The Hollywood Reporter, After 65 Years, Addresses Role in Blacklist
Sixty-five years ago, the town's studio chiefs, executives and guilds joined a communist witch hunt launched by THR's legendary owner, Billy Wilkerson. Today, in the first-ever exploration of a demagogue's mission and the lives destroyed, his son writes a formal apology.
This story first appeared in the November 30, 2012 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Billy Wilkerson was nervous. It was July 1946, and The Hollywood Reporter owner, editor and publisher was preparing to embark on a landmark campaign that would expose communists working in Hollywood. He would name the alleged Reds in his "Tradeviews" column and expose this lurking menace.
Wilkerson already had begun his crusade a year or so earlier, penning fiery editorials that railed against communism and targeted the Screen Writers Guild, the WGA precursor that he believed was the seat of what he termed the "Red Beachhead." But this would be different. Wilkerson -- who was mustachioed, 5-foot-7 and had a penchant for pinstripe suits -- was going to brand people like Spartacus screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and Casablanca co-writer Howard Koch as leftists and communist sympathizers.
But the stakes were high. The possibility of a boycott of Wilkerson's trade newspaper, which he founded in 1930 and kept afloat through the Great Depression, loomed large. And there were moral considerations: He was, after all, going to damage hundreds of lives -- perhaps many more.
So Wilkerson turned to his religion. He went to confession.
The Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood was located just two blocks down Sunset Boulevard from The Reporter's office. It was a Saturday, and Wilkerson, then 56, made his way over to the soaring Roman Catholic edifice, which was the site of Bing Crosby's first marriage. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the church could accommodate more than 1,000 people. But on this afternoon, as Wilkerson slipped into the confessional, he only wanted to speak with one person: Father Cornelius J. McCoy.
"Father, I'm launching a campaign, and it's gonna cause a lot of hurt. But they are, you know, antipathetic to my faith. They are my natural enemies. And I just need to know what to do," Wilkerson said. "You know, father, I'm having misgivings about doing this campaign."
Wilkerson waited for an answer. All across Tinseltown, livelihoods -- and lives -- hung in the balance.
"Get those bastards, Billy," McCoy replied.
On July 29, Wilkerson published a "Tradeviews" column that included the names of Trumbo, Koch and nine other Hollywood players the THR editor branded as communist sympathizers. "This is not an issue that concerns merely a few hundred writers," he wrote. "It concerns millions of readers who must depend upon the free trade of ideas. … It concerns still more millions of children -- who can't read yet -- but who were born with the right to hope for a free world." The column was a pivotal one, sealing the fate of Wilkerson and the people he'd gone after. Ultimately, eight of the 11 men would be blacklisted. And Hollywood would never be the same.
Nov. 25 marks the 65th anniversary of the inception of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, when studio chiefs and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York and decreed an employment ban on the 10 members of the film industry who'd chosen not to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which had launched an investigation into the supposed communist infiltration of the business. These days, when the phrase "black list" isn't mistaken (especially among younger members of the industry) for Franklin Leonard's highly anticipated annual survey of best unproduced screenplays, it's reduced to catchall history-class terms like "the Red Scare" and "McCarthyism." But it's alive in vivid detail among the dwindling number of surviving victims of the period.
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."
The Blacklist era is perhaps Hollywood's darkest chapter. Screenwriters, actors, directors, composers and others were, based on their alleged political beliefs, systematically rooted out and denied work. The lists -- there were several, including an informal tally known as the Graylist -- included both real and imagined communists. Careers were ended. Families fled the country. Lives were irrevocably changed.
The first formalized Blacklist hit Hollywood on Nov. 25, 1947, two days before Thanksgiving, 65 years ago. The next day, THR ran a lengthy story emblazoned with the headline "Studios Will Fire 'Hostile 10' " on the front page. Wilkerson's column didn't appear that day. But his work was done: The release of the first list, which included the names of the famed Hollywood Ten, had been presaged by countless "Tradeviews" columns that attacked alleged communists.
"The town turned against us. Just about-face," says Hunt, a rising actress who appeared in 52 films from 1935 to 1949 but found little work after being blacklisted in 1950. "I was appalled, hurt, shocked that journalism could be so far out in prejudice."
At the time, much of the country was concerned with the threat of communism. In the years following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States was confronted with an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union, which already had established proxy governments around the world. And there were many in Hollywood who were wary of communism's collectivist ideal, contradictory to the industry's fundamentally capitalist, hierarchical studio system. Executives, producers and some talent opposed the ideology on moral grounds or considered it a threat to their way of life. "All of a sudden there were sides -- and there never had been until instantly after World War II," Hunt says. "We won the war, and our ally, without whom the war would not have been won, was, overnight, the enemy."
The release of the first Blacklist presaged the widely known McCarthy Era. If not for the first and subsequent blacklists, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy might have never had the ability to begin his four-year reign of often baseless accusation, which began in earnest in 1950. The so-called Hollywood Ten had been brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in November 1947 as part of an investigation into whether communists and communist sympathizers had been sneaking their propaganda into films. People like Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, then the head of the Screen Actors Guild, testified before the committee about the communist menace; others, like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who were members of the left-leaning Committee for the First Amendment, flew to Washington to stand up for their colleagues, though ultimately to no avail.
