RED BADGE OF COURAGE
(Have You Now Or Have You Ever Been)
Perhaps these words are unfamiliar to the young men and women of the so- called “X and “Y” generation, but they remain forever imbedded in my mind. I was just a young boy growing up in San Francisco when the late Senator Joseph McCarthy chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Later at San Francisco City Hall, I would witness the city police use fire hoses on student protestors. The sight of those student protestors being washed down the steps of City Hall and dragged outside to waiting police vans remains with me as a reminder of how our justice system can run amok.
So when Todd Lawson, a friend and cable TV host, informed me that he planned to interview Alvah Bessie, one of ten persons sent to prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC, and answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party,” I asked Lawson if he would mind my sitting in on the interview, which was conducted at Lawson’s small apartment near downtown San Francisco.
Most young people today have no knowledge of the HUAC, which resulted in the blacklisting of a sizable number of Hollywood writers, actors, directors and producers. Many of its victims would never fully recover from the social stigma attached to their names and reputations. Ten of these individuals refused to testify before the Committee and were subsequently cited for contempt of Congress. Alvah Bessie was one of the ten people who would later become known as “The Hollywood Ten.”
The late Todd Lawson was at the time the Director of the San Francisco Arts and Letters Foundation. One of the purposes of the foundation was to present an annual award to a deserving individual in recognition of that persons life long achievements in the arts. I was presented with the award in 1983 for my contribution to small press literature, and Alvah Bessie was chosen to receive the award in 1984.
I arrived at Lawson’s apartment and found him engaged in a conversation with Bessie. Todd introduced me to Bessie, and I told him what an honor it was to meet him. I knew very little about Bessie prior to the interview, but had managed to bone-up on his history with the help of a friendly San Francisco librarian.
I learned that Bessie had written about his ordeal with the HUAC in a book titled “Inquisition in Eden;” an autobiographical narrative of what it had been like to work in Hollywood as a writer, to be subpoenaed, and later serve a year in prison for refusing to cooperate with the Committee.
Bessie had been brought up during the Great Depression when there was very little hope in people’s lives. He and others like him traveled to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in a fight for what they believed to be for the right of the common people to govern themselves and improve the human condition. In 1939 Scribnersrs published Bessie’s “Men in Battle,” in which Bessie described his experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Lawson wasted no time in asking Bessie how it was possible for the Committee to come into existence. Bessie said it was important for people to remember that following World War Two, our allies were not only England and France, but China and the Soviet Union, and there was no way of knowing that China and the Soviet Union would become our enemies.
Bessie talked about a film that was made about the National Maritime Union, which showed for the first time that American men and women were capable not only of building airplanes together but of flying them. He said this was unheard of at the time. The film portrayed women building ships, with men and women of different creeds and nationalities working in harmony with each other.
He said these were ideas uncommon to many Americans and considered by some in the motion picture industry to be subversive. After the war, American women were expected to return to their homes and raise their children, not to compete in the work force with men. It’s no small wonder the film was seen by many as a threat to the American way of life that existed before the war.
Bessie named several people in the industry like Ward Bond (Wagon Train), John Wayne (The Duke), and Adolph Menjou who formed an organization known as “The Motion Picture Alliance For the Preservation of American Ideals,” which was condemned by the motion picture trade unions as being anti-labor, anti-Semitic, anti-women and anti-Negro. The alliance called upon the HUAC to investigate the motion picture industry, informing the Committee that the industry had been affiliated with subversive, Un-American, and Communist people intent on destroying the ideals of the American way of life. He talked about a screenwriter who also served as a critic for “Esquire” Magazine. who had testified before the Committee about how subtle the Un-American Screenwriters were, giving as an example a screenplay about a Congressman giving favors to a wealthy constituent, citing this as an example of Communist propaganda. Bessie said that when the audience began laughing, the Chairman of the Committee angrily pounded his gavel, and said, “There will be quiet or I’ll clear the room.” The Chair went on to say, “Can you imagine people so low, so corrupt, so degenerate that they will show crooked Congressmen?”
Lawson and I broke out into laugher, and, Lawson said, “I didn’t know there was anything but crooked Congressmen.” This brought a smile to Bessie’s face.
“That would have been Senator Joseph McCarthy.” Todd inquired.
