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Part of Our Time, Too | The Nation

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Part of Our Time, Too

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Given the late Dalton Trumbo's various claims to verbal fame--highest-paid screenwriter of his day, most vocal member of the Hollywood Ten, polemicist extraordinaire, winner under the pseudonym "Robert Rich" of the 1957 Academy Award for best screenplay (The Brave One), blacklist-buster, world-class letter writer--it's not surprising that his words should float back into the news at Oscar time.

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But it is poetic injustice that it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who should quote them, in a New York Times Op-Ed piece attacking those protesting the Motion Picture Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan, the director known both for the power of his films and for having named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Trumbo's gracious words, uttered in 1970 on the occasion of his belatedly receiving a Laurel Award (the highest honor bestowed by the Screen Writers Guild) were, as quoted by Schlesinger:

"When you who are in your 40s or under look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none: there were only victims."

There is a minor problem with Schlesinger's invocation of Trumbo's words--namely, that the only exception Trumbo seemed to make to his generous admonition was for Kazan himself, of whom he told an interviewer a few years later, "Kazan is one of those for whom I feel contempt, because he carried down men less capable of defending themselves than he."

Be that as it may, the mail just recently brought Trumbo back to us again, in the form of a letter with enclosures from Trumbo's son, Christopher, prompted by the republication of Murray Kempton's classic Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties, with a new introduction by David Remnick. Kempton, who had called Dalton Trumbo to discuss the "Robert Rich" award, had some cruel things to say about Hollywood Communists in Part of Our Time, and Trumbo took the occasion to set him straight. (Trumbo wrote about it in this magazine, too, on May 4, 1957.) When Christopher Trumbo saw Remnick's introduction reprinted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, he combed his father's files and found the exchange, from spring 1957, that follows:

Dear Murray Kempton:

I'm so extremely sorry I didn't catch your name at the beginning of our telephone conversation instead of the end, for I'd have warmed up much sooner and perhaps given you more to go on. I know your work well, and was especially moved by your piece on the Wellman children. I was alert for Part of Our Time, and received probably the first local copy.

Being classified a ruin before I have finished the course troubled me somewhat; but my wounds were soothed, if such is possible, by the quality of prose that inflicted them. I'd rather be stilettoed than rasped to death, and you handle the sharper instrument with disconcerting skill.

Sometime when we see each other, as I hope we shall, I'll explain certain accounts which I think were given inaccurately. By that I don't mean the sources were dishonest, but that memory itself marvelously parallels necessity. At least I've found mine does, and as I grow older my sense of personal uniqueness diminishes steadily.

Another objection might reasonably stem from the contempt you feel for those who write motion pictures. Such contempt, of course, isn't uncommon among intellectuals. Indeed, it's often seemed to me that Hollywood is as necessary to the intellectuals as the nigrah to his cracker neighbors. We're going down, boys, but look at him.

Having spent long hours, at their request, with such disparate characters as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Scott Fitzgerald and John McNulty (how fortunate for my story they're all dead!), attempting to explain a writing technique they wanted very much to learn, I can assure you consistent performance of my job requires a high order of skill. The four men I mention didn't fail because their intellects were too lofty, nor because they were too pure of heart, nor because they held the medium in contempt. Successful in other fields of writing, they failed as screenwriters because they had no talent for that particular and difficult form.

All of this is by way of getting around to a second instance in which I think your informants served you badly. I worked in motion pictures from 1936 to 1947. During the eleven-year period I had a hand in over twenty-five films. The first three or four years I count my apprenticeship, for I am a slow and stubborn learner. Your research man credited me with five obscure pictures written in 1938 and 1939 as "a representative list" of the films by which my merit was to be judged. Life Magazine did the same thing.

To speak of credits and money is a dull business, but your Hollywood chapter mentions both to the disparagement of blacklisted persons. I speak here only of myself, for that's a subject I know a great deal about. I assume that others could make similar complaints on their own behalf. In 1947, when the hearings were held, I held a straight five-year contract at $3,000 per week--the highest salary ever paid to that date for writing services alone on a long term basis.

