Whispering Pines: Living under the Radar and Reading between the Lines

Whispering Pines

The College’s obituary for Christy Constantine Moustakis ’33 was as notable for what it didn’t include as for what it revealed about his life. Moustakis died on October 20, 1989, in Willseyville, New York, about twelve miles south-southeast of Ithaca. We know from his alumni file that he was born on February 11, 1911, in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of Constantine and Gertrude Moustakis, and attended Staunton Military Academy in Virginia and Salem High School before matriculating at Bowdoin in late September of 1929, a month before the stock market crashed.

He majored in English and was a member of Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity. He did graduate work in history at Harvard and at the University of California Berkeley in the late 1940s and was a proofreader at the New York Times from 1957 until his retirement in 1978. The brief summary of his life ended with a list of survivors, including his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had worked in the Times proofreading room.

1933 Bugle

Christy Constantine Moustakis ’33, Bowdoin Bugle

His entry for the Class of 1933’s 50th Reunion journal offered little additional detail (“Tell us your thoughts as a 50th grad and what you’re doing now: ‘Sorry – no thoughts. I enclose a check to help defray Reunion costs. Best wishes to all. Chris’”). Class news entries for Moustakis in the alumni magazine mention his MA in history from Harvard, his marriage in 1959, and a series of address changes over the years. From the annual College catalogues we can identify where he was living as a student (off-campus in an apartment on Potter Street for three years) and the names of his roommates. From The Bugle and back issues of The Bowdoin Orient we can identify a promising young writer/playwright who contributed to The Quill literary magazine, was elected to The Ibis (the senior honorary society), won the Hawthorne Prize, and co-edited The Growler, a humor magazine.  He was 1933’s class historian. At the time of his graduation, Christy Moustakis did not seem to be headed on a trajectory to obscurity.

However, a number of his friends and classmates knew that Christy had led a rich and colorful life after Bowdoin. I owe the idea for this column to Eric Redman, son of the late M. Chandler Redman ’34, who recently regaled the staff in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives with a story that can be documented from sources in the public domain, but is curiously absent in Moustakis’s alumni file at Bowdoin.

In 1938, five years after his graduation, Christy Moustakis was a bodyguard for Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico at the home of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Trotsky had been banned from Russia by Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and had lived in Turkey, Norway, and France before being granted asylum in Mexico in 1933. A footnote in one source indicated that Moustakis had been visiting Mexico as a tourist and was introduced to two men in Trotsky’s inner circle by “a college classmate.” I think that the college friend was Robert C. Hill ’32, who managed the American Book Store in Coyoacán, a village that was on the outskirts of Mexico City. Hill knew Kahlo and Rivera, and no doubt had contact with Trotsky as well, since his bookstore would have been a source of international newspapers and magazines, and a likely place to identify people who might become translators, secretaries, or other staff members in the Trotsky compound.

By all accounts, Trotsky’s “bodyguards” had little experience or training in security procedures, and Moustakis’s duties included being a chauffeur and documenting Trotsky’s life at Coyoacán in still photographs and 8mm movies. He also engaged Trotsky in conversations about the America’s place in the Fourth International movement. He joined the Socialist Workers Party on June 15, 1938. While in Mexico Moustakis often went by the name of “Chris Andrews.” Harvard’s archive of Trotsky’s papers from his exile in Mexico and the Moustakis family papers at Tufts University include letters written by Trotsky to “Chris” and “Christy” and signed “The Old Man.” Moustakis returned to the United States to advance the agenda of the Socialist Workers party. He was not at Kahlo and Rivera’s “Blue House” when Trotsky and his wife and grandson were forced to move to a nearby house after political differences developed between Trotsky and Rivera – exacerbated no doubt by a Trotsky-Kahlo affair. He was not on duty at the new house when a group of men armed with machine guns attempted to assassinate Trotsky, nor was he there a month later when a Spanish Communist trained by Russian agents gained the trust of those guarding Trotsky and killed “The Old Man” with an ice axe on August 20, 1940.

Congressional Hearings on the assassination of Trotsky (1950)

Congressional Hearings on the assassination of Trotsky (1950)

Thanks to the late George Marcopoulos ’53, a professor of history at Tufts and a second cousin to Christy Moustakis, the papers of Constantine C. Moustakis and Christy C. Moustakis are preserved in the Tufts University Archives. Marcopoulos filled in some of the details of Christy’s life. He wrote for the bi-weekly newspaper The Socialist Appeal for several years under the name of “Chris Andrews.” He also traveled around the country on behalf of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), delivering lectures and showing the photos and the home movies that he had taken of Trotsky in Coyoacán. He apparently ceased his active political activity with the SWP during World War II, although he maintained personal connections with some members of the movement. He considered graduate work in psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, but ultimately decided to complete an MA degree in history that he had begun at Harvard instead.

