Famous All Over Town
Q. So my first question is, have you at any time been a member of the Communist Party?
A. I would like to answer that by saying that I am not a member of the Communist Party. However, as to the second part of your question I will stand on the fifth amendment and refuse to answer this question because I feel it could incriminate me.
Q. Well, actually I asked you only one question, whether you had ever been a member. You state you are not a member now?
Q. When did you withdraw from the Communist Party?
A. I would have to decline, sir, on the same ground.
Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los
Angeles, California, September 19, 1951
The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award is given every year by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to one painter and to one “American work of fiction published during the preceding twelve months which, though not a commercial success, is a considerable literary achievement.” Over the years, this prize has been awarded to novels by, among others, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, and Diane Johnson.
The book chosen this year was Famous All Over Town, an ebulliently funny first novel by Danny Santiago about an indomitable young Chicano growing up in the East Los Angeles barrio. The citation for the Rosenthal Award, presented by John Kenneth Galbraith at the Academy and Institute’s annual ceremonial last May 16th, read:
Famous All Over Town adds luster to the enlarging literary genre of immigrant experience, of social, cultural and psychological threshold-crossing…. The durable young narrator spins across a multi-colored scene of crime, racial violence and extremes of dislocation, seeking and perhaps finding his own space. The exuberant mixes with the nerve-wracking; and throughout sly slippages of language enact a comedy on the theme of communication.
Danny Santiago did not show up at the ceremony to pick up the $5,000 check that came with his Rosenthal Award. His absence was in keeping with a long-established pattern of reclusiveness. There is no photograph of Danny Santiago on the dust jacket of Famous All Over Town. His agent and publisher have never laid eyes on him. Neither have they ever spoken to him on the telephone. Danny Santiago claims to have no telephone. His address is a post office box in Pacific Grove, California, a modest settlement on the Monterey peninsula. All communication with Danny Santiago goes through this Pacific Grove post office box. Danny Santiago refuses to be interviewed and therefore did no publicity on behalf of Famous All Over Town. It is as if Danny Santiago did not exist, and in a way he does not.
As it happens, I have known the author of Famous All Over Town for the past eighteen years. He was my landlord when my wife and I lived in Hollywood. Danny Santiago, strictly speaking, is not his name. He is not a Chicano. Nor is he young. He is seventy-three years old. He is an Anglo. He is a graduate of Andover and Yale. He was the only member of the Yale class of 1933 to major in classical Greek. He is a prize-winning playwright. He is the co-author of the book of a hit musical comedy that played 654 performances on Broadway.
He was a screenwriter. He worked with Charlie Chaplin on The Great Dictator. He was a member of the Communist party. He worked as a volunteer social worker in East Los Angeles. He was one of 152 people named, on September 19, 1951, by a single witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating Communist infiltration of the movie industry. He was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee. He declined under oath to say whether he had ever been a member of the Party, which he had, in fact, officially left three years earlier. He was blacklisted. He wrote monster pictures under an assumed name. He continued, along with his wife, to do volunteer work in East Los Angeles through the 1950s and into the Sixties. In 1968, he showed me some stories he had written about the neighborhood where he had been a social worker for so many years. As a result, I became a reluctant co-conspirator in his establishing the identity of Danny Santiago. His name is Daniel James. “Danny Santiago,” of course, is Dan James translated into Spanish.
Q. Will you state your full name, Mr. James?
A. Daniel Lewis James.
Q. When and where were you born?
A. In Kansas City, Missouri, January 14, 1911.
Testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los
Angeles, California, September 19, 1951
Dan James’s grandfather was the first cousin of Frank and Jesse James. This grandfather went to Brown. His grandmother was in the first graduating class at Vassar. His father graduated from Yale. The Jameses of Kansas City were Midwestern gentry, importers and purveyors of fine china—Spode and Haviland—which they sold throughout the Midwest and the border states. The business—T.M. James & Sons—flourished. Daniel James’s maternal grandfather purchased the home of a robber baron in Kansas City who had gone broke. I have seen a photograph of this house, which has long since been razed. It was a house of which Soames Forsyte might have approved, the house of a man of property, huge, in the convention of the day, dominated by a tower and punctuated by turrets and gables and cupolas and verandas, and it was in this house that Daniel James was born in 1911, his parents’ only child.
D.L. James, his father, was himself a Galsworthy creation, a businessman-aesthete in the manner of young Jolyon Forsyte, who painted. When he was not selling china, D.L. James was a play-wright, wright, occasionally produced in stock and little theaters and foreign and amateur productions, at work at the time of his death in 1944 on a five-act play on his kinsman, Jesse James, about whom his feelings were ambivalent; he could not decide, according to his son, whether Jesse was more sinned against than sinning. “My father met anybody interesting who came to Kansas City,” Daniel James says. “There was a little luncheon group of all the intellectuals in Kansas City, which numbered between nine and thirteen, I think.”1 Walter Hampden, the actor, was a friend of D.L. James, as were Karl Menninger and Thomas Hart Benton. Sinclair Lewis came to call.
