Stumbling through fog, disillusionment of 1970s

One rainy night in the winter of 1974, Francine Prose found herself in a Buick speeding through the dark streets of San Francisco. Driving was Tony J. Russo, a troubled anti-war activist who, about two years earlier, had been indicted and tried for leaking the Pentagon Papers. Prose, then 26, recalled Russo always drove with manic intensity, making sharp U-turns and checking his rearview mirror, as if monitoring whether he was being followed.

Prose, who met the whistleblower at a friend’s poker game, would spend many nights careening with Russo around the hilly city, listening to his stories about injustices he had witnessed in Vietnam and at RAND Corporation, where he’d once worked. The pair were mismatched in many ways (he was 10 years older), but he exuded charisma and was “antiwar royalty.”

Prose, a graduate of Radcliffe ’68 and Harvard A.M. ’69, wrote about her strange, ultimately disastrous semi-romantic relationship with Russo in the just-published “1974: A Personal History,” covering a transitional period for the nation and herself.

“He could have had this amazing career as an aeronautical space engineer or analyst and completely gave it up because he’d gone to Vietnam and seen what was going on over there,” recalled Prose, now 77. “I was very drawn to people who were willing to risk something for something they believed in.”

“One of the reasons that a person winds up writing a book is because there’s something that they can’t get out of their heads.”

Francine Prose.

Credit Frances F. Denny

A Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College, Prose has written more than 20 works of fiction, including “A Changed Man” and National Book Award finalist “Blue Angel,” as well as scores of nonfiction books and essays. The new book is her first memoir. Surprisingly, Prose says it only occurred to her to write about her experience with Russo about three years ago, at a friend’s suggestion.

“One of the reasons that a person winds up writing a book is because there’s something that they can’t get out of their heads,” Prose said. “One detail of him going to this cafeteria and eating breakfast sausage and berry pie was completely engraved on my memory. I started thinking, ‘If it’s so real to me and so clear to me, maybe it’s something that I should write about. And maybe it’s about something that’s bigger than what happened to me.’”

Prose’s book includes flashbacks to gritty 1960s Cambridge, where she lived with her first husband after graduating from Radcliffe College. An English major, she remembers her undergraduate years fondly. “You can spend four years reading Victorian novels, hanging out with your friends, and smoking weed, and you’ll do pretty well,” she recalled wryly.

She was politically active, making antiwar posters and attending demonstrations at the State House. In 1969, her peers occupied University Hall to protest the war in Vietnam. 

But post-graduation, her marriage quickly unraveled and her graduate studies in medieval English literature at Harvard proved the wrong fit. Subsequently, her mental health took a downturn, and she escaped to San Francisco.

“I’m very sympathetic to my students who are about to graduate,” Prose said. “You’re about to have a life — then maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.”

Prose’s personal story is inextricable from its backdrop of the early ’70s, a time when young Americans, in Prose’s words, “realized that the changes that seemed possible in the ’60s weren’t going to happen.” Events like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the first moon landing, and Nixon’s resignation help set the scene.

“We really believed that things could change for the better,” Prose said. “We believed that we could end the war in Vietnam. The [Black] Panthers were very present and visible so we believed that there could be some end to institutional racism. We believed that there could be something closer to income equality. And then it changed.”

The Pentagon Papers, published in The New York Times in 1971, revealed the U.S. government’s deception about its involvement in Vietnam. Russo’s friend and former colleague Daniel Ellsberg ’52 stole the papers, and the two men copied them using a Xerox machine at Russo’s then-girlfriend’s workplace.

Prose said motivation for the memoir came partly from wanting to correct the record on Russo, once renowned as a heroic activist but now remembered more as a secondary Xeroxer. Even his 2008 obituary in the New York Times called him “a shaggy-haired, countercultural, unemployed policy wonk.”

“He talked Ellsberg into or gave him the nerve to leak the Pentagon Papers. He found the photocopy machine. He made this thing happen,” Prose said. “You can imagine him shaking Ellsberg out of whatever sensible doubts he might have had and pumping energy into their situation. But Ellsberg was very commodifiable. He had beautiful suits, and he had a great haircut, and he was handsome. Tony was much, much more politically radical, so he became a drag on the defense.”

In a scene toward the end of the book, their relationship careening toward collapse, young Prose fled as Russo spiraled into a public mental breakdown in front of news media. Prose said she only realized the full depth of her guilt, about not staying to help Russo, as she tried to write the scene. 

“I wasn’t quite as nice a person as I had remembered myself being,” Prose said.

Prose says she feels far removed from the girl she was then, who she writes was “at once so uncertain and so sure of herself, so terrified and so brave.”

“I keep telling myself so much of the book is about being young,” she said, “and how different it is.”

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