Margarite Frances Baird was an artist. She was briefly married to Orrick Johns but after a visit to Europe she left him and settled in New York City where she mixed with a group of radicals that lived in Greenwich Village. It is believed during this period she had an affair with Eugene O'Neill.
In 1917, Michael Gold, introduced her to Dorothy Day, a fellow journalist at the New York Call. The two women became close friends. Jim Forest, the author of Love is the Measure (1986), points out: "Peggy was an artist who lived in a large, wildly unkempt room and who was baffled at Dorothy's seeming immunity to sexual temptation."
Peggy Baird was very promiscuous and told Day that sex was "a barrier that kept men and women from fully understanding each other, and thus a barrier to be broken down". Peggy recruited Dorothy as a nude model. During one session she told her "you'll probably have a beautiful figure by the time you're thirty."
Baird was a member of the National Woman's Party and in November 1917, Baird was one of the 168 women arrested and jailed for "obstructing traffic". The women went on hunger strike and afraid that martyrs would be created, Woodrow Wilson ordered their release.
In 1919 Peggy Baird married Malcolm Cowley, who wrote poetry and book reviews for The Dial and the New York Evening Post. In 1921 the couple moved to France and Cowley continued his studies at the University of Montpellier. He also found work with avant-garde literary magazines such as Broom and Secession. While in Paris they became friendly with American expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.
Cowley returned to the United States in August 1923 and went to live in Greenwich Village where he became close friends with the poet Hart Crane. As well as writing poetry Cowley found work as an advertising copywriter with Sweet's Architectural Catalogue. He also translated seven books from French into English.
In 1929 Cowley published Blue Juniata, his first book of poems. Later that year he replaced Edmund Wilson as literary editor of the New Republic. By this time Baird had began an affair with Hart Crane. In 1931 she went to live with Crane in Mexico. This ended in tragedy when Crane committed suicide by jumping from the ship Orizaba on the way back to New York City on 27th April 1932.
According to Jim Forest, the author of Love is the Measure, in the 1960s Peggy Baird was received into the Catholic Church and went to live with Dorothy Day on her Catholic Worker farm: "Even when she was slowly dying of cancer, people were drawn to her just as they had been when she was a young woman in Greenwich Village. Day wrote in her diary: It is wonderful how young and old turn to Peggy, who is always calm, equable, unjudging."
He (Michael Gold) had been born on the Lower East Side of an Orthodox Jewish family and had "no politics except hunger" until 1914, when he strayed into a demonstration at Union Square and was knocked down by the police when they attacked the demonstrators. By the end of the day he bought a copy of The Masses, the Socialist monthly magazine, and began to gravitate into the Socialist Party. His book Jews Without Money, published in 1930, remains a classic novel of the urban poor. When the Communist Party was founded in the United States after the November Revolution in Russia, he became a member and later in his life was editor of the Communist paper, The Daily Worker.
He was twenty-three years old when Dorothy met him. He, too, had joined the paper's staff when he was eighteen. After midnight, when The Call had been turned over to the printers, they were among the reporters who went to Child's for pancakes and coffee. During a period when she was sick, it was he who came after work one day to bring her cough medicine, lemons and some whiskey, as well as an essay on Maxim Gorki, a Russian writer they both liked. The landlady came to her own conclusions about why Mike Gold was in Dorothy's room and called Grace Day to notify her of Dorothy's immoral conduct. Grace Day quickly came to visit and accepted Dorothy's reassurance that she and Mike were friends, not lovers.
It is not surprising that gossip about them continued to be plentiful. The two spent long hours walking the streets, sitting on piers along the waterfront on the East River, talking about life and sharing experiences about the passion that had brought them both to The Call - the sufferings of the poor. They both loved books and rejoiced to talk about their reading. Sometimes Mike broke into song - whether in Hebrew or Yiddish, Dorothy didn't know.
Another lifelong friendship that began in 1917 was with Peggy Baird, whom Dorothy met through Mike Gold. Peggy was an artist who lived in a large, wildly unkempt room and who was baffled at Dorothy's seeming immunity to sexual temptation. Peggy rejoiced to find lovers. She assured Dorothy that sex was "a barrier that kept men and women from fully understanding each other, and thus a barrier to be broken down." Love affairs, she said, were "incidents in an erotic education." Dorothy neither agreed nor disagreed, but was fascinated with Peggy's openness and sense of adventure. The fact that Peggy "sexed," as she called it, and Dorothv didn't wasn't a barrier between them. Peggy recruited Dorothy as a model. "Just strip off your clothes," she said to Dorothy after coffee was brewed one morning. "The room's warm enough. And while you're drinking your coffee, I'll sketch you." It struck Dorothy that she wouldn't dream of undressing before her mother or sister, and yet it was impossible to refuse Peggy's request. She slipped out of her clothes, curled up on the sofa, and comforted herself with a cigarette. "You'll probably have a beautiful figure by the time You're thirty," Peggy said reassuringly.