It was only natural that from 1914 on D.L. James would spend his summers, with his wife and young son, in Carmel, California. A kind of manqué literary life could exist there for him as it did among the Kansas City intellectuals because in neither venue would it be put to the test of reality. There is a visual splendor about Carmel that is almost dreamlike, a soft-focus mirage of dunes and crashing white water and guano-washed rock islets and sheer cliffs falling into the surf and forests and meadows and clinging mists and windbent stands of cypress; the place tends to create a pervading, even comforting sense that no artistic accomplishment could ever match the landscape. Carmel was “an outpost of bohemia,” Kevin Starr wrote in Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915, a place of “artists, near artists and would-be artists.” There was something moony about their attempt to merge art and nature. The California novelist Mary Austin (author of The Ford) wore long robes, rode a white horse, and worked in a tree house. It was the perfect spot to contemplate Jesse James as the fog rolled in and the years rolled by.
In 1918, D.L. James commissioned the project which was to be his monument. He had bought some property on a promontory near Point Lobos, a few miles from Carmel, and invited an acquaintance, the great California architect Charles Sumner Greene, to take a look at the site. Charles Greene was fifty, a partner with his brother Henry Mather Greene in the firm of Greene & Greene. The Greene brothers were craftsmen, virtuosos in wood and glass. For a quarter of a century in southern California, particularly in Pasadena, they had elevated the prairie house of Louis Sullivan into a mystical idea, the bungalow as a pre-Raphaelite vision. Stone was not their usual medium, but Charles Greene was so challenged by D.L. Jame’s wind-buffeted point that two days later, unsolicited, he submitted a set of rough preliminary sketches for a stone house of such intricate design that it would be almost impossible to tell where cliff ended and house began. D.L. James immediately engaged him to begin work.
Construction took five years. Charles Greene was always on the site, supervising the quarrying, the cutting, and the laying of the stone, all of it indigenous to Carmel. The house is U-shaped, as if fitted to the contours of the point; its granite walls are two to three feet thick and the stones are set irregularly into the facade with broken faces exposed. The effect is medieval.
Although the house has only one story, it has several levels adhering to the topography of the cliff. The ceilings in the living room and library are sixteen feet high and every one of the house’s seven rooms has an arched window opening onto the ocean a hundred feet or so below. Charles Greene revised his plans constantly, tearing out walls and replacing them if he were dissatisfied with the masonry or the workmanship. Costs escalated. In 1922, D.L. James finally called a halt before Charles Greene could complete an office on a lower elevation or put his own stamp on the interiors, as was his plan. The final cost, astonishingly, even allowing for the dollar’s soundness in that period, was less than $90,000.
The house is called Seaward and it has been the home of Daniel James and his wife Lilith since his mother’s final illness in 1968. It is a work of art, with all the baggage that phrase might carry. “This house was the answer to my father’s dream of immortality, which he did not achieve in his writing,” Daniel James says. The legacy would prove as well to be an enduring financial and psychological burden for the son. “Who am I to have this?” he asks rhetorically. “In my bad moments I’ve often felt all those tons of rock walls balancing on the back of my neck.” Whatever he accomplished, he would always measure that accomplishment against the house.
Dan James is six feet six inches tall. He was cross-eyed until he was fourteen, a condition that nourished a tendency toward introspection. He missed a year at Yale because of tuberculosis. He majored in Greek “because it was a different thing to do.” He was informed more by Carmel than he was by either Yale or the mercantile Midwest. He knew Lincoln Steffens and Ella Winter and was exposed to what Kevin Starr has called Carmel’s “loquacious socialism” and “posturing reformism.” He was “progressive” as a matter of course, but it was not until his last year at Yale, after his sojourn in a Connecticut TB sanitorium, that he became politically active. He joined the John Reed Club and walked in a hunger march to Hartford.
He graduated into the Depression, but at least into a job, as a china salesman for T.M. James & Sons. His territory was Oklahoma and southern Missouri. The dust bowl was not the best place those days for a drummer of fine china. Dan James remembers once flourishing stops where stores had been boarded up and the towns had ceased to exist. “I was giving away things from my sample case,” he recalls. “People who used to order Haviland were asking for a cup and saucer they could sell for ten cents.”
That a young man of genteel Midwestern background, his only real experience in the marketplace a family sinecure peddling Limoges in the path of a national disaster, could wind up the 1930s a member of the Communist party and working for Charlie Chaplin was a not atypical story of that time. Carmel was the stage where Dan James blocked out the major scene changes in his life, the place to which he would always return after his forays into the job market. From Carmel he went to work briefly in the Oklahoma oil fields, a job secured for him by a relative who owned an oil drilling company. At first the Yale man as a swamper—a colorful name for a truck driver’s assistant, loader, gofer, and handyman—was sent to fetch circle stretchers and left-handed monkey wrenches, but in time he learned that “this is what it felt like to make a living.” Loading and unloading truckloads of pipe, the Yale man began to dream that one day he might “organize the workers.” After a few months, however, he returned to Kansas City—“my own man”—to marry for the first time. In the face of this “explosion of domesticity” and a bout with hepatitis that doctors thought might signal a recurrence of his tuberculosis, the allure of the working-class life began to recede.
