I am the last living blacklisted Hollywood writer. I can’t prove this any more than I could legally prove my blacklisting at the time. (The blacklist, after all, was an illegal conspiracy subject to lawsuits.) I am reasonably certain about this claim because I knew the Hollywood writers in the Communist party and several of those blacklisted, and I was by far the youngest. My old friend Jean Butler died last year at one hundred, and I know of no other survivors.
For those of you so young as to be unfamiliar with this bleak period, here’s a synopsis: The Hollywood blacklist began in 1947 and was imposed on a growing number of screen and television writers who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. They lost their jobs and for many years after were denied employment. In time, the list included actors and many others in Hollywood who were suspected of merely having communist sympathies. Such radical affiliations had become commonplace in Hollywood and elsewhere in the theatrical world during the depression days of the thirties. They spread during World War II when “Uncle Joe” Stalin was perceived as a valuable ally.
I never gave names to or obliged in any way the FBI or any other authority. I admit, however, to occasional sympathy for some who were “friendly witnesses,” those who cooperated with congressional investigations and named names. They were presumed morally compromised by party members and fellow travelers, guilty of betrayal, but their decision struck me as more of a practical decision than a political one. Many of the older writers with children faced a real dilemma, while I was a young man just starting a family.
I know I was blacklisted because I was warned that I would be and then told that I was. The warning came from an FBI agent and the confirmation from my Hollywood agent. The FBI agent said that if I refused to provide the names of those whom I knew to be communists or supporters, I would displease my employer, a TV producer. He left it at that. My agent conferred with one of the Hollywood insider lawyers who handled such matters, and he confirmed that I was “on the list.”
I was fired from my position as a story reader without explanation. The scripts I had written and for which I had been paid were never produced. No one at the studio would return my phone calls. This was in the late fifties. The blacklist was over by 1960, but people were still scared.
While my blacklisting came as a real blow and cost me my job when I had two young children to support, it was for me only a temporary setback. I was just beginning my career as a writer, and in little more than three years I was back in Hollywood. In the meantime, I became a social worker in one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles.
I was under investigation because I had been a member of the Young Communist League (YCL) for several years in the 1950s. In those days you didn’t admit to being any kind of communist. To avoid identification, the YCL changed its name to the Labor Youth League during that period, but we stayed under the supervision of older Communist party members. We also had a few members who remained in deep cover when they achieved influential positions in student or professional organizations. We were still practicing party strategy and tactics as first outlined by Lenin and Stalin, whose works were required reading. It is easy to see how deception as to real identity and intent might be read by the authorities as “subversion,” even if the fear led to looking under beds.
Along with other young communists, I became disillusioned as early as 1955, and in 1956 the movement collapsed. Our growing uneasiness was originally due to the unrealistic demands of our party supervisors, who, subject to policy directives from Moscow, sometimes flip-flopped on issues. Even more troubling, their understanding of American college kids was hopelessly out of date. It was only out of grudging obedience that we initiated futile projects meant to build a “mass base” on college campuses. Our resistance was invariably attributed to our lack of a sufficient “proletarian” consciousness, though this admonition came from party leaders who were no more “working-class” than we were.
I was one of the few white Gentile kids from a working-class family. This was clearly one of the reasons why I was moved up so quickly into the leadership. For one summer, the party actually paid me to be the Los Angeles area college campus organizer. I wonder if I didn’t suspect then that if I was the best “proletarian” they had, they were in trouble. Some of the older communists were indeed working in factories, but they were middle-class intellectuals for the most part, trying to pass and failing. It is hard to fake class.
In 1953, the U.S.S.R. viciously suppressed uprisings in East Germany and, later, even more violently in Hungary. TV made these military suppressions visual and visceral. It wasn’t possible to pretend that those being shot or imprisoned were merely a few “counterrevolutionary reactionaries”; these were popular uprisings that exposed the authoritarian nature of communist rule. In 1956, Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s speech to the Supreme Soviet acknowledging the brutality and injustice—though blaming it all on Stalin—was leaked to the West. The Communist party was over.
Though depressed and discouraged, few of us were actually surprised. We had felt the rigid hand of the party and now understood this as rigor mortis. College kids left the communist movement in droves as I had left some months earlier. “In droves” is somewhat misleading, as there weren’t that many of us to begin with.
