, she was not, and she was quite tall. So I think, you know, she probably was physically formidable, though, she was very skinny, very slender.

DAVIES: So this was an interesting and often turbulent life that she led. And this was a time when, you know, in the early part of the 20th century when capitalism was associated by a lot of people with war and exploitation, you know, rather than shared prosperity. And there were anarchists and socialists and Marxists everywhere, and she moved among these circles. But it seems she was drawn to faith, and she wasn't really - she was not raised as a Catholic, right?

HENNESSY: No, she was not.

DAVIES: And she would, you know, slip into cathedrals to take part in benediction. She would study the catechism on her own. Do we know where her interest in this came from?

HENNESSY: It's a very interesting question. I think a lot of us would like to know the answer to that. She had this very powerful sense of God. As she was known for cornering people at parties to talk about God. And there's - there was this very famous quote given by a friend of hers from - who was a member of the Communist Party who said Dorothy will never be a good communist. She's far too religious.

So people were very aware of this element of hers, but, you know, it's hard for - I mean, she, herself, couldn't really explain why it was there. And so I think the rest of us are kind of left remaining how did this happen? You know, is it there for us? I think it's a very powerful question.

DAVIES: Right. And it's something obviously that stayed with her for the rest of her life.


DAVIES: She had a child out of wedlock, as it happens. Tell us that story.

HENNESSY: She and my grandfather actually had met several years before 1919. He was from the South. He was from Asheville, N.C. His parents were both English - had come over from England. He was a - probably in many ways totally different from my grandmother. He was not a talker. My grandmother loved to talk. He was an outdoors person. He loved to fish. He loved to go out in the boat. He was a biologist by training.

For some reason, these very opposite people fell in love, deeply in love, but he was also a very loving, loyal man. So he was very pleased when my mother was born. But he was a - well, my grandmother called him an anarchist and an atheist. You know, he did not believe in religion. He did not believe in marriage. He never got married in his entire life. He was not going to go down the more traditional route, and that caused a big rift in them.

When my mother was born, my grandmother decided to have her baptized in the Catholic Church. And so she went off and had her baptized. Now, this was quite funny because she was not Catholic yet, and certainly Forster wasn't Catholic. So here she was baptizing her child in a religion that that neither one belonged in. But that started a rift between them and also her desire to get married furthered that rift.

DAVIES: Kate Hennessy's new book is "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait Of My Grandmother." It's a story of Dorothy Day, who began the Catholic Worker Movement for social justice, and Dorothy Day is Kate Hennessy's grandmother. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Kate Hennessy. She has a new biography of her grandmother, Dorothy Day, who was the founder of the Catholic Worker, a decades-old social justice movement. The book is called "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty."

So your grandmother, Dorothy Day, enters into life as, in effect, a single parent. Her daughter, Tamar, is with her. The father of the child, Forster Batterham, is a presence in the life but not with them all the time. And then there's a point - she meets a man who changes her life, Peter Maurin, a Frenchman. Tell us about him.

HENNESSY: Well, Peter was a - he was a catalyst for my grandmother. She had been down in Washington, D.C., covering a march, a hunger march. This was in December of 1932, and it was a real turning point for her because at that point she had been a Catholic for five years. And in that time, she didn't really know how to continue with her activist life. There was no path for her, clear path. It was Catholicism, and then there was her radical friends, and these two paths did not intersect. So she was standing on the sidelines covering this hunger march and she asked herself, well, where are the Catholics? Where am I? And this was a hard moment for her. What was her vocation? How should she move ahead?

So she returned to New York and waiting for her was Peter Maurin, this French peasant, probably about 15 years older than her. I don't remember exactly. And he had a program of action for Catholics, and he said this is not my program of action. This is Catholicism. These are the social teachings of Catholicism, and he started to educate her. At this point, she had no idea of the social teachings of Catholicism. She had no idea they existed. And so it was a real eye-opener for her. And she said, well, what can we do? And he said, well, let's start writing. Now, he meant let's start publishing my writings because he was a writer. He wrote what came to be called Easy Essays. And my grandmother, being a writer, being a journalist, said, OK, I can do this. And what she was seeing was a paper that she would be the editor and publisher of. And so they kind of parted ways a bit on that issue. The paper, the Catholic Worker, the first issue was handed out in May of 1933. So this is how quickly this whole - all came together.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, for context, I mean, this was in the middle of the Great Depression. So there was a lot of poverty, a lot of need and a lot of, you know, social ferment, people looking for solutions. So they start this paper, the Catholic Worker, which had astonishingly quick growth. It was - began with - I think the first edition was 2,500. Within four months, it was 20,000, within a year 100,000. Tell us about the paper. What was it? And how did it - why did it connect so?

