IT IS TOO BAD for Virginia Gardner that her life of Louise Bryant appears after we have all seen Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds: reality is always so much more squalid than celluloid. Though we can all shed tears at the personable John Reed's early death, it is hard to work up much enthusiasm for his "friend and lover," much of whose adult life, as related by Gardner, appears to have been spent in a perpetual state of sexual exaltation. Bryant ran off with Reed from her dentist husband in Portland, Oregon, and then two-timed Reed with Eugene O'Neill and sundry other Greenwich Village characters. In fact he was two-timing her too. After Reed's death of typhus in Moscow, Bryant tried journalism, then married William C. Bullitt, a Philadelphia socialite and New Deal diplomat. He dropped her fast when she developed Dercum's disease (an incurable malady marked by painful subcutaneous tumors), lost her looks and took to the bottle. Bryant's last years were spent in a haze of drugs and alcohol and in pathetic attempts to ensure Reed's posthumous fame. She died in 1936 at age 50.

As a story of doomed lovers, no doubt this has a certain appeal. The author has collected all the facts, but her narrative is uneven. She is at her weakest when she tries to write the history of the Russian Revolution into this romance. The scene in Petrograd often resembles an opera run amok. It cannot be repeated too often that John Reed and Louise Bryant had about as much effect on that revolution as ants before a steamroller. As Lincoln Steffens commented, "Louise Bryant was never a communist, she only slept with a communist." If you want to read about a romantic revolutionary, you may as well start with the 100-proof genuine article: try Isaac Deutscher's The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879-1921.