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The Separate Peace of Madeleine & Bert
From Their Era of Activism To Their Day of Divorce
The air is crisp, the couple's footsteps purposeful in the snow. They have the jaunty air of friends who have savored good times, endured the bad and come through it bruised but wiser, resigned to what was lost between them, content with what was found.
They are discussing the party to celebrate their divorce.
"Have you thought about your toast?" Bert DeLeeuw, clad in jeans-jacket and denim cap, asks his former wife.
"I have to make a toast?" Madeleine Adamson asks. She is cloaked in a long wool coat with a cloche hat pulled low over her head.
"My problem is that I can't figure out how to keep my toast under 30 minutes," he says, chuckling.
"Oh, Bert," she sighs. "Please do."
"The end of an era," proclaimed the invitations. It was a spectacular end: With the For Sale sign on the front lawn of their T Street house, DeLeeuw and Adamson brought together friends and neighbors, former colleagues and former lovers, set out food, beer and wine, uncorked champagne, hooked up Adamson's tape machine to DeLeeuw's stereo and celebrated.
But what happened at this house was more than good times among friends. It was a sanctuary for people with causes--social and political activists. People like Madeleine Adamson and Bert DeLeeuw, who worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) and later the Movement for Economic Justice.
It was a haven for visiting organizers--nearly as poor as the people they organized--and friends who came for dinner and stayed into the night, drinking wine and discussing organizing. Their friend and fellow organizer Tim Sampson created the slogan "Robin Hood was Right"; and after a while, the T Street house became known as The Robin Hood Hotel.
Their marriage has ended and so, at least for now, has their professional relationship. But they are still activists, community organizers. In an age when college students march off to study law and business, in a time when sit-ins and demonstrations are relics remembered in faded newspaper photographs, Adamson, 32, and DeLeeuw, 38, still do what most of the country thinks has gone out of fashion.
They organized demonstrations and "actions" and arranged sit-ins at the offices of state and federal officials. Adamson, as Washington representative of ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), spearheaded the organizing of the tent city on the Mall in the summer of 1982 to dramatize the housing crisis of the poor.
They lived frugally together, and when an organization that employed them couldn't make its payroll, they went on unemployment. Adamson has never made more than $8,000 a year, DeLeeuw only a little more than $12,000 a year. "I used to always say that one of the things I wanted in life was to someday own a sofa," she chuckled.
But life and work caught up with them. Adamson left ACORN to write a book about the history of social protest in the United States. DeLeeuw, exhausted after working for Barry Commoner's 1980 presidential campaign, became a carpenter and runs his own business. "It's all honest work," he says. "The one thing I didn't want to do, and don't ever want to do, is sell my soul for the sake of doing something."
The house they bought at 17th and T streets NW nearly 10 years ago for $29,500 is on the market for $175,000. They wince at this seemingly capitalist venture. "The only way that we can sell it is for this outrageously inflated market value," he explained, "because if we don't, we'll never be able to have a house in the District of Columbia."
And for all their frustrations and annoyance with Washington, they have stayed, drawn admittedly to the power center of the country, carrying on much the same love-hate relationship with it that more conventional Washingtonians do.
Their friends are still like them, they say. Ask about those who turned into lawyers and businessmen and Adamson says flatly, "Don't know 'em."
"The Big Chill" disturbed her; DeLeeuw won't go to see it.
"It was just disturbing to see a popular film that portrayed these people who started out activists and became conventional achievers," she says.
Now they are making longer breaks from Washington--DeLeeuw for a six-month stay in Belize with his girlfriend; Adamson for a stay with her boyfriend, who lives in Baltimore.
But they haven't forgotten the exhilaration they felt when they went to jail for a cause. DeLeeuw was arrested so often (about 10 times) that his Selective Service Board ruled him "morally unfit" for military service, according to DeLeeuw.
"When you go to jail, it's such a clear, crisp definition of your belief in the issue," he says quietly. "Civil disobedience is very powerful, because you feel there's a higher law, a higher right . . . I think of all the times I've been in jail as great times in my life. And I can't wait for another opportunity to go to jail."
The fire for activism may have died on campuses and The Big Chill may have spread. But not for Madeleine Adamson and Bert DeLeeuw and their close friends. They are the keepers of the flame.
