HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – Decades after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings, a son confronts his father’s accuser. 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.
It was fitting that we both wound up at Musso & Frank, the last surviving great Hollywood restaurant now that Nickodell was gone. We were survivors, too — of an era. I stared at Gottfried as he nervously nursed a soda. When it was obvious that both of us were being stood up for our meetings, I can’t explain why, but I went over and introduced myself.
“Were you a friend of Silas Raymond?” I asked. He studied me for a long beat before answering.
“No,” he said without emotion. “Were you?”
“No,” I said. “And yet we both came to his funeral.”
Gottfried nodded his head solemnly. “I knew him,” he said, his eyes drifting off, “but that doesn’t mean we were friends.”
He neither invited me to join him nor waved me away. “You’re Marcus Gottfried,” I said. “I’m Joey Samuelson. Burt Samuelson’s son.”
He looked up at me with the searching gaze I had used on him at the funeral. Then the coin dropped.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I wanted to say, “You should be.” But I saw that wasn’t needed. Instead, I said, “Tell me your story.” When he hesitated, I added, “You owe me that much. It’s more than they let my father do.”
“Your father was a good man,” Gottfried said.
“Then why did you name him?”
“You don’t understand these things,” he said, looking around. He was either trying to find a waiter or preparing to bolt. So I sat beside him, uninvited, and placed my hand on his wrist and looked squarely and calmly into his faded eyes.
“Then explain them to me,” I said evenly, “because now you’re the only person who can.”
“I’m expecting a lunch companion,” he said, pulling his hand from mine.
“It’s Friday at 2 PM,” I said. “Face it. Your meeting isn’t showing up and neither is mine. Let’s dine on the soul of Silas Raymond.”
He sighed, then smiled. I’d broken the code.
“Let’s get something straight first,” he said, placing his napkin in his lap. “I didn’t inform, I cleared my name. There’s a difference.”
“Okay,” I said, settling in.
“Anybody who knows anything about the Hollywood Blacklist knows that we weren’t the ones who did the smearing. We were the ones who got smeared. Like your father, all we did was try to make the world better. We were young, we were idealistic, we had a little money for the first time. Maybe we were naive in believing America would do the right thing if we showed it how. But we did believe in the right stuff. Were we a threat to democracy? Never. Were we a threat to the people who were making our country worse? Look around. Our mistake was that we weren’t strong enough to win the propaganda war, even if history has long since settled the score in our favor.”
I wasn’t expecting this kind of an answer. I had assumed that everybody who named names was a Red-baiting anti-Communist wingnut. In my bitterness, as the child of a blacklistee, it had never occurred to me that some of them might also be disillusioned Lefties caught in a moral crisis.
Were there Communists in Hollywood? Yes. Could they have overthrown the system? You must be kidding. Did others use their presence to foment fear, paranoia and opportunism? You bet.
Take the Hollywood Ten (sometimes called the “Unfriendly Ten”). From the doctrinaire John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole to the soft-spoken Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, and Adrian Scott, they had little in common except their subpoenas. They were such an assortment that Billy Wilder famously said, “Of the Unfriendly Ten, only two have talent; the rest are just unfriendly.” Also in the group were the bombastic Herbert Biberman and Samuel Ornitz and the calmer Albert Maltz and Alvah Bessie. But the member of the Ten that combined all of those traits was Dalton Trumbo. Garrulous, iconoclastic, talented, and resourceful, Trumbo took pleasure in working through fronts even while blacklisted, thereby proving the hypocrisy of the moguls who dodged him in public yet hired him in secret because, damn it, he wrote hits. In the end, Trumbo would break the Hollywood Blacklist.
But that’s getting ahead of the story of Marcus Gottfried and my father.
The Blacklist (I always capitalize it) started in 1947 after the HUAC hearings in October of that year. In reaction, a month later, a group of 48 studio moguls came together in secret at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. They met for two days and, when they adjourned, they issued a press release announcing that they would fire anybody suspected of being a Communist and would not re-hire them until they had purged themselves. The “Waldorf Peace Pact,” as it was called, laid the groundwork for the Blacklist. Its first victims were the Hollywood Ten – 10 writers, producers and directors who had been cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the Committee’s questions. Once the Ten’s appeal was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1951, the studios were free to sack pretty much anybody whose politics they didn’t like. When HUAC resumed its hearings in April, all hell broke loose.
