When I was five years old and about to start school, I asked my grandmother if all the terrible stories I’d heard about first grade were true. You know, the ones about homework so hard it makes you cry and fourth graders the size of bears. She assured me they were not, and pointed to a portrait on the wall of a man with wire-rimmed glasses and an old-fashioned haircut. She said the man was her brother, my great uncle, Abe Feller, and that he, too, had been nervous about school when he was a boy. But he had gone on to do Great Things at something called The United Nations.
In a soft voice, she told me that I had been given his Hebrew name, Avraham. She went on to explain that a Hebrew name was “a secret name,” one I would use only on special occasions like my Bar Mitzvah, and that the original Avraham was the “father of the Jewish people.” I said it out loud a couple of times: “Avraham.” It sounded ancient, dark, made of iron: a name to grow into. We were in my grandparents’ study, a quiet and serious place furnished in reds and browns, teeming with the mysteries of adulthood, and when I uttered “Avraham” again I almost expected a hidden passageway to be revealed. I looked up at the portrait of Uncle Abe and saw a serious man who helped people. Abe and I were made of Avraham, a generation-spanning, truer version of ourselves, a secret source of Jewishness, quiet heroism, and strength.
Abe Feller had been accorded hero status in our family long before anyone painted his portrait. By the time I heard his story from my grandmother, he had been dead from suicide almost fifteen years, and his story had been bronzed into myth. It was recited more than told, chanted with the rhythm of prayer: editor of the Harvard Law Review; youngest attorney to argue before the World Court; law professor; member of FDR’s “brain trust;” coauthor of the United Nations charter, and its first General Counsel. And all the while, he performed legendary feats of intellectual derring-do: reading The Encyclopedia Britannicacover-to-cover, learning Italian in a week.
Still, Abe’s story has never felt like an integral part of our family’s larger story. He’s a bright tangent, a rocket that explodes in mid-flight and stops conversations. The future that would have been—and that surely would have brought all of us into its orbit—drifts, untethered, somewhere far away. While I have a vivid memory of hearing my grandmother’s child-friendly version of Abe’s life, at age five, I have no recollection at all of learning about his death or its circumstances. I must have been nine or ten, I suppose, when I did, and it’s hard to imagine a story that would have made more of an impression on a boy that age, yet it’s not there.
Even later, as a young adult, I would catch only glimpses of Abe’s last days. When his name came up a cousin would murmur, “Roy Cohn—it was Cohn who destroyed his life. Simple as that.” But then, nothing. Not even the wistful trailing-off typically inspired by absent friends or uncles.
I became curious about what was on the other side of that silence in the summer of 1995, when I was thirty-four. I’d been in a depression that made mustering enough creative energy to answer questions like, “Why get dressed?” or, “Why lift a foot?” feel like an achievement. I knew enough, just enough, to keep moving, to slow-walk myself to appointments, to recognize the affliction’s unsubtle enticements (Take a load off! Sleep for a few days! Money is overrated!) as the bait-and-switch tactics they were. This was the third time I’d wrestled with depression’s gravity, and I’d apparently jotted enough of the right phone numbers and scraps of wisdom in my notebooks during the last bout to help me stay upright, get me out the door, and, eventually, to my great uncle’s story, and its promise of answers to questions I couldn’t form yet.
I started reading about Abe. I told myself this was a kind of research, but of course there was more at work for me. We don’t get to choose our ancestors. We do, however, choose whether to reckon with who they were and with what they might tell us about ourselves.
The Abe Feller of my family’s mythology embodied in equal measure the exemplary and the damaged, the inspirational and the cautionary, the Golden Child and the Black Sheep. I worried about biological time bombs: had Uncle Abe been depressed? Was my depression a death sentence? Did my occasional thoughts about driving off highways qualify as “suicidal ideation?” I wondered, also, about genetic blessings: Was I capable of Great Things? Could I have a meaningful life if I wasn’t? Which Abe was I most like? Which was he most like?
Over time, my casual research became a hobby. I combed libraries for Abe’s lectures. I examined a small oil portrait outside the Abraham Feller Memorial Reading Room at the UN. I scanned old clippings in the pre-Google glow of backlit microfiche. I asked my grandparents about him. But they would recite the legend and change the subject at the mention of his irradiated name.
The Abe that I learned about in my first year of fitful research was the public Abraham Feller, the one available in newspaper archives and approved biographies—the slightly-built, prematurely balding, driven young attorney who, by the time of his death in 1952, was the second most powerful person at the UN.
The most powerful person there was the Secretary General, Trygve Lie, in many ways Abe’s opposite—a large, blustery Norwegian who liked to pose for photographs with feet spread wide and hands jammed into the pockets of pin-striped suits. Abe was ensconced in an office next to Lie’s in the organization’s new headquarters, a blue glass modernist gem on First Avenue, which he had been instrumental in getting built.
Ground was broken on the UN compound in 1949, just three years after Joseph McCarthy had been elected to the Senate. In the two years it had taken for the headquarters to rise over the East River, the former poultry farmer had become a TV star, a dominant force in American politics, and an era-defining “ism”—McCarthyism. Yet McCarthy was not nearly the most prolific Red Hunter of the decade. That honor went to Nevada’s Senator, Pat McCarran, a silver-pompadoured scourge of the welfare state, who had been holding hearings on the question of “Who Lost China?” for a year before McCarthy was elected. In June of 1952, McCarran teamed with a new Assistant Attorney General—the driven, young, slightly built, and prematurely balding Roy Cohn—to look into suspected subversives at the UN. Abe must have understood the threat the pair represented, but family members say he seemed untroubled by the gathering panic around him and assured them that mechanisms had been put in place to protect the UN and its employees from the vagaries of American politics.