HENNESSY: As you say, the - 1933 was in the midst of the Great Depression, and it was probably the most difficult year. New York City was just flooded with people who were homeless, who were hungry, starving, needed work. They were standing there watching this. And Peter says to Dorothy, we need to write about this, we need to help people see a way out of this. Dorothy says, OK, let's do this. They start handing out the paper at Union Square during May Day, so there were huge marches at that time, huge unrest. I mean, no one was working, so there were people on soapboxes at every corner talking about their program of action, whether it was a socialist or the communists or the anarchists.

And so this small group of people come in and start handing out a paper called the Catholic Worker. And they're standing next to, you know, the Daily Worker and calling out, you know, read the Catholic Worker. Here is a social program for Catholics. And I think that that really caught people's attention because they had never heard of such a thing. And many people didn't believe them, but they persisted. For some reason, that really caught people's attention. And then it started catching the attention of people who needed help. So people started showing up at the door saying, well, you're talking about feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Here we are. And so they had to open up a house of hospitality. They started a soup line. They first began with people staying in apartments. They ran out of room, so they had to move into buildings. They eventually ended down in Mott Street renting a building there.

DAVIES: Which is where, the Lower East Side?

HENNESSY: Yes, this is the Lower East Side.


HENNESSY: Little Italy.

DAVIES: This is remarkable. I mean, this - again, you kind of just see how enterprising Dorothy Day is, starts this newspaper, it takes off. And part of it, I guess, was that a lot of poor people in New York were Catholic, right? There were a lot of Italians and a lot of Irish and other folks who were Catholic. And then people show up in need, and she just starts - figures out a way to provide help. How big did this get, the first hospitality house?

HENNESSY: Well, by the time they moved into Mott Street - and this was in 1936 - they were housing about 70 people. The soup line could be up to 1,000 people a day. It was huge. Hours - it would last for hours, and the line would just snake down the street, Mott Street, for blocks. People would light fires to keep themselves warm while they were waiting for the soup line to move. And also at this time, they decided to buy a farm. One of the elements of Peter's program was farming communes, and so they bought a farm out in eastern Pennsylvania. And that was supposed to be the hope part of the Catholic Worker, that it was, you know, it was good to have the soup line and the houses of hospitality.

But if you really wanted to change the social order that Peter believed, that we had to go back to the land, that there was no unemployment on the land. You know, people would be able to feed themselves on the land. So that also started at that time, and that was hugely popular. People were very interested in that experiment.

DAVIES: And the paper, the Catholic Worker, was it a weekly?

HENNESSY: It was a monthly. Though, some months, it wouldn't come out because there wouldn't be enough money to have it printed. It now is 10 issues per year; still exists, still sells for a penny a copy.

DAVIES: Penny a copy, wow. She became famous, and people came to think of her as a spiritual leader. And you write that she got some interesting questions about what special powers she might have.

HENNESSY: Yeah. There would be people who would say, you know, do you have visions? There was a rumor once that she had stigmata. And she had no patience for celebrity. One of her most famous statements is, don't call me a saint, I don't want to be dismissed so easily. I mean, to her, it's like you have to do the work, you know. And celebrity is a way of kind of avoiding that responsibility, that personal responsibility.

DAVIES: How did the church react to the growth of the Catholic Worker Movement then?

HENNESSY: They were very supportive. One of the reasons why the circulation went so high is because parishes would order bundles. So they thought it was wonderful and very supportive.

DAVIES: And did that change over the years?

HENNESSY: Yes, it did. As her pacifist stance came out, that really did a lot of damage.

DAVIES: And that was in World War II, right?


DAVIES: Right.

HENNESSY: Yes, it is.

DAVIES: And then did it - did the relationship improve in the '50s, '60s, '70s?

HENNESSY: Well, the '50s, I think I would say that she was still considered part of the fringe and not taken seriously. That started to change in the '60s. You know, of course, Vatican II came out in the '60s. And much of what they were speaking of was what she had been speaking about all along. So I think she kind of - there was a resurgence in interest in her. And I remember at that time a lot of priests and nuns coming through the Worker, which had been the case early on in the '30s.

It was astounding how many priests and nuns would come through visiting and spending time. And that dropped away during the '40s and '50s, then picked up again in the '60s. And then in the '70s, she really became an icon. I mean, that's when the biography started coming out, the interviews. Bill Moyers interviewed her in the '70s. And so she really became quite revered at that time.