After each of the Hollywood Ten refused to testify, they were then sentenced to a year in prison and named in the Waldorf Statement, which effectively banned them from Hollywood. (Four members of the Ten had been named in Wilkerson's pivotal July 29 column; four others would be blacklisted later.) The two-page Waldorf Statement, released Nov. 25 by MPAA president Eric Johnston on behalf of 48 movie executives, decreed that the 10 Hollywood men who had been cited for contempt by the House of Representatives would not be allowed to work in the business until each "purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a communist." None of the Ten, it should be noted, is known to have ever worked or advocated for the violent overthrow of the U.S. -- ostensibly the chief fear of anti-communist zealots.
In THR's Nov. 26, 1947, edition, Koch, who wrote the screenplay for the controversial 1943 film Mission to Moscow, took out a full-page ad to affirm that he was not a member of the Communist Party and make a plea: "We can stand firm, defend ourselves by defending each other, and stop this tide before it sweeps further." Even after years of Wilkerson's red-baiting, Koch -- and a handful of others who took out similar ads -- were still willing to hand over their money to THR. They had to: It was the conversational town square of the industry. Koch nevertheless was blacklisted in 1951.
In the weeks and months after the release of the Waldorf Statement, THR continued to cover the "commie" issue nearly every day. Soon, several other blacklists were created. Red Channels, a pamphlet published by an anti-communist, right-wing journal called Counterattack, included 151 names when it was released in June 1950. The American Legion, a conservative veterans group, distributed a list of more than 100 people to the studios in 1949, and HUAC also put out annual reports that included rosters of alleged communists.
The institutions of Hollywood, many of which were complicit in the blacklisting, have rarely recognized this painful era. One notable exception was in 1998, when AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America, SAG and the Writers Guild of America West gathered in Beverly Hills to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the HUAC hearings. Billy Crystal and Kevin Spacey gave speeches, those who had been blacklisted spoke emotionally, and the organizations apologized for not protecting their members.
The audience was left in tears.
Wilkerson was a pioneering driver of the Blacklist. But it is difficult to make sense of his motives. The portrait of Wilkerson that emerges is a complex one. He is considered by some to have merely been a henchman of the studio heads, eager to wage a war for them in exchange for advertising commitments and entrance to their inner circle. Larry Ceplair, author of The Inquisition in Hollywood, says Wilkerson was little more than a "cheerleader" parroting anti-communist rhetoric spewed by politicians and business titans. But others, including Wilkerson's son Willie and writers and actors who were blacklisted, view Wilkerson as a shadowy, organized-crime-connected figure who ran roughshod over Hollywood and used his column as a bully pulpit to ruin people's lives for his personal gain.
Wilkerson, it should be noted, wasn't alone. Syndicated columnists such as Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper also railed against communism. But as THR's owner, editor and publisher, Wilkerson had unique influence at his publication. And whereas Winchell, Hopper and others spoke to a national audience about Hollywood's sins, Wilkerson wrote specifically to an industry audience, thereby exercising much more direct influence and power. His daily columns, which used the "W.R. Wilkerson" byline, were brash and bold. He threw around the word "commies" regularly, named names and questioned whether people could explain their loyalty to or membership in the Communist Party.
It was pretty simple, says Clancy Sigal, a talent agent-cum-writer whom Wilkerson once tried to have fired: No one wanted to appear in one of Wilkerson's columns. "People for about 10 years were scared to death of Billy and scared to death of THR," he says.
Wilkerson was born in Nashville in 1890 to a cardsharp father who went by the name "Big Dick" and, as family lore has it, won the bottling rights for Coca-Cola in 13 Southern states in one poker game, only to lose them in another. A practicing Roman Catholic who wound up marrying six times, the younger Wilkerson briefly considered the priesthood before studying medicine in Philadelphia until his father passed away, leaving Wilkerson with a pile of inherited gambling debts. Needing to support himself and his mother, he began working at a small nickelodeon theater in New Jersey, in time climbing through the lower ranks of the East Coast film industry -- a sales job here, a gig producing one-reelers for a small production company there, eventually becoming a district manager in charge of distribution for Universal Pictures during the Carl Laemmle era. In 1927, he even tried, and failed, to start his own studio.
Looking for equity, in 1929 he briefly partnered in a Manhattan trade paper covering the entertainment business but soon realized that an L.A.-based publication -- out in Hollywood, where the real action was -- would fill a market void. (Variety would not follow from New York until 1933.) The Hollywood Reporter launched inauspiciously just as the Great Depression got under way. But within a few years, thanks in large part to hardball sales tactics (such as withholding news coverage unless a deal was made), it was packed with studio advertisements, and Wilkerson branched out to other ventures that directly served the industry. These included a liquor-importing business, top nightclubs Ciro's and Cafe Trocadero (where Judy Garland got her start) and a slew of Parisian-style, star-studded restaurants including Vendome, L'Aiglon and LaRue, as well as the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas. (Wilkerson's larger-than-life playboy adventures have interested Johnny Depp and Graham King, whose production companies are developing a biopic with Lifetime.)
Wilkerson's varied enterprises were meant to make him rich and support an extravagant lifestyle. Along with his ever-multiplying alimony payments, he owned five cars, including a custom-built Cadillac, and a French Colonial mansion in Bel-Air, where he regularly entertained the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and Lana Turner -- the latter of whom he famously discovered while both were purchasing Cokes at a Hollywood soda fountain. But the businesses, THR most centrally, also were meant to make Wilkerson uniquely necessary to the industry. He positioned himself as its kingpin and gatekeeper in matters of work and play.
According to a 1960 Hollywood Close-Up magazine profile, "the biggest men in the studios as ever seek his counsel -- and quail at his censure." Indeed, there was a darkness to Wilkerson. "He was a guy with a hard eye and a quick snarl and a seething contempt for phoniness," Close-Up wrote two years later in its obituary of Wilkerson.