Dorothy Ray Healey, 91; 'The Red Queen' Was Leader in American Communist Party

In Washington, Healey hosted a weekly public affairs show on WPFW called
In Washington, Healey hosted a weekly public affairs show on WPFW called "Dialogue." (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

Dorothy Ray Healey, 91, a former longtime leader in the American Communist Party who moved to Washington in 1983 to help raise her grandchildren and who hosted a weekly radio show on WPFW (89.3 FM), died of respiratory failure and pneumonia Aug. 6 at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville.

Mrs. Healey, once known as "the Red Queen," embraced the Communist Party in Los Angeles at 14 and rose through the ranks, becoming chairwoman of the Communist Party USA in Southern California. A labor organizer, civil rights activist and radio commentator, she remained a party faithful until 1973, long after she had begun to disagree with its orthodoxy and criticized it publicly.

From the moment she joined the Communist Party, she was a believer. "We knew with absolute conviction that we were part of a vanguard that was destined to lead an American working class to a socialist revolution," she once said.

However, a critical moment for her came in 1956, after hearing someone read Nikita Khrushchev's speech about Joseph Stalin's tyranny in the Soviet Union. "The speech went on for four hours, and I was reduced to tears after about 30 minutes," she said. "Fact after fact of monstrous things had happened. It was a relentless account. But I believed it. There was no questioning its authenticity."

Although many left the party then, Mrs. Healey tried to reform it from within and called for its democratization and greater independence from the Soviet Union. Her story is chronicled in a book she wrote with historian Maurice Isserman, "Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the American Communist Party" (1990). She also was featured in the 1983 documentary "Seeing Red."

As the book revealed, Mrs. Healey came to exemplify "the aspirations, commitment, illusions -- and, ultimately, disillusionment -- of a generation of young Communists" who joined the movement before and during the Great Depression and "then watched in dismay as the Party was reduced to a remnant of its former strength through the battering it received in the McCarthy era and through its own sectarian mistakes."

A "red diaper baby," she was born Dorothy Harriet Rosenblum in Denver on Sept. 22, 1914, to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Her father was a traveling salesman, peddling smoked meats and cheeses to grocery stores throughout the West. Her mother was a socialist who took part in creating the American Communist Party.

At 6, Mrs. Healey relocated with her family to Los Angeles. As her father moved about, she attended 19 schools throughout the West before dropping out of high school. She worked in a peach processing factory, making 12 cents an hour and hiding when government labor inspectors came looking for underage workers. At 14, she joined the Young Communist League and, at 18, the party.

Her convictions about social justice and issues of race, class, unions and labor fueled her activism, said her son, Richard Healey of Washington.

"It was what people could be under a better social system . . . the possibility for all human beings, not just a few," that kept her engaged in the Communist Party, he said. "She never changed her belief in communism with a small 'c'."

During what was considered one of the most intense political and intellectual periods in the United States, Mrs. Healey became a charismatic figure and skilled organizer in the party leadership both in Los Angeles and nationally. She was a mentor to many young communists.

Mrs. Healey, a tiny woman about 5 feet tall, had arresting light eyes and a sturdy, forceful voice. A smoker for years, she is pictured on the jacket of her book smiling and with a cigarette in hand.

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