Careers At Risk

by Robert W. Welkos

HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – A superstar couple with a secret grapples with HUAC’s purge of Communists inside the movie industry. 4,474 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

October 1947

“How’s this? Take my right side, fellas. That’s always my best side.”

8547D799-C475-4659-B563-17A9A283F8B3Grant 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.

The darkly handsome star who could easily double as a groom adorning a wedding cake and would play only impossibly brave heroes or romantic leading men in Hollywood films, answered seriously. “See, fellas, I’m originally from the Midwest so I believe in things like Mom, apple pie and, well, that sort of stuff. That’s why I’m here. To tell this committee that I’m a true American in every sense.” The couple untwined their arms as Grant gazed down into Lili’s eyes, “Isn’t that right, darling?”

The actress patted her husband’s arm and quipped, “I’m from Brooklyn, so my family prefers cheesecake.”

There was more laughter among the fans and the press corps as the blizzard of flashbulbs illuminated the movie stars’ faces.

Strickland and Reynolds. Grant and Lili. A golden couple in every sense. They had been neighbors with adjoining spreads in L.A. when the studio boss arranged for them to be married quickly before a judge several years earlier. For reasons whispered among a clique of film executives on a “need to know” basis.

Grant had come from a line of haberdashers in rural Minnesota and would surely have taken a position of importance in his father’s shop on Elm Street had he not competed in a dance contest and won with a spirited rendition of the Lindy Hop. A pretty boy with dark curly hair, a baritone voice and deep-set eyes that both women and men found inviting, he was spotted by a Hollywood agent who suggested to Grant that he come to California for a screen test.

In Hollywood, he and other handsome young actors, with their “fuck for bucks” mentality, found easy money pleasuring other men, Some kept their sexual orientation private by marrying older wealthy women. Grant, upon advice from studio head Oscar Randolph, agreed to what Hollywood’s inner circle called a “lavender marriage” – an arrangement legally pairing together homosexual and lesbian stars in publicly heterosexual matches.

Lili was not her real name, of course. It was Hazel Stemelmann. She was raised in a tenement, the daughter of a violent drunk and an ever-pregnant young mother who died when the girl was four. She was raised by a remorseless aunt who beat the child with a strap whenever the mood struck her. At 14, Lili fled to join a boozy chorus line of damsels desperate for money, men and, most importantly, fame. An agent spotted her in the chorus line, invited her to his hotel room and then whisked her out to Hollywood. He had a lovely younger sister who took an interest in the striking Lili and soon the two women were stealing glances and giggling in private corners at secret gathering places for like-minded lesbians. Grant, of course, had a male lover.

On this sunny autumn day, Grant and Lili were well aware they not only had to look like movie stars but act like a happily married couple besides. Grant came carefully dressed for the congressional hearing in a subdued tan double-breasted jacket, pleated trousers, white shirt and brown tie. Lili modeled her well-honed fashion style in a midi-length wool skirt and cutaway dovetail wool jacket. Hatless, she tilted her head and gave her chestnut hair a few playful bounces before planting a quick peck on Grant’s very welcoming lips. All this image-building sent their fans and the photographers into further bouts of delirium.

“Where are you off to after this?” one reporter asked the actress.

“I think to Paris for a much-delayed honeymoon,” Lili responded. “You know, we’ve never really had one. We were both working when we were married.”

With cheers ringing out, the studio’s head of publicity raised his hands. “Enough, boys! Enough! You got your shots, OK? Gotta get these two lovebirds inside, pronto! Don’t want to keep the committee waiting, now do we?”

As the flack chatted with the press, Lili turned toward the most feared gossip columnist and asked, “How’d we do, Hedda?”

“Like putty in your hands,” Hopper replied. “I have a story to write in a couple hours. By the way, dearie, I’m saying that Grant took Washington like Grant took Richmond. Clever, eh?”

“Well, he hasn’t even testified yet,” lili reminded the columnist. “And you know how you can never trust Nixon.”

“Nixon only wishes he had a thousandth of the star wattage the two of you have,” Hedda said. “Mark my words, dearie, it would be Nixon’s downfall if he ever attempted to slice and dice Grant Strickland in the witness chair. And why should he? Grant has been so cooperative with the committee.”

“Yes, I know, but—“

“—But nothing. Just remind Grant to cooperate to the fullest and toss out a few bromides about how great this country is compared to the evil Soviet Union. You watch, they’ll roll over and beg him to scratch their bellies. It worked for Menjou. Haven’t you read the papers?”

