The Bittersweet End of Two American Communists in Russia

The Bittersweet End of Two American Communists in Russia

A Russian military guard of honor at the funeral of journalist John Reed, who died of spotted typhus while in Moscow, October 1920.

SourceFPG/Archive Photos/Getty

Why you should care

Because the most powerful scenes from history often get left on the cutting-room floor. 

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The 1981 film Reds is a movie that wouldn’t get made today. Even at the time, many were shocked it did. Warren Beatty, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the big-budget docudrama (he received Oscar nominations for all four roles, winning for Best Director), even jokingly referred to his passion project as “a three-and-a-half-hour movie about a Communist who dies at the end.” And, true enough, an epic film about American Communists and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution — released during the first year of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War presidency — does indeed sound insane.

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Bryant at Reed’s funeral.

Source Public Domain

But Beatty knew a good story when he saw one, and the tale of John “Jack” Reed and Louise Bryant — lovers, journalists, Communists and revolutionaries — was too good to pass up. Still, as beautiful (and long) as Reds is, it misses one of the most moving episodes in the commie couple’s remarkable adventure, opting for a cinematic reunion scene in a train station over documenting the incredible final week that Reed and Bryant spent together in Moscow just before Reed died, tragically and unexpectedly, in his lover’s care.

A dark cloud loomed over this joyful time.…

Both Jack Reed and Louise Bryant were highly ambitious reporters who struggled to be taken seriously at times, in part because of their youth and attractiveness. “She had no right to have brains and be so pretty,” one of Bryant’s contemporaries once lamented. Writer Upton Sinclair called the adventuresome Reed, who had first made his reputation riding with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, “the Playboy of the Revolution.” But both reporters had great instincts and found themselves at ground zero for the October Revolution in 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik Party toppled the Russian government in what appeared to be the first blow struck in a worldwide socialist revolution.

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Reed is buried in the Kremlin wall.

Source Public Domain

In the wake of the Russian Revolution, both Reed and Bryant wrote books about their experiences and became increasingly active Communists themselves. In 1919, Reed returned to Russia alone to gather support for the growing American Communism movement. When he attempted to come home, he was detained in Finland, where he was held for months as a political prisoner, with American authorities refusing to help.

Finally, a gaunt Reed, suffering from scurvy after weeks of solitary confinement, was released and he cabled Bryant to join him in Russia. It took her weeks of arduous travel over the Arctic Ocean and hiding from immigration authorities in fishermen’s shacks, but she finally arrived in the fall of 1920. “On the morning of September 15, he ran shouting into my room,” Bryant wrote a friend of the joyful couple’s reunion in her Moscow hotel room. Bryant found Reed older and sadder, a shadow of his former self, but her presence rejuvenated him. The couple vowed to never be apart again and even spoke of having a child someday soon. “It was a very romantic time for them,” says Mary Dearborn, author of Queen of Bohemia, a biography of Louise Bryant.

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Bryant poses for a portrait, circa 1918.

Source Evening Standard/Getty

Bryant and Reed went for long walks together, visited art galleries and attended the ballet and the theater. As Bryant later wrote to Reed’s mother after his death: “For one brief, happy week we walked about the city and talked and lived through a second honeymoon.” They even went to visit Russia’s new socialist leaders, Lenin and Leon Trotsky. But a dark cloud loomed over this joyful time. The couple knew that if Reed returned to America, he would be imprisoned; they had to decide on the next stage of their remarkable journey.

Unfortunately, Reed never got to make that choice. A week after their reunion, Reed started experiencing dizziness and headaches. At first he was diagnosed with the flu, but as his condition worsened, it was clear that he had typhus, which had been ravaging Russia. “Spotted typhus is beyond description,” Bryant later wrote. “The patient wastes to nothing under your eyes.”

Reed was admitted to an overcrowded hospital. When Bryant was told not to accompany him for fear of catching the disease herself, she refused, brazenly kissing Reed on the mouth in front of the doctor. Bryant kept watch on Reed, on a cot in the hallway, around the clock for three weeks. But there was nothing she could do. At two in the morning on October 17 — just a month after their reunion in the hotel room — Reed died.

One week later, in another incredible scene that is notably absent from Reds, Reed’s casket was carried through the streets of Moscow to Red Square on the day before what would have been his 33rd birthday. The American Communist was buried in the Kremlin wall, perhaps the most honored spot in Russia.

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