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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 had already 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.
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.
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 may eventually 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.”
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.
“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 had already 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.”
The release of the first Blacklist presaged the widely known McCarthy Era. If not for the first and subsequent blacklists, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy may 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 was nevertheless blacklisted in 1951.
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, the Screen Actors Guild 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 like 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.
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.
The surviving blacklisted actors and writers THR spoke to for this story say they never met Wilkerson, which only contributed to his sinister reputation. Wilkerson might have palled around with Crawford, Gable and Turner, but he 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), may 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.”
The wellspring of Wilkerson’s anti-communist fervor is up for debate. Manifold impulses and influences may 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 like 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 yet 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 Title: 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 had initially 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, were actually 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?”
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 to 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.
Some of those who were complicit in the blacklisting of friends and colleagues would try to make amends. Take the case of Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night producer Walter Mirisch, who, as the production head at Allied Artists, denied employment for some. “I needed my job, and I had little children to support, and so I did what I was told to do. I’m not proud of it,” he says. But later, Mirisch, who met Trumbo when he wrote the screenplay for the Mirisch-produced Hawaii, worked to get the screenwriter an Oscar for his 1956 film, The Brave One. (After being blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo had written the script under the name Robert Rich.)
And director Edward Dmytryk, another Hollywood Ten member who, after being jailed for refusing to cooperate with HUAC, later testified before the committee and named fellow members of the Communist Party, was excused by some of his former Blacklist cohorts, including actor-director Leo Penn.
Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around. And many people from the era heap a great deal of it at the feet of the long-dead studio heads. Says screenwriter Bernstein: “That was where the power came from. If the studios stood up to [anti-communist zealots], they wouldn’t have had that power.” Douglas concurs. “The people who should apologize are all the heads of the studios,” he says. “Because they had the power to fight. But they gave in.”
Wilkerson was never contrite. He never apologized for his actions, even appearing to minimize them. Back in the autumn of 1947, Wilkerson either didn’t believe he was having much of an impact or was devilishly coy about admitting so. “What I think and write doesn’t have much influence,” he was quoted in the 1947 Pageant article. “I can’t reform Hollywood. No one can — thank God.”
In 1962, when Wilkerson died from emphysema — he smoked three packs a day — the Red Scare was on the wane. Yet THR was still boasting of his crusade. The paper’s obituary on its founder touted what it considered his life’s work: “Perhaps the biggest and most important campaign waged by Wilkerson was against communist infiltration in Hollywood. He named names, pseudonyms and card numbers and was widely credited with being chiefly responsible for preventing communists from becoming entrenched in Hollywood production — something that foreign film unions have been unable to do.”
But obscured in the laudatory obituary and remembrance was that Wilkerson’s systematic campaign led to the ruination of the lives of many. He used his publication as a blunt-force weapon. His insinuations deprived people of their livelihoods.
In a separate front-page appreciation on the same day, then-editor Don Carle Gillette echoed the sentiment of the obituary. “He made big sacrifices, paid a high price, for some of his campaigns,” he wrote. Gillette then added approvingly, and with no apparent sense of the irony, “but when carrying out a conviction, he never considered the cost.”
Scott Feinberg contributed to this report.
THE HOLLYWOOD BRASS WHO ENDORSED THE BLACKLIST
The so-called Waldorf Statement — named for the New York hotel where it was drafted on Nov. 24-25, 1947, by MPAA president Eric Johnston on behalf of 48 movie executives — decreed that the 10 Hollywood men who had just been cited for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities would not be allowed to work in the business until each had “purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a communist.” None of them, as it happened, was ever proved to have inserted communist propaganda into their films or other projects in an attempt to undermine or overthrow the government. But that didn’t matter: The heads of the major studios — including Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn, Barney Balaban and Albert Warner — signed the declaration in part simply to look like they, the leaders of the industry, were getting out in front of the supposed problem by taking what they termed “positive action.”
Their statement took care to remind the public that “nothing subversive or un-American has appeared on the screen, nor can any number of Hollywood investigations obscure the patriotic services of the 30,000 loyal Americans employed in Hollywood.” Finally, they acknowledged the fevered tenor of the time — yet, ironically, positioned their own politically motivated decision to economically exile their employees due to their supposed beliefs as one of resolute principle. “In pursuing this policy, we are not going to be swayed by hysteria or intimidation from any source,” they wrote. “We are frank to recognize that such a policy involves danger and risks. There is the danger of hurting innocent people. There is the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear. We will guard against this danger, this risk, this fear.”
HOW WILKERSON PLAYED CUPID TO THE REAGANS
Perhaps the strangest by-product of Billy Wilkerson’s anti-communism campaign was the right-wing-meet-cute story of Nancy Davis and Ronald Reagan. On Oct. 28, 1949, Wilkerson erroneously named the 28-year-old actress as a communist sympathizer when he published a list of those who had signed an amicus curiae brief urging the Supreme Court to toss out the convictions of screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson. Distraught, Davis sought the counsel of director Mervyn LeRoy, who contacted his friend Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors Guild. According to LeRoy’s 1974 autobiography, Take One, the future 40th U.S. president soon dialed her up, asking if they might have dinner to discuss her concerns. “My first thought when I opened the door was, ‘This is wonderful,’?” Nancy later recalled. “He looks as good in person as he does on the screen!” They married in March 1952.
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