Dalton Trumbo: 60's Spiel Mentor
I can tell you unequivocally that Dalton Trumbo was the most significant figure of my Hollywood days: well known to political history buffs, and now, because of the movie bearing his name. For many years only movie screenwriter enthusiasts, and freedom of speech devotees, knew what the name Dalton Trumbo meant. He was one of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” – those men who were blacklisted during the horrendous witch-hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his infamous House Committee of Unamerican Activities. Time and time again, McCarthy badgered witnesses from the movie industry to “name names”, that is to inform on “fellow travelers” in the American Communist party. Those who refused, as Trumbo did, lost their jobs, their standing in the community and their freedom. And when they were released from HUAC imposed prison terms, were black-balled by the industry they worked in. One of the leaders of the anti-communist movement who helped exert pressure and provide names to the committee, was Ronald Reagan (along with John Wayne) who was President of the Screen Actors Guild at that time.
The first time I ever voted was largely due to Trumbo's resultant dislike of Reagan. The slick-haired, smooth-throated, grade B actor, was running for Governor of California. I was 25 years old when I cast that vote. My view of Reagan formed then, has never changed.
Not long after I met him, I learned that it was Trumbo who wrote the controversial, gut- wrenching, anti-war (sometimes called “pacifist”) novel, Johnny Got His Gun, the National Book Award winner in 1938, one of the most frequently censored library books of the 20th century. I admitted to him that I had never read it. Though Trumbo was more than twice my age, there was unique electricity between us. He was a colorful character who I adored as a friend. He became a mentor and patron of my art. He enjoyed the freshness and naïveté of my company, as much as I enjoyed his sharp and theatrical personality. Over the few years he was a part of my life, our friendship had nothing whatsoever to do with his fame – nor his beleaguered past. He was simply a very real, very extraordinary person to me – a guide, not so much in that he taught me his art (he was a writer and I was a painter) but that in him, I saw a man who was a reflection of my own maverick spirit – expressing it through the arts – a radical thinker without fear of judgment. It seems impossible to me now, but during the time I was in contact with him, the words “Hollywood Ten” never came up in his household. Equally as impossible to me now, I was too busy with the escapades of being a teen-ager in a small Colorado farm town to devote attention to that dark, horrible piece of American history.
On one extremely rare occasion, during the sincere and widespread Vietnam protests, I recall a rally of the Peace and Freedom Party where he joined me and his youngest daughter, Mitzi, on a march down La Cienega Blvd. She and I were really gung-ho about the cause. What a coup it was simply to get him out of the house! I think it revived the old rebel in him for that one brave step back into the public eye. It no doubt took a good bit of wine for us to get him there.
As writers, we owe men like Trumbo a debt of gratitude for standing strong and resisting extreme governmental harassment. The most valuable treasure of this nation greatness has always been the freedom of expression and few men risk their lives to defend it the way Trumbo did. History has revealed McCarthy’s dirty politics for the rotten farce it actually was, despite attempts to minimize his hypocrisy by supposed intellectual, (actually apologists) like George Will’s recent claim that McCarthy was a populist. Which he may have been, the same way Donald Trump is a populist. In 1954, McCarthy’s demagoguery was exposed, and he was the one the target of a Senate Committee. But the damage he had done to the lives of so many decent players was irredeemable.
In 2003, a play drawn from Trumbo’s letters, Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted, by his son, Christopher, was a smash hit in N.Y.C. and other major cities. Various actors, including Nathan Lane, have vied for the lead role of Trumbo. which rotates from one actor to another, after a given number of performances. Steve Martin played the part the first time it was staged in Los Angeles. Martin, like me, was also a 60s acquaintance of Trumbo. He too has claimed that Trumbo was his major influence at that time. Trumbo’s letters, published as Additional Dialogue, are sometimes remarkably tender, often scathing, and like the man, extremely funny as is the play.
In 1993, Trumbo’s family and his old friend, Kirk Douglas, dedicated a memorial fountain in Boulder, Colorado where Dalton had learned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in 1929. I recall that fountain’s location from my college day, in the beginning of the 60s, as a place where students and hangers-on were free to express their opinions on any subject. Back then, the Black issue was just coming to the surface and a few brave souls were marching around that space bearing signs with the words, “We shall overcome”. What an appropriate tribute to locate the fountain on a site that has served this purpose for decades for one who so clearly recognized, and fought for, dissent in a free society!
And several years ago, in a candid email to me from his lovely wife, Cleo, she says: “Trumbo was special. Too bad he was shut up for so many years. It was just a prelude for the future. Oh, the work we imagine he might have accomplished had he not been ‘shut up.’”
Might we, today, as writers, be shut up in this current political climate of fear at a time when the federal government is leaning toward greater secrecy about what kinds of covert operations it is up to, and making its documents nearly impossible to reach. Will we who express freely, and sometimes valiantly, all become Trumbos? Where is the brave watchdog who protects us?
