Living with Ghosts

CHAIKIN, Phyllis
Photos Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

In 1992, my wife Jenny and I moved into a small but distinguished modernist dwelling called the Alexander House. In 1939 the architect, Harwell H. Harris, had built it for the Alexanders in Frank Lloyd Wright’s revolutionary “usonian” style, which was intended to provide a template for making good modern design accessible to ordinary people.  By the time we bought the house, the Alexanders were very frail and had left their once-shiny testament to post-depression American optimism in a dilapidated state.  In the interim it had been expertly restored by architectural realtors.

The house is located in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, an area which is proud of its long history of tolerance and activism, having provided a sanctuary for artists, dissidents and “alternative lifestyles” for several generations. It has the largest – and most colorful – gay community east of West Hollywood. In the 1950’s, however, the stakes were higher.

After the Great Depression, it seemed clear to many that the gaping chasm between rich and poor in this country was unconscionable and that the only rational response to self-evident iniquities in wealth and privilege was to strive to improve the circumstances of the less fortunate.  I had been familiar with this notion through my own family’s modest history of Jewish political activism.  The Alexanders heeded that call.  As Jewish communist activists, they lived at the epicenter of political dissent in Los Angeles. Freda and Herbert Alexander hosted political salons in mid-century modern houses and gathered with fellow true believers in a secluded corner of McArthur Park still known as Red Hill.

Dr. Alexander’s professional future as a history teacher at Los Angeles City College was placed in great jeopardy when the McCarthyite Tenney committee, created by the California State Senate in 1947, began investigating subversive influences in higher education and singled him out as a dangerous influence on the youth of the nation. The “Red Scare” reached even unto bohemian Silver Lake. As a student at nearby Marshall High School, Herbert’s only daughter Phyllis was bullied, ridiculed and ostracized when word of her parents’ politics became known in the community.

Phyllis’s husband Eugene Chaikin also came from a communist household in the neighborhood. Much later, when lawyers working for Jim Jones demanded full disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of any federal investigation of Peoples Temple, the only name that came up was that of Gene Chaikin, whose family had been under scrutiny for several years and whose father committed suicide in their house around the corner from ours in the late 1950s. As Phyllis noted in letters to her father from Jonestown, she joined Peoples Temple to honor the principles in which she had been raised.

None of this meant anything to Jenny and me when we moved to Silver Lake. I was a senior executive at a movie studio with a generous health plan, stock options and a lipstick-red sports car. The Alexanders had hosted earnest political salons under our roof; we threw catered show business parties with valet parkers. The lawyer who represented the “Hollywood Ten” against the blacklist lived three doors down and Charlie Chaplin’s wife Oona had been given sanctuary across the street in yet another striking modernist house after she and Chaplin were expelled from America for their politics. No wonder the older neighbors looked askance at the careerist yuppies in the Alexander House.

We had always known that a sad cache of letters existed somewhere in the house, but I think, deep down, we waved them off, unwilling to confront, not just an unimaginable grief, but the most grievous outcome of parenthood, which is being predeceased by one’s only child.  We had moved into the Alexander House to start a family of our own but continued to resist the challenge; we were not ready to make the commitment that the Alexanders had made, to jeopardize our freedom and material self-indulgence. Bill Clinton was president, the economy was booming and times were good.

Parenthood shifts one’s moral center of gravity. It challenges one’s core values and revises one’s notions of neighborhood, community and the future. In 1998, our son Nathan was born, his sister Lena in 2000. We had never known our neighbors until a mini baby-boom took place and exhausted parents pushing strollers started smiling empathetically at each other in the street. A peer group began to coalesce around the Los Feliz Jewish Community Center preschool. Two years later we all realized that, in Ivanhoe Elementary, we had one of the finest public schools in Los Angeles in the midst of our community. Knowledge of these things anchored us to this neighborhood, to this house.

This past February, Nathan had become a strapping nine-year-old with bright blue eyes and an inquisitive spirit, Lena a fine student with an indomitable personality. They are two years apart in age, just like the Alexanders’ grandchildren had been. They love their house, their school, their neighborhood. Then we found the letters in the basement. “What happened to that family, Daddy?”, they asked. “How did they all die, why? Was it painful, do you think? How old were the children? Did they want to die?” We talked to Nathan and Lena about the Alexanders and the appalling fate of their daughter, her husband and of Gail and David Chaikin, who were 17 and 15 years old when they died in the jungles of Guyana.

Entirely of his own initiative, Nathan told office personnel at his school about our discovery and asked if Phyllis Chaikin had attended Ivanhoe. She had. Neighbors shared anecdotes with us about the old couple, how Herbert Alexander collapsed one day at the mailbox and had to be half-carried back to the house.

In the course of our efforts to understand the Chaikins and to honor the Alexanders – to explain the demise of this family to our children as much as to ourselves – we met Peoples Temple survivors, defectors, scholars and their families. I have learned never to tolerate clichés about Kool-Aid, nor to dismiss as a cult the movement which Phyllis and Gene Chaikin joined in the hope of a better, more worthwhile world for themselves and their children. I have read the scholarly histories and the sensationalist, and, as many people have pointed out to me, we are now a small part of that narrative.

It took us 15 years to find the letters after buying the house. It’s as though the letters found us, not vice-versa. They taught us never to take our family’s happiness for granted and to cherish our children, for true contentment is both elusive and fragile. It must have eluded Herbert and Phyllis Alexander in the final 20 years of their lives, through no apparent fault of their own. There have been times when I have wondered, a little superstitiously, how we can have been so happy in this house with all the sadness that has existed here, yet there seem to be no restless spirits, and we have been happy indeed. We never met Herbert and Freda Alexander, but I like to think of this as their gift to us. Perhaps they have been gazing benignly at our little family from some Red Hill in the sky.

In a carbon copy of a letter to his daughter dated September 21st, 1977 and found amongst the correspondence in the briefcase from our basement, Herbert Alexander expresses his disapproval of Phyllis’s involvement in Peoples Temple and the couple’s sadness at being denied access to their grandchildren. He signs off, “For after all we do love you and the children more than any other persons. We shall continue to cherish you to our last day on earth. The peerless joy of raising you from childhood to youth is a unique life experience indeed. Your father and mother.”

(Barry Isaacson has written about his discovery for several publications. His article, “The Secret Letters of the Jonestown Death Cult,” appeared in the May 14, 2008 Spectator Magazine in London. He also has two articles in The LA Weekly: “From Silver Lake to Suicide” which appeared in the October 23, 2008 edition; and a follow-up piece, “Reliving Jonestown,” which was published on December 31, 2008. He may be reached at