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«gerald horne University of California Press berkeley los angeles london University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university ...»

-- [ Page 1 ] --

The Final Victim of the Blacklist

John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

gerald horne

University of California Press

berkeley los angeles london

University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university

presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its

activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic

contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit www.ucpress.edu.

University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California University of California Press, Ltd.

London, England © 2006 by The Regents of the University of California Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Horne, Gerald.

The final victim of the blacklist : John Howard Lawson, dean of the Hollywood Ten / Gerald Horne.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

isbn-13: 978-0-520-24372-9 (alk. paper).

isbn-10: 0-520-24372-2 (alk. paper).

isbn-13: 978-0-520-24860-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) isbn-10: 0-520-24860-0 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Lawson, John Howard. 1894–1977. 2. Dramatists, American—20th century—Biography. 3. Screenwriters—United States—Biography. 4.

Blacklisting of authors—United States. 5. Communism and literature— United States—History—20th century. 6. Theater—New York (State)—New York—History—20th century. 7. Motion picture industry—California—Los Angeles—History. I. Title.

ps3523.a954z69 2006 812.52—dc22 2006007346 Manufactured in the United States of America This book is printed on New Leaf EcoBook 60, containing 60% postconsumer waste, processed chlorine free; 30% de-inked recycled fiber, elemental chlorine free; and 10% FSC-certified virgin fiber, totally chlorine free. EcoBook 60 is acid-free and meets the minimum requirements of ansi/astm D5634–01 (Permanence of Paper).

Contents Prologue vii Introduction 1

1. Beginnings 14

2. Toward Commitment 35

3. Hollywood 50

4. From Hollywood to Broadway 66

5. Commitment 80

6. Theory and Practice 98

7. Struggle 116

8. Fighting—and Writing 132

9. Writing—and Fighting 149

10. Red Scare Rising 166

11. Inquisition 184

12. Jailed for Ideas 202 13. “Blacklisted” 222

14. The Fall of Red Hollywood 241 Conclusion 263 Notes 269 Index 347 Prologue John Howard Lawson was not pleased.

Here he was in the fall of 1947 not recumbent in his comfortable Southern California home but instead in a forbidding congressional hearing room on Capitol Hill. This year was to prove to be the “driest... in the history of Los Angeles”;1 meanwhile, a steady rain had descended on Washington. Lawson’s trip east likewise had been a voyage from blue and sunny skies to what was to become dreary weather. The celebrated playwright and screenwriter who had penned tomes on the magic behind creating dramatic tension now found himself as the unlikely leading character in a bit of political theater not of his making.

He had been summoned to Washington ostensibly because of concern over the ability of Communist screenwriters—like himself—to insinuate their ideologically verbal wizardry into the mouths of stars on the silver screen, thereby providing the newly minted foe in Moscow with an incalculable advantage. Actually, what was driving this well-attended hearing was the specter of militant labor led by Reds like Lawson, who had organized writers a few years previously and had marched with studio carpenters, painters, and other workers when they had conducted a fierce strike two years earlier.2 It was no secret that affluent Reds like Lawson subsidized the Communist Party and its initiatives, as they provided living proof that being a revolutionary did not entail grim sacrifice. Putting Hollywood at center stage—in the person of the rumpled, tousled, hawk-nosed Lawson, he of the foghorn voice—was designed to dramatize the simple fact that a new day was at hand, a day in which Reds would receive no quarter, labor would be shellacked—and the progressive redoubt that Hollywood, notably the Screen Writers Guild (SWG), had become would be radically altered.

vii Prologueviii /

Certainly, Congressman J. Parnell Thomas—the conservative New Jersey Republican who presided over this political drama—treated this gathering as if he were Cecil B. DeMille, the Hollywood mogul who had helped to inspire this hearing, rather than an elected official. This was nothing new. Thomas’s otherwise obscure national political profile was transformed after he launched a crusade against the Federal Theatre of the New Deal, a few years earlier; this led to “nation-wide publicity.”3 He well knew the political mileage to be gained by assailing performers and writers and their political patrons.4 Thomas, a hound for publicity, which he deemed a “politician’s meat and drink,” made sure that Lawson’s star turn would receive maximum press coverage.5 It was one of the “capitol’s biggest shows,” crowed one local newspaper, as “more than 100 reporters” assembled to make sure that the moral of this story reached far and wide. There were “at least four newsreel cameras trained on the witness chair... manned at all times. Six or more still photographers—often as many as 10... crouched near the chair.” A technician ensured there would be blinding illumination, holding “first one exposure meter and then another a few feet” from Lawson’s nose, “checking the lighting for his shots.” Klieg lights and other floodlamps bedecked the crowded room, causing several reporters to “wear dark glasses, adding another Hollywood touch to the proceedings.”6 Thomas’s committee was the epicenter of the gathering Red Scare storm.7 With satisfaction he remarked subsequently that “the room was not only jammed with spectators, but it was crammed with newspaper correspondents, news camera men, movie cameras,... radio operators and their machines, even Washington society.”8 He had learned well from his predecessor, Martin Dies of Texas, whom he deemed primarily an actor. “He could dramatize any kind of situation,” he remarked with no small envy, “and in the exposure of spy activity a certain amount of dramatization is required.” One of the chief investigators for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was “an actor born who was never happier than when he was slinking about in disguise. He smoked a curved-stemmed pipe a la Sherlock Holmes and was a real sleuth.”9 This congressional hearing was a form of guerrilla theater, a drama meant to instruct a wider audience about the arrival of a new political era. “Nothing is more significant,” opined George Bernard Shaw sagely, “than the statement that ‘all the world’s a stage.’”10 This was no less true in the early fall of 1947 on the banks of the Potomac River.





