Thursday, October 1, 2009

* Miss Vivien Kellems: The First Lady of Feminism

"I'm speaking of a new time. I'm talking about what is going to happen after the [Second World] War is over . . .what are you going to do with all these women in industry? 

If we're good enough to go into these factories and turn out munitions in order to win this war, we're good enough to hold those jobs after the war and to sit at a table to determine the kind of peace that shall be made, and the kind of world we and our children are going to have in the future."

 Vivien Kellems, 1943

Millionaire industrialist, Vivien Kellems, founder of the Connecticut Cable Grip Company, whose cable grips support bridges around the world, including the George Washington Bridge, below.

Miss Kellems inspecting one of her cable grips. 

Miss Kellems, Paul Keane and  actress Gloria Swanson  testifying in Washington, 1972 

A eulogy for Miss Kellems  delivered at the Goospeed Opera House, East Haddam, Connecticut, February 2, 1975




February 2, 1975
The Goodspeed Opera House
East Haddam, Connecticut

Paul Keane

Four summers ago, while vacationing at my parents’ Hamden, Connecticut home from graduate work at Kent State University, I decided to defy the mythological Generation Gap, and try to get to know one of my childhood heroines: Vivien Kellems.

The killings at Kent State had made me painfully aware of the uncertainty of life, so, when I read that Miss Kellems, then 75, had been named Citizen of the Year by the New Haven Register, I decided “It’s now or never” and picked up the phone and dialed her East Haddam number.

To my surprise Miss Kellems answered the phone herself. She immediately perceived the public-relations angle of involving students from Kent State in her crusade for single taxpayers, and invited me to visit her the next day. Thus began a four-year association which ended last Saturday when I learned of her death. I am privileged to have been counted among her friends and I can say sincerely, despite the 49 years difference in our ages, that she was one of mine.

Miss Kellems would not have been amazed that only a few days after that event, news of her death has already faded from the journals. For she was a genius at making publicity, and knew exactly how difficult it is to keep a story in the news. Whether she was a female Bertrand Russell staging a sit-down strike in a Connecticut voting booth, or a grandmotherly crusader shaking her finger at “the boys” from the Internal Revenue Service, defying them to lay one of their “cottin pickin hands on my bank records so I can haul them off to court so fast they won’t know what happened to them,” she knew precisely how to choreograph an event so it would make the biggest splash in the media.

In April, 1972, outside the Congressional chambers of Wilbur Mills’ House Ways and Means Committee in Washington, where Kellems-supporters had gathered to speak in behalf of tax equity for single taxpayers, Miss Kellems plucked actress Gloria Swanson and me from the group and invited us to pose with her for an Associated Press Wire Service photo: Miss Swanson because she was famous, and me because my school- - Kent State -- was infamous.

She got the results she wanted, and two weeks later I got a note from her saying “This photo appeared in newspapers all over the country, Paul”. And she knew too, because she’d hired a clipping agency to keep track of her crusade in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States.

The night before we gave our testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, Miss Kellems held a banquet for her supporters in the then-unknown Watergate Hotel. Actually, it was more of a rehearsal than a banquet, since each of us read aloud the testimony we would give the next day so Miss Kellems could edit and orchestrate it. After we finished eating, she rang us to attention, and like Washington addressing his troops, set the scene in historic context for us:

“Tomorrow you will embark on a chapter in American history which will come to be known as the taxpayers’ great revolt. All across our nation people are saying they’re fed up with a government that is taxing them, to death, and our effort tomorrow will be the opening shot in a battle to reform the Federal tax system”.

Well, it hasn’t worked out quite that way. Not yet anyway. And these last few months must have been particularly discouraging for Miss Kellems since much of her hope for tax-reform depended on promises the now-fallen Wilbur Mills had made to her. The ascension of Mr. Ullman to the Chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee is a hopeful sign in many ways, but it also meant that Miss Kellems would have to regroup her lobbying effort once again.

(On far right of photo: House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Wilbur Mills, at a White House signing ceremony.)

