Sunday, September 07, 2003

V Herein Fail Not

All Buffy and Debbie Offner know about their father's show business career is the little they remember from their childhood, and what they've learned from his memorabilia. Their interview for Hollywood on Trial resulted from a series of accidents---probably the only way it could have happened. Mortimer Offner wasn't well known outside the show business world, and because he wasn't called until 1953, his refusal to testify wasn't even newsworthy. Perhaps his one dubious distinction is that he was blacklisted out of film, television and the theatre (though New York theatre famously was not supposed to have a blacklist) one after the other, on both coasts. Like so many others caught in this American Inquisition, he came and went without attracting much notice. Which is precisely why his story is important.

The Offner sisters were interviewed in Debbie's upper West Side apartment-the same apartment where they grew up. The green shades of their dresses blending softly with the leaves of houseplants behind them, the sunlight through the window illuminating their hair, they sifted through what their father left: pictures he'd taken as a young portrait photographer of stars such as Sylvia Sidney and Tallulah Bankhead (he was Ethel Barrymore's favorite photographer, and the famous profile of her in the Barrymore Theatre is by Offner), clippings from his first Broadway hit ("Meet the People," wilth Jack Gilford). An ecstatic letter from the sponsor of his hit television series, "A Date with Judy," from 1951. Reviews of the Broadway revival of "Room Service" he directed (generally lauded and faulted only for its freneticism, with applaus for the new actor he introduced, Jack Lemmon). A congratulatory telegram to Offner at the Playhouse Theatre, dated April 6, 1953, from John Murray: "BRAVO YOU HAVE DONE A SPLENDID JOB AND MAY THIS BE THE FIRST STEP IN A BRILLIANT CAREER LONG OVERDUE.

And the HUAC subpoena, which, through several layers of absurd irony, is pink. He is to report to Room 110 of the Federal Building in New York at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, May 4, 1953. "Herein fail not," it says, "and make return of this summons."

Buffy was old enough to remember when his life changed. "He loved working in TV," she said. "He used to talk about it a lot. That was one year. The next year he had nothing."

Offner didn't talk to his daughters about what was happening to him. "We were very young," Buffy explains. "He kept it to himself. It hurt him very much...But he kept all this for us."

More: the painstaking draft of a letter to George Cukor, his boyhood friend and then a famous director, asking for money. A copy of a letter to "Lee" describing hearings in April 1953 (the month before Offner was to appear) in heartbreaking detail. And finally a 1955 letter of commendation to Offner from his new employer, an insurance company, for his good work and high sales record in 1954, with a year's free subscription to "The Insurance Salesman," "the popular magazine for life insurance agents," as a bonus.

Buffy and Debbie knew the Blacklist only as something silent and terrible that happened to their father and also to the parents of many of their playmates, for after the Offners moved into the building, other show people who later were blacklisted came to live there, including Waldo Salt and Lee Grant. "My memories of the Blacklist really are of this building," Debbie said. "The Blacklist was something that happened not just to my father but to the parents of kids I played with here."

Debbie remembers asking who Joe McCarthy was, and being told, "he's a man who tells lies." So she envisioned McCarthy as a man who stationed himself on their back porch, waiting for her to stray out there alone so he could grab her, put her on his lap and tell her lies, one after another.

From my own interviews with each Offner sister and from other sources, the outline of Mortimer Offner's life becomes a little clearer. [A number of details can be found in Patrick McGilligan's 1991 biography of George Cukor. As a teenager, Morty Offner lived on East Sixty-eighth Street in New York in 1913. "The Offners were an especially cultivated family," McGilligan writes, "up-to-date on trends in fashion, photography, art, literature, theater, and motion pictures." His mother subscribed to movie magazines and knew all about the latest films. Morty's older brother Richard was an expert on Florentine art, and was writing a book on pre-Renaissance Italian painting. Mortie's sister Olga was a schoolteacher. Mortie was "a slender, handsome youth with a shock of dark blond hair" and wanted to become a photographer.

