November 2, 2005


Justice to Elia Kazan (Harry Stein, Autumn 2005, City Journal)

What put Kazan beyond redemption wasn’t simply his cooperation with HUAC. He could still have won forgiveness. At the 50th-anniversary event, after all, Billy Crystal sympathetically re-created Larry Parks’s testimony, in which the Jolson Story star begged the committee not to force him to betray his friends, before—in tears, an obviously broken man—giving in.

But far from repentant, Kazan was defiant. The day after his HUAC appearance, he took out a New York Times ad entitled, almost regally, a statement by elia kazan. “I believe that Communist activities confront the people of this country with an unprecedented and exceptionally tough problem,” it read. “That is, how to protect ourselves from a dangerous and alien society and still keep the free, open, healthy way of life that gives us self-respect.” The only way that the American people could solve this problem wisely, Kazan continued, was to “have the facts about Communism.” Kazan then briefly recounted his youth in the communist movement and the contempt that he came to have for the totalitarian mentality that he’d seen firsthand.

Why hadn’t he come forward earlier? Kazan asked rhetorically. “I was held back, primarily, by concern for the reputations and employment of people who may, like myself, have left the Party many years ago.” Also holding him back was “a piece of specious reasoning” that had silenced many. “It goes like this: ‘You may hate the Communists, but you must not attack them or expose them, because if you do you are attacking the right to hold unpopular opinions and you are joining the people who attack civil liberties.’ ” Kazan was blunt: “I have thought soberly about this. It is, simply, a lie.” [...]

That commitment blossomed after college and a stint at the Yale Drama School, when Kazan joined the Group Theater, New York’s top left-wing Depression-era theatrical company. Run by the gifted trio of Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group boasted among its 30 or so actors such landmark talents as Stella and Luther Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and John Garfield. Its biggest star, though, was playwright Clifford Odets, whose stirring social dramas gave him a stature that rivaled Eugene O’Neill’s. For many, the Group was less a theater than a cause, many of its shows unapologetically leftist in ways that today’s audience would find shocking. Group members proudly called themselves a “collective” and held commercialism to be a dirty word. Their aim was to change the world.

Gadge,” as his Group comrades now called him—short for “Gadget,” for his willingness to do anything, from furniture repair to press agentry—swiftly graduated from assistant stage manager to character actor. Kazan was a generous, if highly competitive, colleague, sharp with a sense of his own possibilities. Not coincidentally, Kazan, who graduated from college a virgin—and who in his seventies still bitterly recalled the nights he waited on wild frat parties, eyeing the lascivious coeds to whom he was permanently invisible—now had all the women he wanted in this milieu, as sexually unrestrained as the most relaxed college campus would be 35 years later. Through his two marriages, Kazan remained an avid and unapologetic womanizer. “I was faithful to her in every way except sexually,” he wrote, meaning it, of his longtime, devoted first wife, Molly.

But work always came first. Kazan’s big break as an actor came in Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. Set in a clamorous meeting of New York taxi drivers during a 1934 strike, Lefty pitted decent left-wing working stiffs against the union’s corrupt, boss-owned leadership. Kazan’s role was tiny but pivotal. For most of the play, he sat in the audience, his cue coming at the play’s climax, when one of the good guys proclaims: “[T]he man who got me food in 1932, he calls me COMRADE! The man who picked me up where I bled, he called me COMRADE too! What are we waiting for? Don’t wait for Lefty! He might never come!” Now, rushing the stage—and taken by many in the audience to be a real taxi driver—Kazan announced: “They found Lefty—behind the car barns, with a bullet in his head.” At that, the “workers” erupted in a cry, taken up by the audience at every performance: “Strike, strike, strike!”

The reviews sang. “The Group Theater gives its most slashing performance in this drama about the taxi strike,” raved the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “The most exciting workers’ drama we have seen yet,” seconded the New York Post. Needless to say, the Daily Worker loved it, too: “Swept the audience off its feet. A high-water mark of revolutionary drama.” Kazan would look back to Lefty’s opening night as his most memorable theater experience.

In such a milieu, Kazan readily gravitated toward the Communist Party, with its professed agenda of social justice and international peace. “Idealism was our answer to the Great Depression,” he later reflected. “Comradeship buffered us in a society many of us, for one reason or another, considered hostile.” He formally joined the party in 1934. Soon afterward, he co-authored Dimitrof: A Play of Mass Pressure, agitprop about a Belgian communist falsely accused of setting the Reichstag fire. He got his first shot at directing with an anti–New Deal play called The Young Go First, mounted by a marginal leftist collective.