“No,” Bessie replied. “At that particular time the chairman of the Committee was Parnell Thomas. McCarthy gained prominence later on.
Bessie informed us how Parnell Thomas had later been sentenced to prison along with the Hollywood Ten after the famed columnist Drew Pearson exposed Thomas as having put several of his relatives on his Congressional payroll; relatives who did no work but collected paychecks, which were turned over to the Congressman, who deposited the checks in his own bank account. Thomas pleaded Nol Contendere and was sentenced to a prison term. Bessie grimaced as he recalled how the Congressman had been given a four year sentence, but had been pardoned by President Truman after serving but ten months of his sentence.
I informed Bessie that I admired the work of Ring Lardner and asked him if his (Ring Lardner’s) son had not been one of the cited Hollywood Ten. Bessie said this was in fact the case and that Ring Lardnder, Junior had bought a beach home in Santa Barbara, California, and was in the process of moving in when U.S. Marshals arrived at his door with a subpoena to appear before the Committee.
“He was working for 20th Century Fox writing screenplays, like I was,” said Bessie. He had won an academy award in 1943 for a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. He was at the peak of his career. The terrible thing was not so much in his going to prison but that he was blacklisted and unable to find work for eighteen years.”
Bessie said that through the entire ordeal Lardner had managed to keep a sense of humor, and that when he was called before the Committee and asked if he was or had ever been a Communist, Lardner had replied, “I could answer that question, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.” Bessie said that the remark enraged the Committee’s Chairman, who had Lardner thrown out of the hearings.
“I hope you won’t take offense,” said Lawson, “but were Lardner or any of the Hollywood Ten members of the Communist Party?”
“Does it matter?” Said Bessie. “That isn’t the question. It’s a matter of the Constitution. We were robbed of the fundamental right of free thought. What gave the Government the right to think they had the right to summon citizens before them and give an account to the government on their beliefs and whom their associations. Like religion, this was a matter of our own business. Lives were ruined, careers destroyed, and the industry censored, and for what?”
“I apologize for asking the question,” said Lawson.
‘No need for that,” said Bessie. “I know you don’t think like that. It’s just that there were powerful people in the government who believed Communists were infiltrating the motion picture industry and these people were intent on exposing them. But they exposed nothing. The real shame is that the Supreme Court did not step in and stop what was happening until the late 50's when public opinion turned against the Committee.
Bessie talked about how Un-American the Committed itself had been, refusing the accused the right to admit any of their writings into evidence, and that when Hollywood producers offered the Committee any film in the motion picture archives for the Committee to review and point out what they believed to be subversive, they were informed this was not what the Committee was there for, that the only question that mattered was “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party.”
He related that the Hollywood Ten had consulted with a lawyer who said the following options were open to them: They could decide to answer the questions of the Committee and say, “I am and what about it? Or as a group they could respond by saying, “What business is it of yours.” But that if they answered in the affirmative, the next question would be about others in the industry, and if they answered they didn’t know anything about these people, the Committee would produce witnesses who would say but of course they knew. Bessie and the other nine members were told by their lawyers that if they refused to answer questions, they would be cited for contempt of Congress and face a fine of up to $1.000 and a year in prison; whereas, if they said anything that could be construed as perjury, they would face a fine of up to $5.000 and five years in prison. The group collectively decided to challenge the Committee’s right to ask the question.
Among the better known members of The Hollywood Ten who were sentenced to prison was Dalton Trumbo, who years later would write such acclaimed screenplays as “Sparticus” and Exodus.”
When I commended Bessie for the Hollywood Ten remaining united, he fidgeted in his chair, paused for a moment, and said, “We stood as a team at the hearings, but one of the group later testified before the Committee.”
“Who was that?” Asked Lawson.
“Edward Dmytryk. After he served his sentence, he went back to the Committee and testified that at one time he had been a member of the Communist Party and named five others who had been members, at the same time.”
“Why do you think he did that?” Lawson wanted to know.
“Well, I believe that he said he had a change of heart, but I think it was because he wanted to go back to work. He couldn’t find work, so he went before the Committee. After he testified, he had no trouble finding work.”
“I don’t recall any movies he was involved in,” said Lawson.
“He directed “The Caine Mutiny” and “The Young Lions.” I’m sure you’re aware of them.”’ Bessie said.
