Van Lydegraf, Clayton (1915-1992)

  • By Kathrine Beck
  • Posted 12/10/2020
  • Essay 21139

Clayton Van Lydegraf's career as a revolutionary began when he joined the American Communist Party as teenager in the 1930s. In the 1940s he became the party's second in command in the Pacific Northwest, working from an office in Seattle's Pioneer Square. As a middle-aged Maoist in the 1960s, he served as both mentor and foot soldier to the radical terrorists of the Weather Underground. In one of his most brazen acts, he helped spring LSD guru Timothy Leary from a Califoria prision in 1970. Later in the 1970s, approaching retirement age, he led his own group of followers, building bombs and training with guns in the California desert. He quit or was kicked out of numerous organizations over the years, but his revolutionary zeal remained constant until his death in 1992. 

Cloaked in Secrecy

Van Lydegraf led a busy life full of events that were often conducted in secret. Because he and his associates were pursued by the FBI, who were sometimes covering up their own illegal investigative activity, there are conflicting versions of some of the events in his life. Here's what we know:

Born in Salem, Oregon on May 6, 1915, Clayton Van Lydegraf was one of seven children of a pastor in a denomination called The Church of God. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, the energetic youth joined the 4-H club, went to YMCA summer camp, played trombone in the high school band, sang in the choir, was a standout on the swim team, performed in theatrical productions, and was a member of the debate team and the rifle club. In 1933, at the age of 17, he joined the American Communist Party (CPUSA).

He went on to the University of Oregon, where he made the honor roll, and, in 1934, supported the San Francisco Longshoreman's Strike which spread up and down the West Coast. That year, at 18, and described as "a young communist" by the Albany Democrat Herald, he celebrated May Day by giving a speech in Eugene's city park.

He served in World War II as a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, winning an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross for "flying the hump" -- piloting military supplies from India to China over the Himalayas. His wife, the former Mary Ann Fisher, whom he had married in 1941, was living in Seattle with their daughter, Judith, born in 1943. When his wife expressed disappointment that his letters home weren't affectionate, he explained he didn't want to write "sentimental stuff" and chided her for her politically incorrect views on Churchill.

After the war, he became a Boeing machinist, but soon he was working full time for the CPUSA as Acting Party Secretary of the Northwest region, comprising Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. He was the region's second in command, working in the party's two-room offices in the Howard Building in Pioneer Square. He ran for County Assessor on the Communist Party ticket in 1946, taught at the party's Leadership School, planned events and rallies, recruited, and organized. In 1948 he urged local radio listeners to vote for socialist Henry Wallace for president.

In 1947, as an inactive member of the Aeronautical Machinists Union, he was accused of conduct unbecoming a member of the union because of his Communist Party membership. The local voted not to expel him in the interests of "union harmony," but was overruled by the national leadership in Washington D.C. Van Lydegraf was stripped of his union membership and fined $500.

In 1949, Van Lydegraf defended University of Washington professors being investigated by other faculty members as possible communists, part of growing anti-communist hysteria. When asked, Van Lydegraf told investigators that if the United States and Russia went to war, and if he were called back up as a pilot, he'd resign his commission. In 1950, he made the local newspapers when he received a $475 bonus check for his service in World War II and promptly endorsed it over to the Communist Party.

Between 1950 and 1953, more than 30,000 Americans would die fighting the Soviet-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and by 1951, CPUSA members were being arrested and prosecuted under the Smith Act, a law saying communists were guilty of advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Some quit the party and others went underground under new names.

In 1955, Van Lydegraf's wife Mary Ann and her father were accused of being party members. She said in a related court proceeding that she was estranged from her husband, who had vanished four years before in 1951, and had no idea where he was. She filed for divorce in July 1955.

Van Lydegraf resurfaced in 1956. In February of that year, Nikita Krushchev, Premier of Soviet Russia, gave a secret speech to Communist Party leaders, in which he denounced his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Van Lydegraf didn't approve of Krushchev's renunciation of Uncle Joe, and his CPUSA career came to an end. It is unclear whether he left the party, or was expelled for following the Stalinist line.

In December 1956, members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to Seattle to investigate local communists and to take testimony from former party members, including Van Lydegraf, now living in Bellingham with his second wife, the former Paula Carmel Friedman. A committee lawyer accused him of being a trained killer and saboteur who had been part of a peasant guerilla uprising in the Philippines right after World War II. He demanded to know if Van Lydegraf had ever killed anyone using a garotte, a thin wire used to strangle silently, and came right out and accused him of murder..

