Memories of Bogdan Denitch

Memories of Bogdan Denitch

The man whom the folk-singer legend Dave Van Ronk, Bogdan’s old friend, called “the mad Montenegrin” was a larger-than-life figure with a uniformly kind heart that he often tried to mask.

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Bogdan Denitch traveling in Croatia and Bosnia, late 1980s, and at his apartment in the East Village, New York City (right). Photos courtesy of Jo-Ann Mort.

One of Bogdan’s many unique attributes was that his Yugoslavian accent (to the day he died he would remain a Yugoslav, not succumb to the warring divisions in his homeland) got thicker the longer he lived in America. Perhaps it reflected his ever-present sense of exile from his homeland. It certainly added to his allure. With his hulking build and a cigarette often in his hand (until his first heart attack at the age of fifty-four, when he reduced intake to about one a week, or slightly more when he was in Europe), while he sat over a beer or whiskey telling a story or debating with friends, he was an American original, with a hefty Balkans lilt.

Having come to the United States as a teenager, he became profoundly American. He came on his own, even though his father arrived around the same time, while his mother remained in Belgrade, and entered City College soon after arriving at the age of sixteen. Bogdan took quickly to 1950s American life. Living in Berkeley and Greenwich Village, he adopted the mores of a bohemian leftist, an urban academic who came to academia late, after a stint as a machinist where he was also a socialist activist.

The man whom the folk-singer legend Dave Van Ronk, Bogdan’s old friend, called “the mad Montenegrin” was a larger-than-life figure with a uniformly kind heart that he often tried to mask. He was as consistent in his politics as anyone I have ever known.

Bogdan recruited Mike Harrington to the socialist movement off of a New York City picket line in 1952, which meant, back then, for him, the Young People’s Socialist League. From that day until Michael’s death in 1989, they were best friends and comrades, though they almost never shared personal sentiments of any kind, finding it easier to confide in the women around them and not succumb to male sentimentality, so much a pose of the old left activists. They both came to see Irving Howe as part of their triumvirate, even when their politics diverged a bit to the right or the left of the socialist spectrum. Indeed, there was almost no one who could appear to tame Bogdan, except occasionally Irving, when he would laugh off some of Bogdan’s bluster and call Bogdan’s bluff with an amused smile. They never shared personal tales or feelings. It was a testament to how much of their individual life blood was tied up in the socialist cause and the belief that the Movement could thrive in America that their closeness was knit together by sectarianism and pure belief. Bogdan felt Dissent magazine to be an important extension of the movement and prided himself for years on feeling that he was to the left of others on the board (probably so), especially when Irving was still alive.

Having contracted scarlet fever as a child, Bogdan lost much of his hearing early on and was wearing a hearing aid before he turned fifty. The hearing loss was partly responsible for his often appearing to not listen to others (though he also simply didn’t listen to others), and Bogdan often found it convenient to tune out when he wanted to by turning the device off or misplacing a battery.

But he was never vain about his hearing issues, nor really about anything else. He was utilitarian in outlook and makeup, and rarely revealed his childhood upbringing as the son of a diplomat in Yugoslavia’s pre-war government. (The first time I learned about his upbringing was at a reception with some friends of his from Belgrade who mentioned something about the King of Jordan and Bogdan told me as an aside that he and the King went to prep school together in Alexandria.)

Even his heart disease didn’t slow him down, though perhaps it should have. He was back on his feet in less than a week after his first bypass operation at fifty-four, and back to his version of a Mediterranean diet of salamis and hard cheeses to go with his wine. Bogdan found great joy in life and he expected that others should too; it was part of the impetus of his political leanings. He especially loved to “putter” around, as he put it, on his boat, and he took great pride in showing off his little motor boat when anyone would visit him in Supetar, on the Dalmatian coast island of Brac, where he bought a home that became his final residence. (The little motor boat allowed him to escape from Brac to the coastal city of Split when the Croatian navy effected a naval blockade—Bogdan, with no one else in his boat, was somehow able to maneuver the boat through the waters, between the larger vessels, and get himself off the island to freedom.)

The breakup of Yugoslavia was especially painful for Bogdan, who emphatically considered himself a Yugoslav, not a Croat, though he was a citizen of that newish country. Born of the Belgrade intellectual scene, he was greatly troubled not only by the breakup of his nation but by the extreme chauvinism and xenophobia that emerged during the war. He took great pride in the Yugoslavian experiment (and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Yugoslav socialist experiment—The Legitimation of a Revolution, published by Yale in 1976).

