GLADYS: Harry had a wonderful life!
PERCY: And he had a wonderful death, too!
GLADYS: We arrived in Burlington, Thursday evening, December 29th to be with
Harry. Taking care of Harry, in addition to his son Fred and daughter-in-
law Amy, was his devoted home helper and amanuensis, Joan Ladoucer.
I was with Harry, that Thursday evening when the telephone rang. Harry
said to me: “It’s about Sam (his brother) . . . he’s very sick. His face
relaxed and he broke into a sweet smile when Percy came into the room
with a glass of his favorite drink.
When dinner was served, he insisted on joining us at the table. Although
he didn’t eat much . . . he was full of cheer . .. talking about Monthly
Review, and the sorry state of affairs perpetrated by the Bush Administration within the country, and their unnecessary war in Iraq.
Then his face relaxed and he longingly spoke of how much he missed
Beadie . . . wonderful, gregarious Beadie, who laughed, scolded, and made
us care about improving the lives of all people.
The next morning, Laura Singer Magdoff telephoned with the sad news
that Sam had died early that morning. We didn’t tell Harry. Later that
Friday, the hospice nurse, Ellen Flanagan, and Percy recognized that
Harry was slipping rapidly.
Shortly thereafter, grandson David telephoned from Egypt, where he and
his wife Pam were on vacation. I had to tell David that Harry was dying.
Fred later spoke to his son.
PERCY: I spent time with Harry the next day, and the only other person in the room
was Johann Sebastian Bach, or at least his music was. Harry loved
listening to Bach. It was his grand passion. He said that while Mozart was
magnificent, Bach was sublime.
I had snuck with me into his room a few pieces of Schmaltz Herring, a
little black bread, and a small glass of his favorite liquid refreshment; we
shared the contents of that glass.
Of course he knew that he was near the end. I asked him, what do you
think this country and most of the world will look like 100 years from
now. He said, “Well, that depends on whether the world hasn’t blown
itself up, or destroyed all life on earth either by global warming or
by war. But if it hasn’t,” he said, “the most important question is not so
much about this country, but about the world. That is because for the 6
billion or so people who will be alive, there will simply not be enough
resources for most people of the world to have a standard of living which
people in the U.S. and also in other parts of the world can have.”
He then went on to say, “PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO CHANGE.” And he
added, “I know that the materialist doctrine has it, that we are all products
of circumstances and upbringing; and that changed people are products of
changed circumstances and changed upbringing. But we must remember,
that it is people who change circumstances, and that means that educators
must themselves be educated, and continuously re-educated.
“So while it is true that existence determines consciousness, and that
social being determines social consciousness, that in itself is not sufficient
to generate self consciousness. Self consciousness, but particularly, class
consciousness does not fall from the sky as a disembodied idea. That is
what I mean, when I say that people will have to change.
“As for a hundred years? You know, it terms of history, 100 years is really
a short period of time. That’s about as long as I have lived, and things
haven’t changed that much during my lifetime. Of the 6 billion people
alive now, 2 to 3 billion live in extreme poverty. Hundreds of millions die
unnecessarily every year because they don’t have clean water, they don’t
have sanitation, they don’t have 25 cents for inoculations that would
prevent disease. And the other side of the picture is that people die of
hunger, people live in misery, and that is the dominant factor in the world
today. People will have to change. In 100 years? I doubt it, more like 500
years. And as people change and develop a new consciousness, the
economic system that is responsible for all this will have to be changed.
But change it must, and I believe, change it will.”
So you see, 2 days before he died, Harry’s mind and brain were still as
sharp and clear and as compassionate as ever.
GLADYS: I was again with Harry in the afternoon, Friday, December 31″, after his nap.
I told him, Percy was busy cooking Osso Buco, which he hoped Harry
would enjoy. He demurred, and said, “I think I better eat here in my
I helped him adjust his oxygen breathing tube. He asked me about my 18
year old Grandson, who had visited Harry before leaving on his first trip to
China. I was once again reminded of Harry’s interest in the young . . . and
his mentoring of so many who sat at his feet to talk about their hopes and
dreams, their problems, and to benefit from his practical wisdom.
