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 wellspring of Wilkerson's anti-communist fervor is up for debate. Manifold impulses and influences might have affected his thinking. Indeed, only one thing can be said for certain: His motivation, as it turns out, wasn't simply a matter of right-wing political ideology.

Some Blacklist scholars, including Nat Segaloff, co-author of the 1993 play The Waldorf Conference, think that he took his stand, in key part, on religious grounds. Communism had an atheist ideal, and the Soviet Union attempted to eliminate religion, banning all faiths. "It was the atheism of communism that bothered him," he says. "Wilkerson thought it was anti-Catholic."

Wilkerson's son, Willie, 61, who like his father uses the W.R. moniker, strongly believes his dad's red-baiting of screenwriters was really just a misguided ploy for retribution. He notes that his father blamed his own failure to set up a studio on the East Coast in 1927 on the Hollywood moguls' thwarting of his distribution efforts. "They sidelined him, and he was so angered and offended by this that he made it a lifetime vow of revenge to get even with these guys," he says. "He said, 'I will finish the movie moguls by going after their writers, by exposing them as communists.' " (This theory is complicated by the fact that by the 1940s, Wilkerson had long since become the ultimate industry insider, collegial in print with his antagonists of decades prior. More important, the stridently anti-labor moguls nurtured little affection for the politically oriented cohort of screenwriters Wilkerson targeted.)

Another intriguing hypothesis pertains to Wilkerson's complex history with organized crime figures of the era, from Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen to union enforcers such as Willie Bioff and George E. Browne. Wilkerson welcomed them at his restaurants and clubs, and when he ran into financing trouble while developing the Flamingo in Las Vegas, it was Bugsy Siegel who became his business partner. Although Wilkerson occasionally found himself on the wrong side of the mob -- Siegel at one point threatened to kill him in a dispute over ownership rights to the Flamingo, prompting Wilkerson to hide out at Paris' Hotel George V for months -- some argue that his long acquaintanceship with the underworld might have further aligned him against the communist cause.

"Communists had been at odds with gangsters since Poland in the late 19th century, when the gangsters were brought in as enforcers at the factories in the Jewish shtetls," says historian Dave Wagner, co-author of Blacklisted and Radical Hollywood. "These roles were pretty much recapitulated in New York and then in Hollywood. Gangsters were hired to break strikes by the guilds and put down left-wing union agitation. The studio bosses greeted Bioff and his guys as welcoming heroes."

A more concrete explanation can be found in Wilkerson's long-running feud with the Screen Writers Guild. "He didn't just start attacking the guild at the point of the Blacklist," says Emerson College professor Miranda Banks, author of the forthcoming Scripted Labor: A History of American Screen Writing and the Writers Guild. Wilkerson steered THR to side with the studios in opposing the union's creation during its negotiations with the National Labor Relations Board in the late 1930s. In one editorial he railed, "What has this great industry done to all of you that you must throw down your work, march in picket lines, go into frenzies about the injustices that is done to you, pack into meetings with speechmaking, arm-waving, searching for the power to kill the very business that has made many of you rich … ?"

Even once the guild was organized, it continued to lock horns with Wilkerson. Unlike studios and other industry firms that engaged in the exchange of news coverage in return for ad buys, the SWG found this distasteful. It established a policy of fining and even suspending any member who bought an ad -- a policy for which Wilkerson punished the guild by refusing to run screenwriting credits alongside those of the director, cast and others in the paper's movie reviews.

It was against this backdrop that Wilkerson, on July 29, 1946 -- days after his visit to the Blessed Sacrament Church for confession -- blew his top in a column titled "A Vote for Joe Stalin," in which he named names for the first time. The SWG's executive board had just endorsed the creation of a program called the American Authors' Authority, devised by screenwriter James M. Cain to hold writers' copyrights instead of the studios, which would function much like ASCAP, the performance-rights organization for musicians. Wilkerson compared it to "thought-police," saying it was not unlike a system carried out by Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Wilkerson declared it would result in nothing less than "a complete dictatorship of American opinion and a throttling monopoly upon the various channels for dissemination of ideas." (The AAA never got off the ground.)

Once the Blacklist era began, the guilds, which to varying degrees initially had fought anti-communist zealotry, ultimately caved, stranding their under-siege members; and for part of the 1950s, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be an accessory to the Blacklist by passing a bylaw that made it impossible for those who invoked the Fifth Amendment in front of HUAC to be nominated for an Oscar. In 1947, the studio system was still dominant, and these orbiting institutions were much more subservient to it than they are to equivalent media companies today.

What might have rankled Wilkerson most was his sense that those he was targeting had transgressed his most devout principle: the profit motive. Explains his son: "My dad said, 'Look, I don't give a shit what people are on their own time. But what they're doing is bad for business.' " The prospect of voices in the film community advocating -- or even just being seen to sympathize with -- radical politics would have the effect, he felt, of turning off audiences across the country by tainting all of Hollywood as subversive. "Our ticket buyers are being influenced against us in a cause that's growing like a typhoon. That influence might well curtail everything that has made our industry one of the greats in the world," Wilkerson wrote on Nov. 5, 1947, justifying his call for an industry-enforced Blacklist: "Any man or woman who, under the guise of freedom of speech, or the cloak of the Bill of Rights, or under the pseudo protection of being a liberal, says things, causes things to be said, or who actually is involved with many of the conspiracies that have now infested this great land of ours, has no place among us, be he commie or what. He or she should be rushed out of our business."

In those days, "commie" was a blanket term often directed at those who held political beliefs across the entire end of the political spectrum to the left of President Harry Truman. Some, like screenwriter John Howard Lawson of the Hollywood Ten, actually were members of the Communist Party; others were affiliated with connected groups like the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences and Professions. Perhaps for this reason, on the advice of his attorney Greg Bautzer, Wilkerson developed an interrogatory approach to targeting individuals in print so as to avoid any potential libel lawsuits. Thus, guild treasurer Harold Buchman wouldn't outright be called a communist in a Wilkerson column on Aug. 21, 1946. Instead, the editor would simply inquire, in prosecutorial language and in incriminating detail: "Are you a Communist? Are you a member of the Party's Northwest Section (composed of motion picture people), and do you hold Communist Party Card No. 46802? Also, were you not a member of the Young Communists League?"

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