How Kirk Douglas Overstated His Role in Breaking the Hollywood Blacklist

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For years, the actor has taken credit for bravely hiring a communist screenwriter in the McCarthy era. But there have long been questions about his version of the story.

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Reuters

Kirk Douglas has accomplished a lot in his life. His hardscrabble youth gave way to a career in Hollywood, where he starred in close to 100 pictures, including the 1960 spear-and-sandal epic Spartacus. He is one of the last of film's golden age, nominated for three Best Actor Oscars (Champion, Lust for Life, and The Bad and the Beautiful) and the father of two-time Oscar-winner Michael Douglas. But when we sat down with him at his Beverly Hills home recently, he told us his most enduring achievement didn't occur on the big screen—it was hiring a known communist as the screenwriter for Spartacus, thereby breaking the fabled Hollywood blacklist.

"I think I did it because I was young enough," said Douglas, 95. "If I had been older I would have been more conservative—well, let someone else do it. Of course, I was considered a brash young man."

He was referring to events that took place more than 50 years ago, when—according to his account—he hired and credited Spartacus's communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It was chancy. Artists with communist ties were considered a liability—if not downright verboten—in Hollywood. Douglas has recounted these events in a new book, I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist, that includes a foreword by George Clooney.

"The blacklist. I even hated the name," Douglas writes. "I've spent months thinking of some way to break it... I realized at that moment what I needed to do. It was right there in front of me all along—why hadn't I seen it?... I took a deep breath." Douglas goes on to say that he told Trumbo, "When [Spartacus] is in the can, not only am I going to tell them that you've written it, but we're putting your name on it... your name, Dalton Trumbo, as the sole writer." He continues, "I could feel my heart pounding. Even as I was saying the words, I was still trying to convince myself that this was worth the risk ... The blacklist is broken."

Douglas has received considerable praise for breaking the blacklist, including a 1991 award for "a singular act of courage" from the Writers Guild of America. The wave of accolades has continued with the publication of his book. Media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter applauded the book. Turner Classic Movies made it its book of the month. On June 22 in Hollywood, a studio audience for a live broadcast of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher greeted Douglas with a standing ovation. Echoing what is now ingrained as official history in Hollywood, Maher introduced Douglas as the creator of "movies that changed our culture," adding, "You were the one who broke the blacklist." Douglas replied: "That's right."

For years, those close to Spartacus—the film's sole producer, Edward Lewis, and the family of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo—have quietly disputed Douglas's "breaking the blacklist" story. Douglas first told it in print in his 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son. "I called the gate at Universal. 'I'd like to leave a pass for Dalton Trumbo.' The masquerade was over," he wrote. "All my friends told me I was being stupid, throwing my career away. It was a tremendous risk... For the first time in ten years, [Trumbo] walked on to a studio lot... The blacklist was broken." In 2009, Douglas starred in a one-man stage show, Before I Forget, which also focused on his role in fighting the blacklist. But the new book has brought to the surface long-standing questions about Douglas's story. In the wake of the publication of I Am Spartacus!, we reached out to Lewis, the Trumbos, and Spartacus novelist Howard Fast's children to get their version of what happened a half-century ago. They say parts of the story that have come to define Kirk Douglas's legacy are untrue.

They expressed dismay and even outrage over what they see as Douglas's determined efforts to cast himself as the hero. They say he was not the trailblazer who ended what is known as the McCarthyite plague in the motion picture industry.

[optional image description]Open Road E-riginal

THE BLACKLIST IS regarded as Hollywood's original sin, and in its lore, the Communist Party posed no threat, certainly not to the picture business—its members were merely liberals in a hurry.

The facts, however, are a little different. In the 1930s and '40s, Stalinists seized control of the Screen Writers Guild and after World War II, many of the same operatives controlled and dominated a painters' union as well as the unions representing readers, cartoonists, publicists, and secretaries. They all worked together to pull a violent jurisdictional strike that blew the town apart for a couple of years.

The blacklist was the industry's way of dealing with the aftermath of those events. It didn't operate in the darkness, which is the way today's accounts of that era make it seem. It was a public, industry-wide policy that the studios announced in November 1947 as a response to the clear message that Americans hated communism. Between the burgeoning TV business and anti-trust court rulings that scaled back Hollywood's power, the last thing studio chiefs wanted was to give the American public an excuse not to go to the movies.

Indeed, Americans were making their distaste for communism clear in the voting booth. In those early postwar days, rapid Soviet global expansion galvanized U.S. voters to keep the Soviet Union and its American Communist Party in check by electing congressional candidates with strong anti-communist platforms. (Two of the most outspoken newcomers were Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.)

The Korean War later intensified this sentiment. Explaining why he wouldn't hire a communist writer, RKO Studios chief Howard Hughes remarked, "If you believe that the Communist Party is in the same category as the Democrat or Republican Party, then I think I can answer you in this way: we are not fighting Democrats or Republicans in Korea."