I admired my great uncle—the one I was reading about—very much. Depressives like heroes, and I had a habit of seeking out role models like Abe: quiet, steady, practical, and kind. I had to remind myself not to accept my family’s version of Abe’s story as fact, to stay open to the possibility that he was more flawed than I knew.
When I learned from a New York Times story that Abe had testified in front of the grand jury in October of 1952, it was difficult for me to see how he had presented a likely target for Cohn. He had been vetted a number of times—by the UN, the State Department, and the Office of War Information—and no one had found any suggestion he was, or ever had been, a member of the Communist Party. There was a hall-of-mirrors aspect to investigating Abe’s history, a history of having his history investigated, after all. To read about what Abe was doing in 1952 was to read about what he had been doing in 1939. To be Abe in 1952 must have been to face a future being consumed by the past.
The story of Abe’s appearance before Cohn summoned the memory of the first time I’d heard about the event, and had missed its importance altogether: a late afternoon in West Palm Beach, Florida, a visit to my grandparents, when I was twenty. The rise and fall of my grandfather’s chest, as he remembered how troubled Abe had been by the experience of reading his “invitation” to testify. “Terrible, terrible. Unavoidable. Terrible,” he’d said.
My grandfather’s memory invited the question of why Abe had been hounded by the prosecutor in the first place. A former New Dealer, an academic, an internationalist, he was of course exactly the kind of person who offended Cohn, but he was almost comically irreproachable. His daughter Caroline told stories about sneaking out of bed as a child to spy on the suspiciously quiet parties Abe and his wife, Alice, hosted, only to discover a dozen or so ambassadors and foreign ministers on sofas and wing chairs, each with a book in his hand, contentedly reading.
Trygve Lie resigned as Secretary General of the U.N on November 10th, 1952, delivering what must have been a hammer blow to my great uncle, who had testified for Cohn only weeks before, and who, only six days before Lie’s resignation, had watched the returns come in for Adlai Stevenson’s loss to Dwight Eisenhower. Abe had been a longtime and passionate supporter of the unassuming Governor of Illinois, a fellow New Dealer whose public persona—unapologetically worldly, proudly erudite—no doubt served as a kind of model for him. Republicans had succeeded in making the 1952 election into a referendum, not only on what Stevenson stood for—enlightenment values, pluralism, liberal democracy—but on the cosmopolitan style he and other believers in world citizenship embodied, on his identity. Stevenson’s crushing defeat could be seen as not merely a rejection of everything Abe believed in, but of the kind of person he was. Abe took Stevenson’s defeat personally, because the election had been made personal.
Uncle Abe had been immersed in liberal New Deal culture his whole professional life. He’d worked twelve-hour days at every post he’d held, and even spent most of his social time involved in that work. During the early portions of the dinner parties that Caroline remembers for their late night, study hall ambience, Abe would preside over pitched battles of an international version of charades he’d designed, featuring a display of agreed-upon hand signals and a “translator” to help decode foreign gestures.
The last trace I could find of that Abe Feller, the pre-1952 Abe of Caroline’s memories, was in his own work, in his last book, United Nations and World Community, published just days before his death. It’s a heartfelt yet poised defense of the United Nations, a respectful consideration of opposing arguments, and a charting of a pragmatic course in response—straight down the middle of the ideological road. It’s no page-turner, but Abe was a good writer, with a trial lawyer’s sense of story and a knack for dramatic closing argument. He typically saved the stirring rhetoric for the last few paragraphs of a chapter: mini St. Crispin’s Day speeches, fanfares for his noble, pragmatic mission:
We can have no illusions about the discouragements which lie ahead. The temptations to write the task off as impossible, or to forget all about it as a tedious bore, will be almost irresistible. The effort will go on because it must. The choice is between the quick and the dead.”
By the time I picked up United Nations, Abe had begun to feel familiar to me. I was catching glimpses of him everywhere: his curls were my sister’s, his optimism my mother’s, his insomnia mine. But reading my great uncle’s book revived a quiet suspicion that I had something of him in my blood, a hope inextricably wrapped in a double helix with fear of being like him.
The subject of fate came up one day with my grandfather, as we shared a poolside lemonade near the end of a resolve-meltingly humid afternoon at his retirement community. He remembered writing a Sherlock Holmes story with Abe when they were in their twenties, and how sure the two brothers-in-law were that it would be published before they were thirty. “But we never wrote another word together,” he said. “Nothing is predetermined.”
My grandfather (whom we all called “Papa,”) marveled that Abe had once turned down a “big position” at a corporate law firm, for a lot of money. “I can only wear one suit of clothes at a time, Ken” Abe had said to him. Papa told me that Abe’s father had been a builder who did very well before the crash. But that the “apple had fallen far from the tree with regards to money.” My grandfather dropped his chin to his chest, and then, finally, as if admitting a kind of weary defeat, said: “He always had ashes on his lapel. Cigarette ashes. I had to identify the body, you know.”
I felt weightless. My grandfather had suddenly, without warning, opened what had remained resolutely shut for forty years. Our conversation quickly gathered momentum, and we covered a lot of uncharted ground. We began with the autumn of 1952.
Papa remembered Abe as being in good spirits throughout the summer. He recalled a visit to an art gallery with Abe in late August of 1952, an afternoon spent trading war stories about raising teenage daughters. Papa said, “He was rubbing his ear lobe between his fingers all day. He always did that. It was a habit, like a worry stone. But that’s the only sign of trouble I can remember.” He said that Abe was painting at home on the weekends, going to concerts, still hosting his Tower-of-Babble charades. He had taken Caroline to Paris in June.
