Sunday, September 07, 2003

IV Sins of the Father

Gordon Kahn was a screenwriter, and the first of the "unfriendly nineteen" witnesses to announce his non-cooperation with HUAC in 1947. With a HUAC subpoena being served at the front door, Gordon Kahn escaped to Mexico literally out the back door. Nearly thirty years later his older son, Dr. James Kahn, found himself being pursued by the same bloodless hounds of inquisition, awakening new nightmares and changing the course of his medical career.

Gordon Kahn wound up in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1947, where his family joined him, along with the families of other blacklisted writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler. It was an American community of political exiles that included "premature anti-fascists" (that is, people who opposed Franco, Mussolini and Hitler too soon) and veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

When the Kahns returned to the U.S. in 1956 there was still no work for Gordon in Hollywood, so they went to Mrs. Kahn's hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire. The Blacklist followed them. Barbara Kahn couldn't get a teaching job in the city's school system and eventually taught in another. While Gordon wrote for magazines (under pseudonyms) he was subjected to another investigation, spearheaded by the state attorney general. James Kahn later discovered the extent of that investigation: the Kahns had been wiretapped, their mail opened and police survelliance of their activities maintained.

"The state government decided to get in the act with its own Un-American Activities Committee," Kahn said. "We were really harassed then. The police watched our house---my brother and I saw them on our way home from school. We sort of harassed them back. We were kids so we could get away with it, but my father encouraged us. They went around asking our neighbors about us, which naturally made living there pretty strange. We were the neighborhood Commies."

When Jim Kahn got to Harvard he kept clear of politics. "I didn't participate in any political groups and certainly didn't sign any petitions," he said. "Somewhere in the back of my mind I was terrified," he said. But by the time he was a senior at Harvard, Vietnam was forcing itself into everyone's consciousness. Jim responded by declaring in an editorial for the yearbook that he would refuse induction into the army because of the war.

Gordon Kahn encouraged his son James to be a doctor, to build a career away from show business and the arts, "because he felt so vulnerable."

While a student at the Harvard Medical school Jim applied for a position with the Center for Disease Prevention of the U.S. Public Health Service, with particular interest in Central America. "It would be a good deal for me. I'd already worked in South America for six months during med school, and I liked it---it was exciting and challenging work. I had already decided I wanted to get involved in public health, and this was a way out of the draft, too."

Jim Kahn was judged to be the best in his class by the dean of the medical school. Thanks to his boyhood in Mexico and his travel and study in other Latin American countries, he was fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. By every measure he was the ideal candidate, and in the words of one of his teachers, exactly the kind of doctor the PHS wanted, and rarely got.

Kahn was commissioned in the Public Health Service during his fourth year at Harvard Med. His active duty was supposed to begin after a year's internship and a year's hospital residency. But just four months shy of his activation, Kahn got a call from the PHS personnel director requesting that he come to Washington. "Somehow I had the feeling right then that I knew what was going to happen. But I just didn't believe it. I asked him what it was about but he wouldn't tell me. Finally he admitted, unofficially, that it was a security check. My fears were coming true."

What happened next is very clear in Jim's mind, even though it happened in 1969. On a brilliant fall day in 1975, sitting on the sunporch of his new home in New Hampshire, in easy reach of his own actively perused files on the subject, he could recite from memory the day and the hour he went to Washington at the behest of H.E.W. He remembers what airline he flew and what time it left Boston. He remembers the vague fears that were about to become reality.

He flew to Washington at 7 a.m. on February 5, 1969. Hoping that it was some minor snag, perhaps having to do with his Yearbook editorial, he decided to trust the service he was about to enter and go to the interview without a lawyer or even a tape recorder.

He wandered through the Kafkaesque labyrinth of the HEW building to a small, bare room, furnished "in pure FBI d├ęcor---a desk, some chairs, an American flag, and a picture on the wall of J. Edgar Hoover." Though he was in the Health, Education and Welfare department, his two interrogators were ex-FBI, now employed by HEW security.

Immediately after the interview, Kahn sat in the HEW lobby and recorded his impressions. "The two investigators, Gulka and Sterbinsky, looked like two Eastern European freedom-fighter rejects. Gulka was about 4' 9", bald except for a tuft of hair where his frontal lobe should be. They were both too dumb to be personally malicious, just cogs in the security system. They didn't know what they were asking or why. They were truly monstrous in their stupidity."

