Informing on the Informers

Naming Names

by Victor S. Navasky
Viking, 482 pp., $15.95

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part.
—T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”

Early in his book on the Hollywood informers, Victor Navasky quotes from a pamphlet issued by Aware, Inc. (one of the “extra-governmental agencies” in the blacklisting business), entitled The Road Back (Self-Clearance): A Provisional Statement of View on the Problem of the Communist and Communist-Helper in Entertainment Communications Who Seeks to Clear Himself.

[Hatred of Communism] is like hatred of sin and error: a moral obligation. This does not mean hatred of individual Communists. It means “informing” in the noble sense of warning, educating, counselling. The sinful informer sells, for money or sufficient advantage, that which he knows to be right.

This vintage Fifties definition of “informing” sets the tone for Naming Names, an unlovely story crowded with enough shameful antics to turn any well-wisher of mankind into a Gulliver. Reading Navasky’s book is rather like listening to those long and self-abasing confessions in a Dostoevsky novel or to one of Hawthorne’s litanies on “that foul cavern,” the human heart. Yet his story has its comic side, too, if comedy can be defined as the ludicrous discrepancy between profession and act. Among his cast of hundreds are the smiling squealer, Paul Crouch; the informers’ counselor, lawyer Martin Gang; Ernest Philip Cohen, “a shrink who converted his patients into informers”; blustering film moguls; congressional persecutors and their network of official and unofficial henchmen; and most important of all, the witnesses—belligerent, unrepentant, self-defensive, or unctuous—summoned to unburden their guilty souls.

Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, is hardly an Olympian recorder of HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) in Hollywood, nor can it be said that his seven-year probe of Hollywood informers springs from idle curiosity. Had he been twenty years older, he remarked to a Publisher’s Weekly interviewer not long ago, he would have been “on all sorts of blacklists.” The parents of some of his friends lost their jobs “because of their politics,” and he was personally acquainted with actor J. Edward Bromberg, ex-communist and former star of the Group Theatre whose death by heart failure has been attributed in part to HUAC’s refusal to excuse him from testifying before the Committee despite a medical certificate advising against it. Naming Names, then, is more than an episode in the annals of the McCarthy era. It is also a brief for damaged lives and a moral and psychological meditation. In his search for “answers,” Navasky has dug into a vast amount of material and spoken to more than 150 participants of his ethical drama. One can only applaud the adroitness with which he has put together a lucid and persuasive narrative from such a mare’s nest of fact and supposition.

A number of writers have already dealt with the subject of blacklisting in the entertainment industry, and one recent work in particular, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund …

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