1974: A Personal History Sasha Archibald

A memoir by Francine Prose recounts the writer’s tumultuous relationship with Pentagon Papers–whistleblower Tony Russo.

1974: A Personal History, by Francine Prose, Harper, 257 pages, $34

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Francine Prose’s 1974: A Personal History details a series of aimless drives that Prose took that year, “slam-bounc[ing]” over the hills of San Francisco in a 1964 Buick with a hole in the bottom. She was riding jump-seat to Tony Russo, a public figure of sorts, usually in the wee hours. As he drove, he also chain-smoked, monologue-talked, compulsively scanned the rearview mirror, and wept big crocodile tears.

Russo, who died in 2008, had been in 1968 an employee of the RAND corporation, a government think tank in Southern California. His office was just across the hallway from that of his more famous colleague, Daniel Ellsberg. Russo had decided the Vietnam War was unjust, and Ellsberg was on his way to the same conclusion. The two men compared notes; the government was lying.

Together, Ellsberg and Russo concocted a plan to leak the Pentagon Papers, shorthand for a seven-thousand-page RAND analysis of US decision-making in Vietnam. Russo secured use of his then-girlfriend’s copy machine, and he and Ellsberg began a tedious months-long task. The first batch of papers was leaked to the New York Times on June 13, 1971. When a seething Nixon issued an injunction order, Ellsberg leaked a second batch to the Post, and on it went, until seventeen newspapers had been delivered fat stacks of photocopies, and the cat was entirely out of the bag.

The Pentagon Papers echoed what antiwar activists had been saying for years, but they were evidence that could be quoted and clutched, smuggled out from officialdom. Russo imagined the gesture would change the world, and it did. The court case that defended the Times’ right to publish remains a landmark in securing freedom of the press. Except that wasn’t the change Russo was counting on. Nixon was reelected, and the war continued.

Epically disappointed, Russo’s life unraveled. He was fired, briefly jailed and tortured, and made subject to the petty surveillance de rigueur for activists in this period—garbage searched, car tailed, mail opened. The public’s admiration was trained entirely on Ellsberg, who, unlike Russo, kept to his talking points and trimmed his facial hair. Russo was left on his own to handle the vagaries of reasonable versus unreasonable paranoia, and to tend his festering guilt. Had the Pentagon Papers ended the war, he would have earned redemption for his four-year stint at RAND, and balanced his life’s ledger of harm and good. Instead, his guilt metastasized. Years later, he continued to wear his plastic RAND ID badge around town as a scarlet letter, describing himself as a “policy-wonk radical lady Macbeth.”

I’d roll my eyes, but Prose is romanced. I suspect the difference between us is less a matter of personality than historical time. As Prose writes, Russo was “a famous antiwar hero. These words are like a time machine, rocketing passengers back to a time when activists were our lodestars.” And later, “How could I not feel fortunate to be in that car, with a hero, a rebel . . . I felt honored.”

Prose’s attention is Russo’s succor, and he lolls in her goodly feminine receptivity like a dog in mud. As part of the package, she ignores his less-than-heroic qualities. He’s a terrible listener, for instance, and an old-fashioned chauvinist. His courage is hopelessly muddled with ego. He lives in squalor, and likes to eat gluey forkfuls of breakfast sausage crumbled over diner blueberry pie—a meal Prose finds so memorably disgusting that she mentions it a dozen times. “Tony was very funny, though when you say that about a person, you can’t think of one funny thing they said.” They both love Vertigo, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Grace Paley, but chemistry isn’t the sum; the sex is meh, the pillow talk worse. Prose’s crush is obviously not on Russo, but on the unassailable moral correctness he represents.

It’s an odd preoccupation for an author with a career-long interest in transformation. Prose’s novels are generally about the glitchy process of growing a conscience, though they’re also rollicking, flinty, teasing, fabulist yarns. Writers as cerebral as Prose aren’t usually willing to do jazz hands, but she plays the spitballing Scheherazade princess with aplomb. Her plots can be raggedly cartoonish, her cadence twitchy and over-caffeinated, her characters’ inner dialogue unrelentingly neurotic and labile—and somehow it mostly works. You close the book, and what lingers is the frictional plentitude, the radiant funk, of changing and being changed by other people.

Perhaps the problem with 1974 is that it’s stuck in 1974. My sympathy warms to a diffident woman writer in her twenties, but now that woman is all grown up. Why does Prose cede her personal history to an ex-boyfriend? Does she seriously mean to imply that she’s a li’l ole lady scribbler compared to “warrior for peace” Russo? Surely she’s aware that her self-deprecations come off a bit humblebraggy. And why endorse a specious hierarchy between novelists and activists?

Granted, 1974 offers many autobiographical tidbits. Prose describes a flat by the sea in Bombay, the smell of lamb in Kabul, her love of film, her various phobias. She had a false start studying medieval literature, and by way of feedback on her first novel, her editor said, “You didn’t write this whole book all by yourself, did you?” She lived in an apartment from which she could watch Merce Cunningham practice. On her first night in San Francisco—“sharp-edged, bright and ghostly, desperately romantic”—she went out to buy avocados and saw the Cockettes at the grocery store, outrageously dolled up. Awkward sex just happens, it’s no one’s fault, and what people don’t get about the long sixties is the elasticity of time, the economic laxity, the “erotic restlessness.” But all of these asides, and many others, are caulking for a structure furnished by Russo.

Many Prose books deal with authorship feigned, manipulated, and stolen, and 1974 continues the theme. The memoir ends with Russo, disheveled and babbling, sitting on the ground of his literary agent’s office. He’s promised the agent a book, and delivered a box of nonsensical scraps. Prose finally realizes the extent of Russo’s mental distress, and runs away, adrenaline thumping. She never speaks to him again. Picking the bones of this so-called abandonment, Prose charges herself guilty. She was selfish, she writes, “insecure,” lacking “conscience and compassion”—“a monster.” Sure. But maybe the stakes were high enough to warrant her unkindness. Maybe Prose intuited that she belonged in the driver’s seat, not sitting shotgun to a dried-up activist in the throes of a nervous breakdown. Russo lost a helpmeet, and literature gained a grande dame. No need to rue the ending.

Sasha Archibald’s essays have appeared in the White Review, the New Yorker, the Point, the Believer, and in books published by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Walker Art Center, Whitechapel Gallery, and other institutions. She is an associate editor at Places Journal, a contributing editor at the Public Domain Review, and an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

A memoir by Francine Prose recounts the writer’s tumultuous relationship with Pentagon Papers–whistleblower Tony Russo.
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