“If you didn’t face it yourself, you have no right to judge those of us who did,” Gottfried insisted. “Here’s how it worked. Once you received your HUAC subpoena, you had to decide whether you wanted to testify or leave the country. If you testified, you could either claim the Fifth Amendment or cooperate. If you took the Fifth, you’d lose your job and you’d become a hero to your left-wing friends who were out of work, too. But you would become a pariah in the press and at the studios. So the situation in a nutshell was this: if you cooperated with the Committee, you would be able to work. But you’d lose your friends.
“I was called before the Committee after being named as a Communist by three people,” Gottfried continued, “only one of whom I actually knew. He was a studio executive I’d demanded a raise from. Some Red, huh?”
“Did he testify against you?” I asked.
“Not face to face,” Gottfried said dismissively. “They never did. As the chairman, John Wood, explained between gavel bangs, ‘this is a Congressional hearing, not a court of law.’”
Our waiter, Louis, filled our water glasses and hovered, waiting for an order. I said we’d share the Stuffed Celery appetizer. Gottfried didn’t object. “I love their anchovy dressing,” he said.
It seemed like a fair time to ask what the Committee called “the $64 question.” If Gottfried got angry and left, I’d only be stuck with a small check. If he answered, I might learn something. So I asked it:
“Were you a Red?”
Gottfried laughed. “As Hiram Sherman used to say, ‘We’re not allowed to tell.’” Then he answered firmly. “Of course I was! I joined during the war when Uncle Sam was extolling ‘our glorious Russian allies.’ What’s more, I’m proud of my Party membership. A lot of Progressives joined the Party because it offered more than either the Democrats or the Republicans. It was the Lefties, not the Righties, who went to Spain and fought the fascists. Look at civil rights, women’s rights, labor unions, the forty hour work week, Social Security — the Right opposed all of them. If anybody has anything to apologize for, it’s people who didn’t join the Party.”
“But it was all lies,” I said. “Russia lied.”
“We didn’t know that until after Stalin died,” he shook his head sadly. “Communism betrayed us. But when we joined, it made sense.”
“Isn’t that all the Committee wanted to hear? That you were duped?”
“That wasn’t what they wanted to hear,” Gottfried said slowly as if talking to somebody stupid. “It was about conformity. It was about crushing freedom of thought. It was about control and being afraid to have an opinion. It was also about anti-Semitism.”
“Which leads us to Silas Raymond,” I said, crunching on a rib of celery as I tried to appear casual. “I know why I was at his funeral. Why were you?”
Gottfried spooned up some of the anchovy dressing before he answered. “Closure.”
It’s an old story but it needs re-telling lest it happen again. Never mind that Communism was legal and still is. Never mind that the First Amendment forbids government inquiry into one’s personal beliefs or associations. The Committee didn’t care because America didn’t care. Whether you took the First or the Fifth didn’t matter. When it was over, you were a non-person. If you wanted to work again, you had three choices: leave the country, work anonymously through a front at reduced rates, or name names. For that third option, you had to call Silas Raymond.
As Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, so Silas Raymond positioned himself beyond reproach. As an industry leader, power broker, and paid consultant, he formed the Motion Picture Industry Council with the cagey lie that, since there was no Blacklist, they couldn’t get you off of it. But if you made a sincere effort to repent, they would circulate word that you were okay to hire again.
Raymond constructed his Council with an FBI agent, a union honcho, a corporate lawyer, and a self-avowed expert on Communism (who boasted that he had read scores of books on the subject yet miraculously never fell under suspicion). Naturally, Raymond appointed himself chairman.
My father was one of Raymond’s first penitents, or so the plan was supposed to go. This was in 1952. Dad had started as a screenwriter at Columbia in 1945 just after the war. He’d sold two stories to Harry Cohn who, with typical Cohnian logic, assigned him to turn somebody else’s story into a script. This was Dad’s big opportunity, not only to jump from story man to scripter but to leap from $250 a week to $1,500.
The story he was assigned, Man On The Street, was a populist fantasy that Cohn thought might lure back Frank Capra, who was smarting from the failure of It’s A Wonderful Life. It was about a politician running for office who makes wildly contradictory campaign promises figuring that nobody expects him to keep them anyway. Once he gets into office, however, his conscience takes over and he tries to please everybody. It was really only the first half of a story and my father’s job was to give it an ending. He did the only thing that made sense: he made the politician a stooge of corporations who sought to benefit from the sham election.
Everybody from Cohn to Capra was horrified. “How dare you bite the hand that feeds you?” Cohn said as he fired my father. “Big business makes America rich.”
So Dad moved to RKO where Dore Schary was putting messages into their films. My father was working on a race picture when Schary quit RKO for MGM. Howard Hughes took over RKO, and my dad got fired again when his name appeared in Red Channels in June of 1950. His name was cross-referenced with half a dozen organizations he had neither been part of nor given money to. Hughes didn’t care.
