Harvey Matusow: I Led Twelve Lives

Adventures of a Hustler Supreme

American politcian US Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908 - 1957) speaks from behind a bank of microphones, mid 20th century. Credit: Photoquest/Getty

 Ingatestone, Essex — Harvey Matusow? Wasn't he the guy who...?

Anybody over 30 will remember Harvey Matusow as that sharp, clean-cut kid from the Bronx who starred 20 years ago in Senator Joe McCarthy's traveling circus and Commie witch hunt. As a professed ex-Communist, Matusow rode the crest of the anti-Red hysteria in Fifties America, pointing the stubby finger of guilt-by-association at hundreds of his former Comrades as well as a few complete strangers. People went to jail behind that finger.

But then in 1955, Matusow did an acrobatic flip-flop. Calling himself a "perpetual and habitual liar," he claimed that he'd undergone a "deep religious experience" and recanted on four years of finking for the FBI and Congressional committees.

The Feds were understandably annoyed. Some Communists got retrials, but more important, the political pogrom of the McCarthys and Eastlands and Welkers somehow lost its credibility. As Murray Kempton wrote in 1955 in the New York Post: "Harvey Matusow ... has done what no respectable person could do; he has shown up the last ten years of respectable anti-communism." But the government got its own back, convicted Harvey of perjury and sentenced him to the federal slammer for five years.

Fade out on youthful Harvey Matusow going into the federal pen at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, generally despised by the left and right alike and dissolve — 16 years later — to a modestly eccentric cottage in suburban Essex County, 22 miles from London. Now 45, fatter, a permanent resident in Britain and an uncle-figure to the London underground, Matusow has made a whole new career for himself over here as an entrepreneur, broadcaster, writer, oddball and musician.

It's a long way and a long time from the hearing rooms of the Senate Internal Security Committee to Ingatestone, but Matusow solidly bridged the gap. Hanging amid a faintly bizarre decor, which could be described as electronically dadaistic, is a framed copy of US Senate resolution 131 ordering that proceedings be taken against Matusow for contempt of Congress. And Matusow, for all of the new tacks he's taken in the last dozen years, can't resist poking the ashes and warming his hands in the feeble glow of notoriety.

For Harvey, in a book he's writing entitled The Matusow Case, is claiming that he never was a fink for the FBI and the Committees after all. Instead, he maintains, all the time he was doing "investigative reporting" on a one-man campaign to subvert the right-wing crusaders. In January, 1950, Matusow claims, before he ever volunteered his services to the FBI he made out an affidavit to this effect, had it notarized unread (by his father) and put it away in a safe-deposit box to be used "in the event of my death."

So, Matusow claims, all those years of playing Joe McCarthy's personal hand puppet, all those names named, all the fear he put into the hearts of former friends and associates, all that sincere and penitent contrition he showed when he recanted were part of an act, a personal, fantastic, singlehanded attack on the most powerful forces in America at the time. And False Witness, the book in which he spelled out his fall into evil and resurrection, was a load of bullshit.

But Harvey doesn't give a damn whether we believe it or not. He says his publisher and others have seen it, but he won't publish a photostat of the affidavit in his book. "I say this document exists," he says belligerently. "Take it or leave it; it's up to you. I'm not going to get involved in the pedantic cross-examination of trivia."

Trivia? But Harvey, to come out 20 years later, change your entire story, claim the existence of a vital document and then refuse to prove that the document exists, what does that do to your credibility?

Matusow has an answer for that one. "I'm not saying that I'm a credible person. I couldn't give a hoot if anybody today believes the affidavit existed or didn't exist. It's not my problem. I know what happened."

For a moment it's tempting to be Big Jim Eastland behind all those microphones. "Harvey Matusow, this magazine orders and directs you to answer..." But Harvey's not coming off with anything more. He's even getting a bit pissed off, so maybe it's time to take a look at the background that produced the Harvey Matusow of 20 years ago and today.

Born in 1926 to a struggling family of Russian Jews in the East Bronx, Harvey Marshall Matusow grew up fast both politically and socially. When he was ten, he was raising money in the streets for veterans of the Spanish Civil War and had been thrown out of a Republican rally at Madison Square Garden for flaunting a Roosevelt poster.

Came World War II and 17-year-old Harvey joined the Army and served in Europe. After the war, he became an actor and about the same time joined the Communist Party of the United States.

