Ring Lardner, Jr.’s memoir is a pilgrimage through the American century. The son of an immensely popular and influential American writer, Lardner grew up swaddled in material and cultural privilege. After a memorable visit to Moscow in 1934, he worked as a reporter in New York before leaving for Hollywood where he served a bizarre apprenticeship with David O. Selznick, and won, at the age of 28, an Academy Award for the classic film, Woman of the Year, the first on-screen pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn.
In “irresistibly readable” pages (New Yorker), peopled by a cast including Carole Lombard, Louis B. Mayer, Dalton Trumbo, Marlene Dietrich, Otto Preminger, Darryl F. Zanuck, Bertolt Brecht, Bert Lahr, Robert Altman, and Muhammad Ali, Lardner recalls the strange existence of a contract screenwriter in the vanished age of the studio systeman existence made stranger by membership in the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party.
Lardner retraces the path that led him to a memorable confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee and thence to Federal prison and life on the Hollywood blacklist. One of the lucky few who were able to resume their careers, Lardner won his second Oscar for the screenplay to M.A.S.H. in 1970.
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|Edition description:||Revised Edition|
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About the Author
Ring Lardner Jr., the third son of a famous American writer, attended Andover and Princeton and in 1935, went to Hollywood to become a scriptwriter. In 1942 he cowrote, with Michael Kanin, the comedy "Woman of the Year," which won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Because of his refusal to reveal his beliefs and associations in 1947 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Lardner was blacklisted in Hollywood and three years later, sentenced to a year in prison. During that time he began research on his novel THE ECSTACY OF OWEN MUIR (1954), a searing indictment of American society during the McCarthy era.
In addition to his other books ALL FOR LOVE and THE LARDNERS; MY FAMILY REMEMBERED, Lardner wrote for "The Nation," "Esquire," the "New York Times," and the "Washington Post." Among his screenwriting credits following his blacklisting are "The Cincinnati Kid" and "M*A*S*H," the latter of which won the 1970 Grand Prix at Cannes.
Victor S. Navasky has served as editor, publisher and now publisher emeritus of The Nation and presently at the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he directs the Delacorte Center of Magazines and chairs the Columbia Journalism Review.
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In the Hot Seat
ON an autumn morning in Washington, in 1947, I appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as an unwilling expert on the problem of "subversive influence in motion pictures." Presiding over the day's events was the committee chairman, Congressman J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey. A former insurance salesman, Thomas was short and round and an aide had helpfully placed a telephone directory and a red silk pillow on his chair, thus putting him in full view of a chamber packed with reporters, photographers, radio commentators, newsreel crews, and spectators, and affording him physical parity, at least, with a publicity-conscious lineup of fellow probers who included the young Richard Nixon.
The committee counsel, the wan and clerical-looking Robert Stripling, did most of the interrogating. But Thomas had a habit of taking over whenever he felt a witness was not being properly responsive, and that's how he felt, justifiably, at several points during my testimony.
"Aren't you a witness here?" Thomas demanded at last.
I acknowledged that I was, and our colloquy continued:
All right, then. A Congressional Committee is asking you: Are you a member of the Screen Writers Guild? Now you answer it yes or no.
Well, I'm saying that in order to answer that
All right, put the next question. Go tothe sixty-four-dollar question.
Go to the next question.
Mr. Lardner, are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Well, I would like to answer that question, too.
Mr. Lardner, the charge has been made before this Committee that the Screen Writers Guild which, according to the record, you are a member of, has a number of individuals in it who are members of the Communist Party. This Committee is seeking to determine the extent of Communist infiltration in the Screen Writers Guild and in other guilds within the motion picture industry.
And certainly the question of whether or not you are a member of the Communist Party is very pertinent. Now, are you a member or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?
Reconstructing our encounter more than half-a-century later, I have the congressional record to thank for the verbal details. It's harder to recapture the mood that had seized the nationits capital in particularso soon after the end of the global conflagration known as World War II.
The war and the Depression, for all the suffering they caused, had a tonic effect on many members of my generation. We had high expectations of the postwar world. Victory over fascism had been secured in the main by two great superpowers, one democratic, one communist. They had found a way of working together for what we took to be shared ideals, and the leaders of both nations now seemed to realize that the introduction of atomic weapons made future wars unthinkable. The case against racism and rabid nationalism had been made in no uncertain terms, and in our own country, with the New Deal, there had been a broad recognition of the need to soften the impact of poverty and unemployment in the short run, and to bring about more equitable social and economic arrangements in the long run.
