Walter Bernstein

Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

“Speaking Freely” show recorded July 30, 2002, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly show about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a talented writer whose career was derailed by the blacklist of the 1950s, Walter Bernstein. Welcome.

Walter Bernstein: Thank you.

Paulson: You know, we had Harry Belafonte on the show not long ago, and he was talking about being disinvited from the “Ed Sullivan Show” because he’d shown up on some blacklist, and he had this indignant response. He said, “I demand to see the list.” Did you ever see the list on which your name appeared?

Bernstein: No, no, never. I mean, when I was first blacklisted at, at CBS, I was writing a show there. The producer told me, he said, “You’re on some kind of list, but I’m not supposed to tell you that. I’m supposed to say we’re changing the show in some way.” But the only thing I ever saw my name on was a little booklet called Red Channels, which was put out by some ex-FBI men who set themselves up as a clearinghouse. And they put out this booklet, about 170 names, of people in the entertainment business — writers, actors, directors — with their communist or communist-front affiliations, things they joined, and I was in that. I think I probably would have been insulted if I hadn’t been.

Paulson: For those who may not have lived through that, what was blacklisting?

Bernstein: Blacklisting was, very simply, that you could not work. You could not get work. In this particular case in the ’50s, if you belonged to these kind of organizations, if you were in Red Channels, if you had been summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee as an unfriendly witness, if somebody had named you anywhere, really, and unless you cleared yourself, you were blacklisted. And it wasn’t confined to the entertainment industry. I mean, it was doctors, lawyers, teachers, union people.

Paulson: Now, you weren’t born a communist.

Bernstein: No, no.

Paulson: And the common — I was going to say, the common perception about that era is that a lot of people who were not communist at all, not socialist, but attended a meeting in college or whatever, were implicated, but in fact, at one point in your life, you were a communist.

Bernstein: Oh, yeah, I wasn’t blacklisted by mistake. I had been a communist. I joined the Communist Party after the war, after I’d gotten out of the Army. I believed in it at, at the time. The people I had met during the war, partisans in Yugoslavia and in Italy, my feeling about Spain, the civil war in Spain, and what I’d seen communists do during the Depression when I was a kid, they were the best people I had ever met, the noblest, the most courageous. And as I said, I believed in it. It took me a while, but I was a communist then, yes.

Paulson: And on October 20, 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities began their most visible hearings, and did you have any sense of storm clouds gathering when that happened?

Bernstein: Not really. I thought it was an aberration. It just seemed to be inconceivable. And that — you know, I’d grown up in a time mostly during the war. Actually, Russia had been our ally, and I had been able to have my, however immature, political beliefs and act on them, and nothing, nothing had happened.

Paulson: It wasn’t against the law to be a communist.

Bernstein: No, no. And I mean, it wasn’t the most popular thing you could be. But, but no, I didn’t think it was any more than a blip when it first started.

Paulson: What I find interesting in going back and looking at the era is that, initially, Hollywood, I think, viewed it as an aberration, and a number of very prominent stars, including Humphrey Bogart, you know, these folks came and spoke out against blacklisting and against these hearings, and that didn’t work at all, did it?

Bernstein: No, it, it didn’t work because the full weight of the studios and the, and the government came down on them. I mean, they — I wasn’t around at the time, but they organized this trip to Washington, I think — Bogart, John Huston, Frederic March, and a bunch of people like Billy Wilder — to protest about what was happening. And they came back to Hollywood, and the studios lowered the boom on them and said — and it just evaporated after that.

Paulson: And when did you get the first hint that your career was going to be affected by this? Was it that conversation with the producer?

Bernstein: Yes, I’d gotten a little bit of a hint earlier when I had written something for an advertising agency who controlled a lot of live television at the time. And my agent said, “Well, put another name on it.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, you know, whatever, you know?” But I went ahead, and I was still working under my own name at CBS, and it wasn’t until the producer of a show called “Danger” came and said to me, “I can’t hire you anymore. You’re on some kind of list,” and I knew by then pretty much what it was, but that was the first indication I had.

Paulson: If you gave Congress and those behind the blacklist, for the moment, the benefit of the doubt, what motivated them?

Bernstein: I think several things motivated them. I think with some of them — I don’t know how many — there was a genuine fear of, of communism, of the Soviet Union, who had the most powerful army in the world, was now controlling Eastern Europe, that they were gonna overrun us. I mean, this was a fear that, you know, went back along since the birth of the Soviet Union. If you remember, we invaded them right after their revolution. There was, also — I think they were very interested, also, in breaking the back of the left wing of the union movement, of the militancy in the union movement, and this was a very, very handy, you know, weapon to use against that. And then there were always those people who were, you know, very scared of any kind of liberal dissent, you know, and wanted to get rid of it. It was — the blacklist was always a function of the Cold War, really.

