These are the memoirs of persons who depended on the kindness of the producers of movies and television and were variously betrayed. They are four tracts for a new sort of Ludditry, the complaint not of the victims the machine displaces but of the victims it employs.
Alvah Bessie is the earliest of these victims and the most primitive. He has not been heard from since 1949 when he went to prison for contempt of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was, then, one of those Communist screenwriters we dimly remember as the Hollywood Ten and who were among the first casualties of the machine. He was brought West from New York in 1943, largely, one suspects, because Hollywood’s duty was the manufacture of the anti-fascist film and because the drama editor of the New Masses could be trusted as instructor in the anti-fascist formula. The formula was no longer operative after the war; and Hollywood disposed of such of its tools as could not be reconverted with an indifference very like that with which Stalin liquidated the French Communist militants after he signed his pact with Laval in 1934. Mr. Bessie was the least adjustable of all; he must, in fact, be the last Stalinist; and to read him is like listening to the only surviving hand-weaver in Lancashire in the 1860s.
John Henry Faulk is a radio and television performer who was driven from the medium in 1957 on charges that he was pro-Communist. This accusation, we are pleased to find, had a small basis in Faulk’s humanitarianism: he would have stayed out of trouble if he had consented to the trial and purgation of suspected Communists in the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. He refused on the simplistic ground that “I could never be a party to buying my personal security at the expense of another performer’s reputation and career.” His flaw was to know that he was liked and to believe that he had friends in power at the Columbia Broadcasting System who would protect him. They, of course, ran away from him in his crisis. He ended up in the care of Mr. Louis Nizer, who pressed his suit against his two main detractors to a judgment for libel of $3,500,000, in 1961. That judgment is unlikely to be collected: it has been for Faulk in any case a small reward; he is trying as best he can to put his career together and be again the cheerful talker he once was paid to be. He walks with two terrible wounds: he has discovered that there are people who do not like him and he has learned that there are not many people he can trust. Under those circumstances, the style of his innocence is hard to recapture.
Faulk is a more sympathetic figure than poor Bessie, and offers the hope that, if the system is not improving, at least its victims may be. Merle Miller is more perceptive than either, so much so that it seems almost accident that he is a victim at all. He had written for television with painful personal results before; he was induced, after vows that he would sleep under bridges first, to implement a vague notion of James Aubrey, until lately president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, for a series about a farm agent in the Southwest. In the process, he was cozened, betrayed, and ultimately insulted; and, at the end of his last hope that naught had been lost save honor, the project was dropped for no reason anyone could explain except perhaps that Miller hadn’t written a dog into the cast.
Miller may have thought to insure himself against temptation to future disaster by setting down the names and parts of all companions through his misfortune. So, by the way, have Faulk and Bessie, and all three have vastly improved the literature of victimry, which ten years ago ran to novels that could only be called novels for purposes of evading the laws of defamation. We have advanced from Charles Wertenbaker on Time and William L. Shirer on CBS to memoirists who boldly take a stance where they are subject to cross-examination.
Miller thinks himself a born loser, but I am doubtful if he is quite so lucky. James Aubrey has departed to the pages of some Suetonius yet unknown, and with him any real threat of that punishment by exclusion which Miller so plainly understands to be a necessity for whatever remains of his soul. His villain has thus suddenly become an historical personage who has not left behind a single loyal survivor; and Miller is in danger of the pit again. Only You, Dick Daring has the weakness of being immensely cheerful, and there is no one left in authority who will not find it delightful. The same people who discarded him will ask him, with a kindness as indifferent as their previous cruelty, to try again. The machine loveth a cheerful loser.
Newton Minow, the fourth of these victims, should be the most cheerful of all. He was for two years chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and governor of the machine; he had one of those failures which is inevitable but rhetorical enough to leave him treasured in the memories of television critics. He then retired to be general counsel of the Encyclopedia Britannica, whose sales methods are not demonstrably higher than those of the average broadcasting network.