As with Gottfried, there was no one for my father, Burt Samuelson, to sue. There was no one for my father to talk to. When his subpoena arrived in 1951, we traveled as a family to Washington D.C. where Dad was eager to set things straight. When he was finally called before Chairman John Wood, he sat at the witness table accompanied only by his daily appointment books and his conscience.
“A lot of people who I don’t know have testified that they know me, and that I’m a Communist,” Dad started out speaking calmly and evenly. “I wish I had that many friends, just not that kind. If you can tell me where they say they know me from, and where they say they saw me, I can look at my date book and tell you where I was on those mornings, afternoons and nights, and you’ll see that they were all lying.”
The sound of Wood’s gavel at the word lying was so deafening it made a “pop” on the recording that the Committee was making. It was also the last calm exchange my father had with the Committee. He said he’d talk about himself but not others, and demanded to be allowed, under the Sixth Amendment, to confront his accusers.
“This is not a court of law,” Wood declared. “If anything, it’s the court of public opinion.”
“In that case,” Dad said, losing it, “this public is of the opinion that since this Committee isn’t interested in the facts, or even the truth, it is the Committee that is out of order.”
Several gavels later, Dad’s testimony was over and we trudged from Washington back to Los Angeles followed by the promise of a contempt citation. From that point on, the phone didn’t ring, and, when it did, there were clicks on the line. Letters arrived that had obviously been steamed open and re-sealed. None of my friends would play with me. Even the Avon Lady skipped our house.
One day a big lawyer phoned. He’d represented a lot of the people who had been blacklisted, and now he was suddenly the go-to person if you wanted to get off the Blacklist. He said a Council had been set up so people could clear their names and quash their contempt citations. My father, naturally, asked how he could possibly clear his name when he wasn’t the one who’d soiled it. The lawyer ignored the comment and insisted that Dad take down a number. After discussing it with my mother (my brother and I were too young), he decided to call it. This was Dad’s first encounter with Silas Raymond.
“We cannot get your job back or clear your name,” Raymond began when they met. “Only you can do that. If you give evidence that you want to leave the Party, then you have to name people and come to our side to fight them. Our job is to help you and them find ways to get out.”
My father looked blankly at Raymond. “What do you do if you never were a Communist and have no idea why you were named?”
“That’s impossible,” said the FBI man, irritated by the thought. “The Director himself vetted everybody with his files. If you’re named, you’re a Red.”
Raymond nodded approvingly.
“Okay, then, what do I have to do?” Dad asked wearily.
“First thing is to write a letter saying how you were duped. The more detailed, the better. Say where you were, who invited you, and who you were with.”
“But I never went anywhere,” Dad said, shaking his head. “I tried to tell that to the Wood Committee but nobody cared.”
“Don’t try to play us!” Raymond cut him off. His fleshy face, pointed nose, and ice-blue eyes made him look like Halloween was coming. “If you don’t have names, we have some you can use.”
The chicanery galled my father. “Oh, now I remember some,” he said, a twinkle sparking in his eyes. “I used to go to Party meetings with Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, John Wayne, Ward Bond, Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Lela Rogers — ”
“Stop wasting our time!” Raymond fumed. Dad had just named Hollywood’s key Red-baiters. ”Get us the letter within a week and we’ll see what we can do. And don’t try to be smart. Oh, and incidentally, don’t forget the processing fee.”
“What processing fee?” Dad asked, confused.
“There’s a five thousand dollar processing fee for the Council’s consulting services.”
My father was astonished. “You mean I have to pay you five thousand dollars to get off a blacklist that I shouldn’t be on in the first place?”
“How many times do I have to tell you, there is no blacklist,” Raymond insisted.
My father left the room more confused than when he’d entered. For the next few weeks he called everyone he knew, everyone who might be able to lend him or give him a few dollars. It was degrading to do and sad to watch. Finally Dad realized where he could get five thousand dollars.
One night after the family went to bed, he took off in his car and, where Sunset Boulevard banks left at Riviera Branch road, Dad kept going straight. The police said he must have hit the tree at 70 miles an hour. They also said it was an accident, but we all knew it was suicide. The insurance paid the five thousand dollars.
I never knew of any suicides among those who had named names. Some took pride in what they had done, resisting the judgment of history that held them accountable for gutting the Constitution, not to mention Hollywood. Others came to realize the import of what they had done and learned to live with it. Some, like Marcus Gottfried, got it from both sides.