Their house is still a mix of the things they have collected: a thick wood dining room table found in a basement, a softly ticking wall clock from a junk store. art by friends. There are photographs of DeLeeuw and Adamson in demonstrations and DeLeeuw with his T Street neighbors. There is a long horizontal series of mirror artwork done by their friend Marie Ringwald, a Washington artist.
On a shelf is a yellowed newspaper photograph of a 1970 sit-in in the office of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch. In a room full of welfare mothers and activists, they sit huddled by Finch's desk--DeLeeuw, studious; Adamson, sober, madonnalike. George Wiley, the black professor of chemistry turned leader of the welfare rights movement, sits in Finch's chair, his feet triumphantly resting on the desk. They would all go to jail that day.
Books and records will be easily divided, but not that picture nor a button collection (more than 100 on a swatch of burlap), which includes one from V-J Day and a more contemporary "Vote Commoner." "I think it's going to be on revolving custody," Adamson said solemnly.
Posing for pictures, they are a pleasant contrast. She is tall and thin with long, straight, dark hair, and all edges: narrow direct eyes, high cheekbones. He is shorter than she, with thick brown hair and mustache, wire rim glasses. Where he is emotional and descriptive, she is spare and droll. Where he is poignant, she is matter-of-fact. Particularly when they talk about themselves.
The doorbell rang and Adamson returned with a package. "The moment of truth has arrived," she announced.
"The buttons!" cried DeLeeuw. They tore off the wrappings to reveal a box of buttons all proclaiming: "Robin Hood Hotel. The End of An Era. January 21, 1984."
They arrived by different paths.
DeLeeuw was raised a Calvinist in a conservative Bergen County, New Jersey, Christian Reform church and grew up thinking he would be a minister. By his second year at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., he had decided instead that community organizing interested him. "That's what I got out of my religious background: 'The least of those among you.' That was the notion of what Christianity was supposed to be about--helping other people."
He majored in sociology, played tennis competitively and was briefly married to his high school sweetheart. He graduated in 1967 and entered a program in community organizing at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work--a disappointment: "Their conception was organize a block to get a park."
But things picked up.
"We all wanted to raise hell," said DeLeeuw. "There was just something about the times, I guess. We wanted to go out and organize! We wanted to feel that we were going to do something about the massive inequality in poor people versus nonpoor people in society."
A group of them was attracted to the welfare rights movement just beginning to gather steam at the time, devoted to helping mostly poor women and their children get the payments they were entitled to by law. DeLeeuw arranged to work in Washington the following summer, in 1968, for the National Welfare Rights Organization on a grant. That was the summer of Resurrection City and the Poor People's Campaign and poor people's marches, including one from the Ellipse up Connecticut Avenue past the stores to the apartment building of former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Wilbur Mills, a target of the activists.
He got his master's in social work in 1969, and, beckoned by the headiness of the summer before, returned to Washington to work with George Wiley. DeLeeuw eventually became one of Wiley's top lieutenants and a good friend.
"I think I thought I was going to go into the Peace Corps," said Adamson over dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. DeLeeuw sat at the table, listening. "I had a teacher in high school who had been in the precursor of the Peace Corps. She went to Africa. I thought she was the best thing since sliced bread."
She grew up in Paramus, N.J., in a middle-class Catholic family, the valedictorian of her 1969 high school graduating class.
"Someone told me, 'If you're interested in international relations, you should go to Washington,' " she recalled. So she went to American University. "I had some very naive and vague notion about helping people."
Once in school, she started going to marches. "It seemed to me that everybody was doing it," she said, "and that's what campus organizing was--it was all about ending the war. Somehow I decided that I wanted to do something different . . . I was going to worry about what was happening at home."
She got out the phone book and searched under "national organizations" until she came across the National Welfare Rights Organization. "I had no idea what that was. I don't think I ever heard of it. But it sounded good."
She said she showed up in a skirt, looking like a member of the Junior League. They put her to work on the folding machine. "I had to fold these flyers all night long about school lunch stamps or something like that . . . It was awful work. But I had already gotten in my head that it was what I wanted to do, and welfare rights was real and it dealt with poor people and it was doing exciting things. Even though I was running the folding machine."
She came in every day at 6 in the evening and stayed until 11.
DeLeeuw met her the first week. "She was okay," he said. Adamson laughed.
"She caught my eye," he said. "What can I say. I think I have really good taste in women and she caught my eye . . ." She laughed louder.
"We just got to know each other," she said. "I don't think we had much time to go out."
He rescued her from the folding machine.