It was no secret that many in the Group were ardent communists—reviews would blandly mention the fact. Over time, though, the company’s relentless politics began to limit its audience. A string of commercial flops so damaged the Group’s finances—never solid at the best of times—that members were at one point bringing home only $25 a week. To address the crisis, the co-directors, though fierce leftists, ordered members to shun overt political activity.

For Kazan, the directive soon led to a personal crisis. Already, the way that the Group’s communists operated behind the scenes disturbed him. The party might give lip service to democracy but didn’t practice it. “You’d have to go to Actors’ Equity,” he’d later recall, “and pretend you’re just one of the guys, when you’re really part of a program that’s been decided on before the meeting.” Now, in response to the new policy, the party ordered Kazan and his theatrical comrades to seize the Group from the directors. Kazan realized that such a coup would be a disaster for the company and said so to several colleagues—privately, he thought.

No such luck. Reported to party higher-ups, Kazan had to endure the most humiliating evening of his life. At a special meeting, chaired by a “Leading Comrade”—a UAW leader imported for the occasion all the way from Detroit—Kazan found himself dressed down for resisting “Party discipline” and for being an “opportunist” currying favor with “the bosses.” After his Group comrades eagerly piled on, Kazan was ritualistically offered the chance to grovel, recant, and return to the fold. Instead, disgusted and furious, he went home and fired off a letter, quitting the Communist Party.

Kazan’s break with the party at first changed little in his life. He remained determinedly leftist, and his relations with his old comrades went on mostly unchanged. But as the Group tottered on its last legs, Kazan had to look for new sources of income. Hollywood seemed promising, and in 1940 he moved west, together with several Group colleagues. Harold Clurman later recalled walking onto the Warner Brothers lot and spotting his ragtag buddies Carnovsky, Kazan, and Odets, cracking wise in New Yorkese as they lolled in the California sunshine—a sight so incongruous that he doubled over with laughter. In the end, limited by his ethnicity, Kazan appeared in just one worthwhile film: a supporting role in City for Conquest, a 1940 Jimmy Cagney gangster flick. But already he saw that his future lay in directing—especially for the movies. His brief film-acting stint had helped him understand the startling way that the camera “records thoughts and feelings,” penetrating “into a person, under the surface display.”

Hollywood was in political transition. The studio system, presided over by autocrats and trading on the glamour of its stars, remained the industry’s public face. But a number of developments—including the influx of talent from the East Coast and war-ravaged Europe—began to alter the town’s innate conservatism.

Working slyly to advance these political changes were communist operatives, led by German theater veteran Otto Katz. According to historian Stephen Koch, Moscow had sent Katz to California to organize communist front organizations and radical unions, and he succeeded beyond all expectations. “Columbus discovered America,” Katz would boast, “and I discovered Hollywood.” The growing communist influence in the industry was clearest in the push for radical unionism. For instance, party activists, led by Kazan’s old Group comrade J. Howard Larson, dominated the newly formed Writers Guild.

As party members took up key positions in the studio hierarchy, they began to wield power. As associate producers, story editors, and even agents, they not only saw to it that fellow communists got work but—in a sort of reverse blacklist—made sure that anti-communists didn’t. “There’s no question they looked out for their own,” observes Hollywood writer Burt Prelutsky, a former liberal who has migrated rightward. “Morrie Ryskind had . . . written some great pictures, including A Night at the Opera,” Prelutsky continues, “but he’d broken with the party and become a Republican. For a time he couldn’t get arrested in this town.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent his last years as a studio hack, well understood the political climate of that time. “The important thing is you should not argue with them,” he wrote of Hollywood leftists. “Whatever you say they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind, ‘Fascist,’ ‘Liberal,’ ‘Trotskyist,’ and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process.”

Well-positioned party members also worked to bar the making of anti-communist films. In a 1946 Worker article, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo noted with satisfaction that prominent anti-communist books of the thirties and forties such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon never made it to the big screen. Nor did any script touching on the Ukraine famine or the Moscow show trials.

Moscow’s ultimate Hollywood goal, Koch explains, was to “Stalinize the glamour culture”—that is, associate in the public mind left-wing views and celebrated entertainers, lending those views respectability. This project could also enable the party to tap “Hollywood’s great guilty wealth as a cash cow.”

Events 6,000 miles away helped further the communists’ Hollywood ends. As a cause both noble and almost certainly lost, the Spanish Civil War played well in Tinseltown, with the communist-dominated Hollywood Anti-Nazi League setting the tone for that era’s version of radical chic. Reporter Murray Kempton, himself a reformed leftist, described a war relief fund-raiser at the home of a major producer, featuring New Masses editor Joseph Freeman as the speaker. Appalled at seeing the friend who’d driven him to the shindig snubbed by the Hollywood heavyweights present for the sin of being a mere writer, Freeman pointedly addressed his remarks to the serving help. Two members of the wait staff, it turned out, were German Jewish refugees; deeply moved by Freeman’s words, they burst into tears—which, in turn, so moved the producers and stars that they dug deeper into their wallets. Afterward, recalled Kempton, “Freeman’s Hollywood comrades congratulated him on a brilliant piece of stage business.”