He retreated to Carmel, and at his father’s instigation he began to write for the first time. The two Jameses, father and son, collaborated on a play about the 1934 West Coast longshoremen’s strike. “It was your typical strike play,” Dan James remembers. “There was the strike. There was the Irish family of dock-workers. And of course there was the little kid who gets shot.” When the play was finished, he and his wife went to New York sure that one of the burgeoning new left-wing theater groups would produce it. His exposure to the reality principle was swift. He recalls the reaction of one producer’s reader: “After reading the play, she said, ‘You’re a nice young man. But I think very possibly you should do something else besides writing.’ I resented it slightly.”
For a while, James and his wife stayed on in New York. He wrote more unproduced plays and worked as an extra in John Howard Lawson’s Marching Song, a strike drama he considered far inferior to his own. The experience on stage in Marching Song had one postscript unforeseen at the time. A few years later, Lawson (always known as “Jack”) became a major functionary and dialectician of the Communist party in Hollywood—the “Grand High Poo-Bah,” in the words of one informer before the House Committee on Un-American Activities2—and it was he who would vouch for Dan James and his progressivism when he joined the Party.
New York palled, and in time James returned to Carmel. He busied himself in local theatricals and inchoate political activism. His marriage foundered. Then one day in 1938, Charlie Chaplin came to call at his father’s house by the sea. “My father was the kind of man Chaplin would be brought to see if he was visiting in Carmel,” Dan James says. Chaplin was just beginning work on The Great Dictator. Not long after this first meeting, Dan James wrote Chaplin in Hollywood and asked him for a job. He was hired for $80 a week.
Last June, in Carmel, I asked him why Chaplin would hire an assistant with no experience making movies. “He wanted to meet John Steinbeck, who I knew,” Dan James said. “Not that he couldn’t have met Steinbeck on his own. And he had a history of hiring tall, well-bred assistants who knew what fork to use.”
Q. What has been your record of employment?
A. …I began writing in 1935, or 1936. The first years were extremely difficult, learning my craft and so forth. In 1938, I came here to Hollywood, was employed in an independent studio as a sort of junior writer-assistant to a producer. After that I wrote a play called Winter Soldiers, which was produced in New York City in the fall of 1942. This was then sold to Edward Small. I did a screenplay on it, but…the screenplay was shelved. I then engaged with my wife in working on her original story of what turned out to be a musical comedy, Bloomer Girl. Since that period, my fortunes have been rather bad. I have written a novel, which was not published, a couple of plays, numerous short stories, and so forth.
Dan James, testifying before the House Committee on Un-American
Activities, Los Angeles, California, September 19, 1951
Charlie Chaplin was the first of what Dan James calls his surrogate fathers. To be in Chaplin’s employ was in fact to be included in a kind of family conspiracy. “I’m sure that Chaplin felt the Nazis could capture me and pull out my fingernails,” Dan James says, “and I would never turn against him.” During the writing and shooting of The Great Dictator, James was Chaplin’s shadow, taking notes on everything he said and did—scraps of dialogue, bits of business, pieces of pantomime. He would type up these notes, often adding dialogue and suggestions of his own, and Chaplin would pull them apart the next day and start over. Writing the screenplay of The Great Dictator was a matter of “going forward one inch and going back three.” Chaplin’s half-brother Syd was usually on hand. “Syd was very ingenious with gags,” James recalls. “He was terrified the picture was going to get too heavy. ‘You’re a comedian,’ Syd would say. ‘Let’s do some funny stuff here. Let’s do something funny.”
James’s other surrogate father was the Communist party. He had joined in 1938, his membership vetted and seconded by John Howard Lawson. Other than premature antifascism, no epiphany led him into the Party. It was more a romantic adventure, a leap that he remembers today, forty-six years later, with detachment and I suspect a certain rue. “I was now supporting myself,” he says ironically, “and it was time to join my comrades in the working class.”
He was a member of the working class who lunched nearly every day with his employer. In a restaurant a few blocks from Chaplin’s studio in Hollywood, James and the great dictator would argue about politics. “Chaplin called himself an anarchist,” James said. “He assumed I was a member of the Party, but he never asked. He wondered how I could justify the Nazi-Soviet Pact.” In fact, James had no trouble with the Party line: the pact bought time for the Soviet Union to arm itself and created in Poland a buffer zone between Germany and Russia. It was an argument Chaplin hooted as specious and deluded.
James and his employer also talked about women. Chaplin always had girl trouble, and when he had a problem with one girl, his usual solution was to add another to his stable. In Carmel, he had become interested in the companion of one of James’s closest friends, interested enough to offer the friend a job on The Great Dictator so that the girl might be more available. Her name was Dorothy Comingore and she was later cast by Orson Welles as the second Mrs. Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. Subsequently she married a screenwriter named Richard Collins, another close friend of Dan James and also a Communist. In one of those coincidences in which the period abounds, Richard Collins, in 1951, purged himself before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and in private session not only named Dan James as a Party member but also suggested that he might be a cooperative witness. Dan James and Richard Collins never spoke again.
Those early years in Hollywood were the most productive of Dan James’s life. In 1940, he was married again, to Lilith Stanward, a divorced ballerina with a small daughter he later adopted. The Party dominated their social and professional lives. For Hollywood’s Communists, social activity was predicated on the raising of money—benefits and balls and fund-raisers for the Party, for the anti-fascist fronts, for the Anti-Nazi League, for British and Russian War Relief. Dan James remembers old czarist and White Russian émigrés meeting uneasily with Hollywood Reds at the Russian War Relief benefits, making common cause because of the danger of Mother Russia.