It was after the suppression of The Masses that I again went to Washington, this time with a group to picket the White House with the suffragists. It was mainly because my friend Peggy Baird was going that I decided one evening to accompany her. The women's party who had been picketing and serving jail sentences had been given very brutal treatment, and a committee to uphold the rights of political prisoners had been formed.
Hypolite Havel, who had been in so many jails in Europe, described to us the rights of political prisoners which he insisted had been upheld by the Czar himself in despotic Russia: the right to receive mail, books and visitors, to wear one's own clothes, to purchase extra food if needed, to see one's lawyer. The suffragists in Washington had been treated as ordinary prisoners, deprived of their own clothing, put in shops to work, and starved on the meager food of the prison. The group who left New York that night were prepared to go on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of the score or more women still in prison.
In Washington it was known by the press and police that the picket line that day would be unusually large so when we left the headquarters of the women's party the park across from the White House was crowded with spectators. Many police held back the crowd and kept the road clear for the women picketers.
They started out, two by two, with colored ribbons of purple and gold across the bosoms of their dresses and banners in their hands. There was a religious flavor about the silent proceedings. To get to the White House gates one had to walk halfway around the park. There were some cheers from women and indignation from men, who wanted to know if the President did not have enough to bother him, and in wartime too! By the time the third contingent of six women reached the gates - I was of this group - small boys were beginning to throw stones, and groups of soldiers and sailors appearing from the crowd were trying to wrest the banners from the hands of the women. The police arrived at once with a number of patrol wagons. I had to struggle for my banner too, with a red-faced young sailor, before a policeman took me by the arm and escorted me to the waiting police van. Our banners were carried, protruding from the back of the car, and we made a gay procession through the streets.
Bail had been provided for us and after our names and addresses were taken at the police station we were released. The trial was set for ten o'clock the next morning. When the thirty-five of us appeared, the judge pronounced us guilty and postponed the sentence.
Again that afternoon we picketed and again there was arrest, release on bail, trial and postponement. The tactics were then changed, and when we were arrested once more and taken to the Central Station, we refused to give bail and were put in the House of Detention for the night.
The facilities there were inadequate for so many prisoners. We had to sleep fifteen in a room meant for two, with cots cheek by jowl so that it was impossible to stir. The next morning we were all sentenced. Many of the women on receiving their sentences took the occasion to make speeches to the judge, who sat patiently though somewhat uncomfortably facing the righteous wrath of the thirty-five women.
The leader of the picketers received a sentence of six months, the older women were sentenced to fifteen days, and the rest of us to thirty days. We started our hunger strike right after receiving our sentences. The scant meal of weak coffee, oatmeal and bread was the last one we expected to have until our demands (for the rights of political prisoners) were granted or we were released. I was too excited to worry much about food. I was to find that one of the ugliness of jail life was its undertone of suppressed excitement and suspense. It was an ugly and a fearful suspense, not one of normal hope and expectation...
Finally, at four o'clock, things began to happen to us. Prison wagons were brought, wagons that had only ventilators along the top and were otherwise closed. Two of them sufficed to carry the prisoners to the jail. When they reached that barren institution on the outskirts of the city, backed by a cemetery and surrounded by dreary bare fields, there was another long halt in the proceedings. After a low argument at the entrance (we never heard what people were saying and that too was part of the torture), the police vans were turned away and started off in another direction.
Those women who had served sentence before knew that we were being taken to the workhouse, and many stories had been told of what the prisoners had suffered at the hands of the violent keeper there, a man named Whittaker. We were all afraid.
It had been completely black in the prison vans but when we were ushered by a number of policewomen into a waiting train which rolled out of station immediately, the lamps along the road had not yet been lit. It was the beginning of November, and I sat with my face pressed against the glass watching the blue twilight, pierced with the black shapes of many scrawny trees. Here and there lamps glowed in farmhouse windows. In the west the sky still held the radiance of the sun which faded gradually and left one with a terrible sense of desolation and loneliness. It was sadly beautiful at that time of night. I was glad for the company of my friend Peggy, and we tried to stay near each other so that we would not be separated later.
There was more waiting after we had been driven from the railroad station to the administration building of the workhouse. A matron tried to take our names and case histories, which all of us refused to give.
We waited there in the administration building, while the matron sat behind her desk and knitted. The spokeswoman for our group was an elderly woman from a socially prominent family in Philadelphia and she had asked to see Mr. Whittaker, the superintendent, before we were assigned to our cells. The matron paid no attention to her request but left us all standing, until of our own accord we took benches and chairs about the room. Some of the younger ones sat on the floor and leaned against the wall. We were beginning to be very tired.