Children of Hollywood Blacklist Recall ‘Wicked Period’

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By the late 1940s, the Cold War had stifled the joy of winning World War II and Washington was on a witch hunt, egged on by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy looking for communists embedded anywhere in the American fabric.

Hollywood took much of the heat.

With the industry in peril of censure by the public, frightened studio heads established a secret blacklist of those named as communists in congressional hearings or people even just suspected of leftist leanings. The blacklist remained in place until 1960.

The blacklist ruined careers, broke up marriages and forced families into exile. Screenplays were bootlegged under false names. The era has been depicted in movies (“The Way We Were,” “The Front”), plays (“Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . “), TV documentaries and numerous books.


But what about the children of the blacklist, many of them in show business themselves?

Now in middle age, some are still coming to grips with what one of them calls “that wicked period in our history,” expressing their pain and emotion artistically. Most say they are better professionals because of the experience.

Tony Kahn poured his anger into a six-part radio docudrama, “Blacklisted,” which played on National Public Radio across the country. His father, Gordon Kahn, was a blacklisted screenwriter.

Ellen Geer wrote and acted in a play, “ . . . And the Dark Cloud Came,” which appeared last summer at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in nearby Topanga Canyon. It related the blacklisting of her father, Will Geer (Grandpa in “The Waltons”), and how it affected his family.

Tony Kahn, 50, says the blacklist had a profound effect on his life.


“It probably made me certain that I would forever be an outsider,” he says. “My family moved so much and we were always ready to be targeted for something wherever we went. To this day, there’s always a part of me that is prepared to have that happen again.

“I’ve lived my whole life as a free-lance, never taking on what you’d call a regular job.”

Kahn, who lives in Arlington, Mass., produces and writes shows for radio and television and appears on public radio’s financial report, “Marketplace.”

After screenwriter Hugo Butler had been blacklisted, he took his family to Mexico City. He joined a few colleagues who believed they could set up a writing workshop and bootleg scripts to Hollywood under phony names. His son, Michael, was 10 at the time.


His feelings?

“What frightened 10-year-old, who doesn’t have the courage to acknowledge fear, knows what he’s feeling?” replied Michael Butler, now 54, a film and TV writer and resident of Santa Barbara. “My strategy was to be invisible: ‘This isn’t happening, and I’m not here.’ ”

He believes he underwent a “cataclysm or catharsis” when he entered Columbia University in 1958 after growing up in Mexico City.

“I was setting foot in a country that I had essentially disowned,” he says. “I had forged a kind of fragile cultural identity for myself as a Latin. I felt nothing in common with the 624 other men in Columbia’s freshman class, with one or two exceptions who came from similar backgrounds.

“It was more than I could deal with,” he adds. “All I wanted to do was feel good. Alcohol provided me with that illusory sense of hope.” Ten years later, he was able to conquer his addiction and begin a productive life as a writer.


Ellen Geer was amazed by the reaction to her play. “Lots and lots of children of the blacklist--including working persons, not just show people--would come up afterward and start talking and crying and telling what it meant to them,” she said. “Now they could get rid of their secrets.

“I feel it was like a coming-out party for all of us. We should really have a convention. Because it was a wicked period of our history.”


After Will Geer was blacklisted, his daughter remembers being “isolated from society, very lonely and frightened.” Her father, who had a degree in horticulture from the University of Chicago, set up a nursery in Topanga Canyon.

“But he couldn’t be a husband and a father,” she says. “So he went back to New York to work, and we just traveled for 10 years. Then we reunited as a family.”

Otto Preminger restored Geer to the mainstream by casting him as a senator in “Advise and Consent.”

“He worked in the very room where he had been blackballed 10 years earlier,” his daughter says.

At first Ellen, now 51, feared her background would dissuade casting agents and producers when she applied for acting roles. But that proved no stumbling block, and she has appeared as a regular in such TV series as “The Jimmy Stewart Show” and “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as in the 1994 film “Clear and Present Danger.”

Chris Trumbo was 7 when his father, the writer Dalton Trumbo, became one of the Unfriendly Ten. They were writers, directors and producers who were convicted of contempt of Congress for failing to answer questions about their political backgrounds and were sentenced to a year in prison.


“In 1947, we had a house in Beverly Hills and a place in the mountains north of here,” Chris Trumbo recalls. “It was 322 acres and very isolated, no telephones, but pretty much self-sufficient. We lived there until 1951, when my father got out of jail.”

The family moved to Mexico and returned to Los Angeles while the Red Scare still raged. It even reached suburban Highland Park, where the Trumbos settled.

“My younger sister was thrown out of the Bluebirds [young Campfire Girls] for being undesirable,” Chris Trumbo recalls. “When I went to high school, the authorities tried to deprive me of one academic award because of my family background. Feelings about my father were strong enough to get a reaction from schools, private organizations and individuals who sent hate mail. That was the tenor of the times.”

Dalton Trumbo broke the blacklist in 1960 when he was hired by Kirk Douglas to write “Spartacus” and by Preminger for “Exodus.” But that didn’t mean a blanket reprieve for others, Chris Trumbo says.

“It just meant that every writer had to break the blacklist for himself,” he says. “The process had become a little easier.”

Chris, 55, has built his own writing career in TV and films. He and Michael Butler worked on “Brannigan” for John Wayne. He claims to have no aftereffects of the blacklist period: “It was the only life I knew.”


Screenwriter Ian Hunter was blacklisted in 1949 when his son, Tim, was 2.

“I became aware of the situation when I was 7,” Tim recalls. “My father and his blacklisted friends were heroes to me when I was growing up. Finding out about it so early gave me a sense of the principle that these people took. Also the feeling of loyalty among them.

“I’ve always felt, for me, there was a positive side as a second-generation blacklist person, because I admired them so much.”


The Hunter family moved to Mexico City when Tim was 4. But the notion of an underground script factory seemed impractical, and the Hunters drove to New York City. Arriving with $8, Ian Hunter worked as a publicist for the Diner’s Club and a steakhouse, then wrote English dialogue to dub Italian movies.

He resumed his profession by writing scripts for the English-made “Robin Hood” TV series. After 14 years on the blacklist, he was able to sell scripts with his own name.

Tim Hunter, 48, has carved a successful career as a director in films (“The River’s Edge”) and television (pilot, “Beverly Hills 90210”). He doesn’t believe another blacklist could happen in Hollywood.

“But I keep a wary eye on the political and cultural scene,” he adds. “I think a climate for censorship certainly exists, in one form or another.”