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Budd Schulberg

June 21, 2012

Tags: Hollywood, the blacklist, biography, interviewing

Budd Schulberg
From time to time, I'm going to invite guest bloggers to post and to invite your comments. This time, my guest is Marion Meade, biographer of Dorothy Parker, Buster Keaton, Woody Allen, and Nathanael West. I thought of her when I saw so many references to Budd Schulberg on this blog. Below you will find an account of her firsthand experience with a very controversial subject.

BUDD, BLACKLIST, BIOGRAPHY, AND THE INTERVIEWS THAT GOT AWAY

My first meeting with Budd Schulberg took place on December 9, 1982, in midtown Manhattan, in a dark chilly apartment that appeared to be uninhabited. (A pied-a-terre, he explained.) I was surprised to be introduced to his attorney, the first time in my experience that an interview subject brought legal backup.

Previous subjects of mine had lived hundreds of years ago. Now, with Dorothy Parker, I was embarking on the life of a 20th century person and much of my material would come from those who’d known her. Budd Schulberg was one of hundreds I solicited for interviews, one of about a hundred who agreed to speak with me. In the Thirties, Parker, her husband Alan Campbell, and Schulberg had worked together at United Artists.

There was no problem setting up the interview, no question of mine that he refused to answer, no reason for his lawyer’s presence. Schulberg turned out to be a perfectly pleasant guy with a bad stutter but astute observations and excellent recall. The trouble came later.

Continuing to pursue interviews, I began running into people who instantly asked “Did you talk to Budd?” Or "You didn’t talk to Budd, did you?” To these queries I gave the same truthful answer.
In 1982, Schulberg was a prestigious writer honored for his novels (“What Makes Sammy Run?”) and screenplays (“On the Waterfront”). But an ugly scent of betrayal and controversy clung to him. A Communist Party member in the Thirties, he resigned after the Party attempted to influence his writing. In 1951, as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he “named names” of other Party members.

I was fully aware of the blacklist and its implications, the wrecked lives, the broken careers, the prison terms, the legacy of hatred. At the same time, I also assumed that decades afterward a person like myself would be accepted as an impartial biographer simply trying to document a life encompassing both the literary and political. Obviously I was not going to ignore Parker’s left wing political activities or her subsequent blacklisting. What harm in a conversation with Schulberg? Was this the Hatfields and McCoys?

As I soon discovered, the blacklist has no sell-by date. It was incredible how fast doors were slammed in my face. The following individuals treated me like poison:

Ring Lardner, Jr. : screenwriter, one-time buddy of Schulberg’s, member of the “Hollywood Ten.” Served one year in prison, blacklisted.
Arnaud d’Usseau: playwright, screenwriter, Parker’s intimate friend and collaborator on “The Ladies of the Corridor,” blacklisted.
Lester Cole: screenwriter, another member of the “Hollywood Ten,” served ten months in prison, blacklisted.

Lillian Hellman; playwright, screenwriter, Parker’s friend and one-time executor. Given her contempt for biographers in general she would not likely have cooperated, no matter who I interviewed. But consorting with squealers and stool pigeons probably did not further my cause.

Ian McLellan Hunter, Oscar-winning screenwriter for “Roman Holiday” (fronting for blacklisted Dalton Trumbo), later blacklisted himself. Hunter agreed to see me but after learning that I had conversed with Budd—and had failed to clear our interview with Hellman--he physically bundled me out of his apartment and down the hall to the elevator. Left behind was my untouched glass of ice tea.

At the time, these rejections upset me a lot. In hindsight, I don’t believe that “What Fresh Hell Is This?” suffered because a number of other blacklisted writers and actors and their families were quite willing to speak. (My biggest regret was Lardner whose father had been a particularly favorite friend of Parker’s.) Still, it would have been smart to hold off on any contact with Budd until after seeing his enemies. My other choice was to evade or lie, which is what I would do today.
Over the years there were other reasons to consult Schulberg. The young Budd had been a friend of Nathanael West’s in Hollywood and so became a minor player in “Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney.” The last time I spoke to him, shortly before his death in 2009, he agreed to contribute a youthful picture of himself for the photo section. No conflicts over the blacklist and Schulberg arose in researching West who died in 1940.









Comments

  1. June 21, 2012 11:19 AM EDT
    It is not unusual for biographers to be tainted by their subjects. An editor asked me to do a biography of Katherine Anne Porter. When he talked to Porter's literary executor, he was asked, "What biographies has Rollyson written?" The editor replied, "Well, Lillian Hellman, for one." "LILLIAN HELLMAN!" she replied. "I can't have a biographer of that woman working on Katherine Anne Porter." And that was the end of my Katherine Anne Porter biography. Schulberg, the author of a memorable memoir, should make a great biographical subject. Any takers?
    - Carl Rollyson
  2. June 21, 2012 3:41 PM EDT
    One hundred boxes at Dartmouth. The history of Schulberg and his family is the history of Hollywood for more than half of the 20th century. But the subject is not for the squeamish.
    - Marion Meade
  3. June 21, 2012 4:29 PM EDT
    This is an outstanding post though it would probably be more accurate to call it a mini-memoir. I've read about that blacklisting era and the participants on all sides. And it still makes me very angry that the country was allowed to blow up its beliefs about civil rights. *sigh* Like today.

    Thank you so much for this fascinating insight. I understand why your interview subjects made the choice they did, but in doing so they undermined their points of view if not their integrity.
    - Lauren
  4. April 8, 2013 5:34 AM EDT
    Thanks much for such an insightful account of researching something where wounds are still fresh. "Left behind was my untouched glass of ice tea" -- pretty much captures it all, doesn't it?
    - Steve Taravella
  5. May 21, 2013 2:36 PM EDT
    I really like your website and your writing style.
    - Tennis Academy