How and why had I become a young communist? It was hardly a safe or practical commitment. Two close friends in high school, both “red diaper babies” (that is, children of communists), played important roles in recruiting me into the movement. One was the son of an admired blacklisted writer and witty cosmopolitan. They had a grand piano, and my friend’s mother sported a long cigarette holder. Already an aspiring writer, I was more impressed with the sophistication than the ideology.
The other friend’s father was a tough union man, a true believer who pontificated endlessly and seemed to have all the answers. My friend, on the other hand, was a vulnerable, sensitive guy whom the party directed, undoubtedly with his father’s approval, to skip college and become a packinghouse worker. Conspicuously out of place in a packinghouse, he faced ferocious anti-Semitism from the other workers. This led to a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered. At the time, however, I admired his self-sacrificing militancy.
The choice that confronted us young communists was how to bring about the revolution. Was it through college studies or by entering “the shops,” as factory work was called? I was persistently urged to become an autoworker and join one of the party’s targeted unions. Impressed by the few working-class communists I met, I was leaning that way, but my sensible young wife would have none of it. She was working hard to put me through college and was damned if she was going to end up with a union shop steward. My susceptibility to communism may sound like juvenile idealism, but compared with the drift to the complacent suburbs at that time, a “revolution” suggested to me a meaningful life with purpose and hope.
The FBI had approached me directly several times over a two-year period during my LA City College days. Perhaps it was a symptom of those fearful times that trained government agents were spending so much time on a twenty-year-old college student who, however misguided, was no threat to national security.
I was supremely self-confident, however, that I was pursuing a brave, heroic path, and the memory of one incident still causes me pain and shame. I was a conspicuous radical on the City College campus, focusing, under party supervision, on racial equality. This was my only known public commitment. Party membership was kept secret. One day the assistant dean, an older man, ran up to me and blurted, “You should know that the FBI is on campus and asking questions about you!” He turned and literally trotted away. My lingering shame is that I was not only ungrateful, but considered this forthright man a frightened liberal not worthy of respect.
When the FBI at last approached me a couple years later, I wasn’t playing hero anymore. I was disillusioned with the party and Marxism and had severed all my political ties to pursue a career as a writer. Up to then, I had refused to talk to the FBI on the phone or in person. I once slammed the door on them. This time I invited them in. I was scared, and my wife, equally frightened, fled into the bedroom. I asked them to sit down. I remember them behaving well, very professional, no bullying. I spoke frankly for the first time: “You must know that I have no political connections now. I don’t belong to anything!” They acknowledged this with a nod but repeated their single request: names.
The reason I wouldn’t provide names was that my friends and former comrades were also disaffiliated and moving on into jobs or graduate study. Some were in the sciences, and clearly their futures were at risk. I wasn’t going to add to that risk. I think I would still make the same decision. I remember arguing with one FBI agent who said, again very politely, that I should simply trust the government to know and decide what was important or not. I didn’t agree then, and I don’t now. After my relatively brief exile, I resumed my career as a writer and spent the next thirty years working in Hollywood.
Hollywood is good at turning history into soap opera, but the trivialization of real political content disables our judgment. Viewing movies about the blacklist, such as The Way We Were, The Front, and Trumbo, one would think that the Hollywood communists were little more than left-wing Democrats or idealistic socialists. This is naive. Within the Communist party, the word “liberal” was a term of contempt and derision. Party discipline tended toward the totalitarian. Any party member could be “brought up on charges,” as I was once for making a single statement that seemed to question Marxist dogma. I was only chastised, but it was a warning. V. J. Jerome, the American cultural commissar, often flew to Hollywood to lay down the party line. The directives could change quickly. We were expected to turn on a dime without questioning our leaders. Dalton Trumbo’s notable 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun (serialized by the Daily Worker), pressed an anti-war message because Stalin was still allied with Hitler. But the book was soon suppressed by the party (with enthusiastic support from Trumbo himself), for soon the Hitler-Stalin pact failed and the Soviet Union was attacked. Peace was out; war was in. The party faithful were to change accordingly.
The popular versions of the blacklist overlook these facts. Trumbo casts the writer as a martyr to political conscience, which is a bit far-fetched, given that he adopted an anti-war stance for ideological reasons, not moral ones. For me, though, one of the most poignant aspects of the era lay in the fate of those figures I encountered who were never able to do what I did: recognize the rigidity and stupidity of the party in America and walk away.