The contract had other interesting features. It was the second in Hollywood history to have no morals clause, the first having been signed by me three years previously. The studio had no option clauses and no power of suspension. There was no limit to the amount of time I could spend writing each script, although I had the option to switch the deal from the weekly salary to a flat $75,000 for the script whenever, in my judgment, it seemed profitable for me to do so. I was guaranteed choice of assignments, and could read and reject stories indefinitely at full salary. I had the right to take such vacations as I chose for as long as I chose at the end of each assignment, the contract being extended by the length of my vacation period, but the studio having no reciprocal rights to impose vacations upon me. I could work wherever I chose, in California or out of it, and the terms under which the studio could summon me for consultation were carefully stipulated.

I can only add that the proprietors of M-G-M were never deceived about my political affiliations, and that so long as I worked there I informed each producer of those affiliations before I accepted an assignment from him. There were no objections. The point is this: without sighing for past glories (to which I wouldn't return if I could), how does one account for such a contract on the basis of my representative work as given in Part of Our Time?

It would, of course, be ridiculous to deny that one is "not very attractive," or "not especially appetizing." But one can, perhaps, cavil at the idea that his "habits were Hollywood's" if he had spent most of his Hollywood years in quiet family life a hundred miles away from the city and twenty miles from a telephone. Or again, one might prefer to read that his prose had descended from a style that won a National Book Award "to the muddier depths of a Nash-Kelvinator ad," if only to understand how precipitous and extreme the decline actually was. And one could even turn a little angry to read that the practice of his profession, so necessary if a growing family is to be sustained, had turned into a "pathetic effort to cling" to what he formerly had.

There are, of course, other books which touch upon the subject. Paul Blanshard in The Right to Read states that Johnny Got His Gun was "produced during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact." The book was finished six months before the pact in a period when the CP was actively hostile to pacifist tendencies. If my beliefs were as powerful as my hopes that the Blanshard book will go into a second edition, I'd ask for a correction and probably get it, as I'm sure I'd get a correction of fact, as opposed to opinion, from you. I wouldn't, of course, ask [Ralph de] Toledano to retract his statement in Seeds of Treason that Alger Hiss brought me to the San Francisco Conference, for he wouldn't do it. Nor would there be great point in asking Alistair Cooke to reconsider his judgment, in A Generation on Trial, that the committee and its victims were similarly "squalid and rowdy."

The truth is that little by little one grows accustomed to the public picture of oneself. Each newspaper and every book adds something to the portrait. New features emerge from the shadows, the imperfections stand out ever more sharply, the general ugliness acquires perspective and dimension. And there is nothing one can do to stop it except that which one would not do. So one averts his face while the mould cools and the materials harden to their last, irrevocable shape.

One comprehends also that the contemporary records which have fashioned that visage will become source material for future history; that some person yet unborn--perhaps one's own grandchild--searching through dusty library shelves for the minutia of the past's truth, will discover a face looking up at him: the unappetizing and unattractive face of a squalid mediocrity with no streak of goodness in him, having preferred to waste his life with treason and muddy prose for the advancement of wicked causes. It will be my face he sees.

When my children say to me: why does this man call you a traitor, why does that one give a false setting to your book, why does another say your worst work typifies your whole, why does the reporter call you disloyal and the judge confirm you criminal?--I answer, "The man lies." I know, of course, that he really doesn't; that no man can be called a liar for writing what he believes to be the truth. I use the word because it comforts my children and is instantly understood.

What I don't explain to them--but shall later--is that these men and other men and I, caught up in the furies and complexities of an ugly time and searching for the truth of them, have turned cruel and frightened and immensely wicked. We seek so passionately that we strike down all who seem to stand between us and the answer, or even those who assert a different answer. We have been touched with the madness of moral infallibility, and we know it, and we must put the blame from us, so I put it on you, and you on me, and all of us upon everyone else. The vision in the mirror has struck us blind. Some of us, revolving upon our private center and firing steadily, will withstand the fury, and some will fall. The victors will shine forth as heroes--perhaps: the fallen will be forever execrated as villains--possibly.

For myself, I've long since concluded that very few of us are conscious liars, that none of us acts except upon a principle he calls good, and that many of us are closer together than we think. In the meantime, I look forward and backward. I shouldn't like to go through the last fifteen years again; but having got through them I have the most curious feeling they were inevitable. Each month and year has been an experience quite outside of ordinary experience. Having acquired the experience, one would not, of course, wish to move backward in time simply to avoid the principal thing one has gained.

