For Paul Jarrico, Monday night was the culmination of a five-decade crusade to gain justice for screenwriters like himself who were blacklisted during Hollywood's "Red Scare."
As point man on a committee working to restore credits denied the writers, Jarrico, 82, got a standing ovation at a historic dinner at which four Hollywood talent guilds officially apologized for the blacklist spurred by 1947's House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.
But this script did not have a Hollywood ending.
On Tuesday, driving home to Ojai from another event honoring those blacklisted, Jarrico's car veered off Pacific Coast Highway and struck a tree. He was dead by the time rescuers pulled him from the wreckage.
Police did not give a cause of the accident south of Oxnard, but his wife, Lia Benedetti, said he may have been exhausted from the emotional two days and fallen asleep at the wheel.
"To see other writers have their credits restored, and be honored, was the best honor he could have," she said. "It's what he always believed in, standing up for other people's rights."
Jarrico was remembered Wednesday as an Oscar-nominated writer--for 1941's "Tom, Dick and Harry"--who, throughout his long crusade, had worried last about himself. "Don't worry," he said recently. "There'll be plenty of time for me. Let's get other people's credits restored first."
Monday's dinner in Beverly Hills was staged by Hollywood's four major guilds--the Writers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America and AFTRA, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists--to pay tribute to him and several other blacklist survivors. It featured re-creations of the House hearings and film clips from the works penned by the writers who were not protected by their own guild during the anti-Communist hysteria that led to the blacklist.
Jarrico did not let the solemnity of the event affect his dry wit. After actor Kevin Spacey played him in a re-creation of the hearings, it was time for Jarrico to take the stage. Writers Guild of America West President Dan Petrie Jr. introduced him by saying, "And now for the real thing, Paul Jarrico."
Jarrico took the microphone. "There's been a mistake here," he said as the standing ovation died down. "I'm Kevin Spacey."
Born in Los Angeles, Jarrico was a sophomore at USC in 1933, the depths of the Depression, when he became active in left-wing politics. After he graduated, he got his first job as a screenwriter at Columbia Pictures and joined the Communist Party, remaining an active member until 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev exposed Josef Stalin as a mass murderer.
Jarrico's script for "Tom, Dick and Harry"--a comedy starring Ginger Rogers--lost the race for 1941's screenplay Oscar when the award went to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles for "Citizen Kane." Jarrico served in the Merchant Marine and Navy during World War II, and wrote two wartime films at MGM Studios, "Thousands Cheer," with Gene Kelly, and "Song of Russia," with Robert Taylor.
His writing partner, Richard Collins, later named Jarrico to the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist. Jarrico's "Song of Russia" became a symbol of Communist influence, even though he maintained that he was writing it under orders from the U.S. Office of Wartime Propaganda.
"Louis B. Mayer never let anything he thought was Russian propaganda into his movies," Jarrico told The Times several weeks ago. "We even had to take out the word 'community,' because he felt it sounded too much like communism."
In 1951, Jarrico was called before the House committee, where he refused to cooperate. He was immediately blacklisted. RKO's chief, Howard Hughes, removed his name from "The Las Vegas Story" and Jarrico did not receive a credit under his own name again until 1968.
His first wife, Sylvia Jarrico, said he was never bitter. "It was a scary period, but he relished the idea of having other adventures and challenges. He often jokingly said that the blacklist released him from the restrictions of the film business."
In 1954, he organized an independent group of blacklisted men to make "Salt of the Earth," a documentary about a Mexican mine workers strike. Originally boycotted and long suppressed, the film is now recognized as a classic.
In the late 1950s, Jarrico moved to Europe, where he wrote such films as "All Night Long" and "Assassination at Sarajevo." He later worked on two popular TV series--"The Phil Silvers Show" and "The Defenders"--wrote the play "Leonardo" and was a regents lecturer at UC Santa Barbara.
"Paul had an incredible memory," said his current wife, Lia, who drove home separately after a Tuesday lunch at the Writers Guild. "When people were writing histories, they'd always call him."
He continued to write until his death, but much of his time was given over to spearheading the Writers Guild's committee pushing to restore credits to blacklisted writers. "He was the unofficial historian of that period," said Del Reisman, a former WGA president. "He had meticulous records that cross-referenced almost everything that happened in that period."
George Kirgo, another former WGA chief, said Jarrico had a phone book with the names of everyone who had been blacklisted, and their families. "Whenever we were tempted to give up on a difficult credit search, it was Paul who said, 'No, we're not stopping now.' "
His work did not go unappreciated. "He got me my credit back on 'Odds Against Tomorrow,' and he did that for a lot of writers," said Abraham Polonsky, a friend of 60 years. "When there was a fight to be fought, he never gave up. That's why he got a standing ovation Monday night."
Jarrico was not the only one who viewed the event as a culmination of years of work. "The event was very cathartic for us in the audience," said Petrie. "But for Paul, it was an occasion of joy. To lose him is a terrible tragedy, but talk about going out on a high note. It was his moment of triumph."