Van Lydegraf, a short, stocky man in a dark suit, gazed up at the ceiling with an amused expression and refused to answer questions, invoking the Fifth Amendment -- although he did testify to having joined the Communist Party in 1933. He told reporters in the hall afterwards that the accusations were "pure poppycock" (Guthman) and that he'd never been to the Philippines. 

From Stalin to Mao

Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin had led to a split between the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and China. Van Lydegraf now followed the path from Stalin to Mao. By the early 1960s, he was involved with the American Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL). He had also reached out to young radicals of the New Left, through the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Revolutionary Youth Movement, and was active in the more mainstream Peace and Freedom Party. In his memoir of the 1960s in Seattle, author Walt Crowley described Van Lydegraf as "a freelance Stalinist."

Van Lydegraf wanted to get the young people on the right path and didn't hesitate to slam anyone he considered a Trotskyite or revisionist. He complained that the sloppy New Left was a hybrid of classical Marxism-Leninism with an overlay of psychedelic drugs, sex and pot, Che, Fidel, existentialism and agrarian populism, with no understanding of history. These kids needed help.

Now in his 50s, Van Lydegraf was excited by the possibility of mentoring a new generation. He and Paula had moved to Seattle. He critiqued the PL publication The Spark as "not popular with the younger generation," and launched a PL student club, bragging that his latest three recruits were all under 20. He taught communist theory at the off-campus Free U that had been launched in 1966. He also distributed tracts and manifestos he had written. They had titles such as "The Object is to Win" and "The Movement and the Masses," and their Marxist vocabulary was sprinkled with phrases like "copping out" and "ego-tripping" -- slang of the young baby boomers. He was nicknamed Clayton Van Mimeograph.

Other old CPUSA members took note, one of them writing in a 1966 letter that Comrade Van, "probably the most hated, bureaucratic and most opportunistic of the old CP leaders," was involved with the PL, adding that if the New Left "had the power to rejuvinate[sic] Van ... its revolutionary possibilities were even wider than I imagined" (Van Lydegraf papes, Box 11). 

But by 1967, Van Lydegraf was fed up with the PL. He wrote them a nine-page single-spaced letter pointing out "left errors" and "incorrect party line." He may have quit, but some sources say he was expelled.

"Smashing Monogomy"

Van Lydegraf continued to attend meetings and functions of several leftist groups -- and the authorities were taking note. The FBI spotted him handing out literature at a 1969 Students for Democratic Society national convention. The agent's field report described him as an "advisor and theorist." In June 1969, a faction of SDS known as the Weathermen, led by the charismatic Bernardine Dohrn, gained control of the organization. By early 1970, they had closed its national office in Chicago and gone underground. The Weathermen had a presence at various locations around the country, including Seattle. The young people were impressed with the old revolutionary, and word went out throughout the national organization that he was a serious intellectual who wrote a mean manifesto.

Van Lydegraf was now working as a self-employed refrigerator repair man who sported a crewcut, wore coveralls and drove a van full of tools and parts around town. Soon, he was also hanging out with the Weathermen, smoking pot, sampling LSD, and by several accounts, sleeping occasionally with women his daughter's age. He and his wife Paula, who was now involved with the women's movement, eventually separated.

Van Lydegraf and a revolving cast of Weathermen from around the country hung out at a house in the 3800 block of Woodlawn Avenue in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. There, they planned actions, participated in grueling Maoist criticism and self-criticism sessions, did drugs, and worked on their "smashing monogamy" initiative, by engaging in group sex and busting up committed couples by sending them to live in separate cities.

In 1970, members of the Weathermen on the East Coast prepared to protest the Vietnam War by bombing a dance for non-commissioned officers and their dates at Fort Dix, New Jersey, expecting fatalities. But while fabricating the bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse, one of them accidentally triggered it, killing three of their own number instead. The Weathermen became known as the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), went underground, and kept building bombs, going on to conduct 20 to 30 bombings around the country, including the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the California Attorney General's office, and a New York City police station, as well as corporate offices. They chose mostly empty buildings and issued warnings. 