Here, Harvey says, he was playing no undercover role. "I was a doctrinal Communist. I read Marx, Lenin, Stalin, all that. I still am. Let's face it, I believe in social justice, and I believed that it was best represented by the Communist Party of the United States of America." But one of Harvey's troubles as a Communist, he says, was that he was too active. Being a Comrade was rapidly becoming a less OK thing to do, and the order of the day was: Go underground. Harvey refused. "It was the worst mistake the Communists ever made. I used to knock on strange doors and say: 'Hello, I want to tell you about the Communist Party.' "

But in 1951, Matusow says, his enthusiasm got him into serious trouble with the Party. During a circulation drive of the Daily Worker newspaper, he hustled over 300 subscriptions in about 12 weeks. The Comrades, he says, couldn't believe that anybody but an FBI plant could do so well, so they expelled him from the Party. That's what Harvey says. The fact that he'd been a paid informer for the FBI for about a year may also have had something to do with it.

This highly undercover relationship with J. Edgar Hoover came about, Harvey says, when he looked about him and saw the forces of law and order fucking over the left something fierce. So early in 1950, he set out on his own to torpedo the Department of Justice. He proceeded to his nearest FBI office, introduced himself and offered to be a paid fink. The FBI was glad to have him. But Harvey now insists, and he says he stated it in advance in that affidavit, he never gave the FBI "any new information, names or details of events which I believe they do not already have. I will limit," he says he promised, "the information to that of corroboration of that which they already have or that I believe they have" (italics ours).

All right, let's believe that. Just for the moment. Harvey spent some time undercover for the Feds, apparently convincing them that he was the straight goods. Then he did a little time in the Air Force during the Korean War and coming out in 1952 decided to enlarge upon his activities. He began to testify for Joe McCarthy, for the House Un-American Activities Committee and even to campaign for the Republican Party against Democratic Comsymps, a chore which sometimes earned him as much as $1,500 a speech.

By 1955, Harvey was married to a rich Washington hostess, working for the Senate for a dollar a year and living high on the hog. Despite his avowed purpose of subverting the witch hunters, Harvey admits that he got pretty caught up in the game himself. "Let's face it," he says, "this was a great scene. Here I was 22 or 23 years old [in 1953, Harvey was 26 years old], a kid from the Bronx, nothing more, living in a big house with a butler, an upstairs maid, a downstairs maid, a housekeeper, a full-time laundress, a full-time gardener, a cook, employing that many people just to take care of my house. And living next door was W. Averell Harriman. From time to time, we'd lean over the back fence and chat."

Not only that, Harvey says, but "I'd have dinner at my house, and three US Senators, a Congressman and a member of Eisenhower's cabinet would show up and sit at my table. And here I am, the cockamamie kid from the Bronx, telling the men who are running the US government what I think is good for the government. And they're like a bunch of idiots listening to me."

Pretty heady stuff. But Harvey says he never really believed his own bullshit that much. "I used to laugh myself silly when I went to bed at night," he says. "How ludicrous can the world be?" But he adds: "You ask me if I was caught up in it? Yeah, I was caught up in it. Here I am sitting here in Ingatestone, broke, beat, hippie, freak, when at one time I was in intimate social situations with four men who have been presidents of the United States. I smoked pot in the same room with a man who's been in the White House. And that to me is ridiculous."

This is one of Matusow's recurring themes. Twenty years later he sees himself during the McCarthy era as a crazy kid living it up. Not only was he subverting the enemy but having a hell of a good time, hobnobbing with presidents and power brokers, rolling in money and generally conning the world. As a result, he says, "I can't have any respect for a society that allows people like me into the seat of power. I'm no good in there. You turn children like me loose in the seat of power, and you're in trouble."

So it's all society's fault. And despite the heavy mea culpa act Matusow did in 1955 when he said he became a professional liar out of "fear, need and greed," today he refuses to concede that he hurt anybody.

"You never really do anything to other people's lives," Matusow argues, and he points to Joe McCarthy as support for this view. Harvey liked Joe, and Joe liked Harvey. "To my dying day," Matusow says, "I will defend my liking Joe McCarthy. He and I had the same little boy in us."

When you consider Joe McCarthy, Matusow argues, you've got to look not at the people he crushed and ruined but at the country that produced him and pushed him to power. "We've got to have devils in our lives," Harvey says, "and so Joe McCarthy becomes a convenient and easy devil. I'm not saying he was a saint and a good man, but shit, man, you want to look at the society and McCarthy in context of where he came from and what he existed in."

