Arthur Laurents

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 30, 2002.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly show about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is the respected director, playwright, and screenwriter, Arthur Laurents. Thank you for joining us today.

Arthur Laurents: Glad to be here.

Paulson: Boy, have you had a career. It’s not one of these slow-building careers, either. I mean, we’re going to get a chance today to talk about “West Side Story” and “The Way We Were” and “Gypsy.” But right out of the box, you’re selling your first work. Is it true that a class assignment was sold to CBS?

Laurents: Oh, yes. At NYU, that was.

Paulson: Your very first radio play, you sold to CBS.

Laurents: Well, I was tired of sitting around that class and doing nothing. And the first assignment, I think, was an adaptation, and I said there was no point because it was somebody else’s work. Then I wrote this thing, and they bought it for CBS.

Paulson: Well, this is, this had to be, “This is easy. Just keep churning them out,” right?

Laurents: Yeah, well, I have never had a problem with writer’s block. I don’t understand it. They talk about a writer being lonely and alone. I don’t think so. I mean, you’re in the room with people who hopefully are fascinating. They’re right out of your imagination, but nevertheless, you can trust them a lot more than a lot of people you know.

Paulson: A lot of that early training and learning to write dialogue came in the form of radio plays.

Laurents: Yes.

Paulson: Including a stint in the Army.

Laurents: Yeah.

Paulson: What was your role there?

Laurents: In the Army? To get out. I was drafted. Then by mistake, I was sent to a photographic company. I knew nothing — I didn’t know how to take a picture with a brownie, if you know what that was, and so they made me a truck driver. And at the last moment, I was rescued. I was sent to Astoria in New York, where they were making training films. And then I got a telegram saying, “Report to” — I think it was NBC. And I looked in the paper, and there was an Army radio show, so I thought that must be it. And they said, “Welcome. Your predecessor’s been sent to Burma, so, get to work.” And that’s what I did.

Paulson: And you would write plays with the Army as content, or what would be the —

Laurents: They were always based on some — promoting — you know, they were like a commercial for a branch of the Army. That was the first series I did. Then we did one called “Assignment Home,” which I thought wasn’t bad, which was to prepare the country for what the veterans would be like, which was not pretty, and I liked writing that show.

Paulson: You were writing plays that were trying to make a point on behalf of the government, and you wrote one play at that time called “The Knife” that said some pretty strong things about racial bias in the Army.

Laurents: Well, all the scripts that I did, I tried to — everything I write has a social connection. It’s just — that’s just the way I write. And this had to do with what were then called Negroes, and they were all excited about it, and then they saw the war was going to be over, and they canceled it, because once the war was going to be over, back to the back of the bus. And it got to a man named Stimson, who was then secretary of the war — of war — and he liked it, and he made them put it on the air, and we got a citation for it.

Paulson: Not only did it get to him, you made sure it got to him.

Laurents: Well, yes.

Paulson: A little back-channel work.

Laurents: Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: Weren’t you concerned that if they found out you were pulling this end run, you might end up in Burma?

Laurents: No, I had more a chance of ending up in Leavenworth. They thought that — through some gossip, that I was a communist, which would have been traitorous, since I was in uniform, and they hauled me down to Washington, but I escaped. It wasn’t true.

Paulson: In the first place, why did they suspect you of being a communist?

Laurents: Because I went to a writers’ meeting, and I was agitating for the soldier vote, and there was a man named Russell Crouse of Lindsay and Crouse. They wrote “Life With Father,” and they produced “Sound of Music,” which should sort of tell you what they were like: Republican … with a vengeance. And I think, casually, Russell Crouse said to some officer in the radio branch in Washington that I was a Red because of the propagandizing for the soldier vote.

Paulson: Just tell me about that. What was the soldier vote?

Laurents: To vote, allowed to vote in the elections. If you were a soldier, you couldn’t vote then.

Paulson: I just learned something.

Laurents: You know, it’s, it’s amazing, the things that we take for granted. When they made a film out of “Home of the Brave,” well, the play had been about a Jew, so the movie is about a black. And there he is, in the South Pacific, with a white unit. Absolutely impossible. There was not one bit of integration at that time. Nobody picked up on it. They all said, “Oh, this is a wonderful movie and so forward moving,” and all that. It was a lie.

Paulson: “Home of the Brave” was your first full-length play.

Laurents: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And that goes to Broadway.

Laurents: Yeah.

Paulson: Again, this is, this is unlikely success. How did you manage that?

