The Final Victim of the Blacklist

The Final Victim of the Blacklist: John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

GERALD HORNE
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 384
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnrw4
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  • Book Info
    The Final Victim of the Blacklist
    Book Description:

    Before he attained notoriety as Dean of the Hollywood Ten-the blacklisted screenwriters and directors persecuted because of their varying ties to the Communist Party-John Howard Lawson had become one of the most brilliant, successful, and intellectual screenwriters on the Hollywood scene in the 1930s and 1940s, with several hits to his credit includingBlockade, Sahara,andAction in the North Atlantic.After his infamous, almost violent, 1947 hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Lawson spent time in prison and his lucrative career was effectively over. Studded with anecdotes and based on previously untapped archives, this first biography of Lawson brings alive his era and features many of his prominent friends and associates, including John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr., and many others. Lawson's life becomes a prism through which we gain a clearer perspective on the evolution and machinations of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism in the United States, on the influence of the left on Hollywood, and on a fascinating man whose radicalism served as a foil for launching the political careers of two Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In vivid, marvelously detailed prose,Final Victim of the Blacklistrestores this major figure to his rightful place in history as it recounts one of the most captivating episodes in twentieth century cinema and politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93993-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. vii-xxiv)

    John Howard Lawson was not pleased.

    Here he was in the fall of 1947 not recumbent in his comfortable Southern California home but instead in a forbidding congressional hearing room on Capitol Hill. This year was to prove to be the “driest . . . in the history of Los Angeles”;¹ meanwhile, a steady rain had descended on Washington. Lawson’s trip east likewise had been a voyage from blue and sunny skies to what was to become dreary weather. The celebrated playwright and screenwriter who had penned tomes on the magic behind creating dramatic tension now found himself as the...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    It happened so often that it seemed to be a new Hollywood ritual. Contrite, often ashen, a penitent would sit in the witness chair in a hearing as members of Congress, often on an elevated platform, stared strategically downward. Then, with eyes often downcast and heart often heavy, the witness would proceed to unburden himself—or herself—of the names of others who also had once strayed down the wrong political path toward the Communist Party or its ill-defined “fronts.” Often the name relinquished was Lawson’s. He was “named 28 times (more than twice as often as anyone else) by...

  5. 1 Beginnings
    (pp. 14-34)

    John Howard Lawson’s father, Simeon Levy, was the son of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1840s from Poland, driven by an outburst of anti-Semitism. The family settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Levy was born in 1852. Lawson’s grandfather profited handsomely during the U.S. Civil War and was able to pass a good deal of this wealth on to his son. By 1880, Lawson’s father was in Mexico City, where he started a newspaper, theMexican Financier.He sold the paper after he met Belle Hart, Lawson’s mother—who was from a well-to-do family—and moved...

  6. 2 Toward Commitment
    (pp. 35-49)

    By the age of thirty, John Howard Lawson was something of a celebrity, an enfant terrible of Broadway, with critically celebrated productions generating a buzz of publicity and acclaim. But he was dissatisfied—with the state of the world and his ability to influence it. His marriage to Sue Edmonds was a landmark on his journey toward commitment, and his joining the Communist Party and organizing the Screen Writers Guild were to enhance this process: they were to bring him grief years later.

    Yet that crucial turning point was years away, and in the meantime, Lawson was navigating life in...

  7. 3 Hollywood
    (pp. 50-65)

    John Howard Lawson loved trains. As his son Jeffrey recalled, “He loved to stand in the station while the monstrous locomotives roared down on us. I’ve seen him drive say 30 miles down a lovely desert road, just to see for a minute, say the Super Chief, roar by, then turn around and drive back to the main road.”¹ Father and son “traveled the continent dozens of times; a big part of my early childhood was spent hearing the clack of wheels as a crack continental train, the Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, sped west or east.” They “often...

  8. 4 From Hollywood to Broadway
    (pp. 66-79)

    When John Howard Lawson arrived in Hollywood in 1928 , he was “dead broke” and “had heavy debts.” After spending about a year doing what he deemed to be “a number of very bad but very important pictures which made a great deal of money, includingOur Blushing Brides,” he left, finances partially restored. He and his wife and family “were determined not to return to Hollywood”; with their newfound wealth, they “bought a house out near the Sound on Long Island.” Ties with movies had not been severed altogether, for Lawson had made a “very unusual” and “very unsatisfactory...

  9. 5 Commitment
    (pp. 80-97)

    By the early 1930s, John Howard Lawson was a bicoastal pioneer, a frequent traveler on trains shuttling between midtown Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles. He was compensated amply and had attained a critical acclaim, being viewed by some as the “hope” of the stage and an important voice of the screen. Yet he was torn with conflict and inner doubt, though like one of his well-made plays, his life was driving inescapably to a resolution. Those who perhaps should have been shouting support for him from the rooftops were among his most caustic critics, thereby contributing to his self-doubt. Harold...

  10. 6 Theory and Practice
    (pp. 98-115)

    Lawson’s commitment came with a steep financial price. His initial “blacklisting” came in the 1930s with the organizing of the Screen Writers Guild, though the intervention of courageous producers like Walter Wanger and conditions at that point that were not favorable to ostracizing of leftwingers precluded his being totally banished. When he returned to Hollywood in 1936 , he was— according to his longtime comrade and fellow screenwriter Lester Cole—a “very different man.” “Always brilliant, with the keenest intellect,” he had returned with an even sharper intellect, having “devoted himself to a study of Marxism, challenged, he told me,...

