“When you ask what it’s like on the Upper West Side,” says Rosanne Klass, “I would say, first of all, that it’s hilarious.”
An “independent conservative” with an illustrious career as an expert in Afghan affairs, Klass has downed scotch with Afghan resistance fighters and advised a director of the CIA. As Director of the Afghanistan Information Center at Freedom House, she worked to keep the media focused on the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, influencing the progression of American foreign policy under Ronald Reagan. Now that she is retired, she takes pleasure in being an “out” conservative on the Upper West Side, a notorious hotbed of New York liberalism.
“Being a conservative here is kind of fun!” Klass remarks. “In Zabar’s, I have had people come up to me and whisper, ‘Thank you. God bless you.’ And I remember to one woman I responded, ‘Well look, I’ve got a couple of extra buttons, would you like one?’ And she said, ‘No, I wouldn’t dare. I don’t know what my neighbors would do.’”
That kind of response particularly tickles and mystifies Klass.
“People must have spoken this way, felt this way, about Samuel Adams when the British put a price on his head,” says Klass. “I’ve had more than one person say I’m brave. You would think I’m risking my life walking down Broadway wearing a Bush button.”
Klass was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a place that has greatly influenced her perspective on politics to this day.
“Out in Cedar Rapids where I grew up, politics are very clean,” says Klass. “Everybody is concerned, everybody votes, everybody knows the issues. I came out of a good government background. I learned from my dad, who voted for people he respected.”
Klass fondly recalls the day she saw Franklin Roosevelt speak from a train platform in Cedar Rapids. “I still remember the scene, the railroad car. It must’ve been an autumn afternoon, because I remember the sunlight coming through the leaves of the trees. I think I was on my father’s shoulder or standing next to him, and my dad was saying, ‘Now you can always say you have seen the President of the United States.’ Roosevelt had crutches, and he was dragging his legs to get to the edge of the platform. The Secret Service men were going through the crowd. They would take each camera, open it up, expose the film, and politely hand it back. Roosevelt didn’t want pictures of him dragging his legs.”
These idyllic memories from an Iowa childhood stand in sharp contrast to her view of New York politics, which she calls “dirty and unrelated to reality.”
“In this town, everything except occasionally the mayoralty is sewn up by the Democratic Party,” says Klass.
Although her interest in American politics was sparked at a young age, it remained dormant for several decades. While attending the University of Wisconsin she became the drama critic for her well-respected school newspaper, profiling celebrities that came through Madison. She warmly recalls her experience interviewing Todd Duncan, who played Porgy in the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess.
“Todd Duncan came to give a concert. I went to interview him, and I happened to be carrying a volume of Byron,” she remembers. “He spotted it and turned out he was a Byron fan. I did my interview and then he took me out to dinner.”
Klass knew she wanted to be a writer upon graduating; trouble was, once she moved to New York, she had no idea how to make that happen.
“I went backstage for one of Duncan’s plays and he remembered me and we went to get coffee. It never occurred to me to mention that I was looking for a job. Women weren’t given advice or information on how to build careers. It was assumed that you would get married and that’s it, your husband would take care of that.”
Although this approach toward life did not suit Klass, she did get married in New York to her boyfriend and fellow editor at the University of Wisconsin, a decision that unexpectedly took her to Afghanistan.
“The Afghans had been hiring American teachers, and while I was still in Wisconsin, friends of mine, grad students, went to Kabul. They wrote to my boyfriend and me. He decided to take one of those jobs. He proposed and I accepted. We got married on a Thursday, and on Saturday we set sail for Asia.”
The years Klass spent as an English teacher in Afghanistan in the 1950s changed her life, providing the subject matter for her magnum opus, Land of the High Flags, a memoir recounting her observations of Afghanistan’s culture “when the going was good” (as the subtitle of the novel’s newest edition puts it). This experience also set her on a path that would lead to her growing interest in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
After returning to the States, she taught English in high schools and junior highs for six years before realizing that she needed a drastic change.
“Things went really wrong with my marriage, and I decided to get a divorce and stop teaching to do what I always wanted to do: to see if I still could write.”
In 1966, she moved from the Bronx to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she has resided ever since. She then began writing her book and shopping the manuscript to publishing houses. After being rejected by Doubleday, Klass went to Random House, which granted her a contract for High Flags. The book was published to critical acclaim, with many reviewers comparing her favorably to the travel writer Rebecca West.
Klass’s career as an author ended with High Flags. Though she was offered several more book contracts, none ever came to fruition. One of those works was to be about the women of the Mughal Empire.
“I went out to India and Pakistan for research, and they went to war, so I wound up spending another year in Afghanistan waiting for the war to end because they were fighting all over the area where I had to do research. Finally, I ran out of time and money.”
For the first few decades of Klass’s life, she largely voted for Democrats. “Richard Nixon had come to Afghanistan when I was there, and his visit was a disaster,” she recalls. “There was something lacking in him. I couldn’t vote for Nixon, so I voted for Kennedy. God help me, I even voted for George McGovern. I think I was the only one in the country who did.”
Her story of seeing Kennedy in person resembles her stirring memory of Roosevelt’s talk in Cedar Rapids. “It was the Saturday before Election Day, and Kennedy was going to come through the Bronx. The Kennedy motorcade hit a red light at the Grand Concourse, and out of the Concourse plaza came a wedding party. In a split second, Kennedy was over the side of the convertible, kissed the bride, shook hands with the groom, and was back in the car. And I said, ‘This guy is great! Why haven’t I been working with this man?’ He was absolutely magnetic. Roosevelt had that kind of magnetism. All he had to do was smile, and you felt better.”