If you substitute the name Matusow for McCarthy in that last statement, you get a glimmering of Harvey's concept of responsibility. The guilt is always somewhere else: on the society, on its institutions like the New York Times and other publications which refused, in the autumn of 1953, to touch his story of lies and recantation. "The Times could have knocked the props out from under McCarthy," Harvey says, "but nobody wanted to listen."

Matusow figures that the four years he served in prison cleans his slate. But, he says: "I remain today in 1972, in the eyes of some who still live in the McCarthy past, a major focal point of the evil of the period." This is unfair, he reckons, seeing himself instead as sort of the Daniel Ellsberg of his time, a lonely figure laying down his own version of the Pentagon Papers.

Rebuffed on all sides by people who are still playing it safe, Harvey says: "I finally gave up [trying to recant] and said, well, fuck it. And off I went." Leaving behind all the glamor and power and servants, Matusow headed for Texas in 1954. But the word was out in Washington that little Harvey was up to some funny business. "Every FBI agent in the Southwest was looking for me," Matusow says. But then he got word that a small New York publisher wanted to publish his story in a book.

The result was False Witness, begun in Jack Anderson's Washington office on stationery of the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, and written with white-hot speed in order to allow some of those Matusow helped to convict to beat appeals deadlines. "We said, 'Fuck the literary quality,' " Harvey explains. "It was more important to get a few out of jail." So the book which was to pluck Matusow from the catbird seat into the shit was dictated to relays of stenographers in six weeks.

Publication was followed by a shower of subpoenas and hearings of a different sort, with Harvey appearing as something other than the expert who was credited with knowing 10,000 Party members in New York and 120 Communists on the New York Times alone. The man McCarthy had called "a great American" was now accused by Eastland of accepting "30 pieces of silver" to tell Communist lies. There was much betrayal felt in certain Washington offices.

But in spite of his turnaround, Matusow says McCarthy wasn't mad at him. During one hearing, he says, McCarthy sent him a note asking Matusow to come up to his office. When Matusow arrived at the office, McCarthy said, "You must be lonely now, Harvey."

"Yeah, Joe, I am," Matusow says he answered.

"I understand," McCarthy told him.

" 'I thought you would,' I told him," Matusow says, "and that was that." He adds, "Joe McCarthy knew I had to do it. He understood. I think he knew I was a double agent all along. He knew instinctively."

Maybe McCarthy understood, but a lot of other people reacted as if he'd farted during the "Star Spangled Banner." Perjury was charged, and a Federal court believed Roy Cohn rather than Harvey. In prison he captained the tennis team, organized a drama society and got some time off for good behavior.

Out of prison in 1960, Matusow worked as a commercial artist in New York and sometimes used the name Marshall Matusow to avoid hassles with strangers with long memories. "People used to ask me if I was related to Harvey Matusow," he says. "I'd say, 'Yeah, but I don't want to talk about it.' "

As Marshall Matusow he compiled The Art Collector's Almanac and gave a copy to the White House. Lady Bird Johnson's framed thank-you letter is hung on his sitting-room door between tiny, ironic, American flags.

In the meantime, Matusow edited the New York Fine Arts Calendar and got involved in the East Village Other. But in 1966 he was getting the urge to split the States. One problem: the State Department didn't want to give him a passport. But a call to Abe Fortas sorted that out, and Harvey was soon aboard an ocean liner bound for Liverpool.

Landing with 22 pieces of luggage, including all of his McCarthy heyday files, Matusow set off for London. Although he knew no one here, within the year Matusow had founded the London Film Makers' Co-Op and organized Britain's first underground film festival. He also met and married his fourth wife, Anna Lockwood, an avant-garde composer from New Zealand.

In England, Matusow says he's stayed completely out of the intrigue and undercover business, but before he'd even unpacked his cases, he adds, CIA agents nipped in and whisked away a briefcase containing his diaries from the McCarthy days. It took a few phoned threats to the CIA chapter at the US Embassy in London to get the diaries back, Harvey says, but get them back he did. He says that when he went to Sweden to interview US war resisters, the CIA put out the word: "This man can't be trusted."

"I don't want to be trusted by anybody," Matusow counters with his considerable gift for overstatement. "Let's face it," he shrugs, "it's very easy to spread a rumor about a person like me." 

