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The Final Victim of the Blacklist

John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten

Gerald Horne

Publication Year: 2006

Before he attained notoriety as Dean of the Hollywood Ten—the blacklisted screenwriters and directors persecuted because of their varying ties to the Communist Party—John Howard Lawson had become one of the most brilliant, successful, and intellectual screenwriters on the Hollywood scene in the 1930s and 1940s, with several hits to his credit including Blockade, Sahara, and Action in the North Atlantic. After his infamous, almost violent, 1947 hearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Lawson spent time in prison and his lucrative career was effectively over. Studded with anecdotes and based on previously untapped archives, this first biography of Lawson brings alive his era and features many of his prominent friends and associates, including John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Chaplin, Gene Kelly, Edmund Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr., and many others. Lawson's life becomes a prism through which we gain a clearer perspective on the evolution and machinations of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism in the United States, on the influence of the left on Hollywood, and on a fascinating man whose radicalism served as a foil for launching the political careers of two Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In vivid, marvelously detailed prose, Final Victim of the Blacklist restores this major figure to his rightful place in history as it recounts one of the most captivating episodes in twentieth century cinema and politics.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xxiv

...meanwhile, a steady rain had descended on Washington. Lawson’s trip east likewise had been a voyage from blue and sunny skies to what was to become dreary weather. The celebrated playwright and screenwriter who had penned tomes on the magic behind creating dramatic tension now found himself as the unlikely leading character in a bit of political theater not of his making. He had been summoned to Washington...

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pp. 1-13

...It happened so often that it seemed to be a new Hollywood ritual. Contrite, often ashen, a penitent would sit in the witness chair in a hearing as members of Congress, often on an elevated platform, stared strategically downward. Then, with eyes often downcast and heart often heavy, the witness would proceed to unburden himself—or herself—of the names of others who also had once strayed down the...

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1. Beginnings

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pp. 14-34

...John Howard Lawson’s father, Simeon Levy, was the son of Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1840s from Poland, driven by an outburst of anti-Semitism. The family settled in Springfield, Massachusetts, where Levy was born in 1852. Lawson’s grandfather profited handsomely during the U.S. Civil War and was able to pass a good deal of this wealth on to his son. By 1880, Lawson’s father was...

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2. Toward Commitment

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pp. 35-49

...By the age of thirty, John Howard Lawson was something of a celebrity, an enfant terrible of Broadway, with critically celebrated productions generating a buzz of publicity and acclaim. But he was dissatisfied—with the state of the world and his ability to influence it. His marriage to Sue Edmonds was a landmark on his journey toward commitment, and his joining the Communist Party and organizing the Screen Writers Guild were to enhance this process: they were to bring him grief years later...

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3. Hollywood

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pp. 50-65

...Father and son “traveled the continent dozens of times; a big part of my early childhood was spent hearing the clack of wheels as a crack continental train, the Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, sped west or east.” They “often made the crossing by car,” too, “taking a week, stopping for lunch in small town cafes and spending the night in motels in small towns.”...

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4. From Hollywood to Broadway

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pp. 66-79

...he left, finances partially restored. He and his wife and family “were determined not to return to Hollywood”; with their newfound wealth, they “bought a house out near the Sound on Long Island.” Ties with movies had not been severed altogether, for Lawson had made a “very unusual” and “very unsatisfactory arrangement with RKO” that “allowed” him to “write three original film plays in New York, not at the studio and just come out to the studio for two weeks consultation on each of the film plays.” As it turned...

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5. Commitment

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pp. 80-97

...By the early 1930s, John Howard Lawson was a bicoastal pioneer, a frequent traveler on trains shuttling between midtown Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles. He was compensated amply and had attained a critical acclaim, being viewed by some as the “hope” of the stage and an important voice of the screen. Yet he was torn with conflict and inner doubt, though like one of his well-made plays, his life was driving inescapably to a resolution. Those who perhaps should have...

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6. Theory and Practice

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pp. 98-115

...Lawson’s commitment came with a steep financial price. His initial “blacklisting” came in the 1930s with the organizing of the Screen Writers Guild, though the intervention of courageous producers like Walter Wanger and conditions at that point that were not favorable to ostracizing of leftwingers precluded his being totally banished. When he returned to Hollywood in 1936, he was—according to his longtime comrade and fellow screenwriter Lester Cole—a “very different...