The Party meetings seemed endless. Days were spent, James recalls, on a pamphlet titled, “What Means This Strike in Steel?” At another meeting, there was a Talmudic argument about whether it was worse for Louis B. Mayer, as a Jew, to own race horses than it would be for a gentile boss to do so. For screenwriters, the meetings were directed toward identifying the class struggle in the pictures they wrote. Melodrama was the approved form, James says, because the bad boss and the crooked sheriff basic to the melodramatic plot were the classic characters of agitprop.
It was a B-picture mentality and by and large the Party attracted B-picture writers. “The Hollywood writer was a highly paid domestic,” Murray Kempton noted with cruel accuracy in his 1955 book, Part of Our Time. “He was that most unfortunate of craftsmen, the man of talent who once hoped to be a genius and is treated like a lackey.”
In 1941, Leo C. Rosten polled a group of Hollywood professionals on their attitude toward the medium. He found that 133 out of 165 scriptwriters thought the movies were terrible. No other group registered so total a revulsion to the boss’s product and no other group turned up so many persons susceptible to the Communist pull.
Years later, Dan James remarked to me that writers with first-rate credentials outside Hollywood—John O’Hara, Scott Fitzgerald, Robert E. Sherwood—rarely joined the Party, however left-wing their politics. Tax returns confirmed the stigma of the second rate. “Of the seventeen scriptwriters listed by Leo Rosten as Hollywood’s highest paid in 1938,” Kempton reported in Part of Our Time, “only one has since been identified as a Communist.”
Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 eliminated the embarrassment of the Nazi-Soviet Pact for Hollywood’s Communists—Stalin became Uncle Joe over-night—and six months later Pearl Harbor elevated most of the Party’s anti-fascist fund-raising to the level of patriotic duty. Because of his tuberculosis, Dan James was 4-F, but in any case the Party’s position was that its writer members could serve the cause of the proletariat more effectively at the typewriter than at the front. James’s contribution to this effort was a play called Winter Soldiers, which in 1942 won the Sidney Howard Memorial Award, a $1,500 prize given by The Playwrights Company “to the young American playwright showing the most promise.” Winter Soldiers was too expensive for The Playwrights Company to mount on Broadway—it had eleven scenes and forty-two speaking parts—but James used his prize money to help finance a production at New York’s New School for Social Research, with a cast of unpaid professional actors.
Winter Soldiers is a curious relic, a celebration of the “little people” and a love song to the Soviet Union so melodious that I was surprised, when I read it again recently, that it could have been produced, even in 1942 when the Wehrmacht was at the gates of both Moscow and Stalingrad; Song of Russia is gritty by comparison. The play roams over Yugoslavia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia—five countries Dan James had never visited—and tells the story of a united anti-Nazi underground movement, its members hiding in caves and huts all over central Europe, who with daring and courage and dynamite and picks and old rifles stop the German troop train carrying the regiment assigned to lead the assault on Moscow.
The German officers are bad. Told that a timetable is “impossible,” a general shouts, “In the German language, that Jewish word no longer exists.” On a Russian collective farm, Comrade Katya, before going out to fight the Nazis, remembers her reward for finishing the harvest two weeks early: “They sent me to Moscow. I saw Comrade Stalin.”
An artifact of its time, Winter Soldiers makes Dan James grimace today. “Creaky,” he says. “Seedy.” The play had the good fortune to be reviewed the same day the headlines in The New York Times read: RUSSIANS BREAK NAZI DON DEFENSE LINE. SOVIETS LIST GAINS. 100,000 NAZIS ARE SAID TO HAVE BEEN KILLED IN LAST TEN DAYS.” Lewis Nichols, the Times’s reviewer, called Winter Soldiers “exciting and moving…a perfect portrait of that other column which also carries on the war for freedom.” Other reviewers praised the play as well and Burns Mantle selected it for Best Plays of 1942–1943.
Winter Soldiers played only twenty-five performances, but for the first time James felt himself a functioning professional writer. Back home in Los Angeles, he was hired to write a screenplay of Winter Soldiers, a project that never got off the ground. At the same time, however, Lilith James had come up with a play idea of her own, the product of a Party-endorsed workshop on women’s rights. Her idea was to highlight the emancipation of women through her heroine’s campaign to exchange the hoop skirt for bloomers. She and Dan collaborated on the play and brought it to Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who thought it would make a perfect libretto for a musical. Thus Bloomer Girl was born. The Jameses worked on several drafts of the book and then were joined by two more experienced librettists, who made more room for song and dance by planing away the dialectic. On October 5, 1944, Bloomer Girl opened in New York and was an instant hit.
It should have been the best of times, but it was the worst, the beginning of an unproductive period for Dan James that would last twenty-five years. He went to work on a play for Paul Robeson, adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, but the play was, in his word, “terrible.” For a few months, he and Lilith, who was pregnant, returned to Kansas City, “to my bourgeois roots.” The trip was research for a novel of manners, The Hockadays, about the upper middle class and its pleasures. The Hockadays did not find a publisher.
At the same time, his enthusiasm for the Communist party had begun to wane with the end of the war. “We all saw a rosy future after the war,” he wrote me recently.
