Judy West: A radical life

Volume 123, No. 3March, 2023

Timothy Ledwith

Judy West with her husband Zelly Smirnoff and their sons Joel and Paul, circa 1953.

Judy West, Local 802’s public relations and political director from January 1983 to November 2000, died at her home on the Upper West Side, Manhattan on January 27 (see her obituary here in this issue). She was ninety-nine. Following is a remembrance of a conversation with Judy by former Allegro editor Tim Ledwith, who worked closely with her in the 1980s and ‘90s, and stayed in contact over the decades.

It’s sometime in 2011 and I am in sitting across from my friend, comrade and former boss, Judy West. Judy slouches into a sofa and I face her on a chair in the book-lined living room of her Park West Village apartment. She is telling me the story of her younger self in a throaty voice. It’s not that she is choked up with emotion. Instead, her gruff tone comes with the territory for a former big-band singer who used to smoke two packs a day. Although she quit, cold turkey, after being diagnosed with emphysema decades ago, Judy still has the aura of a raconteur using a cigarette for a prop. She stabs the air as she speaks in a brisk New Yawkese. All that’s missing is the curling smoke and a long ash dangling precariously.

I am interviewing her because she is a living archive of progressive politics and culture in New York and beyond, and she is already well into her eighties, and it seems past time to take notes. And as we speak, she quickly confirms something I already know about her: the depth of love and loss that she has experienced.

A disappearing breed

“I was married to a man I was madly in love with, and he was in love with me,” she says. “We trusted each other with our lives.”

West is talking — as she often does — about her first husband, Zelly Smirnoff, a busy freelance New York musician who had a fatal heart attack in 1955, at the age of forty. Their children were five and eight years old when he died.

“I couldn’t believe he dropped dead on us,” West says in her blunt way, still sounding stung and a little angered by the unexpected loss long ago. She shoots an irritated glance toward an oil portrait of Zelly, which hangs on the wall above her record collection. In the painting, he wears an elegant suit and crisp tie, and cradles a violin in the crook of his arm. He smiles faintly, radiating benevolence.

“He was the kind of man who walked into a room and you knew everything was going to be all right,” Judy says. “But then, everything wasn’t all right. So I had to figure out how the hell I was gonna survive.”

And survive she did. Judy got married again — disastrously, she says — to a Long Island builder, Dan West, whose name she retained after their divorce because “it had a nice ring to it.” Living mostly as a single parent, she kept food on the table and raised her two highly accomplished sons, Paul and Joel Smirnoff. In the bargain, she forged her own dual career as a media professional and an ardent political activist of the left.

At this point, Judy is white-haired and slightly stooped with age (though she was never far north of five feet, even at her tallest). It’s clear that the effects of emphysema, among other ailments, have slowed her down. Still, her blue eyes are sharp and clear behind her wireframe glasses. In many ways, she seems every bit the firebrand she always was. Judy may not be the last radical standing on the Upper West Side. She is, however, one of a disappearing breed of New Yorkers who cut their teeth in the leftist movements of the 1940s and ‘50s and never renounced a life of political struggle.

But through it all, seemingly just beneath the surface, she has felt the nagging pain of an old wound. “He was the love of my life, you know,” she says. Her eyes back on the painting of Smirnoff, except this time she doesn’t seem irritated with him at all.

In the clubs and on the road

Born Judith Freeman in 1923, Judy was reared in a secular Jewish family in Washington Heights with her older sister, Babette. Her father, Julius Freeman, fled Czarist pogroms in Lithuania and arrived in New York around 1910. Her mother was from a German-Jewish family that had immigrated much earlier. Both of Judy’s parents were socialists, like their parents before them. Nevertheless, Julius had a thriving garment business when she was born, and her mother aspired to a life of wealth and comfort.

The Freemans woke abruptly from their American Dream when the bottom fell out of the garment industry soon after the stock market crash of 1929. Before long, they were unable to afford the rent on their spacious Riverside Drive apartment. Staying one step ahead of the creditors, the family moved to a series of other apartments, each smaller and more dismal than the last.

