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This Hometown Girl Radical Fought Many a Battle on the Soapbox


Back in 1917, a remarkable 7-year-old girl named Queen Silver mounted a soapbox in the so-called free speech zone of downtown Los Angeles--a stretch of Los Angeles Street between 1st and 2nd Streets--and delivered a rousing political address to the gathered crowd. At 12, she penned a pamphlet on evolution that came to national attention in the coverage of the Scopes "Monkey Trial." So notorious was the child radical that Cecil B. DeMille modeled the title character of his 1929 movie, "The Godless Girl," after her.

Queen Silver died only a couple of years ago, unremembered and uncelebrated. In "Queen Silver: The Godless Girl" (Prometheus Books: $28.95, 299 pages) Wendy McElroy, a friend and admirer who maintained a vigil at Silver's deathbed, attempts to rescue her friend from obscurity through an intimate biography and a selection of her writings on subjects such as witchcraft, the rights of children and "God's Place in Capitalism." McElroy brings both fondness and frankness to Silver's work, and "Queen Silver" is, by turns, blunt and outspoken, tender and poignant, sharply critical and deeply sympathetic.

Queen was born in 1910 to Grace Verne Silver, a "soapbox radical" who listed her occupation as "Socialist Lecturer," and the precocious little girl grew up in Los Angeles on the radical fringe of the labor movement. She never met her father and refused to name him: "That's classified information," she would say. But she was tutored by her mother in the art of radical oratory and labor organizing: "Queen Silver was literally born into the radicalism that would define her life in a dramatic ebb and flow until her death at 87: feminism, free-thought and Socialism."

McElroy clearly believes that Silver deserves respect as one of L.A.'s neglected luminaries, but the book also offers a surprising and illuminating glimpse of the city in an earlier, more colorful but not necessarily gentler era. Silver's mother supported the family by working as a movie extra, making the rounds from Burbank to Hollywood to Culver City, dressing up as a Polynesian islander or a Pilgrim matron or whatever other character then in demand. Later, Grace Silver opened the first Socialist bookstore in Los Angeles, and young Queen witnessed what the "red scare" of the 1920s really meant when members of the American Legion carried out midnight vigilante raids against the store.

"A truckload of books were taken out and burned," Silver later recalled, "not only socialist literature, but also scientific things by Darwin, fiction by Jack London and Mark Twain."

When her mother was arrested on charges of assault and battery after a fight broke out at one of her street corner speeches, Silver acted as defense counsel: "Modern Portia of 14 Fights for Mother" went a headline in the Los Angeles Evening Express. But the newspaper stories turned suddenly to titillation when, a year later, Silver eloped to Tijuana with a 50-year-old man and, soon afterward, sought an annulment.

"Queen's precocious sexuality should have come as no surprise," observes the author, "and not only because Queen was precocious in almost every other way." McElroy found her way to a couple of revealing photographs that were taken of Silver when she was only 10: "In both of them a naked Queen is standing in the bright sunlight of outdoors," explains McElroy. "In the first photograph, Queen is draped only with a feather boa. In the second, the boa is absent." And McElroy uncovered some flirtatious correspondence between a very young Queen and various older men: "The male admiration must have been heady stuff," she writes, "for an 11-year-old girl used to being praised primarily for her intellect."

By the mid-'30s, Silver was a young adult disillusioned with radical politics and "tired of being hungry." She worked at a series of jobs as a clerk typist, first at 20th Century Fox and later at the California Highway Patrol, but she persisted in the pursuit of controversy, contributing articles on "women's issues" for magazines with titles such as "Sexology," "Sex Digest" and "Sex Psychology." By 1972, when she retired from her final career as a court reporter, Silver was ready for a period of renewed activism in support of atheism, civil rights and free speech.

But Silver was no longer the firebrand she had been as a child, and we might wonder whether Mayor Tom Bradley and the Board of Library Commissioners fully understood whom they were honoring when they presented her with a gold-sealed certificate of appreciation in 1988 in recognition of her work on behalf of public libraries.

Still, as McElroy suggests, it was a fitting tribute for someone who was not yet 6 years old when she was issued her first library card at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and who made good use of the books in its collection to invent herself as a philosopher and a scientist, an agitator and a propagandist, a "girl wonder" and a "modern Portia."


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