“To be honest,” the actress said, “I was too sick worrying how today would turn out.”

“Menjou had them in stitches,” Hopper recounted. “Why, he even said he would move to Texas if the Communists ever invaded here because Texans would kill them on sight.”

“He said that?”

Hedda laughed. “And he swore he’s seen things in pictures that he thinks are against good Americanism. Of course, he made sure to blow a kiss to Mayer and Warner and all the producers in town. He called them as fine a group of men as he’s ever met. Can you believe it?”

The studio publicist tapped Lili and Grant on the shoulder and announced it was time to go into the Capitol. Hedda glanced over at the scrum of reporters and quipped, “Yes, we must get going before these ink-stained hacks demand that Lili Reynolds flash her gams under the Capitol dome. They’ll dub you Lady Liberty.”

“Oh, stop with the jokes,” Lili giggled.

Hedda was a staunch conservative as well as a close friend of both actors, so she’d accompanied them on the flight from Los Angeles to the nation’s capital for the hearings. She was even staying in the adjoining suite at the Jefferson and sharing late night cocktails. A tall woman with broad hips, an everpresent hat and up-do, and half-moon reading glasses dangling around a reddened neck, Hedda was much feared and also beloved by the tight-knit movie colony. Because she knew all their secrets and reported on only half of them.

“You see what Jack Warner told the committee?” the publicist asked Grant as the two men slowly ascended the Capitol steps. “He said that freedom of expression does not, under our Constitution and laws, include a license to destroy. Gotta love Jack.”

“I just hope I can be that clever,” Grant worried, then whined, “Hell, if I could get out of this, I would. Remember, I wouldn’t even be here except they subpoenaed me.”

The flack lowered his voice. “Grant, I’m having Jack’s transcript sent over. I want you to see the kinds of questions the committee asked him to give you an idea what the panel is after.”

Grant, Lili and the others entered an ornate anteroom decorated with historic oil portraits of U.S. Senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. The plushly carpeted chamber was made available only to special guests of Congress and located down a long marble corridor that led to the HUAC’s hearing room.

Lili plopped down on a hard leather couch and groaned, "Well, that was simply delightful.” Raising her husky voice an octave, she repeated the reporter’s question with an extra Reynolds venom. “’Lili, are you nervous?’ Why the hell didn’t he just come right out and ask me what I’d ever done to be this close to a witness testifying today.”

The publicist frowned. “Now, Lili, nobody’s questioning your past—“

“—And they better not, or I’ll tell you this,” she said, pointing a finger at the publicist. “If the goddamned studio gets cold feet and doesn’t back us up, then we’re breaking our contracts. You know what that means? Neither of us shows up for work on our next pictures. Understood?”

“On what grounds?” the publicist asked incredulously. “You’re both under contract. You wanna be in the studio’s bad graces forever?”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one subpoenaed,” Lili reminded the studio stooge. “I only came along for the ride because the studio thought it would look good for Grant to have his adoring wife at his side, remember?”

Grant was standing like a statue in the center of the room and listening to the conversation. “I’m appearing under a subpoena today,” he said. “And you can bet I’ll gladly testify if it means ridding our industry of a few Fellow Travelers. They’re giving Hollywood a bad name. What these Commie bastards need is a good kick in the pants.”

“Cue the drums and bugles, boys.” said Hedda, suddenly appearing.

“I’m serious. I’m simply doing my patriotic duty and testifying under oath. Did you ever think you’d see the day when a good upstanding American like me would get criticized for that?”

“Stop with the self-pity,” Lili rebuked her husband. She turned to both Hedda and the studio publicist and asked, “Will any of this cause lasting damage to Grant or myself? It’s just that there’s so much acrimony in Hollywood over these hearings.”

“Are you panicking?” Grant asked his wife.

“No, I’m just—“

“—Last I checked, darling, you felt the same way I do.”

The couple’s testy exchange caused Hedda to remark, “Maybe you two can push some Fellow Travelers off the Hollywood sign.”

“Yeah!” Grant replied. “A swan dive — just like Weissmuller!”

Then the actor stuck his hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and removed a silver flask. “Care for a snort, Hedda?" He took a swig. "The only thing I gotta worry about is whether the studio lives up to their promise to keep me under contract.”

“Oh, they will,” Hedda said. “Unless your next picture flops.”