“As my family and I settled into being blacklisted,” he continued telling me, “I saw my kids’ friends refuse to play with them. People crossed the street when my wife and I strolled near, and the mail always arrived a day late because somebody had to read it first. This went on for the better part of a year until my savings were almost gone and I could only find the most menial jobs. As a director, I had to be seen on a movie set, so I couldn’t use a front like my writer friends. To get off the Blacklist, that meant that I had to clear my name. I had to go to Silas Raymond.”
Gottfried was given the same choices as my father: the Council, the confession, the names, and the shame.
“It’s hard to say you were duped,” Gottfried said, “because it meant that you rejected all the things you were raised to think America stood for, but that was the routine. When it came to naming others who’d been in the party with me, that’s where I froze, and they knew it. If I didn’t remember enough of them, Raymond said they’d be happy to provide me with more. I asked what good it would do to name someone I didn’t know, or who I wasn’t sure was in the Party, and they said it didn’t matter, that the whole point was to clear my name and let others worry about theirs.
“They even suggested I could give them names of people I didn’t like. They didn’t have to be Reds, they just had to be troublemakers. Raymond said that a lot of people had taken the opportunity to settle old scores.”
Gottfried’s throat went dry so he sipped the last of his soda. “Your father’s was one of the names they gave me. Since he was in Red Channels it was automatic. I’m sorry. After forty-five years, I’m all out of tears.”
Marcus took my hands in his and at last looked me in the eyes. “You may not believe this, but when I left that room, I felt as imprisoned as when I’d gone in. They congratulated me for helping defeat the enemies of America, but I saw that the real enemies of America were those who would sit on councils like theirs.
“Two days later the newspapers picked up word of my exoneration and the phone started to ring again. That is, it rang from agents and producers. My friends stopped calling. I had been told to expect that. What I didn’t expect was that I didn’t get any calls from the friends who had urged me to clear my name.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The Right doesn’t like informers any more than the Left does.”
“I didn’t inform!” Marcus insisted. “I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.”
I found it hard not to be judgmental about people like Marcus Gottfried; nobody has the right to criticize someone if they themselves haven’t stood where he did. “Did you have to name my father, though?” I heard myself asking. “Couldn’t you have skipped him?”
“I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “I didn’t even look at the names they gave me. They just wanted names. How was I to know he wasn’t in the Party?”
“What’ve the years been like since then, Marcus?” I asked.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. “Every now and then somebody leaves a room when I enter, or asks the waiter to move him to another table. My name turns up in books written by people who were blacklisted and a lot more who weren’t. I get interview requests now and then, but I turn most of them down because all anybody wants to talk about is the Red stuff and not my movies. They’re surprised to learn that the Hollywood Ten were the only ones who went to jail, and it was for contempt, not for Communism. The rest of us are still in jail, if you follow me.
“You know what?” he said with finality.”I don’t care anymore. I didn’t become a right-winger after I cleared my name. I still vote liberal. Clearing my name allowed me to work, allowed me to keep making contributions to my art, my industry, and my country. Some people have said that I did the wrong thing, but an artist has to keep working. Judge the art, not the artist.”
I knew the meeting was over, but I wanted more. “Would you mind if I gave you my phone number? Next time we can talk about your movies.”
“Tell you what,” he said, brightening. “Turner Classics is running two of them tonight. Robert Osborne even interviewed me. You want to come over? I’ve got a small place on Whitley. My wife died ten years ago and it’s a little messy, but how about it?”
‘Why not?” I said. History is history. I squared the tab and we left Musso’s. Marcus was pretty spry for a guy in his eighties.
“Did you have any more contact with Silas Raymond after that?” I asked as we walked.
“None,” Marcus said. “I think he held a bunch of government jobs. Somebody or other was always appointing him to something. You didn’t hear much about him until he died.”
“I found myself face to face with him a couple of years ago,” I said. “Remember the Kazan Oscar scandal? The Academy mounted a Blacklist exhibit after that and he came to the opening. He was ever so old by then and in a wheelchair. He wore white gloves to protect his fragile skin. I had to admire his grit in showing up to a collection of his enemies. It was the first time I’d met him.”
“What’d you think of him?” Gottfried said as we stepped into the elevator.
I told Marcus how, like most villains, he was banal in the extreme, and, in his nineties, had become soft-spoken but no less emphatic about his rightness. Hoping to offer him a chance to make a mea culpa in light of history’s condemnation, I began by complimenting him on his courage when organized crime was trying to take over Hollywood just before the Red scare. He nodded his thanks, and then veered into talking about JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Why he chose me to hear this monologue I shall never know, but the wilder and more paranoid it got, the more I began to understand his actions during the Blacklist period.
