Sunset Hall’s Red Twilight
One was a young woman when she spent a night behind bars for attacking a policeman at a labor rally. “You’re talking to a jailbird,” she says. “Someone who stood for what she believes. An old red.”
Another was just a girl when she became aware of “the extraordinary inequalities of the capitalist system.” Still another looks up from her walker, through 91-year-old eyes, and remembers a pair of anarchist icons executed after their 1920s trial: “Sacco and Vanzetti, they went to the gallows with such dignity.”
There are only 11 of these aging leftists now at Sunset Hall, and the retirement home is in jeopardy. Located in an immigrant neighborhood near MacArthur Park, it is small, poor and shopworn. Often, when its residents die, no one replaces them. Five elderly newcomers, without political leanings, recently have come to fill vacancies, but that still leaves 20 empty rooms.
Once before, when board members tried to close Sunset Hall and sell it, a judge ordered the home kept open. But perhaps there is no saving it this time.
Sunset Hall might be the only one of its kind. The nonprofit home was established in 1924 by women from a nearby Unitarian church. It was intended to house aging religious liberals. As time passed, it catered more to residents with a political bent.
“A retirement home that attracts old socialists and liberals?” says Anne Katz, an associate professor of gerontology at USC. “Totally unique.”
Don Redfoot, a senior policy advisor on housing for AARP, says: “I’ve certainly never heard of anything so tied to an ideology.” Then he adds, with a chuckle: “The Newt Gingrich Memorial Homes?”
The day of reckoning is March 26. That’s when the residents of Sunset Hall and its 50 or so dues-paying supporters will vote on its fate.
One plan, a longshot, is to keep it open for another year, hoping for donations and new residents. Among the other plans: sell the two-story building and buy or build another place in a better neighborhood.
“Unfortunately,” says Wendy Caputo, its director, “that will be too late for the people living there now. Some of them don’t have much in the way of family. And so many of them are so frail. What will happen to them?”
Luba Perlin is one. She is 91 and wide-hip sturdy. Like most of the others, she has a mind that is slowly betraying her. But because she remains opinionated and is one of the only ones left with much energy, she is also their unofficial spokeswoman.
“I have the sense that this is a very special place,” she says, pronouncing her words crisply, emphasizing each syllable with care. “A place for people who care about the welfare of the working people and the trades unions, the AF of L.
“This place is most precious.”
Sunset Hall’s concrete-covered quad contains one tall mimosa tree, a few dozen other plants and a fishpond drained of water should any of the residents fall in. It has a cozy library lined with eye-catching titles: “This is Communist China.” “The Collected Works of Lenin.” “Karl Marx and Christian Ethics.”
There are no finely trimmed lawns or golf courses. Its residents sit, just before lunch, in Zen-like peace in the living room. Some sleep. Some seem frozen, not moving or making a sound. Some gaze at the television, distance in their eyes.
Then Perlin, as usual, pipes up. “People might believe it is not beautiful here,” she says, before losing the thought. Her knotted hands caress the fine, white hair of 90-year-old Betty Weiss, who often gets confused. Weiss was a homemaker who wore her left-of-center politics proudly. Perlin coos softly in her ear: Everything is going to be OK. Then she looks up. “What was I saying?”
Their visitor reminds her.
“Oh, yes, I believe that Sunset Hall, it is beautiful because it is full of the most wonderful idealism. In today’s world, I find that highly unusual.”
The management at Sunset Hall, which calls itself “a retirement home for freethinkers,” is careful to note that conservatives are welcome. A Republican lived here once. She left. Her story, which has reached mythic proportions at Sunset Hall, goes like this:
It was all about the food. Rye bread is a staple in the cafeteria at the home, where most residents are Jewish. All that rye bread -- the Republican couldn’t take it. “She wanted white bread,” one of the managers says, grinning. “White bread.”
There is humor here. Most of the residents are women. They joke about how frail men seem. “They don’t last.” And they joke about their own memories. “Feels like I lost part of my brain. Oh, well.”
They talk about how long ago it was when they were teachers, engineers, labor organizers, all with what they call a progressive bent. One of them was a typist for the Communist Party.
There is no hurry here. Sitting down to watch CNN in the big living room chair means backing down slowly, stumbling for a moment, then getting the balance right before falling onto the leather. It can take a whole minute.
Pushing a walker 10 feet to the bathroom can take four minutes.
Figuring out whether to put Sweet’N Low or sugar into a cup of coffee means holding both packages out with trembling hands while scanning them, back and forth, trying to figure out which is better. That can take five minutes.
“Growing old, it’s such work,” says Frida Singer, a retired librarian who’s had socialist leanings since her youth in Chicago. She is tiny, with a sly smile. Her white cotton cap is pulled over white bangs.
“I did not know that.... I would have such a hard time controlling my mind,” she says. “But I do have good things, like my room. And I do still have what I believe in. Equality for all people. And the world should be at peace.”
Often, she and the others gather to discuss current events, although figuring out the details is so difficult.
“Who is our president again?” asks one of the women, once a Communist Youth League member. “Bush,” replies a teacher, who comes once a week to run the discussion.
“Bush?” asks the woman, puzzled.
Then the name drops on her like something heavy from the sky. Bush. Her face crinkles. “Bush. Oh, that Bush. He should have stayed in the bushes. He’s a pain in the butt, pardon my French. Don’t like him. He’s ruining everything we worked for.”
The others sit silently. Everything we worked for. Some cup their hands around their ears, straining to hear. Some soak it in, but respond only with pained smiles. Others are lost in the moment, not appearing frustrated, not appearing angry or anxious -- just being.
“It’s getting harder and harder to reach them,” the teacher says afterward. “It’s uncomfortable. We used to have such good discussions.”
