HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – On November 24-25, 1947, forty-eight studio moguls surrendered to HUAC’s Red-baiting. 2,492 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
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.”
“That’s the point,” chimed in Albert Warner, whom everybody called The Major and was one of the four brothers who founder Warner Bros. Studios. He served as its Treasurer. “The Justice Department is already investigating us for monopoly in how we make, distribute and show our films. Whose idea was it for all of us to meet like this anyway?”
“Mine,” barked Nicholas Schenck, head of Loew’s, Inc, the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “To hell with anti-trust laws. The government has made it clear that they’ll look the other way as long as we take a stand against Reds in the film business and get rid of them.”
That’s when all eyes – 96 of them, because there were 48 men in the room – turned to Nino, who stood polishing the hotel’s crystal highball glasses.
“Anybody care for a drink?” the bartender asked weakly.
“What are you doing here, Nino?” asked Sam Goldwyn, the studio mogul turned full-time producer who now released his movies through RKO Radio Pictures. It was more of a question than a challenge. Goldwyn always stayed at the Waldorf when he came East, and he remembered everything and everyone, even as he crafted a public image as a bumbling illiterate. “I thought you worked in the main dining room.”
“They assigned me here today, Mr. Goldwyn,” Nino said. “They said the hotel didn’t want someone who couldn’t be trusted.”
“Better swear him in anyway,” said Cohn. “We didn’t tell the press about this conference, and we sure as hell don’t want anything getting out of this room.”
Nino didn’t take the moguls’ oath demand as an insult, though he should have.
“Anybody here got a Bible?” said William Goetz, who’d taken charge of 20th Century Fox while Darryl Zanuck joined the U.S. military effort in World War II and now was President of the newly formed Universal-International Pictures. “Maybe the hotel has one of those Gideon Bibles.”
“Bite your tongue.” said Cohn. “Barney, you believe this Jewish stuff so you must have one.”
“Try this,” said James Byrnes, producing a copy of the Old Testament. He had just resigned as U.S. Secretary Of State in the Truman Administration and been one of the earliest architects of the Cold War and a well-known hardliner against the Soviet Union. Now he was working with the movie industry to craft its response to HUAC.
Byrnes asked Nino to place his left hand on the Bible, raise his right hand, and promise to keep what he was about to see and hear a secret.
Ordinarily, waiters and bartenders are invisible to their customers, but the men at this Waldorf conference were sharper than most. If they could parse every page of script and screen every foot of film for Communist content, as they’d insisted they’d done to the HUAC hearings, then they could certainly notice a hotel employee paying too close attention to their agenda. So they ignored Nino from then on.
Eric Johnston, president of the newly renamed Motion Picture Association of America who convened today’s confab, called on the moguls to get down to business.
“First, we’ve got to get rid of the Reds,” said Spyros Skouras, the President of 20th Century-Fox. “I don’t care what it takes, we fire them.”
“They all have contracts,” said Warner. “Remember when we were flush with money during the war and signed everybody to rich deals? Now that television is cutting our revenues, we’re stuck with bloated payrolls. Business is down 25 percent. Among us we’ve laid off 12,000 laborers and half our contract talent.”
“This could be a great way to trim our payroll, L.B.” Eddie Mannix advised Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Mannix not only served as Mayer’s fixer but kept a ledger of every cost, from buying toilet paper to paying hush money. "At Metro we’ve already trimmed $9 million, and Wall Street is still howling.”
“But if you all fire the talent at once,” warned Paul McNutt of the MPAA office, “you could be accused of conspiracy.”
“Not a problem,” smiled Skouras. “Just say somebody’s a Red and you can cancel their contract. I already had Darryl Zanuck fire Ring Lardner Jr. for not testifying. Easy and quick.”
“As long as the government will stand behind us, that is,” said Mannix warily.
