The Hollywood Reporter, After 65 Years, Addresses Role in Blacklist

Billy Wilkerson
Billy Wilkerson
 

This story first appeared in the November 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Billy Wilkerson was nervous. It was July 1946, and The Hollywood Reporter owner, editor and publisher was preparing to embark on a landmark campaign that would expose communists working in Hollywood. He would name the alleged Reds in his "Tradeviews" column and expose this lurking menace.

Wilkerson already had begun his crusade a year or so earlier, penning fiery editorials that railed against communism and targeted the Screen Writers Guild, the WGA precursor that he believed was the seat of what he termed the "Red Beachhead." But this would be different. Wilkerson -- who was mustachioed, 5-foot-7 and had a penchant for pinstripe suits -- was going to brand people like Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and Casablanca co-writer Howard Koch as leftists and communist sympathizers.

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But the stakes were high. The possibility of a boycott of Wilkerson's trade newspaper, which he founded in 1930 and kept afloat through the Great Depression, loomed large. And there were moral considerations: He was, after all, going to damage hundreds of lives -- perhaps many more.

So Wilkerson turned to his religion. He went to confession.

The Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood was located just two blocks down Sunset Boulevard from The Reporter's office. It was a Saturday, and Wilkerson, then 56, made his way over to the soaring Roman Catholic edifice, which was the site of Bing Crosby's first marriage. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the church could accommodate more than 1,000 people. But on this afternoon, as Wilkerson slipped into the confessional, he only wanted to speak with one person: Father Cornelius J. McCoy.

"Father, I'm launching a campaign, and it's gonna cause a lot of hurt. But they are, you know, antipathetic to my faith. They are my natural enemies. And I just need to know what to do," Wilkerson said. "You know, father, I'm having misgivings about doing this campaign."

Wilkerson waited for an answer. All across Tinseltown, livelihoods -- and lives -- hung in the balance.

"Get those bastards, Billy," McCoy replied.

On July 29, Wilkerson published a "Tradeviews" column that included the names of Trumbo, Koch and nine other Hollywood players the THR editor branded as communist sympathizers. "This is not an issue that concerns merely a few hundred writers," he wrote. "It concerns millions of readers who must depend upon the free trade of ideas. … It concerns still more millions of children -- who can't read yet -- but who were born with the right to hope for a free world." The column was a pivotal one, sealing the fate of Wilkerson and the people he'd gone after. Ultimately, eight of the 11 men would be blacklisted. And Hollywood would never be the same.

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Nov. 25 marks the 65th anniversary of the inception of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, when studio chiefs and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and decreed an employment ban on the 10 members of the film industry who'd chosen not to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had launched an investigation into the supposed communist infiltration of the business. These days, when the phrase "black list" isn't mistaken (especially among younger members of the industry) for Franklin Leonard's highly anticipated annual survey of best unproduced screenplays, it's reduced to catchall history-class terms like "the Red Scare" and "McCarthyism." But it's alive in vivid detail among the dwindling number of surviving victims of the period.

THR's own role in fomenting the Blacklist has long been overlooked: obscured by scholars and, out of shame, for decades never properly addressed in this publication's pages. Wilkerson's key advocacy is at most a footnote in the definitive book-length histories of the period, yet his unsparing campaign, launched early on and from the heart of the movie colony -- the front page of one of its two daily trade papers -- was crucial to what followed. There eventually might have been a Hollywood Blacklist without Wilkerson, but in all likelihood, it wouldn't have looked quite the same, or materialized quite when it did, without his indomitable support.

For this story, most of the living blacklisted Hollywood players involved in the industry's tragic entanglement with this strain of fanaticism were interviewed and photographed. A few could not be reached for comment or declined to participate, perhaps because recollecting the period is too painful. For those who shared their stories, there was relief that THR is now recognizing its role in something so shameful. Says blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt, "It means doing what I knew to be right is no longer lonely."

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The Blacklist era is perhaps Hollywood's darkest chapter. Screenwriters, actors, directors, composers and others were, based on their alleged political beliefs, systematically rooted out and denied work. The lists -- there were several, including an informal tally known as the Graylist -- included both real and imagined communists. Careers were ended. Families fled the country. Lives were irrevocably changed.

The first formalized Blacklist hit Hollywood on Nov. 25, 1947, two days before Thanksgiving, 65 years ago. The next day, THR ran a lengthy story emblazoned with the headline "Studios Will Fire 'Hostile 10' " on the front page. Wilkerson's column didn't appear that day. But his work was done: The release of the first list, which included the names of the famed Hollywood Ten, had been presaged by countless "Tradeviews" columns that attacked alleged communists.

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"The town turned against us. Just about-face," says Hunt, a rising actress who appeared in 52 films from 1935 to 1949 but found little work after being blacklisted in 1950. "I was appalled, hurt, shocked that journalism could be so far out in prejudice."

At the time, much of the country was concerned with the threat of communism. In the years following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States was confronted with an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, which already had established proxy governments around the world. And there were many in Hollywood who were wary of communism's collectivist ideal, contradictory to the industry's fundamentally capitalist, hierarchical studio system. Executives, producers and some talent opposed the ideology on moral grounds or considered it a threat to their way of life. "All of a sudden there were sides -- and there never had been until instantly after World War II," Hunt says. "We won the war, and our ally, without whom the war would not have been won, was, overnight, the enemy."

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