As the Spanish war wound down to its sorry conclusion, it prompted ever more fervent Hollywood benefits and rallies, their sponsors and steering committees packed with communists and credulous fellow travelers—some of whom would one day lose their careers for doing nothing more than signing some petitions. Screenwriter Abraham Polonsky later pointed to the endless round of benefits as proof that the American party was just a “social” organization. More serious observers argued that, in the end, the party’s Hollywood branch was almost comically ineffectual, a bunch of gullible idealists whose idea of subversion consisted of slipping a few lines into a film.

Nonetheless, by the late thirties only the willfully blind could deny that the party was a wholly owned Soviet subsidiary, working on behalf of Moscow’s policy goals. Nor, by then, could any fair-minded observer fail to grasp the nature of the Soviet regime. Reliable reporting had described Stalin’s brutal purges in Russia, and in 1939 fascism’s supposedly most stalwart foe signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. Among the committed, no hint of embarrassment showed. “I don’t believe in that fine, little republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about,” sneered playwright Lillian Hellman as Stalin’s forces, temporarily freed from their preoccupation with Germany, crushed their northern neighbor. [...]

In the years after the war, Kazan forged close bonds with both of the emerging superstar playwrights of the American theater, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. The two could hardly be less alike—Miller passionately engaged with the larger world, Williams fascinated with the intimate questions of human existence. “I didn’t admire Art more than I did Tennessee—or less,” Kazan said. But it was clear that he could never experience as deep a kinship with Williams, who, as he put it, “lived in another world, the homosexual enclaves of certain places he considered romantic. . . . [H]is daily life didn’t relate to my own.” Working on A Streetcar Named Desire, his first production with Williams, the director soon realized that the play was the writer’s own story: that he wholly identified with the desperately vulnerable Blanche, a lost soul in a brutal world—indeed, that as a homosexual with a preference for “rough trade,” he also sought out situations that could end only in disaster. Like Blanche, he was “attracted to the Stanleys of the world,” Kazan reflected, testing “the gentleness of his true heart against the violent calls of his erotic nature.”

Leftist playwright Arthur Miller, on the other hand, was a genuine soul mate. When Miller gave Kazan an early draft of Death of a Salesman, the director reacted just as he’d expected, seeing the play not merely as a wrenching family drama, but as a profound ideological statement; and under Kazan’s inspired direction, Willy Loman emerged as the victim of a callous capitalist system.

Following Salesman’s 1947 triumph, the young director and young writer went to Hollywood with some script ideas. There they met an unknown starlet, Marilyn Monroe. The unhappily married but faithful Miller fell for her, and she was smitten with him—but it was the happily married but philandering Kazan who slept with her. After making love, Kazan and Monroe would look at Miller’s photo on her bedside table and talk lovingly of him.

By the early fifties, expressing anti-capitalist attitudes, as Kazan had done in Death of a Salesman, could have consequences. With the Soviets occupying Eastern Europe and the People’s Army conquering China, communism had become an incendiary domestic issue—and, for politicians, an easy headline grabber. HUAC had been around since before the war, investigating the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis as well as communists. Now, under J. Parnell Thomas, it turned its sights on the movies.

The panic took a while to take hold in Hollywood. After the committee issued its first subpoenas, some who didn’t get called felt what Norman Mailer called “subpoena envy.” Major stars, trumpeting the First Amendment, rallied behind the subpoenaed writers and directors.

Hollywood’s hostility toward the committee so spooked Chairman Thomas that he considered canceling the hearings. He didn’t, largely because those subpoenaed—the Hollywood Ten, as they’d soon be known—made a disastrous miscalculation. Rather than engage their inquisitors respectfully or plead the Fifth when asked if they were communists, the ten—fervent communist stalwarts almost to a man—followed party orders to assert a First Amendment right to refuse to answer questions about their beliefs. The result: a series of ugly hearing-room shouting matches, with the infuriated Hollywood ideologues, middle-aged and unglamorous, repeatedly gaveled down as they shouted in defiance. Congress cited each of the ten for contempt. The stars who had traveled to Washington to support them—Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye—quickly recanted. Bo- gart called the trip “foolish and impetuous,” asserting: “I detest Communism, as any decent American does.” The studios caved in turn.

