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Ring Lardner Jr., last of the Hollywood 10, dies

Cold War: Oscar-winning writer was jailed, blacklisted for refusing to testify about his Communist affiliation.

By Louis Sahagun and Robert W. Welkos

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

November 2, 2000

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Ring Lardner Jr., the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who was imprisoned for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, has died of cancer. He was 85.

The last survivor of the so-called Hollywood 10, a group of blacklisted writers, directors and producers who went to prison for refusing to testify about their political beliefs, Lardner died Tuesday in the arms of his daughter, Katharine Lardner, at his home in New York City. His wife of 54 years, Frances Chaney, was at his side.

The other members of the Hollywood 10 were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo. Of the 10, only Dmytryk finally named names of suspected Communists.

Those who knew him marveled that the tall, aristocratic Lardner, the last surviving son of the legendary baseball writer and short-story author Ring Lardner, managed to weather the turbulent blacklist period without bitterness.

"A number of the Hollywood 10 just never recovered," said Stefan Kanfer, whose book, "A Journal of the Plague Years," revisited the blacklist era. "It seemed to me he [Lardner] was the least bitter of any of them. Ring remained a liberal, but not a Communist. He discarded all that '30s garbage and went on with his life."

Lardner, who with Michael Kanin won an Oscar in 1942 for collaborating on the screenplay for the film "Woman of the Year," was not officially credited for his work over a 17-year period until his screenplay for "The Cincinnati Kid" in 1965. In 1970, he won another Oscar for "MASH.

10 Months in Prison

His defiant appearance before the House committee in October 1947 led to his imprisonment and blacklisting. When asked by Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas if he was then or had ever been a Communist, Lardner replied, "I could answer that question the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but if I did I'd hate myself in the morning."

Enraged by that response, Thomas ordered Lardner removed from the hearing room.

Lardner, who belonged to the Communist Party but believed that it was no one's business, was cited for contempt for failing to cooperate with the committee. That led to his indictment and one-year jail sentence in 1947. After court appeals failed, Lardner served 10 months at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Conn.

"In prison I started working on a novel, which I got published a couple of years after I got out," Lardner recalled years later. The novel was "The Ecstasy of Owen Muir."

"Although it didn't make a lot of money or sell well, it was something I was very proud of having written."

Blacklisted after leaving prison, Lardner was forced to work underground or in Mexico and London writing films and television episodes, using various pseudonyms. Some of those screenplays included "Virgin Island" (1959), "The Cardinal" (1963) and the ironically titled "A Breath of Scandal" (1960). Last August, the Writers Guild of America corrected the credits of eight blacklisted writers from the 1950s and 1960s, crediting Lardner and Hugo Butler for "The Big Night," a 1951 film starring John Barrymore Jr.

In 1988, at 72, Lardner conceded that his was a blind and youthful allegiance to the American Communist Party, which at the time seemed "a cure-all for mankind."

No country, he said, "that has become Communist or socialist has been able to avoid some form of dictatorship. Theoretically, it's possible, but it becomes something less desirable in practice."

He later took a more philosophical view of his fate.

"I certainly don't regret what I did," he said. "You can't say what your life would have been if it had gone in a different direction; there's only the one direction it did go."

Born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner Jr. in Chicago in 1915, Lardner had three brothers--James, David and John, who all became writers. Unlike him, they all died relatively young.

Ring Jr.'s first byline appeared in 1919 when he was 4. It was on a travel story entitled "The Young Immigrunts," and it was actually ghost-written by his father. The story described the family's anxious cross-country journey by car.

When Lardner was a boy his family moved to Great Neck on Long Island. Family friends there included journalists Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun and celebrated writers Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In his 1976 memoirs, "The Lardners," Lardner said his father's affection for Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda made a strong impression on him as a young boy.

Ring Jr. knew and admired Fitzgerald again in Hollywood during the last few years of his life. But Zelda, he said, "left the deepest imprint."

"I have never known another adult, except my Aunt Anne, who seemed to say exactly what came into her head as it came," he wrote, "without any apparent exercise of judgment."

Larder enrolled at Princeton in 1932. Acting upon his father's lessons to distrust politicians and respect the interests of the oppressed, he became an active member of the Princeton Socialist Club.

He dropped out of the university two years later to see the world.

He sailed on a German ship to Hamburg and then proceeded by train to Leningrad and then back to Germany. "Everything I saw there, including a glimpse of Hitler and William Randolph Hearst in the back seat of a car in Munich, strengthened my impression that the best hope for mankind lay with the Soviets," he recalled in "The Lardners."

"Only in Russia were massive construction and planning for the future going on at a time when the West was either locked in stagnant depression or, like Germany, headed resolutely backward to barbarism."