“The government will,” assured Byrnes. “As you know, the U.S. Supreme Court is looking into your business practices. Any time two or more of you gentlemen get together, it’s collusion. Except for today and tomorrow: Uncle Sam is looking the other way. Do what you have to do to get rid of Reds. Period.”
As the moguls took their seats, a tall bespectacled man hovered and watched while lost in his own thoughts. Nino made eye contact and the man slowly walked over to the bar. “Something I can get you?” Nino asked.
“Orange juice,” answered Dore Schary, the producer and Oscar-winning screenwriter newly installed as production head of RKO. He seemed the one executive out of place in the room. “Although in a couple of hours I may ask for a double Scotch.”
The reason was that two of RKO’s top talents, director Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, had refused to cooperate with the HUAC. Schary suspected that RKO would be commanded to fire the pair. Worse, Dmytryk and Scott and the rest of the Hollywood Ten who’d defied the HUAC would be blacklisted across the industry. Yet Schary knew the filmmaking duo also had been responsible for RKO’s major success of the year: Crossfire, a murder mystery about a Jewish man and the demobilized World War II soldiers suspected of killing him. What was coming pained him.
Nino filled a large glass with orange juice and handed it to Schary. “Aren’t you going to sit down with the others?” the waiter asked.
“I want to see who sits with whom first,” Schary said. “It’s like a high school lunch room. Look, the Loew’s and Metro guys group together. Paramount and Warner are over there in a cluster. RKO is next to Fox. Universal isn’t sure where to sit. Oh, and Columbia is alone.”
“Doesn’t anyone like Columbia?” Nino asked.
“Everyone likes Columbia,” Schary said. “It’s Harry Cohn they can’t stand.”
As Schary moved at his own speed to a seat halfway between RKO and Metro (which he’d be running very soon), the MPAA’s Eric Johnston announced, “Gentlemen, I’m calling this meeting to order. Whatever intrigues any of us may have on the outside, as long as we’re in this room, we have to form a solid bloc against Communist influence. Our industry is at a crisis. Ticket sales are down, pressure groups like the American Legion are threatening to boycott our films, foreign territories are likewise refusing to import our pictures, Wall Street is nervous, and the public thinks we take our orders from Russia. What are we going to do about it?”
Mayer was first to respond. “In 10 days of hearings last month, nobody produced anything in any of our films that was Communistic. Doesn’t it mean that we’re doing our job?”
“Not according to Ginger Rogers’ mother,” replied William Levy, the RKO sales executive who handled Disney’s films.
“I heard her,” added Dore Schary. “I was embarrassed when she said that the Bill of Rights should only apply to people for whom it was intended. Whatever that means.”
“It means no Reds, Dore,” said Skouras.
Schary replied, “What she doesn’t know about the law could keep our legal department busy for months, and it did.”
“Stop being the college professor, Dore,” said Mayer unequivocally. “The solution is clear. Fire them and let’s get back to business.”
“Easier said than done, Dad,” said Goetz. He had married Mayer’s daughter, Edie, and loved making his father-in-law squirm. “If we fire them, we’ll be, in effect, allowing the government to dictate what we can and can’t put on the screen. It’s already trying to regulate our business practices. You want to hand it our cameras, too?”
“If it’s good for America, it’s good for Hollywood,” Mayer said. “And that’s that.”
Schary crossed the room for more orange juice. This time Goldwyn joined him and asked Nino for the same. While Nino was pouring, Goldwyn leaned close to Schary and said, in a low voice, “Dore, you’ve got to do something. They’re going crazy.”
“Yes, but what?” the younger mogul asked.
“I don’t know, but you’re a writer. Think of something.”
The phone rang. Nino answered it. “Third floor function room. Yes, he’s here.” He signaled to Eric Johnston, who took the call. Johnston’s face went even whiter than it was normally. When he hung up, the whole room stared at him apprehensively.
“News from Washington,” he said gravely. “Congress has just voted contempt citations against the Hollywood Ten.”