We were, as I said, young, and perhaps forgetful of the organized hatred and repression that radicals had faced in America as recently as the 1920s, when the authorities had locked up or deported countless suspected Reds and, on thin evidence, electrocuted Sacco and Vanzetti, who had the misfortune to be immigrants as well as anarchists. Since the thirties, not only current events but the personality and popularity of Franklin Roosevelt had kept the reactionaries and their sentiments in check. Now, scarcely two years after his death, FDR stood accused of "giving away" Eastern Europe at the Yalta Conference as though Washington had ever been in a position to control the destiny of a part of the world firmly occupied by the forces of the Soviet Union, which had pushed Hitler's army back to Berlin after suffering an estimated twenty million casualties in a counteroffensive that had done at least as much to win the war in Europe as the Allied invasion of France. (The same fanciful charge would soon be made about China.) Roosevelt's Democratic successor, Harry Truman, was quick to size up the Soviets as the postwar enemy. He responded by creating the C.I.A.; proclaiming a "Truman doctrine" to protect Greece and Turkey; playing hardball with our atomic-bomb monopoly; and instituting a loyalty-oath program that cost many federal workers their jobs. Still, in the eyes of the right-wingers, even Truman's loyalty was suspect.
One of the first acts of the Republicans who took control of Congress in 1946 (for the first time in twenty years) was to convert a temporary Committee on Un-American Activities, which had been investigating fascist sympathizers during the war, into a permanent one concentrating on the political left. The focus of the committee's first big "investigation" was the movie industry.
The notion of Hollywood as a fount of subversion may be difficult for some younger readers to comprehend. It was the heyday of the studio system, and my fellow witnesses and I worked for large commercial enterprises whose leaders were utterly dedicated to the free-enterprise system. Mostly Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, they were self-made men, as the saying goes, and were inclined to wax sentimental about America as a land of opportunity. Their highest loyalty, second only to the flag, was entertainment.
In 1947, the studios gave us Life With Father, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer. My own contribution to that year's farea job not especially of my choosingwas the co-authorship of Forever Amber, a costume epic about a peasant girl who slept her way up and around in seventeenth-century England. The great social problem that my collaborator Philip Dunne and I tackled on that one was making an audience care whether Linda Darnell ended up with her true love, Cornel Wilde. (It was a challenge we failed to overcome. "You know what's wrong with this movie?" Phil said after an early screening. "It's the story of a resistible force up against a movable object.")
Our congressional inquisitors had much to say about a handful of sympathetic Hollywood treatments of life in Soviet Russia. But these were true curiosities made at the behest of the Roosevelt Administration in wartime when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been allies. Louis B. Mayer could honestly describe M.G.M.'s contribution to the genre, Song of Russia, as "little more than a pleasant musical romance."
As screenwriters, which most of us were, our influence was limited; our political beliefs were, in any case, no less "American" than those of our inquisitors. Indeed, some of the views expressed by members of the committee in that period would seem obnoxious to most Americans today, as they did to us then. Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi was given to racist and anti-Semitic rants like the one, delivered shortly after the hearing, in which he ticked off some of the names on a petition of support for us. His operatives had ascertained that June Havoc had been born June Hovick; that Danny Kaye's "real name" was David Daniel Kaminsky; that Eddie Cantor had once been Edward Isskowitz; and that Edward G. Robinson had gone by Emmanuel Goldenberger, among other revelations that Rankin described as "too numerous to mention."
Thomas and Nixon represented a more civilized form of witch-hunter, and the committee was now trying to distance itself from Rankin's harangues. Even so, the committee members and staff, like many of the studio executives, seemed to view the role that some of us had played in organizing the Screen Writers Guild and other motion picture unions as almost un-American in itself. We were also quizzed about our support in the thirties for the democratically elected government of Spain against the military revolt led by General Francisco Franco. "Premature anti-fascists" we had been labelled by, among others, F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. At times, as in the interrogation of Bertolt Brecht on the same day I testified, even anti-government activity in Nazi Germany seemed to be worthy of exposure.
Most of us, in fact, belonged or had belonged to the Communist Party of the United States, but the meaning of that affiliation is very hard for people to grasp today, with all that has become clear about Communism as it unfolded in the Soviet Union, China, and other weak and impoverished nations over the course of the twentieth century. Neither I nor any of my friends in the party wanted the U.S. remodeled along Soviet lines. We deplored the absence of free elections, the cult of personality that surrounded Stalin, and the general atmosphere of regimentation. All these defects, though, we attributed to the lack of a democratic tradition in that country before the transition to socialism. In America, we believed, the conversion to a rational economic system would be accomplished peacefully at the polls. We also expected that under Marxist socialism, Russia would become more, rather than less, democratic, and the failure of that to happen was beginning to stir doubts among some of us even as we faced the committee.
In the scheme of revolutionary activities, ours had been, on the whole, rather temperate. Besides some educational sessions in Marxism, we had spent most of our party time organizing and strengthening the guilds and unions in the picture business. During the war, we had encouraged our colleagues and employers to do what they could to help bring about the defeat of Germany and Japan. What we did not do was act as spies for the Soviet Union. The Soviet government certainly had spies in America, just as the American government had spies in the Soviet Union. That's one of the things governments do: spy on each other. But about the dumbest thing a Soviet spy could have doneand the surest way to draw the attention of the F.B.I.would have been to join the Communist Party of the United States.
