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Monday, November 19, 2012

Coming to Terms With the Blacklist

In a remarkable (if belated) accounting today, the venerable Hollywood Reporter--once my stablemate when I was the editor of Editor & Publisher--today finally looks back with regrets on its role in the Hollywood blacklisting of the postwar period.   I know the back story well, since I featured the magazine's owner, W.R. "Billy" Wilkerson (left)  in my books on Upton Sinclair's race for governor of California in 1934, when he played a key role, and covered the Hollywood anti-Communist crusade in my book on the Richard Nixon-Helen Gahagan Douglas campaign in 1950.   Still it's good see a quote such as this, from famed screenwriter Walter Bernstein,  in his publication today:  "I knew that Billy Wilkerson was a great right-wing asshole." 

The new special report, in print this week and online now, marks the 65th anniversary of the meeting that many claim got the whole ball going, on November "25, 1947.  It includes sidebars such as Sean Penn writing about his blacklisted father, Leo Penn.  I remember as a kid walking down a beach path with my father as we stumbled upon the set of Elia Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976). My father and Kazan had worked together and known each other before the Blacklist period. After all the years, Kazan recognized him and called out his name. It was the first time I ever witnessed my father ignore someone."

More the Reporter's intro: 
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 eventually might 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."
See my recent piece on one of the wildest nights ever in Hollywood, in 1950, over a "loyalty oath," starring DeMille, Mankiewicz, Ford, and other legends.

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