Election Section

Mary Davis Presente!

By Karl Kramer
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM
Mary Davis
By Cathy Barrows
Mary Davis

She has been called a Berkeley icon and a force of nature or, as she was honored on her 70th birthday, simply Bolshevik Mary. 

Mary Davis died of natural causes July 7, surrounded by family and friends, in hospice care in Berkeley at the age of 87. 

Leonore Mary Davis was born on July 21, 1920, at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco as the only child of Leonore Hurtzig and Robert J. Sherwood. Both parents died before Leonore, known as Mary, was 5 years old. 

She grew up with her paternal aunt in an apartment near Golden Gate Park where she often attended Sunday concerts and visited the DeYoung museum. A lover of music, she would buy cheap tickets to the opera that allowed her to listen while standing in the back. Her love of music continued throughout her life, and she played piano until her late 60s when she lost her finger in a bagel-shaping machine working in a bakery. 

Mary was raised in a working-class family. Her aunt’s husband worked on the streetcar lines. Nine years old at the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Mary grew up during the harsh years of the Depression. 

Although non-practicing Protestants, they honored the wishes of her Catholic mother by sending Mary to parochial school. Inspired by the workers march she witnessed during the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, Mary chose as her confirmation name Saint Jeanne d’Arc, the peasant girl who led the French army to recover her homeland from English domination and was burned at the stake by the English at age 19. 

Mary moved to Berkeley to attend the University of California. While there, she joined the Communist Party. Although she had planned to become a doctor, her political work became more important than finishing her education. 

She dedicated her life toward bringing whites and blacks together. She traveled to Washington to speak out for racial integration in the armed services. Working as a waitress in a Southern restaurant, she was fired for setting a table and serving black co-workers eating in the kitchen. Braving prevalent prejudices at a time when several states still had anti-miscegenation laws, she had her son, Owen, in 1952, with Clarence Davis, an African-American, followed by a daughter, Madeline, and a son, Robbin. 

Around 1949, Mary began working and union organizing at General Electric factory in West Oakland, where she made light bulbs on an assembly line. Later in life, her son Owen asked her about flashbacks he had of red lights and yelling in the darkness. Mary explained that she used to carry him on the picket line and the police would attack in the wee hours of the morning. 

During McCarthyism and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), one morning as she was driving to work, she heard herself described on the radio as a Communist. When she arrived at the GE plant, no one would speak to her. A friend hid her at a country home to escape being forced to testify at a HUAC hearing. 

Mary continued working in factories until she retired. She marched against the Vietnam War, joined workers’ picket lines and campaigned to free Angela Davis from prison. 

Her political work for the Communist Party included distributing the People’s World, which she delivered to newsracks, kiosks, stores and Greyhound stations in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. 

In the 1980s, several decades after the death of her children’s father, she began living with her life partner, Betty, in a cottage not far from the UC Berkeley campus. 

She was well known in the neighborhood for sweeping leaves off the sidewalks and decorating an old car in her driveway with objects she found on the street. Photographers would take pictures of her creation as a precursor to the now more prevalent “art cars.” 

After leaving the Communist Party, she joined the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). At the organization’s Bolshevik Cafe, she did the fundraising pitch imitating the German-born actress and singer Marlene Dietrich, and singing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” and a Slavic anarchists’ song “It’s Sister Jenny’s Turn to Throw the Bomb.” 

Mary spent her final years at Chaparral House, a nursing home in Berkeley. She kept up her political work by going to “mailing parties” of the Gray Panthers and meetings of the Billie Holiday Collective, which plans the Bolshevik Cafe. 

She is survived by her three children, Owen Sherwood Davis, Madeline Sherwood Davis, and Robbin Sherwood Davis; two granddaughters, Lucia Naboisek Davis and Sarafina Naboisek Davis; and her life partner, Betty Bishop. Another surviving relative is her first cousin, Blanche Hurtzig, who is married to Peter Mondavi, the wine maker.