  11. 7 Struggle
    (pp. 116-131)

    The explosive debut ofBlockadehad cemented further Lawson’s eminence, and at this juncture, the fact that he was a Communist did not erase this grand status. His financial problems seemed to be over, as he resided in a prosperous, sun-dappled neighborhood in Southern California with his wife and children and hobnobbed with the Hollywood elite. His life was not as luxurious as that of his future cellmate, Dalton Trumbo, but it was not far behind.¹

    Yet there were not too distant roars and rumbles that carried the potential to disrupt this pleasant reverie that had enveloped Red Hollywood. The...

  12. 8 Fighting—and Writing
    (pp. 132-148)

    As the hoofbeats of war began to sound ever louder in Europe, the reverberations were felt intensely in Hollywood. As the face of Red Hollywood, John Howard Lawson was positioned strategically to be either bathed in warm sunlight or drenched in a cold rain as the political climate changed. His reasserted commitments both personally and politically had provided him with a comforting cocoon of a Communist collective—and a stabilized marriage—that could serve as shelter in the fiercest storm. It was hard to foresee, however, that brutally cyclonic winds would come sweeping through Hollywood that would disrupt his carefully...

  13. 9 Writing—and Fighting
    (pp. 149-165)

    The African soldier chased the escaping German prisoner across the hot sands of the fictional North African desert. He caught him, and a fierce struggle ensued. The African pummeled the German vigorously, then began to strangle him. Finally he choked the last breath out of the man’s body, just as white supremacy itself was being suffocated as a by-product of the antifascist war that had led to this startling cinematic chase scene. Such was the celluloid progressivism crafted by John Howard Lawson in his wartime epicSahara.Helen Slote Levitt, one of Hollywood’s leading women writers,¹ and Julian Mayfield, a...

  14. 10 Red Scare Rising
    (pp. 166-183)

    The camera zoomed in lovingly on tall glasses of alcohol, as Susan Hayward, the beauty with flaming auburn hair, prepared to appear before a crowd of celebrants at a smoky nightclub. Wearing a dress that clung to her every curve, she rapidly downed one of these beverages, then ambled to the microphone, confidence bolstered, and belted out a popular tune.

    So began Lawson’s “premature pro-feminist” film,Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman,one of the last films he was able to write under his own name before the clampdown of the “blacklist.” It is a remarkable story that focuses on...

  15. 11 Inquisition
    (pp. 184-201)

    John Howard Lawson was dragged forcibly from the witness chair during his stormy testimony in Washington during the fall of 1947.¹ It was a huge room from which he was shanghaied, perhaps a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide. There were three large French crystal chandeliers, each containing perhaps a hundred lightbulbs, and affixed to the chandeliers were “six baby spots some directed at the audience,” giving the scene the appearance of being—appropriately—a movie set.² Capturing this tempestuous moment for eternity were “at least four newsreel cameras”; “six or more still photographers—often as many as 10”...

  16. 12 Jailed for Ideas
    (pp. 202-221)

    The roasting encounter endured by Lawson in Washington in the fall of 1947 was a turning point for this writer, now well into his fifties. Since his romantic diversions some years back, his marriage to Sue Lawson had stabilized; yet this ordeal, combined with his “blacklisting” from Hollywood, placed added pressures on his family. She found these unfortunate occurrences “simply terrible.” As with so many others compelled to undergo this vale of misery, her “stomach” was feeling “entirely ulcerated.” Thus “I know,” she told her spouse, “what yours must feel.”¹

    Sue Lawson’s response to the congressional inquisition was not unique....

  17. 13 “Blacklisted”
    (pp. 222-240)

    Rain was pouring down relentlessly at one minute after midnight on 9 April 1951, as John Howard Lawson ambled to an automobile that was to whisk him away from his home of recent months—federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky. But he “hardly knew” he was being drenched, so ecstatic was he about leaving.¹

    Lawson’s fellow left-winger and Williams alumnus, Carl Marzani, captured what this veteran screenwriter may have been feeling as he embraced lustily a new birth of freedom. “A man out of prison,” he says, “feels like a convalescent out of doors after a long illness. Sensations are heightened;...

  18. 14 The Fall of Red Hollywood
    (pp. 241-262)

    Hollywood’s “blacklist” was simply the opening wedge in an all-sided assault against the now fading grandeur of Red Hollywood, a precinct once presided over by Lawson. Soon “mass meetings” were being held on “every major studio lot,” during “which communism was assailed and patriotic speeches were made by film industry leaders.”¹ Suggestive of the fall of the alliance between Red and Liberal Hollywood was that Walter Wanger “became one of a three man committee to enforce the blacklist.”²

    In the fall of 1961 these extravaganzas went from the studios to the city itself as the “world’s largest anti-communist meeting” was...

  19. Conclusion
    (pp. 263-268)

    By 1977 the once-energetic Lawson had slowed down considerably. Now well into his eighties, he had failing eyesight and was experiencing the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a motor system disorder often characterized by tremors, stiffness of limbs, slowness of movement, and impaired balance and coordination. The cruelest aspect for Lawson, perhaps, was how this hindered his ability to write, to read, and to visit theaters to watch movies. This in itself was a death sentence.

    His body, in short, had been “savagely attacked” by the ravages of time, which left him in ill humor. As early as January 1956, he...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 269-346)
  21. Index
    (pp. 347-360)