“You know what he was good at?” my grandfather said. “He was good at everything—except singing, he had a terrible tin ear—but he was really good at seeing things from somebody else’s point of view. He used to say all the time, ‘Stand in their shoes for a minute, Ken.’ That was… I only wish I could go back and stand in his shoes.”
But October of 1952 brought a noticeable change, Papa said. Abe hadn’t talked much about the growing pressure from the committees, but he did say that Cohn had come to his office to demand “Heads—I don’t care whose.” My grandfather noticed that, even when Abe’s book earned an admiring piece in The New York Times Book Review (“unquestionably the best book published” about the UN) it did little to lighten his mood.
My grandfather had a vague memory, one I later confirmed with Caroline, of Abe seeing a psychiatrist that October, grudgingly, at Alice’s insistence. She had been startled by a moment of difficulty he’d had in helping Caroline with her homework. Abe suddenly felt he couldn’t concentrate on the text long enough to understand even a sentence, and had emerged from his daughter’s room clutching his head and muttering, “I am losing my mind.” I thought about my own occasional failures of concentration, wondered if I’d underestimated their importance. I asked Papa if Abe had been hospitalized. No, he said, and he never stopped participating in life. He still went to work every morning.
On November 9, a Sunday, he and Alice enjoyed an early matinee of a new movie with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, Monkey Business. But two days later, while returning from lunch to the apartment with Alice, Abe had stepped absentmindedly into oncoming traffic on Columbus Avenue, to be rescued only by a two-handed tug from his frightened wife, forceful enough to pull him to the concrete. Papa heard about the incident from Alice months later. He confessed he only realized several years after the fact that Abe’s legendary hypochondria—he used to check his eyes every morning, for jaundice—had grown noticeably more acute in November. He had even stopped eating.
Three days after Trygve Lie’s resignation, on November 13, 1952, Abe woke late, just after Caroline had left for school, at 7:00 a.m. Still shaken by his wandering into traffic on the previous Monday afternoon, and when she saw that sleep had done nothing to lift the “grayish aspect” she’d observed in Abe the night before, Alice suggested he not go into the office that day. She called Dr. Bridge, the psychiatrist, and asked him to come as quickly as possible to the apartment. She steered Abe into the large, airy front room, with its twelve-foot ceilings and six windows overlooking the bright yellow elms and orange oaks of Central Park, and the shadowed East Side skyline beyond. She talked to him about the Times review for his book and what it might mean for his career, about how touched their daughter had been by its heartfelt dedication: “To Caroline and Her Generation.” She talked about the future.
Alice would later tell reporters: “He began talking about suicide. He actually said, ‘I’m going to commit suicide.’ I couldn’t believe he was serious, but I clung to him…I thought I could reason with him until the doctor came, but he kept saying, ‘The doctors can’t help me. It’s no use. It’s no use.’ He started back through the apartment and I followed him as swiftly as I could through all the rooms until we came to the den off the kitchen at the rear. I would try to hold him by the arm, or by the head or the body or by the leg….”
Alice pleaded with Abe to think of her, to think of Caroline. She wrapped her arms tightly around his shoulders and screamed to the neighbors for help as Abe opened the narrow window in the room, but her grip weakened and loosened, dropped to his waist and then his legs, until she was grasping only an ankle, and then suddenly only a shoe, a fully tied oxford, still warm from the foot of her husband, who had fallen twelve stories to his death in an open cellar entrance below.
My mother, Susan, was attending class at Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art that day, four subway stops north of the apartment on Central Park West where her Uncle Abe and Aunt Alice lived. She would stop by most afternoons to listen to records with her cousin, Caroline, for an hour or two before heading back to Borough Park, Brooklyn, but on this day she hopped directly on the A train for home.
Some time before the train reached Times Square she glanced over the shoulder of another passenger and caught sight of a bold headline on the late edition of the Daily News: “UN Official in Suicide: Abraham Feller jumps from window.” She headed quickly back uptown and reached the Feller apartment, just minutes after Caroline had returned home from school to hear the news from the building’s doorman.
Trygve Lie was already there, as were dozens of others from the UN, the State Department, and the press, but no one else, apart from Alice and Caroline, from the family yet. Mom sat with Caroline in her bedroom for the rest of the afternoon, holding her hand and listening to the muffled voices of diplomats and reporters on the other side of the wall. Abe’s death would be processed first as a public event, one that many parties had a stake in shaping, his family included. In his autobiography, Lie would say that when he heard of Abe’s death, “grief and shock overwhelmed me. Abe Feller was nearer to me than anyone else outside the circle of my immediate family…. He was a victim of the witch hunt…the hysterical assault upon the UN that reactionaries were using for their own ends.”
And that’s the way the story was told to me when I was old enough to hear it: vividly, succinctly, angrily. Abe had abruptly “snapped” under the pressure of an assault, for which the perpetrators were unapologetic: “If Feller’s conscience was clear,” Senator McCarran said, “he had no reason to suffer from what he expected from our committee.”
I eventually had little doubt that Abe’s conscience was clear of the qualms McCarran was referring to—he’d never attended a meeting of any organization to the left of the Democratic Party. But, obviously, something had been troubling him.
