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.

Wilkerson is known to have had some high-level associations that likely paid dividends when it came time to name names. According to his son, Wilkerson's original conduit for intelligence on Hollywood's communists was his close friend Howard Hughes, who had extensive contacts in the government through his aerospace work. Later, Hughes connected Wilkerson directly with his own ultimate source: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who himself, in turn, eventually became friendly with the publisher, apparently either unaware of or undisturbed by Wilkerson's underworld affiliations.

"He was a close pal of Hoover -- whenever he came to California, they'd have lunch," says Sigal, a script reader who had been dismissed from Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s for refusing to name names. In the early 1950s, Sigal worked at prominent Hollywood producer-agent Sam Jaffe's eponymous firm, but Sigal says that Wilkerson called and demanded that the young agent be fired. "He would threaten to insert blind items in The Reporter," he says. "The movie industry tends to be run on fear, and all it took was a rumor or a whisper for people to collapse."

A few years after the Blacklist commenced and McCarthy began ramping up his own larger crusade, Wilkerson's son claims the senator dialed his father, asking him how he'd pieced together his data. "Of course, he didn't have anything to go by [in his campaign]," says Willie Wilkerson of McCarthy. "At least my father did his research." (THR requested the FBI's files on Wilkerson under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency said any documents it might have amassed were likely destroyed.)


The impact of the Blacklist era was significant. The purge of hundreds drained Hollywood of talent, but more significantly, robbed people of their livelihoods. In total, at least 300 people were formally named to various public lists including Red Channels and HUAC's own official tallies. And many more, from spouses to siblings and secretaries, similarly found themselves crippled by their graylisting -- whether through whisper campaigns or unofficial outings in publications like THR. Ultimately, thousands would be affected. Many who could no longer find jobs got out of the business -- not everyone was able to work under pseudonyms (an impossibility for actors) or with fronts (the non-blacklisted, whose clean names were used in place of the damned). Still others, like Barzman, were forced to flee to Europe in part to search for employment in the film business. Hunt, a rising star in the late 1940s, lost her contract at MGM and could barely find a gig in the '50s. "Word got to the studio that I might be one," she says. "I was no longer workable." Only a handful of those blacklisted are still alive, and those who remain are in their 80s or 90s. The last of the Hollywood Ten, screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., died in 2000.

The Reporter paid a price, too, though the damage paled in comparison to the suffering of those who were blacklisted. Still, in journalism circles, the publication was panned. It lost readers, though it's difficult to determine how many. Hy Hollinger, who was a Variety reporter in the 1950s, told THR that the publication's Blacklist coverage was considered by the industry to be "an embarrassment" and shameful by many of the publication's staff at the time. When THR editors were asked about the Blacklist and communists, "they just declined to talk about it," recalls Hollinger, 94, who later wrote for THR in the 1990s and 2000s. "It was an ugly period."

It's hard to say whether THR suffered financially -- if at all -- as a result of its virulently anti-communist bent. It's unknown, for example, how circulation was impacted -- the Audit Bureau of Circulations' records on THR start in 1978. Anecdotal information from the era shows that circulation increased through the Blacklist era, but there's no way to know if this was due to the coverage of the communist issue. According to the October-November 1947 issue of Pageant magazine, THR counted 6,300 subscribers. A July 1967 story in The Day newspaper said THR's circulation was more than 10,000.

In the years after the Blacklist went into effect, Wilkerson held firm in his views. But he mostly ceded the editorial soapbox to his star writer at THR, Mike Connolly, who wrote the daily "Rambling Reporter" gossip column and was even more aggressively anti-communist than his boss. The sharp-tongued, vehemently right-wing Connolly -- a sort of midcentury Perez Hilton by way of Roy Cohn -- led the paper's red-baiting assault into the McCarthy-era 1950s, attacking both identified communists and unfriendly HUAC witnesses with epithets like "vermin" and "scummie." Even after targets had been driven out of the industry, Wilkerson would support Connolly as he tauntingly published the victims' new work addresses in other fields, apparently to incite picketing: "Charles Page, one of the three Screen Writers Guild secretaries who invoked the Fifth, is now teaching at U of C in Riverside -- a member of the Department of Humanities, Room 2234, Administration Building." Altogether, it was, as Connolly biographer Val Holley put it in his 2003 tome Mike Connolly and the Manly Art of Hollywood Gossip, a "long, devastating campaign of harassment and injury," allowed to "proceed without restraint" due to the encouragement of Wilkerson.

After Wilkerson's 1962 death, his wife, Tichi Wilkerson, took over as THR's publisher and editor, but if she disagreed with her husband's crusade, she never took steps to acknowledge any wrongdoing. And when she sold the publication in 1988, the new ownership wasn't moved to address issues that had long been ignored, either. But it wasn't for a lack of trying on the part of THR labor reporter David Robb, who in the 1990s worked to help blacklisted screenwriters, including Lawrence of Arabia's Michael Wilson, get their names put on movies they'd written under pseudonyms or using fronts while exiled. Around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Waldorf Statement, Robb penned a lengthy story on the publication's dark history. Robb delivered the piece to then-publisher and editor-in-chief Robert J. Dowling, but he spiked it, telling the reporter that while it was a good story, THR couldn't run it. "I understood his point," Robb says. "He said, 'We're going to have to pass.' He just didn't know how bad The Hollywood Reporter had been in those days, and he didn't want to be the one to slam the old people in the paper." (Dowling declined comment.)

Around town, people remembered the Blacklist long after it was broken around 1960. Willie Wilkerson says that he personally felt the scorn of the entertainment industry many years after the era. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wilkerson pursued a career as a songwriter and musician but found that some people stymied his efforts out of anger for his father's crusade. "Behind closed doors, there was more than one time that I got a real haranguing for something my dad had done," he says. "It was the Blacklist in reverse. It was karma coming home."

And when it was announced that director Elia Kazan, who testified as a friendly witness before HUAC in 1952, would receive an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1999, broad swaths of Hollywood were outraged. Even at the ceremony, many in attendance refused to recognize the On the Waterfront director.


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