“People who see villains behind every tree tend to be afraid of what they may find in their own forests,” I mused. “What was he so afraid of all those years ago, and how did he and his kind get so many others to listen? That’s why I had to see who’d come to his funeral.”
The services had been held in one of Forest Lawn’s smaller chapels. After the blessing, two young men stood to sing his praises. They were from one of those arch-conservative colleges that the right wing invents along with a corresponding think tank, publishing house, and lecture circuit to legitimize its inbred scholarship. A family friend also spoke about how, when she needed it, dear Silas was able to give her five thousand dollars in cash toward her debts. Finally a representative of the unions praised him for cleaning the Mob out of the locals, although — and I may be reading too much into it – the man seemed to be just going through the motions, considering how many of these same union’s members were driven from work by Raymond’s tactics. I thought about standing and telling everyone about my father and asking why Silas Raymond had to go after him. But I don’t think Silas Raymond even knew. That was okay. What bothered me was that he didn’t care.
When I told this to Marcus Gottfried as we began watching his movies, he disagreed. “I think he cared very much. He cared about this country and did what he thought he had to do to save it. We all did. What we failed to grasp was that, in trying to save the country, we destroyed what it stood for.”
So Marcus did understand after all. He had shame. But his shame didn’t bring my father back. It didn’t bring back the lives and careers of the people who were named by the Marcus Gottfrieds of the world. Surprisingly, I held no hatred for this tired old man who died ignominiously in the year 2000, or those like him. On the contrary, I wanted them all to live long lives – very, very long lives.
This short story first posted here on October 28, 2015. Nat Segaloff is co-author of the play “The Waldorf Conference” about the secret meeting of studio moguls that began the Hollywood blacklist. It had its world premiere at L.A. Theatre Works and was acquired for production by Warner Bros. He produced a subsequent production to benefit the Hollywood ACLU and the Writers Guild Foundation. Author photo by Liane Brandon.
12 comments on “Only Scoundrels”
I said it when I first read this article and I will say it again now, Nat Segaloff Is the delineator of this tragic period. I have never read such riveting work on The Blacklist as I have when I read the writing of Nat Segaloff.
Few people write about the children of the blacklist or about finding closure on this disgraceful era. The issue persisted because the battle also does.
Great story. My mother wrote her master’s thesis on the Hollywood Ten, which gave me the academic angle on it and then I moved to L.A. and met a woman whose screenwriter father was blacklisted. She has NOTHING good to say about the people who stayed silent and those who were complicit and thereby saved their careers. I forward to reading more in this series.
I can only make my usual comment about Nat Segaloff’s writing- brilliant as usual!! As someone who saw Jerry Rubin get physically dragged from a HUAC hearing in the Cannon House Office Building I can only shiver when I think of the damage that committee did to so many people. Ironically, Rubin was attending the meeting dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier. Thank you, Hollywood Dementia, for providing a forum for amazing writers such as Nat Segaloff.
You nailed it, Nat. Great job. Captured many nuances of the Blacklist era. You filled in much of the gray area that gets lost when today’s media just tries to simplify a complicated period and make it all black and white. I look forward to more words of wisdom from you concerning this time of the toad, this Hollywood time of hypocrisy and paranoia.
I still read stories about the Blacklist and find myself shaking my head in dazed disbelief. But those who remember that awful time need to keep reminding us about it, and as Nat Segaloff has written about it with clarity and poignancy, it’s a story that needs to be told often. Not just as something that’s more than just a footnote in Tinseltown’s checkered past history, but also as a warning. "History never repeats, I tell myself before I go to sleep", The Split Enz once sang. We must never allow ourselves to adopt that mindset. Thanks, Nat, for this significant contribution to the effort, to make sure that we don’t.
Another great story Nat. What a terrible time that was. Thanks.
The Hollywood Ten and the notorious Black List from America’s Red Hunting days are disturbing topics even now, decades after the fact. That’s probably because people can understand the pressure working folks feel in any industry to keep their jobs and thus become conformist "yes men" to the prevailing orthodoxy. Commies bad, ugh. Snitches, double yech. Nat Sagaloff does a good job in dramatizing the feelings of betrayal people in the entertainment business experienced when former colleagues named names before HUAC to keep their place at the Hollywood trough. He also gives a human face to an older man who gave in to the pressure but kept working.
Not to mention directors with controversial thoughts boycotted by government police organizations.
Another terrific peice of writing from the talented Nat Segaloff. A riveting read, and a valuable preservation of history. Thanks, Nat. Always a pleasure.
Concur. A+. Would like to see the film version from the play.
Poignant. I really enjoyed it. The story and the writing.