"I put you on the great banner-making project," he reminded her.
"That was only a few months after I'd been there," said Adamson. "One day I went in, and Bert said, 'We're going to make these banners.' They put out on the floor these huge pieces of canvas and started painting these banners. I don't know any more what they said."
" '$5,500 or Fight,' " DeLeeuw said, referring to the income level that NWRO said, based on Labor Department statistics, a family of four ought to be guaranteed.
"So we were painting these banners at night," she said. "Bert wouldn't tell me why. It was this big secret. There was going to be this action."
DeLeeuw already was working on the action, "scoping out" the HEW building and Finch's office before the sit-in. On the morning of May 13, 1970, Wiley called Adamson: "He tells me, 'Do you want to come and get arrested this morning? And can you bring some friends?' "
"He wouldn't tell you where or why," remembered DeLeeuw.
"It was exciting," Adamson said. "After running the mimeograph machine, to get to go to jail was a lot more exciting."
"A big promotion," DeLeeuw said. They both laughed.
DeLeeuw and Adamson were married in December 1972, six months after Adamson graduated from college. Her parents were not upset. After all they had worked for McGovern and had come to Washington for antiwar demonstrations themselves.
"George Wiley had already left Welfare Rights," Adamson said. "I thought I would go back to Washington and I would be part of the new venture the Movement for Economic Justice . But there was some family pressure: 'If you're going to go back to Washington and live with Bert you ought to get married.' "
And so they did--with a ceremony in the American University Chapel and a big Chinese dinner afterward at Yenching Palace.
They made up buttons to pass out to guests. They read: Legalize Madeleine and Bert.
Without really discussing it, they decided not to have children.
"I think in an implicit way, we both assumed children would interfere with our work," Adamson said. "To me, now, it seems somewhat naive. I really somehow had this optimistic view that I needed to be ready to be on the barricades. Of course, it wasn't that way. I only got arrested once. I wasn't out there fighting in the streets. But I had this feeling--and I think that was very widespread among the community organizers--that you couldn't have children and do the work. It wasn't part of the plan."
Eight months later, Wiley drowned in a boating accident.
"I didn't think Bert would recover," said Adamson. "Life without George was so unimaginable. I remember being very worried about how we were going to recover from it. We sort of threw ourselves into the organizing of the funeral and the memorial service . . . We convinced Roberta Flack to sing at the memorial service by telling her that George always listened to her records."
They carried on Wiley's fledgling Movement for Economic Justice (MEJ)--a broad-based coalition of poor and middle-class people. DeLeeuw became director and Adamson was director of research and publications. During that time she created, edited and wrote a newsletter for community organizers called "Just Economics." It kept community organizers abreast of actions around the country.
In the fall of 1975, DeLeeuw, still searching for national impact, went to work for presidential candidate Fred Harris. It was a shock to Adamson, who had little interest in electoral politics, but DeLeeuw was intrigued: "He was a good guy, but more importantly, the campaign offered an opportunity to coalesce a national constituency of people ready to stand out on some important issues."
Four months later, Harris was out of contention. "My batting average is not too good on these political campaigns," said DeLeeuw, "but my conscience is clear."
That year, the two closed down MEJ. They moved underground--into the basement of their house--and continued to produce the newsletter for several more years. The publication evolved into a journal called "The Organizer" and still exists.
"People tend to shy away from conflict," said Adamson, sitting in her apartment. She has neatly arranged a large desk, a bed and a small round dining room table into the space. In one area of the wall are old photographs of grandparents. Pussywillows in a vase are still festooned with Christmas ornaments.
"I not only believe that conflict gets more results, it's also a lot more exhilarating."
Adamson went to work for ACORN in 1978, and in 1979, DeLeeuw became director of the Citizens Party. By the time he came back from the Commoner campaign, exhausted from traveling with the candidate, their marriage was foundering.
They keep the details of why it broke up to themselves. However, they both admit they put their time together into the professional relationship, not their personal relationship.
"We worked together, we lived together, at a certain point we did both things in the same place--our house," said Adamson. "For a while I thought that was ideal--there's a lot of pressure in the work and it's important if you're involved in a relationship with someone that they understand why that is. But at a certain point, it was too insulated."
