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Ring Lardner Jr., last of the Hollywood 10, dies

Cold War: Oscar-winning writer was jailed, blacklisted for refusing to testify about his Communist affiliation.

November 02, 2000|By Louis Sahagun and Robert W. Welkos | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
  • Ring Lardner Jr., left, and Edward Dmytryk in 1950.
Ring Lardner Jr., left, and Edward Dmytryk in 1950. (Associated Press )

Ring Lardner Jr., the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who was imprisoned for refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, has died of cancer. He was 85.

The last survivor of the so-called Hollywood 10, a group of blacklisted writers, directors and producers who went to prison for refusing to testify about their political beliefs, Lardner died Tuesday in the arms of his daughter, Katharine Lardner, at his home in New York City. His wife of 54 years, Frances Chaney, was at his side.

The other members of the Hollywood 10 were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo. Of the 10, only Dmytryk finally named names of suspected Communists.

Those who knew him marveled that the tall, aristocratic Lardner, the last surviving son of the legendary baseball writer and short-story author Ring Lardner, managed to weather the turbulent blacklist period without bitterness.

"A number of the Hollywood 10 just never recovered," said Stefan Kanfer, whose book, "A Journal of the Plague Years," revisited the blacklist era. "It seemed to me he [Lardner] was the least bitter of any of them. Ring remained a liberal, but not a Communist. He discarded all that '30s garbage and went on with his life."

Lardner, who with Michael Kanin won an Oscar in 1942 for collaborating on the screenplay for the film "Woman of the Year," was not officially credited for his work over a 17-year period until his screenplay for "The Cincinnati Kid" in 1965. In 1970, he won another Oscar for "MASH.

10 Months in Prison

His defiant appearance before the House committee in October 1947 led to his imprisonment and blacklisting. When asked by Committee Chairman J. Parnell Thomas if he was then or had ever been a Communist, Lardner replied, "I could answer that question the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but if I did I'd hate myself in the morning."

Enraged by that response, Thomas ordered Lardner removed from the hearing room.

Lardner, who belonged to the Communist Party but believed that it was no one's business, was cited for contempt for failing to cooperate with the committee. That led to his indictment and one-year jail sentence in 1947. After court appeals failed, Lardner served 10 months at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Conn.

"In prison I started working on a novel, which I got published a couple of years after I got out," Lardner recalled years later. The novel was "The Ecstasy of Owen Muir."

"Although it didn't make a lot of money or sell well, it was something I was very proud of having written."

Blacklisted after leaving prison, Lardner was forced to work underground or in Mexico and London writing films and television episodes, using various pseudonyms. Some of those screenplays included "Virgin Island" (1959), "The Cardinal" (1963) and the ironically titled "A Breath of Scandal" (1960). Last August, the Writers Guild of America corrected the credits of eight blacklisted writers from the 1950s and 1960s, crediting Lardner and Hugo Butler for "The Big Night," a 1951 film starring John Barrymore Jr.

In 1988, at 72, Lardner conceded that his was a blind and youthful allegiance to the American Communist Party, which at the time seemed "a cure-all for mankind."

No country, he said, "that has become Communist or socialist has been able to avoid some form of dictatorship. Theoretically, it's possible, but it becomes something less desirable in practice."

He later took a more philosophical view of his fate.

"I certainly don't regret what I did," he said. "You can't say what your life would have been if it had gone in a different direction; there's only the one direction it did go."

Born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner Jr. in Chicago in 1915, Lardner had three brothers--James, David and John, who all became writers. Unlike him, they all died relatively young.

Ring Jr.'s first byline appeared in 1919 when he was 4. It was on a travel story entitled "The Young Immigrunts," and it was actually ghost-written by his father. The story described the family's anxious cross-country journey by car.

When Lardner was a boy his family moved to Great Neck on Long Island. Family friends there included journalists Grantland Rice and Heywood Broun and celebrated writers Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In his 1976 memoirs, "The Lardners," Lardner said his father's affection for Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda made a strong impression on him as a young boy.

Ring Jr. knew and admired Fitzgerald again in Hollywood during the last few years of his life. But Zelda, he said, "left the deepest imprint."

"I have never known another adult, except my Aunt Anne, who seemed to say exactly what came into her head as it came," he wrote, "without any apparent exercise of judgment."

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