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Blood, Sweat & Rockets: The Other Side of Frank Malina
LA Made Season 1: Blood, Sweat & Rockets Square
Episode 3
30:39
Blood, Sweat & Rockets: The Other Side of Frank Malina
Frank Malina is wracked with inner conflict over working for the military. His calls for scientific advancement for the purpose of bettering humanity fall on deaf ears, which leads him to embrace a political philosophy that the US government is increasingly hostile towards.

M. G. Lord 0:00

[audio clip] [ambi rustling] [mumbling] I'm just thinking what on earth is that junk? [duck under]

M. G. Lord 0:06

When I first started working on this podcast, I took a look through all my old research from my book, AstroTurf: The Private Life of Rocket Science. I wanted to see if I could find anything useful.

M. G. Lord 0:18

[audio clip] [ambi rustling] Oh, this is also um- I think this is a treatment for a movie that he wrote. Oh and this, all these yellow ones, I think must be um, are Malina. [duck under]

M. G. Lord 0:31

I came across a picture of myself from when I visited Frank Malina's home in France. It was 1999. He had died in 1981, but his wife, Marjorie Duckworth Malina, was kind enough to show me around.

M. G. Lord 0:45

[audio clip] [papers rustling] This one's a tiny bit. [laughs] This is Frank Malina's office in Paris with um, you know, his magazine was eventually called Leonardo's, so it's under this giant self-portrait or, you know, poster-sized uh, reproduction of Leonardo's portrait of himself. And it's, well basically it, it looks about as cluttered as my office where you're standing now, and it looks like I'm ripping something off, but in fact, I was merely you know, looking through material in his office. [duck under]

M. G. Lord 1:20

Looking at this picture of myself all these years ago, in my existentialist wannabe leather jacket, amid dog-eared notebooks, brushes, and paint tubes, seemingly unaltered since his death, it struck me how many similarities there are between Malina and Leonardo da Vinci. We know from his letters that Malina fancied himself quite the Renaissance man and intentionally curated his correspondence so as to appear that way in history. [music in] Scientist, artist, musician, creator of weapons. It's no wonder he chose to have Leonardo gazing down at him all those years, watching him work. The life of Frank Malina essentially has two phases, two sides. There's the day to day life of the engineer- rocketry research, all the volatile experiments. And then there's the other part. I call it the idealist side. The man who's got ideas about people and society that extend beyond campus, that maybe he doesn't share with everybody in the lab. Ideas about principles and beliefs, how the world can and even should be made better. Ideas that'll get Malina into a lot more trouble down the road than any explosions at Caltech. I'm M.G. Lord. This is season one of LA Made: Blood, Sweat, and Rockets. [music swells] [music out]

M. G. Lord 2:57

[music in] Let's start with the first Malina, the scientist. Here's Fraser MacDonald, lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and author of Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket.

Fraser MacDonald 3:17

Malina's childhood, I think, is happy. He emerges as this quite ambitious, clever, you know, gifted young person. But he is also, shows evidence of being a bit of a free spirit. It's hard to know where that ambition comes from. I think he is- He draws a lot from his experience of actually spending time in Moravia. So between the ages of seven and twelve, um, Frank Malina and his family went back to Moravia, and then came back again to Brenham, Texas. And I think that gives him a more international perspective on the world. And he recognizes the world's a bigger, bigger place than Brenham.

M. G. Lord 3:59

Not only bigger than Brenham, or Texas, or even the United States. [music out] Perhaps bigger than what's terrestrially known.

Mory Gharib 4:07

Frank Malina actually, he was an artist. And this is actually to me, is a very intriguing part of it.

M. G. Lord 4:15

That's Mory Gharib, the Chair of the Aerospace Department at Caltech.

Mory Gharib 4:20

And I think that's what von K·rm·n saw. Saw a very young, very energetic, kind of visionary in own sake, an artist that could see beyond just no solid lines of electron- the engineering, you know, than uh, rocketry and see more than that. So he would see the future and at eh, that, I think that was the key for von K·rm·n trusting, you know, the Frank Malina.

