Cleo Trumbo dies at 93; wife of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo
Cleo Trumbo, the widow of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted for more than a decade as a member of the Hollywood 10, has died. She was 93.
Trumbo died of age-related causes Oct. 9 at home in the Bay Area city of Los Altos, said her daughter Mitzi, with whom she was living.
“She wasn’t a person to be in the limelight at all,” Mitzi Trumbo said of her mother. “She really devoted herself to the kids, in making sure that we were all OK, and in really keeping the family together.”
Dalton and Cleo Trumbo’s son Christopher, a writer, said of the blacklist, the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee: “She hated bullies, and that’s what she saw this as. And she was right.”
She was born Cleo Fincher in Fresno on July 17, 1916, and later moved with her divorced mother and her brother and sister to Los Angeles.
The vivacious Cleo was working as a carhop at a Hollywood drive-in, where she was known for juggling water glasses to encourage tips, when Trumbo drove up in his big Packard with a friend, who had induced him to go to there by saying, “I know the girl you should marry.”
Immediately smitten with the beautiful young brunet, Trumbo impulsively asked her to marry him.
“She wasn’t a push-over for this,” said Mitzi Trumbo.
“My father continued to come to the drive-in and leave her huge, lavish tips, which she saved and gave back to him a year later. He had to court her, in other words.”
She said her parents, who were married in 1938, were opposites.
“I think that was the attraction,” she said. Cleo “was athletic and fun-loving -- she had a lot of good spirit to her -- and my father was not athletic at all. He sat at a typewriter and read books all day. I think she brought a lot of joy into his life.”
The year after they were married, Dalton Trumbo’s acclaimed antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun” was published. He went on to receive an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the 1940 movie “Kitty Foyle” and wrote the screenplays for movies such as “A Guy Named Joe” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”
In 1947, Trumbo was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee as part of its investigation into “communist infiltration of the motion picture industry.”
Cleo Trumbo joined her husband at the hearings in Washington, where Dalton and nine other men refused to cooperate with the committee by challenging its right to ask questions about their political beliefs.
Dubbed the Hollywood 10, they were blacklisted by the studio owners and later indicted for contempt of Congress, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
Trumbo continued writing under a variety of assumed names. But he saw his income drop dramatically, his son said: From his standard script-writing fee of $75,000, he earned $2,500 for the first assignment he accepted after he was blacklisted.
During the blacklist, Cleo Trumbo told People magazine in 1993, “we were broke, and we weren’t invited anywhere. People dropped away.”
In 1950, Trumbo began serving his time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Ky. After his release 10 months later, he and his family moved to Mexico City.
They returned to Los Angeles in 1954, moving to the Highland Park neighborhood.
For the family, the effects of the blacklist lingered.
At one point, Dalton Trumbo wrote an angry letter to the principal at Mitzi’s elementary school after she told him that her classmates had begun harassing and shunning her when they discovered who her father was.
“It was a bad year,” she recalled.
For Dalton Trumbo, the blacklist ended in 1960, when “Exodus” director-producer Otto Preminger and “Spartacus” executive producer and star Kirk Douglas gave him credit for the films’ screenplays.
The year before Trumbo died in 1976 at age 70, he belatedly accepted the Oscar for best motion picture story for the 1956 film “The Brave One,” which he had written under the pseudonym Robert Rich.
In 1993, Cleo Trumbo accepted an Oscar on behalf of her late husband for best motion picture story for the 1953 film “Roman Holiday,” which he wrote under the name of a friend, screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter.
“He’d be very pleased by this Oscar,” Cleo Trumbo told People at the time. “It puts everything in order.”
In her speech to an audience at the Academy theater, she observed that the time of the blacklist in Hollywood had passed.
“But,” she said, “if we are not wise enough to learn the lessons of the blacklist, I am afraid that at some future time another generation will be faced with the same circumstance. Once again men and women will find themselves compelled to risk everything in a fight they did not choose and stand up for the principles so eloquently stated in our Constitution.”
In addition to her daughter Mitzi and son Christopher, Trumbo is survived by her other daughter, Nikola Trumbo; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
At her request, no memorial service will be held.