A very brave and progressive new world. It seems very stupid now, but if you’d been there you’d have felt it. We even believed with fascism dead, the Soviet Union would relax its internal repression (which previously when we admitted it, we blamed on the need to prepare for war). Again history took a turn. The San Francisco conference to create the United Nations proved no better than Wilson’s old League of Nations in 1919. We tried to blame it all on the US of course, but we began to be very doubtful as we saw the Iron Curtain go down in Eastern Europe. And the wartime coalition of which we were a tiny part collapsed and we found ourselves isolated…. Our credibility in the labor movement was destroyed because of our war-time no-strike stand. Liberals and progressives were happy to give us the cold shoulder. And in Hollywood the whole movement collapsed under the weight of the poor Ten who went to Washington as heroes and came back as enemies of the people…. Anyway it’s when I started moving away from the Party, and of course the debacle of the Wallace campaign in ‘48 sealed the coffin. When I left, don’t get the idea that it was a purely intellectual decision. There was plenty of fear in there, really chilling fear and with some reason in view of what happened later. And shame because of that fear….
Three years after they left the Party Dan and Lilith James were called to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the interim, naming names had become a cottage industry in Hollywood. The Jameses’ friend Richard Collins named them in closed session. In open session, Martin Berkeley took the trouble to spell out Dan’s name: “Also in our group were Dan James, J-A-M-E-S….” Again in open session, Leo Townsend, who was perhaps the Jameses’ closest friend in the Party, reduced hairsplitting to a fine, even comic, art:
Q. Were you acquainted with a person by the name of Dan James?
A. I know Dan James.
Q. Did you of your own knowledge know that he was a member of the Communist Party?
A. I had heard that he had left the Communist Party. I don’t know whether you would consider that knowledge of membership.
Q. Well, did you hear that from him or from some outside source?
A. I heard it from him.
Q. Well, I think that is direct testimony. Now, what were the circumstances under which you heard it from him?
A. Simply that I had told him that I had been out since 1948 and that he told he had also left the Party.
Dan and Lilith James were subpoenaed by the Committee in the summer of 1951. Dan was playing tennis on the court in the back yard of his house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood with a producer from whom he was trying to hustle a screenplay assignment. “It was not the most propitious moment,” he recalls. I asked the Jameses not long ago why they had been summoned while so many others who were named had not been called. “They thought we would snitch,” Lilith James said. “They knew we had left the Party and assumed we would cooperate.” Had it ever crossed their minds? Never. Their position was that while they would say they were not members of the Party, they would decline to answer if they ever had been. “I expect no applause either from this Committee, nor from the People’s World nor from the Daily Worker,” Dan James stated under oath. “This is a lonely, lonely position, and I assure you that when I am saying that I am not a Communist, I am meaning it.”
With his sense of the theatrical, Dan James carried in his pocket, from his father’s library in Carmel, a first edition of Candide, which he hoped to introduce into testimony with the admonition that Voltaire had published it under a pseudonym—M. Le Docteur Ralph—and if the Committee worked its will, American writers as well would have to disguise their identities. The Committee would have none of this playlet and cut him off before he could begin.
On the evidence of a photograph in the Los Angeles Times the next day, Lilith James wore a hat when she testified. She has always been an intensely private woman and the witness table was for her neither a platform nor a podium. She said she was not a Communist and then simply declined to answer further questions. Asked if she had been a member of the Party “on Sunday of this past week,” and then on Monday or Tuesday or in 1944, she replied only, “I decline.” When it became obvious she would not cooperate, Congressman Clyde Doyle of California tried to wheedle and coax with appeals to her motherhood. “Are there some little Jameses?” he asked, and then, “You’ve got some young children growing up. Why don’t you help us in the field of communistic influences in Hollywood?”
“I feel it is quite possible to be opposed to communism,” Lilith James said, “and its principles and its alliance to the Soviet Union and to be in support of our government, our government’s policy in Korea, which I certainly am, and still feel it is not an American rule to have to name names of people when it will influence their lives and their families and their children. This is not my reason for declining. I decline on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment. But this is my position.”
A moment later she was excused. The Jameses remember the day of their testimony as the same day the Hollywood Freeway opened.
In the fall of 1966, almost fifteen years to the day after Dan and Lilith James testified before the Committee, my wife and I and our infant daughter moved into their house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. The rent was cheap, the place vast, on the lines of an abandoned fraternity house. The neighborhood had known better days. Bette Davis had lived on one corner, Preston Sturges on the other; the Canadian consulate was a block away, the Japanese consulate at the time of Pearl Harbor across the street. Now the pimps and junkies were beginning to take over Hollywood Boulevard, a block south. There was a whorehouse in a brand new high-rise down the street, Synanon owned one house in the neighborhood, a Dr. Feelgood was dispensing amphetamines like gumdrops in another, and the former Japanese consulate, boarded up, was a crash pad for a therapy group.
