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The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

Sep 5, 2012
Originally published on September 6, 2012 3:37 pm

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

The man behind "Strange Fruit" is New York City's Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.

Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921; he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.

In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge."

Meeropol once said the photograph "haunted" him "for days." So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

When Holiday decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century." The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller evoking the poem on his mournful bass clarinet.

Miller says he was surprised to learn the song was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. "Strange Fruit," he says, took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

"The '60s hadn't happened yet," he says. "Things like that weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about."

New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a Communist.

Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."

Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.

And that's where the second part of Meeropol's story begins. The link is the pseudonym he used when writing poetry and music: Lewis Allan.

"Abel Meeropol's pen name 'Lewis Allan' were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived," says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys' parents — Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — were executed for espionage in 1953.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been Communists.

The couple's trial and execution made national headlines, and there was also something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple. News accounts described it as "the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair."

At the time, the Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael, were 6 and 10, respectively. News photographs of the boys show them dressed in suits visiting their parents in prison.

"They're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and so vulnerable. It's really a very poignant image," says Margolick.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents' execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

"One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted," Robert says. "First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling."

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. "He was incredibly softhearted," Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

"I was the official lawnmower," Robert says, "and I was going to mow over them, and he said, 'Oh, no, you can't kill the seedlings!' I said, 'What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.'

"Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do."

Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons, Robert and Michael, both became college professors. They're also both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. And he says that even after all these years, he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, if you're a good reporter, you go were the facts take you. And sometimes when you're reporting one story, you discover another. Just such a thing happened to NPR's Elizabeth Blair. She was researching the biography of Billie Holiday for a recent MORNING EDITION story and came across a man who wrote Billie Holiday's famous song, "Strange Fruit." It turned out that fact was just the start of his story.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The man is Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at a public high school in the Bronx.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BLAIR: Dewitt Clinton is not your average high school. James Baldwin went there. So did Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon and Ralph Lauren. That's just a handful of the famous people who attended the school. Abel Meeropol, who's not famous, graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921, and then taught there for 17 years.

GERARD PELISSON: He taught English, and he loved to write poetry.

BLAIR: Gerard Pelisson also taught at Dewitt Clinton. He wrote a book about the school called "The Castle on the Parkway." He says Abel Meeropol was an activist.

PELISSON: And he was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.

BLAIR: Meeropol once said that photograph haunted him for days, so he wrote a poem about it that first appeared in a teacher's union publication. He was also an amateur composer, so he set it to music. He played it for a club owner, who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday. When she decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: Southern trees bear a strange fruit.

BLAIR: The lyrics never mention lynching, but the metaphor is painfully clear. The strange fruit is the lynched body hanging from a tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

BLAIR: Time magazine named it the song of the century in 1999. The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller playing bass clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BLAIR: Marcus Miller says he was surprised to find out that "Strange Fruit" was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. Miller says the song took extraordinary courage for both Meeropol and Billie Holiday.

MARCUS MILLER: The '60s hadn't happened yet. Things like that just weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about.

BLAIR: New York lawmakers didn't like it. In 1940, Abel Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not, but like many New York teachers in his day, Abel Meeropol was a communist. David Margolick wrote a history of "Strange Fruit."

DAVID MARGOLICK: There are a million reasons to disparage communism now, but American communism, one of the points that it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early.

BLAIR: Abel Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton, and eventually he quit the Communist Party. And that brings us to the second part of his story. It begins with the pseudonym he used for his songs and poetry. Lewis Allan was a very personal choice.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Abel Meeropol's pen name, Lewis Allan, were the names of their children who were, you know, were stillborn, who never lived.

BLAIR: That's Robert Meeropol. He and his brother Michael were adopted by Abel and his wife Anne Meeropol after the boys' parents were executed in 1953.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg will die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison tonight.

BLAIR: So the same man who wrote "Strange Fruit" is the same man who adopted the orphaned sons of a couple who were executed by the government. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been communists. Their trial and execution were serious national news, but also had something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Four times today, atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appeal their sentence of death, and four times they were unsuccessful. They will be executed tonight, probably within the next half hour, the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair.

BLAIR: The Rosenbergs' sons were six and 10. There are news photographs of the boys wearing suits, visiting their parents in prison. Author David Margolick.

MARGOLICK: There's this image that I had in my mind of the two Rosenberg boys at Sing Sing visiting their parents, and with Emanuel Bloch, the parents' lawyer. And they're these little boys and they're wearing these caps, and they look so young and they look so vulnerable, and it's really a very poignant image.

BLAIR: In the months following their parents' execution, Robert Meeropol says it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism. Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

MEEROPOL: One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted. First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a six-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling.

BLAIR: They also played around with a tape recorder. This is from the mid-1950s, not long after they'd been adopted.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Now, folks, we will have Abel say us a few words.

ABEL MEEROPOL: An guan guay, casalama zay. Lama zee, lama zoy, an guan guay(ph) .

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Thank you, Abel. That was a very nice speech.

BLAIR: There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal.

MEEROPOL: He was incredibly soft-hearted.

BLAIR: Robert Meeropol says, growing up, they had an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard that would drop lots of seedlings every year.

MEEROPOL: I was the official lawnmower, and I was going to mow over them, and he said: Oh, no. You can't kill the seedlings. I said: What are you going to do with them, dad? There are dozens of them. Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house, and there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn't do.

BLAIR: Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons Robert and Michael Meeropol both became college professors, and they're both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. He also says he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.