Yet as far as I could tell, Abe had, until those last weeks of his life, rarely been seriously troubled by anything. What could cause someone of robust mental health to so suddenly and dramatically “snap?” It was difficult for me to see how, even when taken together, the known culprits—Roy Cohn’s grand jury examination, Adlai Stevenson’s defeat, and Trygve Lie’s resignation—added up to a reason for Abe Feller to commit suicide. I had no idea why he had killed himself.
Hebrew names are not very important to most Jews. They would probably rank near the bottom of any personal list of meaningful signifiers of Judaism, especially for practicing members of the tribe. But my Hebrew name has always been important to me, possibly because I have only practiced Judaism in the briefest fits and starts, and never very seriously. Carrying the name of Avraham has been a way of keeping a light hand on the lifeline of Jewish custom, the long, frayed, thread of affliction that my grandparents never tired of reminding me to grasp. It connected me to them, to my ancestors, to survivors across centuries of evictions, inquisitions, and pogroms.
The practice of giving children “secret” names began as a means of deceiving those who might do them harm, and there are several Jewish practices rooted in similar ancient anxieties. The tradition of not naming a newborn after a living relative, for instance, is based on the idea that the angel of death might get confused and, having come for Grandpa Saul, take baby Saul instead. It is the kind of tradition, along with the bris, the Bar Mitzvah, and the Seder, that persists even among non-religious Jews, as an expression of solidarity with a fragile culture, of the very tenacious dos pintele yid, the “spark of Jewishness,” that is said to linger in the most assimilated of hearts.
Abe had been raised Orthodox in Borough Park, but as an adult never joined a synagogue or kept a Kosher home. He took famously long naps after his parents’ Seders, and had to be coerced by them into marrying Alice in a Jewish ceremony. But Abe was devoted to liberal ideals with what can only be described as a religious fervor. With its emphases on inquiry, exegesis, ethics, and social justice, and its de-emphasis on dogma and belief, a certain kind of real-world Judaism has a way of making its formal presence in the life of a Jew beside the point. Any list of Abe’s more famous Jewish contemporaries is a list of secular Jews who pursued their callings with a pious passion: Freud, Marx, Gershwin, Lenny Bruce, Phillip Roth….One can practically see them davening over their work, and it’s possible to consider their devotion to science, art, or literature either a failure of, or a tribute to, contemporary Judaism.
There is another ancient divide, a kind of sibling rivalry as old as the diaspora, reflected in the confrontation between Abe Feller and Roy Cohn, a clash of archetypes born of social contracts between Jews and their nation-hosts. “Useful Jews” like Cohn were the co-opted facilitators of gentile authority, courtiers who worked and lived at the pleasure of their sponsors. But Abe Feller had more in common with the traditional “universal stranger”—the cosmopolitan, the newly-arrived wanderer, separated from his origins by time, eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and the future.
The principle emphasized over all others in the Torah—more than keeping Kosher, more than any commandment—is love of the stranger: “And the stranger you should not mistreat, nor should you oppress him, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Abe had dedicated his life to an ancient, yet distinctly modern notion of kindness, in which the historical, the personal, and the possible are intertwined and dependent on the other. A person holds within him the promise of a world. Oppression holds within it the promise of freedom. Be kind and the world will be kinder; be new and make a new world.
But what happens when the world goes crazy? How do we tolerate the unraveling of things, especially when we’re the unravelers? What happens when we, say, deny our history for the sake of a possible future, or sacrifice others for what might be? What if the price of admission to modernity is making a stranger of yourself, and what if the cost of thriving is evicting the stranger? The self that Abe Feller constructed would have had to confront these questions.
Over the years I’ve heard more than one relative refer to Abe Feller’s wife, Alice, like him a child of immigrants, as a “lace curtain Jew,” a pretender to a Gentile aesthetic and a too-eager refugee from her middle-class upbringing as the daughter of a Hoboken jeweler. When I ask them whether their view of Alice was formed in the days after Abe’s suicide, I am assured in the strongest of terms that she failed to endear herself to the family from the beginning.
Still, it’s hard for me not to wince when I see eyebrows raised over Alice’s long black cigarette holders, cucumber-sandwich luncheons, and a world-weary posture my grandmother dubbed “the debutante slouch.” The feelings she continues to arouse in our family seem at least partially rooted in the fact that, whereas Abe had struck a kind of uneasy truce with Judaism, Alice appeared to be openly at war with it, making excuses not to attend Bar Mitzvahs and banning menorahs from the Feller apartment. According to my mother, a year after Abe’s death, Alice severely chided Caroline in public for dating a boy with what she called “Jewish lips.”
Yet Abe seemed utterly devoted to Alice. He brought her with him whenever he traveled and consulted her on every important decision. She was an adept manager of his reputation, shrewdly filtering requests for interviews, and coaching him on the finer points of getting ahead. She was heard to scold him through a clenched jaw for standing in the back row of dignitaries when press photos were taken, “You’re not the tallest of men, Abe. You need to stand in front to be seen.” And her watchfulness extended beyond his death—Alice destroyed her husband’s personal journals within days of his suicide, and her own.
Abe’s choice to marry Alice, and to stay married to her, seemed inexplicable to family members at the time, but sixty years later seemed to me an unsurprising one for a Jew helping to convene the first borderless government. Alice allowed Abe to travel farther from Borough Park than he could have managed on his own.
She had, in fact, wanted him to go farther still, and was never able to forgive Borough Park for the weight it had placed on her husband’s secretly weakening spirit. “It was Judaism that killed him,” she said to Caroline a week or so after his death, “If you want to know why he’s dead, that’s why. Judaism killed him.”