We saw a good deal of the Jameses. They also owned the tiny bungalow next door and when it was not rented they would move down from Carmel. We intuited political trouble almost immediately. In our basement, there were cartons upon cartons of the New Masses and Dan James, although he was only fifty-five, was a writer who did not seem to write anymore. We made the inductive leap. Our questioning was indirect, their answers oblique. The implicit reserve was finally breached one day when Dan showed us a piece in New Masses, written in 1946 by Albert Maltz, later one of the Hollywood Ten. “I have come to believe that the accepted understanding of art as a weapon is not a useful guide but a strait jacket,” Maltz had written. “I have felt this in my own work and in the work of others. In order to write at all, it has become necessary for me to repudiate it and abandon it.”
Unexceptional as Maltz’s statement seemed, James said it had caused a furor in its day. Party leaders arrived from New York to re-educate Maltz. There were a number of meetings, kangaroo courts, as it were, to persuade him to recant. One of the sessions had taken place in what was now our living room. “On that couch,” James said, “Albert Maltz made his famous recantation.” I could not imagine the scene or why Maltz had submitted to such an inquisition. “Whatever happened to ‘fuck off’?” I asked. “You don’t understand,” James replied. “That was the pull of the Party.”
Politics no longer appeared to exert any pull on him at all. On May Day, 1967, I took James with me to Watts to hear the leader of a Maoist splinter group speak. I had met the Maoist when I was working on a piece and found him interesting in the way fanatics often are. He was wearing camouflage fatigues and a fatigue hat crowned with a red star. None of the blacks playing in the park where he spoke paid him the slightest heed. He talked about the “ruling class” and the “workers” and how the day was nigh when the workers would “arise.” James soon wanted to leave. We drove back to Hollywood in silence. He seemed sunk in depression. “I made that same speech thirty years ago,” he finally explained. “Some things never change.”
In time, the Jameses filled in the blanks in the preceding fifteen years. The blacklist precluded what movie work was available. When Bloomer Girl appeared on television in the early Fifties, it appeared without the Jameses’ credit. Using a family name, Daniel Hyatt, Dan worked on the scripts of two monster pictures, The Giant Behemoth and Gorgo, each of which ended with either Gorgo or the giant behemoth trampling, eating, and generally dismantling London. They rarely saw old Party friends. “The people we knew best were either stool pigeons or had fled to Europe,” Dan James recalls. There was also another reason: money was never the problem with the Jameses that it was with so many others on the blacklist, a situation they found embarrassing. “We didn’t have to go out and sell insurance like others did,” Lilith James remembers. “There was a little family money. The Bloomer Girl money kept coming in. We owned our house. We had no mortgage.”
The people the Jameses did see were increasingly on the Hispanic east side of Los Angeles. In 1948 they spent a weekend visiting an interracial camp in Glendale; this led to an invitation to re-create the traditional Mexican Christmas posadas on Lamar Street in Lincoln Heights. “The action, of course,” Dan wrote in a letter not long ago, “is that Mary and Joseph (played by eight-year-old kids) with the Christ child in arms go from door to door looking for a night’s shelter. They’re turned away from several on one absurd excuse or another till finally the last door is opened and in they go, with all their candle-bearing followers. We wrote various little dialog scenes for the doorways and taught the kids the posadas songs. It grew into a big neighborhood event. We blocked off the street (without a police permit) and from a telephone pole ended the evening with several piñatas. We got quite famous.”
Thus was planted the seed for Famous All Over Town. The experience satisfied what Dan James describes now as “a need for flight…. As many of the comrades took off for Europe and elsewhere, we moved into east LA and started making a new life for ourselves there.” For the next fifteen years, the Jameses’ activities were concentrated on three square blocks in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood of tiny bungalows with Gothic trim, no larger than a Mexican village and equally confined, bounded on two sides by the tracks and marshaling yards of the Southern Pacific Railroad, on a third by the dry concrete trough called the Los Angeles River. With only the street names changed, it was the place that James would re-create thirty years later as Danny Santiago. The Jameses formed and worked with various teen-age clubs, “their names,” Dan recalls, “a product of total democracy.” There were the Hepkitties and the Bluebirds and the Lamar Tigers. In a letter he wrote me, he remembers
football, basketball, baseball with eastside playground teams (we usually lost). Beach picnics, trips to snow, various interracial camps in San Bernardino mtns. After a year when the boys started inspecting the girls we started the Starlifters, coed (if you can call it ed). Mostly dancing and volleyball in Methodist church basement…. Next Los Compadres Club, whose nucleus were members of the old Hepkitties now married with children. Around 12 couples. Made an old two car garage into a clubhouse with beer bar. Bowling, dancing in clubhouse and elsewhere, overnight camping trips. Emphasis on keeping the boys and girls together, which was revolutionary in that tradition. Once ALMOST voted a black couple into the club. The Compadres then with 7 other groups, mostly oldtime neighborhood gang veterans, to form the Lincoln Heights Scholarship Federation, which held a largely successful dance at the Hollywood Palladium and gave out a dozen small scholarships with the proceeds….
But this was only part of it. This is how we met the kids. Their families came through compadrazco, though our friendships began in our earlier years on Lamar when we sought permission for their daughters to join the club, go on camping trips, etc. Over the years we baptized seven babies and acted as compadres de matrimonio to 3 couples, which gave us a special relation with some 20 families, to be asked to all celebrations from birth to death…. Our closest compadre was Lalo Rios and it was his family and his wife Connie’s that we knew best. We baptized Lalo’s Ruben and five years later shared 24 hour watches as Ruben died of leukemia. We baptized their third son Tomas and in ‘74 we buried Lalo who we thought would one day bury us, another agonizing vigil. And now we stay with his widow when we’re in L.A….
