WASHINGTON – In the early 1950s,Walter Bernstein couldn’t get a job. Until 1960,the Hollywood screenwriter was forced to write under a pseudonym.
Bernstein was one of many writers,actors,directors and producers who were put on the infamous Hollywood Blacklist and categorized as unemployable,because the government believed they supported the Communist Party. Many in the film industry lost their jobs. Careers were ruined.
Sixty years after the list emerged,Hollywood veterans gathered to talk about the aftermath of the dark era.
“I was lucky,” Bernstein said,during the panel discussion at Washington’s National Press Club. “I survived. I made a living. Not a very good living,but a living.”
For 10 years,Bernstein wrote under numerous “fronts” to have his work produced. He credits his “resilience and very strong sense of humor” for helping him through this period.
Bernstein is famous now for writing the screenplays for “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Train,” although at the time he did not receive any credit.
The writer remembers one of his pen names belonged to a girlfriend of a friend who had always wanted to be a writer. Bernstein wrote under her name,and she took 25 percent of sales. He described the young lady as being extremely happy for finally becoming a writer,even if it wasn’t her own work. The success was short-lived,however,when her psychoanalyst told the girl she had “a false sense of happiness,” and to stop pretending to write Bernstein’s work. This went on for years; Bernstein switching among countless other names.
Michael Winship,moderator for the event and president of the Writers Guild of America,described the list in a press release as,“an anti-Communist witch-hunt … the blacklist was a vicious whispering campaign that bullied and intimidated.”
Many see parallels in government today,such as similarities between anti-Communism and anti-terrorism.
“It is an example of what this country does when it feels it has a threat,” Bernstein said. “We suspend civil liberties.”
Victor Navasky,author of “Naming Names,” an account of the Hollywood Blacklist,also spoke.
“It was a time of great fear,” he said. “I think some lessons have been learned. In a time of hysteria,what are we protecting that we are willing to give up – our way of life?”
Actress Marsha Hunt,90,also joined the discussion. Hunt made 52 films before she was blacklisted. After that,she made only 10 more,although she continued to act on Broadway and on television.
In 1947,Hunt joined other motion picture stars,including Humphrey Bogart,Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall,as part of the Committee for the First Amendment on a trip to Washington. They came to protest hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee,which was questioning people in the film industry on their values and affiliations.
“They were going to be asked to reveal their beliefs,” Hunt said. “We were appalled. That goes against everything I grew up in America to believe.”
Hunt described their role at the hearings as “concerned citizens,not as movie people.”
“We were playing roles that were new to us,” she said. “We were not part of a motion-picture drama,but a really real drama,one that we felt strongly about.”
The committee’s trip to Washington was the last time they met.
Bogart later wrote an article in “Photoplay” magazine,one of the first film magazines,saying he was “duped” into supporting the Hollywood Ten,not realizing there really were Communists. Hunt called his regression “heartbreaking.”
“The wind came right out of our sails,” she said,sadly. “Discretion,caution began to rule the day – and it grew.”
Two years later Hunt was blacklisted. Struggling to find work,she dedicated herself to helping various charities around the world.
As abruptly as the Blacklist began it ended,leaving people to question why.
“I think they ran out of Communists,” Bernstein said.