“I’ll tell you one thing: whatever that damn committee wants, Grant Strickland is gonna deliver it.”

Lili shot him a piercing glare. “Put that flask away. Now.”

Grant complied but then a curious smile crossed his face. “Of course, maybe I won’t give the committee what they want. Maybe I’ll refuse to cooperate. Just like all those Commie bastards. Would that be a story or what, Hedda? ‘Actor Grant Strickland tells the House Un-American Activities Committee to go to hell.’“ Grant took a deep bow.

“And stop with the corny theatrics,” Lili added.

“Hedda,” Grant said, straightening, “the studio publicist here thinks that I shouldn’t worry. Well, I am since a bunch of congressmen is going over every damned piece of dialogue of every damned script of every shitty movie Grant Strickland has ever starred in, including Russian Rendezvous. Why in hell I ever made that crappy picture I’ll never know. They’ll be looking for anything that even hints at being pro-Moscow.“

Grant stared at the studio stooge with the utmost seriousness. “Hey, they’ve got nothing on me, right? I’m being described as a friendly witness, right? Besides, Lili and I are in the Alliance.”

“Its full name is the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation Of American Ideals,” Hedda noted. “I so love the ring of that.”

Grant continued. “All I know is that Gable, Coop, Victor Fleming, all guys I respect, are in it. Why do you think Lili and I joined?”

Hedda studied Grant. “Did you know Ida Remmick testified before the committee?”

“Good for her,” Grant replied. “Now there’s a lady who was born in Russia and knows propaganda when she sees it. And, for my money, her new bestseller is the best damned novel this side of Tom Sawyer.” He pointed at Hedda. “And you can quote me.”

“Ida Remmick told the committee that it made her sick to see the hammer and sickle in Russian Rendezvous,” Hedda warned. “You were the pilot in that movie. And didn’t the pilot urge his girl to see the truth about Russia and not listen to Western lies about the Soviet Union? Remmick also told the committee that the movie depicted Soviet communes as happy places where peasants lead productive lives. Remmick criticized Hollywood for allowing such blatant propaganda.”

Grant brooded. “Well, who the hell cares what that screwy dame says?”

There was a commotion outside in the corridor and seconds later the door flew open and in walked a swarm of suits led by studio chief Oscar Randolph. “There you are, son,” he said, embracing Grant in a warm hug. “Holding up?”

“Of course. Never felt better, Mr. Randolph.”

“Good. Good. And how are you, Lili?”

The actress deadpanned: “Can’t you see? I’m standing — er, sitting — by my man. Just where the studio wants me. Isn’t this what you think a good wife should do, Mr. Randolph? After all, as I recall, you demanded that Grant and I get married.“

Randolph looked at Lili. “I’ve always looked out for you, haven’t I?” To Grant, he said, “And you’re like a son to me.”

Randolph’s entourage melted into the periphery while the studio boss took a seat beside Lili. He waved Grant over.  The mogul lowered his voice. “Listen, I need to tell you both something. Hedda, close your ears. Your careers are at risk. Nixon’s a punk. We all know that. Well, somebody got his ear and told him the truth about you two. He knows all about the marriage and everything else—“ His voice trailed off.

Grant and Lili looked at each other with alarm.

“Nixon knows a lot more than he’s putting on,” Randolph said. “We don’t want any damaging gossip to get out. The last thing we need is for you two and the studio to get hurt.”

“Can’t the studio prevent him from doing that?” Lili asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not sure. This is a whole different kettle of fish here in Washington. We got our friends, sure, and we spread around a lot of cash to cement those friendships. But we also have our enemies. We gotta be careful.”

Grant looked shattered. “What should I do?”

“Just nail somebody in your testimony if they ask you. When you have to volunteer some names, do it. Believe me, it’s that bad. No telling what may come out. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but down the road. If you thought it was ugly before — like with that Photoplay article based on rumors — this could get worse.“

“What should we do?” Lili echoed Grant.

“The two of you? Nothing,” Randolph said. “But as far as Grant’s testimony, I’ve talked to our lawyers and they know what to do if things get out of hand. They’re pros.” The studio boss patted Grant’s arm. “Just do what the lawyers say. The studio will back you to the hilt. We may even name a sound stage after you. This is just a little crisis we’ve all got to get through. But the important thing is to protect the studio.”

With that, Randolph shook Grant’s hand and left the room along with his entourage.

