Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Durr spends time with a Communist

Durr's first introduction to Communism came from an unlikely source. Dolly Craik Speed, one of the daughters of a prominent family in Montgomery, moved to Vienna during the 1930s. Since she became a Communist, when Hitler came to power, she had to evacuate back to the United States. She lived with her sister for several years until her association with a sharecroppers' union made her too radical for interaction with southern industrialists.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

So, in any case, Mr. Speed died and Dolly was left with this girl and boy. I think that their fortunes had gotten low then, so she took them to Vienna to educate them, you see. To give them culture and teach them music and languages. Well, they got to Vienna during the Dolfuss period when the socialists were in control and they were fighting against Hitlerism. There was a very strong Communist movement. That was when the Fascists attacked the Karl Marx Houses and had a great gun battle, you know. I tell you who writes about that. It's Lillian Hellman in her memoirs called Pentimento. Have you read it? Well, there's a fascinating article in there about her carrying money in her hat to Vienna and this girl being disfigured by the Nazis and killed and so on. It was that period that they were living in Vienna. So, the two young ones, in their late teens, became absolutely passionate anti-Hitlerites and joined the Communist party. This was in the early 1930's, about '31 or '32. Or maybe before that, around 1930. It was just when Hitler was coming into power. Things were getting very bad in Vienna and so, Dolly Speed . . . who had become a Communist too . . . she brought her two children back home. She had no money, this time as I recall, so she came and lived in Montgomery with her sister, Mrs. Nash Read. Well, Mrs. Nash Read had married a man who had a lot of money and she had a beautiful old house and it was all fixed up with a beautiful garden. She was the leading society lady of Montgomery. She was it. Her food was the most delicious, she wore the prettiest clothes, she gave the nicest parties, her garden was the most beautiful, her house was the most tasteful. She was head of the little theater and put on these wonderful plays. If anyone had a ball, she decorated the ballroom. She was a woman of tremendous talent, she had great artistic talent. Just to go to her house was a poem, you know. So, when I was visiting with my little girl, I went over for tea. And oh, this was in the early summer and you can't imagine anything so delightful. You would sit by this lovely pond with water lilies and Jean would be such a gracious hostess and then Ben, the butler, would come out with the most marvelous food that you would ever taste in your life. Things like puff pastries, you know. Really, it was marvelous. And then there was Jean and Dolly and Jane Speed, Dolly's daughter, who was a Communist and so was Dolly. Now, what happened to the son, I don't know. I never met him. But anyway, Dolly was trying to make some money by taking pictures and so she admired my little girl so much and we arranged that she would take pictures of Ann by the pool. I have a lot of them somehere, they were lovely pictures of Ann with no clothes on . . . she was about three or four then, with her little blond curls and sitting by the waterlily pool. So, I got to be quite fond of Dolly. This went over a period of some time. I didn't know what a Communist was then any more than a man in the moon.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But you knew that she was a Communist?
VIRGINIA FOSTER DURR:
Oh yes. Mrs. Read would say . . . she had sort of a high society voice and she would say, "Oh, isn't this darling? This is amusing, Jane and Dolly are Communists! What do you know about that!" (laughter) Well, Jane was a a red-headed girl and she didn't laugh like it was a very laughable matter. She didn't think it was very funny. As I said, I didn't know what a Communist was from a man in the moon. Hugo had been called a Bolshevik, you see, because he was on the side of the labor unions. So, I associated everybody who was in a labor union with being a Communist. I just took it for granted that if you were in a union or for labor, you were a Communist. So, I gave it a rather general definition. But I did hear from Dolly and Jane something about the horrors of what had happened in Vienna, you know, but it made very little impact on me,. . . .I was so divorced from it, thatHitler was just a name and so was Dolfuss and Vienna. It was as if it was another world. I did come into contact with Dolly and Jane. Well, they were the ones at that time, you see, who were helping the sharecroppers union up here in Talapoosa County. They were, I'm sure, the two white women who were sitting at the table when Nate Shaw was tried. Although, there was, as I found out lately, a Marxist study group in Montgomery, who also supported the strike. Now, they are some of the most prominent and richest people in Montgomery and they will tell you about it but they won't have their names used. I told you that I could arrange for some interviews for you and I told Ted the same thing, but they won't have their names used. You have to do it with no names, because they are terribly respectable. But you see, Jane did support this strike, and Dolly, too. And then the Marxist study group. And then, bless God, the shooting broke out. Well, at that time, Mrs. Read, as I understand it, I wasn't present at that time, Mrs. Read began to stop laughing about Jane and Dolly being Communists and "isn't that amusing?" She said, "Leave, I can't put up with this." She had a son, too, named Nicholas Read and she was afraid that they might influence him. She was anything but a Communist. Anyway, Jane and Dolly then came to Birmingham and I will have to take them up later, when I take up the Southern Conference, because they were still there, being Communists and running a Communist book store when the Southern Conference started.