Arts & Culture

Unrepentant

A profile of screenwriter Budd Schulberg (1914-2009), from the June 2004 issue of The Walrus

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• 4,369 words

THE fax machine whirrs as Budd Schulberg talks. The office in his coach house could pass for an archive or a shrine. Any wallspace not taken up by shelves of books is given over to posters from On The Waterfront and other movies he wrote back in the fifties, and to photographs of famous friends, most of them now gone. He’s practically buried under stacks of manuscripts and research files, but there’s no dust on Schulberg. He’s venting his frustration with a current project that’s taking too long to come together, a screen adaptation of his classic novel What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941 when Schulberg was just twenty-seven years old. Now, two months short of his ninetieth birthday, he doesn’t need to be reminded of the ultimate deadline.

“I just had a meeting in Manhattan with Ben Stiller,” he says, his words halting, then firing quickly, the function of a lifelong stutter. “He’s been trying to get Sammy produced for a few years now. I just hope the window doesn’t close on it.”

Thirty-four years ago Schulberg left the noise and hustle of the city and retreated here to Quiogue, a small town on the Atlantic side of Long Island. His home, more quaint than ostentatious, sits at the end of a private road that winds through a forest. An Arctic chill has fallen over the Eastern seaboard, making town and home even quieter than usual on this January day.

It’s also deep winter in the writer’s life. Once-thick waves of black hair have gone unruly and snow-white. He’s smaller now too, down a weight class, a distillation of his former self. Leaning on his cane, he shuffles over to the counter, where a fax has spilled into the tray.

The fax is a letter from Nicholas Kazan, whose father, the director Elia Kazan, brought Schulberg’s Waterfront screen-play to life. The movie won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including best picture. Elia Kazan won the Oscar for best director and Schulberg for best original screenplay. Their friendship endured until Kazan died last September at ninety-four.

Schulberg has invited Elia’s son Nicholas to attend an upcoming fiftieth-anniversary tribute to Waterfront in Hoboken, where it was filmed. But as Schulberg reads Nicholas’s faxed reply, his brow furrows. Elia’s son, it seems, is refusing to come, but he isn’t just begging off; he suggests he can’t distance himself far enough from his father’s legacy, the one Elia etched into the history books when he testified in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (huac). Kazan, like many who testified, carried the stigma all his life and clearly passed it on to his children. Nicholas has written that he has had to struggle to maintain “his sanity, not always successfully,” and that it would be too painful for him to attend.

“I don’t understand that,” Schulberg says. “It was his father who put him through school. . . . His work afforded him a nice lifestyle.”

But Schulberg isn’t really baffled by Nicholas Kazan’s anger – he knows Nicholas, a screenwriter, never forgave his father and has even contributed to a memorial to victims of the Hollywood blacklist who were banned from working in the movies. Nor is it the first time he’s seen this kind of response. For, like Elia Kazan, Schulberg has also borne the stigma of being a willing participant in the Committee hearings.

Unlike Elia Kazan, however, who professed to be conflicted about his decision to name names, Schulberg has never expressed a shred of doubt that testifying before huac was the right thing to do. Kazan later claimed he was criticized more viciously than the other co-operative witnesses, Schulberg included, because “less was expected of them.”

I ask Schulberg about Elia Kazan’s claim, wondering how many indelible memories the question provokes. May 23, 1951: room 226, the Old House Office Building. Will you state your full name, please? My name is Budd Wilson Schulberg. July 1, 1971: the Lion’s Head Tavern, a famous writers’ hang-out in Manhattan, the day the Times ran an obit for the blacklisted director Herbert Biberman, noting that Schulberg had named him. Hey, Budd, I thought you’d be sitting shiva for Biberman. Any number of rooms over the last fifty-thre years, when Schulberg walked in and someone else walked out, or Schulberg reached out to shake a hand and the other guy turned away.

After a pause, Schulberg says: “I’m sure that Elia was more criticized than I was.”

When Kazan received a lifetime-achievement award at the 1999 Oscars, Schulberg watched it on TV. He remembers a hesitant, flustered Kazan on stage with his statuette and the camera panning the audience and focusing on Steven Spielberg, Nick Nolte, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Ed Harris, who sat out the standing ovation, hands in their laps, while applause rained down.

