Howard Fast's Many Sides: a Born-Again Yankee, Blacklisted Best-Seller

UPDATED 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/07/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

Most people survive; Howard Fast endures. In the past 50 years he has written nearly 60 books, and though many have sold well, like Freedom Road and Citizen Tom Paine, the critics were usually cruel. In 1950 Fast, an admitted Communist, was jailed for three months for refusing to disclose the names of Spanish relief fund contributors to the House Un-American Activities Committee. For eight years he was blacklisted: No American publisher would even read his manuscripts, he says. Only European royalties kept him from the poorhouse. In 1951 he managed to get the best-selling Spartacus into print by starting his own publishing house, a venture that later went broke.

Eight years ago the book that Fast considered his masterwork, an antiwar novel called The Hessian, was virtually ignored by the critics. It got a lukewarm review in the New York Times. Fast swore he would never try another novel and stomped off to California to write screenplays. "In L.A.," he says, "you work like hell because there is nothing else to do, unless you're cheating on your wife." Only two of his TV scripts were ever produced, however.

Now, at 65, Fast is back on the East Coast and, paradoxically, more popular than ever. In 1973 he reneged on his angry vow not to write fiction and proposed a hefty historical novel to his publisher. Too ambitious to fit into a single volume, it was split into three parts, The Immigrants, Second Generation and The Establishment. Described as "soap history," they chronicle the fortunes of a French-Italian immigrant family in San Francisco, the Lavettes. Each book has been a best-seller—The Establishment is now in its 24th week on the list—and Fast is at work on a fourth volume, tentatively entitled The Women. Meanwhile his 1975 collection of short stories, Time and the Riddle, will be republished this year.

The Lavette family saga has not, as usual, set off any ovations among book reviewers. Fast's bank is another matter. So far he estimates he has earned $906,000 from the series and can afford to be scornful of his detractors: "A critic is a eunuch working in a harem. He watches it, but he knows he can't do it. Critics very often are failed writers and, like failed priests, they hate religion."

Two months ago Fast and Bette, his wife of 42 years, sold their pink stucco villa in L.A. and moved to an elegant estate in Greenwich, Conn. Bette, who is 63, told her husband, "I don't want to die in California." Another reason for the move was to be near their children, Rachel, 35, a divorced psychologist at Manhattan's Rusk Institute, and Jonathan, 31, a novelist who is married to Erica (Fear of Flying) Jong, 38. They have a 19-month-old daughter, Molly.

"Howard has taught me that writing is a trade, like being a shoemaker," says Erica. "You don't go into bars and say, 'Okay, someday I'm going to write a novel.' You get up in the morning and write. Howard has tremendous endurance."

Fast attributes his youthful radicalism to the intense antifascism he felt during World War II, when the Soviets were American allies, and to the poverty of his boyhood. (In a 1957 memoir, The Naked God, Fast renounced his Communist affiliation.) The grandson of immigrants from Fastov, Russia (hence the Americanized surname), the author grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His mother died when he was 8 and his father was often out of work. Howard, two brothers and a sister went to work when they were still children—"We had to take care of each other." He was 17 and pushing a dress rack through New York's garment district when he won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design. There he met Bette Cohen, a talented young painter, and fell in love. Howard's talent as an illustrator was secondary to his itch to write—he had already finished 12 novels, all unpublished. "He had a gift of gab," Bette recalls. "He could talk anybody into anything." When Howard sold his first short story to Ladies' Home Journal, he persuaded her to marry him.

Fast spends four hours each day at his typewriter. "If I miss a day," he explains, "I lose the thread." His great success after so many personal crises has left Howard Fast with little bitterness. "I'm disenchanted with Communism and most other things," he says. "I'm cynical but not a cynic. I'm cynical about TV, Congress and commercial peanut butter."

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