Mortie attended De Witt Clinton high school at Fifty-ninth Street and Tenth Avenue, which graduated many distinguished New Yorkers, including Neil Simon, James Baldwin, Richard Rodgers, Richard Avedon and Fats Waller. One of his classmates and best friends was George Cukor. Cukor, Offner and Mortie's cousin Stella Bloch, were inseparable companions, sharing enthusiasms for the arts, particularly the performing arts. "Beginning with his teenage years," McGilligan writes, Cukor "said with candor more than once, they influenced him far more than his own family." The three shared a special passion for Isadora Duncan, but their tastes were unpredictable: they loved a Brazilian piano prodigy, and Vaudeville shows at the Palace, plays with Ethel Barrymore and the films of D.W. Griffith.

In their senior year, Cukor and Offner got jobs as extras for the Metropolitan Opera, where they could listen to Caruso from the wings. Together with Stella Bloch, they put together a skit and performed it at the Temple Beth-El, with Cukor directing. While Cukor wrote many intimate and playfully sexual letters to Stella Bloch, his real interest may have been Mortie. "Cukor's lifelong affection for Offner was to be a 'totally frustrating experience' for the film director, according to Bloch...Bloch had a feeling Cukor was more fervent about Offner than vice versa. For one thing, Offner, witty and striking, was a magnet to women, 'totally interested in women, and such a thing [as a homosexual relationship] would have been unthinkable to him," in Bloch's words."]

As a Columbia University student in the 1920s, Offner hung out in the Village when it was "a hotbed of political, artistic and sexual radicalism," as editor Louise Bernikow described it. "If ever we had a Bloomsbury in this country, (this) was it." [ Offner continued his friendship with Cukor, co-hosting a New Year's Eve party in 1925 that also celebrated Cukor's first Broadway play. By the time Offner followed Cukor to Hollywood in the early 1930s, he had a considerable reputation as a show business photographer (There are seven photos taken by Offner in New York and Hollywood used in the Cukor biography, plus a photo of him in their high school skit.)

After doing portraits of Katharine Hepburn and Irene Selznick (wife of mogul Davie Selznick), Offner began contributing to scripts, both credited and uncredited, for Hepburn and for Cukor: "The Little Minister," "Little Women," "Alice Adams," "Sylvia Scarlett", and "Quality Street." By 1937 he was busy enough to have two of his films open within a day of each other, both to good reviews.

Hollywood in the thirties was a lively place, artistically and politically. Unionizing began in the studios against stiff resistance. As Blacklist historian Stephan Kanfer wrote, "Given the absolute rule of the studio chieftans, given the global and local conditions of the thirties, it is astonishing not that so many were Marxists but that so few were political at all."

Despite the discord and violence, films with a political impact were being made. In 1935 John Ford's "The Informer" won the New York Film Critics Award. About this tale of Irish revolutionaries, New York Times critic Adre Senuwall wrote, " makes you understand why 'informer' is the ugliest word in an Irishman's vocabulary." Frank Capra's mildly socialistic "Mr Deeds Goes to Town" was a critical and popular success in 1936. In 1937, the Academy Award and critics award went to "The Life of Emile Zola," which concentrated mostly on the Dreyfus trial.

Offner went into the Army Special Services for the duration of World War II, working in service theatre (and rooming with Stanley Kramer.) [He worked on Let There Be Light an excellent documentary on the psychiatric treatment for stress, directed by John Huston.] He returned to Hollywood after the war, but Hollywood was a different place. Among things suddenly forbidden were interest in the Soviet Union (quite recently a U.S. ally) and such radical organizations as the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee. HUAC showed up in 1947, the Hollywood Ten were indicted, and the writing was on all four walls.

After the birth of Elizabeth (Buffy), his first daughter, Offner returned to New York and managed to work in television and theatre for five more years until the Blacklist finally closed in. He must have seen the 11 page, single spaced letter describing the HUAC hearing of April 1953 before his in May. The letter was addressed to Lee, and signed Rosie. Debbie Offner read from it for the Hollywood on Trial camera, her older sister's protective arm behind her.

Rosie begins by saying that the "atmosphere of the hearings just completed was altogether different from the hearings in October, and it seems one must be more heroic with each succeeding bunch."