To be sure, the lights and cameras were not attracted solely by the prospect of recording a soliloquy by a man who came to be known as the Prologue / ix Communist cultural commissar of Hollywood and Broadway. In Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic, Lawson had crafted some of Humphrey Bogart’s most memorable roles, and the actor with the sandpapered voice reciprocated by joining some of the brightest stars in Hollywood’s firmament in attendance at the Washington hearing. Yet Bogart’s evident anxiety foretold his subsequent quick defection from the ranks of Lawson’s supporters: as he rose from his seat, “his tongue nervously curled to one side of his mouth.” The woman with whom he was to spend his dying days, the lovely Lauren Bacall, stretched her neck in an effort to see past the sea of heads. Nearby, June Havoc and the carrottopped Danny Kaye watched fretfully.11 These stars had not seemed as apprehensive earlier when as the Committee for the First Amendment they had a “big meeting” at the home of the famed director William Wyler. There were “about sixty people” present, including “largely well-known stars, some writers, some directors and some producers.”12 They were seized with the idea—not inappropriately, as it turned out—that these hearings would have a chilling effect on the creativity of the industry, hampering the production of challenging films.

Soon, as Bacall was to observe, a “disturbing and frightening period” arose in Hollywood. “Everyone was suspect—at least, everyone to the left of center.” This was her “first grown-up exposure to a cause,” and she became “very emotional about it.” Bogart, noted Bacall, “felt strongly about it too, but at first I was the more outspoken.”13 Thus, by the time Lawson arrived in the witness chair at 10:30 a.m. on 27 October 1947, he had managed to unite a powerful array of foes bent on his destruction. Thomas, Congressman Richard Nixon, and those interrogating Lawson were determined to get answers to questions about two organizations he had helped to build—the Communist Party and the SWG— and Lawson was equally determined to resist their inquiries. “It is a matter of public record that I am a member of the Screen Writers Guild,” he shouted, but added quickly that “the question of whether I have held office is also a question which is beyond the purview of this committee.... it is an invasion of the right of association under the Bill of Rights of this country.”14 This was followed by a cacophony of interruptions and gavel pounding. Lawson’s lawyers, said Thomas, were “popping up like jacks-in-thebox,” and the similarly pugnacious congressman “carried on a three cornered debate as to whether or not Lawson should be allowed to make a statement”—a debate Lawson lost resoundingly amid the chaos.15 In the “supercharged atmosphere little incidents provided light relief. As a movie flood lamp exploded with a soft ‘plop’ and showered glass down on the auPrologue x dience, one of the 31 Capitol police guarding the hearing room” reflected the palpable tension in the air when he murmured, “‘I thought they had me for a minute.’” Meanwhile, “all day long, outside of the old House Ofce Building, sidewalks were sprinkled with waiting lines of movie fans yearning to catch a glimpse of the high-powered screen stars” present; it was a “movie fan magazine writer’s dream.”16 Undeterred, Lawson kept shouting as the cameras whirred and reporters scribbled furiously, capturing this moment of dramatic tension and bitter confrontation. It was “bare knuckles” combat and a “fishwife brawl,” commented Daily Variety, as Lawson and Thomas were “screeching at each other.”17 “I am being treated differently from the rest,” Lawson bellowed.

“I am an American,” he continued with passion, “and I am not easy to intimidate.” Finally, he conceded the obvious: “I was the first president, in 1933, and I have held office on the board... of the Screen Writers Guild at other times,” and, yes, he worked at “practically all of the studios, all the major studios.” But on the question of Party membership, he would not yield.

“The question of communism,” he instructed his interlocutors, “is in no way related to this inquiry, which is an attempt to get control of the screen and to invade the basic rights of American citizens in all fields.” Thomas would not relent either, telling his obstreperous witness, “We are going to get the answer to that question if we have to stay here for a week.” Lawson, a frequent teacher, resumed his professorial posture, noting, “It is unfortunate and tragic that I have to teach this committee the basic principles of American [life].” “I have told you,” he said with exasperation, “that I will offer my beliefs, affiliations and everything else to the American public, and they will know where I stand.” Demonstratively unimpressed, with a final flourish Thomas replied, “Officers, take this man away from the stand”—which they did, as the diminutive Lawson resisted forcefully and futilely their successful attempt to drag him away from the witness chair.

Rather quickly, a nine-page memorandum detailing Lawson’s radical and Communist ties was read into the record, then the committee cited him for contempt—a charge that was to derail his lucrative screenwriting career and land him in federal prison.18 Thirty years later, in the high court case of Wooley v. Maynard, Carey McWilliams, the prominent California progressive, observed that “by ruling that the First Amendment protects the right to refrain from speaking about one’s political beliefs as well as the right to speak,” the court vindicated Lawson’s position. “Today,” he added, “this point of view is not exceptional; then it was. In fact, it was regarded as heretical.”19 For his heresy, Lawson was placed in a tiny, clammy prison cell.

Prologue / xi • • • Lawson, a close student of the busy intersection where politics and theater collided, was probably not surprised about his starring role in Washington.



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