They had a file marked "James Kahn" but there seemed to be nothing about James Kahn in it. There was however quite a lot about Gordon Kahn. The security men asked about Gordon Kahn's past political associations, his blacklisted friends and their present whereabouts. Jim answered one question about his father. Yes, he was dead. He died of a heart attack in 1962, shortly after he finally won his court case to prevent the New Hampshire Attorney-General from harassing him and his family.

After that, Jim refused to answer anything about his father or his father's associates, while making it clear he would answer questions about himself. The agents weren't interested.

Dr. James Kahn left the HEW Building still hoping that this had been a temporary aberration in procedure, that it would not affect his career. But his emotions, recorded at the time, told him differently. "I felt that my life was over."

Kahn's security status floating through the murky byways of government bureaucracy and it appears that it was never defined. The Harvard Medical School intervened on his behalf, but that was good enough only to get him stationed at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Kahn tried to get his case resolved for the next two years. He got a second security interview, but it turned out to be a replay of the first one (except this time he had a lawyer and a tape recorder with him.) It occurred a year later, almost to the day. He even faced the same two interrogators.

"They asked me if I was aware my father was a Communist in 1932. I told them that in 1932 I was ten years away from being born. They asked me if I knew Albert Maltz. I told them I knew him as the father of my playmates, Kathy and Peter. They asked me if I carried secret messages between my father and Maltz. I was nine years old."

The only difference about the second interview Kahn noted was that his file appeared to be an inch thicker. Still, the questions were about his father, not about him.

Kahn was passed over time and time again for assignments outside the United States, including short-term emergencies for which he was especially well suited. His superiors in Atlanta designated him as the best qualified of the available Public Health officers to go to Biafra, but he wasn't sent. He saw Latin American assignments go to doctors who couldn't speak Spanish, while doctors who requested duty in the United States were shipped out of the country. Kahn, who had been promised a foreign assignment when he joined, was never given one.

Meanwhile he began having nightmares."I dreamt that my father had come back to life. I screamed at him, 'Go away, Gordon! Leave me alone!'"

He initiated court cases, wrote to two Attorneys General, contacted Sam Ervin's Senate subcommittee on dossiers, all to no avail. Dr. James Kahn left the PHS in 1971. He went back to Boston for a few years to work at Beth-Israel and Massachusetts General hospitals, and to go into analysis to resolve his feelings about his father and himself. He now works in a small hospital in New Hampshire.

Dr. Kahn remembers the people in the Public Health Service who welcomed him effusively at first, and then retreated into a bureaucratic maze of avoidance. "They fawned all over me until the security problem arose. Then they were just...chickenshit."

Though he was a child when it happened, he says, "Any way you look at it, the Blacklist was the biggest thing that happened in my life."

It remains alive in his thoughts. "I'm still scared of it happening again. I feel strong enough and confident enough to handle it, but it could happen any day. If any of that kind of thing hits this country again, I know I'll be involved. Because I'm on file. So is my brother. And probably so is every kid of anybody who was blacklisted."

Jim Kahn's younger brother, Tony Kahn, also went into analysis to clear his mind of aspects of his father's legacy. Tony now lives in Cambridge, and makes his living writing and translating Russian. He also worked with Arnie Reisman, writing and performing for WGBH public television in Boston. Tony was six when his family went to Mexico, too young then to understand his parents' politics, but subject to the taunts of playmates. He remembers being called a Commie Jew Gringo in Mexico---and then a Commie Jew Mex back in Manchester.

Jim Kahn got into at least one monumental fistfight over such name-calling---Tony, who watched it, likens it to a classic movie western brawl, beginning in the back yard and ending up on the other side of the street. Jim sent his tormentor to the hospital. (The guy later turned out to be one of the men who kidnapped Frank Sinatra, Jr.) After the fight was over, their father, who had also been watching, came out with a cloth to treat Jim's cuts. "He encouraged us to fight back," Tony said.

At age six, Tony didn't know why he was in Mexico, why he had to leave the land of TV and the home of Superman comics. He didn't know why his mother was sad or would suddenly burst into tears. When he heard that his straight-laced New Englander aunt, also with them in Mexico, was called the Queen of the Reds by a Mexican newspaper, he assumed it meant she ran the "red zone," the strip of cantinas and whorehouses he walked through on his way to school.