DAVIES: You know, your book is about Dorothy, your grandmother, and the movement that she created. But it's also about her family. And it's really fascinating, I have to say. And when you're doing something on the scale that she is, it has impacts on the family. And I'd like to read - for you to read a section later in the book where you're writing about your own experience many, many decades after she began, when the movement's still going, and your own kind of experiences with the Catholic Worker and these hospitality houses. You want to share this with us?

HENNESSY: (Reading) I wanted to be part of the Worker but it was hard - the noise, the dirt, the needs. I was terrified of being asked to be on the house, not so much for having to cook the meals or hand out clothing, but for what seemed to me to be people's unvoiced and unanswerable needs. I was even more terrified of being asked to take the floor during the soup line and face that long line of men who sometimes showed up drunk and angry. Because I was Dorothy's granddaughter, I thought I was supposed to be strong and to pull it off with the grace I felt so many others who weren't related to Dorothy had. But I backed off, frightened by those whose needs seemed bottomless and who grasped desperately at something, anything. It had been difficult for both Tamar and Dorothy to be in the line of fire of such need, to not instinctively protect themselves from those who lashed onto them in desperation. In the '40s, while observing Tamar's marriage, Dorothy had written. And I know she was also speaking for herself. There is so much talk of community and so many who desire to share your life who look at you with wistful eyes, who want from you what you cannot give - companionship. They want to move in with you, crawl into your skin, this awful intimacy.

DAVIES: That's writer Kate Hennessy reading from her biography of her grandmother, "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty." After a break, she'll talk about Day's relationship with her only daughter, Hennessy's mother, Tamar. And we'll remember Chuck Barris, creator of "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show." He died earlier this week. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Kate Hennessy about her new biography of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a faith-based movement for social change that began in the '30s and still exists today. Hennessy explores Day's activism and her complex personal life, both subjects she knows well. Hennessy is Day's granddaughter. Her book is "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty."

You know, your grandmother was giving herself to a larger world, a very needy world. And she had a daughter, Tamar, who had an unusual experience for a kid, right? I mean, her mother was away speaking a good bit, and she was often living with a lot of strangers. What did it mean for the kind of life Tamar had as a kid, her daughter?

HENNESSY: Well, it was both a difficult and a wonderful time for my mother. My mother loved growing up in the Catholic Worker. It really was a time that she thought about until the day she died. She was surrounded not by strangers when she was at the Worker. She was surrounded by aunts and uncles as far as she was concerned. And she got along very well with the most difficult of people.

She also - as you say, my grandmother was away a lot speaking. And so the care of my mother fell to a couple, the Johnsons (ph). One of the things that my grandmother would often do is just kind of choose people and say, OK, you're going to do this or you're going to do that. She had found this couple to help care for my mother. And that was the way that my mother was able to, you know, to have a stable life.

The Catholic Worker is not a stable life for any child. It was very difficult for her that her mother was away so much. But her memories of the Catholic Worker were so dear to her and so important that I don't think she could ever separate both the difficulties and the wonders.

DAVIES: I mean, one of the things I believe you wrote was that she had to get used to the fact that her possessions, her toys might be stolen. It just happened a lot at the hospitality house.

HENNESSY: Yes. She lost a lot of possessions, both from people who took from her and from my grandmother's kind of loose relationship to possessions herself.

DAVIES: What - she would share any possessions with anyone? There's this notion that you are not attached to the material world; you use that to help other people?

HENNESSY: Well, she really sincerely wasn't attached to the material world. She loved beautiful things. And she would surround herself with beautiful things. But then she would pass them along. She would give them away to other people - except for her books. She did miss her books because they would never disappear. Things always disappeared at the Catholic Worker. It's just one of the elements of being there.

So my grandmother just had a very loose sense of what you needed materially. And I think that she didn't quite understand that my mother was very different that way - that my mother had her treasures that she wanted to keep hold of. So that was a very difficult aspect that I think lasted for many years for my mother.

DAVIES: I want to talk a bit about your mom, Tamar, who was Dorothy Day's only child. She married a man named David Hennessy at age 18. It was a time when she and Dorothy were kind of having their struggles. Tell us a bit about your father, David Hennesy. Who was he, and why did they marry?

HENNESSY: My father was from Washington, D.C., from a very devout and large Catholic family. He came up to the Catholic Worker farm in Easton in 1940. He had read about the Catholic Worker from the paper. He received the paper, and he was very impressed by the farm element of it. And so he came to the Worker. And once there, because he was - he was quite conservative. He really did not do well there, and he was planning to leave.