Also, DeLeeuw was more the public figure. "I was always the one who kept the home fires burning workwise," she said. "I would get things done but very much behind the scenes. I didn't resent that--living in Bert's shadow. But it was a little frustrating. I was interested in creating a little independence in my professional life--not having people always say 'Bert and Madeleine.' Maybe have someone say, 'Madeleine and Bert.' "
DeLeeuw acknowledges that this was a problem. ". . . everyone who's ever been associated with us knows that Madeleine is probably the stronger of the two, the more important . . . I always did as much as I could to recognize and give her top billing. But it's difficult to do that when you're married to someone. People mistrust your motives."
Above all, their relationship became too narrow. "We both ended up with lovers who are artists," DeLeeuw said. "We were interested in broadening the kinds of things you deal with in your personal life."
Still, something remains.
"What's significant," he said, "is that we've ended up as best friends which is--"
"--an accomplishment," she finished.
"Everyone should be so lucky," he said.
"I would regret it if we were not close and I would hate to see the day when we weren't," she said.
They gathered to celebrate the end of an era, friends from organizing days, friends from school days: Rafe Pomerance, president of Friends of the Earth and best man at their wedding; Marie Ringwald and Michael Kerr, the two who met through DeLeeuw and Adamson and were married in the T Street house. There was Adamson's college roommate, Arlene Gottlieb, and former welfare rights organizers from all over the country who now live in Washington. There was DeLeeuw's T Street neighbor, Emma Crudup, who has lived on the block 40 years.
Adamson's boyfriend, John Beam, a musician and an artist, watched the group good-naturedly. "This is interesting for me," said Beam, 39, who wears his long brown hair in a ponytail. He met Adamson when he did an illustration job for ACORN in 1979. "I was a goner," he said. "I was here," he grinned, "putting the hex on Bert."
DeLeeuw's girlfriend, Lina Newhouser, 32, listened to the tales and anecdotes and took pictures. "Sure, it's weird," she said. "I'm not part of this whole past."
Talk turned to the series of May Day demonstrations in 1971. "We all got gassed . . ." said Michael Kerr, grinning.
"I got arrested on the Capitol steps," said Gottlieb. "The only way Madeleine found out where I was was when she opened The Washington Post and saw me . . ."
Seth Borgos, an ACORN organizer who left to write the book with Adamson on social protest, worked first in Arkansas, the home of ACORN. "Madeleine and Bert were awesome figures," he said. He remembers passing through town and the house. There he would get not just a place to sleep and good food but war stories and a sense of the history of the movement.
"I don't feel the same way about people going to law school or business school that Madeleine and Bert probably would," he mused. "I don't see it as selling out. I see it as a failure of imagination. A lot of people who went to law school or business school did it because they couldn't think of anything else to do."
DeLeeuw and Adamson glided among their guests. Adamson had shed her "uniform" of corduroys and sweater for a dress she had bought for the occasion. DeLeeuw was wearing his jeans but added a tie from his unusual collection.
"Buttons?" asked one surprised guest as Adamson handed her a Robin Hood Hotel button.
"Every action needs a button," said Adamson succinctly.
They opened the champagne at 9:30 and guests gathered for the toasts. The living room was all soft light and golden wood floors, with ferns hanging gracefully over the mantel.
They filled their glasses and waited for DeLeeuw to start:
"Living stripped of all of its facets . . . reduces down to relationships," he began. "That's why this house has been so important to me. We've had parties, we've had meetings, we've had block associations."
He was warming to his subject. "I am a socialist," he pronounced. "It's because society is based on collectivity and interpersonal relationships that capitalism will fail."
"Aw-right!" cried Adamson.
"Bert comes out of the closet after all these years," observed one guest with a chuckle.
"That's why I love this block," he said. "We've shared, there's a sense of collective responsibility and caring for each other . . ."
He spoke of his former wife:
"Some years ago, I inflicted much hurt in the relationship I had with Madeleine Adamson," he said, "and subsequently I wasn't willing to spend time to repair that hurt. And Madeleine's response . . . was not to use force or bring in a pile of lawyers but instead seize on what was good in that relationship and build a new relationship for us, though lovers we no longer are . . ."
There is a little tremor in his voice. "And I learned more from how Madeleine handled that crisis in our life than anything else and I raise this glass to you and to Madeleine," he said, his voice quivering. "This is not ending tonight with any of you."
Adamson, as planned, had the closing words:
"We got married. We had to sign some papers. It didn't change anything," she said nonchalantly. "And then we got divorced. We signed some papers. It didn't change anything. We still love each other--in our own way."
They all raised their glasses to toast.