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.
In the 1950s, she and 14 other Californians were convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to advocate the forceful overthrow of the government. She faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine before the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
In the 1960s, she again faced imprisonment and a hefty fine under a piece of McCarthy-era legislation known as the McCarran Act, when she and others refused to register as agents of a foreign government. In 1965, the Supreme Court reconsidered an earlier decision and found the registration provision to be in violation of the Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination.
She resigned from her leadership post in 1968, after Soviet troops crushed an uprising in Czechoslovakia. But she stayed in the party until 1973.
Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said the contradictions between Mrs. Healey's convictions and what the party had become were too great. "There was a tension between Dorothy's roles as a communist leader and her human qualities."
Mrs. Healey moved in with her son and his family in 1983. She immediately stopped smoking, her son said, not wanting to expose the children to secondhand smoke.
Survivors also include a sister.
Her marriages to "three good men," as she once called them, Lon Sherman, Don Healey and Phillip Connelly, ended in divorce.
She had been with Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles since 1959. In Washington, she and her son hosted "Dialogue," an hour-long public affairs show on WPFW on Wednesday mornings. Her son is expected to continue hosting the show.
She also belonged to the Democratic Socialists of America and the D.C. Statehood Party.
Throughout her life, Mrs. Healey continued to hold fast to her convictions.
"But I still believe in the old, old, slogan: 'Optimism of the will and pessimism of the mind.' There is still that great need to pioneer, to ask new questions, to think the unthinkable."