Cornered Rats and Personal Betrayals


Abraham Polonsky was living in France in 1950, writing a novel, when he got a call from a friend who was staying in his house in Los Angeles. An investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee had been by, trying to serve him with a subpoena.

Since the first HUAC hearings in October 1947, through which a group of writers and directors known as the Hollywood 10 had been found in contempt of Congress and eventually sent to prison, the movie industry had been in the grip of anti-communist hysteria. Polonsky knew his time had come.

A longtime communist, Polonsky had emerged in the late 1940s as one of Hollywood's most gifted young writer-directors. In 1947, he wrote "Body and Soul," the acclaimed John Garfield boxing drama. The next year he directed Garfield in "Force of Evil," a thriller about the numbers racket that critic Andrew Sarris would later call "one of the great films of modern American cinema."

Polonsky had made no secret of his communist affiliations. He'd been friendly with many of the Hollywood 10 and considered the party "the best club to belong to in Hollywood, because all the smart guys were in it."

He knew that if he refused to cooperate with Congress, he would be blacklisted and perhaps sent to jail. But he also considered himself a patriot. In World War II, he'd served overseas in the Office of Strategic Services as a liaison with the French underground.

The subpoena forced his hand. "My wife thought I should stay in Europe," recalls Polonsky, who at 86 has a caustic wit and socially conscious ideals. "But I was romantic about it. I said, 'It's wrong, nobody's going to chase me out of my country.' So I came back."

Polonsky bursts into raspy laughter. "I was so romantic I brought a Jaguar back with me."

On April 25, 1951, he went before HUAC and refused to answer its queries, taking the 5th Amendment. Only once did Polonsky offer a response, when asked for the names of the men he'd worked with in the OSS. Polonsky replied: "It's none of your business."

Before he was pressed for an answer, a man in a dark suit hurried up to the dais and whispered in HUAC Chairman John Wood's ear.

"He told them to stop right away," Polonsky says. "The guy in the suit was an intelligence operative, and even he knew I shouldn't answer that question. All those guys I'd been with in the OSS were now in the CIA."

On April 12, 1951, two weeks before Polonsky went before Congress, he was named as a communist by two friends, actor Sterling Hayden and writer Richard Collins. A well-known screenwriter and longtime party member, Collins gave the names of 26 alleged communists, including his friend and writing partner, Paul Jarrico. The two men had been under contract at MGM, where they'd written films like "Thousands Cheer," a star-studded Army base musical, and "Song of Russia," a tribute to the Russian war effort that was attacked by HUAC as communist propaganda.

"All the studios made movies like that," says Jarrico, now 82. "We were writing under orders of the Office of Wartime Propaganda. Louis B. Mayer never let anything he thought was Russian propaganda into his movies. We even had to take out the word 'community,' because he felt it sounded too much like 'communism.' "

Jarrico says he asked Collins not to give names to HUAC, but to no avail: "It turns out he'd been talking to the FBI long before he went before the committee. Once he testified, it was the end of our friendship. It was a very personal betrayal. He wasn't just cooperative with the committee, he was eager to cooperate."

Many of the people who cooperated with HUAC, including Collins, Hayden, Lee J. Cobb and Abe Burrows, had something else in common--their lawyer, Martin Gang. Founder of the influential entertainment law firm Gang, Tyre, Ramer and Brown, he specialized in representing people who gave names as well as outspoken liberals, such as Burt Lancaster and John Houseman, who sought to avoid being called to testify.

Instead of defying the committee, Gang counseled his clients to come clean, often publicizing their cooperative efforts so they could be cleared from blacklists and return to work. (Now 96, Gang was unavailable for interviews.)

When David Raksin, a prominent film composer who'd been a party member in the late 1930s, was subpoenaed by HUAC, he went to Gang for advice.

"He said, 'If you don't talk, those bastards will put you in jail,' " says Raksin, now 85. "Gang told me, 'Don't hide anything; they know all about you.'

"It was a scary experience, testifying before the committee. It was a hot day, and we were in this big room full of lights and cameras. I'd been unable to sleep at night; I felt like a cornered rat."

With Gang at his side, Raksin gave the names of a dozen suspected communists. He says they were people who were dead or had already been named by others.