Mr. Minow’s monument is this collection of speeches edited for him, of course, by the television critic of the Washington Post. His style was set and his reputation made in his first speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in May of 1961. Its complaint was summarized in this paragraph:
What will the people of other countries think of us when they see our Western badmen and good men punching each other in the jaw between the shooting? What will the Latin American or African child learn of America from our great communications industry. We cannot permit television in its present form to be our voice overseas.
Its taste was defined in this paragraph:
Television in its young life has had many hours of greatness—its “Victory at Sea,” its Army-McCarthy hearings, its “Peter Pan,” its Kraft theatre, its “Project 20,” the World Series, its political conventions and campaigns, its Great Debates—and it has its endless hours of mediocrity and its moments of public disgrace.
There is, of course, not one item in this catalogue (except the five or six that are basic examples of television’s uses as a Signal Corps medium) which anyone could have the smallest desire to see again. But what is most consequential is less the taste of the enlightened public man than the entire irrelevancy of what the enlightened public later credits as his perception.
First of all, it is essential to understand what Minow does not understand. Everyone in the machine is an idealist. A few are Goldwater idealists, but most are idealists of the Left. Their spirit, if that’s the word, breathes through all these histories.
Bessie remembers his 1943 meeting with Jerry Wald.
“I’ve wanted you out here for a long time,” Wald said. “You know about labor conditions on the Brooklyn water-front. Didn’t you work for the Brooklyn Eagle?”
” ‘I did,’ I said,” Bessie tells us, “but I did not tell him that I really knew a lot about the longshore situation because I have been involved in the 1936 seamen’s strike as a volunteer publicity writer for the National Maritime Union and my first wife had set up a soup kitchen, practically single-handed, for the striking seamen.”
That would be information fleeting at best and six years and a marriage old, and Wald plunged ahead.
“They got a rotten, reactionary union there, the ILA, and there’s a war on now and a lot of sabotage is going on by Axis sympathizers and we want to put a stop to it.
“There’s good reason to believe that there’s a connection between the ship-owners and the gangsters who run the ILA—and the U.S. Shipping Board at that. It’s not like the honest union we got out here ran by Harry Bridges.”
“My hair (what hair I had even then)” says Bessie, “was standing on end, and I kept saying to myself: This is a Hollywood producer, this is a representative of the gigantic capitalistic monopoly you’ve been lambasting in the pages of the New Masses for the last four years.”
And eighteen years and countless human sacrifices later, Merle Miller is talking to Dick Durso, Executive Vice President of United Artists Television. Miller, like Faulk and Bessie and even Minow, wanted to be rich and also do good, and he had a moment of illusion when Durso agreed that, since its locale was the Southwest, his series should have a few Spanish-American characters.
“But not in the pilot,” said Durso. “What I mean is, if you have Spanish-Americans in the pilot, these men in the project room, there will be something they don’t like. They don’t know what, but I know. It will be their guilt over the Puerto Rican Problem.
“We’re all three liberals,” said the vice president of United Artists Television, “and we’re all guilty. We all feel that we ought to be right down there in Birmingham at this very minute fighting for civil rights, Where are we? We are in an expensive suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. That’s what gets us down where we live.”
“Dick,” Miller answered, “I don’t feel as if I ought to be in Birmingham.”
Miller had been there and was consequently spoiled by reality for mechanical functions. Bessie would seem to have been altogether more promising. There is a certain dignity in the way he clings to his mechanical politics long after they can bring him any reward but trouble; but one thinks that his way of reasoning, with suitable adjustments to necessity, could have made him a useful and prosperous citizen in Hollywood. Producers kept telling him that he was the best writer in Hollywood up until the time he was finally destroyed; his achievements had been so modest—although worthy—that it is hard not to believe that they appreciated him because he knew so much about history and political science.