Despite the family’s fall into near-destitution, Judy recalls much of her childhood fondly. “I was in the streets all the time, and by the time I was about seven, I was employable,” she says. For Judy, whose father was a lover of opera and symphonic music, employment took the form of a nascent career in the performing arts. Through the Depression years, even as she attended P.S. 169 on West 109th Street, her parents somehow managed to keep paying for her voice and dance lessons at a nearby school run by the blues singer Mabel Horsey. It was there, Judy says, that she first felt the irresistible pull of jazz in particular and African-American culture in general.

Horsey doubled as an agent for her more promising students, and young Judith showed promise. Her looks didn’t hurt, either. “I was gorgeous,” Judy says, invoking one of her favorite superlatives (which she enunciates as “gaw-jiss”). Soon, she was singing on the radio and playing bit parts in movie shorts produced at the Warner Brothers studio in Astoria. Her career kicked into high gear after she graduated, at fifteen, from Wadleigh High School in Harlem. From then on, her education would take place in the clubs and on the road.

“Even before I graduated, I used to go to 52nd Street and do my homework in the joints down there,” Judy remembers, referring to the legendary jazz clubs that once lined the midtown thoroughfare. From 52nd Street, she moved on to a lengthy stint as a singer on tour with trombonist Jack Teagarden’s big band. “I loved that man,” she says. “He was a drunk, but it was such a great band.”

In the early 1940s, not yet out of her teens, Judy first encountered Zelly Smirnoff at a musicians’ party uptown. He was doing his World War II service with the U.S. Merchant Marine Band in Sheepshead Bay. Soon after they met, he started calling her every day. Smitten, Judy quit the road to be near him. (“It was wearing me down anyway,” she says. “I was down to eighty pounds.”) She took an administrative job at an Army base in Brooklyn, where she was eventually fingered as a Communist and fired for joining a drive to unionize clerical workers. In fact, Judy had joined the Communist Party earlier in the war, reasoning that it was the only place for a patriotic American with strong opinions about racial and economic justice. Zelly was already a Party member when they met.

In 1945, the couple married at City Hall. Neither of them could have known, of course, that the unique partnership they formalized that day would end tragically, and much too soon.

Seizing the time

Judy describes her marriage to Zelly in idyllic terms. “We were always best friends, above all,” she says. Their boys were born in 1947 and 1950. Between Party functions and community meetings, Judy stayed home and read to them from the classics. Although her husband had to scramble for gigs in the era of McCarthyism and the blacklist, he never stopped working. Indeed, he was at a rehearsal for The Perry Como Show when his heart gave out.

The tale of Judy’s life in the ensuing years reads like a tour through the societal convulsions of her times. Still reeling from Zelly’s death, she maintained her ties with the Communist Party at first — even after what she calls the “wrenching” revelations of Stalin’s crimes in early 1956. The Soviet invasion of Hungary later that year was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Judy. She left the Party shortly thereafter. That didn’t mean leaving her passion behind, though — far from it. Judy was a regular at the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s. She joined union picket lines and took lobbying trips to Albany and Washington to advocate for the rights of workers, tenants and minorities. By the decade’s end, her keen interest in the politics of race would lead to perhaps her most audacious venture of all, as an active supporter of the Black Panther Party.

Judy met some of the famously militant group’s New York members at a legal-defense fundraiser in 1969 and subsequently stayed in touch. She took an almost maternal interest in the well-being of the Panthers, whose average age at the time was around 20. And she sympathized with their platform, which she saw — despite media stereotypes — as more of a working-class manifesto than a Black nationalist one. In due course, she floated the idea of opening a business that would be run as a collective, with the proceeds earmarked toward the Panthers’ operating expenses. They gave her their blessing. Judy crafted a business plan and used it to secure $25,000 from a sympathetic young loan officer at Chase Manhattan. And thus the Seize the Time book and record store was born, with a middle-aged Jewish mother, somewhat improbably, as its midwife.

The store on upper Broadway opened in 1973. It quickly became a hub for activists of many stripes on the Upper West Side, which was still a hotbed of left-liberal protest in those days. Within a few years, however, internal squabbles among the Panthers began to take a toll — no doubt exacerbated by outside pressure from the U.S. government’s counterinsurgency program, which targeted the group. One of their national leaders, Bobby Seale, flew in from California to settle the disputes. The effects of his intervention were short-lived.

