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Toney the artist also fought in war

March 29, 2009
By BILL RINGLE For The Leader-Herald

Seventy-two years ago, Anthony Toney clearly seemed on the threshold of an auspicious career.

Prizes won in Gloversville High School, where he'd been valedictorian, provided tuition for Syracuse University. He graduated with a fine-arts degree.

By 1937, he was in Paris for what was to be a year studying and painting at the L'Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and L'Ecole Superieur des Beaux Art.

Yet scarcely a year later, he was severely wounded - literally inches from death - in a fierce, almost three-month-long battle, the last and greatest conflict of the Spanish Civil War. What could have driven this 25-year-old to take up arms in a cause 3,800 miles from his hometown, in which his own nation had no part? And in a war whose hellish misery has been recounted by Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and other great writers?

What set him upon his path had been a mix of Depression-era anxiety, youthful idealism and, ironically, Christianity. During GHS days, he'd been "still very much of a Christian," he told an interviewer." It was my concept of Christianity which led me, during college, to become socialist-oriented. Because of the fact that love was the main thing (in Christianity) and that if you were wealthy you'd have difficulty getting into heaven, it became obvious to me that living that (capitalist) way should be based on exploitation." After graduation from Syracuse, he evolved from socialist to communist.

In Gloversville, he was part of a leftist-leaning group, mainly young men of an intellectual bent, several college graduates, mostly without regular jobs. They ranged from liberal to communist (described in Walter Morris' book, "Young Man in Search of a Way"). They avidly followed the Spanish Civil War, from its onset in 1936. They feared a fascist rebel victory would lead to Nazi and fascist domination of Europe and World War II.

At the Beaux Art, for him, the war, in neighboring Spain, took on a greater immediacy. He'd chatted frequently with a young Spanish artist, as they painted alongside each other.

Young men from Europe, Canada and the United States, many with socialist or communist leanings, alarmed at the prospect of a fascist Spain, were volunteering for the government (Republican) side.

Toney joined a group of mostly Englishmen. By night, they trekked over the Pyrenees Mountains from France into Spain to bolster the beleaguered government troops, a ragtag and bobtail lot, as described by Orwell. With only rudimentary training, they were moved into combat. Toney was made a machinegunner, to fire one of the Maxims that the Soviet Union had supplied the government.

Earlier, the Nationalists (pro-fascist rebels) had driven the Republican forces back across the Ebro River in Spain's northeast corner. There, dispirited and cut off from the government territory, they were encamped in Catalonia.

During nine months there, living conditions were miserable. Beds were simply of straw, and blankets a luxury and often not available, he later told an interviewer. Water and washing were also luxuries, and he spent most of the war covered by scabies.

Republican commanders surprised the enemy with a bold strategy: From July 25 to 26, 1938, they ordered some 80,000 troops to cross the Ebro by night rowing hundreds of boats, or marching over makeshift French-made pontoon bridges (Toney probably crossed on one of those, he recalled later). Their aim: to recover the ground they'd lost and reconnect Catalonia with the rest of Republican-held part of Spain. But superior Nationalist forces, better equipped by Germany and Italy, counter-attacked. It was in this historic Battle of the Ebro, which went on to Nov. 18, 1928, that a bullet pierced Toney's right cheek and emerged from his left. The Nationalists prevailed. On April 1, 1939, fascist leader Gen. Francisco Franco declared victory and ruled Spain until he died in1975.

Toney, after treatment in Spanish hospitals, was returned to the United States and briefly resumed painting. During World War II, he served four years with the U.S. Army Air Force, mostly in New Guinea. In the USAAF, he said, his communism (to which he adhered for the rest of his life) gave him no trouble, perhaps because by then the Soviet Union was a valued war ally. In fact, he was decorated.

Postwar, after honorable discharge, he was ever prolific and attained national prominence with his painting. For 43 years, he taught at the New School for Social Research, acquired a doctorate in fine arts and education from Columbia University and turned out three books. Jaunty, often wearing a beret, he remained handsome and continued painting into old age. His wife died in 1993. He lived his last years in Fairfax, Calif., where he lived with Anita, one of two daughters.

He died Sept. 10, 2004.

While he was in Spain, his parents hadn't been aware that he'd been in the war at all, much less his wounding.

Before going to Spain, he'd written a number of letters to them, which he'd given to a friend to mail weekly, providing an illusion that he was still in France. That concealment was intended both to spare them worry and in deference to his Syrian-born father, who didn't approve of socialism. "They couldn't have faced it," he said. "They weren't political."

William Ringle, a native of Gloversville, was a newspaper reporter for 40 years in Rome, N.Y., Rochester, Albany and Washington, where he was chief correspondent for Gannett News Service. With his wife, the former Marie Mahoney of Gloversville, he now lives in a retirement community in Davidson, N.C.



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