Friday, November 27, 2009

Survivors Of The Blacklist, part 1

Note: I had to cut this post into two parts, due to the sheer size of it. I think this subject warrants the length; I'll have the second half up tomorrow.

I find it appropriate that I'm writing this post an hour into Thanksgiving. Of all the things I'm grateful for this year, the most recent is the opportunity I had Tuesday night to attend Survivors Of The Blacklist: A Panel Discussion at the Theater at St. Clement's. Thanks to Kate Gabrielle, without whom I would never have known about this event, and to my Wednesday professors, who either cancelled class or were understanding about the high absence rates typical of Turkey Day Eve, I was able to make the trek to New York City and take advantage of this rare (and free!) opportunity.

The panel was presented by Kurt Peterson and Edmund Gaynes along with the Peccadillo Theater Company, as a tie-in to their current production, Zero Hour, a play about Zero Mostel's struggles with the blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee. After opening remarks by Congressman Jerrold Nadler, we were treated to a preview of this play, with TCM's Robert Osborne playing the voice-over role of the HUAC interrogator as playwright and actor Jim Brochu took the stage alone as Zero in a flashback scene in which Zero recalls his testimony, his refusal to name names, and the lives of friends that were destroyed by the blacklist. It was a very powerful scene, nonetheless infused with Zero's sense of comedic wit, and I would enthusiastically recommend anyone in the New York area to see the play if you can.

That led into the main event, which of course was the discussion. Robert Osborne was the moderator, and the panel consisted of Cliff Carpenter, actor; Jean Rouverol, actor and author of a book about the blacklist years; Victor Navasky, publisher, journalist, and author of a book about the blacklist; Lee Grant, actor and director; Jules Feiffer, playwright and cartoonist; Christopher Trumbo, writer and son of Dalton Trumbo; Kate Lardner, author and daughter of Ring Lardner, Jr.; and Joe Gilford, playwright and son of Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee.

One of the first questions posed by Robert Osborne was why the men who ran the studios weren't blacklisted; it was only the "talent," the actors, directors, and writers who were targeted, rather than the moguls who employed them. The simplest response that the panel gave was that those men weren't members of the Communist party. Jack Warner and others were apparently called to testify, but were quickly cleared of any possible connections. Later, when 19 people including the group who came to be known as the Unfriendly 10, or Hollywood 10, were subpoenaed, the studio higher-ups met at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and announced a new policy wherein no one who had ever been connected with the Communist party would be employed by the studios. Thus, the blacklist was born. The reason that Hollywood was specifically targeted by HUAC was because movies were such a large part of American culture, and therefore a means of swaying the American public opinion.

Robert Osborne also asked how the blacklist affected the children of the writers and actors who were suddenly ostracized. Joe Gilford brought up how proud he was of his parents for fighting what they saw as an unconstitutional act by the government; he also said that he'd envied kids who had "normal" lives, but also never really knew an alternative to a childhood under the blacklist. Because Ring Lardner and Dalton Trumbo went to jail, Kate Lardner and Christopher Trumbo's lives were more disrupted by the blacklist; both mentioned moving around as a result. Finances were often a struggle for all of them, as their parents were obviously unable to work.

Cliff Carpenter was asked specifically how the blacklist affected him, and he responded with a deadpan "Not pleasantly." This drew laughter from the audience, but the rest of his answer was a very emotional recounting of his experiences. He said that at the time, CBS had two lawyers who were in charge of blacklisting employees who had been accused of having connections to Communism. He went to them in an effort to stand up for the Bill of Rights, insisting that he had never knowingly belonged to any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government but that the probes being conducted by the government were unconstitutional; he was told that this was not the answer they had wanted to hear, and sent home to give the matter some thought. Later, he was told that the only way he could have his own name removed from the blacklist would be to provide the names of other people to go on it. His refusal to do so cost him his career, yet even in hindsight Carpenter remained adamant that it was the only choice he could make, and that he would do it all over again if he had to.

Jean Rouveral said that she, too, would make the same choices over again. Her husband, Hugo Butler, was more targeted by HUAC than she was, and the couple left the country for about 15 years, which the spent primarily in Mexico. They were in good company; Dalton Trumbo and his family also spent time south of the border, as did other victims of the blacklist and their families. She emphasized the sense of community among the blacklistees in Mexico, a sentiment that was echoed by much of the panel, although Kate Lardner warned against casting the time in too idealistic a light. Although those who were blacklisted tried to make the best of their situations, it was still a very dark time as people struggled to support their families while being prevented from doing the work that they loved.


  1. A very nice recap of the full evening. I'm going to be posting videos of the session soon, if you would like to include them here.