“Even though the Academy’s [executive] committee voted unanimously to give [Kazan] the award, I worried about how he’d be received,” says Schulberg, shaking his head, wincing. “I felt he should have said more. I wish he had been up there longer. Those [audience members] who sat there didn’t know the story, couldn’t have known what it was like.”

Who can know what it was like? Those made famous and infamous by the huac investigation now live only in celluloid and transcripts: Joe McCarthy, the Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, who was never interested in Hollywood, but helped foster the general climate of fear in which the studio blacklist could happen; Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s bad lieutenant; the Hollywood Ten, the witnesses who were the first to be jailed for contempt of Congress. Estimates vary on the number of lives affected by the Hollywood blacklist.

huac subpoenaed about one hundred witnesses. (The exact number isn’t known because some testified in closed sessions.) Many artists, such as the screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front), were blacklisted without ever having been subpoenaed. A third of the known witnesses co-operated with huac by naming people they knew or suspected were members of the Communist Party. The rest, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to co-operate.

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who spent almost a year in jail for defying Congress, expressed a loathing of informants that is still typical among the blacklisted: “. . . show me the man who informs on his friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have before,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, “and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself. I do not know of one Hollywood informer who acted except out of duress and for money. . . .”

Schulberg, however, doesn’t neatly fit that profile. “I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for Budd Schulberg,” said Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation and author of Naming Names, which won the National Book Award in 1982. “He believed that Stalinism was a greater sin than McCarthyism,” Navasky says. “Am I persuaded by his argument? No, ultimately, I’m not.” But Schulberg “makes that argument to this day,” Navasky says; “I have no doubt that he holds this position honestly and seriously.”

Schulberg’s father, known as B.P., was one of Hollywood’s founding moguls. Young Buddy grew up “a Hollywood prince” on the lot, hearing stories about B.P. being excluded from what would have been his biggest deal, the launch of United Artists, and watching his friend, the naïve silent-screen star Clara Bow, crash and burn the instant talkies came in. “I could observe the wheels of The Industry turning from the inside,” he once wrote. “A little later I looked at the studio tycoons with an affection considerably this side of love. All my life, mine was a love-hate relationship with those tycoons, my father’s associates, rivals and enemies. . . .”

Buddy Schulberg grew up privileged but not sheltered. At Los Angeles High School, many classmates were impoverished Mexican immigrants. “Their families could barely feed them,” he remembers. “I begged the limo driver to drop me a couple of blocks away from the school. I felt a tremendous sense of guilt about my family’s advantages.”

Politically and intellectually, Schulberg’s key influences were his parents: B.P. was a New-Deal liberal, a rarity among the moguls; his mother, Adeline, broke ranks with more conventional studio wives and worked for charities that aided the poor. In 1931 she even travelled to the Soviet Union, bringing back a short-story anthology featuring Maxim Gorky and Isaac Babel, whose work left young Buddy in awe. Schulberg later wrote that Adeline’s glowing accounts of her trip effectively made her “Joe Stalin’s advance woman.”

Budd ended up at Dartmouth studying sociology, hoping to become a writer – not a screenwriter, but a novelist. In 1934, while a sophomore, he travelled to Moscow, where he took a Russian literature course and met Gorky and Babel at a writers’ congress.

His own writing, however, would have to wait. After graduation his first job was in Hollywood: $50 a week to read the equivalent of a novel a day and provide a plot synopsis. He also did some script work as a junior writer. One assignment, working with a ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald, would inspire Schulberg’s 1950 novel, The Disenchanted. Eventually he began working for Sam Goldwyn.

“Goldwyn had been very flattering to me, called me a genius,” Schulberg says. “[He] made a big production of it whenever I came into his office. He held the door open for me and bowed. I could do no wrong.”

That wouldn’t last, thanks to Schulberg’s extracurricular activities over the next few years. In late 1936 or early 1937, after being targeted by recruiters, he became involved with the Communist Party. As he later explained to huac, “I felt like many young men in that particular period; I was disturbed by the unemployment problem [and] the rising tide of aggression in Europe.” Screenwriter Stanley Lawrence, a recruiter for the Party, first invited him to join a Marxist study group for young people, telling Schulberg they were “leading the way . . . against the Nazis.” Schulberg eventually realized the study program was a system of indoctrination into the Party. His attendance at meetings became spotty within a year. After learning that all the writers he’d heard at the writers’ congress in Moscow were either dead or silenced, he stopped regarding the Soviet Union as a socialist utopia.