When I began reading about Uncle Abe again, after a pause of around fifteen years, I hadn’t thought about him for a long time. But I was around the same age he was when he died. I had a wife and daughter, as he had. And then one day a friend had called to say he’d seen the actor James Woods chewing scenery as a certain, late Assistant Attorney General for the Southern District of New York in a TV movie called Citizen Cohn, and that the film featured a character named Abe Feller, who commits suicide. But that this Abe Feller was an overweight weepy pinko, so unmanned by Cohn’s questions that he heads straight back to his shabby apartment and sits sobbing on a windowsill for several minutes before gently scooting off the ledge and falling to the busy street below.
Watching the movie confirmed its ludicrous depiction of Uncle Abe, yet left me a little bit shaken. The counter-myth to my family’s well guarded legend of Abe the Righteous Warrior had always been Abe the Treasonous Pinko, a paranoid fantasy of betrayal that, while easily dismissed, at least retained the most essential aspect of his story as we saw it: its tragic nature. But Citizen Cohn apparently told a story that I had never considered, and in the language of farce instead of tragedy: the legend of Abe the Coward. The sudden thought that this is what had become of the good name of Abraham Feller was gut clenching.
I was on the other side of my depression by then. It had been years—ten, at least—since I’d felt anything like its lung-flattening pull. I habitually kept an eye out for signs of its return, but therapy, medicine, and a blessedly mellowed endocrine system had finally made that prospect seem unlikely. I felt like I was reading through clearer eyes.
Once again, I was finding the portrait of my great uncle in the written record of his life a maddeningly positive one. I eventually sifted through thousands of words by dozens of people—diary and autobiography entries by Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Bunche, and others; recorded interviews of UN employees for the organization’s Oral History Project; and interviews I conducted with still other employees, including novelist and former UN staff member Shirley Hazzard and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs Brian Urquhart—all of whom spoke about him in only the most glowing of terms. In the Oral History interviews of former staff members, Abe’s name came up often, without prodding, and invariably warranted a personal tribute from the interviewee. For example, a staffer from the General Counsel’s office named Oscar Schacter considered Abe’s stature and wondered how political pressures could have led to his death:
I don’t know why he committed suicide; he himself was not implicated in a personal way. Many of the top people were…Abe was not as far as I know, there was no reason for him to think that. He was at the height of his influence, not only with Lie, but with major delegates like Acheson… Not many Secretariat people had that, no one really.
The faint scent of flesh and blood in Schacter’s interview kept me on the hunt for the human Uncle Abe, sifting through tributes to the highly regarded abstraction I’d encountered years before, searching for a glimpse of the man who had torn himself from his wife’s arms to throw himself out a window. Even if I chalked up his suicide to Cohn and his threats, it was difficult for me to imagine what the nature of those threats might have been. Even the most unfairly hounded of witnesses had all had “suspicious” drinking buddies, magazine subscriptions, or trips to Eastern Europe in their past. But Abe had been a non-ideological pragmatist, used to withstanding close scrutiny, his entire career. How does a person whom Time magazine referred to as, “a tough-minded man who has long shown an abundance of intellectual and physical resiliency” wind up on a window ledge?
I got the first hint of an answer when I revisited United Nations, Abe’s last book. Reading it again after fifteen years felt like one of those scenes in an old spy movie, in which a sentence written in invisible ink suddenly becomes legible on a formerly blank page. It was that same passage, about the UN’s role in controlling nuclear weapons, that had moved me years before. It chilled me now:
If the United Nations were useful for nothing else, it would be imperative to keep it alive … We can have no illusions about the discouragements which lie ahead. The temptations to write the task off as impossible, or to forget all about it as a tedious bore, will be almost irresistible. The effort will go on because it must. The choice is between the quick and the dead.
The passage, one of many that read the first time like a battle cry to the happy few of the UN, now sounded more like a therapeutic pep talk to a consciousness facing an existential threat, a gathering of courage in the face of crisis.
In a later chapter Abe writes,
Superficial listeners might be tempted to think of (these debates) as another symptom of disintegrating… unity. The fissures…are often serious, and there have been and will be crises of serious import. It is inevitable that they should add to our tensions and difficulties.
The diagnostic language of psychological collapse leapt out at me: “symptom,” “disintegrating,” “fissures,” and of course, “tensions,” the same word he’d used to describe his worsening state to my grandfather shortly before his death.
Then, later, in the book’s closing passage,
The forces of disruption and destruction are powerful. They can be kept within bounds and eventually dissipated only by…moral strength and firm maintenance of a united purpose…[The] organizational framework …is far from perfect. It nonetheless exists in sufficient strength to enable the world to hold itself together and progress towards a time when real security can be achieved.
Unlike other books by UN officials, Abe’s is noticeably free of authorial intrusion, and yet it seemed to inadvertently reveal so much. It’s easy to make hints out of coincidence, of course, especially if one is predisposed to finding such hints, and I may have been hearing more in these words than they were ever meant to (even unconsciously) convey. But it did seem to me that Abe’s last public statements were infused with a tone of private struggle, a diction of despair; a call to arms not just against external enemies, but buried tectonic forces of “disunity,” a low rumble of anguish that was, on some level, meant to be heard.
Reading the book again helped tune my ears to the still-sounding echo of the unwitting agony that Abe had passed down to his family. “My father was such a gentle man,” Caroline said to me, during a long and wide-ranging phone conversation in 2011, “such a truly kind man. Almost a wimp, but not quite, you know what I mean? A good man. He didn’t have it in him to condescend to people or even, really, to confront them. He didn’t like violence, at all. My mother used to hit me with a shoe brush—I don’t remember being naughty, but I guess I must have been—and Daddy would always leave the room when she did.”
