Dorothy Day — An Interview with Kate Hennessy

By Dan Clendenin

The following interview comes from The Catholic Agitator (August 5, 2017). It explores the biography of Dorothy Day by her youngest grandchild, Kate Hennessy, called The World Will Be Saved By Beauty (2017).

For Dan’s review of this book, see here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/booknotes/1527-dorothy-day-the-world-will-be-saved-by-beauty-an-intimate-portrait-of-my-grandmother

Agitator: This is a beautiful book that you have written about Dorothy. However, it is a little painful for some who believe in the mythology and the hagiography of Dorothy Day. Could you comment?

Hennessy: Well, two things come to mind. One is, I think a lot of people have actually been greatly comforted by the fact that I have written about her, as you say, warts and all. I told the story as truthfully as I could, and certainly with a great sense of responsibility to get this story right. To me, it is a true story and it is an incredible testimony/testament to love, certainly between my mother and my grandmother. And, you know my grandmother would not have stood for it if I had written a book that did not do this as best I could, as honestly as I could. She had no patience for the hagiography. This is the book I had to write as my grandmother Dorothy Day’s granddaughter and my mother’s daughter.

Agitator: I know you spent a lot of time writing this book. What was it that compelled you to do it?

Hennessy: It was my mother. Not that she wanted me to write the story; she actually did not. My mother died in 2008, after she and I had been speaking of her mother and their relationship and of the Catholic Worker for quite some time. When my mother died, I realized that if I did not write this book, an incredibly important part of Dorothy Day’s story would be lost. And that is the story of her as a mother. You know, the birth of my mother was a huge event for my grandmother, incredibly important to her life. So I knew I had to do it.

Agitator: As you pointed out, this is really a book about a mother-daughter relationship. Were you ever angry with Dorothy for being such a difficult mother to your mother, Tamar?

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Kate Hennessy.

Hennessy: Of course not. I was twenty when Dorothy died, so I knew her as a child, a teenager, and as a young adult. She was who she was. My mother was who she was. Yet they had an incredibly loving relationship. I really cannot stress this point enough; they were very close. They spent a lot of time together and my grandmother spent a lot of time with us. And, as a child, there was a lot I did not know. It was only much later that my mother started speaking about their whole history. But even then, mothers and daughters certainly have their misunderstandings. I certainly was impatient with both of them at certain times. However, this is life, the human condition, making mistakes.

Agitator: It does seem to me as I read the book that Tamar felt intellectually disparaged by Dorothy, who insisted that she busy herself with the home arts and weaving, etc.

Hennessy: My mother was slow to talk and write as a child and I think people did not quite understand that she was incredibly intelligent; it was just that she learned differently. Learning difficulties at that time were not recognized. Therefore it was hard; schools at that time did not have the wherewithal to attend to her needs, and my grandmother just did not understand either. And also, it is a little complicated by the fact that my mother really loved the crafts, she loved weaving. So, she was not only pushed in that direction, she also leaned that way.

Agitator: I have a great deal of sympathy. I am dyslexic myself. I did not come into my own until I came to the Catholic Worker. I was very moved by your writing about your father David Hennessy and the early years of their marriage, when they moved from place to place and lived in a great deal of poverty. David was not really capable of taking care of a family.

Hennessy: I think you are absolutely correct. He really was not meant to have a family. It is a very complicated situation. Up until I was a teenager, we lived in poverty and it was quite difficult. My father was incredibly intelligent, self-educated, a deep reader and deep thinker, but he had his demons: he was an alcoholic and he was gay. And he was a devout Catholic, absolutely devout. He fought a lot of interior battles. Having a large family was a burden that he could not sustain.

Agitator: As an aside, how many children did David and Tamar have?

Hennessy: Nine. I am the youngest.

Agitator: The youngest and the family historian. It fell to you to do the work, and God bless you for it. David and Tamar eventually divorced. Was that a bitter relationship or a bitter divorce?

Hennessy: Actually, they never divorced. They were legally separated. In terms of bitterness, no, there was no bitterness whatsoever. And that was a real conscious effort on my mother’s part. She did not want us to grow up angry with him. She was very careful. She was amazing, on many levels, as she was basically left with nine children to raise. It was her decision to bring an end to the marriage and she did it because of him. He needed it for his mental health. He needed to be freed of this responsibility. He was a very difficult man, but she really understood what was going on with him and had great compassion for him. She said to me, “I did not want you kids growing up feeling angry towards him.”

Agitator: And how old were you when they separated?

Hennessy: One and a half years old.

