Frank Fried (1927-2015)

by Patrick Quinn

January 20, 2015

Frank Fried, one of the most remarkable revolutionary socialists in the United States during the second half of the 29th century, passed away on January 13, 2015 in Alameda, California at the age of 87. He is survived by his wife of 27 years, the novelist Alice Wilson-Fried.

Frank Fried.

Frank was attracted to the political views of the Socialist Workers Party in Chicago as a teenager. He joined in 1944 just before he entered the U.S. Navy during World War II. It was not a propitious time to be joining the SWP. Its leaders, including those who led the famed 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis and the SWP’s founder, James P. Cannon, were in the Federal Prison in Sandstone, Minnesota, having been unjustly convicted in 1941 of “violating” the Smith Act.

Following his discharge from the Navy after the end of World War II, Frank became an active member of the Chicago SWP branch. His mentor was Milt Zazlow (publicly known as Mike Bartell), the Chicago SWP organizer, and under Milt’s guidance, Frank became one of the youngest branch leaders. During the years following the war, Frank and the other members of the Chicago branch of the SWP became very active in various progressive struggles in Chicago, including the effort to end segregation at the “White City” amusement park on the city’s South Side.

The most significant struggle that the Chicago SWP branch played a central role in was the “Hickman case” in 1947, a long forgotten struggle that only recently was rescued from the mists of history by Joe Allen in his book People Wasn’t Made to Burn (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011). Along with Milt Zazlow, SWP members Leon Despres (later a famous member of the Chicago City County), Mike Myer, Carl Schier, the novelist Willard Motley, and the actress Tallulah Bankhead, Frank played a key role in the fight to free James Hickman, an African-American who had been convicted of murdering his landlord after Hickman’s family had been burned to death when the house they rented was destroyed in a fire started by the landlord.

Joe Allen begins his book: “’I want you to write about the Hickman case,’ Frank Fried told me, gripping his cane with one hand and gesturing with the other. ‘It was the best thing we ever did and nobody knows about it.’” Frank was indeed right about the central role that the Socialist Workers Party played in the Hickman case, but, characteristically, in the account of the case that he provided to Joe Allen, he underplayed his own role in the struggle to gain Hickman’s release.

Between 1947 and 1953, Frank played an important role in other activities that the Chicago SWP was involved in. In the early 1950s, however, he joined a minority current in the SWP led by Bert Cochran, Harry Braverman, George Clarke, and Milt Zazlow that had developed political differences with the SWP leadership and James P. Cannon about strategy and tactics in the trade union movement and the best means of building the SWP.

In 1954, after several years of intense internal debate, the minority, which became known as the Cochran group (named after its leader Bert Cochran), including Frank, left the party. The group founded the magazine American Socialist and Frank became an active supporter. During this period, Frank was fired from his industrial job at the U.S. Steel Works in Chicago after the FBI pressured his employer to discharge him—a widespread FBI practice against militant socialists in the 1950s. The FBI made it difficult if not impossible for socialist militants like Frank to obtain another job.

Interested in music, especially folk music, Frank began assisting folk music clubs in Chicago, including the “Gate of Horn,” by doing publicity work for them, a skill that he had learned as a member of the SWP. At first he provided assistance gratis and eventually for a small fee. While involved in such activities in the late 1950s, he acquired an intimate knowledge of the music promotion business.

In the early 1960s, he formed a partnership, Triangle Productions, with Fred Fine, a former member of the Communist Party. And when the Beatles first came to the United States in 1963, Frank and Fred organized a concert by them at Comisky Park in Chicago. The concert was an enormous success, exceeding all expectations, and Frank and Fred made a small fortune, which launched Frank’s career as a music impresario. Triangle Productions went on to organize many other concerts for performers such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Pete Seeger, and Frank Zappa.

Frank became one of the most successful and well-known music promoters in the country, and in the process became quite wealthy. But in defiance of Marx’s observation that “being determines consciousness,” Frank never lost his commitment to revolutionary socialism, a commitment that he would retain until the end of his life. He maintained contacts with revolutionary socialists who had been members of the Cochran group and with those who had been his comrades in the Socialist Workers Party. He also developed relationships with newer, younger socialists, myself included. I got to know him quite well in 1974 when he lived in Evanston, Illinois, a few blocks away from where I was living at the time, and we had many political discussions that eventually cemented a friendship that would continue for the next 41 years.

During the 1980s, he broadened his role as a music impresario and developed the Rosemont Horizon in a northwest suburb of Chicago as a major venue for music performances and athletic events. Among the performers he brought to the Rosemont Horizon were the Rolling Stones. He then became associated with Madison Square Garden in New York City and eventually became the president of the famous Delta Queen Mississippi River steamboat company in New Orleans. In all of these roles, he put to good use the skills and experience that he had acquired as a music impresario.

It was shortly after his very successful Beatles concert that Frank began sharing the wealth that he had accumulated (and would continue to accumulate) with various socialist and progressive organizations, a process that would last until the end of his life. One of his initial major financial contributions was to the campaign of Ed Sadlowski, who ran for president of the United Steelworkers as an integral part of an effort to democratize the Steelworkers union. Over the course of the campaign, Frank developed a close friendship with Sadlowski. Frank financially supported many other socialist endeavors, including Solidarity after it was founded in 1986, and became a sympathetic supporter of the organization for almost thirty years, eventually joining Solidarity shortly before he died. He also financially supported the Fourth International and the political work of the late Peter Camejo, Camejo’s Green Party candidacy for Governor of California, and his North Star Network.

Preceded in death by his first wife, Francoise Nicolas, and his elder sister, Vivian Medak, Frank is survived not only by his wife Alice, but his children Pascale, Isabelle, Bruno, Troy, and Teasha, and many grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.

Although he became wealthy, Frank never abandoned his commitment to the working class or to the struggle for socialism. He was one of the most decent human beings that I have ever known. It was very much my privilege to have known him and, as I told him at his 80th birthday party seven years ago, to have had his friendship and comradeship for many decades. Frank’s generation of socialist militants is now largely gone. With his passing, we have lost one of the very best of that generation. We salute Frank and the legacy he bequeathed to future generations of socialist militants.


One response to “Frank Fried (1927-2015)”

  1. Alan Wald  Avatar
    Alan Wald

    This is a fine appreciation of a man many of us admired and knew—but not so well as the author. It contains a balanced portrait of Frank’s varied life and some vauable political history at the same time.