Paulson: So, if your name ended up on a list as an actor, performer, writer, there was a pretty good chance you would get called to testify.

Bernstein: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: And you avoided that.

Bernstein: Yep. I had gotten cleared, I thought, through my friend Sidney Lumet, the director, who hired me to be — to write a movie for Sophia Loren that he was going to direct. And her husband was an Italian, Carlo Ponti, and he didn’t know or care about the blacklist. He hired me, and Paramount was the producing organization. And I started work on, on the script, and everything seemed fine. I was going to continue working for Paramount. And I got a call from my agent saying, “Paramount’s not gonna go through with the contract. There’s a subpoena out for you.” It’s interesting that Paramount knew about it before I did or any — and it was the last hearing of the Un-American Committee in New York. And when I found out about it, I just went on the lam. I took off and went up — stayed with some friends up in New England, finished the script. And by the time I did, they’d finished the hearings, and they didn’t come after me anymore. They didn’t — so, I was never served.

Paulson: So, you escaped the subpoena?

Bernstein: Yeah.

Paulson: Couldn’t find you to serve it. But a lot of people who actually received the subpoena, they found out a lot about themselves, and you found out a lot about others by how they handled that moment in front of the committee. What realistic choices did you have?

Bernstein: You really had — they made it tough because if you went in — I wasn’t sure what I would do. The choice was between going in and saying, “OK, this is what I did. This is what I believed in. This is what I still believe in. This is what I don’t.” At which point, they would ask you to name other people: “Who was in this group with you? Who did that?” And I knew I wasn’t going to do that, but if you answered one question and refused to answer the other, they could cite you for contempt, and you could go to jail. On the other hand, you could take the Fifth Amendment and not answer anything. So, those were really the two choices.

Paulson: And if you took the Fifth Amendment, you don’t work again.

Bernstein: Yeah, I wasn’t working anyway, but if you took the Fifth, you didn’t work, essentially. So, those were the choices actually, and I like to believe I would have taken the first, the first thing, but it never came to that.

Paulson: So, out of that period, who were the heroes, and who didn’t shine quite so brightly?

Bernstein: I don’t think there were any heroes, really. I mean, being blacklisted, there was nothing heroic about it. There really wasn’t. And there was a lot of pain, and there was a lot — but, you know, the, the people who are not heroic — put it that way — I think, were the informants, the people who named other people. And they did it out of various reasons. But I don’t — as I said, I don’t feel any of us were heroes, really, you know?

Paulson: So, you still got to make a living somehow.

Bernstein: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well —

Paulson: You’re not working officially, so what do you do then?

Bernstein: Well, the writers were more fortunate than the actors or the directors, because they had to show their face. And we started out — I started out by writing under a pseudonym. I was lucky in that both Sidney Lumet and a man named Charles Russell, who was the producer of this show at CBS, were willing to go along with that. But then the networks in this case — and also the studios in Hollywood — thought, “Well, you know, these writers are very untrustworthy, and we have to make sure that they’re not trying to fool us with, with pseudonyms.” So, they demanded that there be a live body, that there be somebody who — real — who was putting their name on these scripts. So, it’s a process of finding a front, finding somebody who would lend their name to your script and who could go up and handle themselves at a script conference and be legitimately in the field. It was different then. You say, “legitimate in the field,” because now, for example, everybody’s writing a screenplay. Your dentist is writing a screenplay, your grandmother, except she would probably also want to direct, you know. And — but then, it was tough, you know. But that’s, that’s how I existed, really, during that period.

Paulson: So, who was your first front? Or maybe not who was your first front, because I don’t know — do you identify your fronts today?

Bernstein: No, I still don’t. I wouldn’t unless I asked them, and some of them, I don’t know where they are.

Paulson: So, how did you, how did you secure your first front?

Bernstein: Well, it was hard. I’m trying to think of who the first — who the first front was. It was somebody who knew somebody. It was a man who — I don’t know how he worked. I think he was a gambler as I think back on it, very nice man, extremely nice man. And he didn’t want to take any money for it. He just thought it was kind of a kick, you know, doing this. And he fronted for me for a while, but then he had trouble from his aged parents who said, “Here, you’re making all this money,” and they wanted some. His friends wanted to borrow money, and he wasn’t doing it, and he didn’t know. It became impossible for him, his social situation. And then it was people who knew people; recommended. Some people did it for the money. They would take a piece of what you, of what you made. Other people did it because they wanted to advance their career, and they accumulated credits that way.