Jim remembers a little more of what the adults were doing, about the incidences among his father's friends of alcohol and drug abuse, shattered families and suicides. "I saw people shattered, just shattered. One guy took his private plane out one day and just ditched in the ocean." Today former public health specialist Dr. James Kahn puts it this way: "The effects of the Blacklist on families was absolutely as uncontrollable as a disease."

Tony Kahn got into one political squabble in high school when the pro-HUAC film "Operation Abolition" (which characterized student demos against HUAC in San Francisco as Communist organized) was scheduled for a compulsory attendance assembly. Tony and a couple of friends proposed to the principal that either attendance be made voluntary or the opposing view be presented at another assembly. The principal responded by beginning a campaign to ferret out the Communist menace in Manchester High, as well as placing his version of the incident in their student records (along with, in Tony's case, the ever-present information about his father.) One of the students involved, a senior, didn't get into any of his chosen colleges as a result. Tony was a junior, and the furor had died by the next year.

At Harvard Tony rebelled against political ideology and involvement. "The only reason I'd done it before was because my father told me to." He began to feel that his father's politics had smothered his humanity as well as his career possibilities. "People said that he had an incredible sense of humor. But as a father, he was very much the Old Testament lawgiver, especially when it came to politics. He gave us precepts, but not their process. By the time I knew him, he didn't have a spontaneous bone in his body."

The Blacklist certainly smothered Gordon Kahn's career, and as a writer Tony is very aware of that. "Gordon had been a newspaperman in New York, a good friend of S.J. Perlman. It was an incredibly rich life. He went to Hollywood but later, after we came back to New Hampshire, he had real contempt for his work there. When any of his films came on television-always with his name blacked out of the credits---he literally held his nose in disdain." In fact, Gordon Kahn was highly and successfully prolific: wholly or partially, he wrote 4 movies released in 1939, 4 in 1942, 3 in 1944, 2 in 1946 and one or two most other years. Two were released in 1948, the year after he fled to Mexico. But pretty much all were minor genre pictures.

"But after the Blacklist he couldn't write at all," Tony continued, "except secretly, under another name. He wrote clever pieces on Hungarian food and Japanese movies for Holiday under the name of Hugh G. Foster. But he never had the right forum as a writer. He had a huge amount of general knowledge and a great style as an essayist. But because of the Blacklist, he never got a second chance."

Gordon Kahn had the second of a series of heart attacks in Mexico. He was seriously ill for the rest of his life. When he died in 1962 there was still one piece that he'd planned but never written. He wanted to call it, "How I Killed Hugh G. Foster."

Barbara Kahn, who retired from teaching last spring with a commencement address on the Blacklist, recalled the words she found in her husband's office after his death. Gordon Kahn had written, "I stood before the tribunal of my own mind." His sons admire that moral commitment, but aren't sure what it can mean today, or whether they can expect to see it in their generation. "I guess I don't expect to find that moral strength," Tony said. "I haven't seen anyone tested, really...Our moral issues seem much less significant, and much less clear-cut."

Gordon Kahn did try to pass on his politics, to define the enemy for his sons. "But I don't think it works any more for me, "Tony says. "I've learned not to line people up as good or bad guys, but deal with them as people."

His brother Jim feels the same way about the Hollywood people involved. "For awhile I was angry because Dalton and (Albert) Maltz went back and made their peace, but not now. I don't want to blame the people who had the situation forced on them, but the people who did the forcing."

"I'm not afraid of compromise any more, because I know my principles." Jim concluded, about his own life. "It takes a certain kind of person to recognize moral decision---something that's going to have long term effects on self. My father died not feeling guilty about anything he did."


Some of the children the Kahns had known in Mexico gathered around Mrs. Jean Butler's dining room table to be interviewed for Hollywood on Trial. Present were Dalton Trumbo's son Chris, and Michael and Becky Butler, two of the children of Hugo and Jean Butler (both "graylisted" screenwriters, who were never subpoenaed but never worked. Hugo Butler died at age 53.) They all talked about their childhood.

Chris Trumbo was seven when his father was indicted for contempt of Congress and sent to jail. He remembers visiting his father in prison, and being impressed by the train ride and the tall prison tower with the machine gun. He saw his father in the visitor's area, and was so disappointed in not seeing his cell that he cried.