And perhaps she could have done it. A single edition of the Kellems’ newsletter circulated among her supporters across the country has been known to start letters of protest pouring into the offices of Congressmen in Washington. "And be. sure to enclose a used, dry tea-bag or coffee grounds to spill out on the desk when your letter is opened” her newsletter would end, cleverly reminding Congressmen of the first tax revolt: the Boston Tea Party.

There was nothing tentative about Vivien Kellems. She clenched life tenaciously in her fist as she charged ahead into battle. She wasn’t going to “move” a bill from committee to the House floor, she’d “blast" it out of committee and down to the House. She paid little heed to the restrictions of growing old - - even at 78 -- driving her car a hundred miles for a speaking engagement, or flying off to Scotland to do more research on her Ph. D. dissertation, which now sits completed on her desk.

The last time I spoke with her she was “holed-up” in Los Angeles, “trying frantically to meet a publisher’s deadline” for a book she was writing on her tax crusades.

She was plucky, even about the matter of her death. After giving me a tour of the big clapboard house she’d built in East Haddam several years ago, she mentioned the expenses of the diningroom, one wall of which is panelled in stained-glass windows, artifically illuminated to cast a beautiful reflection in the mirror-topped diningroom table: “Oh, it really was too expensive, Paul”, she said, “But why not! I’m an old lady who’s had two heart attacks. I could pop- off any time now!”

That was three years ago, and she fought several battles since, including the instant-repeal of Connecticut’s first state income-tax.

In August, I received my last letter from her, containing a copy of her eight-page statement to the United States Tax Court in Washington last July. It evoked memories of her performance three years before under the forty-foot ceilings of the House Office Building’s committee hearing room. A diminutive, whitehaired, 75-year-old, New England lady, she filled that enormous chamber with her piercing voice and conviction, lecturing the Committee members on the Constitution, nuances of various tax laws, and their duty as elected officials. She spoke for nearly half an hour, and she never referred to a single note. As the New York Times obituary said of her last Monday, she was a “fiery and effective orator”.

Here is how her July statement concludes:

“If. . . you are a duly constituted court [and she had her doubts about that] . . . you must make sure that all of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States are carefully preserved and protected. Among these is the right to a trial by jury, guaranteed by the 7th Amendment, and it is your duty to see to it that I, or any other American citizen who comes before you and asks for a jury trial, is given one. Therefore, Your Honor, I respectfully request that you set a date, impanel a jury and permit me to try this case under your supervision”.

She died before getting the chance to try that case.

But for me, as a young American who lived through the nightmare of student unrest at Kent State, Vivien Kellems’ legacy is more than a court decision or a piece of legislation. Miss Kellems realized early in her life the significance of John Marshall’s statement that “The power to tax involves the power to destroy”. And it is no small indication of her prophetic foresight that the very week she died the Internal Revenue Service admitted keeping secret files on the private lives, drinking and sexual habits of scores of American citizens in violation of its charter and the citizens’ Constitutional rights.

Miss Kellems knew, as Justice Brandeis wrote in 1928 (Olmstead v. U. S. ) that the makers of the Constitution “conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone-- the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”.

In fighting for this right as an employer, a voter, and an unmarried taxpayer, Miss Kellems instructed all of us in Connecticut and many others around the country in the Constitution’s guarantee to American citizens that they can speak freely, and petition their government for a redress of grievances. When the government turned a deaf ear, Miss Kellems taught us the art of courteous but flamboyant civil disobedience, daring the government to take her to court so she could test her interpretation of the Constitution.

I will not soon forget her lessons. And I suspect that whenever I see a citizen stand up for his Constitutional rights my mind will be whispering the name Vivien Kellems.

Paul  D. Keane

"I'm speaking of a new time. I'm talking about what is going to happen after the [Second World] War is over . . .what are you going to do with all these women in industry? If we're good enough to go into these factories and turn out munitions in order to win this war, we're good enough to hold those jobs after the war and to sit at a table to determine the kind of peace that shall be made, and the kind of world we and our children are going to have in the future." Vivien Kellems, 1943

February 2, 1975