You’ve never heard of the curse of Hedy Lamarr? This screenwriter experienced it. 2,225 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Fifty-three year old Steven Harris could recite the ten worst if only moments of his life in Hollywood in perfectly chiseled narrative prose, in a voice resonating with regret that ended in either a deep sigh, a shoulder shrug or another belt of strong coffee since he’d been in recovery. He’d related his woeful tale so often, it had become as polished as the best of his screenplay exposition dialogue. His last project, just passed on after a lot of studio bullshit happy talk, demanded a heavy session of commiseration. For that his ex, Ellen Owens, was his go-to safe place. Theirs had been one of those quirky marriages you hear about: horrible living together, utterly joyous after the divorce.
One of the reasons was Ellen’s magical ability to listen with patience and insight to his mewlings about the downward trajectory of his writing and directing careers. And, as always, his sorry tale began with that fleeting elevator moment, thirty-two years before, with Hedy Lamarr.
Ellen had agreed to meet Steven at the Intelligentsia coffee joint in Silver Lake at a quiet corner table where the lamentations, all familiar and chronologically precise, flowed from his mouth to her ears for the umpteenth time since their divorce ten years before. As she came inside, he got up, and they did their hugs and cheek kisses, and he curled back into his gloomy shell, prepared to spew forth the top ten list of why his career had gone into the crapper.
He tapped his laptop and said glumly, “It’s my best script ever. Fox just passed. Nobody left to see it. That’s project number five in the toilet this year. A new record. Want something besides coffee?”
“Just coffee. So, honey, talk to me,” she asked, planting elbows on the table, curled fists on her cheeks. “What’s the great project they shit on this time?”
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST FICTION – On November 24-25, 1947, forty-eight studio moguls surrendered to HUAC’s Red-baiting. 2,492 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming. Last in a series of three (first and second).
As a hotel employee of some 20 years, Nino was used to keeping the secrets of guests. But this was the first time they ever made him swear to it on a copy of the Old Testament. The request came as he was setting up his bar in the third floor function room of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria. Nino knew this wasn’t a drinking crowd; if anything, they were a complaining crowd. Because whenever the Hollywood moguls stayed at the swank hotel, they bitched that business was always bad no matter how much money they were making. He recognized some of the guests from their previous visits as one powerful executive after another entered, many greeting each other in Yiddish.
A spread in Life magazine had come out that morning entitled “The Movie Hearings.” Written by Sidney Olson, the article purported to reveal how Reds were trying to take over the movies, and why the House Un-American Activities Committee had summoned a galaxy of star witnesses to expose the supposed conspiracy. Many during the October 10-20 hearings had testified willingly — but others had noisily defied the commiittee, triggering the gavel of HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas. Ten writers, directors, and producers who had refused to discuss their beliefs and associations were called The Hollywood Ten. Now the suite was filling with film studio brass who not only had been friendly witnesses but also shared the HUAC Chairman’s impatience with the First Amendment.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” warned Barney Balaban, the President of Paramount Pictures. “When you get the heads of all the movie companies in one room, it’s called restraint of trade.”
“Who’s restraining trade?” asked Harry Cohn, the President and Production Director of Columbia Pictures. “We’re just talking business.”
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST FICTION – A superstar Hollywood couple, with a secret, goes to Washington D.C. in October 1947 and grapples with HUAC’s purge of Communists from the movie industry. Second in a series. 4,474 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“How’s this? Take my right side, fellas. That’s always my best side.”
Grant Strickland and his actress wife Lili Reynolds stood on the U.S. Capitol steps posing before a crescent of jostling still photographers as dozens of fans waved and reporters shouted questions.
“Grant, are there any Communists in the movie industry?” asked one newsman over the din. Strickland and Reynolds hooked arms and leaned toward each other for the press photographers.
“I’m not into ‘isms,’” the actor replied with a chuckle, “—unless it’s capital-ism!”
“And what about you, Lili? How do you feel about your husband appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee today?” another reporter called out. “Are you nervous?”
The former chorus girl who became one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the sassy dame-next-door type whom men adore glanced up at her husband and then back at the questioner. “I’m here to support Grant — and also our industry.”
Given the seriousness of the HUAC hearings, though, she ignored shouts to dip her chin and show off her steely sultriness.
“Grant, what do you think of these hearings?” asked another reporter standing at the back of the horde.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST FICTION – Decades after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, the Motion Picture Industry Council and the Waldorf Conference met, a son confronts his father’s accuser. First in a series. 4,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We were halfway through Silas Raymond’s funeral when I realized that the fellow mourner I had been struggling to recognize was the man who had blacklisted my father. Two days later, I saw him again at Musso & Frank’s. He sat alone in a booth, watching the door as if he expected J. Edgar Hoover to burst in and arrest him. Then I thought, no, they won’t arrest him, they’ll arrest the people he named to Silas Raymond’s Motion Picture Industry Council.
Silas Raymond was the most notorious Red-baiter of the witchhunt era. Even though he didn’t sit on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he walked in goose-step with them. He said he could spot a Red within five minutes, and he decimated Hollywood’s creative community with a campaign of intimidation, guilt by association, and outright lies. That’s why I went to his funeral back in 1995; I wanted to make sure the son of a bitch was dead.
They planted him at the stroke of noon (though the stroke of midnight would have been more fitting) at Forest Lawn, and I remembered thinking that the low turnout for such a one-time heavyweight wasn’t because he was forgotten. It was because he’d outlived all of his friends and most of his enemies. I was one of the latter.
I behaved myself during the services, even though I wanted to put a stake in his heart right there in one of Forest Lawn’s smaller chapels. I needed to see who would show up to honor him. Among his handful of mourners were, appropriately, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And Marcus Gottfried.
That was the name I finally connected with the face. A former film director, he was now in his low eighties, twenty years older than my father was when he died. We swapped glances during the services and then went our separate ways. Maybe he was wondering who I was, too.