“Now it’s serious,” said Mannix.
“More serious than you know,” Johnston continued. “After contempt was passed, Rep. John Rankin, a Republican from Mississippi, took to the congressional floor to criticize Jewish actors like Edward G. Robinson, Danny Kaye, Melvyn Douglas, and, quote, ‘others too numerous to mention who are attacking the Committee for trying to protect this country and save the American people from the horrible fate the Communists have meted out to unfortunate Christian people.’ Unquote.”
“This is the same man,” sighed Balaban, “who has used the words kike, hebe and yid on the floor of the U.S. Congress.”
The room went from silent to funereal. Nino didn’t dare even slice a lemon.
“Is this about Communists?” asked Schary. “Or is it about Jews?”
“What do you think, Dore?” asked Goldwyn.
“We don’t make pictures about Communists,” he said. “We also don’t make pictures about Jews, except when RKO did Crossfire.”
“At Fox, we just released Gentleman’s Agreement,” announced Skouras. “It’s about a Jew passing as a Gentile. So far it’s doing business. Of course, the Jew is played by a Gentile – Gregory Peck.”
“It figures,” muttered William Levy. “Fox and RKO are the only studios owned by Gentiles. We Jews don’t want to call attention to ourselves. Even when the Nazis took over Europe, we waited.”
“Nobody has wanted to see Jews since The Jazz Singer,” Mayer pronounced. “Rabbis aren’t interesting. Priests are interesting. They have all that stuff.”
“Is anybody here surprised?” said Harry Cohn. “Most of the Hollywood Ten are Jewish. Most of us who testified are Jewish. Nobody on the Committee is Jewish. That’s what this is really about.”
“So what do we do?” asked Albert Warner. “To the anti-Semites, Jew is just another word for Communist.”
“We need to make some kind of statement,” Johnston said. “A press release. Call it a ‘peace pact’ intended to tell the HUAC we settle and show the public we mean business.”
“And Dore will write it,” promised Goldwyn.
“What?” Schary said, horrified. “Sam, are you out of your mind?”
“It may be the only thing that will get them off our backs,” Goldwyn said. “And if anybody can write it, you can.”
It was getting late. Nino began closing his bar. The drink orders weren’t sufficient to warrant assigning him to the second day of the confab so he’d go back to the main dining room where at least the tips were better.
When the newspaper extra came out an hour after the Waldorf Conference ended the next day, Nino saw a copy on the lobby newsstand. It carried the text of what came to be known as the “Waldorf Peace Pact” in which all the studios had agreed to fire the Hollywood Ten and to sack anybody who could not prove that he or she wasn’t a Communist.
The names of those attending the Waldorf Conference who’d agreed to the settlement with HUAC were printed in the motion picture industry’s main trade papers the day after. But the peace pact neither mollified nor modified the political climate in America. In June 1950, Red Channels published the names of 151 actors, writers, composers, and others whose affiliations, in the opinion of the publishers, were too radical to allow them to work in radio, TV, or movies. In April 1951, the HUAC hearings resumed and the real bloodbath began. The blacklist did not end until the mid-1960s.
Nino never broke his oath. But he also never fully grasped the lesson Hollywood had to learn of how easily powerful people can be made weak by the persecution of ignorance. “It was not,” he would remember later, “a drinking crowd.” Instead of alcohol, they’d been drunk on fear.
This short story first posted here on November 2, 2015. Nat Segaloff is co-author of the play “The Waldorf Conference” with Daniel M. Kimmel and Arnie Reisman, a fictional account of the secret meeting of studio moguls that began the Hollywood Blacklist. It had its world premiere at L.A. Theatre Works and an all-star recording is available at www.latw,orghttps://store.latw.org/plays/the-waldorf-conference/. There was a subsequent production to benefit the Hollywood ACLU and the Writers Guild Foundation. The play was acquired by Warner Bros. Author photo by Liane Brandon.