April 11, 2011
By Joseph B. Atkins
After receiving a call from a mutual friend last August that Marty Fishgold had died, I quickly contacted Bob Fitch for confirmation. “Yes, Joe, I think it’s as bad as you’ve heard,” Bob said. Fishgold had indeed died at the age of 70.
As I’ve written in earlier postings for this blog, Marty Fishgold was a personal friend, an unlikely friend, in many ways, for this born and bred Southerner. Marty was a Brooklyn born New Yorker who grew up in one of the multi level brick apartment buildings in what is now the city’s Russian section in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island. He gave my wife Suzanne and me a tour of his old stomping grounds during one of our trips up there. He was the descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants himself, socialists who opposed the Czar and brought their radical ideas with them to their new homeland.
A former president of the International Labor Communications Association and longtime editor of The Unionist, the publication of AFSCME Local 371 in New York, Marty carried on the torch of his father and grandfather, championing the cause of the working man and woman all his life. He could be a tough, even severe, critic, as much of the labor movement itself as of the corporate bosses and their political operatives.
Again and again he called for more democracy within the labor movement, and for a freewheeling labor press that’s not beholden to and subjugated by the movement’s own overpaid bosses. I first met him at a conference in Chicago, and I immediately had a good feeling about the guy, his honesty, his integrity, his lack of pretense, and his convictions. We later met and joined forces at labor and media conferences in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and New York.
“Hey, Joe, I figured out what defines the working class,” he once told me over the phone. “The working class mows its own lawn.”
I agreed and laughed and thought about the countless yards I’ve mowed. Then I remembered my own big yard at my house outside town and the fact that my wife and I now hire somebody to mow it. Have I lost my credentials? I asked myself. Marty may not have intended it that time, but he always made you think.
I brought him down to Ole Miss once to speak to students here. He liked the South, poked fun at our food “Whaddayu call that stuff, chili cheese what?” he asked after my wife introduced him to that artery choking Southern specialty known as chili cheese fries. He came down to visit several times, and whenever he did, he always brought with him a load of real New York bagels. They were delicious.
My best memories of Marty are those when we visited him and his late wife Karen at their home on Long Island. I loved the literature at his house the rare collection of early editions of Jack London’s books, the collection of early 20th century articles from the radical magazine The Masses. On a table across the room was a photograph of the young Marty, a Brando look alike, I remarked, and Karen agreed.
Marty was a writer as well as an editor and activist. I know he was working on a novel, The Portuguese Poet, and sent me excerpts. I was impressed. Karen died not very long before Marty’s own death. A sweet lady and quiet, steadying force in her husband’s life, she had fought a valiant, years long battle against cancer. It was a huge blow to Marty to lose his life long partner. Soon after she died, their beloved Siberian husky, Natasha, also died. I’m sure Marty spent many hours on his sailboat thinking through the losses in his life.
He was a good friend even though we had our disagreements, even some strong ones toward the end. He was one of the tough guys, big and headstrong, but with a heart just as big and just as strong in its empathy for regular folks.