M. G. Lord 4:46

So let's hold here for a minute. Von K·rm·n is Theodore von K·rm·n from Austria-Hungary, at the time director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech, aka GALCIT. Von K·rm·n is legitimately an engineering genius. He'll be known as one of the 20th century's greatest contributors to aerospace, if not the greatest. And Malina is perhaps his most talented graduate student.

Frank Malina 5:16

[audio clip- Oral History, Part 1] He was, became for me, sort of my second father.

M. G. Lord 5:20

That's Malina himself, from a conversation he had with historian Mary Terrall in 1978.

Frank Malina 5:26

[audio clip continues] I don't think we ever uh, had uh, any what you might say major disagreement. We didn't always see eye to eye on everything. But it was an extremely congenial uh, type of relationship.

Fraser MacDonald 5:40

Malina quite commonly refers to von K·rm·n as his second father, which frankly, that's an odd thing to say. Malina has a father back in uh, you know, back in Brenham.

M. G. Lord 5:51

Fraser MacDonald again.

Fraser MacDonald 5:53

But it says something about the nature of the dynamic between von K·rm·n and, and Malina which is [music in] emotionally interdependent, as well as being academically productive.

M. G. Lord 6:06

Now, von K·rm·n is a big deal in Pasadena, and Malina quickly benefits from being brought into his circle.

Fraser MacDonald 6:14

Von K·rm·n is notorious for throwing the most incredible parties where you would have all sorts of, you know, actors and theater people, musicians, uh writers, of course, absolute A list of scientists, you know, he knew Einstein. And so, Frank Malina tastes this. He experiences this firsthand, and it just opens a whole different kind of horizon of possibility uh, for him.

M. G. Lord 6:39

Among the more significant people von K·rm·n introduces Malina to is Liljan Darcourt. She's 17, a young art student born of French immigrants. She and Malina meet at a formal dance. [music out]

Liljan Wunderman 6:52

[audio clip] [music plays] But I certainly was not looking to get married. However, my parents fell in love with Frank. That was easy. He was a very nice, this was a very nice person as I told you.

M. G. Lord 7:05

That's Liljan Darcourt speaking. I interviewed her in 1999, by which time she was an accomplished abstract artist who used the name Jan Wunderman.

Liljan Wunderman 7:15

[audio clip continues] And then Frank wanted to get married almost right away. And I said, "Hey, hold it a minute," you know, "I'm, I'm just getting to be 18 years old. I don't know if I really want it. I'm in art school. I want to finish that." So then, so he said, "I'll give you a year." And uh, to tell you the truth, when I think back on it, we did get married wh- when I was 18, 1939. We married at von K·rm·n's and Pipo's house and uh, it was all very exciting and so on.

M. G. Lord 7:48

I spent several hours with Wunderman in New York, recording these conversations as part of my research for my book. So that other voice you'll hear, the Alvin and the Chipmunks voice, is mine. If you can believe it. I cringe when I hear it.

Liljan Wunderman 8:05

[audio clip continues] Frank had everything planned. That was one thing about him. He had everything planned, including a five year plan about his life. He was gonna be married. He was gonna have his PhD. He was going to accomplish this, he was gonna do that. He was I would say, kind of rigid with a nice, beautiful sense of humor, however. [M.G. Lord speaks in background]

M. G. Lord 8:24

I asked Wunderman to help me picture a typical social evening. Not one of von K·rm·n's big to-dos, but just an evening at their house, the one she shared with Malina, when some of the Suicide Squad would drop by.

Liljan Wunderman 8:38

[audio clip] They used to play a thing called Kriegspiel, which was even worse [M.G. Lord: How do you spell that?] than chess. K, R, I, E, G, S, P-

M. G. Lord 8:46

[audio clip] I, E, L. I mean- Yeah, war games. Kriegspiel.