The idea of Abe “snapping” started to make more sense to me, just as the idea that he had been chronically depressed made less. When I was in the grips of depression, I had felt anything but “tense.” I was boneless, a noodle, not a taut string or a twig. Whatever Abe suffered from seemed to me to have more in common with anxiety, and to have come on only at the end. I wondered to what extent Caroline’s oddly self-blaming description of her abuse by her mother (“I don’t remember being naughty but I must have been,”) and perhaps backhanded tribute to her father’s gentleness (“Daddy would always leave the room…”) revealed an inheritance—genetic or otherwise—from her father. Did she learn to avoid painful subjects by watching him leave rooms? She did always seem to share a kind of steely, determined, yet somewhat unreflective optimism reflected in Abe’s writings, from letters to friends to essays for college newspapers and eventually to his lectures and policy papers. The first hint I could detect of cracks in his psychic armor appear in the pages of his book, published just three months before his death, at the same time that his family started noticing signs of his uncharacteristic depression.
There is a popular myth that the McCarthy era was rife with suicides, but Abe’s was one of only a half dozen or so by people who had been targets of the committees. It made the front pages of newspapers all over the world, was the subject of magazine articles, and was a particular sensation in France where, soon after reading a story about it in a magazine featuring a cover illustration of Abe tumbling headfirst from the grasp of two manicured hands extending from a curtained window, Jean Paul Sartre began writing a play about him. The incomplete manuscript was published for the first time in 2005, under the title La Part du feu (The Devil’s Portion).
The philosopher was in the full throes of his post-war Marxist delirium at the time, and depicted Abe Feller bobbing like a cork on a sea of history, tossed and battered by the imperatives of property, money, and class. As the character struggles to articulate the moral dilemma that has triggered his crisis—I am against the communists. But I think the communists have the right to speak—he reveals more about the historical forces shaping his life than he does about himself.
The play feels like a cafe-napkin sketch: schematic and brutally declamatory—the dialogue a parody of existentialist theater shouted through a bullhorn—and I could barely get through it, even in its fragmented form. It is framed by scenes in which a tormented Feller banters with a bemused psychotherapist, randomly chosen from the phone book. He tells the doctor he considers himself “terribly normal,” assures him that he is attracted to “our tall, beautiful, frigid American women,” and says he has no interest in being analyzed, but would like to free associate in the doctor’s presence. He says that if he were a religious man he would have sought out a priest.
I stared at the word for several seconds. A priest, not a rabbi. Sartre’s Feller wants to be part of the gentile world.
FELLER—I want to think out loud in front of you. […] Should I lie down here?
PSYCHIATRIST—If you like.
PSYCHIATRIST—It’s the custom.
FELLER—Perfect. Let’s not ignore custom. That’s what makes the world go round, wouldn’t you say? (He lies down.)
FELLER— I want to know what my life is worth.
Sartre makes Abe’s wife not only rich, blonde, and Catholic, but the sister of Joe McCarthy. And in the play’s climactic scene, the character of Abe’s fifteen-year-old son, who has fallen under the ideological spell of his revered Uncle Joe, accuses his father of being a weak, treacherous—and cowardly—Jew. Sartre had just published his essay, Anti-Semite and Jew, in which he declared that “if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him,” and imagined an Abe Feller who is, before he is anything, “A Jew,” a stand-in for all “other-ed” people, everywhere. In Sartre’s rough sketch of the play’s last scene, Abe sits on his windowsill, as Joe McCarthy and three FBI agents arrive at his apartment:
FELLER: Yes, I was a Communist, my mistake was not to remain one. I had given my life a meaning.
McCARTHY: We know how to dishonor the dead.
[Feller jumps out the window. McCarthy leans out and looks.]
McCARTHY: Let’s get out of here.
And yet, for all its cartoonish-ness, there was something about the play’s depiction of my great uncle—as a man struggling with questions of personal and public identity, in a Cold War world where everything had been reduced to the starkest of binary choices—that rang uncomfortably true. Sartre’s Feller had become fully estranged from himself, had assumed a kind of all-purpose identity constructed for him by others. This Abe Feller, in all his unknowability, was becoming familiar to me.
In pictures of the charter-signing ceremony and other UN events, Abe is typically standing among a group of several others, usually the shortest of the men, invariably the only one holding a pen, and often the only one smiling. He is usually leaning forward ever so slightly, toward a desk upon which sits the charter or some other document he’d helped compose, his body clenched, hyper-alert, in arrested motion.
In some of the photos he is flanked by Dean Acheson or George Marshall, revered architects of the postwar world, white-haired, handsome, ramrod straight, and radiating sobriety. When I looked at these pictures I couldn’t help wondering how attuned Abe was to the differences in physicality and bearing that distinguished him from the men he shared the stage with, how aware he was of who he was in the context of the moment. What sort of conception of himself he occupied on the precipice of a radically new future, mere months after the liberation of the camps? Abe The Idealist, The Bureaucrat, The Only Jew on the Stage? What did it feel like to carry a secret name while watching the President sign a document you wrote?
If the assessments of others were any guide, Abe probably wasn’t thinking of himself at all. A 1952 Harvard Law Review essay about him is typical in its depiction of a problem-solver who is happy, even eager, to fade into the background: “…a middle-of-the-roader in search of solutions acceptable to all, a compromiser of great skill, an inventor of new formulas….” It was this practiced moderation, this embrace of open-minded empiricism that must have made Abe a conspicuous target for Cohn. His books and lectures return again and again to his trust in rationalism, his rejection of all things subjective, his belief that liberal ideals needed to be not merely expressed but internalized, his faith that the future would be made by cosmopolitan men. It was that future the McCarthyites feared.
