Celebrated for her art and her activism, Pele deLappe spent a lifetime fighting for racial justice, women’s equality and workers’ rights.
On Oct. 1, at 91, DeLappe died peacefully in her Petaluma home of complications from a stroke, surrounded by friends and family.
She was a fourth-generation San Franciscan who lived in Berkeley for many years. Her lithographs, frescos, etchings and paintings of everyday people and jazz musicians have been shown in galleries from San Francisco to New York, and can be found in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, at the San Francisco headquarters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and on the walls of modest living rooms and kitchens of friends and fellow activists.
DeLappe sketched wherever she was, said her friend Mary Fromer, who worked with deLappe at People’s World, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party.
“She would draw characters in a meeting or in a courtroom,” Fromer said.
The people she drew were “ordinary people—ordinary shop girls,” said Nina Sheldon, deLappe’s daughter. Among the lithographic reproductions scattered liberally throughout her autobiography, A passionate journey through Art & the Red press, is a depiction of a 1945 picket line at the Uptown Theater (city unknown), where African-American and white picketers are carrying signs condemning Jim Crow and racist hiring policies.
Age did not slow deLappe’s mind or her art. “She was still sketching until she had her big stroke” a few weeks before she died, Fromer said. She had shows at the Susan Teller Gallery in New York as recently as 1997 and 1999 and at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco in 1999. In 2006 she created the lithograph, Lost in America, in response to Hurricane Katrina.
As a young teenager, deLappe studied art at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) and went to New York to study at the Art Students’ League, when she was about 16.
At 18, she returned to San Francisco, and participated in the 1934 San Francisco Waterfront Strike, not only as a picketer, but also by contributing her drawings and cartoons to the striking workers’ newspapers. She was arrested twice. It was around that time that she joined the Communist Party.
She would leave the party twice. The second time was in 1990. In her autobiography she complained about the party’s lack of democracy at that point, and about “intolerance of differences of opinion by the party people back east—and some local ones.”
Conn “Ringo” Hallinan, a People’s World editor in the mid 1970s, remembers deLappe’s quick wit, sense of humor and flashes of temper. This was her second stint with the paper. The first had been from 1943 to1949, when the paper laid her off for economic reasons.
After leaving the PW the first time, deLappe became an editor of a new, short-lived newspaper, the West Oakland Beacon. In her autobiography she said she was the only white on the staff of the newspaper that was to be the “the Black voice of West Oakland and counter irritant to Sen. William Knowland’s reactionary Oakland Tribune.”
From around 1953 to 1972, deLappe worked as a designer for Moore’s Business Forms in Emeryville. During that time she struggled to obtain pay equal to her male counterparts.
Back at People’s World in the 1970s, deLappe was features editor and jazz critic and contributed her drawings and cartoons. Her drawings were simple but able to express both emotion and politics, Hallinan said, recalling a drawing of John Mitchell, the attorney general who engineered the Watergate break-in, “looking incredibly evil.”
At People’s World, deLappe’s was “not a sectarian approach to culture,” Hallinan said. Her critics, however, thought she should be creating what they considered stereotypical “true” workers’ culture, “but she was never an ideologue, never a narrow sectarian,” he said.
DeLappe’s drawings were also insightful. Hallinan remembers when he had hurt his back and deLappe joined him one afternoon as his three young boys crowded into bed with him to watch Star Trek on TV.
Several days later deLappe gave Hallinan a drawing. “It was me sitting in bed with the TV on, with Mr. Spock on TV, with each of the kids exactly what they were. Somehow she picked up on the personality of the kids,” he said.
Besides being smart, she was fun. “She told raunchy jokes with style and could drink me under the table,” Hallinan said. “We’d go to these meetings and get terribly bored, go to a local bar and then go back to the meeting.”
DeLappe’s sense of humor was with her until her death. In the last five years of her mother’s life, daughter Nina Sheldon and her mother became very close and shared many moments of hilarity, Sheldon said.
“We just laughed. Nobody was funnier than my mother,” she said. Mostly the two found today’s political situation awful enough to be funny. “Things can be so horrible that you have to laugh—like some of the insane things that Bush and Cheney did,” Sheldon said.
DeLappe’s keen interest in politics and her activism never left her. Recently, in her wheelchair “she was out there in a picket line, holding up a sign against the war in Iraq,” Sheldon said.
She would stay current with what was going on. “She’d get up in the morning and have to listen to Amy Goodman [host of the progressive news magazine Democracy Now! heard on Pacifica and community radio stations],” Sheldon said.
She’d read the San Francisco Chronicle and “howl with rage” and write letters to the editor.
The last article she wrote was a review in July for the Berkeley Daily Planet of The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Sussman. Mitford was deLappe’s longtime friend and Berkeley neighbor. She ends the piece: “How I miss—and long for— Decca’s take on these parlous times.”
DeLappe found great love late in life, Sheldon said. In 1992, she moved from Berkeley to Petaluma to be close to painter and graphic artist Byron Randall, whom she had known for a half-century.
Randall “was the most serious love of her life. She was 70!” Sheldon said. Randall died in 1999.
In Petaluma, “she developed a whole new circle of friends,” Fromer said. She participated in art classes and workshops.
“She was fortunate to die at home, with Jon, Mary [Jon and Mary Fromer] and me singing the Internationale in three-part harmony,” Sheldon said.
Hers “is the kind of life that you want to live,” Hallinan said. “She went through personal tragedies—several marriages and a son who struggles with mental illness. She never let the difficulties in her life derail her. And she never stopped having fun.”
A public memorial is being planned. The date and location are not yet set.
Photograph: Pele deLappe in a 1997 photograph.