Liljan Wunderman 8:50

[audio clip] Where they turn their backs to each other, and each one has a board, and they announce their play, and then the guy, the other person has to remember it.

M. G. Lord 9:00

[audio clip] Also has to remember the characters are? Oh my gosh.

Liljan Wunderman 9:03

[audio clip] Yeah, right. That was what they loved to play. There were always two of them playing. And then Tsien would be in the corner playing his little recorder.

M. G. Lord 9:15

Kriegspiel. Blind chess. It's as ludicrously difficult as it sounds, [laughs] and they're playing it to blow off steam. So that was a relaxing evening at home. [music in] The rest of the time, nearly all the time, newly married Malina is nose to the grindstone at work. Here's MacDonald again.

Fraser MacDonald 9:35

He is out working in the lab all hours. And, and it's uh, it's actually, there's just not enough hours in the day to make it all work. Uh, uh, and part of the early problem is that he's got very uncertain funding. There is no funding at the beginning. So the problem of work and, um, and being workaholic is, is, it starts early. But, you know, Malina is a very very driven person.

M. G. Lord 10:00

That drive means his new marriage, like much of Malina's life, is quickly under strain. Because even when the U.S. military started loosening the purse strings, Malina's stress only increased and the same for the tension in their marriage. It's something Wunderman and I talked about at length. [music out]

Liljan Wunderman 10:19

[audio clip] Finally when the war came, there was another incentive of getting these things really working. It was very, very [M.G. Lord: Right.] important.

M. G. Lord 10:27

She's referring to the JATOs, the jet-assisted takeoff engines that Malina and Parsons and the rest of them had sold to the army.

Liljan Wunderman 10:35

[audio clip] So I tried to tell him I was very unhappy. "Well, I can't deal with that now. You'll have to wait until the war is over." I thought that was kind of awful. But he was probably right at the time.

M. G. Lord 10:48

[audio clip] Yeah. Could you talk a little bit about Frank and women?

Liljan Wunderman 10:51

[audio clip] No, Frank uh, um, voiced the opinion of equality for women and all of that, but I don't think he was altogether willing to pay the price to have it be so. For instance, when I was going to art school, he thought that was just fine, you know, great, and I should continue. And as I told you, though, what I found out was that while I was going to art school, I would also be taking on a great many chores in the house with uh-

M. G. Lord 11:25

[audio clip] So it wasn't like an even distribution of housework?

Liljan Wunderman 11:30

[audio clip] Oh, God no. Are you kidding? [laughs] Not at all, my dear. But then he was working very hard. [M.G. Lord: Right.] You have to understand that uh, he, he was very busy. I mean, expect this man to be washing dishes or something. [M.G. Lord: Right.] That, and then going shopping, I had to go shopping, marketing, every day after school when it was dark, and, and I was exhausted. As a matter of fact, at the end of three years uh, I really became very ill. And uh, it was just too much. We, we would, we would have to- For instance, he would say to me, "We have to go to my father's tonight." Now that was at least once a week if not sometimes twice a week.

M. G. Lord 12:12

To be clear, Malina is referring to von K·rm·n here, not his actual father in Texas. Von K·rm·n, in Pasadena, was the surrogate mentor, surrogate father, surrogate source of inspiration.

M. G. Lord 12:25

[audio clip] So he was, von Kaman was very social?

Liljan Wunderman 12:28

[audio clip] Oh, yes. Von K·rm·n had his students and the people he was working with around him constantly. Uh, and as I said they had-

M. G. Lord 12:37

[audio clip] Was he flirtatious? I mean-

Liljan Wunderman 12:38

[audio clip] Yes, he was. He was very flirtatious with women. Very much so. And uh-

M. G. Lord 12:43

[audio clip] How was he as far as the, you know, women's rights issue thing?

Liljan Wunderman 12:47

[audio clip] Oh, I don't know. I really, I have no way of judging it because this is, you know, that's a subject that wasn't even a subject in those days. [M.G. Lord: Right.] I mean, who the heck ever talked about that kind of thing? Uh, I don't know. I only know...