Springing Timothy Leary

Van Lydegraf ended up in San Francisco, possibly living with other WUO members there at an apartment that became known as the Pine Street bomb factory (or Pine Street safe house, depending on one's point of view). Some of his personal papers were found there by the FBI. While in San Francisco, Van Lydegraf played a key role in the WUO's most spectacular action -- springing drug guru Dr. Timothy Leary from prison.

Leary, a former Harvard lecturer who sported white robes and love beads and advised crowds of young people to "turn on, tune in, drop out," had been arrested for marijuana possession while driving away from the Southern California compound of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. The Brotherhood was an Orange County LSD cult that smuggled hashish from Afghanistan in surfboards, pioneered the cultivation of Maui Wowie cannabis, and manufactured and distributed its Orange Sunshine brand of LSD to Grateful Dead audiences, the Manson Family, the Hells Angels, and young Middle America.

After conviction and sentencing, Leary was given a psychological test to assess whether or not he was a prison escape risk -- a test he had helped design as an academic. Based on his test results, he was sent to the low-security California Men's Colony near San Luis Obispo. Awash in cash from their drug empire, the Brotherhood paid the WUO an amount said to be either $25,000 or $50,000 to spring Leary from the prison.

To prepare for the escape, WUO fugitive Mark Rudd helped Van Lydegraf replace the rear axle of a getaway vehicle on a street in San Francisco. Rudd had once been in leadership alongside Dohrn but had lost that status, and was now a simple "cadre" or foot soldier. He later characterized the  decision to spring Leary as part of a strategy to position the group more in alignment with the blossoming sex-drugs-and-rock–and-roll youth culture. Van Lydegraf disapproved of the caper, but did as he was told. According to Rudd, the old Stalinist was "used to following party discipline."

On September 12, 1970, prison guards were watching television while Leary climbed along a telephone wire to get over the prison fence. He waited by the side of Highway 1 until he was picked up. Leary's silver hair was dyed, and he was given a change of clothes. His prison uniform was jettisoned in a gas station trash can south of the prison to confuse the authorities. Meanwhile, Van Lydegraf drove Leary north in a 1964 Dodge pickup with a camper, a patriotic sticker on the bumper, and a canoe on the roof. The 55-year-old Van Lydegraf and the 50-year-old Leary made a convincing pair of middle-aged fishing buddies.

During the drive, a cranky Van Lydegraf lectured the good-time guru, snarling, "I was against this whole thing from the start and if it was up to me you'd be rotting in jail," as Leary sipped chilled white wine (Jones).

Along the way, Leary got a break from Van Lydegraf's harangue, exiting the vehicle to meet and party with the more fun-loving leadership crowd in Seattle -- or possibly at a campsite in Northern California (accounts differ). Leary was smitten with Bernadine Dohrn, raving about her fashion sense, her "unforgettable sex appeal" and her "amazing legs" (Burroughs). Van Lydegraf and Leary eventually parted company in Monroe, north of Seattle. Leary continued on to Algeria. (In 1974, after he had been caught and imprisoned, Leary would try to get his sentence reduced by ratting out his rescuers. While this added more pages to Van Lydegraf's FBI file, no one was ever charged with the escape.)

Booted From the Underground

Five months later, in February of 1971, Van Lydegraf was living in Seattle at 1729 18th Avenue. He and 10 others were arrested after some rock throwing and scuffling during what was described in The Seattle Times as "University District unrest." The other arrestees were 16 to 20 years old; Van Lydegraf was 55. In June 1971, Paula filed for divorce.

In late 1972, the WUO decided to write a book. The title, Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, came from Mao Tse Tung's observation that "a single spark can start a prairie fire." Van Lydegraf is credited with writing large chunks of Prairie Fire under the shared pseudonym Celia Sojourn, and eventually Billy Ayers, a member of WUO leadership, gave him the copyright to the book.

There was nothing illegal about writing a revolutionary book, but the group nevertheless went to great lengths to produce it in secret during 1973, including setting up hidden printing facilities on both coasts and wearing gloves so as not to leave fingerprints on the paper. Finished copies were then distributed around the country, appearing suddenly in coffee houses and radical bookshops.