In recent years it’s been mostly funerals and there’s only one father left of the old original Hepkitties. We’ve lost track of most of our club members, except the ones united to us by compadrazco, but at the funerals they turn up once in a while. So you can say over the past 35 years we’ve known four generations of Mexicanos in their best and worst of times. We even brushed elbows with the end of their great-great-grandfathers….
Early in 1968, Dan James asked me to read some stories he had written about East Los Angeles. The stories were the early chapters of Famous All Over Town and were drawn of course from his experiences on the east side. I thought they were very good—tough, funny, unsentimental, and undogmatic—but I was not enthusiastic about his wish to send them out under the name “Danny Santiago.” I had nothing against pseudonyms—I had once used the name “Algernon Hogg” because the magazine I worked for discouraged staff writers from contributing to other publications—but the idea of an Anglo presenting himself as a Chicano I found troubling. I had spent a period myself in East Los Angeles working on a book about Cesar Chavez and my instinct was that this particular kind of literary deception could, if discovered (and presupposing the stories were successful), have unpleasant extraliterary ramifications.
James, however, was adamant. He felt that for nearly twenty years he had been unable to write under his own name both because of the blacklist and because he had lost confidence in his own ability. “I wish I could tell you how I feel about Danny Santiago,” he wrote from Carmel, where he and Lilith had gone back to live permanently.
He’s so much freer than I am myself. He seems to know how he feels about everything and none of the ifs, ands and buts that I’m plagued with. I don’t plan to make a great cops and robbers bit out of him, but now at any rate I can’t let him go. Maybe he’ll prove a strait-jacket later on. We’ll see. In any event, unless you feel too guilty about this mild little deception of mine, I’d like you to send on the stories to Brandt….
Carl Brandt was then my agent, and on March 25, 1968, I sent him the stories, with an obfuscating covering letter that never once mentioned either the author’s real or putative name (I assumed the title page and the return address would do the trick). In time, the stories began to appear, in Redbook and Playboy; in 1971, “The Somebody” was chosen for Martha Foley’s annual collection, Best American Short Stories. (“The Somebody,” in different form, became the final chapter of Famous All Over Town.) We corresponded fitfully with the Jameses, all too often about the rent, which they needed and we had trouble paying. “PS. Did somebody forget January rent?” Dan wrote on January 8, 1969. In December: “The mystery is partially solved. Your note arrived today with check #1333 dated November 20.”
In January 1971, we moved from Franklin Avenue to the beach, where we had bought a house. Occasionally we would spend a weekend with the Jameses in Carmel or drive down to see them if we were in San Francisco. At times we would send them friends who wanted to see the house. The one they appreciated most was a Cuban diplomat from the United Nations traveling on the West Coast for the first time. The Cuban’s companion was a young Spanish woman who worked for Spain’s trade mission in New York. When the couple arrived in Carmel, the Jameses invited them to spend the night. The next day Dan James called to report that the woman’s father was an old Falangist who had fought with Franco’s Blue Division alongside the Wehrmacht on the Russian front. It would have been about the same time he was working on Winter Soldiers. “Imagine it,” he said. “An old Stalinist, a Cuban communist and the daughter of a Blue Division veteran getting drunk and arguing politics in Carmel.”
Danny Santiago continued to work.3 At the suggestion of Carl Brandt (who still did not know his client’s true identity), James began shaping his published and unpublished stories into a novel. After a number of rejections, the completed manuscript was finally accepted by Simon and Schuster. Editing was accomplished by mail, via the postal drop in Pacific Grove. James’s letters to his agent and his publisher were in a perfectly mimetic Danny Santiago persona—slangy, contentious, touchy, defensive. ¿Quién es mas macho? The Eastern gringos gave the benefit of the doubt to the eccentric and erratic young Chicano novelist.
Famous All Over Town was published in March 1983, to no fanfare. The world described was that three-block area of Lincoln Heights where Dan and Lilith James had been granted compadrazco. The novel’s narrator, Chato Medina, is a fourteen-year-old street-smart kid with an IQ of 135, resisting assimilation by a voracious Anglo culture he sees as dominated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which wants to buy up and pave over his block in the interest of better freight management. He is equally divorced from the rural Mexico of his grandparents, a Valhalla he deprecates as a place where “they milk each other’s goats.”
Chato lives by his considerable wits on that brink where the comic adventure can easily flip into casual violence. With quick tongue and sharp eye, he is ever the observer of his family—his spirited sister Lena (christened Tranquilina, but never tranquil), his placid, preoccupied baby-machine mother, and especially his blustery, ham-handed father: “My father is very loud in stores speaking Spanish, but in English you can barely hear him.”
The Medinas exist in a secondhand way: “Day-olds from the bakery, dented tomato cans, sunburned shirts from store windows, never two chairs alike and lucky if one shoe matched the other.” They buy their clothes from the “As-Is” bin at the Goodwill, “fishing through boxes raw off the trucks before anything was washed or fumigated.” But Chato is never a victim of his circumstances. He is a victor, a vivid historian of his own life: “There’s my cousin Cuca and my cousin Kika and Lalo and Lola and Rosario the boy and Rosario the girl and my Uncle Benedicto that the priest put a curse on him for what he done in the bell tower.”