After his father's release their family joined the Butlers and Kahns in Mexico, and returned to California with the Butlers. Their re-entry into American society was not painless. Chris remembers experiencing his first "duck and cover" atomic bomb drill, a popular nightmare for kids of the fifties, in ninth grade. He had no idea what was going on, and it scared him thoroughly. "All of a sudden everybody was climbing under their desks---even the teacher. I didn't know what was happening." Chris received other rude awakenings, including catcalls of Red, commie and Christ-killer. "I was the school commie," he said. "I also had a tough time explaining what my father did for a living. So it was very difficult to form friendships. Who do you trust?"

Though he was a class leader and a football player, Chris remembers never being invited to his classmates' homes and narrowly missing a school award, only to find out later that the decision went against him because of his family. Michael Butler remembers some similar problems. "I wasn't really accepted until, strangely enough, I started dating. The general feel was that if I was a Red I had to be a homo."

Later in the conversation a debate began over the moral questions of the Blacklist period, with marked differences even within this compatible company-even between Michael and Chris, who grew up together and now occasionally collaborate on screenplays.

Curiously, it is Michael Butler, not Chris Trumbo, who agrees with Dalton Trumbo's belief that there were "only victims" of the Blacklist. "I'm not into blame," Michael says simply. "The blame has to do with cowardice," Chris insists. "What we are is an expression of what we do. The question is, is it admissible for one person to destroy another's life?"

Becky Butler is only eighteen and has no real memories of the fifties, but she has heard her mother (whose point of view is close to Michael's) say that the Blacklist killed her father, and she has just recently seen the Eric Bentley play, with dialogue taken from HUAC testimony, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been." "I'm very resentful about the friendly witnesses," she said. "I feel very bitter, even though I didn't go through the period. When I saw what Larry Parks and (Elia) Kazan did, I wanted to shout, 'Why can't you be strong? Why can't you stand up for your principles?'"


The children of friendly witnesses have their own legacy to deal with, and they ask the same questions. One of them, Conrad Bromberg, son of J. Edgar Bromberg, staged a play condemning his father's informing. But at least one other child of a HUAC cooperator has recently come to different conclusions about his father's culpability.

He spoke to me on condition that he and his father not be named. His father, now dead, admitted to the Committee that he had been a Communist and gave several names of other putative members. (He testified in 1953, naming perhaps seven people.) The facts of the story his son tells (most of which apparently came from his mother) are open to question, but his point of view is what is important. He spoke rapidly and forcefully, explaining that some of his anger was the result of his summing-up process on the verge of completing several years of psychiatric analysis. "My father was really pissed off at the Party for putting him in the position of either going to jail or being a squealer. When he joined the Party he thought the membership rolls would be made public, but instead they were secret. He felt double-crossed, as a result he was put in a double bind."

"At first he refused to testify, and his television show, which was the highest rated in the country, was cancelled. He didn't work for two years. I was five, so I didn't know anything, except that suddenly my father had an awful lot of free time to take us on trips." But later his father did testify; according to his mother, his father gave only names of people already named.

"He tried to ignore what he did," his son says. "He was a sad man after that, permanently wounded. If you look into any kind of torture, you understand that the rationale of torture is not to get information but to inflict guilt. My father knew that. He told me, 'all they wanted was to break people.' They succeeded with him."

He once derided his father, but now he's changed his mind. "At first I was really against him. I asked him once, 'why couldn't you be strong?' After he died I forgot about it, but I still blamed him. Now, in the last few months, when everybody's been talking about the Blacklist, I've been thinking about it. I don't blame him anymore. I had a healthy upbringing. He saw that I was taken care of, even in the lean times. At some point my father had to decide what was most important, his family or himself. You know, martyrdom can be egocentric. There are other people involved, after all---a family that was his responsibility. I think my father made his decision for his wife and kids. I think he did it for us."

He has turned his former bitterness away from his father, and pointed it towards his father's former friends who made him an enemy when he testified. "That hurt him the most. He couldn't believe that his closest friends didn't understand the human reasons why he did what he did. Why didn't they turn their hatred against Congress instead of attacking their friends? Hollywood became broken and bitter, when before it had a lot of creative love."