The more I immersed myself in McCarthyite literature, the more clearly I understood that their committees were less interested in gathering evidence, per se, than names. They were processors of identity. They were tribal. They stalked the assimilated, the encyclopedia readers, the kind of people who felt more at home in the world than in any particular community, at a time when belonging to one side or another meant everything.
And they remade identities: from “Assistant Secretary of State” to “suspected Communist Party member;” from “United Nations clerical worker” to “courier for a spy ring.” The McCarthyites warned, in the direst of terms, not about the nationalization of America’s industries, but the evolution of its culture, of changes in speech, art, and behavior that amounted to a cataclysm, a tidal wave of modernity that would destroy an imagined, rural idyll.
They particularly liked to describe their targets as “effete.” The most common form of evidence used to red-flag potential subversives was “evidence” of homosexuality, and McCarthy railed loudly against the “egg-sucking liberals whose pitiful squealing would hold sacrosanct those Communists and queers who sold China into atheistic slavery.” Was Abe afraid of that resentment being turned on him? Was he gay? He had married Alice when he was twenty-nine—the only woman he had ever dated, as far as anyone could remember.
My sister said something about a photograph once, an official portrait of Abe in a dark suit. She saw a gentleness in his eyes, a tenderness unusual for that kind of picture, from that era. When I returned to the photo I thought I saw it, too, and of course we might have been seeing what we wanted to see. But I couldn’t help thinking that it reflected…something. An ambition as all-consuming as Abe’s probably represented some kind of overcompensation, for some kind of social displacement. For being gay? A non-combatant in the company of generals? The only Jew on stage? Did it matter?
A few days after we buried my grandfather in a plot next to Abe’s, in 2003, I asked my grandmother what she remembered about her brother’s funeral, back in 1952. About the people who’d spoken there, and what they’d spoken about. There was a glint of steel in her eyes when she grimaced. “The funeral was a disaster,” she said.
There were too many competing hopes to fulfill, too many versions of Abe Feller to honor for it to come off smoothly. Grandma said that Abe’s Orthodox Jewish parents had already been driven to a sleepless despair when the traditional twenty-four hour period before burial had passed and their son’s body was still with the coroner. It would be a full week before the autopsy was completed and the funeral plans finalized. I dropped the subject with her after that, but learned later from newspaper accounts (in the Times, the New York Post, and New York Herald Tribune) and Ralph Bunche’s autobiography, that even the funeral ceremony itself had been contentious. The Rabbi railed against secularism; Trygve Lie cursed the committees; and, most astoundingly, Ralph Bunche went after Trygve Lie.
Bunche had been instrumental in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was a ferocious defender of the United Nations and his words carried enormous weight. That day his words were revelatory and astonishing.
With Trygve Lie just a few feet away, Bunche said: “Hard as it must be to stand up against the demands of Washington, a strong Secretary General would surely have refused to enter into a secret pact with the State Department under which he agreed not to employ any American citizen who was, or appeared to be, a Communist. Abe Feller, as general, tried desperately to substitute legal procedures for such miserable calculations….”
I had to re-read the passage twice before it’s meaning sunk in: …a secret pact with the State Department. Abe’s struggle had not been with those who wanted to destroy the UN but with the man who embodied it. I went on to confirm with other sources, including Shirley Hazzard, internal UN memos from and to the General Counsel’s office, and historian Paul Ybarra’s Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt, that Abe had been waging a two-front war, from a position that had been growing more and more isolated. The revelation also sent me back to Lie’s autobiography, in which he complains bitterly about the lack of help he received from member countries in resisting the assault by the committees, yet never acknowledges that he had himself, as revealed in UN memos available at the organization’s Legal Library on Madison Ave. in New York, asked the American State Department and the FBI in 1949 to provide him the names of American employees suspected of “disloyalty.” Or that he’d fired employees whose political leanings might cause him trouble, including those who had exercised their Fifth Amendment privilege to not answer questions from Cohn and the rest.
Trygve Lie was observed by a UN staffer to be so shaken by Abe’s death that he appeared “Like the man in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. A broken man.” Yet he had done little to protect Abe while he was alive. His statement after Abe’s suicide marked the first time he’d ever spoken publicly against the investigators. Lie’s hypocrisy was not a secret at the UN. Many staffers later complained about his betrayal, and at least one, Oscar Schacter, indirectly connected it to Abe’s suicide, saying,
…this was a very very difficult problem for Abe Feller …because one hoped that by bending, (Lie) would save the institution… .he was particularly vehement in private against the people in the Secretariat who had been targets. …he played both sides..and Feller was very loyal to Lie….I would tell him that this man was disgusting and he wouldn’t go along… this situation… was a very hard thing for Feller to bear.
Lie was no McCarthyite. He had been a devoted socialist, a prominent and vocal member of the Norwegian Labor party during his pre-UN career. On the other hand, it certainly would not have been easy for him to refuse to enter into the agreement. But, according to several interviews given by former employees to the UN Oral History Project, as well as Brian Urqehart’s invaluable memoir, A Life in Peace and War, he never even put up a fight. And his acquiescence even failed as a political strategy. By 1952 Trygve Lie was the most cordially hated man in New York: toasted at the dais, but scorned by an indignant left and vilified by a scalp-hunting right.
