Author Ronald Radosh has a back story himself, for those interested: once a Communist Party member himself, he quit, moved to the new “left”, then moved to the new “right” in the 1980s. I knew of him because of his book on the Rosenberg case (The Rosenberg File: A Search for Truth, written with Joyce Milton), perhaps the best available to date.
I came to this book looking for more information on Otto Katz, a Comintern agent who was in Hollywood 1935-36. Radosh has a very interesting section on Katz, who apparently had a massive FBI file stuffed with letters from famous Hollywood people, most notably Fritz Lang. Radosh gives a clear summary of the correspondence of Katz and Lang, with an interesting take on Katz’s appeal to people like Lang. He even comes up with juicy second hand Hollywood gossip about Katz (Marty Peretz told Radosh that Lillian Hellman told him that she had a fling with Katz in Paris).
I hadn’t really expected to read the whole book, since I just don’t care that much about Hollywood people, even when they’re having flings with Comintern agents. Moreover, the Hollywood blacklist, the center of the book, has provoked more controversy than I’m prepared to wade through. However, it’s a short book, and turned out to be very entertaining, at least for people who mumble ‘whoa’ when they read how Budd Schulberg recruited Dorothy Parker into the Communist Party.
A lot of the book goes over old ground, but there were several stories that I had never heard before. These were the result of Radosh’s reading in a long list of archives. For example, there is the story of how Howard Koch hired Jay Leyda as a script “adviser” on the notorious “Mission to Moscow,” which Dwight McDonald called “the first totalitarian film to come out of Hollywood.” This film has been discussed before, but Radosh found interesting new material in the papers of Koch and Leyda.
Then there is the story of Melvyn Douglas and the Motion Picture Democratic Committee. Douglas and his friends put much time and energy into the Committee, but the Popular Front of the 1930s meant the Committee also had many Communist Party members. After the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact, Douglas tried to get the Committee to denounce the Pact and reaffirm its commitment to Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi policy. How he fought and lost goes a long way to explaining where anti-communist liberals came from.
Perhaps the most interesting story was the conflict between the figures in the Hollywood Ten who had quit the Communist Party (Edward Dmytryk and Adrian Scott), and those who were still in it (everyone else). This story is mostly based on Dmytryk’s book, but the daughter of their lawyer, Bartley Crum, was also present at many discussions and wrote about the ten at length in her 1997 autobiography, a book which I had never heard of.
Radosh’s point is that the blacklist had a long back-story, with fall-out over many incidents, from “Mission to Moscow” to the Non-Agression Pact, having a deep effect on people’s attitudes. That plus the militant nose-thumbing of Hollywood Ten members like John Lawson certainly irritated people like Harry Warner, about whom Radosh tells an anecdote I’m sure is apocryphal. A script writer is blacklisted and Warner promptly fires him. The writer complains, “This is a mistake. The plain fact is that I’m an anti-Communist.” Warner replies angrily “I don’t give a shit what kind of a Communist you are, get out of here!”