by Andy Piascik
Bert Gilden was born in Los Angeles in 1915 and moved to Bridgeport with his family when he was a young boy. He graduated from Central High School in 1932 and then from Brown University in 1936.
Katya Alpert Gilden was born in 1914 in Bangor Maine. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1935 and was the first woman to publish in the Harvard Advocate. The couple met, married and settled in Bridgeport in the 1940’s. At some point both joined the Communist Party.
The Gildens embarked on a joint literary career and co-authored articles for Collier’s, Liberty and other magazines. Bert also worked in a number of factories and was involved in workplace organizing and union activities. He also served as the executive director of the People’s Party, the Connecticut chapter of the Progressive Party, and ran for office on its ticket. Katya gave birth to three sons in the 1950’s and the couple moved to ever larger apartments as their family grew.
When the Gildens began work in the 1960’s on a novel based on their experiences in Bridgeport, they had achieved success with another novel, Hurry Sundown. In addition to sales in excess of 300,000 copies, the couple sold the movie rights for Hurry Sundown to Paramount Pictures for a reported $800,000. The movie was directed by Otto Preminger and featured Jane Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Diahann Carroll and Faye Dunaway.
The Gildens truly did work in tandem. A profile in Life magazine published during the time they were working on Between the Hills and the Sea includes a photo of the couple in the room where they worked which they referred to as their “writing center.” The accompanying text states that the couple lived a Spartan life style for years as they spent 12 hours a day writing, while another photo shows them outside the 16-room home just over the Bridgeport line on Algonquin Road in Fairfield, the fruits of the proceeds from Hurry Sundown.
Between the Hills and the Sea is set in the fictitious Connecticut industrial city of Shoreham in 1956. Throughout, the novel shifts between 1956 and the beginnings of the romance between the story’s protagonists, Priscilla and Michael “Mish” Lunin, in 1946. Mish is a production worker at United Vacuum, or UV, caught up in union factionalism and the workers’ resistance to an increasingly aggressive factory management. Priscilla is raising the couple’s children while organizing tenants at the housing project where the family lives and assisting Mish in his union activities.
Anyone reading Between the Hills and the Sea who has some inkling that the story is based on Bridgeport is likely to recognize and easily identify certain people and places in the book. The massive factory where Mish works, UV, for example, is drawn on the General Electric plant on Boston Avenue. The Bridgeport GE plant was at its apex during the time covered in the novel, with in excess of 10,000 workers. It was also wracked by intense infighting within the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of the militant CIO unions founded in the 1930’s.
The descriptions of work at UV are one of the book’s strongest features. In those sections, the reader gets a very strong sense of the unrelenting pressure of factory life as the company uses every means to get workers to produce more, with little regard for their well-being and no intention of willingly compensating them accordingly. Compounding matters is the weak, collaborationist inclination of a part of the leadership of the Electrical Workers International Union, which is intent on proving its loyalty and not on defending workers. The Gildens had lived through the purge of the radical unions from the CIO and the ouster of the UE from GE (Bert had worked at GE, Singer and other shops in Bridgeport and been a member of the UE), and they vividly bring to life the destructive impact the anti-communist witch hunts had in curtailing the rights of workers in the workplace and negating any chance they had of increasing their control of their work.
There are a number of references to Mayor Rod Kearnsey, who bears a strong resemblance to Jasper McLevy. Like Mc Levy, Kearnsey came out of the labor movement and became mayor in the 1930’s. And like McLevy, he is seen by those on the Left like the Lunins as having betrayed the working class. The Tidal Flats Park housing project where Mish and Priscilla live also bear some resemblance to Yellow Mill Village (later known as Father Panik Village).
In addition to the Bridgeport background, Between the Hills and the Sea is about the strains in Mish and Priscilla’s marriage. Born on a picket line during the working class upsurge of 1946, their relationship has moved from the heady idealism of a radical movement on the rise to the harsh chill of Cold War repression. It is more than a question of politics, of course; the Lunins experience the inter-personal difficulties that most couples go through. Still, the shattered dreams of an earlier time and the very real political pressures of the era are a major factor in their marital difficulties, and the way they occasionally tear at each other’s vulnerabilities rings true even as it sometimes makes for difficult reading.
Bert Gilden died in 1971 at age 55 just months before Between the Hills and the Sea was published. Katya died in 1991, age 77. In Between the Hills and the Sea, they eschewed the glamor of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for the gritty, blue collar city of Bridgeport. They depicted Bridgeport as only those who lived it from inside-out and the bottom-up can, with the degrading nature of factory work, the omnipresent nastiness of the city dump and the not quite so Wonder Bread-wonderful nature of life in the 1950’s. In so doing, they captured an era that, while certainly gone, nonetheless provides important insights about who and where we are these many years later.