Some of the work was overseen by Van Lydegraf in his childhood hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Sporting a long grey ponytail and a beard, the now portly Van Lydegraf was openly tailed and photographed by FBI agents. At one point he spat contemptuously on the sidewalk near an agent's feet. He was observed pushing a printing press down the sidewalk with eight other people described in an FBI report as "hippie" in appearance. The book got a lot of attention, but all was not well within the team that had created it. Van Lydegraf was kicked out of the WUO sometime in 1974. Undaunted, he immediately found a new organization to join: the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC). 

The PFOC was ostensibly a group of leftists from many organizations coming together to apply the principles of the book to above-ground activism, but it was also a front organization created by WUO members who felt they had become irrelevant in the 1970s, and wanted to emerge from hiding to lead America's revolutionary left in the full light of day. The WUO manipulated the PFOC to put together a 1976 conference in Chicago. The "Hard Times Conference" reached out to dozens of leftist groups from across the spectrum, including groups led by activists of color, as well as gay and lesbian and women's groups. The organizers never explained that the conference was conceived of and run by the WUO.

The conference attracted a wide range of attendees, but it turned out that other leftists weren't interested in helping the WUO leadership pivot to legitimacy. Black organizations and women's organizations rebelled against the self-appointed leaders, demanding leadership roles and more focus on racism and sexism.

Previously a loyal cadre who had dutifully obeyed orders from Bernardine Dohrn and her fluid Central Committee, Van Lydegraf now made a power grab from within the PFOC. Van Lydegraf had written about white skin privilege as central to class analysis as early as 1967, but he didn't think the WUO had ever really taken the concept on board, nor had they taken the women's movement seriously. He was finally going to straighten out these young people. He led a group within PFOC that called itself the Revolutionary Committee. They both attacked and elicited confessions from WUO leaders in an old-fashioned Stalinist-style purge.

Van Lydegraf circulated a tape Dohrn had made confessing her "crimes against the people of the world," apologizing for racism and for "trying to wreck the women's movement" (Rudd), adding she didn't know why she had done those things. She also denounced her fellow leaders Jeff Jones and her future husband Billy Ayers. WUO members, following a "theory of contagion" were not allowed to associate with or even speak to those who were supposed to be working on correcting their ideological errors.

Bungling Bombers

Van Lydegraf's purge marked the end of the Weather organization. Van Lydegraf, however, wasn't ready to pack it in. Four of his followers, who continued to call themselves the Revolutionary Committee as well as a "revolutionary action squad," were living in Los Angeles. They included Michael Justesen, a University of Washington SDS leader who had vanished in 1970. He had been one of the Seattle Eight, indicted for conspiring to riot. (After he disappeared, the group was renamed the Seattle Seven.) He lived with another Seattle follower of Van Lydegraf, Leslie Ann Mullin.

Another member was Judith Bissell. She had been on the run ever since jumping bail in 1970. Bissell and her husband, a poet, had built an improperly wired bomb and placed it at the University of Washington's ROTC building. The bomb failed to go off, but the couple had still managed to attract the attention of the campus police.

Bissell lived with Mark Perry, a one-time fraternity brother and prelaw student at the University of Washington who had worked on the Goldwater for President campaign in 1964 and dutifully registered for the draft, but who had subsequently become radicalized and gone underground. His mother in Seattle hadn't seen him for eight years, and he later told a court he was the father of two children with whom he had also lost touch.  

Van Lydegraf ran the group from San Francisco. Two other members of the cell, Ralph and Dick, joined the others in Marxist-Leninist study sessions that went on for hours at a time. Ralph and Dick, who said they had military backgrounds, also gave the others firearms training out in the desert near Barstow, California. The group also practiced evasive high speed driving techniques in go-carts. Ralph and Dick were actually FBI agents, hoping that Van Lydegraf would lead them to Bernardine Dohrn, who was still in hiding. They claimed they did everything they could to ensure their firearms training, sometimes with BB guns, was ineffective, and would result in poor marksmanship.

By November 1977, the Revolutionary Committee had come up with plans to bomb the Ku Klux Klan, a group opposed to school busing for racial integration, and a judge. After they built a working bomb and were about to plant it at the office of a homophobic California state senator, the FBI decided it was time to arrest all five of them. Van Lydegraf and the two women were picked up in Houston, where they were attending a women's conference, which they said they were attending as a "defense team" to protect attendees from rapists and the Ku Klux Klan. Justesen and Perry were arrested in Los Angeles.