And my mother had been in Canada going to a school there, French-speaking school. And when she returned, she had just turned 16. She arrived at the farm, and she met my father. And they immediately hit it off. But of course, she was only 16, and he was actually 13 years older than her. And my grandmother said, well, you know, you're 16 years old. You can't get married. Wait until you're 18, figuring that by this time the whole thing would kind of blow away. Unfortunately, it didn't.

And I say unfortunately because it really was not the best marriage for either one of them. My father was not really able to be responsible for the large family - my mother ended up having nine children. My mother was too young to make that kind of decision.

But because she was in - having such a difficult time with her mother and she was really fighting at that time, I think, to forge her own way - from the very beginning, people were asking her - are you going to follow your mother's footsteps? But at a very young age, my mother was saying no, no, you know, I have to find my own way.

And I think this early marriage was her way of saying, this is my life. I will do what I want to do with it. But of course, you know, the children were arriving one after another. And it - you know, it doesn't - at some point, it really - the poverty was a struggle. But ultimately, I don't think it was what destroyed their marriage.

DAVIES: She said to understand him, you need to read some works of fiction. Do you remember what they were?

HENNESSY: One was an Arthur Miller play, and I'm blanking out on the name, the title of that. But it was based on his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. The second one was "The Great Santini" by Pat Conroy, which is the relationship of a father and son. And the third one is "Lolita."

And I think that what she was saying with those three - she was never one to explain things, you know, clearly. She would just give me little insights, little clues. And I think with Arthur Miller she was saying the difficulty of a relationship when one person is very needy. And that certainly was the case with my father.

The second one, "Great Santini" - my father never said a word about his father - never wrote about him, never discussed him. In his diaries, he never mentions him. And so I think that there was something quite traumatizing in that relationship. And I think that's what she was kind of saying to me that to understand my father that I have to look at what happened to him with his father.

And the third, "Lolita," I think she was referring to their relationship, that she was very young. And she was 16 when they met. And she said that she was a very immature 16-year-old. And he was 29, so I think that that's what she's referring to there.

DAVIES: Did Dorothy ever object to the patriarchal kind of structure and rules of the church? I mean, a lot of the progressive community would have been very critical of a lot of the church's policies. Did she ever wrestle with that?

HENNESSY: Yes, she did. But she also - she always saw the church at its heart. She wasn't - well, as my mother used to say - she said, Dorothy wasn't raised in the church. She doesn't understand the need for, you know - to ask permission. And that was one of the things about the Catholic Worker was that my grandmother did not ask permission to start this. She just started it. She would - she saw what needed to be done and would just do it.

And I think in terms of how that relates to the hierarchical church, she always said that if she was told to stop, she would stop. But, you know, she was on to something. And I think whenever people see that, they recognize that.

And she also said that, you know, when - I mean, there are many ways you can tussle with the church. And people would want her to take up certain causes against the church. And she just said, I will not fight the church. That is not a battle that I am going to do. And I think that that is extraordinarily wise. I mean, I think that you can really get caught up in proceduralism or institutionalism and lose the sight of the heart of a matter. And I think that's her genius, is that she never lost sight of the heart of the church.

DAVIES: One thing I've read is that she had spoken out against abortion - she'd of course had an abortion early in her own life - and that that had drawn support from conservative members of the church. Do you know if that's the case?

HENNESSY: I know that some people find that very important, her anti-abortion stance. I think ultimately, though, conservatives will have a very hard time with her. It's hard to just - to define her as an anti-abortion person. And I think there are people who want to say this is - Dorothy Day is an anti-abortion saint. I think she came out once with a statement, anti-abortion statement - very clear. But overall, this wasn't what she chose to focus on. She was concerned with war. That, to her, was the thing that she wanted to focus on.

DAVIES: And what's the state of the Catholic Worker Movement today?

HENNESSY: At this point, I think there are about 250 houses of hospitality and farms. It's hard to keep track because they do come and go. There's a lot - most of them are in the U.S. There are quite a few overseas - Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany. There are people who affiliate themselves with the Worker, definitely.

The houses in New York City are still there on East Third Street and East First Street. There's a farm that's still, you know, in upstate New York. These are all the places that were in existence when my grandmother was still alive. The paper, The Catholic Worker paper is still in existence. It still sells for a penny a copy.

DAVIES: Well, Kate Hennessy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

HENNESSY: Thank you.

DAVIES: Kate Hennessy is the youngest granddaughter of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Hennessy's book is "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty." Coming up, we remember Chuck Barris who created "The Dating Game" and "The Gong Show." He died Tuesday. This is FRESH AIR.

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