Laurents: Well, to me, it was a disappointment. I am a wild optimist. I always believe it’s going to happen, and this didn’t happen the way it’s supposed to. I thought the best — the Theatre Guild, which was a very good producer at the time, I thought they’d produce the play. They turned it down. They had done a play with some kind of race or religious connection. And finally, I ended up with a producer named Lee Sabinson, who took me to lunch in a place with dirty tablecloths. And I thought, “This isn’t — I’m supposed to be at Sardi’s. This is supposed to be glamorous.” And he said he’d be honored to do the play, and I thought, “That’s ’cause nobody else wants to do it.” That shows you how my mind worked. But he was a very nice man.

Paulson: Your fine book, Autobiography: Original Story by Arthur Laurents, details what came next, the period in which there was a lot of fear. There was the period of the Red Scare. How did you decide to deal with the threat of being blacklisted?

Laurents: Well, it’s hard to understand. People talk about McCarthy. This was before McCarthy. This was in Hollywood, where they had an Un-American Committee investigating Hollywood, which was un-American in itself, and I was very naive then. I believed that justice prevailed, which it can, although it doesn’t, more often than not. I mean, even today, or yesterday, with those five Supreme Court justices, whom I think betrayed the Court, betrayed the country. And the difference between then and now, by the way, is that if this had happened at the time of the Hollywood witch hunt, there would have been — or the Vietnam War, people would’ve been protesting in the streets. There would’ve been great meetings. And here, they all say, “Oh, what they did. What are you having for dinner?” The country’s lethargy, lack of passion, is scary to me.

Paulson: We absolutely want to talk about the state of the First Amendment today. At the time, when you were facing potential blacklisting and others obviously did get blacklisted, didn’t you decide to leave the U.S. for a while?

Laurents: Well, I was blacklisted. Again, I wasn’t a member of the Party. I said I was naive, but in some ways, I was wiser than they were. For example, they — these writers that were hauled before Congress stood on the First Amendment. Well, there’s nothing in the First Amendment that says you cannot be investigated by Congress. They were too trusting or too proud to take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, and I knew they’d go to jail. And then there was the question of principle: Is it a wise sacrifice or is it not? I didn’t — I wasn’t called. I just knew I couldn’t get a job. And then I wanted to leave the country, and they took my passport. So, I had to call the State Department. I got a lawyer recommended to me by Jerry Robbins, who I didn’t know at that time was an informer. He had — anyway, this lawyer, it turned out, had a link to the FBI. At any rate, I called Washington, and after three months, I got the passport, and — because they asked me to write everything I believed politically. So, I said to the lawyer, “This’ll hang me.” He said, “No, you’re too idiosyncratic. You don’t belong to anything.” And he was right. They gave me the passport, and I went.

Paulson: While you were out of the country, did you continue to work?

Laurents: Oh, yes. I worked — I went to Paris. It was — all these things that are supposed to be terrible are quite wonderful. I mean, I couldn’t get work. I went to Europe and Paris. Well, there was a producer named Sam Spiegel who produced pictures like “The African Queen,” and he was waiting at the boat, literally, for all the writers blacklisted, ’cause then he’d offer you ten cents, where before, he would’ve offered you a dollar. I didn’t care. A dollar in Paris at that time, you could’ve bought the city. I mean, the dollar was so strong. And it was exciting, and it was new, and it was wonderful. I had a great time there.

Paulson: Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a lot of big names were brought before Congress, some of whom took the Fifth, some of whom named names.

Laurents: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: What’s your assessment of the people who went before Congress?

Laurents: I’ve never changed my feeling about that, and I don’t think I ever will. I don’t — I say they are not evil because they informed. They informed because they’re evil. I think there is something inherent in you that you can betray other people easily, and it was easy for people like Jerry Robbins or Elia Kazan. They did it to work in movies. There was no blacklist in the theater. They were kings in the theater. They could’ve made all the money they want, got all the stardom they wanted and the stars to work for them, so I don’t excuse it.

Paulson: Why do you think Congress had so much power; the Red Scare had so much impact in Hollywood, but couldn’t touch the theater community?

Laurents: Because Hollywood is run by the equivalent of corporations. The theaters are individual producers. You can’t stop every one of them. The theater is also more a writer’s medium than pictures. The control. And the theater has always been individual — collaboration among individuals. Hollywood is hired hands. Dirty hands.

Paulson: Well, the blacklist in time faded. You worked more and more often. You returned here, and you got involved with this remarkable project, which I guess was initially called “East Side Story.” Is that true?