Under the pleasant goad of three children who will require educations, I labor hard but not too uncomfortably in such scraggly vineyards as come to my attention, and accumulate paradoxes only a farceur could imagine. I warn my clients the fee for a second job will be twice that of the first. By emphasizing the hellish peril of having me in their houses, I compel them to drive thirty miles to my back door. I invent assumed names which, spoken to their secretaries, bring them leaping to the telephone like startled hares. I permit them one conference at the beginning of a script and bid them come well prepared. A second conference is granted upon completion, but between conferences not a word nor a page. For the good of their souls I surround myself with legally phony bank accounts, mysterious rituals, and awesome oaths.

Only the boundless courage of cupidity enables them to survive such an ordeal. Once they emerge from it, clutching a script as good or as bad as their taste, I crown them with the accolade Great and Dauntless Enemy of the Blacklist. They stagger off in a glow of moral grandeur, better, sounder-sleeping men for my ministrations.

When good luck with the first job impels them to return for a second at double fee, the game turns a little grimmer, and I can feel in their eyes the soft, phosphorescent lights of resentment when my back is turned. The third time around it's fireworks. Charges of "I kept you alive when you were starving!" Counter-charges of "You came to me a pygmy, and now you tower above your kind!" Some of them remain for the diploma course; others stride angrily off to disaster. I feel no rancor toward the lost, for by that time replacements are confidently moving up the ladder.

The advent of Robert Rich has, of course, been a godsend. I'll tell you about it and others some day. It has kept me happily absorbed in tossing dead cats and false leads into the steamy cesspool that now lies exposed for all to see. It has done a lot of good. People are laughing again, and all the solemn asses of the Academy (who broke the story) have taken shelter behind something strongly resembling the Fifth: refusal to talk "on advice of counsel." Your own article was a delight, and I'm indebted to you for the very pleasant way you dealt with me. I don't give much of a damn whether the blacklist ever ends, but it's bad, and others do care, and with good cause, so I try to keep an oar in.

In the meantime, I work on a play. If I'm as competent as I think I am, it or a second or a third will ultimately deliver me to New York and a different and very difficult medium. If I'm not competent, it'll be an excellent joke. There is nothing funnier than misjudgment of one's own self. The point, of course, is to see it.

Cordially,

DALTON TRUMBO

Postscript: I'd not reveal so much of myself to you if I didn't admire your work. Even so, and knowing it's not necessary, innate canniness compels me to risk offending you by the addition of that accursed word "personal," which is always a stain upon friendliness.

Dear Mr. Trumbo,

I sent your letter down to [New York Post editor] Jimmy Wechsler; somehow, it seemed to me that your personal label did not apply to the society of non-calcified ex-Bolsheviks. He was as moved as I was by it; we were thinking what a wonderful Hollywood columnist you would be. I'm home now, and he still has the letter, so I'm writing from memory.

But I think I can remember most of your comments, if only because so many of them are my own when I think about that book. [Conservative journalist] Westbrook Pegler wrote me a few months ago that what I had said about him was a myth, and that it is a crime to embalm myths about a man even in a book of very little circulation.

I can only plead, pompous as it sounds, that I have come to believe that it is the greatest of crimes to write about a man whose face you have never seen, since writing is related to the subject more than the audience, and a man you have never seen is unlikely to recognize himself in what you say about him, and thus no engagement is possible. The book is full of that, and my only hope is that it taught me something.

You, by the way, have taught me something too, even before you wrote, I think. I would suspect, without knowing them, that your children know that we lied, because you have outlived what Trotsky used to call, in his coldness, the verdict of history. And I think you have told some of us at least that we lied, because you have proved, as many others have, the capacity of the human spirit to refuse entombment under some general label.

"Part of Our Time" unfortunately seems to be enjoying an autumnal flower on the remainder shelves. A reprint house approached me about issuing it a year or so ago; I suggested that I do an introduction saying a little bit about what time had taught me; and the project seems to have withered since. If it ever revives, I should make the condition that you write the introduction.

I live on Edgerstoune Road, Princeton, N.J. I hope, when you come to New York, you'll call me. There is a project in which I think you'd be a tremendous help. Thanks so much again,

Fraternally,

MURRAY KEMPTON

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