Back in Seattle, Van Lydegraf's arrest astonished one of his old comrades. Terry Pettus had worked alongside him in the CPUSA back in the 1940s, and was now president of the Floating Homes Association of houseboat owners. "My God, how did Clayton get into this?" he asked Seattle Times columnist  Rick Anderson. Pettus had last heard that Van Lydegraf, whom he remembered as a "young, intelligent guy," was running "some little refrigeration business" ("Radical Turned Left ..."). 

Van Lydegraf and his four followers, the last gasp of the Weather Underground, eventually served two-year sentences in California state prisons, and went on to lead relatively quiet lives. Mark Perry became the principal of a Seattle high school.

After his release, Van Lydegraf abandoned armed struggle but continued to support left-wing causes, with a special interest in the rights of Native Americans. He died of cancer in 1992 and is buried in the military veterans' cemetery in San Francisco's Presidio. Before his death, he donated his personal papers, documenting 44 years of revolutionary activity, to the University of Washington Special Collections Library.


"11 Arrested in University District Unrest," The Seattle Times, February 11, 1971, p. 36; "31 Boys Signed for Second Camp," Eugene Register, July 11, 1930, p. 1; "35 Eugenians on U.O. Honor Roll For Spring Term," Eugene Guard, June 20, 1934; Rick Anderson, "Radical Turned Left and Thinks He's Right," The Seattle Times, December 25, 1977, p. 15; Overview of Clayton Van Lydegraf Papers,, accessed October 29, 2020; Kit Bakke, Protest On Trial: The Seattle 7 Conspiracy (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2018); David Barber, A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed (Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2008); Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (Edinburgh, AK Press, 2006); Bryan Burroughs, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (New York, Penguin Press, 2015); Clayton Van Lydegraf Papers, 1944-1991, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections; Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the '60's (New York, Summit Books, 1989); "Communists in the United States," Albany Democrat-Herald, May 2, 1934, p. 4; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); "Defiance Marks Testimony of Two Before Red Probers," The Seattle Times, December 19, 1956, p. 17; "EHS Band to Play at Spring Style Show," Eugene Register, March 15, 1930, p. 12; Federal Bureau of Investigation, "The Vault: Weather Underground (Weathermen),", accessed October 29, 2020; Ed Guthman and Dwight Schear, "Communist Party '3-Headed Animal' Says House Prober," The Seattle Times, December 15, 1956, p. 3; Ed Guthman and Paul Staples, "Leaders of Reds Drop from Sight; War in Korea Increases Pressure," The Seattle Times, October 28, 1951, p. 1; Ed Guthman and Dwight Schear, "Objection of Pension Union to 'Guilt by Kinship' Upheld," Ibid., October 5, 1955, p. 1; Ed Guthman, "Red Party Gets Communist's Bonus," Ibid., July 28, 1950, p. 21; Ed Guthman, "Red Would Quit Air Arm if U.S. Russ Fight," Ibid. January 23, 1949, p. 8; "How Secret F.B.I. Agent Exposed Bomb Plan,"SIbid., December 14, 1977, p. 23; Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (London: Verso, 1997); Thai Jones, A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004); Robert Lindsey, "F.B.I. Agents Describe Bizarre Years With Militants," The New York Times, December 14, 1977, p. 22; "Ouster of 2 Unionists as Red Decreed," The Seattle Times, March 5, 1947, p. 5; Robert Rawitch, "FBI Agents: Living Behind a Radical Mask. Duo's Undercover Years Pay Off in Infiltration of Elite Terrorist Group," Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1977. p. 40; "Red Trial Witness Relates How Party Went Underground," The Seattle Times, June 24, 1953, p. 9; Susan Stern, With the Weathermen: The Personal Journey of a Revolutionary Woman (Doubleday and Company, New York, 1975); Mark Rudd, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen (New York, HarperCollins, 2009); Nicholas Schou, Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love and Acid to the World (New York, St. Martin's Press, 2010); "Students Given Honor," Eugene Guard, June 16, 1928, p. 3; "Two Koreans Tell About Secret Document," The Seattle Times June 19, 1954, p. 3; "Van Lydegraf and Hoffman Win Cups," Eugene Register, June 19, 1931, p. 6; "Witness Tells of Quitting Red Underground," The Seattle Times, June 20, 1954, p. 17. Note: This essay was revised slightly on December 18, 2020.

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