One of them was Michael Wilson, at the time a writer more admired than the better-known Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. His screenplays included The Bridge on the River Kwai, Friendly Persuasion, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Place in the Sun. A distinguished man, decent and honest, Mike Wilson embodied the contradictions of the time. In 1955, I took a European filmmaker to meet Mike. Though a leftist himself, he was stunned by Mike’s dogged refusal to believe anything negative about the U.S.S.R. He rejected reports of a Gulag or slave labor as “capitalist propaganda.” Although still in the party myself, I was struck by how much denial Wilson had to sustain in order to remain a true believer. His blindness to fact and reason was hardly compatible with the benign liberalism that the movies attribute to the blacklisted communists. Over time, as the truth emerged and could no longer be dismissed, it was so bewildering and traumatic for Mike that, though relatively young, he suffered a stroke.
For me personally, the most significant figure was John Howard Lawson, who was not only the leader of the party in Hollywood but a formidable intellectual and serious Marxist. He ended up as one of the Hollywood Ten. Jack Lawson was my playwriting teacher and the author of Theory and Technique of Playwriting, which drew upon Marxist theory. Jack was brilliant when it came to dramatic structure, but ideology always crept in at the end and rang false. His life was a clear example of talent losing out to dogma. Lawson wrote movingly about Jewish life in his early plays, but then lost his voice as a writer to party-line ideology. Somehow he was willing, as were many others of lesser ability, to rationalize the Moscow “show trials” and even the Hitler-Stalin pact.
The disassociations from reality required by those mental adjustments, I suspect, were among the causes of his rather cold and dogmatic persona. Even his son lamented his emotional inaccessibility. Budd Schulberg, one of the party “irregulars” and later a defector, derided him as “the grand poobah.” Nevertheless, I respected and learned a great deal from Lawson. In his last years, he collaborated with an old friend of mine, also a Jewish writer. My friend told me that Lawson once came close to expressing regret, if not repentance. He said to my friend, “I wish I could do it all over again and know that I was a Jew.” One can only hope that this wish was a step toward reconciliation.
There are now numerous books about the blacklist, several by blacklisted writers. What one hears is not only the pain of a lost cause, but the anger and need for revenge. The concepts of “fight” and “enemy” were central to communist doctrine, and they lasted far longer than the fragile idealism. To condemn an enemy is initially cathartic, but it leads to a hopeless fixation. Many people in Hollywood ended up living always in the hope of revenge. Years later, Trumbo, by then a living symbol of the blacklist, addressed the Writers Guild and said of everyone in the blacklist era, “we were all victims.” He meant everyone, including the friendly witnesses: “None of us—right, left, or center—emerged from that long nightmare without sin.” I was present at that guild affair when he made that humane remark. It was not well received by the veterans of the left. They were stuck in good-guys-vs.-bad-guys thinking. They were the pure, wrongly maligned idealists who stood up against the “conformists” and “cop-outs.”
Why did I reject communism and still refuse to give names? Because I couldn’t drop personal loyalty, even when I dropped the politics. And how did I escape the bitter legacy of disillusionment? Because I found a hope that didn’t depend on history or human power. Funnily enough, the seeds of what became a faith deeper than ideology were planted during my blacklisted years. I mentioned that I spent time as a social worker among the poor in Los Angeles. It tested my faith in Marxism, which asked me to regard these people through a narrow lens of social injustice. Marxism failed for the simple reason that the theory didn’t match the reality. These people were more complicated, morally and socially, than party ideology allowed. I didn’t share their afflictions, but their example proved the limits and lies of what I had been taught by my supervisors.
I was forced to recognize my own limits as well, and to conclude that no human agency or institution, however idealistic and well-intentioned, can nourish the meaningful hope we call faith. When the god of communism failed, another faith was there to save me from the trauma of empty unbelief. I avoided bitterness by recognizing that it was the death of an innocent victim on a cross that brought a different kind of peace and justice, a gift of freedom and solidarity beyond the aspirations of any revolution. It took me a half century to come to these realizations. I hope others will find a shorter and easier path.
Ron Austin, a writer-producer in Hollywood for more than thirty years, is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America, and has taught screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.