The Strange Story Of The Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'

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NPR's Elizabeth Blair has the story of Abel Meeropol, a man with two extraordinary life stories. He wrote the song "Strange Fruit" about lynching that became one of the most important songs of the 20th century AND he and his wife adopted the two boys who were orphaned when their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed in 1953. (This story initially aired on Sept. 5, 2012, on Morning Edition.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. The song "Strange Fruit" has been recorded by many musicians, but it belongs to Billie Holiday. She made it famous but she did not write it. The man who did did not have a big career as a songwriter but he did have an amazing life story, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The man is Abel Meeropol and he really has two stories. They both begin at a public high school in the Bronx.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

BLAIR: Dewitt Clinton is not your average high school. James Baldwin went there. So did Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon and Ralph Lauren. That's just a handful of the famous people who attended the school. Abel Meeropol - who's not famous - graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921 and then taught there for 17 years.

GERARD PELLISON: He taught English and he loved to write poetry.

BLAIR: Gerard Pellison also taught at Dewitt Clinton. He wrote a book about the school called "The Castle on the Parkway." He says Abel Meeropol was an activist.

PELLISON: And he was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America. And seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.

BLAIR: Meeropol once said that photograph haunted him for days. So, he wrote a poem about it that first appeared in a teacher's union publication. He was also an amateur composer, so he set it to music. He played it for a club owner who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday. When she decided to sing "Strange Fruit," the song reached millions of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees, very strange fruit...

BLAIR: The lyrics never mentioned lynching, but the metaphor is painfully clear. The strange fruit is the lynched body hanging from a tree.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...

BLAIR: Time magazine named it the Song of the Century in 1999. The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. It's been recorded dozens of times. Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an instrumental version, with Miller playing bass clarinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BLAIR: Marcus Miller says he was surprised to find out that "Strange Fruit" was written by a white Jewish guy from the Bronx. Miller says the song took extraordinary courage for both Meeropol and Billie Holiday.

MARCUS MILLER: The '60s hadn't happened yet. Things like that just weren't talked about. They certainly weren't sung about.

BLAIR: New York lawmakers didn't like it. In 1940, Abel Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not, but, like many New York teachers in his day, Abel Meeropol was a communist. David Margolick wrote a history of "Strange Fruit."

DAVID MARGOLICK: There are a million reasons to disparage communism now, but American communism, one of the points that it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early.

BLAIR: Abel Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton and eventually he quit the Communist Party. And that brings us to the second part of his story. It begins with the pseudonym he used for his songs and poetry. Lewis Allan was a very personal choice.

ROBERT MEEROPOL: Abel Meeropol's pen name, Lewis Allan, were the names of their children who were, you know, were stillborn, who never lived.

BLAIR: That's Robert Meeropol. He and his brother Michael were adopted by Abel and his wife Anne Meeropol after the boys' parents were executed in 1953.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg will die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison tonight.

BLAIR: So, the same man who wrote "Strange Fruit" is the same man who adopted the orphaned sons of a couple who were executed by the government. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs had also been communists. Their trial and execution were serious national news, but also had something of a salacious element, given that the Rosenbergs were a married couple.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Four times today atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appealed their sentence of death, and four times they were unsuccessful. They will be executed tonight, probably within the next half-hour - the first husband and wife to die in the electric chair.

BLAIR: The Rosenbergs' sons were six and 10. There are news photographs of the boys wearing suits visiting their parents in prison. Author David Margolick:

MARGOLICK: There is this image that I had in my mind of the two Rosenberg boys at Sing Sing visiting their parents and with Emmanuel Block, the parents' lawyer. And there are these little boys and they're wearing these caps. And they look so young and they look so vulnerable. And it's really a very, very poignant image.

BLAIR: In the months following their parents' execution, Robert Meeropol says it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or communism. Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

MEEROPOL: One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted. First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a six-year-old, was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games. And he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling.

BLAIR: They also played around with a tape recorder. This is from the mid-1950s, not long after they'd been adopted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

MEEROPOL: Now, folks, we will have Abel say us a few words.

ABEL MEEROPOL: (Made-up language spoken)

MEEROPOL: Thank you, Abel. That was a very nice speech.

BLAIR: There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote "Strange Fruit" to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal.

MEEROPOL: He was incredibly soft-hearted.

BLAIR: Robert Meeropol says growing up they had an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard that would drop lots of seedlings every year.

MEEROPOL: I was the official lawn mower and I was going to mow over them. And he said, oh no, you can't kill the seedlings. I said what are you going to do with them, dad? There are dozens of them. Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house - and there were hundreds of them. But he couldn't bring himself to just kill them. It's just something he couldn't do.

BLAIR: Abel Meeropol died in 1986. His sons Robert and Michael Meeropol both became college professors and they're both involved in social issues. Robert founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children. He also says he still finds himself unable to kill things in his own garden. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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