In Hollywood’s collective memory, the years that followed represent an extended nightmare. As blacklist fear spread, so, for a time, did bravado. Abstractly, it was easy to believe that, if called, one would stand up to the committee. Elia Kazan sure talked that way. He despised the Washington inquisitors and those in the movie industry doing their bidding. At last summoned to testify in January l952, Kazan took the approved position, offering to discuss his past activity in the party but refusing to name co-members.

This position failed to satisfy the committee—or, Kazan soon learned, his employers in Hollywood. Subpoenaed again, deeply anguished, he sought Miller’s advice. By both men’s account, it was a painful scene. Kazan talked of how he felt pressured to give up everything to defend an ideology he loathed. Miller later claimed that he urged Kazan not to cooperate; Kazan recalled Miller saying that he hoped he’d do the right thing but would support him either way.

After Kazan’s swearing in on April 12, the committee’s lead counsel noted that the director wished to augment his earlier testimony. “That is correct,” said Kazan. “I want to make a full and complete statement. I want to tell you everything I know about it.” Kazan proceeded to name eight members of the Group Theater who also had belonged to the Communist Party, and he recounted how party higher-ups had punished him for deviating from the approved line. “I had enough regimentation,” he said, “enough of being told what to think and say and do, enough of their habitual violation of the daily practices of democracy. . . . The last straw came when I was invited to go through a typical Communist scene of crawling and apologizing and admitting the error of my ways. I had had a taste of police-state living and I did not like it.”

The theater and film communities, which lionized Kazan, reacted with stunned disbelief. But when Kazan ran his Times ad justifying his actions, disbelief turned to fury. Almost alone among those threatened, they noted, Kazan had professional options; even if Hollywood blacklisted him, he could still work in theater, which resisted the blacklist. Some thought that he had caved under pressure from fellow Greek Spyros Skouros, president of 20th Century Fox. One of the Group veterans he’d named, actor Tony Kraber, appeared before the committee as an unfriendly witness. Asked if he’d known Kazan during the thirties, Kraber responded scornfully: “Is this the Kazan that signed the contract for five hundred thousand dollars the day after he gave names to this Committee?” The allegation was “an outright lie,” Kazan protested.

It didn’t matter. People he’d been close with for his entire career now crossed the street to avoid him. At parties, old friends wouldn’t meet his eye. Some openly insulted him. To Zero Mostel, he would always be “Looselips.” He comes off as a chief villain in Lillian Hellman’s notoriously dishonest memoir of the period, Scoundrel Time. “Life was easier for Lillian to understand when she had someone to hate,” Kazan later wrote. Miller’s response was The Crucible, a play about a literal witch hunt.

Kazan alternated between resentment at the rough treatment and regret for having provoked it. He had dreams of reconciliation, where everything was as it had been. He even dreamed about Lillian Hellman, afterward wondering: “What did I want—that bitch with balls to forgive me?” Yet he also knew that his conflict with many former colleagues went beyond the fact of his testimony. No longer sympathetic to the far Left, Kazan not only looked at the Soviet Union differently than they did, but also at the United States, which he no longer saw as a bastion of corruption and exploitation but, despite its flaws, as mankind’s best hope.

Yes, the committee was a nest of vile bullies; and, yes, some who opposed them had shown great courage. But what was getting overlooked—increasingly so as time passed—was the poisonous nature of the ideology that those on the other side were defending. Whatever the career considerations, Kazan’s loathing of communism weighed heavily in his decision to testify. “The ‘horrible, immoral thing’ that I did I did out of my own true self,” he maintained.

Not long after testifying, Kazan started work on Tennessee Williams’s latest play, Camino Real. During rehearsals, someone brought up how good Kazan looked. “What keeps you looking so young?” he asked. “My enemies,” replied Kazan.

The most important thing to remember about a witch hunt is that just because magic doesn't work doesn't mean there aren't witches trying to subvert your society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2005 9:29 AM

The amazing thing is that there are still people who defend the Communists who tried and almost succeeded in destroying us. No proof to the contrary will convince them.

Posted by: erp at November 2, 2005 10:15 AM

Re-read the article and change the name and relocate the action to the New York Times.

Posted by: Luciferous at November 2, 2005 11:31 AM

...Moscows ultimate Hollywood goal, Koch explains, was to Stalinize the glamour culturethat is, associate in the public mind left-wing views and celebrated entertainers, lending those views respectability. This project could also enable the party to tap Hollywoods great guilty wealth as a cash cow....

Yes it has. Useful idiots.

Posted by: Sandy P at November 2, 2005 1:28 PM

The useful idiots are still out there in droves. For the most part the views of the Ten continue to prevail in Hollywood's intellectual circles.

Nice essay, but it's John Howard Lawson, not Larson, and Dimitrof was a Bulgarian, not a Belgian.

Posted by: George B at November 3, 2005 12:00 PM