Yet each day as I write, I wonder if the Patriot Act and this simplistic “Red State/Blue State map” attitude is being thrust down our throats, are somehow influencing/ “hovering” over the words of poets, essayists, editors, and yeah, my own words – hanging around this keyboard like a rat on cheese.
Isn’t it remarkable how fear of terror, today, smells precisely like the fear of Commies smelled when I was a kid? I was a really sensitive little shit and Uncle Sam was pointing his finger at everyone. I felt so very alone back then. I did not know whom I could trust: The children I played with? My mom? My dad? My art class teacher? Of course I was completely unaware of Dalton Trumbo as a child – growing up on a farm in Colorado. But I do have a vague recollection of the fear instilled in my father by newspaper items about McCarthy and his posse. I recall my father using the word “McCarthyism” with an icy chill in his eyes. But not much more than that. Hell, I was still just a kid in the late 40s. Isn’t it extraordinary then, that I later came to love and trust a man who was one of McCarthy’s major targets?
Yet he and I never discussed Communism. By the time I arrived in Hollywood, Communism simply was not an issue to me. Didn’t mean shit to me. I was there to leave home behind: Live gay and get laid as often as possible. I was there to make great paintings and earn my bread at it. I was there to make cool new friends – especially musicians. When I was not painting, I hung out in music sound studios, and late at night, in gay bars. That’s where my head was at, period!
Trumbo: The Brave One
Though it won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, for me the film version of Johnny Got His Gun did not do the book justice. The book’s simple language is so much more alive than the film. On occasion, I've picked a page at random and just read Johnny for its beauty. It is pure poetry to me. Even though the film was Trumbo's dream child for many years, (and he expressed it to me with such fervor), and many actors wanted to be a part of it, the book simply could not be equaled.
In 1956, he won an Oscar using the name, Robert Rich, for the film, “The Brave One”, while he and his family were living in Mexico as a self imposed "exile" after the Blacklist fiasco. When actress Deborah Kerr opened the envelope and read the name, “Robert Rich”, no one appeared to accept the Oscar. And there she stood, dumbfounded.
Upon returning to the states, Trumbo’s dynamic, “Spartacus”, starring Kirk Douglas, was the first film in which he was able to once again write under his own name. Finally, the Blacklist had ended. All it took was the magic of Dalton Trumbo and his compelling drive to get the job done. This, plus some very clever legal moves he had made before he was imprisoned, and the relationships he had somehow managed to maintain through his ordeal. Still, re-adjusting to a country that had labeled him an outlaw proved difficult as the stigma of the Hollywood Ten stuck with him and his entire family. Pre-blacklist, he was one of Hollywood's highest paid screenwriters; post-blacklist, he wrote 30 scripts under pseudonyms and at greatly reduced fees. In 1975 he was finally awarded an Oscar for “The Brave One” under his own name, shortly before he died in 1977. And, in 1993 he received a posthumous Oscar for his 1953 film, “Roman Holiday.”
When I was first introduced to him, he had just completed “The Sandpiper”, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had been called in to straighten out a script that was in a total state of disarray (based on James Michener's book, Hawaii). I learned from his daughter that one of his specialties, throughout his career, was the ability to work fast and deliver a script with absolutely every detail for all aspects of the film. He did this repeatedly, even with his scripts written under pseudonyms, while underground as he was desperate to provide for his family while he defended himself against the Contempt of Congress case, during his year of imprisonment, and then throughout the hateful McCarthy times.
It was also during our acquaintance that he wrote the Alan Bates film, “The Fixer”. I tried to persuade him to obtain for me the opportunity to do the title art for the movie. I did a very simple and direct drawing of a beaten down, slumping man, but Trumbo said it had no public attraction – “too depressing” (not to mention that it was a depressing film) and that it needed to have “some kind of sex appeal.” But, as I later learned, he actually had nothing to do with this aspect of marketing. I appreciated his humoring my youthful ambition.
It's my understanding that what pissed him off more than anything else during the inquisition times was his colleagues being pressed to tattle on one another. That and his extraordinary passion for standing up for the protection of intellectual freedom. In his biography, Dalton Trumbo, by Bruce Cook, it was written that was this passion that drew these ten men together – that they actually were a disparate group otherwise. I’ve personally come to believe his apparently on-off relationship with the American form of Communism was more about rights of labor than anything else. This is now my conclusion from what I've subsequently read about him combined with what I knew of his nature, first hand: not anything he and I ever talked about.
On various occasions at his home where I loved being a dinner guest: just four of us; his sweet, vivacious, youngest daughter, (who had introduced him to me), his gentle wife Cleo, he and I. We were served his dinner of choice: steak, red wine, a crisp salad and crisp conversation.
I remember Trumbo, his cigarette attached to a long black holder, waving it around like a maestro with a baton – and believe me, we were an attentive mini-orchestra. Never mind that the others at his well-appointed table had memorized his flashy stories with every nuance. He was SO theatrical: wearing a black velour zippered jump suit – the evening peppered with wild tales of his old movie star pals (Bing Crosby smoking weed!) and his growing up in Colorado. Parts of his Johnny book reflect those tales – the geography of his western Colorado roots – his tragic Johnny character, Joe Bonham, and the poignant reflection of what Joe has lost in war – beyond his limbs, his face and, more significantly, his ability to communicate his desperate needs with his nurses.
