The Story Of That Marvelous Hero

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December 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 

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Dalton Trumbo

By LIONEL ROLFE

 

A few days ago, Judith Aller, a prominent concert violinist and conductor in Europe and America, wrote me a note saying that her now dead husband’s film about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was going to be premiered–and asked me if I wanted to go.

I had known Bruce Cook before I knew her, and they did meet at a party at my house, as I remember. Bruce was a wonderful and grand fellow–he was book editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and he gave me lots of room to write for him there. He had also been book editor at USA Today and a senior editor at Newsweek. He even wrote a novel about a Latino private detective in East Los Angeles.

He married Aller in 1994. It’s no accident that he was particularly proud of having written one of the first books on American beatniks–The Beat Generation in 1971. And, I hate to mention it, I had once given a book of his about Bertolt Brecht a bad review in the LA Times–I hope he never saw that review, because he was an old fashioned gentleman who wrote with passion and caring about those who stood up to power.

It did not surprise me that Cook had done a book on Trumbo. Although I never dealt with Trumbo personally, I got close to him, in part because I was a teenage radical writer for the People’s World in the 1950s. Trumbo was the best known of the Hollywood 10–my closest personal contact was with Alvah Bessie. I had loved Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” just as I loved Alvah Bessie’s 1939 novel about Spain called “Men in Battle.”

The Hollywood 10 were logical heroes for a writer like myself whose earliest writing heroes were Jonathan Swift, John Fielding, Voltaire, Mark Twain and Jack London. Dalton Trumbo was a hero of the current moment–he had written the scores for Exodus, Spartacus, and Executive Action. Bessie’s son Dan Bessie was an executive producer for that film. The elder Trumbo also wrote Roman Holiday in 1953 and Lonely Are The Brave in 1962.

I remember I had seen Lonely Are The Brave the year it was made. I guess I had just turned 20 and I was working on my first commercial newspaper job–at the Pismo Beach Times. I saw it on a dreary Pismo-based theater and from the moment I saw it, I knew it was something special. Based on a novel by Edward Abbey, it told the story of a courageous cowboy against the powers that be. The screenplay was by Trumbo. Kirk Douglas played the lead.

I didn’t know all the details of the film when I first saw it but it left a special mark on me. Ironically, Abbey, was an environmental extremist and staunch individualist–an odd combination, but maybe not so odd, for Trumbo to write the screenplay.

It probably was no accident that I lost my job at the Pismo Beach Times after a year, at the behest of the local John Birch Society because it was discovered I had been a teenage commie journalist at the ol’ red rag.

I grew up knowing about the Hollywood Blacklist. My mother, the pianist Yaltah Menuhin, had used her social access with the powers that be fighting the blacklist tragedy. Eudice Shapiro, a top rate first violinist for Paramount, lost her job not because she was a communist but because she refused to name names. Her husband Victor Gottlieb, also first cellist in the Paramount orchestra, lost his job for the same reason. Victor died of a heart attack not much later–and Eudice had a hard time surviving. She finally got back on her legs by going to work at USC’s music school–probably working with Joshua Heifetz.

My mom was at the most a mild liberal and not a communist, although she knew some communist and admired them. She confronted two people on the social circuit–she once confronted J. Edgar Hoover and John Parnell Thomas, the HUAC chairman and congressman who ended up in federal prison with Dalton Trumbo, whom he had sent there. She told them that Shapiro and Gottlieb were civil libertarians and not communists. But they had the right not to name others.

The film provided me several wonderful moments of happiness, in a world where I am less moved by the stirring books of yesteryear that so formed my being. There’s no doubt that my idealism has taken a back seat to that certain cynicism or even religiosity as one grows older. Maybe that is just the inevitable process of age at work. I can now say I am of the post-Second World War American generation of radicals, for whom Howard Fast was our Tom Paine, Jack London and Upton Sinclair rolled up in one.

In fact it was Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine that first made me aware of American history, not the history they taught me in elementary school in the ’50s. Like a lot of others, I was very taken with Fast’s novel “Spartacus,” which Trumbo wrote the screenplay for.

I liked Howard Fast and Herbert Aptheker, who wrote about slave rebellions and American history. I didn’t get to meet Fast until late in the 1980s. Fast had been a good member of the communist party, just as Trumbo had been. But there was little love between them all. Fast and I first talked about Aptheker. Aptheker had told me that Fast had “sold out” over money. That was the real reason he had left the party. He blamed Fast’s wife for this. He said the moment his income fell below $250 a week (in the ’50s), Fast gave in to the pressure and left the Communist Party. Now, years later, I interviewed Fast and, naturally, I wanted to tell him my Aptheker story. But it soon became clear that he had a different interpretation of the same events.

By the time I met Fast, he had become a Jewish nationalist; but then a lot of Jews became communists because of anti-Semitism. Fast wrote a book in 1990 called “Being Red: A Memoir,” talking about his experiences as a communist. The American party in the late 1940s still had thousands of Yiddish-speaking workers from the garment industry, the cigar industry and various other sectors. The Jewish section of the party even had its own newspaper, Freiheit. The Jewish section had heard enough even in the late ’40s before the “Doctors Plot” confirmed Stalin’s obsessional anti-Semitism. At one point the National Committee of the Communist Party of the United States decided to issue a formal charge of anti-Semitic practices against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, charging that “the entire leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was ridden with anti-Semitism.”

Fast went to Europe where he met a member of the Soviet’s national committee, a writer like himself. The fellow listened to Fast and blandly informed him that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and that was all there was to it. The matter never became public, but many Jews left the party convinced that there was a strange new kind of anti-Semitism at work in the Worker’s Paradise.

I spent four hours interviewing Fast, in part because he was impressed by the fact that I was editor of the B’nai B’rith Messenger, one of Los Angeles’ ancient newspaper. Fast also knew about my own background to Judaism because I was descended from the Menuhin family, which is also directly of the Schneersohn clan, the hereditary dynasty of the Lubavitch movement. It was an odd feeling for me, meeting one of my heroes, who was treating me like I was “the celebrity.”

I think he also was impressed by my own personal knowledge of communism.
Fast also made no secret of his dislike for Trumbo–when “Spartacus” was purchased for the film, he insisted on writing the screenplay. He did and they didn’t like it so they hired Trumbo to write it.

I suspect that Fast may have been unfair to Trumbo, who oddly left the party long before he did–although Trumbo was always there to help the paper out during one of its many crises financially for many years to come.

Here I was now, an older man, dubious of some of the weaknesses of these great men I so admired. Hell, Trumbo himself expressed his doubts about the perfections and imperfections of his own life in the movie, beautifully, and very well.

This movie captured that brief period of the Hollywood blacklist when America fought its own form of fascism–and at that point defeated that fascism. Dalton Trumbo might have been an imperfect hero, but he truly was a hero. When it turned out that Trumbo had written several of the scripts under pseudonyms, Trumbo was given credit for having broken the Blacklist.
I wish we had writers like Trumbo these days. I doubt they are there. The movie captures the whole yarn beautifully. It’s well worth seeing.
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Lionel Rolfe is a journalist and author of a number of books, all available on Amazon’s Kindle Store and Create Space paperbacks.

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