Joseph Lash (1909-1987)
Born to Russian-Jewish emigre parents on December 9, 1909 in New York City's Upper West Side, Joseph Lash would ultimately become one of the most important student leaders of the depression era, as well as a respected journalist and biographer.
As a student at the City College of New York, Lash began to write left-wing opinion pieces for the campus newspaper and chaired the college's socialist organization, gaining a reputation as a young radical whose views only grew more committed in the wake of the Great Depression. Indeed, through much of that time period Lash was vocally committed to a socialist revolution in the United States and he actively campaigned for abolition of mandatory military training. He became a leader in the Student League for Industrial Democracy, founded the Association of Unemployed College Alumni, and served as an officer in the American Student Union. Perhaps most notably, however, Lash was responsible for organizing various antiwar demonstrations on college campuses from 1934 to 1941, in which students refused to attend class for an hour.
Lash's antiwar convictions, however, were tempered by Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and by the late 1930s he favored U.S. participation in a coalition to contain fascism. He demonstrated this newfound commitment by briefly serving with Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War before returning to the United States to aid the Loyalist cause as a student leader. Shortly after his return, however, the student movement began to collapse amidst infighting over Stalin's nonaggression pact with Hitler. Lash placed himself on the anticommunist side of this debate, and in 1939 he was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about Communist infiltration of the American Youth Congress.
It was at this meeting that Lash first met Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady was captivated by the youthful and brilliant Lash, and a warm friendship developed that would last until ER's death in 1962. Initially impressed by Lash's record with the AYC on behalf of antiwar causes, she was responsible for involving Lash in FDR's presidential campaign of 1940 as the director of the DNC's Youth Committee. In time Lash became one of the first lady's most trusted advisers. Both endured criticism for the friendship they shared, Lash from radical colleagues who disdained the bourgeois liberalism of the New Deal, and the first lady from conservatives who recoiled at the idea of the president's wife commingling with upstart student agitators. J. Edgar Hoover was so suspicious of ER's friendship with Lash that he instructed FBI agents to bug Lash's hotel room and keep track of his whereabouts.
Lash remained committed to ER's political work and the Roosevelt legacy after FDR's death in 1945. He co-founded Americans for Democratic Action with ER and other liberal Democrats in 1946, and then went to work for the New York Post from 1950 to 1966. It was only after sixteen years with the Post that Lash resigned to serve as ER's official biographer – at Elliott Roosevelt's invitation – and in 1971 he published Eleanor and Franklin. His account of the relationship between FDR and ER broke ground for historians and biographers alike, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his achievement.
Lash spent the next sixteen years of his life writing and editing books about the New Deal era and the Roosevelts. In the process, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography, the National Book Award, and the Frances Parkman Prize. He died on August 22, 1987.
American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 217-220.
Beasley, Maurine, Holly C. Schulman and Henry R. Beasley, ed. The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001, 305-308.
Lash, Joseph. Eleanor and Franklin. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971, 706, 716, 775-780.