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

Billy Wilkerson
Billy Wilkerson

Sixty-five years ago, the town's studio chiefs, executives and guilds joined a communist witch hunt launched by THR's legendary owner, Billy Wilkerson. Today, in the first-ever exploration of a demagogue's mission and the lives destroyed, his son writes a formal apology.

The release of the first Blacklist presaged the widely known McCarthy Era. If not for the first and subsequent blacklists, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy might have never had the ability to begin his four-year reign of often baseless accusation, which began in earnest in 1950. The so-called Hollywood Ten had been brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in November 1947 as part of an investigation into whether communists and communist sympathizers had been sneaking their propaganda into films. People like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, then the head of the Screen Actors Guild, testified before the committee about the communist menace; others, like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were members of the left-leaning Committee for the First Amendment, flew to Washington to stand up for their colleagues, though ultimately to no avail.

After each of the Hollywood Ten refused to testify, they were then sentenced to a year in prison and named in the Waldorf Statement, which effectively banned them from Hollywood. (Four members of the Ten had been named in Wilkerson's pivotal July 29 column; four others would be blacklisted later.) The two-page Waldorf Statement, released Nov. 25 by MPAA president Eric Johnston on behalf of 48 movie executives, decreed that the 10 Hollywood men who had been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives would not be allowed to work in the business until each "purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a communist." None of the Ten, it should be noted, is known to have ever worked or advocated for the violent overthrow of the U.S. -- ostensibly the chief fear of anti-communist zealots.

In THR's Nov. 26, 1947, edition, Koch, who wrote the screenplay for the controversial 1943 film Mission to Moscow, took out a full-page ad to affirm that he was not a member of the Communist Party and make a plea: "We can stand firm, defend ourselves by defending each other, and stop this tide before it sweeps further." Even after years of Wilkerson's red-baiting, Koch -- and a handful of others who took out similar ads -- were still willing to hand over their money to THR. They had to: It was the conversational town square of the industry. Koch nevertheless was blacklisted in 1951.

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In the weeks and months after the release of the Waldorf Statement, THR continued to cover the "commie" issue nearly every day. Soon, several other blacklists were created. Red Channels, a pamphlet published by an anti-communist, right-wing journal called Counterattack, included 151 names when it was released in June 1950. The American Legion, a conservative veterans group, distributed a list of more than 100 people to the studios in 1949, and HUAC also put out annual reports that included rosters of alleged communists.

The institutions of Hollywood, many of which were complicit in the blacklisting, have rarely recognized this painful era. One notable exception was in 1998, when AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America, SAG and the Writers Guild of America West gathered in Beverly Hills to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the HUAC hearings. Billy Crystal and Kevin Spacey gave speeches, those who had been blacklisted spoke emotionally, and the organizations apologized for not protecting their members.

The audience was left in tears.


Wilkerson was a pioneering driver of the Blacklist. But it is difficult to make sense of his motives. The portrait of Wilkerson that emerges is a complex one. He is considered by some to have merely been a henchman of the studio heads, eager to wage a war for them in exchange for advertising commitments and entrance to their inner circle. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood, says Wilkerson was little more than a "cheerleader" parroting anti-communist rhetoric spewed by politicians and business titans. But others, including Wilkerson's son Willie and writers and actors who were blacklisted, view Wilkerson as a shadowy, organized-crime-connected figure who ran roughshod over Hollywood and used his column as a bully pulpit to ruin people's lives for his personal gain.

Wilkerson, it should be noted, wasn't alone. Syndicated columnists such as Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper also railed against communism. But as THR's owner, editor and publisher, Wilkerson had unique influence at his publication. And whereas Winchell, Hopper and others spoke to a national audience about Hollywood's sins, Wilkerson wrote specifically to an industry audience, thereby exercising much more direct influence and power. His daily columns, which used the "W.R. Wilkerson" byline, were brash and bold. He threw around the word "commies" regularly, named names and questioned whether people could explain their loyalty to or membership in the Communist Party.