Dean Paul Nixon was famous for the quantity and “newsiness” of his personal letters to alumni; with the exception of a single note sent on the Dean’s behalf to accompany a request for a transcript for graduate school and a brief reply, there is no such “paper trail” for Moustakis. Christy had proved himself to be a confident writer, as a student and as “Chris Andrews,” so it doesn’t seem that he had an aversion to taking pen to paper. It is also unlikely that Dean Nixon was uncomfortable with Moustakis’s Socialist views. In a straw poll of Bowdoin students in advance of the 1932 presidential election, Republican Herbert Hoover won in a walk (332 votes), with Socialist Norman Thomas in a distant second (91), but with more than twice the votes (45) cast for Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. The faculty vote was 19 for Hoover, 11 for Thomas, and five for Roosevelt.

Christy and Elizabeth Moustakis

Christy and Elizabeth Moustakis

The opening of congressional investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee into American involvement in the death of Trotsky in 1950 and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s broader search for Communist sympathizers in American society and government no doubt had a chilling effect on Christy Moustakis’s political activities, given his historical ties to Trotsky and the SWP. I’m left with a scant record in Moustakis’s alumni file and with his own reluctance to talk about his past. Did he request that the College remove correspondence from his file that might be held against him by prospective employers or might be viewed adversely if he were to face Congressional hearings? Is it possible that the College might have “edited” the contents of his alumni file, out of an abundance of caution in an uncertain national political climate?

When we examine the remarkable life of Christy Moustakis of the Class of 1933 we’re left with many more questions than answers. For me it’s a reminder that still waters run deep, and that not all secrets are revealed in the whispering of the pines.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Ken Briggs says:

    Utterly fascinating and another fine piece of detective work. Unbeknownst to me, my years as a staff writer at the NYTimes overlapped his by four years. I’m not sure where his proof-reading department was located but no doubt it was on a distant floor from mine. It would have been exciting to have met him. He also serves as a delightful example to the contrary of the staid, conservative reputation generally associated with the private men’s colleges of the time, steeped as they were in establishment trappings. It’s long occurred to me that Bowdoin was spared some of the aristocratic airs exhibited by similar New England men’s colleges by the leveling influence of Maine itself. In that connection, I found it refreshing that Norman Thomas (substitute for “Thompson”) garnered between a fourth and a third of Hoover’s total.

    Thanks, Ken Briggs ’63

  2. Tony Antolini '63 says:

    Fascinating article! I’ve often wondered whether the Alumni Office has had to edit data in its archives. Keep up the detective work!

  3. Barbara Kaster says:

    As always, fascinating! Thanks!!

  4. Dan Sacco says:

    Very interesting! Thanks!

  5. Wayne Adam,s says:

    Very interesting piece.

  6. Bill Williams '69 says:

    You show a picture of Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson. HIS daughter is Nora Volkow, the current head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse . Born in Mexico and a naturalized American citizen. A VERY talented and influential lady. Google her.

  7. Dave Doughty says:

    Howdy John,

    You just keep coming up with unique and very interesting stories such as this one. Well done once again … please keep up the good work!

    Dave Doughty 1968

  8. louis asekoff '61 says:

    A discerning & generous assessment of this life. Inspiriting to see the lost sons of Bowdoin welcomed home to “the whispering pines.”

  9. George Eliades '64 says:

    John

    Reading your wonderful piece on Moustakis led me to the observation and opinion that you are fast approaching, though probably will never surpass your dad’s fabulous writings and storytelling which my mother enjoyed so much and I came to appreciate in the many years during which he produced his flavorful writings with dynamism after my departure from Bowdoin. He would be very proud.

    Meanwhile I shall endeavor to inquire of some of my North Shore fellow Hellenes for possible additional information on “Chris”.

    George Eliades ’64

  10. Melanie Race '00 says:

    John,

    Thanks for this; it’s fascinating! I’d never thought about whether a college might edit an alumni file “out of an abundance of caution in an uncertain national political climate”–that’s an interesting idea. I enjoy your columns. Hope you are well.

    Melanie

  11. Dave Larsson says:

    This is fantastic. That straw poll result is amazing.

  12. Conrad Spens '77 says:

    Another great tale from Bowdoin’s past! But what caught my attention was the scholarship involved- old fashioned back to the original sources research and a curious mind taking us to the next link. Will this be a lost art in the ever enveloping age of Google?

  13. Dick Burns says:

    John:
    Yet another home run! Keep up your tremendous work!

    You or the College should collect and publish your Whispering Times essays! The are worth saving and collection.

    Regards,
    Dick Burns ’58

  14. David Macomber '67 says:

    Fascinating article. Always look forward to reading the Whispering Pines.

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