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."
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."