By Ted Kleine
Suppose you were writing a book about your father and you discovered a box of letters that revealed him as a philanderer, a lothario who used the United States Post Office in his seductions. Some biographers would bury the cache in the backyard to protect the family reputation. Mecca Reitman Carpenter didn’t. The daughter of birth control pioneer and “Hobo King” Ben Reitman, Carpenter made the love letters the basis of an often-lubricious book about her father’s satyric career. No Regrets: Dr. Ben Reitman and the Women Who Loved Him is the tale of a life-loving man who spent half his time ministering to Chicago’s sick and poor, and the other half as the incarnation of free-love doctrine.
Reitman was a founder of Chicago’s Hobo College and coauthor of the 1937 memoir by radical Bertha Thompson that became the basis of the Martin Scorsese picture Boxcar Bertha. He was a venereal disease specialist so ahead of his time that he was advocating condoms in high schools back in the 1930s. But history remembers him best for one of his romances. For ten years he was the lover of Emma Goldman, the dour anarchist known as “the most dangerous woman in America.” E.L. Doctorow mentioned Reitman in his novel Ragtime. When the book made it to Broadway, Goldman’s character was given a line about one of her escapades with the randy doctor: a tarring and feathering by a San Diego mob in 1912.
Last Thursday Carpenter lectured on her book to a small crowd of leftists at the Newberry Library. The occasion: the weekend of the Bughouse Square Debates, an annual revival of one of her father’s favorite public forums. Carpenter was introduced by Lila Weinberg, a woman who knew Ben Reitman in his heyday.
“Ben…had an enormous appetite for everything life had to offer,” said Weinberg, leaning on a cane. “Mecca captured all the excesses, all the women, all the adventures. She got it all down, and her affection for him shows through.”
Weinberg knew Reitman better than his own daughters did. He died in 1942, when Carpenter, his eldest girl, was only six. She has dim recollections of him, “vague memories of hiding Easter eggs,” she says. Carpenter’s mother, a Southern Baptist nurse, shielded the children from their father’s anarchist friends. Carpenter and her two sisters heard only a few family legends: of Reitman’s reputation as king of the hoboes, of the tarring and feathering in San Diego.
“Once he died, it was all over,” she said. “My mother raised us how she wanted to. We really didn’t have any contact with any people from his past. She was very nonpolitical.”
Carpenter didn’t start hearing the rest of the story until she was in her late 20s. One day her sister Olive phoned to say she’d been reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography in college, a book with “some sexy parts about papa.” Digging up family secrets didn’t interest Carpenter then. But a great man’s daughter has responsibilities. Eventually two Goldman biographies revisited the lovers’ quarrels, casting Reitman as the villain. And historian Roger Bruns brought out The Damndest Radical, a Reitman biography that hung even more of the family’s dirty laundry out for inspection.
“[Bruns] called me up to ask a few questions about my father,” Carpenter said. “The first thing he asked me was, did I think my grandmother was a prostitute? I thought, ‘Whoa! I need to know more about my family.’
“Then Roger’s book came out, and it was all news to me in his book. It made me want to go back and read his letters. I thought there was still a story.” (For the record, she doesn’t believe Reitman’s mother was a prostitute “in terms of full-time employment, although she did live with several men. When you’re poor you get by the best you can.”)
Carpenter chose to focus on her father’s love affairs because “I didn’t want my book to be identical [to Bruns’s]” and because she had a resource the other biographer had never seen: boxes of letters that had somehow been separated from Reitman’s official papers, which reside at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They turned up in the attic of a sister of Reitman’s daughter-in-law. (Reitman had a son, Brutus, by an earlier mistress.) Written toward the end of his life, the missives are addressed to a number of women: Goldman; Carpenter’s mother, Medina Oliver; Reitman’s legal wife Rose; and his secretary and lover Eileen O’Connor. (One frustration in reading No Regrets is keeping the cast of mistresses straight.)
Early in his adulthood Reitman justified his erotic adventures by declaring that every man could be faithful to only one woman, and he’d chosen his mother. This, he believed, gave him license to explore the loins of any woman who caught his brooding eyes. He was capable of writing to Goldman, “Tell the mountains [breasts] to look out for Hobo is going to eat them and tell the treasure box [vagina] to prepare for great floods,” while picking up women in the audiences at her lectures. Even Carpenter, reading his letters 60 years after they were written, found herself outraged at his promiscuity. His correspondence with O’Connor, a Buffalo spinster in her mid-40s, was “a seduction by mail.” Reitman, who was married, wrote to ask her assistance with a five-volume series about the pimps, prostitutes, and hoboes he’d tended in Chicago. Then he started laying on the lines, telling her he wasn’t looking for just a secretary but a “spiritual mate, someone who can climb mountains and step from star to star with me.” They met in 1933 in a Detroit hotel, where he deflowered her.
O’Connor remained devoted to Reitman for the rest of his life, even after he took up with a new woman, Carpenter’s mother. Medina Oliver, who bore Reitman three daughters, probably should have known better than to fall for a horny radical many years her senior and legally married. But as she wrote, “Yours and my love is different. Conceived in heaven, born on the sidewalk of Maxwell Street, nurtured in the most out of the way places; there is no telling what may become of it….Up to now my hope has been procreation.”
Reading letters like that, seeing her parents as new lovers, was like being in the movie Back to the Future, Carpenter said. Sometimes she felt like shouting down through the years, warning her mother to steer clear of the old seducer.
“I remember…thinking, ‘Stop, mom, stay away from him. He’s no good for you.’ I’m glad she didn’t stay away from him. I think he was good for her.”
In the modern memoir most fathers are portrayed as either idols or villains. Because Carpenter never really knew Reitman she was able to write a balanced story of his life, she says. His serial polygamy was appalling, but his bravery, his social conscience, his disdain for convention, his magnetism, all made her proud. Near the end of his life Reitman was fired from the Chicago Health Department for advocating a radical method of VD prevention–condoms. Speaking in taverns, whorehouses, jails, and pool halls, he declared, “If you can’t be moral, you must be clean,” essentially the same line dispensed by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
“He really has had an influence in my life,” says Carpenter, now 62. “He is very inspirational to me now. He’s a role model, someone who didn’t let others define his life. I am a health educator, so I am agreed with him on methods of VD prevention. He really was ahead of his time in advocating birth control, too. He was imprisoned for six months for distributing birth control. I’m very proud of him now.”
Carpenter worked 12 years on her book, but almost didn’t see it come into the world. Last winter she was stricken with a rare blood disorder and nearly died. At her Newberry reading, she was still weak from the disease. Her daughters, Holly and Laurel, held her arms as she shuffled across the floor, and her voice was a halting whisper. She had to wear a microphone and headset just to carry on a conversation with a person a few feet away. But promoting her book in Chicago has invigorated, not sapped her. She’s the keeper of her father’s legacy, and “it’s the high point of my life,” she says, to present her father as a historical figure in his own right and not just a footnote to Emma Goldman’s life.
“He was larger than life, as mama said, and people are interested in those sorts of characters.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.