Agitator: Did you have an ongoing relationship with David, your father?

Hennessy: We saw each other very rarely. I probably only saw him maybe a dozen times in my life. We had correspondence — letter correspondence. It was not a close relationship, but we kept in contact.

Agitator: What did your sisters and brothers think about you writing this book?

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Dorothy Day.

Hennessy: I have had nothing but tremendous support from them. When I first announced that I was going to write this book, they said, “Yes, yes. You have to do this!” They helped me as much as they could, and they were my first readers. It was really essential for me that they read the manuscript and comment on it. If they had wanted me to leave anything out, then I would have. It was so essential for me to have their support, and I do have it.

Agitator: There are many historical elements to the book that you clearly were not privy to. What materials did you use to write this book?

Hennessy: I certainly had my mother’s memories. I tried to keep notes over the years as we spoke. Of course, you know my grandmother was a prolific writer, so I read all of her writings, including her unedited diaries and her unedited letters. I am very fortunate that our family is full of writers. I had my father’s diaries and my mother also kept a diary, particularly around the time of my grandmother’s death. Lots of family letters and lots of family photographs. I believe I am very fortunate to have such a well-documented family.

Agitator: That does help, does is not? For me, one of the great revelations of the book was that after your grandfather’s death, Tamar found numerous love letters between Dorothy and Forster. What was the effect of that discovery?

Hennessy: It was extraordinary, especially for my mother. She was so grateful to find them because she could finally see and feel the love that was between them. Family to her was very important. She was an only child; her father was not there most of the time. She did have a good relationship with Forster, but she was with her mother most of the time. To hear of her mother’s love for her father in such an intimate way was hugely revealing for her.

Agitator: Sometimes it is said that people who have a great vocation and a gift to give the world are not the best parents. I am thinking of Gandhi and his kids here as well as Dorothy and Tamar. Do you have any reflections on that?

Hennessy: My mother learned from an early age that she would have to share her mother with many other people. And I think to any child that was less wise than my mother… I really cannot stress how extraordinary my mother was. How strong she was. She sacrificed a great deal and there were difficulties and some anger, but she understood and she loved the Catholic Worker. That was her life for many years and those years were treasured memories for her. I think families do make a sacrifice when you have a person such as my grandmother. However, that sacrifice is not always understood by others. For example, many people believe that because my grandmother was so active she did not have any role in family life. The fact is that she had an incredible role in our family life; she was always there for the most important events in our lives. She was up in Vermont every three months. She was on the phone with my mother practically every day. She helped all of us grandchildren at one time or other, either with school or travel. My mother always said that Dorothy was much more heroic when it came to family than were many other people.

Agitator: I want to turn for a moment to Dorothy. I was really touched by all the turmoil of the early farm, Easton Farm, and all the anger that was focused on Dorothy as a leadership figure. You say in the book that she would often just kick off and go on a speaking tour when things became too difficult.

Hennessy: That is absolutely true. When things got too hot at the Worker, she would head out. Stanley Vishnewski always had this quip: “Dorothy lives on buses; she created the Catholic Worker for the rest of us.” She never talked about it, but I know part of the difficulty was that she was a woman and many of the guys did not accept her as a leader. I know during the early years and during Easton that she believed herself in physical danger from several people. And I think, aside from that, leaders often get it in the neck. They make mistakes, and certainly my grandmother made mistakes, but as you know, being a lifelong Catholic Worker yourself, a lot of trouble happens. And she was the one who was blamed.

Agitator: I do understand! I knew Dorothy when she was 70 years old. Or pretty close to 70. She was sort of the grandmother and storyteller of the movement. But do you have a sense of whether there was a particular point in which Dorothy came into her own in the leadership of the Worker? Or did that never happen and is just part of the hagiography.

Hennessy: That is an interesting question. She was a natural leader and she drew people to her from the very first moment. She drew people to her when she was a teenager. She was just that kind of charismatic person. In terms of coming into her own, that is hard to define. She was always uncomfortable as leader, but I would say during the years I knew her, in the 1960s and 70s, she had a great deal of strength and wisdom that I suspect was very hard earned.

Agitator: Did you ever have a relationship with your grandfather Forster?

Hennessy: I would occasionally visit him in New York City, but we were both really quiet. Dorothy was the talker in our family. I cannot say I knew him well, but I did know him.

Agitator: At the time of Dorothy’s passing, it seemed as though Forster was there and having a pretty hard time with it. I believe I read that. Is that correct?