But this anticommunist consensus in Hollywood began to collapse in the Vietnam and Watergate eras. Unseemly revelations about FBI and CIA excesses made the anticommunist a bogeyman among many cultural arbiters. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that the country was suffering from an "inordinate fear of communism." In the 1980s, as the country delivered two landslide victories to Ronald Reagan, the most anticommunist president in history, many people in Hollywood were still subscribing to Carter's view.

This was the atmosphere in which the Hollywood blacklist "took on mythic status as a roll call of cultural heroes," according to historian Richard Gid Powers, who wrote Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism. "Obituaries of blacklisted writers and actors tended to describe them as martyrs for the cause of civil liberties, and made no mention of the political associations that had gotten them blacklisted, or the international situation that had made those associations a cause of concern."

With this view of history still prevailing in Hollywood, it makes sense that Douglas wants to claim credit for breaking the blacklist—it makes him look like a hero, ahead of his time. He's worked hard to keep that story alive. But it wasn't always like this. As described in a 1977 biography of Trumbo and a 2008 memoir by producer Walter Mirisch, the year after Spartacus, Douglas worked to distance himself from Dalton Trumbo. When the screenwriter said that he wanted credit for re-writing Douglas's next picture, Town Without Pity, Douglas feared continued association with Trumbo might hurt his career. Douglas objected to Trumbo having his name on the screen. "I have yielded to Kirk's wishes in this matter," Trumbo wrote to Edward Lewis in 1961, in a letter released to us this week by Trumbo biographer Larry Ceplair.

Douglas's desire to distance himself from Trumbo has long since passed—now, clearly, he wants to paint himself as the screenwriter's champion. Lewis, who is 91, said that since 2003 Douglas tried multiple times to get him to "rewrite history and tell a false story." He said that when he refused, Douglas grew angry and told him, "You'll be sorry."

Melissa Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo's daughter, said that since her father died in 1976, Douglas also pressured her family to sign on to his narrative. "He wanted us to acknowledge him as the breaker of the blacklist," she said. They declined. Now, "Kirk Douglas has become so vocal and insistent that this was such an easy thing for him to do and he just did it because it was right. It just makes you a little crazy. I did throw Douglas's book across the room at one point."

None of the individuals interviewed wanted to diminish the fact that Douglas made a bold move when he embraced a communist writer who was persona non grata in studio circles. And Douglas does acknowledge the roles that other people played in getting Trumbo hired on Spartacus. He writes in the new book, "Others, particularly Eddie Lewis and Otto Preminger, deserve great credit, too—they fought for what they knew was right, even when it wasn't popular."

But Lewis, the Trumbos, and the Fasts rejected Douglas's ongoing claim that Douglas was the prime mover who rescued Trumbo and vanquished the blacklist scourge. "That's nonsense," said Rachel Ben-Avi, Howard Fast's daughter. "He didn't break the blacklist."

When we asked Douglas to respond to the objections raised by the other people involved in Spartacus, he replied through a publicist, "What I have to say about this I write in my book."

[optional image description]Dalton Trumbo and Edward Lewis in 1967
(Courtesy Melissa Trumbo)

WELL BEFORE THE MAKING of Spartacus, some producers and filmmakers openly accepted blacklisted artists. Director Cecil B. de Mille, a staunch anticommunist, hired and credited actor Edward G. Robinson and composer Elmer Bernstein for The Ten Commandments. Both men were considered unemployable because of alliances with communist front organizations, but the box office success of the picture changed their status, making them viable again in the movies.

"The blacklist is breaking so very fast that we may wake up one of these fine mornings and discover it isn't here at all," Trumbo himself wrote to his lawyer in 1957.

Douglas was using blacklisted writers, too, even before Spartacus. In our conversation with him, he recounted this era to us and said Trumbo was already on the payroll of his production company at the time of the Spartacus project. What he didn't disclose in our interview or his book is that his company was employing blacklisted writers exclusively, benefiting from their discounted rates. Records for Douglas's company, now housed in archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, show that in March 1959 he was paying at least four communist writers. "Kirk Douglas was paying my father only a small fraction of what his salary would have been had he not been blacklisted," said Melissa Trumbo. "Producers got terrific deals back then when they hired blacklisted writers—great scripts for very little money."

By 1959 Time magazine headlined: "Blacklist Fadeout." Paramount Pictures announced distribution of Chance Meeting, an English drama written and directed by American communists. It was enough to cause actor Ward Bond, a leading anticommunist, to remark, "They're all working now, all these Fifth Amendment communists, and I don't think that anything I say about it will make much difference." Speaking on behalf of his fellow anticommunists, Bond said, "We've lost the fight and it's as simple as that."

Finally, in January 1960, almost a year before Spartacus was released, director Otto Preminger told the press he would be giving Trumbo writing credit for his next film, Exodus. This news report was carried in papers throughout the world. According to the New York Times' obituary of Trumbo, it was "a move that went relatively unopposed in the film community after years of pressures and hand-wringing." That August, news accounts appeared reporting that Trumbo would also be receiving screen credit for Spartacus.