Once Full and Thriving
A lot used to be different. Sunset Hall was full and thriving as recently as three decades ago.
There was a waiting list. Many residents were recently retired, in their 60s and 70s, still with sharp minds. They included blacklisted screenwriters, editors of communist newspapers and confidants of Upton Sinclair, the socialist writer who in 1934 almost became governor of California.
By the 1980s, though, it all had begun to fade. The neighborhood around Sunset Hall grew dangerous. The nearby First Unitarian Church was struggling, and fewer of its members moved in.
Worse, for the fate of Sunset Hall, a generation of radicals that made some Americans fear the “Red Menace” were dying off.
“There’s no denying it,” says Larry Abbott, a retired teacher who is president of Sunset Hall’s board. “The dissolution of the left, that’s taken its toll.”
By the early 1990s, when only 18 residents remained after four died in two months, the board tried to sell the property. Only a last-gasp push by supporters and angry residents, along with the judge’s restraining order that held off a sale until the membership could vote on it, prevented Sunset Hall from closing.
Looking to fill its rooms, which cost about $1,800 a month, the home began courting elders who cared little for politics. It didn’t help.
In February, after reviewing a $300,000 deficit and an operation running largely on gifts and loans, the board once again recommended putting Sunset Hall on the market.
Caputo, the director, has spent recent days breaking the bad news. Most of the residents can’t grasp what is going on, she says. “It shocks them. Then it just fades away.”
That’s the case even with Luba Perlin. Like so many of the others, she is often unable to recall things that happened 15, 10, even three minutes ago.
But she, like the others, still has her politics, and, in slivers that appear suddenly and transform her, she still has the distant past -- years when she lived what she believed.
“It is good to look back on all of the wonderful things I have done, even though I do not recall all of it,” she says, smiling, as she so often does. She twirls a finger through her long gray-and-black hair.
“Who are you? You look familiar but I cannot place you.”
Her visitor, who has been there several times over the last week, says he came to hear her story.
“Oh, marvelous,” she says. “Well, we did it for the workers. We wanted more equality for the working people. I fought for that. I marched and we had meetings and tried to organize. It worked sometimes. Sometimes not.”
Perlin begins shuffling, slowly, along the sparse walkways. She speaks of her father, a communist, “a man left of the left.” A man who taught her everything she came to believe in. “That the bankers and the capitalists were people you should keep an eye on. They are often up to no good. And that working people usually get the short end.”
She keeps remembering. The years spent supporting political causes -- for socialists, feminists, environmentalists and progressive Democrats -- at her Spanish-style Echo Park home, once a magnet for radicals living near downtown.
“Did I tell you that Cesar Chavez came to my house?” she asks. Her heavy brows furrow as she tries to recall. But a wall stands between her and that moment. She sighs, happily admitting that she just cannot remember why he was there, only that she shook his hand and that she assured him -- “strongly, and with great conviction” -- that she supported his efforts to organize farmworkers.
She sits at a table, in front of a slice of apple pie. She looks at photos taken of her four years ago, protesting during a transit strike, and another of Sunset Hall residents rallying two years ago at an antiwar protest.
“Hey, wait a minute, that’s me,” she says, pointing. “I guess I was there. There were so many protests in my lifetime. You know what? I can’t remember all of them. Oh, well.”
Then she just sits there, off in some other place, slowly dabbing at her pie.
“I wish she would stop with that,” mutters Pauline Manpearl. “She never stops. It drives me nuts.”
A stout woman with a button nose, chubby cheeks and gray hair cut fashionably short, Manpearl is also 91. Along with Perlin and a handful of others, she is able to walk with no help.
Like Perlin, she cannot remember the short term. Like Perlin, she recognizes the way her mind is faltering, and laughs. Then the past comes back into her head, as clearly as the sunlight streaming down on her face.
“You know how it started? It started in the Ukraine ... “
For the fourth time on this day, she speaks of how her family fled pogroms to come to America. How they came through Ellis Island and ended up in Minnesota. How she learned about communism from her mother.
She tells, for the second time, about being arrested in Minneapolis for hitting a police officer over the head during a protest march, and about how the judge said that communism was actually a good idea but she should keep it to herself.
And about the jail. “In my cell, there was a prostitute. I told her what we were there for. She said, ‘Maybe I will become a communist.’ I remember thinking, ‘Great, that’s exactly what we need, prostitutes’.... What we were fighting for was for a better world so that they would not have to be prostitutes.”
Her mind stops there.
She cannot remember, as her grown son, Jerry Sullivan, does in a telephone interview, her move to California in 1942. Or her house in Redondo Beach, her loss of a husband, her second marriage, or the meetings at her home where many of the socialist ideas discussed were kept from her children.
The children might have talked about them at school, and that might have been dangerous.
“Some of those old memories will be with her, always, and no one else,” says Sullivan, now a 70-year-old engineer. “They kept it secret. Maybe they had to.”
Music and Memories
Pauline Manpearl and Luba Perlin move through the living room. Jazz streams from a boombox sitting on the television. It makes Perlin remember the post-Depression years when she was a modern dancer with the Lester Horton Dance Troupe in Los Angeles. It takes Manpearl back to the Swedish Hall in Minneapolis.
Separately, they dance for a moment, swaying gently, Perlin twirling and then bowing. They both collapse on couches, tired, breathing hard and reflective.
“We did some good,” says Perlin.
“We tried,” Manpearl replies, leaning back. “Things didn’t exactly turn out the way we wanted. But we did do some good. The eight-hour workday. Women’s rights. Things like that.... Just think of the world we would have if people didn’t spend money on bullets. If everybody had enough to eat, a good job and a roof over their heads. Just think.”