Sunday, September 07, 2003


I got interested in the Hollywood Blacklist when David Helpern, one of my best friends in Cambridge, was making a documentary about it, called "Hollywood on Trial." This was in the mid 1970s, and if you've seen a film of this title, it probably isn't this one. (To confuse things even more, the company called October Films in 1976 is, as far as I know, unrelated to the company called October Films in 2003.) I think it was the American Movie Channel that made a new documentary using that title in the late 1990s. But it is the one that was nominated for an Academy Award. (It lost out to "Harlan County USA," and David remembered that when he heard the first syllable of the winner announced, that "Ha-", his heart stopped.)

I got especially interested when I found out another friend, Buffy Offner, was the daughter of a blacklisted screenwriter and theatre director. I followed the process of David's movie pretty closely, and saw just about all the interview footage (of which a very small portion was used in the final film.) One of the most moving interviews, as well as visually the most beautiful, was with Buffy and her sister, Debbie Offner. Buffy at that time wasn't interested in politics or in a career in show business (though that changed), but Debbie was beginning a career as an actor, and so she became curious about her father's past. I believe she found the documents and photos in what her father had left when he died, that told them the story.

(None of the interview with Buffy and Debbie eventually appeared in the final film. Hey David, if you read this, I hope you saved that footage and transferred it to tape or DVD. Because I really want to see it, just once more...)

There were a number of children of blacklisted Hollywood people in Cambridge and Boston, and they became my special interest. (In fact, I'd worked with one for a year without quite realizing it, Jim Lardner, son of Ring, Jr.) I interviewed several, including the son of a man who named names.

I tried many times to get a story commissioned and printed. New Times (which had published a couple of my pieces, and would publish the original "The Malling of America" article) commissioned a piece but didn't print it. Esquire was interested, and then they weren't. New West was receptive to a piece centered on Mortimer Offner, but that fell through as well. It wasn't until I was the editor with the power of decision that an editor decided to print a piece, in Washington Newsworks, on the release of the feature film, "The Front," which was about the Blacklist, written and directed by blacklisted people, starring Zero Mostel who'd been blacklisted (and Woody Allen), with several children of Blacklist victims working in the production.

I think it was the New Times commission that got me on the set of The Front, where I interviewed director Martin Ritt during a break for a camera setup on the set (and at one point looked up from my notes to see that the entire crew was watching me, because they were ready for the next shot. Marty Ritt however hadn't betrayed any impatience or even sign that he'd noticed.) I got to see something that few people have experienced, especially since the 1950s: Zero Mostel alone on stage, doing bits, many from his old nightclub act. Woody Allen was also hanging around, and so I've got my own Woody Allen story. You'll have to ask me when you see me.

What follows is a combination of at least three articles. I also went through surviving notes of several interviews and added a few things. Almost all of the Newsworks piece is here, augmented by the stories of Dr. James Kahn about his father, and the story of Mortimer Offner, including what his daughters told me and showed me. As usual, I've tried to be as complete as possible, but there is even more interesting stuff than I was able to include in this long version.

Significant material new to me, concerning Mortimer Offner, appeared in Patrick McGilligan's 1991 biography of George Cukor (A Double Life, HarperPerennial.) Cukor and Offner were friends from before high school. I added information from this book, placing it between brackets, because this is the only information not from my 1970s research.

The present tense in the piece is the mid-1970s. A postscript that updates some of the principals follows the main text.

The 1970s saw the blacklist come into public light in various ways. On the screen, the first real ground-breaking references were in "The Way We Were." (1973) Lee Grant won best supporting actress for "Shampoo," in 1975 and mentioned in her Oscar speech that she'd been blacklisted, the first time this happened.

More recently there was the controversy over the special Oscar to Elia Kazan, who did name names, which resulted in protests and counter-protests outside and people who refused to applaud the award inside. The Kazan-Arthur Miller story was the topic of a recent American Masters program on PBS (2003). It seemed largely though not entirely accurate in its facts. It was also able to take a moral position made comfortable by distance in time. It honored complexity and fallibility and dilemma, showing that nobody had a corner on absolutely correct morality. It quoted Dalton Trumbo as saying that everyone was a victim of the Blacklist and there were no heroes. All of which is true enough, but isn't the whole truth. All actions during the Blacklist were not morally equivalent, and it seems to me this program skewed too far in the direction of saying they were. Complexity, even moral complexity, is not honored by asserting oversimplified equivalence. In any case, there are a number of compelling and conflicting views expressed in this article by participants and their children.

A different kind of revisionism was depicted in the Jim Carrey film, "The Majestic," in which the screenwriter hero makes a speech at his HUAC denouncing the Blacklist and leaves to the applause and support of all freedom-loving Americans. What a travesty! As if none of the highly articulate people summoned before the Committee tried to denounce it. Most were silenced by the Committee,its rules, its chairman and its sergeant-at-arms enforcers. Whenever they did speak with the kind of real eloquence noted in this article, it seldom made the newsreels or the newspapers. Nor was it applauded by the American public. The American people weren't showing much support for freedom of expression. They were either silent, or actively in favor of HUAC, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover because they were responding to the Communist menace, and trampling on civil liberties was part of the price America had to pay. Sound familiar?

The Blacklist always seems to be relevant in one way or another. On my desk right now is a journal with an article about the stunning attacks on academic freedom in the wake of 9/11. It seems to me that the post 9/11 period as manipulated by the Bush administration, coupled with the ascendancy of an openly intolerant and abusive rabid right, makes this the most dangerous period in America since the fifties, easily eclipsing Watergate and even edging out the Vietnam war hysteria of the 60s. The reason is that not only is dissent rabidly and savagely attacked, but even views and plain old facts that were mainstream just a few years ago regularly meet with verbal violence, and real threats by those with influence and power within and outside the government.

This has terrible consequences for freedom, and for our country's ability to solve its problems and particularly to address the suffering of its people. But what this story about the Blacklist also shows, as just about any story of the Blacklist would, is the terrible human toll of this sort of violence. The Blacklist hurt people, mostly innocent people---not only innocent of anti-American activity (which includes just about all of the accused), but the spouses and especially the children of those persecuted, and of some of the others who were involved.

And just as there are large political lessons to learn and re-learn from the Blacklist, there are very personal ones. I think this is one of the reasons that many in the Vietnam War generation were so interested in the Blacklist, as this article indicates. Because both forced individuals to make significant moral decisions, and among young men facing the Vietnam draft, they were decisions that potentially could change the course of their lives. The Blacklist presented other moral dilemmas, and no equivalence is suggested. But this link between political decisions for the country, and personal moral decisions affecting individuals and families, was common to the two generations. In times of particular peril, the personal and the political are often both involved, and life is lived even more than usual (as the Haida say) on the edge of the knife.

This story of the Blacklist is divided into sections which I posted separately. Read from top to bottom as you normally would, and ignore the time checks. Thanks--BK