Walter Bernstein survived the Hollywood blacklist—and lived to be 101

The screenwriter was my friend and my hero, a brave opponent of right-wing repression during a dark period of our history.

When the brilliant songwriter George Gershwin passed away, the writer John O’Hara famously declared that Gershwin had died on July 11, 1937, “but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

My friend and colleague Walter Bernstein died over the weekend and I don’t have to believe it either.

You should know about Walter. He was 101 years old and lived a remarkable, courageous life of bounteous creativity and fierce political commitment right up to the end. For many years, we served together on the governing council of the Writers Guild of America East, and during the decade when I was its president especially, I thought of him as my consigliere, the person I could call on for sage counsel and reassurance when the union was in a scrape and needed help. Many, many others felt the same.

He would hear the arguments pro and con, and then from his vast well of experience come up with a simple, fair solution. Often, he’d sum up with a succinct line from an old vaudeville sketch he liked: “Pay the two dollars.” In other words, sometimes you have to concede a minor point because otherwise, you’ll wind up with a much bigger problem. Compromise isn’t always the enemy of progress.

A noted writer for movies and TV, and a fervent political advocate, Walter’s credits include Fail Safe (about a nuclear confrontation between the US and Russia), Semi-Tough (pro football and EST!), The Molly Maguires (a hell of a film about coal mines, labor and social justice) and The Front, perhaps the film closest to his heart and most resonant with his own life.

That’s because Walter was one of the last living survivors of the Hollywood blacklist. During the 1950s into the early ’60s, it was an ugly, unholy registry of writers, producers, performers and directors who were unofficially banned from working in the TV and movie industry because of their left-wing political views and affiliations.

The Front tells the story of a night cashier/part-time bookie, played by Woody Allen, who agrees to pose as the author of television scripts actually written by a group of writers who have to keep their identities hidden for fear of McCarthyism’s fierce retribution. At first apolitical and cynical, over the course of the movie Allen’s character slowly grows a spine and ends up in prison when he tells the House Un-American Activities Committee to do something I continue to believe is anatomically impossible.

In any case, see the movie. Walter tells the story much better than I do.

The Front was based on personal experience. During the blacklist, he wrote scripts under a variety of pseudonyms for such TV shows as Danger and You Are There, a series hosted by Walter Cronkite in which historical incidents, from the death of Socrates to the trial of Susan B. Anthony, were covered as news events.

Walter was a member of the American Communist Party until 1956 but quit after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s atrocities. “I had left the Party,” he wrote, “but not the idea of socialism, the possibility that there could be a system not based in inequality and exploitation.”

There was nothing illegal about his party membership and he felt no need to disavow or apologize for his beliefs. But for eight years in films and eleven years in television, his political views were used against him to deny his livelihood. He was listed in a notorious Cold War publication called “Red Channels”—a list of “151 actors, writers, directors, producers, painters and musicians, together with their alleged Communist or Communist-front affiliations,” Walter wrote in his fascinating memoir, Inside Out. “‘Red Channels’ became the bible of the blacklist movement. There were eight listings for me, all of them true…

“I would have felt insulted if I had not been included. On the other hand, inclusion in ‘Red Channels,’ however honorable, meant an automatic blacklisting.  No one ever questioned this; it was simply accepted by the networks and movie studios. There was no government edict behind it, no proof of illegality, moral turpitude or, even worse, lack of talent.”

As Associated Press national writer Hillel Italie wrote in Walter’s obituary, the result of this rabid anti-Communist paranoia, “ruined the lives of many of his peers and led some to suicide. Job offers to Bernstein were rescinded and onetime friends stopped speaking to him. FBI agents looked through his trash, showed up at his door and followed him outside.”

The government wanted him to name names and Walter would not, and so he lived in the shadows for all those years, until a few brave souls in the industry broke the fever of the blacklist and began putting those falsely accused of disloyalty to country back on the payroll.

A native Brooklynite descended from Jewish immigrants, he attended Erasmus Hall High School and was a movie nut from the start. Walter even was film critic for the Dartmouth College student newspaper, until he was fired for panning the movie Lost Horizon.

Six months of an intensive language course in pre-war Europe made him an eyewitness to the rise of fascism and helped stir his interest in communism as an alternative. Drafted in 1941, he served in the army during World War II and became a correspondent for the GI newspaper, Yank.

He scooped the world when he snuck behind enemy lines and interviewed Josip Broz Tito, the leader of partisan fighters against the Nazis and Yugoslavia’s president for life. Framed in a bathroom in Walter’s apartment is a page from a comic book that told the story of that adventure. Unfortunately, that journey was one of the things the political witch hunters used against him, citing it as evidence of treachery. Tito was, after all, a Communist.

The bathroom wall also displays a short letter from Harold Ross, the legendary founding editor of The New Yorker, written to the playwright and director Moss Hart,  who had sent Ross a short piece of Walter’s for publication. Walter wound up writing for the magazine both during and after the war.

His first trip to Hollywood came in 1947 when he went to work for the writer-director Robert Rossen. Rossen was in the middle of writing the screenplay for All the King’s Men, novelist Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece about a Southern demagogue he modeled after Louisiana’s Huey Long. The Hollywood Ten—a group of left-leaning writers, producers and directors—had just been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee but Walter knew he had done nothing seditious and thought he was low enough on the ladder to be safe. He was wrong.

My memories of Walter will include not only the many union meetings we shared but also the too few lunches and dinners, often with his wife the literary agent Gloria Loomis, including one for my 65th birthday. Each was stimulating, entertaining and infused with his characteristic wit and enthusiasm. He was a mentor and friend not only to me, my colleagues and many other screenwriters but also to the students he taught for years at NYU and the fledgling independent filmmakers at Robert Redford’s Sundance Lab.

I also remember a train ride from New York to Washington with Walter and Victor Navasky, the wry and wonderful publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine. I was moderating and they were appearing on a panel at the National Press Club marking the 60th anniversary of the blacklist (Victor’s book Naming Names is an essential history of the era).  Walter was 88, Victor was 73 and I a boyish 56, but the laughter of our conversation—we tried to keep it down—almost got us kicked off the train’s quiet car.

A decade ago, at the request of the Writers Guild Foundation, Walter and I sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about his life and career. You can view the whole thing here.

And now he’s gone. Walter lived just long enough to see Donald Trump come and blessedly go—for now, at least. Because if you don’t think it can happen here, think again. It happened to Walter Bernstein.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.

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