The typical American family of 1968 sitting back to watch the nightly news on their nineteen-inch televisions could be excused for sometimes gripping their armrests as events unfolded before them—for most in living color, but for plenty of others still on the familiar black-and-white sets rapidly going extinct. (I was eleven: we had a color TV!) The first seven months of that year was especially tumultuous.
There was January’s spectacular Tet Offensive across South Vietnam, which while ultimately unsuccessful yet stunned a nation still mostly deluded by assurances from Lyndon Johnson’s
In August, just days before the streets outside the arena hosting the Democratic National Convention deteriorated into violent battles between police and demonstrators that later set the stage for the famous trial of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of Yippies—members of the Youth International Party that specialized in pranks and street theatre— were placed under arrest by the Chicago police while in the process of nominating a pig named “Pigasus” for president. In addition to Pigasus, those taken into custody included Yippie organizer Jerry Rubin, folk singer Phil Ochs, and activist Stew Albert. Present but not detained was Judy Gumbo, Stew’s girlfriend and a feminist activist in her own right.
Known for their playful anarchy, many leaders of the New Left dismissed Yippies as “Groucho Marxists,” but for some reason the FBI, convinced they were violent insurrectionists intent on the overthrow of the United States government, became obsessed with the group, placing them on an intensive surveillance that lasted for years to come. A 1972 notation in Gumbo’s FBI files declared, without evidence, that she was “the most vicious, the most anti-American, the most anti-establishment, and the most dangerous to the internal security of the United States.” She was later to obtain copies of these files, which served as an enormously valuable diary of events of sorts for her (2022) memoir, Yippie Girl: Exploits in Protest and Defeating the FBI, a well-written if sometimes uneven account of her role in and around an organization at the vanguard of the potent political radicalism that swept the country in the late-sixties and early-seventies.
Born Judy Clavir in Toronto, Canada, she grew up a so-called “red diaper baby,” the child of rigidly ideological pro-Soviet communists. She married young and briefly to actor David Hemblen and then fled his unfaithfulness to start a new life in Berkeley, California in the fall of 1967, in the heyday of the emerging counterculture, and soon fell in with activists who ran in the same circles with new boyfriend Stew Albert. Albert’s best friends were Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Yippie founder Jerry Rubin. She squirmed when Cleaver referred to her as “Mrs. Stew,” insisting upon her own identity, until one day Eldridge playfully dubbed her “Gumbo”—since “gumbo goes with stew.” Ever after she was known as Judy Gumbo.
Gumbo took a job writing copy for a local newspaper, while becoming more deeply immersed in activism as a full-fledged member of the Yippies. As such, those in her immediate orbit were some of the most consequential members of the antiwar and Black Power movements, which sometimes overlapped, including Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Krassner, Phil Ochs, William Kunstler, David Dellinger, Timothy Leary, Kathleen Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. She describes the often-immature jockeying for leadership that occurred between rivals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, which also underscored her frustration in general with ostensibly enlightened left-wing radicals who nevertheless casually asserted male dominance in every arena—and fueled her increasingly more strident brand of feminism. She personalized the Yippie exhortation to “rise up and abandon the creeping meatball”—which means to conquer fear by turning it into an act of defiance and deliberately doing exactly what you most fear—by leaving her insecurities behind, as well as her reliance on other people, to grow into an assertive take-no-prisoners independent feminist woman with no regrets. How she achieves this is the journey motif of her life and this memoir.
Gumbo’s behind-the-scenes anecdotes culled from years of close contact with such a wide assortment of sixties notables is the most valuable part of Yippie Girl. There is no doubt that her ability to consult her FBI files—even if these contained wild exaggerations about her character and her activities—refreshed her memories of those days, more than a half century past, which lends authenticity to the book as a kind of primary source for life among Yippies, Panthers, and fellow revolutionaries of the time. And she successfully puts you in the front seat, with her, as she takes you on a tour of significant moments in the movement and in its immediate periphery in Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Her style, if not elegant, is highly readable, which is an accomplishment for any author that merits mention in a review of their work.
The weakest part of the book is her unstated insistence on making herself the main character in every situation, which betrays an uncomfortable narcissism that the reader suspects had negative consequences in virtually all of her relationships with both allies and adversaries. Yes, it is her memoir. Yes, her significance in the movement deserves—and has to some degree been denied by history—the kind of notoriety accorded to what after all became household names like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But the reality is that she was never in a top leadership role. She was not arrested with Pigasus. She was not put on trial with the Chicago 7. You can detect in the narrative that she wishes she was.
This aspect of her personality makes her a less sympathetic figure than she should be as a committed activist tirelessly promoting peace and equality while being unfairly hounded by the FBI. But she carries something else unpleasant around with her that is unnerving: an allegiance to her cause and herself that boasts a kind of ruthless naïveté that rejects correction when challenged either by reality or morality. She condemns Cleaver’s infidelity to his wife, but abandons Stew for a series of random affairs, most notably with a North Vietnamese diplomat who happens to be married. She personally eschews violence, but cheers the Capitol bombing by the Weathermen, domestic terrorists who splintered from the former (SDS) Students for a Democratic Society.
To oppose the unjust U.S. intervention in Vietnam and decry the millions of lives lost across Southeast Asia was certainly an honorable cause, worthy of respect, then and now. But this red diaper baby never grew up: her vision of the just and righteous was distinguished by her admiration of oppressive, totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba—and North Vietnam. Like too many in the antiwar movement, opposition to Washington’s involvement in the Vietnam War strangely morphed into a distorted veneration for Hanoi. There may indeed have been much to condemn about the America of that era in the realm of militarism, imperialism, and inequality, but that hardly justified—then or now—championing communist dictatorships on the other side known for regimes marked by repression and sometimes even terror.
Gumbo visited most of these repressive states that she supported, including North Vietnam. She reveals that while there she settled into the seat of a Russian anti-antiaircraft machine gun much like the one Jane Fonda later sat in. Fonda, branded a traitor by the right, later lamented that move, and publicly admitted it. Gumbo will have none of it: “I have never regretted looking through those gun sights,” she proudly asserts [p203]. She still celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, while ignoring its aftermath. Her stubborn allegiance to ideology over humanity, and her utter inability to evolve as a person further points to her inherent narcissism. She is never wrong. She is always right. Just ask her, she’ll tell you so.
Yippie Girl also lacks a greater context that would make it more accessible to a wider audience. The author assumes the reader is well aware of the climate of extremism that often characterized the United States in the sixties and seventies—like the litany of news events of the first half of 1968 that opened this review—when in fact for most Americans today those days likely seem like accounts from another planet in another dimension. I would have loved to see Gumbo write a bigger book that wasn’t just about her and her community. At the same time, if you are a junkie for American political life back in the day when today’s polarization seems tame by comparison, and youth activism ruled, I would recommend you read Gumbo’s book. I suspect that whether you end up liking or detesting her in the end, she will still crave the attention.
NOTE: This book was obtained as part of an Early Reviewers program