Recently, I had the thought that with his WWI soldier, Joe Bonham, literally a faceless, limbless, torso, desperately wishing to speak but completely unable to make contact with his caretakers, Trumbo and I were each deeply involved with the same subject of the inability/ability to communicate. During my early 60s days as a student at the University of Colorado, I’d established a pretty solid reputation as an artist who did paintings of faceless children. Although I don’t recall if any of the pieces Trumbo purchased from me were those children, I do believe he ended up with at least one of my faceless figures.
In October of ‘03, when I was working on a series of cadence poems, a piece about those faceless paintings and about those times. When I’ve read it aloud at different venues, it leaves listeners hushed and gaping. It’s a piece I wish I could read aloud for Trumbo right now because I believe I can see the delight of approval on his face for a subject we each carried (I still carry) a passion about. How many of us have become writers because we believe we have not been heard at some time in our lives? Probably childhood. That in some lesser sense, each of us is Joe Bonham.
making pictures without mouths
unloading griefs I did not know
in pictures without mouths
in pictures rows of pictures
stacks and stacks of pictures
of the children
to tell of all their needs
to tell their stories
where they’d been
why they stood before the houses
stood before those houses
could not speak
those children without mouths
in pictures that I made
that at that time I could not know
and at that time I changed my name
to hide my blackened tongue
so blackened then
by griefs of secrets hidden there
behind my face
without a place to speak
and hushed by circumstance
beyond my naïve understanding
sullen and in grieving
rows and stacks of pictures
Trumbo’s elegant contemporary home was filled with art! A genuine lover/collector. Wall size paintings, sculpture by friends, ancient objects. Not at all hard for me to take, coming from a farm background where the only art hung was the art I’d made. (As a kid, I used to cop anything my mother had with a frame on it, antique photos and such – ditch the picture, then replace it with whatever I’d just painted. In 1989, during one of the last conversations she and I ever had and just a few days before her death, she asked me “Whatever happened to that beautiful gold oval frame…” and I didn’t have a clue what I had done with it).
Trumbo’s huge poolside studio was on the lower walk-out level of his home, high above the Sunset Strip. It was such a special privilege to visit. Among my favorite things therein: a delicate original, somewhat grotesque, pencil drawing by the famous contemporary artist, Jean Dubuffet. The drawing was a loose portrait of the artist’s wife; Trumbo appreciated my sharing of his valuation in its esoteric beauty. And then there was his vast collection of pre-Columbian objects, artfully displayed behind spotless glass doors. I admired the scores of little clay pieces every time I walked into his studio and on one occasion he removed a small egg-sized female figure to place it in my palm. As I touched the tiny nipples, I came to realize they had been created by pressing a fingernail into the clay so many ages ago, (thus instantly connecting me to those ancients); he told me I could keep it. Such a thrill! And too, in his studio, hanging above his desk, was a long horizontal black and white drawing by his friend, film producer John Houston, depicting a wild orgy, a human daisy chain. Hardly fine art, but an amusing touch for his personal collection.
But most important to me, and probably a practice characteristic of many writers (this one included), whenever he had a brief thought, a fleeting glimpse of something that caught his interest but with no time at that moment to extend it, he wrote it down on a scrap piece of paper then tossed it into a shoe box.
When he found himself working on a film script and in need of detail for a conversation or a character’s monologue, he would wade through one of his shoeboxes till one of those scraps jumped out and supplied what would then appear to be a spontaneous piece of brilliant detail. He gifted me with my choice of one of those scraps.
was my friend
i was privy
to the scrapbox
of this feisty
a fellow jouster
of quick humor
beside his pool
we never spoke
of his beleaguered
he took a liking
to my talents
collected my art
he kept a shoebox
with odd bits
torn and noted
with his musings
for later use
in his writing
then one day
on the floor
in crisp snowflakes
he offered me
for my keeping
was easy –
Liberals – yes, liberals
His friends, also, were a rare collection. At Trumbo’s parties, I never met a single person who was not ripe for rich conversation. And contrary to popular belief, there were not wild-eyed, political monsters behind the doors of his home: just highly intelligent, very liberal-minded folks who whetted my young, searching mind. Having grown up in a bland small town farm, Republican environment where the Reader's Digest was believed to be literature and Norman Rockwell was considered to be Michelangelo, these conversations were exhilarating. Those were the days before the word “liberal” had been twisted into a dirty word. How sad for me that its meaning has been robbed. (FYI: generous; tolerant; broadminded; favoring progress or reform) Pretty scary, huh?
Given that I’d been raised by a father who, though he was a kind man, was also shy and often compromised by the feeling that what he had to say was of no worth: was it any wonder that I was so struck by this bold and outrageous little man who seemed so much more like me?
(Appeared, in another form, in St. Vitus Press & Poetry Review, Issue 6, Fall 2005)