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Ben Margolis Dies; Defense Lawyer in 'Hollywood 10' Case

February 06, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ben Margolis, a highly regarded civil rights lawyer who helped defend the accused in two celebrated cases of the 1940s and 1950s--the blacklisted Hollywood 10 and the Sleepy Lagoon murder suspects--died in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 27. He was 88 and died of congestive heart failure.

Margolis was a 37-year-old labor lawyer in Los Angeles when a group of Hollywood screenwriters and directors accused of being card-carrying members of the Communist Party sought his advice on how to handle their appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the powerful panel created by Congress in 1945 to investigate subversive and "un-American" propaganda and actions.

He was a tenacious advocate of 1st Amendment rights whose name "just automatically came up if you were involved in a civil liberties case," Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., one of the Hollywood 10, said in an interview Friday from his New York home. "Ben Margolis was the one you went to."

Margolis couldn't keep them out of jail. Lardner and the other nine--directors Edward Dmytryk and Herbert Biberman, producer Adrian Scott and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole and Alvah Bessie--were cited for contempt of Congress and were sent to federal prison for up to one year. But Margolis was valued for his grasp of constitutional issues and his militancy, a stance he maintained with pit bull fervor in his own appearance before the House committee in 1952.

"I'll fry in hell before they get any information out of me about my clients," he vowed after being subpoenaed.

Margolis was born in New York on April 23, 1910, the son of lifelong socialists who fled persecution of Jews in their native Russia. His family moved to Santa Barbara when he was in his teens, and he was introduced to the law in high school.

He took a class in commercial law and loved it. "He did very well, was told he had a gift," Ken Margolis said of his father. That's when Margolis decided to become a lawyer.

He attended Hastings Law School, opening a practice in San Francisco in 1933. His firm represented many labor unions and, notably, defended the legendary leader of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, Harry Bridges, against government charges that he was a Communist.

In 1941, Margolis moved to Los Angeles. Within three years, he was steeped in the appeal of a notorious case that had stirred racist hatred of "zoot suiters," the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in which 22 young men, most of them Mexican Americans, were convicted.

The case began when 21-year-old Jose Diaz was found beaten to death at a pond in the Bell Gardens area. The sensationalist press of the day, led by the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Examiner, dubbed the swimming hole the "Sleepy Lagoon" after a popular song and portrayed the defendants as dangerous gang members.

The defendants were not allowed to shower at times during the trial or to wear clean clothes. The judge ordered them isolated in a "prisoners box" in the courtroom, preventing communication with their lawyers. Their convictions led to a frenzy of anti-Mexican rioting, as hundreds of U.S. servicemen attacked anyone who looked Mexican or dressed in the zoot suits of the era.

Margolis won a reversal of the convictions in 1944, largely on the grounds that the defendants were denied the right to consult with their attorneys. The case established the right of the accused to free access to counsel during trial.

By 1947, when Congress began its investigation of alleged Communist activity in Hollywood, Margolis had a reputation as a fearless champion of dissidents and the disadvantaged.

Attorneys were not lining up to defend those accused of Communist ties--many lawyers had been jailed for doing so. But Margolis was the lead attorney for a group of 13 Communist Party leaders in Los Angeles prosecuted under the Smith Act of 1940, the law that made it a crime to "knowingly or willfully" advocate or abet the violent overthrow of the government or to belong to any group that encouraged such action. When the Hollywood 10 were named, Margolis became one of their principal defenders.

While others on the legal team advised their clients to tone down their statements to the House committee, Margolis urged the opposite. In "Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition" by Griffin Fariello, blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico remembered sitting before the committee flanked by Margolis and another attorney, Robert Kenny.

"I was getting a little heated in my answers, and Kenny was tugging at my left sleeve and whispering into my left ear, 'Take it easy, take it easy.' Margolis was whispering into my right ear, 'Give it to 'em! Give it to 'em!' " Laughing, Jarrico added, "I'm afraid I took Margolis' advice rather than Kenny's." He had earned 12 screenwriting credits between 1937 and 1949, then no more until 1968.

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