Paulson: You wrote a fascinating book about the era, and you talked a little bit about some fronts who worked out better than others. And there was a woman named Rita, who was particularly challenging.

Bernstein: Yes, Rita, Rita was the girlfriend of a friend of mine, and she wanted to be a writer. And it worked fine. I remember she wanted a lot, like 25% of what the — I made, which was better than nothing, so — and she, she went along and was flying quite high, you know, and I was happy, and we did several shows together. Then she, she came and said she couldn’t do it anymore. I said, “Why not?” She said, well, her, her psychoanalyst had said it was bad for her, really, that it was — I said, “Well, it’s very good for you. You’re, you’re, you’re doing very well.” And — but she said no, no, she couldn’t do it, and she blamed me. I was the one responsible, you know, because I’d brought her up to these heights, and then down — she had to go down again. But there were, you know, situations like that. There was another writer, a very good writer and a very established writer, who helped me. I did a couple of shows in his name, and it was during a bad period in my life. And the shows — I wrote one very good, and he took me for a walk in the park and said, well, you know, he — I wasn’t living up to his standards. So, that was the end of that. So it, it was a constant kind of struggle.

Paulson: Did, did he go shopping for someone else to front for?

Bernstein: Yeah.

Paulson: I — at that time, was there a moment when you said, “I’m no longer a communist”?

Bernstein: Yeah, I left the Communist Party in 1956. I was in it altogether about 10 years. And I left because, when I came in, there had been a gradual kind of disillusionment with the American parties, certainly. The Stalin revelations were revelatory, to me anyway. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been, but they were. The invasion of Hungary, I think, finally put the — and I left. I left the party and haven’t — I still consider myself some kind of disorganized socialist, but I’ve been for however — since ’56.

Paulson: But that didn’t do you any good career-wise. You couldn’t come out and say, “OK, I’m no longer a communist, and let me work.”

Bernstein: No, there was no point. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I wasn’t prepared, really, you know, to disavow a lot of the people whom I still respected and who had done nothing wrong in my — you know, certainly nothing illegal, in my opinion.

Paulson: Of course, the classic question was, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” You mentioned some people may have sincerely been afraid of communism when they imposed the blacklists. What were they afraid of in terms of the entertainment industry? That you were going to slip secret messages into scripts?

Bernstein: Oh, they’ve said that, but that was ridiculous. I mean, the, the studio heads knew exactly what was — Harry Cohn or Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner, I mean, nothing went into their movies that they didn’t allow into their movies and — so that this idea that we would slip in some kind of subversive — you know, it’s just ridiculous. What we fought for, in the brief time I was in Hollywood, before I came back to New York and got blacklisted, was, we’d try — was what you might call humanist or humanitarian values, and particularly in terms of racial questions. I mean, if we could get a black person into a movie with any kind of dignity in those days, that was a big step forward. That was really the extent of it. I mean, there was no kind of hidden agenda.

Paulson: And you, in fact, had a fairly impressive career despite the blacklist in the ’50s. You were one of prime writers for an emerging television medium and did, and did some work with people like Walter Cronkite. Tell us about that series.

Bernstein: Well, after I had done this show “Danger,” which was a half-hour melodrama that Sidney Lumet directed, he and Russell, the producer, were assigned the job of doing a show called “You Are There,” which was a history show, taking incidents in the past and creating a situation where you felt you were there, reporters asking questions of the people involved: Christopher Columbus or people like that. And it was — Cronkite was the narrator. And the writers were mostly two other blacklisted writers and myself. We wrote almost all the shows then. As I say, Cronkite was the narrator. I always wondered whether he knew it was being written by blacklisted people. And just about a year or so ago, I met him. I ran into him, and I asked him, and he said, “No,” he hadn’t known the first year. Then he became, not so much suspicious, but wondering whether — why he never saw a writer around. So he asked Sidney Lumet, and Lumet and Russell took him out, he said, and bought him a drink and told him that the blacklisted writers were writing it, and that was just fine with him. You know, he didn’t mind that at all.

Paulson: Did you find some kind of a brotherhood among the blacklisted writers?

Bernstein: Well, I think one of the reasons you were able to exist through that period was what grew up among, not just the writers, but the blacklisted people in general. We kind of, out of necessity, clung together, helped each other. In terms of this little group that wrote you were there — Arnold Manoff and Abe Polonsky and myself — we helped each other. If we could find work for other blacklisted writers, we did. When I look back on that period, I miss that. I miss that camaraderie. I miss that sense of the mutual help that we gave each other.