Some of the criticism was naive. Lie’s general strategy of “bending” to McCarthyite demands, (as described in books by Bunche, Urquehart, and Hazzard, as well as countless newspaper accounts,) was probably a wise one, given the likely alternative of losing congressional support for the UN. Lie and Feller were midcentury men—chastened idealists who expected nothing to come easily. The notion that any politician of the era could have completely avoided making the kind of compromises they did is as fantastical as the list of 200 supposed communists brandished by McCarthy (later to be described as fifty-seven, eighty-one, and ten communists by the Senator) at his famous February 9th, 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. But by fully accommodating the FBI and State Department’s demands for employee information, Lie had clumsily exposed the organization to attacks by its most uncompromising critics.
And what about Abe?
Abe had said “yes” to the agreement. He must have, I realized (and later confirmed with his former colleagues). As much as I wanted to distract myself from his complicity by focusing on Lie’s slippery behavior, there was no avoiding the fact that, grudgingly or not, my great uncle had signed off on a secret pact with the FBI and the State Department to screen Americans for their political affiliations. Reminding myself that Bunche’s biography and UN memos describe him later resisting the pact did nothing to diminish the central truth: That as chief legal counsel he would have approved, designed, and operated the agreement’s heinous machinery.
Ralph Bunche reaffirms in his autobiography that Abe argued strongly for canceling the agreement, and repeatedly sought to strike compromises with congressional committees in hopes of softening the damage it might do. It was a relief to learn that he kept up the good fight afterwards. He attempted, several times, to provide suspected staffers some opportunity for redress or appeal. But all of his arguments eventually failed. He was never able to meaningfully slow down what he’d helped set in motion. And he would never see his extraordinary loyalty to Lie reciprocated.
Abe’s support of Lie’s secret pact was, as far as I could tell, the only morally questionable decision of public importance that he had ever made. Viewed in the context of a fastidiously ethical life, Abe’s devotion to his invertebrate superior was astonishing. What could explain it?
My guess was that it was a moment rather than a man that inspired his loyalty. At some point in 1949, he faced a choice between accepting Lie’s pact or leaving the UN. The initial moral calculus Abe must have performed would have seemed irrefutable on paper: the United States was paying one third of the operational costs of the UN, which, without America’s continued support, would have collapsed of its own weight. It could not become a target of the committees and survive. And so Abe made a pragmatic choice, trading principle for access. He believed he could do more good from within the UN than without. He chose the path forward, to the only future he had ever imagined.
It was a fatal decision, the kind that would create an intolerable situation for an already exacerbated conscience. The McCarthy and McCarran committees would go on to summon former classmates, ex-girlfriends, and in-laws of suspected staffers to testify against them. They would ask UN employees what they read and how they voted. Husbands and wives of staffers were fired from jobs, children were pulled out of schools, bankruptcies declared. My great uncle’s decision was, finally, the kind of choice I could believe would move him, once he understood its ramifications, to kill himself.
I never found the idea that Abe jumped because of what others were doing to him a plausible one. But the idea that he did so because of what he had done to others seemed not just likely, but in some sense inevitable. Confronting the personal suffering of the accused and their families; understanding, finally, that his actions had been in vain, that neither the reputation of the UN nor those of its suspected staffers would survive the purge, Abe would have felt he had no other choice.
Thinking about his death in this light brought him to life for me. It did not, of course, mean I had somehow discovered his “true” identity—if anyone can be said to possess such a thing. My great uncle remained a stranger to me, as I think he was to himself. He seems to have never been very interested in his own private life, or in his public life, for that matter, at least not in the preening, clean-lapels sense of the term. What I think Abe Feller cared about most was his historical life, about finding his place in time. When I step into his shoes for a minute, when I imagine what he might have imagined, what I see is a spot on the horizon to which he could attach his yearning, a moment of arrival and self-revelation, a future to guard as jealously as his attackers did their imagined pasts.
Suicide defies the rules of time. It mocks the proscriptions of narrative, resists the search for the beating butterfly’s wings, the singular instance that begets a terminal, world-changing reaction. The particular combination of factors that lead to self-annihilation, working together and against each other, in forces large and small, will always resist discovery. The act itself resides outside the realm of reason. I imagine that Abe Feller experienced the events of 1952 not as a difficult detour or a temporary setback, but as a kind of temporal collapse, a devouring of the future by the past. A stopping of time.
But I will never know for certain what Abe’s last days were like for him. The most dependable truth of his story is that there is no single story. There is no single life, or death. There are legends and anecdotes, facts and mysteries, remembered, re-imagined, and altered, all told in service of the teller, and heard the way I wanted, even needed, to hear them.
Abe’s daughter, Caroline, and his sister, Gert, died within a year of each other, in 2012 and 2013—Caroline from mesothelioma, a result of decades spent handling asbestos while building schools in Bangladesh; Gert from heart failure at the age of 102. I asked my mother to please keep an eye out, as we were sorting through Grandma’s possessions, for the painting of Abe I had admired as a child, the one that had hung on my grandparent’s wall. “Painting? What painting?” she said. “You don’t mean this, do you?” She lifted from a sheath of bubble-wrap the modest photograph my sister had noticed years before.
“No, no the portrait,” I told her, “the big one in the gold frame, from the living room wall in Borough Park.”
She said, “This is from that house. It was on the wall for years, for as long as I can remember.” I took the four-by-seven-inch headshot from her. I turned it over in my hands. I lifted it to the light and ran my fingers along its cracked edges, searching for the secret to its mysterious shape-shifting abilities.
“No, no” I said, “Not this. I mean the portrait, you know the one—the big oil painting of Abe that…this..this isn’t the…”
But of course it was.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.