COLUMN 108, AUGUST 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
REMEMBERING ALVAH BESSIE
'ARE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN. . .'
these words are unfamiliar to the young men and women of the so called "X?
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
made headlines with his red-baiting witch hunts and the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) was determined to send left-leaning Hollywood writers to jail.
would witness the San Francisco Police use fire hoses on student protestors at
San Francisco City Hall. 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.
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 being
present. The interview was
conducted at Lawson's small apartment in downtown San Francisco.
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."
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.
arrived at Lawson's apartment, I 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
that Bessie had written about his ordeal with the HUAC in a book titled
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.
Scribners published Bessie's Men in Battle, in which Bessie described his experiences fighting in the
Spanish Civil War.
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.
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.
Bessie 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
was one of the
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 existing before the war.
named several people in the industry like Ward Bond (Wagon Train), John
Wayne (The Duke), and Adolf Menjou who formed an organization known as
told us about a screen writer who also served as a critic for Esquire
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
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.
would have been Senator Joseph McCarthy."
Bessie replied. "At that
particular time the chairman of the Committee was Parnell Thomas.
McCarthy gained prominence later on.
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 Nolo 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.
Bessie that I admired the work of Ring Lardner and asked him if
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."
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.
hope you won't take offense," said Lawson, "but were Lardner or any of the
Hollywood Ten members of the Communist Party??
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
associations. Like religion, this
was a matter of our own business. Lives
were ruined, careers destroyed, and the industry censored, and for what??
apologize for asking the question," said Lawson.
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
exposed nothing. The real shame is
that the Supreme Court did not step in and stop what was happening until the
late "50s when public opinion turned against the Committee.
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
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.
better known members of The Hollywood Ten who were sentenced to prison was
Dalton Trumbo, who years later would write such acclaimed screenplays as Spartacus
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."
was that?? asked Lawson.
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."
do you think he did that?? Lawson
wanted to know.
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."
don't recall any movies he was involved in," said Lawson.
directed 'the Caine Mutiny and The Young Lions.
I'm sure you're aware of them."? Bessie said.
of course," said Lawson. "I
just didn't connect them to his name."
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 while as a stage manager and sound man 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, head of the International Longshoreman's
Union, whose powerful union had once closed down the waterfront in San
Bessie that my father had told me as a kid about "Bloody Thursday?
Bessie credited Dalton Trumbo with changing the public's attitude toward the HUAC
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.
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 after finding
said Rich was but one of several pseudonymns Trumbo 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 Trumbo had made a mockery of both the industry and the
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."
said it wasn't until 18 years later that Trumbo received the rightful
recognition for The Brave Ones.
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 Republicans 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
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 pieces lying on the battlefields. The
battle to just stay alive."
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 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."
it like there?? I naively asked.
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 before arriving in Spain."
you still have memories of the country??
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."
Bessie what kind of causalities the Brigade suffered. He replied that 800 American's had been killed by the time
the Brigade had been disbanded.
the end, all the foreigners were asked to pack up and leave, over a hundred
thousand men in all."
returned to the U.S."? Todd
but not all of us did. Some went to
France to live in exile."
about today?? Lawson asked. "Who
do you see as the main threat to liberty??
far right," said Bessie. 'the
American people remember the "60s 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
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 had fought in the Spanish Civil War.
A man whom Hemingway had openly admired.
To me the man was a hero. 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."
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.
mailed Bessie a copy of my book, The Reagan Psalms, my satire on the
Reagan Administration, and told him how Studs Terkel had read portions of the
book over his Chicago radio station.
Bessie 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.
wrote back and said he enjoyed the book immensely. He proposed that we hoist a
drink in honor of Marilyn Monroe (about whom Bessie had written a book) whom we
both admired and ended his letter with a scathing indictment of Norman Mailer.
poor permanent adolescent. Let him
laugh all the way to the bank. That
is what he wants most."
his letter by saying "Hasta Pronto, Companero. Down with all publishers and entrepreneurs except for you (if
you are one) and me (should I ever become one)."
continued to correspond with each other, and, in a letter written shortly
before the November elections, he responded to an
earlier inquiry about my being on a literary blacklist, after my being
highly critical of the National Endowment For the Arts Literature Program.
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."
correspondence with Bessie occurred when I sent him a long anti-
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."
line of visitors stood outside in the hot sun waiting to sign the guest book.
I watched a burly and aging man help steady an older man who haltingly
signed the guest book, Harry Bridges.
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:
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."
other speakers including Bessie's lawyer friend who read an excerpt from an
interview with Bessie, conducted at the front lines in Spain.
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!
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 the cause of right-wing politics.
Some of the more bitter ones must have been asking themselves if the
fight had been worth it.
home that night, I toasted a drink to the memory of Bessie, and put on an old
and, scratchy Woody Gutherie record. I
knew deep down inside my gut that this question (had it been worth it) would
never have come up in Bessie's mind. He
had been a man of honor and principles. Not
many writers make it to the big time and fewer still are remembered kindly by
history, but Bessie 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,
and, yes die in.
As Gutherie's This Land Is My Land, filled the room, I thought back to what Len Fulton said about another fallen brother, the late poet, William Wantling:
"We are the more for his having been here. The less for his having left." ##
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