In recalling that odd moment in American political history, however, I would be derelict if I did not also acknowledge that, defining subversion as they did, the committee's choice of Hollywood and its communist and left-liberal activists as a target was, on a certain rudimentary level, well-considered. Many of us had entered our professions with hopes, which we still harbored in varying degrees, that the great new medium of motion pictures would be a force for change, not in the crude way that such a thing might have been conceived in the Soviet world, but in the sense of allowing us to portray some of the not so beautiful realities of modern life and to gently illuminate areas of possible improvement.
As subject matter, both the depression and the war had brought out some of the best in Hollywood, and the movies had seemed to be coming down from the clouds, at least until Congress began looking our way. Fox, my employer, had in recent memory produced The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. During an earlier stint at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, I had co-written the first of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn films, Woman of the Year, in which Michael Kanin and I had tried to strike a modest blow for equality between the sexes. A subsequent script of mine, Tomorrow the World, had been a chance to show, through the story of a Nazi youth raised by American relatives, that racism and brutality, far from being the inherent traits of Germans or the Japanese, had to be learned and might therefore be unlearned.
Along with some of my Hollywood peers, I had hoped to see the studio system eventually yield to looser arrangements allowing even greater creative liberty. In 1945, I had been part of an effort to launch an independent production company focusing on documentaries and features about the kinds of social questions that the studios avoided. Even before the hearings, however, we had been forced to lower our sights as the studio bosses and their financial overlords in New York began to turn away from the "topical films" that, in any case, had never been more than a small part of their output. Still, to quote from a written statement that I carried onto the witness stand vainly hoping to be permitted to read it aloud, Hollywood was a "citadel of freedom" compared to Washington under the sway of the Committee on Un-American Activities.
"It seems to me you are trying to discredit the Screen Writers Guild through me," I replied to Thomas, "and the motion picture industry through the Screen Writers Guild, and our whole practice of free expression." I was about to add something about my understanding of the First Amendment when he interrupted again.
"Never mind your understanding," he fumed. "There is a question: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
"I could answer exactly the way you want, Mr. Chairman," I replied.
"It is a very simple question," he continued. "Anybody would be proud to answer itany real American would be proud to answer the question: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?Any real American."
"It depends on the circumstances," I told him. "I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning."
With that sentiment, I had exhausted Thomas's patience. "Leave the witness chair," he commanded.
When I again protested my desire to testify, he pounded his gavel in exasperation. "Leave the witness chair!"
"I think I am leaving by force," I said.
"Sergeant, take the witness away!" he ordered. And the sergeant did so.
It was my first and, I had every reason to assume, my last encounter with Congressman Thomas. Three years later, however, we confronted each other as fellow inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, where I had been sentenced to one year for the misdemeanor of not answering his questions satisfactorily.
The blue prison fatigues hung loosely on the weary, perspiring man I met crossing the prison quadrangle. In the same costume, I felt that I looked comparatively dapper after eight hours of mild stenographic labor in the Office of Classification and Parole. Thomas's job as custodian of the chicken yard, while not exactly strenuous, had kept him in the August sun all day. He had lost a good deal of weight, and his face, smooth and scarlet at our last encounter, was now deeply lined and sallow, making him look ten years older. I recognized him, however, and he recognized me. We did not speak. How could either of us pick up where we left off? Since my conviction for Contempt of Congress, along with nine other Hollywood writers and directors, I had lost an appeal, and the Supreme Court had declined to review the constitutional issues in our case.
During the same period, Thomas had been brought to trial for putting nonexistent workers on the government payroll and appropriating their salaries for himself. Offering no defense and throwing himself on the mercy of the court, he had received a mild sentence, later reduced by parole to an actual term of about nine monthsthree months less than my own stint. When his case was due to be heard by the parole board, Thomas, I learned later, was worried that I might find some way to use my official capacity to sabotage his application. Actually, the case was taken out of my hands by a civilian clerk. Like the rest of my colleagues in the Hollywood Ten, I was denied parole. But I was the only one to receive, in addition to the statutory sixty days off for good behavior, an extra fifteen days for "meritorious good behavior." This was a reward for the improvements I had made in the grammar and style of the prison material I typed.
Though far from happy about my situation, it seemed more fluid than that of the sorry figure before me in the prison yard. Even if the torch of super-Americanism Thomas had brandished so fiercely during his two years of glory had not already been snatched from him by Senator Joseph McCarthy, there was no political future for a man whose downfall had been so pitilessly publicized and so prosaically self-aggrandizing.