Laurents: Yes. It was because Jerry Robbins, whose idea it was, he came to me and Lenny Bernstein. He wanted to do a musical, contemporary version of “Romeo and Juliet.” And the girl, I think, was to be Catholic, and the boy was to be Jewish, and it was to take place on the East Side during Easter-Passover. So we were all excited, and then I thought and said, “It was ‘Abie’s Irish Rose’ set to music.” “Abie’s Irish Rose” was a play that was even before my time. It was a big success, but it was about a Catholic girl and a Jewish boy. You know, big news. So, nothing happened, and then, some years later, Lenny and I were both in California. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Very glamorous. Well, he was glamorous. So, I went over to have a swim there with him, and I remember we were sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling our feet in the water, and there had been gang wars the night before in Los Angeles, Chicanos against — what can you call them? They called them Americans. I guess it had to do with how pale your skin was. And there had been a lot of what was called juvenile delinquency in the country, and gang wars, and we thought that was it; that was a great idea. And he wanted to do it there because he loved Latin-American rhythm. So did I, but I didn’t know anything about Los Angeles, but I did know New York. I said, “We can do it in New York with Puerto Ricans.” We called Jerry, who was thrilled. He wouldn’t have cared if we’d said cowboys and Indians. He just wanted to do it. So we got started, and that shifted it from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side.

Paulson: And it worked wonderfully well. Was that a hit from the beginning, or did it take a while to build?

Laurents: We didn’t have a clue what would happen. I thought with luck, it would run three months. We were not considering the fate of the show. It was one of the few times I ever worked like that with people, and it was just wonderful. Everyone wanted to do his best, and we wanted this to be what we called, for want of a better phrase, “lyric theater.” There were no rules. [Clears throat] Excuse me. We had this first preview in Washington, and they went wild. And Jerry, who sat behind me, was pounding me on the back. He said, “They like it. They like it.” They didn’t like it. They loved it. And it was a hit. And the worst performance was opening night in New York, where the word had traveled, and they thought, “Oh, they’re coming into the temple of art.” And they sat on their hands, and they didn’t laugh till about halfway through the first act before it began to go. But it was a hit.

Paulson: You had involvement with another legendary musical called “Gypsy.” And you, you recognized who the main character needed to be. Is that right?

Laurents: Well, they’d asked me to write about Gypsy Rose Lee, and I said I didn’t care about the striptease queen of America. And one of the producers took me to lunch at a place called the Colony, which was very expensive and very fancy, which had no effect on me. I don’t like lunch. And I said, “I don’t — ” He said, “Well, think — you’ll think of something.” And then I live part of the time on the beach, at a little house on the beach I’ve had for — since 1955. I just love it. Anyway, we had — everybody drank a lot. We had a cocktail party, and this girl said her first lover was Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, so I thought that was rather interesting. So, I asked what kind of a woman she was, and that was fascinating, so I thought, “That’s what we’ll do — make it about the mother.”

Paulson: The — those are two shows that virtually every American has seen. You later had an opportunity to contribute, write a movie that most Americans have seen that I think you were a little less satisfied with, “The Way We Were.” This was, I guess, inspired in part by your own experiences. To what extent was it autobiographical?

Laurents: Oh, a lot of it is. But actually, it was written because a producer named Ray Stark asked me to write a movie for Barbra Streisand, whom he had under contract and I’d given her first job when I directed a musical called “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” on Broadway. And she reminded me of a girl I had known at college, who, oddly enough, was called Fanny Price, and I say “oddly” because Barbra made her success playing Fanny Brice. And a lot of it had to do with my experiences in college and in Hollywood, with the witch hunt. And my — I like the picture. What was most disheartening to me about it was, they had a preview, and Ray Stark, the producer, and Sydney Pollack, the director, decided there was too much politics and it should be all love story, so they arbitrarily took scissors and just cut a hunk out. So, what you see on the screen is a scene where Streisand, coming — she’s pregnant, and Redford comes home from the studio, and he says they have a subversive wife — “I have a subversive wife, and they’re going to fire me,” ’cause she had been a communist. So, she says, “Well, willy-nilly, circumstances decide your fate, and I will divorce you. You won’t have a subversive wife.” That’s not what you see. What you see is, Redford comes home, tired from the day at the studio, and she says, “Willy-nilly, circumstances decide your fate, and I will divorce you.” Well, what was disheartening to me is, nobody noticed. They didn’t care. They were just caught up with those two, and they didn’t care about the politics.