Paulson: Was there a point — a day when you knew that the blacklist had faded and that you were going to get back to normal?

Bernstein: Not any particular day. I was blacklisted for about eight years in movies and another couple years after that in television, because there was always the sponsor problem in television. And I suppose, for me, I felt it was really over when CBS decided to revive “You Are There” as a children’s show on Saturday matinee. And I got a call from the producer asking if I would do one of them under my own name. She had known I had done it before, and I think that gave me a sense, “Well, maybe, finally, it’s over.”

Paulson: Any idea why it came and why it went? I mean, were we less afraid of communists in the early ’60s?

Bernstein: Well, I don’t know how to explain it entirely. As I said, I think it was a function of the Cold War. I think that had kind of cooled off. I think they had run out of communists, also. The, you know, the — they had kind of exhausted it by, you know, by then, and it didn’t have, you know, they had crushed the militant wing of the labor movement. They had kicked out all the teachers and the lawyers and whoever. There was no further need for it, I think, in some kind of way.

Paulson: There was a remarkable film that — called “The Front” that you wrote and is based on your own experiences. How did that film come about? There are very few films made about the blacklist period.

Bernstein: Yes, yes.

Paulson: And it wouldn’t seem to be a terribly commercial theme.

Bernstein: Uh-huh.

Paulson: What drove that?

Bernstein: Well, Martin Ritt, the director, who had also been blacklisted, he and I were friends, and when we both got cleared, we had wanted to do a movie about our experience. And what we had thought of was just a straight dramatic story about somebody who’s blacklisted and what happens to them, why they were blacklisted. And we couldn’t get anybody interested in it. Marty had a certain amount of clout at that time, but even he couldn’t get anybody. And it really, you know, we’d go back and forth about it, bring it up again over the years as we were working on other things. And it wasn’t until we got the idea — I forget which one of us got the idea — of coming at it sideways, of doing it as a comedy, and doing it as a — about a front instead of directly about a blacklisted person. I felt that we could tell everything we wanted to in, in a much more audience-friendly way. And we were lucky to find a man who had been our agent and was now the head of Columbia Pictures, a man named David Begelman, who put up the money for, for a script, for a first-draft script, which I did. And then he said, “Well, yeah, I like this script, but I’ll only do it if you get a star.” And his idea of a star was Redford or Newman or Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson, and we said, “That’s not what we have in mind.” So, we were stuck for a while until, again, we came up with the idea of, of Woody (Allen). And we sent the script to him, and he liked it and said he would do it, and that made it possible, really.

Paulson: It received a warm reception and is still being shown on college campuses.

Bernstein: Yeah, it crops up on television a lot, and it keeps getting — it’s, it’s had a life, you know.

Paulson: When young people see it, what’s their reaction?

Bernstein: Well, young people today have a very interesting reaction to it. First of all, they know nothing about the period. They know nothing about the ’50s, and they’re amazed that something like this did happen. And they’re very interested. Today’s audience anyway, the current audience, are very, you know, they, they, they dig the picture in, in some way. They like the idea of this character that Woody plays standing up for himself and defying the committee at the end. And I think they see some kind of parallel, perhaps, you know, to, to what’s happening.

Paulson: Well, we have time, really, for one more question. It — you mentioned young people not knowing about the ’50s. This show is grounded in the First Amendment, and of course, one of the rights under the First Amendment is to associate with others, and yet people who associated with others who were members of political parties with which the majority disagreed lost their livelihood during the ’50s, late ’40s. What lessons does that period hold for us today?

Bernstein: I would say to them — the young people today, I would say, “Don’t be afraid to dissent. You must dissent. You must keep that alive. You must keep that, that — your, your democracy depends on the ability to dissent, the ability to say, ‘No,’ to question authority, to say, ‘No,’ to establishment thinking, and to have the right to associate with other people, really, and say it as loud as you can. You know, to take actions, to take legal action against it and not be ostracized, not be blacklisted because of it.” It’s a continuing fight. This was not a new fight, particularly. It happened after the First World War when dissent was crushed. Recent immigrants were deported. This is not a new thing in American history. And usually, to have something like the blacklist as pervasive as it was, you needed an external enemy. And we had the Soviet Union then. We have terrorism now. And under the cover of fighting this terrorism, you’re gonna have people like — people — our current attorney general, for example, who’s going to want to squash dissent, you know, who’s going to walk all over the Constitution, and you have to fight against that. You just have to keep fighting. It’s — doesn’t stop that fight.

Paulson: Thank you for joining us today.

Bernstein: Thank you for having me.

Paulson: Our guest today has been screenwriter Walter Bernstein. Thank you for joining us today on “Speaking Freely.”