My own future was at least unclear. I had taken the position that, while public servants are answerable to the people, private citizens cannot be summoned in the absence of even an allegation of an illegal act to account to the government for their beliefs and associationsmatters that have traditionally been an American's own business. It was a First Amendment argument that commanded a good deal of support, some of it quite respectable. In fact, we had based our stand on the seemingly unequivocal language of a 1943 Supreme Court decision: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
Many people are surprised that the ten of us ended up not only blacklisted but imprisoned for refusing to discuss our political beliefs and associations. None of the hundreds later blacklisted in movies and television underwent the additional burden of being jailbirds. Ironically, in 1947, the Communist Party had not yet been deemed a criminal enterprise, and we were hardly eager to be the first to portray it in that light, as a plea based on the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment might have implied.
By 1951, when the next hearings commenced, the leaders of the American Communist Party had been convicted under the Smith Act and were serving their sentences. (The statute in question made it a crime to advocate the forcible overthrow of the government. The party bosses were deemed to have done so not on the basis of anything they had said themselves, but on the indirect evidence of sentiments expressed by Marx and Lenin as founding fathers of the movement.) So the Fifth Amendment had become a safe recoursea way to avoid prison, at any rateand once we had lost in the courts, there was no more point in citing the First. What witnesses couldn't avoid was the blacklistunless they were willing to name names. I am not saying that we would have pled self-incrimination it we had been certain of our success. What seemed most important and urgent to us at that time was to put the committee out of business, and only a court victory on the freedom-of-speech issue seemed likely to accomplish that. After the resolution of our case, there was no reason for anyone else to take a position that had become so clearly self-defeating.
Subpoenaed by the Committee in 1952, Lillian Hellman composed a brilliant statement of her reasons for refusing to testify about others. "I am not willing, now or in the future ... to hurt innocent people ... in order to save myself.... I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Those were the words of a gifted writer, and they had an excellent propaganda effect against informing. But Lillian was also an instinctive dramatist, and she couldn't resist the opportunity to make her situation more suspenseful in her book Scoundrel Time. There she led readers to believe she had put herself in grave personal danger by insisting on the right to testify only about herself and not name other people. Some of the best legal minds in Washington, she wrote, felt that she was sending herself straight to jail by taking that position. In fact, she had made it clear in her letter to the Committee that if it failed to grant her the privilege she was requesting, she would simply invoke the Fifth Amendment on all questions. And by then, it had been established in case after case that there was no legal penalty for that. Just unemployment.
Within weeks of the first set of hearings, the heads of the movie studios met in New York and announced that none of us would work for any of them again until we had cleared ourselves with the Committee. Back in Hollywood, people went out of their way for usa few to express their support, the majority to avoid our company. The talent guilds we had helped organize declined to support us, and soon passed new rules that made the blacklist easier to enforce. As it continued and expanded, some of us managed to work undercover at greatly reduced compensation; others had to find new occupations entirely; a few lost their lives in despair.
Nowhere else in the world, except possibly in the Kremlin, had there been a group of Communists with a higher standard of living or greater community acceptance than the writers who belonged to the party in Hollywood. One of the unwritten rules of membership, however, had been a polite understanding with our employers that we wouldn't advertise it. Now my colleagues and Isoon to be known as "The Hollywood Ten"were a hot story, and the studio bosses could no longer engage in what today might be called a policy of "Don't ask, don't tell." Making my discomfort worse was my inability to simply refuse to answer the committee's questions and assert that my membership, in either the Communist Party or the Screen writers Guild. was none of their business. But our lawyers, in an exercise of logic that seemed persuasive at the time, had insisted that such a stance could leave us vulnerable in court at a later date. We were instead supposed to maintain that we were making an attempt, in our own way, to answer the questions we felt the committee had no right to ask.
In recent decades, feelings in Hollywood, among other domains of American culture, have turned sharply in our favor. As the sole survivor of the Ten, I have been in a position lately to receive many expressions of respect and admiration from actors, actresses, and other denizens of the New Hollywood who sometimes have only a sketchy idea of what really happened to us. Since I enjoy a little adulation as much as the next man, I don't always make a point of filling in the gaps in their knowledge or correcting the points of confusion. But from time to time I try to suggest that we weren't as heroic as people make us out to be. It would be more analytically precise, it seems to me, to say that we did the only thing we could do under the circumstances, short of Behaving like complete shits.
It's hard in the year 2000 to recall my thoughts as I sat on the witness stand. Like the others who testified with me, I couldn't yet know just how much liberty and property and comfort I was going to lose and for how long. None of the very tangible and personal consequences were clear to me as I leaned into the microphone, hoping only to be heard over the hubbub and to make a few telling points before the chairman cut me off. But I could begin to sense what has become more obvious with the years: The triumph of reason was going to take a little longer than I had imagined.