When he was in federal prison in Texarkana, he had a talk with the warden. The place was of course a pesthole even by prison standards, and the warden, like Jerry Wald, occupied his imagination with visions of a better time to come without, to be sure, doing much to make this one more bearable. Once, the warden said, he had had an idea, “but nobody was interested in it”:
I had an idea that for any man who had a long sentence—let’s say a year or more—and who made a good adjustment, there should be some sort of community to which he might be sent…There’d be no walls, no fences, no guards in uniform. The man would have been trained…so that when he went to that community, he’d be the mechanic for that town and would be paid the prevailing wage.
Bessie says he could hardly keep from saying, “You know, there is a place where this philosophy of criminology is actually practiced.”
He must have been thinking of the Soviet Union, and seven years have gone by and, as though there had been no revelation from Khrushchev and as though even Khrushchev had not extended the death penalty to twelve-year-old children, Bessie sets down that image as though it were intact and shining. This is the sort of mind which knows how to instruct wardens and producers and executive vice presidents.
Because they are idealists, there is only one possible tone for them. That tone was caught for Bessie by Bartley Crum, counsel for the Hollywood Ten, at the end of an interview with an independent producer he was trying to persuade to come publicly to their rescue:
“I saw a man like you in Germany after the war. He was an independent producer. He was a Jew. He was a liberal too. He didn’t want to be involved either. Are you listening, David? Do you know what became of that man because he wouldn’t fight? I saw him, David. He was a cake of soap!”
Now that may have been a larger truth, but as detail it was an obvious lie. Still David quite possibly went to bed believing that a bar of soap in the Third Reich carried the label, “Jew, independent producer, didn’t want to get involved,” like the list of ingredients prescribed on candy bars by the Pure Food and Drug Administration. This knowledge was of no use, of course, in stiffening his resistance to the blacklist; as idealists, these people are so horrified by fascism that they are beyond affront by anything less.
Each of these works reflects to some degree the incredible faith different sorts of victims can have in what is at bottom the same master.
Bessie, who did not work for Jack Warner, once made a few uncomplimentary remarks about him to Albert Maltz, who did.
Albert had defended Warner, saying that he wasn’t a bad fellow at all and insisting that my bitter remarks sprang from what he called an “anti-producer attitude.”
Now Miller remembers his friend Robert Alan Authur, the playwright, telling him about Aubrey:
“Aubrey’s the most important man in television, in the history of television, maybe in the history of entertainment. He out-Mayers Louis B. Mayer ten times over…Aubrey makes all the decisions and he makes them by himself. He’s one of this century’s phenomena, and, as a novelist, Merle, you should be fascinated by him…”
I should be hard put to conceive a lousier subject for a novel than Louis B. Mayer—unless it be Henry R. Luce; neither would recommend himself to an inferior who retained the smallest sense of what is important. Every man must be a character in a novel to his valet.
Bessie spent the last month of his imprisonment mowing the lawn in front of the warden’s office:
“I used to hope that the warden would come out of his office and talk to me. But he never did…” That is the theme, to one degree or another, of all these memoirs. Miller confesses that all through his ordeal, “I kept thinking…if Aubrey and I could just get together I’m sure…”
Miller made a painful effort in his script to do what Authur had promised him he could do: “say something important to a mass audience.” Something important in these matters seems to mean something at once melodramatic and folksy. When Miller submitted a pilot script of which he was not too ashamed, Dick Durso came back and said that there would have to be one small addition:
“What C.B.S. wants,” he explained, “is a kind of friendly lynch scene.”
Miller had lost all hope of improving television even before United Artists threw away his draft and substituted another without telling him. It is pleasant to look back on a simpler time when Bessie could boast that he had actually subverted a movie.
He had a hand in Action in the North Atlantic, which displayed merchant seamen on the Murmansk run. At its climax, their ship had been attacked by Nazi planes; and they were limping to the haven of the Soviets when they heard the sound of another plane overhead.
And Bessie wrote this tableau:
DANE CLARK (pointing) “It’s one of ours.”
CLOSE SHOT, SOVIET PLANE—its Red Star painted plainly on the fuselage.
CLARK’S VOICE (shouting): “Soviet plane off the starboard bow!”
