OBITUARY: Corliss Lamont

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The Independent Online
Corliss Lamont was a great American dissenter, humanist, philosopher and philanthropist.

Born to the purple of New York society, he was a champion of civil rights organisations in the United States in the post-war era and a sometime chairman of the Friends of the Soviet Union who came to be reviled as a "bolshie" and a "lounge lizard upholding the communist system" by the establishment press. He was hounded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, accused of subversive activities, and early on in his career a columnist in the New York Daily News wrote, "The intellectuals from Plato to Karl Marx and Corliss Lamont are the pests of the human race."

Senator McCarthy declared war in 1953. Lamont was subpoenaed at 24 hours' notice to appear before a Congressional Hearing in New York. He defended himself, stating in answer to accusations, "I am not a Communist and never have been." He refused to answer certain questions on a point of law and challenged the authority of McCarthy's committee.

On a contempt of court charge that followed, McCarthy declared, "He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has done more damage to this nation than, perhaps, any other man in the country." Lamont, typically, took this barb as a compliment. The case against him was dismissed.

In the spring of 1951 when Lamont applied for renewal of his passport, his application was refused on the grounds that his travel abroad would be contrary to the best interests of the United States. In 1957 he was again refused. But once the Supreme Court had ruled that his friend the artist Rockwell Kent could not be denied a passport because of his beliefs or associations, Lamont's passport was finally restored in June 1958.

In the early Fifties the American Civil Liberties Union with which Lamont had allied himself for many years became divided when known Communists were ejected from the organisation. Lamont found himself increasingly in disagreement with his fellow campaigners. In 1953, he withdrew from the ACLU to join the Executive of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee which was supporting civil liberty cases in the courts.

Lamont was born in Englewood, New York State, in 1902 and grew up there and in New York City. His ancestors had emigrated from Northern Ireland to America in 1750, settling in North Hillsdale, New York. The Lamonts became bankers and amassed vast tracts of land by the Hudson River in New York State and New Jersey.

Corliss was educated at St Bernard's School, New Jersey, and Phillips Exeter College, New Hampshire. He then spent four years at Harvard, where he studied English Literature and Western History.

One of Lamont's classmates at Harvard was Henry Cabot Lodge (the future ambassador and US Senator) with whom he came into conflict because of his liberal ideas. Verbal battles between the two continued throughout their lives. After a summer, 1924, at the Geneva School of International Studies, Lamont went to Oxford, where he took Philosophy, Politics and Economics at New College.

At Oxford he visited John Masefield, a pen-friend of his mother. Lamont became fascinated with Masefield's intimate theatre at Boar's Hill, where he saw productions of verse plays, and met playwrights and poets.

Returning to New York in 1925 he worked on a PhD thesis at Columbia University, under Professor Frederick Woodbridge, an outstanding humanist philosopher, and also studied with Professor John Dewey, a leading American naturalist philosopher. Thus was founded the basis of his own philosophic thought. His book Philosophy of Humanism (1949) went into seven editions. Bertrand Russell wrote, "Every friend of freedom ought to lay to heart what Corliss Lamont has to say".

In 1928 Lamont was invited back to Columbia as instructor of philosophy. a post he resigned in 1932 in order to write, and become involved with the American Civil Liberties Union. He made his first tour of the Soviet Union that year, after which he became chairman of the Friends of the Soviet Union. His visits to the Soviet Union were viewed with suspicion by the authorities, but during the early Thirties he published pamphlets and articles and a book, Russia Day by Day, knowing full well that he was under surveillance.

During the Second World War, on account of his activities for civil liberties, he was shunned by the military. He also had 150 incoming letters censored by the postal authorities. He later received an official apology and an award of $2,000 damages.

In 1947 Lamont returned to Columbia to teach a course of Naturalistic Humanism. He remained for 12 years. He defined humanism as a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of humanity. He certainly lived up to his beliefs. In Yes to Life (1981), he stated that from his parents he had inherited more money than he could put to intelligent personal use but he was able to give most of it away for what he considered "the good of fellow human beings". He gave Columbia large tracts of land by the Hudson river and funded numerous charities and cultural institutions.

In the early 1960s Lamont became engulfed in the Cuban crisis. He published pamphlets protesting against the undemocratic techniques of the Kennedy administration which, he affirmed, flagrantly abused the Declaration of Independence. Some 30 of these he published privately under the Basic Pamphlet Series.

During the 1960s, the Vietnam war loomed large and Lamont found himself challenging his old school rival Cabot Lodge, now ambassador to South Vietnam. A series of open letters reaped a wave of publicity and a revulsion against the disastrous war. Undoubtedly he played an important role in influencing public opinion by constantly campaigning, writing and publishing his view in the media.

In 1976 Lamont undertook a tour of Communist China which revealed to him the warts in the Great Cultural Revolution. He was impressed by the scale of physical achievements, but uneasily aware of the terrible inhumanities that still prevailed.

In his old age he was comforted by the beauty and sympathy of a remarkable woman whom he met on the dance floor and who became his third wife. Beth Kehner was half his age, the mother of 14 children. She shared his compassion and his idealism as well as his political and humanitarian beliefs. Together they opened a television channel in order to transmit their views on world politics.

I met Corliss and Beth Lamont first in 1989. They took me to Ledbury, in Herefordshire, to visit the house where John Masefield was born - The Knapp. The next day, Corliss gave a talk to the Humanist Society at Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, London, and his eloquence and wit were astonishing as were his ready answers to questions.

In old age he remained active, writing books of reminiscence. He made important collections of Masefield's letters and memorabilia for the Columbia Rare Book Archive and produced a small book of verse under the title Lover's Credo. His weekends in summer were spent at Ossining, a beautiful wooded estate in New York State enjoying a game of croquet or swimming in the lake and skiing in winter on the snowbound roads and hills.

Corliss Lamont, philosopher, philanthropist; born Englewood, New York 24 March 1902; married first Margaret Hayes Irish (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), secondly Helen Boydon Lamb (deceased), thirdly Beth Kehner; died Ossining, New York 26 April 1995.