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7. Struggle

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pp. 116-131

...Yet there were not too distant roars and rumbles that carried the potential to disrupt this pleasant reverie that had enveloped Red Hollywood. The Communist Party, of which Lawson was a preeminent member, had endured a semilegal existence during its early years and after escaping from this rockiness had to navigate through the choppy shoals of intense surveillance. The notorious Los Angeles Police Department contained a hyperactive “Red Squad” that whiled away...

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8. Fighting—and Writing

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pp. 132-148

...As the hoofbeats of war began to sound ever louder in Europe, the reverberations were felt intensely in Hollywood. As the face of Red Hollywood, John Howard Lawson was positioned strategically to be either bathed in warm sunlight or drenched in a cold rain as the political climate changed. His reasserted commitments both personally and politically had provided him with a comforting cocoon of a Communist collective...

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9. Writing—and Fighting

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pp. 149-165

...The African soldier chased the escaping German prisoner across the hot sands of the fictional North African desert. He caught him, and a fierce struggle ensued. The African pummeled the German vigorously, then began to strangle him. Finally he choked the last breath out of the man’s body, just as white supremacy itself was being suffocated as a by-product of the antifascist war that had led to this startling cinematic chase scene. Such was the celluloid progressivism crafted by John Howard...

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10. Red Scare Rising

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pp. 166-183

...The camera zoomed in lovingly on tall glasses of alcohol, as Susan Hayward, the beauty with flaming auburn hair, prepared to appear before a crowd of celebrants at a smoky nightclub.Wearing a dress that clung to her every curve, she rapidly downed one of these beverages, then ambled to the microphone, confidence bolstered, and belted out a popular tune...

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11. Inquisition

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pp. 184-201

...Capturing this tempestuous moment for eternity were “at least four newsreel cameras”; “six or more still photographers—often as many as 10” crouched near his chair before he was snatched, “popping up from time to time to take a flashlight picture.” A “candid specialist” held “first one exposure meter and then another a few feet from each witness’ nose” as klieg lights and “other floodlamps” gave the otherwise stuffy congressional room the glamour of a Hollywood set...

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12. Jailed for Ideas

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pp. 202-221

...The roasting encounter endured by Lawson in Washington in the fall of 1947 was a turning point for this writer, now well into his fifties. Since his romantic diversions some years back, his marriage to Sue Lawson had stabilized; yet this ordeal, combined with his “blacklisting” from Hollywood, placed added pressures on his family. She found these unfortunate occurrences “simply terrible.”As with so many others compelled to undergo this vale of misery, her “stomach” was feeling...

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13. “Blacklisted”

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pp. 222-240

...Lawson’s fellow left-winger and Williams alumnus, Carl Marzani, captured what this veteran screenwriter may have been feeling as he embraced lustily a new birth of freedom. “A man out of prison,” he says, “feels like a convalescent out of doors after a long illness. Sensations are heightened; the very air feels different. Prison air is brackish, tinged with yellow stone and black iron bars, laden with overtones of jangling key rings and arbitrary boss voices. It is a heavy ozone...

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14. The Fall of Red Hollywood

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pp. 241-262

...In the fall of 1961 these extravaganzas went from the studios to the city itself as the “world’s largest anti-communist meeting” was “held in [the] Hollywood Bowl” with twelve thousand present. Naturally, there was a “television audience.” The rising star of this movement, the soon-to-be senator George Murphy, was the host, and speakers included Jack Warner, Rock Hudson, Walt Disney, John Wayne, Robert Stack—and Ronald Reagan...

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pp. 263-268

...By 1977 the once-energetic Lawson had slowed down considerably. Now well into his eighties, he had failing eyesight and was experiencing the onset of Parkinson’s disease, a motor system disorder often characterized by tremors, stiffness of limbs, slowness of movement, and impaired balance and coordination. The cruelest aspect for Lawson, perhaps, was how this hindered his ability to write, to read, and to visit theaters to watch movies. This in itself was a death sentence...


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pp. 269-346


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pp. 347-360

E-ISBN-13: 9780520939936
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520243729

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2006