Hedda saw the concern in the couple’s eyes and tried to lighten the somber mood. “Hey, did you see where Louis B. Mayer called Ninotchka an anti-Communist film? Because it kidded the life out of Communism and didn’t sit well with the Kremlin? It’s in all the papers.”

The studio publicist had been on the phone and now walked over. “The transcripts will be here in a minute, Grant. You OK?”

Grant gave Lili a gentle kiss on the cheek and then spoke. “I’m nervous. My wife and me, we got a pretty place in Beverly Hills. And I got a nice ranch in Arizona and she’s got her own retreat in Palm Springs and—“ He paused, grim-faced. “And I’m not gonna go back to Minnesota now or ever.”

There was a knock at the door. The transcript had arrived.

“This is the statement which Jack Warner read into the congressional record: Our American way of life is under attack from without and from within our national borders. Ideological termites have burrowed into many American industries, organizations, and societies. Wherever they may be, I say let us dig them out and get rid of them. My brothers and I will be happy to subscribe generously to a pest-removal fund. We are willing to establish such a fund to ship to Russia the people who don’t like our American system of government and prefer the communistic system to ours.”

“Here, let me see that,” Grant said, crossing the room and picking up a few pages. He read out loud. Question, Mr. Warner: since you have been in Hollywood, has there ever been a period during which you considered that the Communists had infiltrated into your studio?

Warner: Yes. Do you mean by huge numbers, or what?

Question: In any degree.

Warner: ‘Yes. There has been a period starting in about 1936 or 1937. That is the first time I started to notice that type of writing coming into our scenarios. It is being put in scripts to this day in one form or another… The answer is that there are people with un-American leanings who have been writing – mostly in the writing division – that have been writing types of – what I personally term un-American principles, for the want of a better word… Anyone whom I thought was a Communist, or read in the papers that he was, I dismissed at the expiration of his contract. If it was for an individual picture and we had no obligations we could let him go. In one fellow’s case, I had to hold onto him because we were dropping them too rapidly, and it was too apparent. So, we held onto him. I held onto him until the last two weeks, and I could not stand him any longer…

The studio publicist broke in, “I’ve got to check on things and see when we’re up. Until then, just sit tight.”

When the publicist had left the anteroom, Grant told the others, “If you need me, I’ll be in the little boys’ room.”

The actor stood at the urinal, contemplating his pending testimony. Then he heard the stall door open behind him.

“Grant Strickland. How ya doing?” said a familiar voice.

Seconds later, Grant saw screenwriter Dalton Trumbo standing at the wash basin. “I heard you were testifying today,” the actor said nonchalantly. “How’d it go in there?”

Trumbo soaped up his hands. “I asked them why they were afraid to read my statement into the record. They didn’t think it should be made public. Nixon told me my statement wasn’t pertinent to their inquiry. I thought if I introduced a few of my scripts as evidence, they’d know more about me. Things I’d written. Do you know what they did then, Grant? They asked me if I was a member of any guilds.”

“Well, aren’t you?” Grant asked.

“They said I was refusing to answer their questions. I was not refusing anything of the kind. And then they asked me what they asked others in the guilds: had I ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

“But you are, aren’t you? I seem to have read that somewhere.”

“Don’t you see, Grant? They just want to link the guilds to the Communist Party and then sink the unions. So you know what? I told them — I confronted them, actually — that they were trampling on my constitutional rights. And I accused them of being a police state.”

Grant looked away. “That must have gone over well.”

“They didn’t like it one bit. But everybody in the audience applauded. Nixon was steamed. But who gives a shit about him?”

“Why don’t you just use a little diplomacy and see where it gets you? Maybe this will all blow over and they’ll forget about it.”

Trumbo dried his hands with his back turned to the mirror, crossed his arms and stared at the tile floor. Then he studied the actor closely.

”You and me are on opposite sides of the fence.”

“That’s an understatement,” Grant said.

“You’re taking heat. I’m taking heat.”

“I’d still not like to be in your shoes.”

‘So what’s it gonna be, Grant? Are you going to give ‘em names? ‘Cause there are people in the industry — not me, I can take it, but other people — who maybe can’t take it,” Trumbo said. “They’ll be ruined. You could live with that? I sure wouldn’t want that on my conscience. After all, they work right beside us every day. And they have long memories.”

Then the screenwriter changed the subject. “How’s Lili?”

“Fine. She decided to come with me here at the last minute. And Rhonda?”