“Yes, of course,” said Lawson. “I just didn’t connect them to his name.”
At this point, Bessie excused himself to visit the bathroom. When he returned, we discussed how it was for Bessie after he was released from prison and found himself blacklisted from making a living. Bessie said that like other members of The Hollywood Ten, he had been forced to live in relative obscurity, ignored by the literary establishment, who had turned their backs on him. He worked for a short time as a stage manager and soundman at Enrico Banducci’s North Beach nightclub, and later managed to land a job as an editor of a union newspaper, published by Harry Bridges. Who at the time was the head of the International Longshoreman’s Union, whose powerful union had once closed down the waterfront in San Francisco.
I told Bessie that my father had told me as a kid about “Bloody Thursday” (as it became known) which occurred in 1934 after the San Francisco Police tried to open the docks, which were being picketed by the Longshoremen. The police and picketers clash cost the lives of two strikers and left hundreds of other people wounded. The bloody battle turned public opinion in favor of the union and made Bridges a leading figure in the International Longshoreman’s Union. Bessie replied that this was but one of many things Bridges had done in the name of labor.
I asked Bessie what changed the public’s mind about the HUAC. He said the man most responsible for this was Dalton Trumbo. He told us how at the 1957 Hollywood Academy Awards, Robert Rich was given an Oscar for the screenplay “The Brave One,” but when his name was called to come up on stage and receive the award, no one appeared on stage. The Director of the Guild had to accept the award for him. No one had ever heard of Robert Rich. Bessie said Rich was really Dalton Trumbo, who had written “The Brave One,” while living in Mexico, after his release from prison and finding himself blacklisted.
He said Rich was but one of several pseudo names Thumbo had used in order to gain work and attributed Trumbo's campaign against the blacklist for breaking the list. A year after the Rich incident, two other blacklisted members won an award for their adaptation of the novel “The Bridge On the River Kwai.” They had used their agent as a front. Bessie said Thumbo had made a mockery of both the industry and the blacklist.
“When people are given an award under other people’s names, when these people don’t even exist, then it becomes a comedy. Black comedy, but comedy nevertheless.” Bessie said it wasn’t until eighteen years later that Thumbo received the rightful recognition for “The Brave Ones.”
I asked Bessie why he had gone to fight the war in Spain. He said he had been but one of over 3,000 young men who shipped off to fight in the war, and that the Abraham Lincoln Brigade had been made up of American volunteers, who fought for three years until the unit was disbanded shortly after Franco’s army defeated the Republic forces on the eve of World War Two. Bessie said there was nothing romantic about the war but took pride in knowing the cause was a just one.
“I had no idea what to expect when I got there. It was advance and retreat. Dig in and move out. The blood and the body parts lying on the battlefields. The fight to just stay alive.
“I guess I was drawn into the cause because the Spanish were the first to openly resist Fascism. I thought it was wrong that the U.S. and other countries remained neutral. I never gave up hope that President Roosevelt would come around, but he never did. Look at what neutrality resulted in with the Jews. There comes a time in life when you have to choose the high ground and take a moral stand.”
What was it like there?” I naively asked.
“Well we put up a good fight and made some early headway. I mean that’s pretty amazing when you consider we (volunteers) were city people. We didn’t know anything about climbing mountains and digging foxholes. You’re talking about university graduates and men from the trade unions and such. Some of the men were from well to do families. Most of us had never fired a gun.”
“Do you still have memories of the country?” Lawson asked.
“But of course. The country was beautiful. You remember your comrades the most. And then there was Hemingway visiting the front lines, but of course, he could leave whenever he wanted to.”
I asked him what kind of causalities the Brigade suffered. He replied that 800 American’s had been killed by the time the Brigade had been disbanded.
“In the end, all the foreigners were asked to pack up and leave, over a hundred thousand men in all.”
“You returned to the U.S.?” Todd asked.
“Yes, but not all of us did. Some went to France and lived in exile.”
“What about today?” Lawson asked. “Who do you see as the main threat to liberty?”
“The far right,” said Bessie. “The American people remember the sixties and the radical left, but it is the far right who is the real danger, and I don’t know if the battle can be won at the ballot box.”
