Queen Silver

(December 13, 1910 - January 7, 1998, L.A.)

To the legendary film producer Cecil B. DeMille, she was "the Godless Girl" in a Hollywood movie (1929) of that title which was modeled on her young life. For a teenager with the unlikely name of Queen Silver, the film was just one more in a continuing series of adventures. Queen had been born at the cusp of a social revolution that ushered in women's equality, world wars, the labor movement, and increased governmental repression of dissent. She helped to create the independence that some of us now carelessly view as the status quo. She was also my best friend.

Queen was born into radicalism. She attended her first political rally at six days of age. There, her mother, Grace Verne Silver, stood at the podium to denounce the laws and mores that restricted labor -- in particular, the labor of women. Indeed, the fiery Grace had halted an intensive lecture tour only long enough to give birth. Political agitation was a tradition for the Silver women. Grace's mother, Azuba, had lost her health -- and eventually her life -- from working sixteen to eighteen hours a day in cotton mills from the age of eight. Azuba became a vocal opponent of child labor. Queen delighted in introducing herself as "a second generation freethinker [atheist], a third generation feminist, and directly descended from framers of the Constitution."

At eight years old -- and already a veteran speaker at the Free Speech Zone on Los Angeles St. -- the diminutive Queen stunned Los Angeles crowds by delivering a series of six lectures sponsored by the London Society of Science. The subjects ranged from Darwinian evolution to Einstein's then new theory of relativity. The internationally acclaimed botanist Luther Burbank praised one of her presentations as the best he had heard on the topic. In announcing an upcoming lecture, The Los Angeles Recorder (December 24, 1919) wrote, "A good share [of the speech]...will be extemporaneously delivered. She has already traveled 50,000 miles in work on the stage and lecture platform." Queen's lectures drew hundreds of people; hundreds more were turned away at the door.

Preaching evolution, "The Girl Scientist" became a major voice for the separation of church and state. Her most famous lecture (and pamphlet) was entitled, "Evolution, From Monkey to Bryan" -- Bryan being the famous prosecutor in the *Scopes Monkey Trial.* (There, in Tennessee, a high school teacher was tried for teaching evolution.) The young Queen challenged Bryan to public debate. He declined to reply, but her well-publicized taunts resulted in national notoriety. Her pamphlet was translated into various languages, including Yiddish and Esperanto.

Grace's was a strong presence behind the scenes but, sometimes, she assumed center stage. For example, in late 1925, Grace physically attacked an evangelist who made unflattering comments about Queen. For several weeks, he and Queen had been verbally slugging it out on adjacent soapboxes. When Grace was arrested for assault and battery, headlines in the Los Angeles Evening Express (November 7, 1925) declared, "Modern Portia of 14 Fights for Mother Before Court." Queen defended Grace in criminal court, and won.

Meanwhile, Queen Silver's Magazine (1923-1931) -- a periodical she published and edited -- showcased the teenager's lectures and attracted over 5,000 subscribers worldwide. Best-selling freethought author William Smith Bryan (Bible Stories) wrote to his young protege, "Your talent belongs to the world, and there is no telling the amount of good that you may be able to accomplish if you should live to a reasonable old age." Queen lived to be eighty-seven, but she was silenced by circumstances beyond her control.

She and Grace had been active in the early labor movement, especially in the left-leaning I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World). When the Russian Revolution rippled panic through America, deputized members of the *American Legion* -- a patriotic veterans association -- began to attend labor meetings. At a given signal, they performed a 'citizen's arrest' on the persons sitting to either side of them.

Queen explained what happened next: "[T]he Merchants and Manufacturers Association...was the group maintaining 'the files.'... When radicals were arrested, they were usually not taken...to the police department. They were taken to the Merchants and Manufacturers Association. On one occasion, they showed my mother her file.... They had everything from the time she had left the farm, to her speaking on Boston Common and every organization she'd ever spoken for and, I suppose, every man she'd been friendly with."

Grace always pressed carfare and "a safe address" into Queen's hand before meetings. At a hint of trouble, she was to flee and ask "anyone but a policeman" for directions. One child was not lucky enough to get away in time. A man who had come to break up the meeting picked the child up and lowered him wait-deep into a cauldron of scalding coffee. At another meeting, a child was killed.

Queen also witnessed the destruction of Grace's bookstore -- the first socialist bookstore in Los Angeles. It was "raided three times by the Legion" while the police stood and watched. Queen told me, "a truckload of books were taken out and burned, not only socialist literature but also scientific things by Darwin and Haeckel, fiction by Jack London and Mark Twain..." The store closed.

Confronted by Grace's deteriorating health and increased government repression, Queen made a difficult decision. In the late 1930's, the 'Girl Wonder' became a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Without complaint, she worked days and attended night classes to get her high school diploma and to boost her shorthand to the 210 words a minute that allowed her to become one of the first woman hearing reporters in California. She withdrew politically for decades, but Queen never abandoned the "prime social principle" of "harming no one." For example, during World War II when it became clear that internment of Japanese-Americans was imminent, she violated DMV rules to rush their paperwork so vehicles could be sold quickly. When the L.A. schools gave up on several Hispanic children, she and Grace tutored them at night in basic language and math skills.

Grace died in 1972. Queen was both devastated and released. After experiencing what she termed "a nervous breakdown," she plunged back into women's rights and the First Amendment. Privately, she lived her principles. I vividly remember riding with her on a bus in which an old fellow was haranguing a well-meaning driver. Queen stood up and loudly proclaimed, "You are the type of old person who gives old people a bad name!" She sat down to applause. On a more public level, she donned her "uniform": a wig, a hat with a matching skirt and jacket, an empty purse for snatchers, and an underarm pouch for valuables. Day after day, she rode buses to the American Civil Liberties Union (where she sat on committees until her death), to deliver lectures, to preside at meetings, or to "woman the literature table that she set up on Venice Beach, California every Sunday.

Grace once wrote, "I like to think what a century of honest thinking and brave living, particularly by women, could accomplish." Perhaps we could produce a generation of women who can say -- as Queen said to me shortly before her death -- "I have never been ashamed of anything I've done."