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?"
"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."