Much of Schulberg’s testimony before huac was about the Party’s attempts to influence how he wrote his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? The novel’s toxically ambitious protagonist, Sammy Glick, first appeared in a short story published in Liberty magazine. Party leaders were unenthusiastic about Schulberg’s plan to turn it into a novel, calling Glick an anti-Semitic stereotype. They suggested Party-friendly storylines.

However, when Party officials reviewed the book upon publication, they initially approved of it, says Schulberg. “But later on it was reviewed by [Communist Party president and screenwriter] John Henry Lawson and it was brought up at meetings that I chose not to attend to defend myself and my work. They said that I was expelled from the Party. The truth is, I quit.”

It wasn’t only the Communist Party that objected to Sammy. “My father begged me not to publish the book,” Schulberg says. “He said that it would ruin him and our family in Hollywood.” Sure enough, though his book was a hit with the critics, it made Schulberg a pariah in Hollywood as well.

The week the book was published, Schulberg could feel the chill when he showed up for work at MGM. For a week his phone didn’t ring. “Silence is the sure sign that you’re on your way out in Hollywood,” Schulberg says. When he was finally summoned, Goldwyn wasn’t holding the door open, he was holding his head in his hands. His message to Schulberg was as old as the Hollywood sign: you’ll never work in this town again.

“I had Lawson on the left and the moguls on the right attacking me, and nobody in the middle defending me,” Schulberg says. “I had to go east, to the publishing world, where the Communist Party and the studios couldn’t follow me.”

During his stint in the U.S. Navy from 1943–46, he worked with the director John Ford producing government films, including a documentary of the Nuremberg trials in 1946. By the early fifties, the Communists and Hollywood were a decade and three thousand miles in Schulberg’s wake. Then Igor Gouzenko in Ottawa and Whittaker Chambers in the U.S. exposed an extensive Soviet espionage network in North America, and the drive to flush out more spies gathered steam.

Today it’s reduced to labels: McCarthyism, fellow traveller, witch hunt, blacklist; and to soundbites: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? Have you no sense of decency, sir? For a half-century, it has played in reruns: allegorical episodes of The Twilight Zone; the black comedy of The Front, featuring Woody Allen and written by the blacklist survivor Walter Bernstein; Philip Roth’s novel I Married A Communist. Most recently, the play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, performed to critical acclaim off-Broadway.

The huac hearings into Communist activity in Hollywood were never just the investigation they claimed to be. They were, according to Navasky, “degradation ceremonies.” And in these ceremonies, Kazan looked too willing to play his part.

His testimony was a grandiose thing, a self-serving, wholly immodest analysis of his work. He called his 1945 movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn “a typically American story [that] could happen only here and a glorification of America not in material terms but in spiritual ones.” He claimed Panic in the Streets was “built around the subject of an incipient plague [in which] the hero is a doctor in the United States Health Service.” He portrayed himself as a patriot and took swipes at those who refused to testify.

Schulberg’s testimony was far more modest. He said he had written a few scripts, but none that he was “very proud to talk about.” The bulk of his testimony was about the Party’s attempts to influence what he wrote. I told them I had decided to write a book. The feeling of the group was, “That is fine. Writing is very important, books are very important, provided that they are useful weapons. He described how these pressure plays struck a nerve. It was very similar to what the writers in the Soviet Union were being told: that anything that helped the five-year plan, that made the workers happier in their role, was a good book. He described his crisis of conscience about Communism, one that issued from the writers’ congress he attended in Moscow. Every man who appeared on the platform . . . by 1938 had either been shot or silenced, and after that none of these writers, who were trying to follow their individual line, were able to function any more.

While Kazan obligingly painted a picture of the Red Menace that was useful for the Committee, Schulberg’s testimony was more problematic, and his picture of those in the Party’s rank and file vastly more complex. He suggested that a “large percentage” of the membership wasn’t involved in or even aware of the Communist Party’s espionage work. He said that most who joined were “idealistic,” “innocents” who had hoped that Communism would bring about “peace on earth and good will to men”; they were fodder for the “conspirators” and “manipulators.” He testified that his quitting the party was typical, that turnover in membership was “constant.” He pleaded for compassion. He made a case for the suspension of the blacklist: [Since] many of the people were in no way really subversive, they got into something that they really didn’t understand. Industries should not be encouraged to crack down on them.