"It wasn't an abject capitulation. I told the committee they should leave the Communist Party alone, not try to crush it. But there I was, a guy with a family to support and a fairly decent career that was about to go down the drain. What I did was a major sin, but I think I did as well as most human beings would've done under torture."

Even though Raksin cooperated with the committee, he found that many studios wouldn't hire him. Job offers suddenly dried up. It was even worse for those who refused to give names. At 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck had allowed Polonsky to write at home, out of the public eye. After his refusal to testify, Zanuck fired him. Jarrico lost his job at RKO as soon as he was subpoenaed.

"One day my name was in the papers," he recalls. "The next day, when I showed up for work, they stopped me at the studio gates."

The day after TV comedy writer Frank Tarloff appeared before HUAC, he was fired from his job and dropped by the William Morris Agency.

"I'd evaded being subpoenaed for years because I knew that as soon as they found me, it was over," says Tarloff, now 82.

"We lived like fugitives. We moved to a new house without giving out our address. When we'd come home from an evening out, I would get out of the car a few blocks away and wait until my wife drove up and opened the door. Then I'd come out and run into the house."

After he was subpoenaed, Tarloff went before HUAC and refused to testify. He was blacklisted for nearly 15 years, though he found work secretly writing episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show," using friends as fronts.

Everyone's life was disrupted. Tarloff had friends who quit visiting because they were afraid FBI agents would be in the bushes. Raksin was talking to a beautiful woman at a party in Malibu when the host pulled her aside and told her he'd been an informer. "When she came back, she was frozen," he says. "She wouldn't speak to me."

One of Polonsky's childhood pals was composer Bernard Herrmann, who'd grown up with him on New York's Lower East Side. "He'd gotten me a job with Orson Welles; he'd educated me in modern music," Polonsky recalls.

"But after I was blacklisted, someone I knew met him working on a picture and said, 'Oh, Abe tells me you two are old friends.' And Bennie looked at him and said, 'I don't know what you mean; I've never met him.'

"It was the saddest thing. He was worried that just knowing me could get him in trouble."

The late writer-producer Adrian Scott was one of the Hollywood 10 who went to prison for contempt of Congress. After he got out, he started dating a woman he'd met at a progressive political rally. In 1955, when they were married, Joan Scott assumed a new role: She became his front.

"It was how I learned to be a writer," says Joan Scott, now 76. "Adrian couldn't ever go to a studio, so he'd drive me over to the lot, drop me off and pick me up afterward."

Scott had appeared before HUAC in 1952, where she refused to give names of alleged communists. But she was able to find work in TV, fronting for her husband, using the pen name Joanne Court.

Adrian Scott's specialty was hard-boiled drama; he'd produced thrillers like "Murder My Sweet" before being blacklisted. Fronting her husband's scripts for shows like "77 Sunset Strip" and "Surfside Six," Joanne Court became known as the gal who wrote like a tough guy.

"I was quite a hit," Joan Scott recalls. "It was the day of full, puffy skirts and I looked very young, so everyone wanted to meet me. I became the girl who wrote like a man."

Scott would attend story conferences, keep track of revisions and then give her husband her notes so he could rewrite the script.

"It was scary sometimes," she says. "One day he forgot to tell me about a crucial change he'd made and I had to do all this double-talk until I'd got the producers so bewildered that they gave up and let it go."

Inevitably, Scott's bosses would inquire about her family. When she was writing a TV show for Walt Disney, a producer asked what her husband did for a living.

"I made up this story that Adrian was a trouble-shooter for an appliance store. When I went home that night and told him, he was furious. It was such a low-class job; he thought he should at least be a professor or a lawyer. So after that, I'd tell people he was a retired professor, but very reclusive, so it wouldn't seem strange if they never met him."

Scott used a pseudonym until 1972, when she wrote an episode of "The Waltons" under her own name. She recently received a restored credit for "Cairo," a 1963 film she wrote using her alias. But by the time her husband could work under his own name, he was a broken man.

"Adrian was never a whole person again," Scott says. "He'd had too much despair and disappointment. Even when he did get to write, he never got credit for any of it. He died of cancer, but in my mind, it was the blacklist that really killed him."

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