After working for an art encyclopedia and serving as an editor for Woman’s Day, in 1973, The New York Times hired Klass to write for their Week in Review section.
“The New York Times found out that I had predicted the communist takeover of Afghanistan,” says Klass. “They came chasing after me, and they wanted my expertise, my genius—all you had to do was know a little bit, but nobody in this country knew a little bit.”
According to Klass, the late Wall Street commentator Louis Ehrenkrantz, who was her friend and financial advisor, told a friend at the Times of her prediction.
“Lou was talking with his friend at the Times, who said in the course of their conversation, ‘Who could’ve ever imagined the communist takeover in Afghanistan?’ And Lou said, ‘Well, I have a friend who has been predicting it for years!’”
Klass quickly gave her editor two more predictions: that the Shah in Iran was finished and Ayatollah Khomeini should be watched, and that the Soviets would invade Afghanistan.
“I was told to knock it off, that the editors of The Times had made inquiries at the highest levels in Washington, which means either the White House or the CIA. They said I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I got fired one week before they couldn’t fire me by union contract. Of course, a few months later, Khomeini came into Iran, and a few months after that, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.”
Klass believes she was also fired because a Times lawsuit with female staff members had recently been settled, and she thinks they no longer felt compelled to increase the number of women on staff.
“They were being sued by women on the Times staff for not giving women good jobs, for keeping them down,” says Klass. “The managing editor had told me they were looking for women, and once they settled the lawsuit they weren’t looking for women anymore.”
A similar incident happened at the European magazine GEO, which hired Klass to report on the Afghan resistance to the communists. After spending the money to send her abroad with a photographer, the magazine rejected her story once Klass insisted that the Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan.
“They said the same thing [as the Times], that the Soviets don’t do that anymore and we should’ve known better than to send a woman to do a story like this. My story would’ve been in the December issue, on the stands when the Soviet army rolled in. But instead, they decided not to use it.”
Klass’s history of rejection by what she saw as misogynistic, uninformed editors ultimately influenced her budding political beliefs. She continued to vote Democratic up until 1980, but after voting for Jimmy Carter in 1976, her frustration with his handling of the Soviet invasion compelled her to reject Carter for Reagan.
“I knew I couldn’t vote for Carter,” she says. “His statements about the Soviet invasion were idiotic. So I felt I had to vote for this idiot movie actor from California.”
Although initially skeptical, Klass grew to respect Reagan and became excited about his candidacy.
“I was just getting into politics; I was not really into politics until the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. I read into Reagan’s ideas and thought they were really good.”
While at a discussion group on the Upper West Side, Klass became frustrated when one of her former editors at GEO interrupted a speaker from the Republican Party.
“I had my Reagan button in my suit pocket, because I decided there was no reason to make trouble. One of the editors who claimed I was wrong about my GEO article stood up and interrupted the speaker: ‘I don’t know why we’re listening to this. We know a fascist when we see one.’ That irritated me. I reached into my pocket, took out my Reagan button, and put it on my jacket. And this woman looked at me and whispered, ‘You’re very brave.’”
The moment was, in many ways, a symbolic turning point for Klass’s career. Soon after the incident, she founded the Afghanistan Information Center at Freedom House, an organization that disseminates human rights information about Afghanistan. The Center became the best source for information on the Soviet-Afghan War in the private sector. From that position, Klass helped ensure the country’s saga was covered in the American press, and indirectly bolstered Reagan’s foreign policy.
“I was told by one of the top people in the Heritage Foundation that the policy of the Reagan doctrine could not have been fully carried out without my work. It may have something to do with the fact that I kept news of the Afghan-Soviet War on the front page for ten years.”
The 1980s were good to Klass. During those years, she received the recognition and influence of her peers for her work on Afghanistan, a nation whose growing influence she had predicted for decades. Since then, she has made a living as a freelance editor for authors, and has also written extra material for the second edition of Land of the High Flags. Government officials and members of the press still frequently request her expertise.
“From 1989 to 2001, nobody cared about Afghanistan,” she says. “Suddenly, after 9/11, they were looking for people who knew something about the place.”
Three decades after Carter’s Afghan approach compelled her political shift, Klass still feels that the Democratic Party has lost its way.
“The press claims that the Republican Party moved to the right. It didn’t. The Democratic Party moved way, way to the left. The left radicals of 1968 took over the party in ’72. They changed the rules of the party, and it has gone in the wrong direction. I’m not very interested in parties, but right now with the Democratic Party as it is, the Republican candidates are the best option.”
Although proud of Obama’s election, Klass is disappointed in his presidency.
“It is most unfortunate that someone that the country had so much hope for is turning out to be the worst president America has ever had. It is a remarkable testimony to the strength and goodness of the United States that we have a half-black president and no one cares. Unfortunately, he has turned out to be a very incompetent president. That’s regrettable.”
Despite Klass’s frustration with the current political climate, she still enjoys spooking Upper West Side residents with vintage campaign buttons and laments the fact that she couldn’t find any for Mitt Romney’s campaign on sale in her neighborhood.
“I was trying to find the buttons to scare people. I could have had a lot of fun with a Romney button.”