“I left in 1976. I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” says Judy. The store stayed in business for another year, until the Black Panther Party of that era disintegrated.

Although Judy says she never lost sight of her progressive principles, it seemed that the moment to seize the time had passed. Her sons were on their own by then, and she found herself alone once more. As always in times of solitude, she felt the throb of Zelly’s loss anew. She kept busy at a job with a non-profit housing organization in the South Bronx but still felt an absence she couldn’t quite name. In time, she would realize that the missing ingredient was her oldest love of all: music.

Sweet victory, and tears

In 1982, a music copyist Judy knew told her about an insurgent campaign that was unfolding at Local 802. The Members Party, a faction of working musicians, was trying to oust the local’s deeply entrenched leadership. Now they seemed poised to mount a serious challenge in the upcoming Local 802 election — and they needed help. Judy jumped at the opportunity to work as a volunteer at the cramped Times Square office of the challengers. “Zelly would’ve been right in the thick of it,” she says. Her late husband had been an 802 member for years.

Trumpeter John Glasel, a top leader of the campaign, was nominated to run for union president on the rank-and-file ticket. He came to rely heavily upon Judy’s counsel. “It was an education working with her,” Glasel tells me when I call him to chat about Judy. “I had no experience with politics. All I knew was that the union didn’t work, and those guys in office weren’t trying to do anything about it.” (John Glasel, president of Local 802 from 1983 to 1992, passed away in 2011.)

The insurgents went on to victory, unseating the old guard in a clean sweep of every elective union office. Glasel’s administration took over in January 1983 with Judy as its PR director. (I joined the staff a month later and worked with her at Local 802 for several years.) “Judy used her connections and her experience with the labor movement and the politicians to help us out,” says Glasel. “That stuff was her cup of tea.”

For her part, Judy thrived in the electric atmosphere of union democracy, especially in those first years. She was in her element: surrounded by musicians, constantly engaged in contract negotiations and organizing campaigns on behalf of players in the Broadway pits, night clubs, recording studios and concert halls. “They didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, but man, they learned fast,” she says.

Judy would remain at Local 802 until her retirement in 2000, fighting countless battles from her overflowing desk at union headquarters. According to Glasel, “her crowning achievement” was orchestrating the defeat of New York’s municipal cabaret law, which had been used since the 1920s to regulate small clubs. “It was really an excuse to harass musicians, especially Black musicians. It was a racist law,” Judy says. After a lengthy legal battle, the courts struck down the law’s most restrictive provisions in 1988.

“It was sweet,” says Judy. “We finally showed those sons of bitches what’s what.”

But Judy’s work at Local 802 wasn’t only about fighting the proverbial sons of bitches. True to her grassroots instincts, she was also involved in a union campaign to bring live music to underprivileged young audiences. In November 1983, as part of that campaign, she helped to stage an all-star jazz concert for the students at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School on Amsterdam Avenue. The school was large, overcrowded and under-resourced. To Judy, that was all the more reason to put on a show.

The roster of union members recruited for the concert featured acclaimed players Art Blakey, Tommy Flanagan, Larry Ridley, Charles Rouse and Clark Terry, plus  Abbey Lincoln on vocals. While the musicians set up in the school’s cavernous auditorium, thousands of students filed in. They were screamingly loud and boisterous, clearly skeptical of the dinosaurs onstage who were about to bore them with some moldy tunes that even their parents would hate. The band finished their set-up and got ready to play. After an introduction that was all but drowned out by the noise in the room, the musicians swung into a high-octane, up-tempo cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.” The auditorium quieted down almost instantly. For a moment, many of the students stared at the band, slack-jawed, as if they doubted that such a sound could emanate from mere mortals, let alone elderly ones. Before the first chorus was done, they were on their feet, cheering and applauding, apparently ready, now, to believe their ears.

Judy was also on her feet, holding a clipboard and facing the stage. She turned around and scanned the faces of thousands of teenagers, most of them Black, many of them hearing this music in the flesh for the first time ever. Then she looked at her union colleagues seated nearby. Tears were streaming down the cheeks of the quintessential New York tough cookie, the hard-boiled fighter from the uptown streets.

“Look at these kids,” she said. “They’re gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.”