Her account was of a chaos of "friendly witnesses" (she called them "stool pigeons") exchanging oily compliments with the inquisitors, and a few stern and steadfast refusers like Jody Gilbert, who refused to answer on the basis of the Fifth Commandment. "Yes, I said Commandment. The one that reads, honor thy father and thy mother. And I take this to mean thy forefathers also. I cannot dishonor them by doing anything other than protecting the rights they gave us. Therefore, I stand on the Fifth. And I am not hiding behind it, I am standing in front of it, to protect it."

Between these were several obviously tortured souls, including a number of college professors. And there was human comedy to go with the tragedy, like the writer Rosie knew as a client when she had worked at an agency. "...we never sold one script of his, but all of a sudden he's a fine writer (according to him) who was thrown out of the industry because he quit the Communist Party! He named 27 people and talked so much even the Committee tired of him, and suggested several times that "we get on with it."

A woman, "dignified, calm, with a beautiful voice...told them, 'Christ said we cannot live by bread alone, and I hope this will be of some comfort to me now that I will no longer be able to feed my two sons.' They got her off fast." Another witness referred to the Committee as the "Unemployment Agency."

Screenwriter Ned Young thundered at the committee, shouting at the chairman, "do you really think you can ground truth into dust with that gavel?" When told he had been named as a Communist, he thundered, ' By whom, by whom? I dare you to confront me with the person whom you say named me.' They wouldn't tell him. 'I invoke and defend the Constitution with all conscience by refusing to answer your questions. You are leading America down the road to fascism." At this chairman Jackson shouted back, "I would rather go towards fascism than be a slave." When Ned confronted him with this he tried to deny it. 'Let the reporter read the record back!' Ned challenged him, and the audience applauded. After his testimony he asked his wife, "How'd I do, baby?"
"God, when they do the movie about this period of history," Rosie writes, "this is a day that must not be omitted."

But some time later, Ned Young's wife committed suicide.

Eventually, however, Nedrick Young would get some measure of triumph. Writing under the name of "Nathan Douglas," Young co-wrote the hit movie with the movie-perfect title, "The Defiant Ones," that looked like a frontrunner for the 1958 Academy Award. It would be the third year in a row, beginning with Dalton Trumbo's triumph in 1956, that a blacklisted writer took the Oscar, despite the Academy's official rule that no person who had refused to give evidence before a congressional committee was eligible for an Academy Award. When "The Defiant Ones" indeed won the New York Film Critics award, the Academy headed off more embarrassment and rescinded the rule. It was as close to an official end to the Blacklist as there would ever be. "The Defiant Ones" did win, and Ned Young---not Nathan Douglas-got the Oscar.

Rosie's letter goes on. Libby Burke, a dancer, "was so calm and so intelligent that the committee let her talk and talk. She said many wonderful things, pointing out to them that change is fundamental and eternal. Something that was considered radical at one time in history is now considered conservative. She also said, 'I may not agree with your opinions but I at least confer upon you the privilege of having those opinions. I feel you should show me the same consideration.' She explained to them the meaning of American and un-American as she saw it. She said you are taking from me my most basic right, the right to work."

"When she off the stand, the woman in front of me got up and began to shout, 'Dance for Molotov. Go ahead. Dance for Molotov. Who wants to see you dance here. Go dance for Molotov.' She followed Libby to the ladies room, shouting all the way. Nobody stopped her. When Libby was on the stand, [they] made her give her address several times. This resulted in a rock being thrown through her window that midnight."

And scrawled in handwriting at the end of the letter, perhaps a message to Offner: "It's most important to have as many of your friends as possible on hand."

The only record he left behind of his hearing was a wire service photo of him from a Cleveland newspaper, with the story: Mortimer Offner, television and theatrical director...refused to say whether he had been a Communist. He denounced Leo Townsend, a previous witness, who said that Offner was a sectional financial director of the Communist Party in 1947 and 1948. He testified on May 4, 1953. His Broadway show, "Room Service," closed on May 6. Except for a dinner theatre production in 1955, it would be his last moment in theatre or any aspect of show business or the arts.

Offner had probably already been feeling the effects of the Blacklist before his hearing date. He had first been named on September 19, 1951 by Leo Townsend. After producing some 60 TV shows in a year and a half, Offner hadn't worked much in 1952. But the Blacklist wasn't the only element of change. The movie and TV industries were changing as well in the mid fifties: TV shows were moving to LA, movie studios were retrenching because of TV. But in late 1952 Offner still had hopes---maybe the Patti Page Show at NBC, maybe a play he had acquired and was trying to raise money to produce. It was in December that he wrote his letter to Cukor, asking for the loan of $2500.