Rumors aside, it's been a very busy six years in England for Matusow. He's been active with IT, Oz, Friends, and other underground publications. He used to edit The London American, a now defunct weekly for expatriates. He even drove a minicab for a while. Matusow currently freelances for the BBC as a journalist and commentator and is European editor of Source, an avant-garde music magazine.

Musically, Matusow has organized two groups with vastly different styles. Harvey Matusow's Jews-Harp Band started up in 1969, recorded for Head Records and didn't quite make the jews-harp the electric guitar of the late Sixties. Matusow says that most of the profits went toward buying the jews-harps to give away at performances. At one Lyceum gig in London, they gave away 900. The Jews-Harp Band packed it in voluntarily in 1970, and Harvey's new band is called Naked Software, which he calls a "composer-performer multimedia" group.

Matusow calls his musical ventures "a frontal assault on trying to find an identity, a philosophy." He says, "If I can find peace in sound, it means I can find other types of peace as well."

In between times, Matusow founded and is still chairman of the International Society for the Abolishment of Data Processing Machines, which claims 6,500 members around the world. The Society, he says, is a "freeform union of anti-computer people. I can't say more because we're a subversive organization." In 1968, Matusow wrote The Beast of Business, an anti-computer book, that listed instances — some now apocryphal — of how faulty programs had caused social damage and gave advice on guerrilla tactics: like how to get free Time magazine subscriptions by punching an extra hole in the IBM card.

In recent years, influenced by his wife Anna, Matusow has gotten deeper into multimedia happenings. Creative piano burning has been a specialty, and three reprieved survivors lurk in the shrubbery around his cottage. In 1970, he produced "Dark Touch," an audience-participation event, which required attending critics to participate in the nude.

Currently Matusow's major preocccupation is the organization of ICES-72 (International Carnival of Experimental Sound) to be held in the latter half of August. Centered at the London Roundhouse, ICES-72 will involve some 40 experimental groups (Nihilist Spasm Band, Canada; Deep Sheep, New Zealand; Bread and Cheese, UK), more than 300 artists from 21 countries and will take place on a train to Edinburgh, on a ferry to Belgium and several other locations.

Harvey is the chief putter-together and hustler supreme for ICES-72 and has already come up with more than $30,000-worth of equipment, including recording tape from Scotch Brand and recorders from Crown. On top of all this, Harvey says he is writing plays and another couple of books. One play concerns the time Trotsky spent in the Bronx.

With all this on his plate, why the hell is Matusow writing The Matusow Case and stirring up the shit with his claim to have been a double agent in the bosom of the FBI all along? Even if you believe his story about the affidavit, his refusal to prove its existence after going out of his way to boast of its existence seems perverse, crackpot and masochistic.

"I quote it [the affidavit] in the book because I felt it had to be there," Harvey says. "I wanted to make the statement. I wanted to create a controversy about it. Just because some people will say, 'But is it real?' None of it's real. I'm not real. I'm a myth."

You can almost believe this as Matusow, surrounded by the trivia of today as well as the past which he drags along with him like some dead Siamese twin, shows a segment of his 16mm film, Stringless Yoyo, in which he stars in newsreel films of Congressional hearings after his recantation.

The sound is bad, and the room is not dark enough, but there's Harvey — young, sharp, confident, wearing the uniform of dark suit, dark tie and near-military haircut. The face is that of the Fifties — stylistically indistinguishable from those of Roy Cohn, G. David Schine, Bobby Kennedy and the other sharp hustlers on the way up or down. The badly amplified voice is strangely dead and Nixonish, and the manner, despite the badgering of Eastland and Welker, is calm and confident. You'd think he was still on the other side of the table.

There are even some laughs. Eastland asks Harvey where he was on a specific Friday night. Harvey says he was with a lady friend.

"That was no lady," says Mississippi Jim with perfect unconscious timing, "that was your Communist bodyguard."

Harvey cuts off the projector and puts it away. He doesn't show the film often, he says, because sometimes he can't stand to see himself again. "There's a lot of it which makes me look pretty bad," he says. "But if I'm going to present it, I may as well present the total picture, because I'm no saint."

What about the future? Is Matusow going to go on dragging the ghost of that crazy young Harvey Matusow around with him and every once in a while publish a new version of how it really was?

No, Matusow says what he really wants to do is eventually get away from all that. "I'm not getting any younger," he says. "In another ten years I'd like to have a big piece of land in the country — maybe 500 acres — and get away from all the hype and hustling and bullshit. I'd turn some of it into a wildlife sanctuary and try to find the bit of the peace I've been chasing all my life."