Harry and I frequently exchanged e-mails . . . most often about the news
and our analysis about China. For example, in November last year, after
China announced its new FIVE YEAR PLAN, we had several exchanges
about my assertion regarding a similarity between Chavez’s movement
and China’s market socialism.
In response, Harry wrote me two long e-mails, pointing out that “China is
rushing to capitalism with a vengeance; Venezuela is attempting to break
away from capitalism.” In an earlier-mail in October, he had said that his
“deep pessimism . . . is because of my bias in thinking that ‘market
socialism’ is an oxymoron. The market produces unemployment and a
great disparity of wealth and income. Socialism obviously is aimed to
overcome these ills.”
He then explained that “an oversimplified formula lies at the root of my
thinking: CONSUMPTION + INVESTMENT = NATIONAL INCOME.
The formula means a fast rate of growth of investment will be
accompanied by a slower rate of growth in consumption. In a market
economy, distribution of consumption goods and services are unequally
divided: the rich get a larger portion than do the poor.”
He signed these two e-mails “With Love from your Sourpuss and
Cantankerous Friend.” NOW, from whom can I learn as much,
lessons accompanied by love and gentleness?
We talked about that exchange later on Friday. Then he said, “I have one
more article I want to write. It is on the future of socialism. Fred and I
talked about it this summer at his farm in Fletcher, and then here, in the
last few months. I have thought about the future of socialism over the
years, but more intensely in the last few months.” I urged him to say more;
I will try to paraphrase what he said:
There are four basic elements that are essential for a significant future of
First: Expansion – Growth
Second: Diversity of peoples and ideas
Third: Understanding, acceptance of differences of culture, and dialogue across the spectrum of the people of the world, and
Fourth: All together, embracing the Soul of Socialism.
The first element – Expansion
Growth will happen through education and dissemination of values and
goals of socialism in language especially attractive to youth and young
adults. Their parents and grandparents, and the millions of decent people
who understand the values of sharing the world’s resources to benefit the
quality of life for all, will need to be mobilized to speak to others.
The second element – Diversity
We must actively attract people of all ages, races, ethnicity, and social
class by advocacy, education, writing, broadcasting, rallying and activism,
and most importantly through the way we live our lives and relate to
The third – Understanding
The first two, expansion and diversity, will succeed only if all
involved can understand and live a truly multicultural life in their
community, their nation, and in the world. We must understand and
hear diverse voices, expressing in their own way, the meaning to
them of life in a socialist society, and understanding the essence of
I could see Harry was tired, as he again tried to adjust his oxygen
breathing tube. We agreed to talk about the fourth element, the Soul
of Socialism, another day. He urged me to go eat Percy’s Osso Buco,
but first he asked me to bring his CD player closer and turn on Bach,
which was tuned to his favorite piece.
The next day, Saturday, December 31st, 2005, Harry stayed in bed
listening to Bach with Fred and Amy, Joan and Ellen, and Percy and me
taking turns caring for his medical and comfort needs.
Amy, Joan, Percy, and I ate more of the Osso Buco for dinner, but in the
last 12 hours from 3 PM on Saturday, December 31st, Fred never left his
father’s side, talking and comforting him.
With Fred, Amy, and Joan at his bedside, Harry died at 3 AM on the 1st Day of the New Year, 2006.
PERCY: A few years ago, we were going to a ceremony like this to celebrate the life
of a close and dear friend who had died; as we were walking, I said to
Harry, “You know I really don’t like these events.” And Harry said, “No, you are wrong. It’s important to close the book on someone’s life.” Well, I believe that today we have all well and truly closed the book on the life of our dear friend HARRY MAGDOFF.
Percy and Gladys Brazil are close friends, for decades, of the Magdoff family. “A Threnody for Harry” was read at the memorial service for Harry Magdoff at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on 7 May 2006.