Excerpt from my new book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
The letter addressed to Mrs. Donna Owen arrived at her oceanfront Santa Monica home on October 28, 1945. The return address on the envelope revealed that it came from her beloved high school chemistry teacher back in Denison, Iowa, when she lived on a farm and was still known as Donna Belle Mullenger. She had stayed in touch with handsome young Ed Tompkins for a few years after graduation, but then he suddenly vanished, without explanation, and had not responded to any of her letters.
This seemed odd. Tompkins had deeply influenced her outlook on life a decade earlier when she was an aimless sophomore, after he gifted her a copy of the popular Dale Carnegie
self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
In short order her grades soared, she secured the lead role in the high school
play (Ayn Rand’s The Night of January 16),
and she was voted Campus Queen. Donna Belle wanted to become a teacher but her
parents could not afford a major school, so she moved to the West Coast to
enroll in low-tuition Los Angeles City College. While she appeared in stage
productions, she had no aspirations to become a professional actress. Soon the
honey-haired beauty attracted the attention of talent scouts, leading to
several screen tests. Signed by MGM to a seven-year contract at the age of
twenty, she appeared in her first movie, The
Get-Away, billed as Donna Adams.
|Tompkins and former student|
Many supporting roles followed, with her name changed to one she hated, feeling it had a dull, harsh sound that didn’t reflect her personality at all: Donna Reed. Still, she secured roles in Shadow of the Thin Man, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Apache Trail, and married her makeup man. She graduated from Mickey Rooney’s love interest in The Courtship of Andy Hardy to John Wayne’s object of desire in John Ford’s They Were Expendable. She could play midwestern wholesome in her sleep, but some directors felt her range was narrow, and MGM had a flock of other young actresses to draw on. (Fearing she’d lose out if she took time off, she endured an abortion.) Along the way she became a popular girl-next-door pinup during World War II for homesick GIs, and personally answered many of their letters. She got divorced and in June 1945, still only twenty-four-years-old, married her agent, Tony Owen.
Then, that autumn, she signed with RKO for perhaps her biggest role yet, as Mary Bailey, wife of James Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, after Ginger Rogers turned it down as “too bland.” At the same time she finally discovered what had happened to Ed Tompkins. A newspaper story revealed that he had been sworn to silence for several years after joining thousands of others in helping to create the first atomic bomb at the Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. After reading the article, she sent him another letter, this time care of Oak Ridge.
Now she had received a reply. Opening the envelope, she unfolded a typed, single-spaced, two-and-a-half-page letter from Dr. Tompkins. The tone, given their formerly close relationship, was surprisingly formal (despite its “Dear Donna” salutation), and urgent. “The development of atomic explosives necessitates a reevaluation of many of our previous modes of thought and life,” he began. “This conclusion had been reached by the research scientists who developed these powerful new explosives long before August 6, 1945.” That, of course, was the day the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima in Japan, killing more than 125,000, the vast majority of them women and children. Three days later, Nagasaki met the same fate, with a death toll reaching at least 75,000.
The day before Reed received the Tompkins letter at her modest beach house more than ninety thousand locals had gathered in the Los Angeles Coliseum to witness a “Tribute to
Victory” program. It
featured a re-creation of the bombing of Hiroshima, narrated by actor Edward G.
Robinson. A B-29 bomber, caught in searchlights, dropped a package that
produced a large noise and a small mushroom cloud. The crowd went wild.
|With Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves|
Americans, weeks after the Japanese surrender, were relieved that the war was over but nervous about atomic energy. Scientists, political figures, and poets alike were sounding a similar theme—splitting the atom could bring wonderful advances, if used wisely, or destroy the world, if developed for military purposes. Atomic dreams, and nightmares, ran wild. “Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear,” warned radio commentator Edward R. Murrow, with “survival not assured.”
In the rather dense letter to his former pupil, Tompkins explained that the scientists’ initial “excitement” and pride in what they had accomplished were now subsumed by much soul-searching. Until the Hiroshima blast, many of his colleagues were unaware they had been working on a munitions project. Others had signed physicist Leo Szilard’s futile petition asking President Harry S. Truman to hold off using the new weapon against Japan. In any case, a large number were now opposed to the building of new and even bigger earth-shattering bombs.
Tompkins revealed that thousands of Manhattan Project scientists had now formed associations in Oak Ridge, Chicago, Los Alamos, and New York to deliver their warnings and “to foster thought and discussion which can lead to adoption of international control of atomic energy.” Contrary to claims by military leaders and politicians, there was “NO possibility” that the United States could keep a monopoly on production of these weapons. The so-called secret of the atomic bomb was known internationally. The Soviets, for example, would surely build their own bombs within a few years. Finally, there could never be an effective defense against these weapons, and “a hundred long-range rockets carrying atomic explosives could wipe out our civilization in a matter of minutes.”
In light of all this, it was imperative that effective international controls be established as soon as feasible. But what did Donna’s old chem teacher (and positive thinking advocate) want her to do about it? Tompkins revealed that the new associations were showering elected officials in Washington with leaflets, lobbying influential reporters and commentators, and preparing a major book. This was “a good start but much remains to be done,” he noted. It seemed to him “there would be a large segment of the population that could be reached most effectively through the movies.” His final paragraph featured an explicit pitch:
Never inserting even a hint of personal familiarity from their days in Iowa, or asking about her life or career, Tompkins concluded with the plea, “Will you give the whole matter your consideration and perhaps discuss it with others at the studio? I’d appreciate hearing your reaction to the suggestion as soon as possible.”