“Fine, too. Sat right next to me while the photogs had a field day.”

“She’s a good woman.”

“That’s why I married her.” Trumbo headed toward the restroom door. “See you around sometime, Grant.”

The actor was alone again. He studied his image in the mirror. Trumbo’s words had rattled him. Was Grant going to give them any names? Could he live with that? The publicist popped his head in and said Grant would be testifying right after the current witness.

The hearing room was crammed and noisy as Grant, Lili and the others entered. The actor could identify Nixon standing near the conference table but didn’t recognize the other congressmen.

Lili whispered in her husband’s ear, “I’m rooting for you.” He gave her a quick nod as the hearing came to order.

His name was called. The hearing room hushed as he pulled up a squeaky chair and faced the committee. It seemed everybody wore grim expressions. Reporters sat nearby with notebooks and pens at the ready, while news cameras recorded every movement.

“Mr. Strickland, will you please raise your right hand? Do you solemnly swear the testimony you are about to give—“

The words of Dalton Trumbo were seared into the actor’s memory now. What’s it gonna be, Grant? What’s it gonna be? Questions flew at him from HUAC but he couldn’t think beyond the yes and no answers. How long had he been in Hollywood? Did he serve in World War II?

And then the questioners zeroed in. Was he a member of any guilds? Had he noticed any elements within the Screen Actors Guild that were following the Communist Party line?

“Yes, sir. I’ve been concerned about some things I saw.”

“Can you expand on that, Mr. Strickland?”

“What I mean by that is there were certain actors and actresses doing things I didn’t like.”

Grant’s mind was racing. Trumbo had bucked this committee and signed his own career death warrant. It occurred to Grant that it’s not difficult to testify, especially when there are Fellow Travelers poisoning the motion picture industry. Let’s get these bastards out before it’s too late. But Grant knew that in helping do so, he also would be attacking his own Screen Actors Guild. He glanced at his watch.

Committee member Richard M. Nixon was asking him, “Mr. Strickland, as a result of your appearance before the subcommittee on the Un-American Activities in Hollywood, you were subjected to considerable criticism and ridicule from certain left-wing quarters, were you not?”

“Yes, I was.”

Nixon wondered aloud if the actor thought he’d be subjected to additional ridicule and criticism from those same quarters because of his answers at today’s HUAC hearing.

“I don’t let that get to me, Congressman.”

“You realize,” Nixon went on, “that your success as an actor, your livelihood as a man, depends to a great extent upon the type of publicity you receive?”

What was Nixon getting at? To unmask Grant and Lili now? Or hinting that, by not cooperating with the committee and naming names, that their careers could be destroyed later when the damaging details of their private lives come out? But Grant felt he was doing Nixon and the other panel members a favor just by showing up and testifying today.

Wasn’t that enough?

Grant sat silently as another interrogator asked, “Mr. Strickland, who in the guild would you say toes the Communist Party line?” Grant stayed silent. So the question was put to him another way. “I asked you, who are the members of the guild who are involved in Communist Party activity? Name them, please.”

Grant twisted in his chair and locked eyes with Lili, who was seated behind him.

“Did you hear the question, Mr. Strickland?”

He searched her eyes for guidance.

“Would you name them for the committee, please?”

Lili, her eyes glistening, looked at her husband. Then he saw it — or believed he did — somewhere behind her eyes. Was it a sign of permission? He was unsure. The last thing in the world he wanted was to see her hurt because of him, but he also wasn’t a person who could be bullied — by Nixon or anyone. Oscar Randolph had warned Grant not to cross Nixon, but the actor couldn’t get the words of Dalton Trumbo out of his head.

Give me guidance, Lili, Grant’s eyes begged. And then he saw a barely perceptible nod of her head and her lips trembling as she mouthed the words, "I love you."

The actor turned back to the microphone and took a deep breath as Nixon pressed. “Mr. Strickland, would you answer the committee’s questions? Would you please name names?”

The cameras rolled and the reporters leaned forward to capture every utterance by Grant Strickland, the movie star. He cleared his throat, looked Nixon in the eye and replied in a firm voice:

“Sir, I—“

This short story first posted here on October 29, 2015.


About The Author:
Robert W. Welkos
Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

About Robert W. Welkos

Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the film industry for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times. Before that he was an assistant city editor for the paper's Metro section. He previously was an AP correspondent in Reno. This excerpt is from a second novel he’s writing. His first, The Blue Poppy, was published in 2012.

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