Monday, April 21, 2008


Harvey Matusow

October 3, 1926 – January 17, 2002


Early last week, I was a guest of the ladies in charge of the Special Collections of Sussex University Library. A discussion is going on between us about the future of my own HQ INFO Archive and broader issues. You can access their Special Collections catalogue here. Of immediate interest to me was the fact that they house, alongside the world-famous Mass Observations Archive and a substantial Bloomsbury collection, the personal archive of Harvey Matusow – a man whose name was familiar to me and someone who I believe I met in London in the early ‘70s. He was certainly a counter-culture figure of note. I browsed though his books and became very curious to find out more about the man. Coverage of his life and times is scattered across the Internet so am attempting here to bring together what biographical details exists in a compact form to provide a clearer, richer and more coherent picture of the long and diverse life of the “trickster” figure that was Harvey Matusow. It’s an extraordinary story that deserves to be more widely known.



‘I was born and brought up in The Bronx in its more gentle and energetic years. It was The Bronx in transition from a rural farming area to 45 square miles of high-rise city. The money that passed hands and the deals which were made in 1926 in The Bronx probably created the most powerful political machine in The United States. It was the Bronx machine that got Al Smith the Democratic nomination for President in 1928, and it was The Bronx that gave us Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. I watched my father use the machine, a phone call here, a phone call there, and suddenly the laws and the rules vanished. Everyone and everything seemed to have a price tag. By the time I was ten, I could steal your purse or pick your pocket on the subway, and you'd never know it. The streets were the jungle, a more gentle jungle than today, but, a jungle nevertheless. You learned it's sounds, it's smells as well as every crack in the cement side walks. It was all busy detail, filing everything away for some future unseen unexpected confrontation or crisis. Always shooting angles, the ricochet life style of a city kid.’

His parents Sylvia (nicknamed “Kitty”) and his father Herman had both arrived separately in the United States in 1906. Kitty was an observant Orthodox Jew; Herman a ‘short, well-dressed man [who] possessed a hair-trigger temper, a good sense of humour, and a passion for playing cards.'

‘He worked as a singing waiter in Coney Island [with Jimmy Durante, says Wikipedia] and, during World War 1, served as a quartermaster sergeant in the US Army. During the 1920s, he built a chain of cigar stores in good Manhattan locations…but he lost everything in the 1929 crash. “During the depression,” Harvey recalled, “Herman’s card earnings kept us alive.”

Harvey had one sibling, his brother Danny, three-and-a half years older, his best friend protector and hero, with whom he shared a bedroom… Both brothers attended Bronx public schools. But Harvey, despite his quick intelligence, proved a consistently poor student, a circumstance he later attributed to dyslexia (a condition largely unknown at the time).

‘He did develop “street smarts.” At the twelve, he went to work in the neighbourhood for Phil the Bookie. As a messenger and gofer, he saw bribes given to police officers and drew the lesson that government was corrupt.'

In August 1942, Danny enlisted in the Army Air Force and was called to active duty in March 1943 and sent to England. Harvey joined the army in November 1943. In deptember 1944, Danny was reported missing in action after his B-17 aircraft was lost in a daylight bombing raid over Nuremburg. Harvey was called to active duty on October 31, 1944, trained as a rifleman and sent to Europe, where he saw a minimum of combat. On V-E Day in the spring of 1945 he was in Paris and was then assigned to a US-sponsored college in Biarritz where he worked as a photographer for an army public relations unit.

In 1946 he was transferred in Mainz where he worked interrogating German prisoners. One prisoner, who had kept a detailed diary and map, enabled him to locate his brother’s burial site in a church cemetery in a suburb of Nuremburg. (His brother was later reburied in a military cemetery in France.)

He was ordered to return to the US in July and discharged from the Army on August 3, 1946.

Lichtman, Robert M. and Cohen, Ronald (2004). Deadly Farce: Harvey Matusow and the Informer System in the McCarthy Era. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252028864.

Kahn, Albert Eugene (1987). The Matusow Affair: Memoir of a National Scandal. Moyer Bell Ltd. ISBN 0918825857.

Matusow, Harvey (1955). False Witness. Cameron & Kahn.

Italic quotes from ‘Stringless Yo-Yo’, Matusow’s title for his unfinished autobiography, sections of which are available on the web.

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