In Douglas's account it's his intrepid backroom machinations that finally achieve screen credit for Trumbo. Those we interviewed say that scenario isn't true and, according to Lewis, Douglas had to be prodded to act on Trumbo's behalf. In fact, it was Lewis who directly commissioned Trumbo to write the script. The young producer became Trumbo's "front" and Lewis's byline, instead of Trumbo's, appeared on the script cover. At that point, there was no plan to give Trumbo credit for writing the movie. But as time went on, Lewis said the subterfuge began to gnaw at his conscience. He told us that when it became impossible for the studio to cancel the picture, "I said, 'Take my name off the script.'" Lewis secured for Trumbo a unique financial package: a salary of more than $50,000 plus 4 percent of net producer profits.

"We'll make this thing go, Eddie," Dalton Trumbo wrote him in a letter. "And we'll enjoy it, too. I am most grateful to you. By way of recompense, I want the quality of my work to make you grateful to me. And then," Trumbo continued, "nothing but love, gratitude, money, success, increment earned and unearned, glamour, six-hundred dollar whores and a torrent of good pictures." Lewis produced five additional scripts written by Trumbo.

Before Trumbo's name was placed on the screen as the writer of Spartacus, however, the studio, Universal-International, conducted polls of moviegoers to determine if Trumbo was box office poison. When the results came back in Trumbo's favor, a clear path for him began to emerge.

But according to Lewis and Trumbo's family, it was mostly Trumbo's own efforts that led to the resuscitation of his career. "He was determined that nobody was going to do this to him," said daughter Nikola Trumbo. "He set about trying to break the blacklist."

When the Writers Guild of America announced it would be honoring Kirk Douglas with an award for "breaking the blacklist" in 1991, Trumbo's widow refused to participate. In a letter to the Guild (released to us by the family), Cleo Trumbo wrote that to pay tribute solely to Douglas would be to "subvert history" and "give legitimacy to half-truths." If Dalton Trumbo were alive, she wrote, "I am also certain that he would not attend a ceremony which sanctioned such a distortion of actual events." Despite Cleo Trumbo's objection, the Writers Guild proceeded with its Douglas celebration.

SPARTACUS WAS A PROJECT born in the Cold War trenches. Communist author Howard Fast developed the idea of the novel when he was serving time in prison for refusing to cooperate with government investigations of the Communist Party. By the time he completed the book in 1951, he was radioactive. Not wanting to be associated with him, publishers rejected his book. Unbowed, Fast hired a printer to produce the book which he and his wife then advertised and sold from their basement. Within three months, the Fasts sold more than 48,000 copies. "That's what you call breaking the blacklist," said their daughter Rachel Ben-Avi.

His book was attacked by the Communist Party in the Daily Worker for not being sufficiently reverential toward class-consciousness. Throughout that period, Fast became apprehensive about his activism in the Party, thoughts that boiled over into rage as he learned details of the brutality and mass atrocities of the Soviet regime. Historical accounts estimate that as many as 20 million people were killed under Stalin's reign.

By the time Edward Lewis's wife, Mildred, read the novel Spartacus and told her husband he ought to make it into a picture, Fast was through with communism. He repudiated it by becoming a whistleblower. "Whatever the Communist Party once was, today it is a prison for man's best and boldest dreams," Fast wrote in the Saturday Review in 1957. "Tomorrow belongs to those who break down the prison walls that enclose the minds of men, not those who support such walls."

Trumbo had come a distance as well, far from the shadows of 1952 when his fellow communists attacked him, declaring the screenwriter guilty of "white chauvinism" when he failed, in their view, at a script involving racial matters. They "threw a bucket of filth over me," Trumbo said of his comrades. He was required to submit scripts to communist committees for "review." It was, he said, "one of the most shameful and serious moments of my life." By any measure, Spartacus was a sunlit upland for Trumbo.

Had Spartacus and Exodus flopped, Trumbo predicted, no blacklisted writer would ever work again. But moviegoers made both films hits (they did star Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman, after all) and in a sense it was the American people who made Trumbo viable again. Douglas makes it seem as though his actions led to the great emancipation.

In his book, Douglas recounts the night of the Writers Guild affair. "The room was filled; the Guild was honoring me for breaking the blacklist. I went back to my table with the award and showed it to my beloved Anne. I thought to myself, Now I'm really impressive." Later that evening, Douglas writes that he asked his wife, "Weren't you proud to hear [them] say all those nice things about me breaking the blacklist?"

For some, however, the blacklist was never "broken." After movie star Larry Parks's communist affiliations were exposed in the early 1950s, his career was finished. Communist writers Herbert Biberman, John Howard Lawson, and Lester Cole still had to use pen names almost a decade after Spartacus.

In 1990, Kirk Douglas recorded an audio commentary for Spartacus. "When you talk to people connected with Spartacus, you're going to get a lot of different interpretations of what happened. Not that people might be dishonest. But time melts things away," he said, "people see things differently."

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John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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