It was pretty simple, says Clancy Sigal, a talent agent-cum-writer whom Wilkerson once tried to have fired: No one wanted to appear in one of Wilkerson's columns. "People for about 10 years were scared to death of Billy and scared to death of THR," he says.

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Wilkerson was born in Nashville in 1890 to a cardsharp father who went by the name "Big Dick" and, as family lore has it, won the bottling rights for Coca-Cola in 13 Southern states in one poker game, only to lose them in another. A practicing Roman Catholic who wound up marrying six times, the younger Wilkerson briefly considered the priesthood before studying medicine in Philadelphia until his father passed away, leaving Wilkerson with a pile of inherited gambling debts. Needing to support himself and his mother, he began working at a small nickelodeon theater in New Jersey, in time climbing through the lower ranks of the East Coast film industry -- a sales job here, a gig producing one-reelers for a small production company there, eventually becoming a district manager in charge of distribution for Universal Pictures during the Carl Laemmle era. In 1927, he even tried, and failed, to start his own studio.

Looking for equity, in 1929 he briefly partnered in a Manhattan trade paper covering the entertainment business but soon realized that an L.A.-based publication -- out in Hollywood, where the real action was -- would fill a market void. (Variety would not follow from New York until 1933.) The Hollywood Reporter launched inauspiciously just as the Great Depression got under way. But within a few years, thanks in large part to hardball sales tactics (such as withholding news coverage unless a deal was made), it was packed with studio advertisements, and Wilkerson branched out to other ventures that directly served the industry. These included a liquor-importing business, top nightclubs Ciro's and Cafe Trocadero (where Judy Garland got her start) and a slew of Parisian-style, star-studded restaurants including Vendome, L'Aiglon and LaRue, as well as the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas. (Wilkerson's larger-than-life playboy adventures have interested Johnny Depp and Graham King, whose production companies are developing a biopic with Lifetime.)

Wilkerson's varied enterprises were meant to make him rich and support an extravagant lifestyle. Along with his ever-multiplying alimony payments, he owned five cars, including a custom-built Cadillac, and a French Colonial mansion in Bel-Air, where he regularly entertained the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Lana Turner -- the latter of whom he famously discovered while both were purchasing Cokes at a Hollywood soda fountain. But the businesses, THR most centrally, also were meant to make Wilkerson uniquely necessary to the industry. He positioned himself as its kingpin and gatekeeper in matters of work and play.

According to a 1960 Hollywood Close-Up magazine profile, "the biggest men in the studios as ever seek his counsel -- and quail at his censure." Indeed, there was a darkness to Wilkerson. "He was a guy with a hard eye and a quick snarl and a seething contempt for phoniness," Close-Up wrote two years later in its obituary of Wilkerson.

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The surviving blacklisted actors and writers THR spoke with for this story say they never met Wilkerson, which only contributed to his sinister reputation. He might have palled around with Crawford, Gable and Turner, but Wilkerson didn't fraternize with the rank-and-file Hollywood workers whose fates he'd help seal. "I knew that Billy Wilkerson was a great right-wing asshole," says Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted via Red Channels in 1950 and would contribute to the screenplay of the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven without receiving credit. Screenwriter Norma Barzman is equally blunt in an interview from her Beverly Hills apartment, which is replete with Spanish bullfighting posters designed by Pablo Picasso, her neighbor in the South of France when she lived there in blacklisted exile in the 1960s. "People thought Wilkerson was a big shit."

Actor Kirk Douglas, who in later years worked to break the Blacklist (though the families of some of those blacklisted have in the past questioned his contributions to the cause), might have met Wilkerson once or twice at a party but didn't know him well. "I just saw Wilkerson as one of those guys that I didn't agree with," Douglas says. "But when it started, I couldn't imagine it to be so invasive -- the damage that was done. In retrospect, the Blacklist era was the most sinful period in Hollywood history."


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