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.
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.