I have a confession to make: I once voted a communist.
It’s not that I hold communist views or have any particular affinity with Marx and Engels. It was 1984, and neither Ronald Reagan nor Walter Mondale had much traction. As I entered the voting booth and looked at the other candidates on the ballot, I saw that Gus Hall was once again at the top of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) list. Hall, CPUSA’s longtime general secretary, had such a strong presence in presidential elections that he had become the Harold Stassen of the American left. I thought he deserved my vote – not least because of his persistence. And I wanted to see what would happen if I pulled the lever for the communists – would an alarm go off somewhere and red lights flash? I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed when none of this happened to me or, I imagine, to the other six people in my county who did their best for Hall.
I can joke about it now, but 75 years ago even a joke about voting communists would have been enough to make people unfit to work. This era is explored in the Skirball Cultural Center’s comprehensive new exhibition, Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, on view through September 3.
For Cate Thurston, the exhibition’s coordinating curator, The Blacklist wanted to achieve several things. Most importantly, she said, “putting the blacklist in a larger context of the ‘red fears’ in America… It wasn’t an isolated incident.”
“The Blacklist” covers the era beginning in May 1949, when J. Parnell Thomas (RN.J.), the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and senior member John Rankin (D-Miss.) joined met with studio executives to discuss the communist infiltration of the Screen Writers Guild (the forerunner of the Writers Guild of America (WGA)) until the Screen Actors Guild broke its commitment to the Oath of Allegiance in the mid-1970s.
HUAC expanded its investigation to find “subversives” in the entertainment industry. Seventeen screenwriters, producers and directors were summoned to the performance. Ten of them (screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Dalton Trumbo, director Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott) refused to answer the now infamous question, “Are you are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” for First Amendment reasons. They were convicted of contempt of Congress, fined $1,000 and sentenced to between six months and a year in prison. They became known as the Hollywood Ten.
An industry soon arose to keep films, television and radio free from “subversives”: the blacklist. Red Channels, a pamphlet published in 1953 by the radically anti-Communist magazine Counterattack, initially identified 151 entertainment professionals as either “Red Fascists” or their “sympathizers,” a list that grew to thousands of names by the 1960s. In order to clear their names, show the sincerity of their patriotism, and be allowed to work again, people had to “name names” or identify other “Reds.”
The exhibition shows how anti-Semitic the blacklist was. Six of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish, and for HUAC, “Jewish” might as well have been synonymous with “Communist.” Rankin in particular was blatantly anti-Semitic, and specifically referred to Jewish actors Edward G. Robinson and Danny Kaye by their first names: Emmanuel Goldenberg and David Daniel Kaminsky, respectively. “He wanted Jews to sound alien, distant and un-American,” Thurston said. “That was his intention right there.”
The section “The Blacklist and Antisemitism” contains a never-before-released memo describing a conversation Rankin had in the Congressional dining room. HUAC wanted to do a “quick job in Hollywood.” We will take special care of the screenwriters,” the memo said. “Looking at the artifacts on display,” Thurston said, “there is no denying that antisemitism was not the basis for some of HUAC’s actions and certainly shaped the experiences of Jewish creatives who were blacklisted.”
The artifacts on display range from the media of the day (the Hollywood Reporter was particularly vehement in its hatred of the “Reds”), to excerpts from testimony given by the Ten before the committee, to copies of Red Channels and leaflets, posters, and magazine accounts for both and against the Ten, to the more personal — letters from their families sent to Trumbo and Bessie in prison, correspondence from talent and literary agents who dumped their blacklisted clients for representing a blacklisted one standing could result in their being blacklisted. “We really wanted to highlight the lived experience of those involved,” Thurston said. “I think when the story feels really macro, you lose what’s so dynamic about the story — that it’s about people with real lives that aren’t that different from ours.”
She points out how the exhibition deals with those who “name names”. Thurston ensured that the exhibition’s treatment of them was not sympathetic but “humanizing”. The aim of the exhibition, she said, is “never to denigrate anyone’s actions, but to add context, in the same way we wanted to make people understand why people were drawn to communism and why people cooperated with HUAC.” One had to “disagree with their actions,” she said, “to look at the conditions that influenced their decisions.” The material on Richard Collins, one of the first people to name names, “really showed that with his decision to participate.” She insists that “it would do the story and the exhibition a disservice if someone tried to portray someone as a villain when the circumstances were really the villain.”
“We wanted to make people understand why people were attracted to Communism and why people cooperated with HUAC… You don’t have to agree with their actions to look at the conditions that influenced their decisions.” – Cate Thurston
Thurston’s family was affected by the blacklist. Irwin Shaw, her great-uncle, was blacklisted, and her grandparents — who were both story analysts and screenwriters — were “grey-listed,” which defined them as “guilt by association.” Shaw fled to Switzerland, but her grandparents had “a very nice life” and “my grandfather fished and traded the fish for vegetables”. She appreciates her pain and anger, but said her job as a historian is different: “To create a well-rounded, complicated picture … to show the sharp edges and contours of history.”
Joe Gilford, the son of blacklisted actors Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee, is not a historian. As a playwright, author, and professor, you can guess his take on those who named names from the title of his 2013 play, based on his parents’ story, “Finks.” He balks at talking about the blacklist, practically spitting out the name of Jerome Robbins, the choreographer/director who betrayed his mother. Gilford stressed that Robbins was not a victim of the blacklist. “Why did he sign a deal with Columbia and go straight to ‘On the Waterfront’? … Why did (he) become the greatest Broadway choreographer in history?”
Unfortunately, Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare is also relevant. It’s hard not to see the parallels between the blacklist and today’s abortion culture, where politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle are demanding rejection and silence from anyone who dares to express an opinion contrary to their dogma . It’s not too far-fetched that Ron Desantis is using his office to chastise Disney for disagreeing with his policies and pledging to wage war on “Woke” as the 21st-century “Red Scare.”
“If the American democratic project is to work, we must not regard people with whom we disagree as our enemies.” -Cate Thurston
For Thurston, the relevance of The Blacklist is that Americans have a blind spot – we’re not good at overcoming differences. “If the American democratic project is to work, we must not regard people with whom we disagree as our enemies.”