James Lardner, a journalist and one of Lardner's five children, said his father was an impressionable 18 years old when he traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 and became infatuated with Communism.

"It seemed like there was a lot of hope in the air [in Russia]," James Lardner said, "whereas in Germany he saw awful stuff and in America, he saw bread lines."

He noted that his father never wanted the United States remade along Stalinist lines and later tried to analyze why he didn't understand more fully the nature of Stalinism.

"What we did not do is act as spies for the Soviet Union," Lardner wrote in his memoir. "The Soviet government certainly had spies in America just as the American government had spies in the Soviet Union but about the dumbest thing a Soviet spy could have done--and the surest way to draw the attention of the FBI--would have been to join the Communist Party of the United States."

After returning to the United States, Lardner spent 10 months as a reporter at Hearst's N.Y. Daily Mirror before being recruited by David O. Selznick's film company. His first duties after arriving in Hollywood included rewriting scenes for "A Star Is Born."

In 1937 he was recruited into the Communist Party by writer Budd Schulberg. He began attending Marxist study groups and political meetings nightly. That same year he married Selznick's secretary, Silvia Schulman.

Later, he wrote in "The Lardners," Schulberg and his wife, divorced and married to other people, testified to Lardner's dismay as cooperating witnesses before the House committee.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lardner, whose vision and questionable political affiliations disqualified him from the armed forces, worked briefly for the Army making training films on Long Island.

Back in Hollywood in 1942, he won an Academy Award for the comedy "Woman of the Year," which teamed Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy for the first time.

Ominous Politics of Cold War

The war years brought hard news to the Lardner clan. His brother David, a correspondent for The New Yorker, was killed by a land mine in October 1944 while covering the war in Germany. He was 25. Another brother, James, a member of the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, had been killed in 1938 by a sniper. The 24-year-old James was the last American to lose his life in combat on Spanish soil. (His brother John died in 1960 at the age of 47 while working on an obituary of Franklin P. Adams for Newsweek magazine.)

Lardner and Sylvia divorced in 1945. About two years later he married actress Frances Chaney. By the end of their brief honeymoon, Cold War politics had developed ominously. No sooner had Lardner signed a contract with Fox for $2,000 a week and bought a large house near the beach in Santa Monica than a U.S. marshal was at his door with a subpoena to testify before HUAC.

Initially, there were 19, including German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who became known as "unfriendly witnesses," Lardner said, "as opposed to those who were willing and eager to tell the world what they knew about Communist subversion of the movie business."

They knew that if they answered the committee's first question--Are you now, or have you ever been a Communist?--they would be compelled to answer follow-up queries, including, "Who did you know in the party?"

In a strategy developed by Lardner and Trumbo, they adopted a tricky option.

"It was more reasonable, more principled and legally sounder, we argued," he recalled in his memoirs, "to refrain from answering questions or cooperating with the committee in any way on grounds that the 1st Amendment made the whole interrogation unconstitutional."

Jean Rouverol, the widow of blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler who has just written a book about those years called "Refugees From Hollywood: A Journal of the Blacklist Years," noted that when Lardner and the others appeared before the House committee, they also refused to plead the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination.

"The 5th Amendment implied guilt, so nobody took the 5th initially," she recalled. "It implied that they were ashamed of their political activities. . . . They all thought that standing on the 1st Amendment [instead] would keep them out of jail. It didn't. The Supreme Court refused to hear it."

At least 300 witnesses told the House committee everything they knew or suspected. Some named Lardner and others in the group as Communist subversives.

Lardner was fired by 20th Century Fox and placed on the Hollywood blacklist.

To the end of his life, Lardner never identified other Communist Party members, dead or alive.

"Dalton Trumbo once said that there were no heroes, only victims," Lardner said of the blacklist era in an interview for the book "The Hollywood Blacklist." "Maybe that was a little overboard, but in principle I agree with him. Some of the people who did testify were under very strong pressures and just didn't have any other ways of making a living. I sympathize more with the couple of hundred people who never did get back to work in Hollywood because they hadn't been well enough established before they were blacklisted."

In a telephone interview, his daughter Katharine recalled her father as "a class act, and funny."

"More than anything else, his goal was to live long enough to see his latest book, 'I'd Hate Myself in the Morning,' published," she said. "So a week and a half ago, my brother Jim and I surprised him with a copy and a bunch of balloons."

"Then I said, 'Hey, Dad. You're looking pretty good. How about a new goal?' " she recalled. "He thought about it and said, 'I want to see the reviews.' "

Katharine Lardner said she is writing a memoir that will deal with her father's life from her perspective as a child.

"Even as a kid, I felt nothing but pride for my father," she said. "When he was jailed for refusing to answer questions that were nobody's business, I felt he'd done an admirable and courageous thing. He fought for what was right."