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Rights + Justice

My Teacher, Dalton Trumbo

Remembering the complex Hollywood Red, who once pronounced me a writer.

Crawford Kilian 4 Dec

Crawford Kilian, a contributing editor of The Tyee, has created a new blog, Blacklist, about what Dalton Trumbo called "The time of the toad."

Dalton Trumbo, on a Mexico City night in 1952, handed back my 88-page typed science-fiction novelette and said, "Well, you're a writer."

He also offered me a dollar for it, which, age 11, I foolishly declined; I wouldn't see any more writing income for a quarter-century. But I knew he'd set my course in life.

That's just one reason why I'm perversely grateful for the Hollywood blacklist, which has now returned to public consciousness -- first through the full-scale biography by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, and then through the new movie Trumbo.

Trumbo and his family were in Mexico because he'd been toppled from his post as the best-paid writer in Hollywood, and therefore in the world. His Communist politics had made him collateral damage in the opening shots of the Cold War. In the 1940s movies were the dominant mass medium, seen by millions of Americans two or three times a week. The idea of a screenwriter with the wrong politics was intolerable. And it was good politics for the House Un-American Activities Committee to invade Hollywood, ask questions, and drive very capable people out of their careers.

The blacklist ruined thousands of lives and careers, including those of the Trumbos, my parents, and countless others. And that's not counting the many more blacklisted before and since out of less glamorous jobs than working in Hollywood.

But because my parents met at a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and were longtime members of the Communist Party, I was not only born -- I escaped an ordinary childhood in 1950s Los Angeles. Maybe I would have ended up in the Beach Boys, but I doubt it.

Instead, after Trumbo had gone to jail for contempt of Congress, he and many other Hollywood Reds decided Mexico offered a cheaper, less hostile environment. My family was among them. My father helped to put a TV station on the air and to train its people. While we were there, a screenwriter named Martin Berkeley named him as a party member, blacklisting him for the next 20 years.

In Mexico we connected with other exile families, and with their kids: Michael Butler and Chris Trumbo in particular. A community formed, partly around Saturday softball games at the Butlers', next door to Diego Rivera's studio.

That year or two was crucial in my young life, but as Larry Ceplair's excellent biography makes clear, it was just a misguided interlude in Dalton Trumbo's career. (Christopher Trumbo's memoir of the blacklist is a minor part of the Ceplair book; he died of cancer in 2011 before he could finish it. He was the best man at my wedding in 1966.)

Trumbo had thought he could live better in Mexico on the little he was now paid for black-market scripts. Instead, he soon wrote home, "I am as broke as a bankrupt's bastard." But the stay inspired the script for The Brave One, which won him one of his two Oscars. We followed the Trumbos back to L.A. a year or so later (the Butlers stayed on for years), and Chris, Mike and I remained friends thereafter.

A complex and maddening man

As a kid I regarded Dalton Trumbo as just one of the parents, seldom seen but always interesting, and I knew all the other parents deeply respected him. Not until reading Ceplair's book did I really understand what a complex and maddening man Trumbo was.

His was a classic 20th-century American success story: a bright, ambitious kid from Colorado who couldn't afford to stay in college, and moved to Los Angeles and a job on the night shift of a bakery. There he worked through the Depression, supporting his mother and sisters, while writing six novels and over 80 short stories -- one of which finally sold to the Saturday Evening Post.

Magazine sales led to a low-paid job as a reader for a movie studio, but his incredible capacity for hard work put him on the ladder to screenwriting and wealth. He made astounding amounts of money, most of which he squandered. That meant writing more screenplays... and so it went, for the next 35 turbulent years.

Along the way he also wrote several novels, now-dated social satires like Washington Jitters and The Remarkable Andrew -- and then the truly powerful Johnny Got His Gun, which he once told me he'd written in six weeks, so rapidly that he hadn't bothered to use commas.

Where the money was

While he always wanted to write more novels, movies were where the money was, and Trumbo had what his friend Ring Lardner, Jr. called "a sincere dedication to a high standard of living." Growing up in a print culture of books and magazines, he grasped the principles of storytelling and applied them to screenplays.

But he also luxuriated in the sheer pleasure of words. He didn't just write prose; he thought it and spoke it. Even an off-the-cuff remark resonated like a one-liner from Bartlett's Quotations. It must have made him often tiring to live with, but short exposures were exhilarating.

Both in Mexico and L.A., I hung out at the Trumbos' and always learned from him. He taught me, more by his work than by explicit advice, that whatever the job, you do it as well as you can, and you write with all your resources -- even if it's just a letter to complain about poor service. As I read and re-read his old novels, I took them as permission to write with his controlled exuberance.

That exuberance had enabled him, fresh out of prison, to bash out the script for Roman Holiday as just another quickie. It launched Audrey Hepburn's career and is still among the classic film romances. He got an Oscar for it long after his death.

Trumbo's success was maddening to his friends and enemies alike. His friends knew how much greater he could have been, unblacklisted. His enemies detested how his character and talent survived when the blacklist should have finished him off.

More dangerous than a Stalinist

When Ceplair's book came out, and again when the movie Trumbo recently appeared, the first to respond were his enemies on the American right. Even after 70 years, they were still sore at him, a high-living "Stalinist" who'd refused to accept the capitalist reality that fed him.

He was far more dangerous than a mere Stalinist. Dalton Trumbo was a bloody-minded American radical who loved a fight and thought the Bill of Rights meant what it said. He was in a tradition going back to Tom Paine, who launched the American Revolution with the pamphlet Common Sense.

Sure, Trumbo was a communist -- when it suited him. Communism in the 1930s and 40s was just the biggest stick available to beat racist, capitalist, and fascist dogs.

When it came to the politics of family life, Trumbo and the other Hollywood Reds notably failed to ship their offspring to Moscow or Beijing for their education. Chris Trumbo, Mike Butler, and I all met again at Columbia (along with one or two sons of stool pigeons, whom we treated politely but distantly). The Soviet Union might still be a fraying Utopia, but the Hollywood Reds wanted the bourgeois best for their kids.

After all, they'd played the bourgeois game pretty well since the Depression, thriving in one of the few growth industries of the 1930s: many had yearly incomes of $30,000, the equivalent of $500,000 today. They'd gone to jail for their beliefs and emerged still full of fight and talent, ready to battle for their politics and their families.

An Oscar as a bookend

I remember an evening in New York sometime in the late 1950s, when Chris, Mike and I had been invited to dinner at the West End Avenue apartment of another blacklisted writer, Ring Lardner, Jr. and his family. I settled down in an armchair in the living room by a long wall of full bookshelves. On the bottom shelf, half-hidden, Ring's Oscar served as a bookend.

That was the world I was privileged to grow up in: a world where the purveyors of mass-media fantasy could comment on their own ironic success.

At the cost of their own happiness and success, the Hollywood Reds taught some of their children, at least, what a dangerously self-deluded society we had grown up in. We look at America and Canada with a realism approaching that of other marginalized outsiders.

"Be careful," Trumbo and our parents taught us. "The bastards will screw you every time you give them a chance. But they're not as bright as they think they are, and you can beat them at their own game."

On the night when he pronounced me a writer, Trumbo also said: "Crawford, all a writer needs is ego and energy."

God knows he had both, plus that savage love of intellectual combat. May his wisdom guide tougher, wiser, and more savage writers than I have been.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Film

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