M. G. Lord 13:02

"That's a subject that wasn't even a subject in those days." We'll be addressing this more in future episodes, but boy, each time I've re- listened to this interview, that phrase still hits me. Frank and Liljan are realizing they have different ideas about the world. Liljan is studying to be an artist. She isn't interested in having children. She rapidly is becoming disinterested in doing all the housewife-y stuff. As for Frank, his own ideas are being tested. But in his case, what seems to have been weighing heaviest on his mind is something more grand, something rooted deep in his conscience: a reluctance to see his work become tools of war. Here's MacDonald again.

Fraser MacDonald 13:50

There's this really interesting line that Frank Malina writes in his high school yearbook, which is, "I follow the dictates of my own conscience." I think that does say something about his um, a certain free spirited character, a willingness to break the mold that his father had otherwise set for him, which is to work within the confines and the structures and the disciplines of the military. But of course, subsequently, Malina then has to deal with the military as a potential funder for his rocket research. He's willing to take military funding, because he's terrified about the rise of fascism in Europe, and he wants to build a rocket in part to be better able to fight fascism.

M. G. Lord 14:36

[music in] In the rocketry world, World War II is the game changer. Because in 1943, British intelligence discovers that the Nazis are developing the V-2 missile.

Michael Neufeld 14:49

I mean, it's like over 40 feet tall, weighs thousands of pounds, and it could launch a one-ton high explosive warhead about 200 miles in five minutes.

M. G. Lord 15:01

Here's Michael Neufeld, Senior Curator at the Department of Space History, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Neufeld 15:10

We- it was a revolutionary change in the development of rocketry. It used liquid propellants rather than older solid propellants. And so that seemed like a huge advance that could change the course of the war. Certainly the German engineers and scientists and the Nazi leadership believed that. In fact, the V-2 was basically a failure militarily. It was an enormously expensive way to loft a one-ton bomb. So it was very spectacular, but it was not war changing. [music out]

M. G. Lord 15:42

Now the trouble is, the Allies don't know that yet. They think the V-2 could change the course of the war.

Michael Neufeld 15:52

The question was now, how do we greatly accelerate our spending on rocketry? And so, Army Ordnance, the Ordnance Corps responsible for Army weapons, uh began putting a lot more money into rocketry in 1943, '44. That allowed Caltech to form the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1944. So right at the end of the war, guided missiles really became an interesting topic to the American military and that of all the other Allied powers.

M. G. Lord 16:24

Von K·rm·n and Malina become the co-founders of JPL. Meanwhile, Jack Parsons and Ed Forman, two of the original members of the Suicide Squad, are fading from view. Here's Fraser MacDonald again.

Fraser MacDonald 16:40

Parsons and Forman just recede. They, they're needed less, they fit in less obviously, and every institutional transformation, Malina's authority is increasing. So in every sense, Parsons and Forman, where they fit in really well to the early idea of this tight little collaboration between three kind of young people just trying things out, that does not work in institutions, like even like Caltech where, you know, you've got a certain sort of structure far less than like JPL, where Parsons and Forman are nowhere near JPL. That is to say, Malina has a professional as it were, managerial responsibility and authority over Parsons and Forman, which they resent. Like they, they hate that. That what started as a relationship of equals morphs into something uh, much more like, you know, line manager, [music in] and that's not comfortable.

M. G. Lord 17:34

The Suicide Squad, our little band of brothers is coming apart. But it's not just because of Malina's increasing authority over Parsons and Forman. It's also because of Malina's involvement in a secret political club off campus. That's right. It's time to talk about the other side of Malina. The communist. [music swells] [music out]

M. G. Lord 18:01

[music in] There's never been a point in American history where it was terribly popular to be a communist. But there have been points when it was fashionable, particularly in places like Los Angeles or New York, where it was seen, in fact, is one of the more rational political stances you could take.