Paulson: Yeah. I think most people, when they recall the film, you don’t get many saying, “You know, it’s about the blacklist in America.”

Laurents: Well, you get more now. Oddly enough, now, young people who are, I think, insane, literally, about movies, dig up these old movies, and they really watch them. And they say, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t quite make sense. What happened there?”

Paulson: I understand that Barbra Streisand fought to keep some of the political content.

Laurents: Oh, she did. She fought hard. But the guys won: Pollack and Redford.

Paulson: Have you yet seen a film that captured the witch hunt?

Laurents: No.

Paulson: I mean, there are a handful of movies: “The Front”; they attempted to do something with “The Majestic,” with Jim Carrey.

Laurents: I didn’t see that. There’s another one. I can’t think of what.

Paulson: They’re few and far between. It’s not a topic that, that has generated much.

Laurents: Well, Hollywood takes itself, I think, too seriously and is not serious. I’ve always felt they make wonderful what I call hot-fudge-sundae films. They’re just great — you know, full of martinis and nice dresses and lots of sex, and — or they do things: Bette Davis goes blind, you know. I don’t know what the equivalent is today, but they’re still — well, today it’s shoot-’em-up or science fiction, which leaves me cold. But what they do, essentially — if you live there long enough, they begin to lead the lives they have portrayed on the screen, which are based on the lives they lead, which are based on their lives on the screen, so it’s all imitation. There’s no reality there. And that’s why I don’t think — I think they don’t do films like that.

Paulson: You’ve figured out ways to say things, to make points, to kind of circumvent the censors. I’m intrigued by the Hitchcock film you did, “Rope,” where again, a careful reading might suggest the two characters are gay, and that would not have been a real popular plot element in 1948.

Laurents: No, I would say not. They never mentioned the word. Well, first of all, gay they didn’t know. Homosexual they, you know — around the studio, they called it “it.” There was no — what’s interesting about that film to me is that it’s had a big renaissance recently. Why, I don’t know. They say it was one of the first films — they say — to treat homosexuality. Well, if you look at it, you’re hard put to find it, particularly because the leading character, who is homosexual, was played by Jimmy Stewart, who, you know, he could never be homosexual or sexual of any kind, for that matter.

Paulson: Did Jimmy know he was playing a gay character?

Laurents: Nah, I would think not. I don’t know. I truly don’t know. He just found the whole thing an unpleasant experience. He was always screaming, “The only thing that’s been rehearsed around here is the camera,” which was true.

Paulson: You had a chance to comment, yourself, on the blacklist and the witch hunt with “Jolson Sings Again.”

Laurents: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: Was that a satisfying experience for you?

Laurents: It ended up being very satisfying. It still hasn’t been done in New York. It still may be done in New York, and I hope it is. I think it’s still the only thing of any weight written about that Hollywood witch hunt, and it applies today. You know, we just aren’t aware of how easily things can slip away. I mean, you have these tips, if the attorney general has his way, where all the garbage men and truck drivers and mailmen and housewives and whoever will be spying on each other, and nobody says anything. That’s what I don’t understand: this frightening quiet.

Paulson: How free are we today?

Laurents: It’s a question of what you really mean by free. I have never belonged to the ACLU because I don’t believe in absolutes. I don’t believe in really free speech. I don’t want somebody to come out and say, “Kill him; he’s a Jew.” Now, they’ll say, “Well, if you stop them there, where does it end?” But if you look, there’s more freedom for people to say terrible things. They arrested communists. Did they ever round up the Nazis? Not that I know of. They taught, you know, we have men stand up in Congress. At the time of the Hollywood witch hunt, there was a congressman named Rankin who stood up and said the most awful thing about Jews, and I thought, “Well, it’s Congress. They’re going to get after him.” Nothing. He was immune. They say the most awful things, these congressmen, and nobody says boo. I don’t want that kind of free speech, and I don’t think we really have it. I think we’re freer than probably any other country. I say “probably.” I’m not sure if the English aren’t freer than we are. I don’t really know. I mean, people can point to laws. It’s a question of the feeling. I think people delude themselves here they’re free. Start fighting the government and Bush will say you’re being unpatriotic. They’re fighting a war. What war? There’s the war against drugs. There’s a war against terrorists. There’s a war against the stock market. None of it’s declared.

Paulson: Thank you for joining us here today.

Laurents: Thank you.

Paulson: Our guest today has been director and writer Arthur Laurents. Thank you for joining us today on “Speaking Freely.”