Given my rooting interest, I found Famous All Over Town a lunatic success, a Chicano Bildungsroman by a septuagenarian ex-Stalinist aristocrat from Kansas City. There is no trace of the didacticism of Winter Soldiers, no hint of the author’s history, either of his communism or his apostasy. This is not social realism, not a proletarian novel; James’s Southern Pacific is not Frank Norris’s octopus. Famous All Over Town takes the form of a classic novel of initiation, and Chato Medina could be read as a Hispanic Holden Caufield. His weapons against the world are brains and humor, his language an eloquent and scrambled mixture of Spanish and English.
The Anglo characters—a Jewish teacher, a homosexual doctor with an unrequited yen for Chato—are the book’s weakest, flat and obvious, and when I asked James if this were intentional, another layer of sophisticated deception to disguise his identity further, he only laughed. The novel received generally excellent notices, from Anglo and Chicano reviewers alike, and then last May the Rosenthal Award. A day or so later, I was coincidentally asked by the editors of this journal if I would like to use the book as a springboard for a piece we had long contemplated on East Los Angeles. I said there were complications, and then sent their letter to Carmel along with a note of my own asking Dan James if “Danny would like to come in from the cold.”
When I visited the Jameses in Carmel in June, Lilith James was clearly uncomfortable at any public acknowledgment of their Party membership. It was not out of any sense of regret at once having been a member. She was entirely comfortable with her actions and her past, but she did not wish her children—now both grown women—to live with any possible burden of these actions. Her attitude, moreover, had not changed in the thirty-three years since her appearance before the Committee: it was nobody’s business then and it was nobody’s business now. She finally agreed because “Danny Santiago” had long made her uneasy and she knew that if Dan went public he could not go public selectively.
We talked that weekend, and over the telephone the next few weeks, on and on, as if we were Party members discussing what means this strike in steel. I reread the books on the blacklist. If the Jameses were mentioned at all, they were mentioned only in passing. They were not brand-name screenwriters or celebrity informers, not did they have the theater or literary constituencies of Lillian Hellman or Dashiell Hammett. After talking to the Jameses so often over the years, I found most of these books, especially those written by people never personally involved, irrelevant and even spurious, often vulgar in language, so flushed with second-hand outrage that they lack any real sense of the period, its social nuances or its particular ironies.
I read the testimony of Dan and Lilith James and the testimony of their accusers. The passage of time has made them benign about those who informed on them. In the mid-1960s, they had been in touch with Leo Townsend but, in Dan James’s words, “it wasn’t fun anymore.” I was struck by one irony in the testimony of Richard Collins. A prodigious namer of other names besides the Jameses, Collins also made the most persuasive case of any witness I have read against the idea of Party minions poisoning the minds of moviegoers:
Since the basic policy isn’t in the hands of the writer or the director but in the hands of the owners of the studio, who are not at all interested in this propaganda, the chances of any real presentation of Communist material or what is termed Communist material in terms of the Communist Party or foreign policy are, I think, extremely unlikely.
Dan James remembered Richard Collins’s testimony as “thoughtful” and wondered if he were still alive.
What struck me that weekend in Carmel was how deeply ingrained the character of Danny Santiago was on Dan James. As one has difficulty telling where the rocks end and his house begins, so it is with Dan and Danny. Danny was the only persona in which Dan could write, even in his letters to my wife and me, who have shared his secret for sixteen years. I asked if he had considered the possibility of being accused of manufacturing a hoax. He shrugged and said the book itself was the only answer. If the book were good, it was good under whatever identity the author chose to use, the way the books of B. Traven were good. Nor would he consider that Famous All Over Town was a tour de force. “I spent thirty-five years working on this book,” he said, “twenty years learning what it was all about, the last fifteen writing it. You don’t spend thirty-five years on a tour de force.”
When we returned to Los Angeles, my wife and I drove down to Lamar Street in Lincoln Heights. The entire three blocks had been flattened to make a parking lot for the piggy-back trailers that ride the Southern Pacific flatcars. In the book, when the Southern Pacific succeeds in condemning the neighborhood, Chato Medina writes his name in Crayola on every flat surface in the area. It is the gesture that makes him “famous all over town.” I had no Crayola in the car. If I had, I would have written four words on the sidewalk of Lamar Street: “Dan and Lilith James.”
From an interview with Daniel James and his wife, Lilith, June 2 and 3, 1984, conducted and taped by myself and my wife, Joan Didion. Many of Dan James's quotes in this piece come from that interview.↩
Martin Berkeley, quoted in The New York Times, September 20, 1951.↩
So as not to run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, James had set up a Danny Santiago bank account, using his own Social Security number.↩
From an interview with Daniel James and his wife, Lilith, June 2 and 3, 1984, conducted and taped by myself and my wife, Joan Didion. Many of Dan James’s quotes in this piece come from that interview.↩
Martin Berkeley, quoted in The New York Times, September 20, 1951.↩
So as not to run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service, James had set up a Danny Santiago bank account, using his own Social Security number.↩