The draft he left behind is handwritten on yellow paper. It changes to white paper when he shifts from money to family news. He was writing on December 23, so he notes: "Buffy and Debbie's presents have arrived. The children of course do not know about them yet, so their parents loud thanks will have to do for now. I wish you could see the kids. They are really fine-totally different personalities---Buffy keen, spare, ever alert. Debbie soft, sure of herself, ever smiling."

When a reply hadn't arrived, he wrote a short follow-up on January 12, 1953. "Did you get my letter? Situation urgent. Will you be able to help? Anxiously awaiting word from you."


[According to his biographer, Cukor was frightened of the Blacklist and said little about it. But he was also being affected by changes in movies and the studio system, and though he was one of the better paid directors in Hollywood, his income had likely been reduced. This is not to make a judgment on his refusal, one way or the other. ]

So now with two young daughters and his wife ill with cancer, Offner made the decision to begin a different life. A friend who was an insurance counselor got him into the business. He took courses and got a job selling insurance, though as Buffy remembers, it was mostly paperwork that he did at home.

And it was a different life. The man whose forte was humor and emotion, who taught his young daughters how to mug and do double-takes, had to play the colorless role of an insurance man. He did it so well that at his memorial service in 1965, his insurance friends were amazed to learn he had ever been in show business.

"He took us to dinner at an insurance friend's house," Buffy recalled. "They were very nice people, but they were kind of dull, compared to his theatre friends. I'm sure he felt that way. We noticed it. But we weren't supposed to say anything to his new friends about any of his past."

He hadn't entirely given up either of his passions: entertainment or politics. He encouraged his daughters in their artistic interests (Debbie in acting, Buffy in dancing), he coached a few actor friends and did comedy routines for his children at home. But he gave up working in theatre altogether, afraid to call attention to the fact he was blacklisted which would endanger his insurance job. Even years later, when his daughters coaxed him to get back into theatre, he refused.

" He was older then, and perhaps by then he didn't like theatre people all that well," Buffy said. He also maintained a serious interest in politics but "it was a super-secret activity until the end," even with his children. He was in great pain, they realized, though he didn't say much about it at the time. At the very end, he said finally, "tell my daughters I was a Marxist." If they hadn't known that, they did know, as Buffy put it, "he believed and hoped for a better world."

Debbie Offner has herself acted in New York theatre-Variety called her recent performance in a new play "superb." Because her father was so private about what happened to him, she says, "when I found my voice about the Blacklist, I was scared. But then a kind of pride came out of it. Though her father's life gives her more of a sense of strength and heritage than fear of a similar fate, the scars are nevertheless there. "If it's left me with anything, it's left me with the feeling that I don't want to have political opinions I don't understand. I went to demonstrations when I was very young, but I was never serious about it, I didn't do the reading or anything. I guess I feel guilty about that. I find it difficult to be as political as I thought I would be when I was little."

Debbie feels there is much for her to understand about the period. "I just feel bad for everybody involved. I don't understand it and I want to understand it. I don't feel it's good guys and bad guys at any gut level, as I think Buffy does. I don't feel angry."

Debbie is proud of what her father did in refusing to testify and feels she would do the same, but she recoils from what politics did to his career. "When I think of what my father had to give up, I feel pain---but maybe I feel pain from knowing what he gave up, maybe that's the source of my pain. I feel very strongly about my art. I'm not going to let anything interfere with it."

Buffy, who left New York after her father's death and spent the anti-war years in the art-and-acid haven of Franconia College in New Hampshire, doesn't concern herself with politics. She rates it along with sports as simply uninteresting to her. But she remembers her father's hatred for stool pigeons, and now she sometimes judges people in terms of whether they might be the kind who would give names.

As the older of the two, Buffy remembers more of what her mother went through. She is conscientious, articulate and rational, with deep, unstated feelings that come to the surface quickly but infrequently. "People who are straightforward and honest are rare," she said in a quiet voice. "Not many people really stand up for what they believe. They just don't."

1975-76; 2003
Dedicated to the Memory of Buffy Offner