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Feminist, journalist and socialist campaigner Zelda Curtis dies aged 89

Zelda Curtis

Zelda Curtis  -  © Private

2 February 2012

NUJ veteran Zelda Curtis – known affectionately by many friends as Zelda The Elder – died on January 31 2012, just a month after her 89th birthday.

Like many people of a certain generation, and leaning, I first heard of Zelda Curtis through her daily appearance on the front page of the Morning Star. She was the indefatigable fundraiser for the Communist Party newspaper in the 1970s. Each day, she would urge supporters ever onwards and upwards towards her next target for the People's Press Fighting Fund.

She had previously worked as managing editor of Labour Monthly alongside Rajani Palme Dutt, a founder of the British Communist Party, introducing a cultural section to the magazine and encouraging young writers to contribute. She was also active in the early days of the National Assembly of Women (NAW). These roles combined Zelda's lifelong interests in campaigning, culture, feminism and journalism.

Born in 1923 to Ada and Manny Brown, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, she was raised in Upper Street, Islington, where her mother and aunt ran a millinery shop next door to what is now the Screen on the Green. Her father had socialist inclinations, but Zelda dated her own political awakening to curiosity about miners collecting money on the streets during the General Strike.

Evacuated to Somerset during World War II, she came across the Workers' Education Association, which helped to form her own socialist outlook. Later she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and studied radio communications in Edinburgh.

In 1943, Zelda met naval ranking Gerry Curtis in the kitchen of rich but distant relatives. She was expressing her disapproval of the use of servants by helping the maids; the ever genial Gerry was more intent on chatting them up.

The two got together and became involved in the Unity Theatre in London's Mornington Crescent. Among their contemporaries at the 'Workers Theatre Company' were Ted (later Lord) Willis, Alfie Bass and Bill Owen.

She and Gerry married in 1944 and settled in Finchley where Zelda became active in the Communist Party. In later years, she worried that her political activism may have disadvantaged her daughters. Nonetheless, she brought them up to believe they could achieve whatever they wanted and that being a woman should never be seen as a barrier. She remained convinced that a woman's place is as much on the picket line as it is in the home.

It was her feminism that began to draw her away from the Communist Party; she was already active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Anti-Apartheid, and admitted to feeling more at home in broader-based movements. She worked at War on Want with George Galloway, approving of the political dimension he brought to issues of development, poverty and hunger, if not the man himself.

It was then that I encountered her indomitable spirit in person. She came to work for the East End News, where I was editor of the readers' and writers' co-operative set up by NUJ members with support from the TUC and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. Zelda developed the features section and built links with community groups.

Petite, witty and with a winning grin, she quickly became a firm favourite among the staff and volunteers on the paper, and a family friend. Zelda's great talent was as a listener. It helped her to draw out people's stories as a journalist, and to give comfort to the many who sought her support and advice. She and Gerry threw great parties, and there was always a bed ready and a bottle handy for those in need of additional succour at their home in the Caledonian Road where a long-suffering vine enclosed the garden.

Zelda turned 60 as East End News collapsed. She began to devote herself to the pensioners' movement just as Gerry died and she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. These were cruel blows, but she was undaunted. She worked with Pensioners' Link and then set up the Association of Greater London Older Women (AGLOW) which brought together an extraordinary range of women whose activities combined the cultural, educational and political with lots of fun and friendship.

She was a co-opted onto the Greater London Council (GLC) Women's Committee and served on Islington Women's Committee, and remained an active member of the NUJ.

In 1995, aged 71, Zelda went to the USA to make People First: Grey Power, a C4 documentary about the Gray Panthers movement, conducting the last interview with its founder Maggie Kuhn. They shared a devotion to an ideal that young and old should unite and take action on all issues, from the peace movement to pensions. Maggie died before the programme was broadcast, but Zelda was happy to carry her mantle back to the UK.

She enjoyed her role as 'Zelda the Elder'. When asked by the Daily Mirror in 1996 what she would do if she ever made it to No. 10, Zelda's top three reforms were typical - eminently practical and empowering.

"I'd make the Commons more accessible for disabled people - there's only one lift," she said. "I'd make it easier for women to be MPs by ending all-night sittings and introducing nine-to-five hours. And I'd improve pensions by linking them to earnings, not to prices."

She wrote ands spoke about women's and pensioners' issues, editing Life After Work: Stories of freedom, opportunity and change for the Women's Press in 1999, and continuing to break taboos.

"I'm delighted to say I still have an active sex life," she told The Observer's Ben Summerskill in 2001. "Sex is better than when I was young because I've lost my inhibitions. I have Parkinson's disease but it doesn't stop me having sex. Sometimes within a marriage, you build up a particular way of living because of the children. It's good to be free of that and free to start all over again."

During this period she had teamed up with health and transport campaigner Stan Davison and they became devoted partners.

By now, Parkinson's was taking a tighter grip on her life. She happily agreed to take part in experimental approaches to treatment, and she was delighted to discover that some of her medications gave rise to erotic dreams.

Despite her illness she still found luding teaching public speaking techniques totime for some extraordinary ventures, inclusing Maasai activists from Tanzania, organising use-of-the-media training for older people, as well as hosting her famous birthday parties every Christmas.

Her tenacity helped her to survive the disease for almost 30 years, although she gradually reduced her public appearances, preferring to work and write from home. She hated what the disease was doing to her, and fought against becoming dependent.

Stan steadfastly ignored her protests and became her mainstay when she had to move into a care home. He took her home at weekends while he was able and, in 2009, brought her down to Bristol for a weekend visit. Zelda showed her determination by abandoning her wheelchair to make her own way down a long flight of woodland steps to the river Frome. It was Zelda's last excursion.

It was hard for family and friends to witness Zelda's physical and mental deterioration, most especially when communication became difficult. Words and especially spirited conversation were her life blood. She will be remembered by all who knew her for her kindnesses, her frankness, her friendship and her belief that if we all work together we can achieve change for the better.

Zelda is survived by her daughters Sue and Joan, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren and her partner of many years Stan Davison.

Zelda's funeral will take place at 11am on Wed 8 February at Golders Green Crematorium Hoop Lane London NW11 7NL.

Tags: , Zelda Curtis, newspapers, Communist Party, feminism