Hennessy: No, he was not there, but he would have been except my mother told him not to come. He had been coming over practically every day for the last couple of weeks of my grandmother’s life. They had been in quite close contact for a while as they were both aging and struggling with illness; they would talk to each other daily by phone. The last time he came over to Mary House was probably about three or four days before she died.

Agitator: Just moving on to a little more distant relationship — could you reflect on the impact, for better or worse, of Ammon Hennacy on Dorothy Day?

Hennessy: There was some good there. I believe it was Ammon who got everyone to protest the air raid drills, and he brought energy to the Catholic Worker at a time when my grandmother had been at it for a long time and she was tired. But he did not have a long-term influence on my grandmother. She understood him and knew that his flirtation with Catholicism was not real, even though she was highly disappointed when he left the church. He was a real character. We grew up with a lot of Ammon Hennacy stories.

Agitator: I am sure of that. You know, all of us who are Catholic Workers are “converts” in a sense. But you, to make an analogy, were a “cradle” Catholic Worker. You grew up from birth as a Catholic Worker. How do you relate to the CW these days?

Hennessy: I absolutely love it. You know, as a child we would spend as much time as we could at Tivoli Farm, and then when I became a teenager I would travel down to Mary House and St. Joe’s in Manhattan. From the very beginning I absolutely loved it and I certainly believe it is my second family. But while I have always been attracted to living at a Catholic Worker, I have not been quite able to do it. Maybe it is because I am the youngest of nine, but I have this great desire for privacy, personal space, and quiet.

Agitator: Now you and your husband Gary Jones are living at Canticle Farm in Oakland. Is it a Catholic Worker?

Hennessy: It is an urban farm in Oakland and it is definitely CW connected and inspired. It is not a house of hospitality and there is no community kitchen, though this is not to say it will not happen in the future. However, right now it is mainly focused on issues of ecology and restorative justice.

Agitator: I understand that your editor said that your original manuscript was too long and you ended up cutting your personal story out of the book. I believe there is a bit of a lack there. Would you be open to giving us a couple of highlights of your personal story? Did you go to college? Did you travel around the world?

Hennessy: Yes and yes. I actually did a lot of world traveling and worked in various places. I worked as a teacher in Guatemala and as an English teacher in India for Tibetan refugees. I have done a lot of traveling around Africa, Asia, and Tibet: I am actually quite a restless person. At university I studied community development, though I have never actually used that degree.

Agitator: What is your response to Dorothy’s current canonization process?

Hennessy: Mixed. I do not really know much of what makes a person an official “saint,” but there is no doubt in my mind that she was and is here with us for a very important reason. However, the canonization process is a very bureaucratic, canonical, set process. I cannot wrap my head around taking someone like my grandmother, who was so complex and full of paradox and complicated and putting her in this framework that is very rigid. The process of canonization is written up by a bunch of lawyers, as far as I can figure out, and there is such a disconnect in that for me. And of course there is another fear, which I am slowly letting go of, that is shared by many Catholic Workers — that she will be simplified, watered-down, her radicalism will be erased, and she will become a one-topic saint. Like, for example, becoming the anti-abortion saint.

Agitator: That was going to be my next question.

Hennessy: I think the danger is lessening. There are enough people saying: “No you cannot simplify her that way.” She had a lot to say on many, many levels and we have to listen to all of that. We are not truly listening to her if we put her into that small, narrow, safe mold. In a way, it is a kind of cheap grace when you look at everything she is asking us to do.

Agitator: I just received another book by you and photographer Vivian Cherry: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker: The Miracle of our Continuance. How did that come about?

Hennessy: The Vivian Cherry book came out first, in May 2016. It was a fabulous project and a total surprise too. To give a little background — she is a photographer, still alive and about to turn 97. She was invited by the Catholic magazine Jubilee in 1955 to go to the CW and do a photo essay. She spent quite some time at the Catholic Worker on Christie Street and at the two Worker farms in existence at the time: Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island and Mary Farm in upstate New York, and she did this incredible photo essay of the Worker at that time. Many of her photographs are iconic. She and I became friends and I believe in 2015 she told me she wanted to publish a book of photographs she had taken during the 1960s of my grandmother and the Catholic Worker. So we sat down together and brainstormed and came up with the idea of using excerpts from my grand mother’s columns to go alongside the photographs. It is sort of a blueprint for Catholic Workers. That project certainly was a real joy.

Agitator: Thank you for your time, Kate, and your great books.

Image credits: (1) Los Angeles Catholic Worker and (2) Wikipedia.org.

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