To Alice McGrath, who changed the world

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson,

from “Self-Reliance”

‘Imay not have changed the world,” Alice McGrath once told me, “but I’ve lived a life I feel good about.”


That’s how she saw it. But the truth is, Alice did change the world.

A fighter for social justice all her life, she played a key role in one of California’s first civil rights cases, coordinating efforts to overturn the wrongful convictions of 12 Mexican American men for the murder of a man found dead near a reservoir known as Sleepy Lagoon. The men were tried en masse in 1940s L.A., amid a climate of racism and open hostility that extended into the courtroom. The case, she always maintained, was about due process.

“If they lose, I lose. We all lose,” said the character of Alice in Luis Valdez’s celebrated play, “Zoot Suit,” which was based on the trial. “I am not Lady Charity trying to help the Mexicans -- I am doing this for us.”

Alice was born on April 5, 1917, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who fled their country because of discrimination.

She died on Nov. 27, with the satisfaction, she told me not long ago, of having seen Barack Obama elected president.

I was lucky enough to have called Alice a friend, and I can tell you, she packed a lot of living into her 92 years. It was a life too large for a book, much less a newspaper column.

For those new to her story, here are the highlights:

She helped organize a birthday celebration in Los Angeles in 1951 for the distinguished African American author W.E.B. Du Bois, who later became a dear friend; she taught martial arts to women (because she believed it would empower them) and wrote a book about it called “Self-Defense for Cowards”; though not a lawyer herself, she developed a legal aid program for the poor in Ventura County; and she led 85 humanitarian aid trips to war-scarred Nicaragua.

She was also an invincible conversationalist, an orthodox liberal (make that radical), a great teller of jokes and an awful lot of fun to be around. Her life’s work may have been about helping others, but she would be the first to tell you she was no saint.

“Never pass up the opportunity to have a good time” was one of her commandments. And she meant it

She was no pistol. She was a cannon. She had a serious mind and focused on serious things, but she also liked her vodka martinis and had a wit to match Dorothy Parker’s.

Her 1950s FBI file declared that the one-time communist sympathizer had “no known weaknesses.”

I once asked her if that was true. She replied, rather dismissively, “Oh, that’s just because they didn’t think women liked sex back then.”

I first met Alice in 1995, when I was a reporter covering a political campaign in Ventura County. At her request, we met for breakfast at a local hotel to discuss some related matters.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

When I reminded her of that tense meeting years later, she said, “I sounded so arrogant.”

I told her that was OK: “I sounded so ignorant.”

We remained close friends for the next 14 years. She taught me a lot about California history, about Faulkner and Mark Twain and about life and how to live it.

We traveled to England and Spain together. She introduced me to her friends. We had lunch once with Luis Valdez and Dolores Huerta in San Juan Bautista, Calif. We had dinner with Studs Terkel in Chicago. And we would have visited Harold Pinter in London if he hadn’t come down with a cold.

The conversation was never dull. “Did I ever tell you about the time I took Martin Sheen and Daniel Ellsberg to Nicaragua?” she might say. “Or how about the time I was hired as a martial arts instructor on the ‘I Love Lucy’ show?”

She used to boast that she had never eaten a Big Mac (because everyone else did), never saw “Gone With the Wind” (because she thought it racist) and never locked her doors (because she believed it to be un-neighborly).

Her favorite toast was her own: “To kisses and journeys, the only things that last.”

She was not religious. And she was not sentimental. She could be hard on people. You never wanted to be on the wrong end of her lacerating wit.

She was married three times but maintained a fierce independence. She always said her second husband, the poet Thomas McGrath, was the love of her life.

Her best friend and mentor was the California historian and activist Carey McWilliams, who persuaded the then-young community organizer to become director of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. Her job would include public speaking, organizing fundraisers, writing a newsletter and keeping track of court records.

“But I’ve never done anything like this before,” she told McWilliams.

“And so, now you will,” he said.

Whenever she spoke publicly about the case, Alice never failed to mention the outstanding work and dedication of defense attorneys Ben Margolis Jr. and George Shibley. For her, it was always about the law.

The last time I saw Alice was in September. I took her to lunch at a restaurant in Ventura. She was already in poor health and hard of hearing.

She talked about death. She was not afraid of it. If she were to become gravelly ill or incapacitated, she was adamant that “no heroic measures” be taken to save her life.

And so when the time came, she left this world exactly how she lived in it, with her courage and dignity intact.