Just days later, after speaking to other members of the activist group at Oak Ridge, Tompkins fired off a second letter to “Mr. and Mrs. Tony Owen.” He had polled his peers and found they were willing and eager to wander down the Hollywood path, but not quite blindly. Tompkins boldly proposed that the couple fly east to Oak Ridge at their own expense the following week to discuss the project, with no time to waste. Together they could hash out a scenario for “a very good picture with a lot of public appeal” that would hit the theaters before any other entry—and then catch a short flight to Washington to gain the required approval of the Manhattan Project director, General Leslie R. Groves. “I wish to thank you for the great interest you have taken in this matter,” Tompkins concluded.
Well, that was a lot for Donna Reed, or anyone, to digest. Just seven years earlier the same man had been delivering quite a different lesson in a classroom. Fortunately she had someone to share it with and, as she told Tompkins in a brief phone call, carry the ball in responding to his feverish pleading. This was her new husband, Tony Owen, a slick, fast-talking dynamo who was thirteen years her senior. Owen, a native of New Orleans and Chicago (real name: Irving Ohnstein), had served as vice president of the Detroit Lions pro football team after brief careers as an actor and as a newspaper reporter. Following a stint in the military, he settled in Los Angeles and secured his first clients as a talent agent.
When he finished reading the Tompkins missives, Owen started calling producers to gauge their interest, if any. Having not heard from Donna again, Tompkins called her at home. She said she had started three letters to him but each became outdated by events. Her husband had learned from studio insiders that it might be a simple matter to get such a movie produced if the military signaled its approval—and exclusive dramatic rights for key figures in the story could be obtained. Reed warned Tompkins, however, that Hollywood studios were reluctant to make any pictures with “political repercussions.” When he told her that scientists were already sketching scenarios for a script, she advised that surely any of them would be “completely rewritten” by the studio.
Tony Owen, meanwhile,is wifeHis called his friend Samuel Marx, a top producer at MGM, where Reed was still under contract. Marx agreed to meet him the next day for breakfast at the swanky Beverly Wilshire Hotel. There he would find Owen in a highly animated state. Owen showed him the letter to his wife from Tompkins, which the producer found fascinating. (Marx got the impression that Tompkins may have once had something of a secret “crush” on his pupil.) The producer offered to take Owen to meet with Louis B. Mayer, one of the most powerful men in town and the studio chief since the 1920s, straight away. So they raced their automobiles to the studio lot at Culver City. Mayer knew Owen well, had even attended his recent wedding.
As it happens, MGM had expressed some interest in an atomic bomb film nearly two months earlier, with the Japanese victims of the attacks still smoldering in the ruins. On August 9, just hours after the assault on Nagasaki, MGM’s Washington representative, Carter Barron, phoned the chief of the Pentagon’s Feature Film Division to discuss the possibility of the studio rushing ahead with an exclusive movie about the bomb project. Five days later, Barron wrote him to reveal that MGM was “now working” on a movie tentatively titled Atomic Bomb and would appreciate any useful “information or material.” The heroine would be a physicist associated with the genesis of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner, who had fled Germany for Sweden in 1938. But nothing came of Barron’s interest and the idea seemingly expired at the studio.
Now, MGM was being handed, via Donna Reed and Ed Tompkins, a unique and exclusive entry point to a far more ambitious cinematic bomb project. To date the studio’s main reference to the new weapon was crowning its newly signed starlet Linda Christian “The Anatomic Bomb” (leading to a full-page photo of her in a swimsuit in Life magazine).
In his massive office at the studio, sitting behind his pure-white oval desk in the sprawling Thalberg Building, L.B. Mayer greeted the fervent Marx and Owen. The actress Helen Hayes once called Mayer “the most evil man I have ever dealt with in my life,” yet called MGM “the great film studio of the world—not just of America, or of Hollywood, but of the world.” Sam Marx considered him ruthless, an unprincipled pirate, but like others recognized that Mayer’s deceptions and bullying—not to mention his eye for talent and understanding of movie audiences—proved pivotal for the studio. Mayer, no intellectual, tolerated “social issue” pictures but loved escapist entertainment. Among MGM’s greatest films were an inordinate number of musicals, from The Wizard of Oz to An American in Paris.
Listening to the atomic bomb pitch, Mayer grew excited. Now in his early sixties, overweight, and white-haired, King Louis remained vigorous, vulgar, tyrannical, and, as always, quick to judge. With little prompting, he promised that if the necessary approvals and rights were gathered he would make an epic film on this subject his top priority for 1946! He would budget at least $2 million for it, a lofty sum for that time. It might one day be “the most important movie” he would ever film (and this was the man who had made Gone with the Wind), perhaps in the vein of his 1943 film, Madame Curie, but more topical. This was a man, born in Minsk and raised in Canada, so patriotic he falsely claimed he had been born on the Fourth of July (the actual date was July 12) and for years staged an elaborate studio picnic that day to mark the occasion.
Eager to rush forward, Mayer urged Owen and Marx to seek clearances that very minute, straight from the top—“from the horse’s mouth,” as Mayer put it. “Let’s call President Truman himself,” he suggested. Mayer was a rock-ribbed Republican, but the studio titan believed Truman would surely accept his call. It took some persuading, but Owen finally talked him down from that idea. Instead, Mayer ordered Marx to call the studio’s representative in DC, Carter Barron, to find out if White House and military approvals were likely to come.
The following day Barron assured him on this score, but added that to make sure of that—and, also, gather background information and gauge the mood of scientists and generals—Marx and Owen should visit both Oak Ridge and Washington as soon as possible. Louis B. Mayer ordered Marx to “take the Starwind” (MGM’s private plane) and “come back and tell me what you find.”
Excerpted from The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.