Just a couple of years before the beginning of the end for that country, he insisted on taking me to see Mostar in Bosnia, to experience what he called “enlightened Islam,” where the cosmopolitan Muslim community gathered in bars and cafes until the outbreak of the civil war destroyed all that for the hard years of the war. We walked across the famous Stari Most bridge that was blown to bits by the warring forces a few years later. Afterwards, heartbroken, he predicted that “they will build it again as good as new,” and so they did—though of course, it is not the same.

I visited him in Croatia during the wars. The rockets were exploding off in the distance when we were in Croatia, but he was still hopeful that his little part of the world would be saved from the strife. The Dubrovnik airport was nearly empty of tourists at the height of the summer and after picking me up, we drove through the mountain roads along the coast to the town of SuMartin where we would take a ferry to Brac. As he drove, with American country music blaring from the cassette deck, I glanced at the back seat to see a pistol on the seat. When I asked him why he had a pistol, he told me that the area was dangerous. I thought he was crazy, but soon thereafter, the civil war, which Bogdan termed the “revenge of the rednecks” (by which he meant a revolt against the cosmopolitan mixing of different nationalities) broke out in Croatia and the descent began. Yet I will never forget the moment when we got to the ferry line and someone snuck their car in front of his and Bogdan pulled the pistol out and started waving it around. “Are you nuts?” I screamed. “What is the big deal? We’ll return on the 7:30 instead of the 3:30 boat to the island? You are all crazy here.” He put the gun away, his pride a bit injured. Later, recalling this incident, I realize how much of the fabric his homeland Bogdan truly was; his hot temper was almost always put to work for social good, but occasionally, if someone stepped out of line, he didn’t hesitate to fight back, no matter how crazy it made him look.

Even though he had great faith in his beloved country, he didn’t hedge his bets. In the summer of 1991, I met him in Venice for a brief vacation. He had travelled through the roadblocks of his unravelling country to reach Italy, still hopeful that some semblance of what he considered to be normalcy could be maintained in that part of the world. He showed up with 12,000 deutsche marks stuffed in his money belt, insurance against his fear that he wouldn’t be able to return back across the border. Once he did return, the idyllic island life was disrupted not only by war but by the reaction of his Croatian neighbors—people he thought were friends—who, inculcated with the thoughtless rote of far-right nationalism, demeaned themselves with slurs against his Serbian heritage, which hurt him more than most of the things he endured in his life.

Among the three—Harrington, Howe, and Denitch—Bogdan lived more on the edge, never totally relinquishing his bohemian ways. No one would have predicted that he would outlive both of his comrades by decades. They each not only shared their political passions and activism but also came to be professors together in the CUNY system. Bogdan, who had for so long resisted academia, eventually became chair of the Sociology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center, for twelve years. He was an unconventional professor, at best, but his door was always open to his students (he was often found with students and colleagues, several of whom are Dissent editors, at the eighteenth-floor bar in the old CUNY building on 42nd Street at the end of the day). Part of his persona was not letting on how deeply engaged he could be, if absolutely necessary, in his academic discipline of political sociology.


I suspect that growing old was very difficult for Bogdan, something he never discussed, at least with me. He just seemed to endure it.

His heart got weaker; diabetes set in, his hearing got worse, but what seemed to be the final descent was after a motor scooter accident when he was well into his seventies, having hit a spot of black oil on Brac. His ankle got crushed and gangrene set in; the foot was not operated on properly in Split, and it was too late to properly repair it when he returned to New York. After that, Bogdan walked with a walker, and could barely get up and down stairs or walk across a city street. He was abruptly halted in his race.

There was simply something about Bogdan that made him seem larger than life, and made many people think that perhaps he could cheat death. Which, of course, he couldn’t. He was greatly looking forward to becoming a grandfather. The last email I received from him was about how his beloved daughter, Maja Denic Munk, was going to give birth to twins. Sadly, he didn’t live to meet them.

Bogdan, a staunch atheist, was amused when, on a visit together to Trotsky’s home and grave site in the revolutionary’s back yard in Coyocan, Mexico, I put a pebble on the gravestone and quietly said Kaddish for Trotsky.

Bogdan would be equally amused by my ending this remembrance with these words: May your memory be for a blessing, dear Bogdan, and may we all work hard to create the heaven on earth that you so believed in and for which you fought each day of your life. Amen.

Jo-Ann Mort is a member of the Dissent editorial board.