Fraser MacDonald 18:27

Malina was a communist paradoxically because he was a scientist. So I think Malina thought that capitalism was basically a kind of chaotic and inefficient system. Why not organize society along more rational ordered scientific lines so that uh, everybody would have everything they needed?

M. G. Lord 18:47

What are the basic tenants of communism? Let's have a primmer. 1) property is publicly owned, rather than private. 2) Everyone works, and each person is paid according to their needs and abilities. I mean, Karl Marx wasn't short on words but for a basic understanding, that's generally it. Malina seems to have been attracted to communism as a set of ideas. Of course, in the real world, it's a very complex thing. It has often given birth to extremes of state control. You picture East Germany, the Soviet Union, modern China. [music out]

Fraser MacDonald 19:29

But it's also more than that. I think that Malina had practical reasons for being interested in communism, and one was anti-fascism. Malina was terrified of the rise of fascism in Europe.

M. G. Lord 19:44

Remember, Malina comes to Caltech in the 1930s, pre-World War II. Malina and his mentor von K·rm·n- their families have had direct experience with what fascism really means.

Fraser MacDonald 19:58

His own family had experience of Hitler marching through Sudetenland and what's happening in Czech Republic. And so he knew that there was no possibility of just ignoring fascism and hoping it would go away. It was something that had to be countered, right. And as far as he could see within the political landscape of late 1930s United States, the only political group that was in any way serious about this was the Communist Party. So that commitment to anti-fascism is really what drives him, as well of course, as a commitment to equality, to pursuing the right to organized labor, to the right to universal health care, the commitment he had to ending racial segregation. Again, if you are in any way serious about these sorts of political fights, the Communist Party was the main organization that was, that was pushing these.

M. G. Lord 20:54

[music in] Malina's communist journey begins at Caltech when he meets a post-doctoral researcher named Sidney Weinbaum.

Fraser MacDonald 21:02

Weinbaum was born in what is now the Ukraine, had come to work with Linus Pauling, Nobel winning biochemist in, in Caltech. And that's quite aside from the fact that Weinbaum was a chess champion, concert level pianist, spoke four languages. He really was a singular figure on, on campus, but as well as being kind of fascinated like Malina was in you know, in different things- science, politics, art, music, and so on, Malina was attracted to Weinbaum as a friend that's just like, as you know, brilliant, educated. But also, he liked the seriousness that Weinbaum had uh, thinking about how can they change the world, right? That was, that was his constituent interest.

M. G. Lord 21:46

Similar minds, similar backgrounds, similar worldliness. So it's quite understandable, at least for me, that when Weinbaum starts to invite Malina to events, nights of debate and conversation, when he recruits him to the CP, the Communist Party, Malina's interests, his beliefs, not to mention his growing friendship with Weinbaum, all lead him to say yes. The specific name is Professional Unit No. 122. [music out] You'll hear that name quite a bit going forward.

Fraser MacDonald 22:19

The organization of the CP at that time were these little groups of, of workers, of activists, and most units would be, you know, out leafleting or proselytizing in one way or other. Unit 122 was not like that. It was a, it was a professional unit. And actually, exactly why it existed is a little bit murky. Um, it, it, they certainly didn't get their hands dirty with a lot of activist work. They would sometimes talk about issues in the news or current affairs or what was happening in Europe, concerned about Spanish Civil War say, or what was happening in, among trade unions in L.A.

M. G. Lord 22:57

Now, Malina isn't the only Suicide Squad member invited to attend. Jack Parsons, our wealthy wunderkind, digs all the exclusivity involved, whereas Ed Forman, Parsons' best friend, wants nothing to do with it. Then there's Tsien Hsue-shen, a young man who deliberately left China to study at MIT, then Caltech. He does attend some of Weinbaum's evenings, but he seems to have done so mainly because they're school buddies. Obviously, this wasn't your typical book club or whatever.

Liljan Wunderman 23:31

[audio clip] [music in background] You know, it's very hard for me to know how much of this I should talk about, and not.