Not everyone appreciates the distinctions between Kazan’s and Schulberg’s testimonies, however. “Both Kazan and Schulberg had tremendous guilt feelings that they continuously rationalized in order to live with themselves,” says Judy Chaikin, director of an Emmy-nominated documentary about the blacklist. “[Schulberg’s] testimony was a vain attempt to cleanse himself before the Committee and save his career.”

Schulberg’s explanation of his decision to testify does raise questions:

Point: He says he wasn’t subpoenaed by huac but rather volunteered to testify – but omits the fact that he notified the Committee of his willingness to testify two days after he had been named during the testimony of screenwriter Richard Collins.

Point: He says he named only those “who had already been named” – but, as Navasky points out, one of them, a writer called Tillie Lerner, had not been previously named. In fact, Schulberg was the only witness ever to name Lerner; a mitigating factor here is that Lerner was a novelist who worked outside the Hollywood blacklist.

Point: He says that the naming of names was moot because government moles in the party had already secured membership rolls – but this glosses over the fact that some individuals weren’t blacklisted until they were named in a public session of huac.

Over the years it has been suggested that On The Waterfront was Kazan’s and Schulberg’s way of justifying their testimony before huac – that their sympathetic, even heroic portrayal of a conflicted but eventually co-operative witness, Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando), was a way of defending their actions. (Read whatever significance you like into the fact that in Schulberg’s subsequent novelization of Waterfront Malloy is slain for his testimony.) Kazan and Schulberg maintained that the character of Malloy was based on the experiences of real-life dockworkers, including Tony Michael DeVincenzo, who had testified before a commission investigating the penetration of organized crime into the unions.

huac did, however, indirectly change the course of Waterfront’s production. The playwright Arthur Miller and Kazan had been friends and artistic collaborators, most famously when Kazan directed Miller’s Death of A Salesman on Broadway. In the early fifties Miller was working on a screenplay, tentatively titled The Hook, about labour-racketeering on the Brooklyn docks, with plans for Kazan to direct. But the friendship between Miller and Kazan was one of many ended by huac. Miller refused to co-operate with the committee and when Kazan testified, their collaboration on The Hook ended. Kazan recruited Schulberg to take over for Miller.

“It was going to take months, I figured, to win the trust of these people,” says Schulberg about the extensive research he did before writing the script. “As it turned out, it would take three years.”

How did a stuttering Jewish scion of Hollywood and former Communist Party member penetrate the world of a bunch of longshoremen, largely Catholic, mostly Irish and Italian, almost entirely suspicious of outsiders and justifiably afraid of mob reprisals?

Schulberg did it by first winning over Father John Corridan, the priest who inspired Karl Malden’s character in Waterfront. With Father Corridan’s blessing, Schulberg met the workers, ate in their homes, drank in their bars. He found common ground by talking about his lifelong passion for boxing.

Winning over his subjects wasn’t the only challenge. The big Hollywood studios had no interest in a story about the mob and a dockworkers’ union, and even less interest in Kazan, who had just directed a couple of box-office bombs. They eventually found an independent producer, Sam Spiegel. “He was able to get money for the film so long as the production did not exceed $800,000 [and] we had Marlon Brando in the lead role – which meant dropping Frank Sinatra, who was promised the role,” says Schulberg. “And even though you’d want your producer out of the story process, Spiegel had a talent for this. Over and over he’d say we’d have to ‘open it back up,’ go in and rewrite. I hated it [but] Sam helped make the film better. And most of all, he got it made.”

The difficulty they had in making Waterfront dispels the notion that Kazan and Schulberg earned special favour in Hollywood by co-operating with huac. Before Spiegel came along, Schulberg had mortgaged his farm in Pennsylvania so he could pay for the time spent researching Waterfront.

