In exile and matrimony

Larry Ceplair is the coauthor of "The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960."

Of the dozens of memoirs and oral histories about the blacklist, only a few are memorable. Lillian Hellman's "Scoundrel Time," for its fictionalizing; Lester Cole's "Hollywood Red," for its mean-spiritedness; Ring Lardner Jr.'s "I'd Hate Myself in the Morning" for its reflectiveness; John Sanford's "Maggie" for its tenderness; and now Norma Barzman's "The Red and the Blacklist" for its colorfulness and candor.

Barzman has written a very engaging account of her life in, and exile from, Hollywood. It has been an eventful life, filled with fascinating individuals and adventures. Many scholars of the blacklist, including myself, have anticipated her book for some time, and, in fact, I encouraged her to tell all when I interviewed her for an anthology of blacklist oral histories, published six years ago. It is a pleasure to report that her book is replete with interesting stories and anecdotes, and she vividly recalls them and the people involved (including Marion Davies, John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Harold Robbins). She is also refreshingly frank about her sexuality and her affairs. Her memoir confirms my long-held belief that the women of the blacklist were, in general, far more insightful and intelligent than the men.

But the memoir could also have been titled "I Want to Write, or Why My Husband Was Such a Drag." It is less the story of a "red" and more the story of a woman's struggle to become a recognized writer, not just an uncredited assistant to her husband. The main obstacle was not the studios or the blacklist but her husband, Ben. And though she dedicates the book to him, she portrays him as a retrograde male who would surely have agreed with 19th century philosopher Orestes Brownson that "Woman was created to be a wife and mother.... Her proper sphere is home, and her proper function is the care of the household.... Revelation asserts, and universal experience proves ... that the woman is for the man, not the man for the woman."

A second interesting aspect of this memoir is that the Barzmans, like many blacklisted people, had their lives deeply affected by their decision to become reds, but their knowledge of and commitment to communist ideology does not appear deep-dyed. (Ben was certainly unmarked by the party's educationals on the "woman question.") The Barzmans wanted to make the world a better place, and they concluded that the Communist Party provided the best vehicle to that end. In fact, Norma attributes her undying love for Ben to the romantic notion that young communist couples had of themselves "as the ideal young man and young woman surging torward the Red flag."

But the Barzmans, like virtually every artist and intellectual who joined the Communist Party, were not revolutionaries, saboteurs or spies. Their activities, on behalf of anti-fascist organizations, minority rights and day-care centers, did not threaten to undermine the republic. Their scripts did not subvert the movie industry. And yet they were forced to act as fugitives. Political circumstances made them believe it was in their best interest to flee the country. And then, overseas, they continued to be hounded by the U.S. government. Agents trailed them; informers were sicced on them; Norma's passport was taken from her; they lived in constant fear that they would be deported. But they, like hundreds of their blacklisted friends, refused to buckle under the pressure of the domestic Cold War offensive against communists.

Once domiciled in Europe, however, their communism receded into the background. Given their refugee status, they could not be active politically. But there is little evidence that they reflected on the nature of communism and their adherence to it. It was only in the 1960s, when Norma heard humanizing stories about Leon Trotsky from his nephew, producer Samuel Bronston, and witnessed what she called the treachery of the French Communist Party toward the events of May 1968, that "true political doubts" were sown.

Nevertheless, Norma's political narratives are compelling, especially when she describes their life in Hollywood in 1947 and 1948 under the shadow of House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenas. They were warned, by Groucho Marx and a young, blond starlet who said her name was Norma Jean, about agents recording the license numbers of automobiles coming up their street. They were convinced by fellow party member Bernard Vorhaus to switch houses to bamboozle the subpoena servers. Then, tiring of the idea, the Barzmans returned home only to confront a marshal at their door bearing a subpoena for Vorhaus.

At that point, director Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten, convinced Ben to write a screenplay for a movie he was to direct in England (based on Pietro Di Donato's working-class novel "Christ in Concrete"). And then Dmytryk convinced Ben to give up his job at RKO and, without a guaranteed contract, to go to England to revise the screenplay. This decision was the turning point in their lives. It appears unbusinesslike and romantic, yet it had a political dimension to it. Ben had his doubts about the project, but Norma argued that if the movie were made, "do you realize what that would mean? Blacklisted guys getting 'Christ in Concrete' made? It's just about the best thing we could do for everyone. Not just for Eddie. For everyone. For ourselves too."

And so the Barzmans went into voluntary exile. They were not subpoenaed. They did not have to appear before the House committee. But they were, of course, blacklisted, after being named by several former comrades.

After completing "Christ in Concrete" (released as "Give Us This Day"), the Barzmans decided to go to France to live and work. They would live there, dividing their time between Paris and the Riviera, for the next 27 years. After some early difficulties, Ben worked regularly and remuneratively as a screenwriter. But, he told me in a 1978 interview, he never felt a part of the French community. He felt, rather, "circumscribed" as a writer, out of the mainstreams of the cultures he was writing about. And he was frequently chafed by the exile community in Paris, which he labeled "the herring barrel."

Norma adjusted much better to life in France. She loved the people they met (Pablo Picasso, Simone Signoret, Sophia Loren); she adored French culture. But she was increasingly frustrated by her life. During their first years in Paris, when money was tight, she worked on a variety of screen and television projects with other members of the exile community. She also describes in her memoir how, after a particularly nasty exchange with Ben, she had embarked on an affair with Vorhaus. But in 1955, for reasons that she did not fully understand, she agreed to purchase a big house in Paris, have more children (they already had three) and stop writing. She explains that she "lost the courage to write."

When Ben adamantly refused to allow her to work for a literary agency, Norma did not fight him, she says: "Underneath, I seethed. But I did nothing." A few years later, she lamented that her "creativity had gone into making babies, having affairs (with creative men), being a chatelaine (lady of the castle) presiding over a salon of film folks."

Norma's decision is understandable, given the force majeure of Ben's obstinacy and her lack of a support network. But I am puzzled by her decision to devote the last third of "The Red and the Blacklist" to a life circumscribed by Ben's screen projects. Her accounts of the problems and personalities involved with "El Cid," "The Fall of the Roman Empire," "The Blue Max" and other movies are always fascinating and revelatory of the craziness of movie-making and movie-makers. But interesting as those stories may be, they are a detour from the main road of Norma's struggle to rediscover her creative muse.

It is disappointing that Barzman devoted only 20 pages to the last 25 years of her life, the years of her reawakening as an independent woman and writer. A series of events after May 1968 (including Ben's illness and death) liberated her, and today she generates more positive energy than people half her age. Thus her memoir would have been better served if there were more extensive commentary on, and insight into, this Norma.

Some will doubtlessly charge Barzman with a failure to apologize for her "blindness" to "the evils of Stalinism." But this ongoing demand for apologies is simply the latest chapter in the thought-control process that the Barzmans escaped by fleeing to Europe. Others may write that life in exile was not too shabby for the Barzmans. But such critics will miss the point of "The Red and the Blacklist," which reminds readers how hard it was for the Barzmans and other blacklisted reds to reestablish careers and lives unfairly and unnecessarily disrupted by the anti-communist witch hunt.

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