The last chapter in Ring Lardner Jr.’s new memoir, I’d Hate Myself in the Morning (Nation Books), is called “Sole Survivor.” When Lardner, who died October 31, wrote it he was indeed (a) the last of a family of four boys with a famous father, the humorist and sportswriter Ring Lardner; and (b) the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten, who gained renown in 1947 when they refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” They were indicted, prosecuted and convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison– in Ring’s case for a year.
Among the first victims of the great Red purge to come, The Ten, also known as the Unfriendly Ten, are historically important because they were willing to risk prison to help prevent it, putting First Amendment principle ahead of personal convenience.
At the time, Billy Wilder, the witty director, cruelly and unjustly said, “Of the Unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.” Ring, who had already won his first academy award for Woman of the Year, starring Katharine Hepburn, was one of the two. The other was his buddy Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, who went on to win an Oscar for The Brave One, a movie he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich.
At the time, the tabloid press and newsreels did their best to portray the Ten as obstreperous, dogmatic followers of the party line. Each of the Ten was, in fact, following his conscience, albeit they arrived at their decision on how to confront HUAC after collective deliberation with counsel, some of whom were party lawyers, others not.
Lardner’s famously elegant response to the committee was a clue to how wrong that image was. “I could answer your question,” he said, but “I would hate myself in the morning”–hence his memoir’s title.
Even during the blacklist years, when he made his primary living writing under various pseudonyms, he never gave up on his social commitment. Thus in 1955, when Hannah Weinstein set up a production company in London and chose for its maiden effort in the new medium of television The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lardner, along with fellow blacklistees like Abe Polonsky and Walter Bernstein, leapt at the opportunity for, as he put it, commentary-by-metaphor “on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America.”
After he was finally graduated from the blacklist–it took twelve years–and able to write under his own name, he gave us M*A*S*H, the black comedy that was, on the surface, about life in a medical unit during the Korean war; but beneath the surface, like Joe Heller’s Catch-22, it was about the absurdities and contradictions of war itself.
Although his public positions were militant, privately he was a gentle soul. His main target was often himself. He would delight in telling how he recommended to David O. Selznick that he not acquire Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing picture of its time, “because I objected on political grounds to the glorification of slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan.” When progressives praised him for his principled stand against HUAC he would observe that the Ten did the only thing they could do under the circumstances “short of behaving like complete shits.”
The loss of Lardner is a loss for both The Nation and the nation. One part Marxist democrat and two parts humanist-rationalist, he stayed true to his vision to the end. A few years ago he listed in The Nation “some of the strange things Americans believe 200 years after Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason.” (Typical entries: “Eating fish is good for the brain”; “There never was a Holocaust.”) He felt no comment was called for. But when a reader wrote to complain that “Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a tiny flashlight shining here and there…” Lardner responded, “What he sees as a tiny flashlight, I call, in the words of Cicero, ‘the light and lamp of life.'”
In an introduction to his memoir, I call Lardner “recrimination-challenged.” In fact he seemed incapable of bitterness. Although he did once say of Martin Berkeley, a screenwriter who named a record 161 names before HUAC and specialized in writing animal pictures, “I always maintained that was because he couldn’t write human dialogue.”