M. G. Lord 23:36

This is Liljan Wunderman again, Frank Malina's first wife, from the interview I conducted with her in 1999.

Liljan Wunderman 23:44

[audio clip] It certainly was intellectual. There's no question about it, because, you know, it was more intellectualized than it was political. Now, how could it not have been with a bunch like that? You know, you can imagine it's... [fade out]

Fraser MacDonald 23:57

It's quite difficult to understand what it meant to be a member of the Communist Party at the time that Frank Malina joined in November 1938. So, what was striking about the Communist Party is that there were these two kind of separate realities to it. On the one hand, it's this kind of grassroots organization of committed young social activists. On the other hand, the Communist Party is a completely hierarchical, authoritarian organization, structured by people far removed from Los Angeles, to gather intelligence and to develop a network for espionage. It's not a kind of either or, it's both and, and, and that's really the complexity of trying to understand the commitment of these young people to the Communist Party, is that it wasn't clear to them the ways in which the party would be used in deeply cynical ways for intelligence gathering. It was not clear to them.

M. G. Lord 25:00

To be a member of the Communist Party, to attend meetings in the late 1930s, it's perhaps not something at that point to be ashamed about intellectually. [music in] Not if you care about social justice, not if you enjoy a spirited evening of debate and music. I mean, how different is it really from those parties at von K·rm·n's? Here's what happens. One: Malina joins the party and pays his dues. Sometimes he even runs the meetings himself. Two: Parsons shows up on occasion. I mean, what occultist doesn't love an exclusive gathering. Three: As I said, Tsien attends also under the name "John Decker." All the members had pseudonyms, partly because going on the record about being a communist may be unwise.

Fraser MacDonald 25:53

The fact is that if you had any activist and labor unions, it would be completely normal to be beaten by LAPD, to be brutalized by white vigilantes. So, precisely because of that political atmosphere of political repression, people had to be clandestine and secretive. And it's precisely that character that made the Communist Party an absolutely ideal vehicle for collecting intelligence by uh, by the CP leadership.

M. G. Lord 26:24

And thus, a secret grows within the Squad. Perhaps not the best kept secret, but it's a secret. Something you don't bring up at school or work. Something you might deny if somebody asks. That way, it's something you also don't need to worry about. It barely exists. [music swells] [music out] Frank Malina contained multitudes. But the more I think about it, with all the people I've talked to, I think there is something that ties it all together, something to fuse the engineer with the political animal, the rocket man with the communist. And that is a sense of utopia. Malina thought of rockets as instruments of science, tools that could help us better understand Earth's atmosphere and ultimately, the rest of the solar system. He dedicated his life to scientific research, and he recoiled at the thought of his work being weaponized. Frank Malina, from small town Texas to big city Southern California, had the soul of an artist and the mind of an engineer. And he had the background and life experience, even at that age, to know those two things could live in the same body. To my mind, all this speaks of a man whose ideals [music in] compelled him to think outside his own interests, who wanted the best for everyone, not just himself. Now, compare that to Jack Parsons, everyone's favorite chemist slash sex magician, and the philosophy he'll soon come to adopt. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." To me, it sounds like a cross between libertarianism and what a cult leader might get tattooed on his neck. In the next episode of Blood, Sweat and Rockets, you'll hear what I mean. [music out]

M. G. Lord 28:40

[music in] LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets is hosted by me, M.G. Lord. The show is a production of LAist Studios in collaboration with Western Sound. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts, and Antonia Cereijido is the Executive Producer for LAist Studios. Ben Adair is the Executive Producer for Western Sound. Dan Leone is the showrunner. Producers are Savannah Wright, Tyler Hill, Caitlin Parker, and Becky Nicolaides. The show is written by Rachel Knowles, Rosecrans Baldwin, and me, M.G. Lord. It was edited by Savannah Wright. Sound designed by Tyler Hill. Mixing and mastering by Tom MacLean. Research and consulting by History Studio. Our website at LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood, and the digital marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets is a production of LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. [music out]