After Waterfront Schulberg wrote two more films in quick succession: The Harder They Fall, an adaptation of his boxing novel starring Humphrey Bogart, and A Face In The Crowd, a prescient indictment of the narcotic influence of television. But he never won another Academy Award, nor did he write another novel like Sammy or The Disenchanted; he wrote non-fiction, reminiscences of literary legends, his Hollywood youth, and boxing. At the age of forty-one, with On the Waterfront, Schulberg had reached the summit.

Soon after Waterfront, the blacklist began to crack. Screenwriters on the list were finding work, without credit, with the aid of front men. At the 1956 Academy Awards, the prize for best screenplay went to Robert Rich for The Brave One and the audience was told that Rich couldn’t attend the ceremony. It was an open secret that Rich was Dalton Trumbo. A year later, Joe McCarthy himself died and in 1960, the director Stanley Kubrick hired Trumbo to write Spartacus and gave him full credit. Over the next decade, blacklisted artists started to go back to work and some softened their criticism of those who had co-operated with huac. Trumbo, for one, allowed that those who co-operated could have had their reasons: “There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides,” he said in a speech to the Screen-writers Guild in 1970. “Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange.”

Schulberg’s convictions, meanwhile, have remained steadfast. In one of several interviews with Navasky during the 1970s, he said, “My guilt is what we did to the Czechs, not to [blacklisted] Ring Lardner. I testified because I felt guilty for having contributed unwittingly to intellectual and artistic as well as racial oppression.” In defending his decisions he made ad hominem attacks on those who refused to testify; Trumbo, Schulberg said, “wrote one good novel, and that’s it” and most of the others “settled for being hacks.”

Back at the coach house, Schulberg is at his desk, reviewing a fundraising letter for an inner-city writing project that he launched in Watts, California, after the riots of 1964. The community project is a dot that you might connect to those guilt-ridden limo rides to Los Angeles High. For many years, Watts was as close as Schulberg came to the Hollywood studios.

Waterfront did open doors for him in Hollywood, but Schulberg chose not to walk through them. He says he learned not to trust Hollywood long ago and now trusts it less than ever. He says “the tyranny of the box office” is as ruthless as the blacklist ever was. “You either go along with the system – conform to what is expected to be a hit – or you have very tough going,” he says.

Schulberg is having trouble working up enthusiasm for Ben Stiller’s attempt to adapt What Makes Sammy Run? for the screen. He opens the script to the first pages, in which stars from a bygone era, playing themselves, recall a young Sammy Glick. “It calls for Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, and Gregory Peck,” Schulberg says. “I said we’ll have to move on this while these actors are still around. Now Peck is gone. You could lose the whole connection to that period.”

DreamWorks optioned Sammy but Steven Spielberg, the studio’s boss and ringleader of the silent protest against Kazan at the 1999 Oscars, is in no rush to produce it. “He said that it was too controversial after 9/11,” Schulberg says. “What does 9/11 have to do with it?”

In the novel, a well-respected but doomed producer named Sidney Fine-man gives Sammy Glick a piece of advice: “This is a business with a very short memory. It doesn’t matter what you did last year or the year before.” Fineman’s observation proved to be painfully prophetic. B.P. Schulberg, who inspired the Fineman character, gambled away the family fortune, lost his job, and couldn’t get any of his former studio cronies to return his calls. By the time B.P. died in 1957, his son says, he was “a forgotten and broken man.”

The huac investigation and the blacklist it produced, however, is something that Hollywood has never forgotten. The memory is now fuzzy, details have been lost, scenes cut. Still, enough was remembered to deny Elia Kazan an unalloyed tribute and to make his last days haunted ones. I ask Schulberg if he’s worried he might get a similar reception in Hoboken for the Waterfront tribute.

“I doubt it,” he says. “I’ll go to the tribute. Karl Malden probably won’t go and it’s doubtful that Brando will. But Eva Marie Saint is still in good health. But there’s probably nobody else left. There is the man – a boy then – who came up to Terry Malloy’s coop . . . the boy who said, ‘A pigeon for a pigeon.’”

Long ago, Schulberg offered Elia Kazan a piece of advice lifted from Jean Renoir: in a tough situation, please yourself. Budd Schulberg will attend the tribute because it will please him. He won’t let anyone spoil the celebration, and if anyone tries he won’t be shamed into silence.

If he learned one thing from Elia Kazan’s example, it will be that he should soak up the applause, take his time, and say more.