The meeting ended all too soon, as there was so much more I wanted to talk to Bessie about. He left a lasting impression on me. Here was a man who had lived his convictions. A man willing to go to prison for his believes. A man who fought in the Spanish Civil War. A man whom Hemingway had openly admired. A man who had first of all been a soldier and secondly a writer. The words of George Bernard Shaw came to my mind: “I have not wasted my entire life trifling with literary fools.”
Bessie had stood up to the powers to be and dearly paid the price for his convictions. This is not to say he was not a talented writer, for Ernest Hemingway himself had said that Bessie’s book “Men in Battle” was one of the best war novels of our time.
Later I mailed Bessie a copy of my book, “The Reagan Psalms,” a biting satire on the Reagan Administration, and told him how Studs Terkel had read portions of the book over his Chicago radio station. I hoped he might comment on the book, and included in my letter, a short note telling him I had sent a copy of the book to the White House, and wanted to know if he thought I would be on a blacklist.
Bessie wrote back and said he enjoyed the book immensely. In his letter, he spoke about an incident with Scott Meredith, an agent who was in the practice of charging authors to look at their work. Bessie spoke about Meredith soliciting a manuscript from him.
“I wrote the man and told him I could not stand his clients, his crooked practice of demanding payment for reading one’s work, or his face.”
Bessie said he regretted the latter remark because it had hurt Meredith and that one could not help how they looked. He went on to relate that Meredith had told him how much he admired his “history” which Bessie said he had been surprised to learn.
Bessie proposed that we hoist a drink in honor of Marilyn Monroe (whom he had written a book about) whom we both admired and ended his letter with a scathing indictment of Norman Mailer.
“That poor permanent adolescent. Let him laugh all the way to the bank. That is what he wants most.”
He closed his letter by saying “Hast Pronto, Campaigner. Down with all publishers and entrepreneurs except for you (if you are one) and me (should I ever become one).”
We continued to correspond with each other, and, in a letter written just before the November elections, he responded to an earlier inquiry about my being on a literary blacklist, after my public criticism of the National Endowment For the Arts Literature Program.
“You’re on the list,” said Bessie. “See you in Manzandar...cold in winter. Keep firing. I notice your upside down stamp (ship in distress). SOS is coming.”
My last correspondence with him occurred when I sent him a long anti-military poem, to which he replied: “Dear laureate, your latest effort will prove to be the greatest weapon against tyranny and chivalry, too, as Cervantes discovered: i.e. Satire. Have at him (Reagan) as hard and as often as you can and tell me how often you get your work printed by the establishment.”
Bessie died in early 1985, at the age of 81. A service was held in a small chapel in Marin County. The automobiles that filled the chapel’s parking lot were dented Fords and old Chevrolets, even an old Buick or two. The old sedans had bumper stickers reading, “End the arms race” and “U.S. out of Nicaragua.”
A long line of visitors stood outside in the hot sun waiting to sign the guest book. I watched a burly and ageing man help steady an older man who haltingly signed the guest book, Harry Bridges.
Two hundred or more people gathered inside the small church to pay their last respects. The first person to eulogize Bessie was Brigade Captain Wolfe, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who had earlier appeared in a documentary movie about the brigade. He spoke proudly of Bessie’s many achievements and finished by saying:
“He’s remembered as one of “The Hollywood Ten” but those of us who knew him know that he was most proudest of having been a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade."
There were other speakers including Bessie’s lawyer friend who read an excerpt from an interview with Bessie, conducted at the front lines in Spain. As the aging warriors filed out of the church and back into their cars, there was a sense of sadness in the air. The old Left was coming face to face with a warrior that takes no prisoners. A warrior it could not hope to defeat, that warrior being death!
Their hopes, dreams and sacrifices were facing a changing society of right wing values and open betrayals, as was the case with one of their own (Ronald Reagan) who had changed his pro-Democratic union views to take up the cause of right wing politics. Some of the more bitter ones must have been asking themselves if the fight had been worth it. Bessie himself would never have entertained that question.
At home that night I turned on my stereo and toasted a drink to the memory of Bessie. Not many writers make it to the big time and fewer still are remembered kindly, but Bessie had secured his place in history by standing up for his believes and fighting for them. How many writers can lay claim to this? How many writers have the balls that Alvah Bessie, Harry Bridges and other members of the far left had in helping make this country a more honorable place to live.