“You will,” Bessie says, “all have to agree that that piece of business was subversive as all hell, but apparently the audience did not think so, because it got one of the biggest hands and rounds of cheers in the entire film.” You could then only be subversive when you were writing war propaganda, and that was the period of the Hollywood Ten’s greatest success.
Last of all, these are people at once alienated and habitually pietistic. Minow recognizes the pietism and applauds it as is his duty as the gentle warden of the state: “Let me express publicly the appreciation of your government for the extraordinary cooperation and public service provided by you radio broadcasters at the time of the Cuban crisis last fall,” he told the National Association of Broadcasters in April of 1963.
These are people who do what they are told, who do not, in fact, often have to be told. In 1956, when he was first defamed by AWARE, “An Organization to Combat the Communist Conspiracy in Entertainment-Communications,” Faulk tried to reassure his agent.
“I’m pretty well liked at CBS, Gerry. I happen to know that most of the executives there don’t like AWARE any better than I do. Maybe they’ll line up with me in this fight.”
Gerry shook his head. “There’s not an executive at CBS that is your enemy, Johnny. There’s probably not a one there that likes AWARE. But on the other hand there is not a single one of them that wouldn’t fire you if a decision was made to do so.”
CBS’s first response was to require Faulk to file an affidavit of his loyalty to the flag: “I have received many letters of commendation and citations from such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution…as well as many civic and educational institutions. Although I am primarily a humorist the subject of my lectures has been Our American Heritage, in which I stress the enormous advantages an American citizen has over people of other countries.”
It was a declaration which seemed unappetizing to Faulk and it did him no good. He sued AWARE and that almost at once made him a controversial and unemployable figure. CBS fired him and he had no choice but to wait the result of his suit before trying to take up his career again.
He is the only one of these victims to have won anything at all; yet what he won was severely limited by the nature of the machine. The affidavit had taken the only proper tone; and Nizer kept to it brilliantly, to fix the picture not of a pro-Communist who had been denied a chance to work but of a special sort of patriot who had been defamed by racketeers.
There was no other way to save Faulk. Anyone less unexceptionable than he could not, for one thing, have won the support of the few witnesses from the industry who were brave enough even to testify.
Their attitude was summarized by David Susskind. He was asked whether a man identified as a Communist Party member should be barred from employment in television. “He would be dead as a duck and should be,” Susskind answered.
That is the farthest reach of human feeling operative in the machine, and it is exceptional. Faulk is gallant, Miller is rueful and charming, even Bessie has a certain dignity; but the one thing common in the recollections of these victims is the absence of almost any figure in an office at Warner Brothers or CBS whose conduct betrayed the smallest feeling which we are accustomed to think of as human.
Faulk was the luckiest. He went all over his building trying to find someone to lend him $7500 to pay his first retainer to Louis Nizer. He got it from Edward R. Murrow who said, “Let’s get this straight Johnny. I’m not making a personal loan to you of this money, I am investing this money in America.”
Just before the trial, he sought out Kim Hunter, the actress, who had suffered grievously from AWARE and had only just begun to recover her career, and asked her to be a witness for him. Her lawyer and her public relations man told her all the dangers, and
Then Kim very deliberately got up from her chair across the room and came walking toward me. From the expression on her face I was sure she was going to apologize, wish me well, and say that she thought it best to stay out of the case. Instead, she placed her arms around my neck and kissed me, and said quite solemnly, “I have decided I’m going to testify. I want to be part of this trial. I’m going to do it for your sake, Johnny, because I admire you. But most of all I’m going to do it for my own sake and in behalf of my children and my profession and my country.”
There is, in these chronicles, beyond that, almost no flesh and all shadows. Mr. Minow is, as elsewhere, of no use to us even for suggesting the apposite poet. The metaphor belongs to Stanley Kunitz:
Fomenting pestilence, rebellion, war,
I come prepared, unwanting what I see,
But tied to life. On the royal road to Thebes
I had my luck, I met a lovely mon- ster,
And the story’s this: I made the monster me.
April 8, 1965