Roberta Garfield Cohn, 89; Leftist Activist and Wife of John Garfield

Times Staff Writer

Roberta Garfield Cohn, who endured the blacklisting and early death of her husband, actor John Garfield, has died. She was 89.

Cohn died Tuesday at a nursing center in Los Angeles, according to her daughter, Julie Garfield. She had Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Born on New York City’s Lower East Side to parents who were politically active, Roberta Garfield became interested in leftist causes. She demonstrated for unions, opposed the Spanish Civil War and, for a brief time, joined the Communist Party.

But according to her daughter, she quit after less than a year when she became disenchanted with the party and Stalinism.


She met Garfield at a block party in 1932 and they were married in 1935. They had a tempestuous relationship, their daughter said, marked by fights and separations but with a strong bond beneath the turmoil.

John Garfield, the star of such memorable films as “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil,” was also politically active and drawn to leftist causes.

“He had been involved in Russian cultural exchanges,” his daughter told The Times. “He signed political documents without thinking and he was against the Spanish Civil War.”

These factors made him the focus of scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of Communists in the entertainment industry. He was called to testify before the House committee April 23, 1951, and refused to identify Communists. The committee questioned some points of his testimony and turned his case over to the FBI for investigation of possible perjury.


After his appearance, his daughter said, the FBI called him in and asked him to confirm his wife’s involvement in the Communist Party. He responded with profanity and left.

Garfield, who received an Academy Award nomination for best actor for “Body and Soul,” never worked in films again. He died of a heart attack May 19, 1952, at the age of 39.

Roberta Garfield was never called to testify before any panel investigating Communists in the United States. After her husband’s death, she retreated from the public spotlight and raised her daughter, but was bitter.

Julie Garfield, who narrated and participated in making a documentary on her father, “The John Garfield Story,” for Turner Classic Movies last year, told the Orlando Sentinel that her mother believed studio executives had used Garfield as a scapegoat to take attention from others in Hollywood because he had “formed his own production company and they felt threatened by him.”

“My mother was so angry at Hollywood,” Julie Garfield told The Times last year. “She conveyed this very mixed message to me ... if you were an actor you could easily get destroyed. My mother never pursued anything,” not even getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard for Garfield.

In 1954, Roberta Garfield married Sidney Cohn, a prominent motion picture attorney and labor lawyer. He died in 1991.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.