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In exile and matrimony

The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate, Norma Barzman, Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books: 464 pp., $27.50

April 27, 2003|Larry Ceplair | Larry Ceplair is the coauthor of "The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960."

Of the dozens of memoirs and oral histories about the blacklist, only a few are memorable. Lillian Hellman's "Scoundrel Time," for its fictionalizing; Lester Cole's "Hollywood Red," for its mean-spiritedness; Ring Lardner Jr.'s "I'd Hate Myself in the Morning" for its reflectiveness; John Sanford's "Maggie" for its tenderness; and now Norma Barzman's "The Red and the Blacklist" for its colorfulness and candor.

Barzman has written a very engaging account of her life in, and exile from, Hollywood. It has been an eventful life, filled with fascinating individuals and adventures. Many scholars of the blacklist, including myself, have anticipated her book for some time, and, in fact, I encouraged her to tell all when I interviewed her for an anthology of blacklist oral histories, published six years ago. It is a pleasure to report that her book is replete with interesting stories and anecdotes, and she vividly recalls them and the people involved (including Marion Davies, John Wayne, Charlton Heston and Harold Robbins). She is also refreshingly frank about her sexuality and her affairs. Her memoir confirms my long-held belief that the women of the blacklist were, in general, far more insightful and intelligent than the men.

But the memoir could also have been titled "I Want to Write, or Why My Husband Was Such a Drag." It is less the story of a "red" and more the story of a woman's struggle to become a recognized writer, not just an uncredited assistant to her husband. The main obstacle was not the studios or the blacklist but her husband, Ben. And though she dedicates the book to him, she portrays him as a retrograde male who would surely have agreed with 19th century philosopher Orestes Brownson that "Woman was created to be a wife and mother.... Her proper sphere is home, and her proper function is the care of the household.... Revelation asserts, and universal experience proves ... that the woman is for the man, not the man for the woman."

A second interesting aspect of this memoir is that the Barzmans, like many blacklisted people, had their lives deeply affected by their decision to become reds, but their knowledge of and commitment to communist ideology does not appear deep-dyed. (Ben was certainly unmarked by the party's educationals on the "woman question.") The Barzmans wanted to make the world a better place, and they concluded that the Communist Party provided the best vehicle to that end. In fact, Norma attributes her undying love for Ben to the romantic notion that young communist couples had of themselves "as the ideal young man and young woman surging torward the Red flag."

But the Barzmans, like virtually every artist and intellectual who joined the Communist Party, were not revolutionaries, saboteurs or spies. Their activities, on behalf of anti-fascist organizations, minority rights and day-care centers, did not threaten to undermine the republic. Their scripts did not subvert the movie industry. And yet they were forced to act as fugitives. Political circumstances made them believe it was in their best interest to flee the country. And then, overseas, they continued to be hounded by the U.S. government. Agents trailed them; informers were sicced on them; Norma's passport was taken from her; they lived in constant fear that they would be deported. But they, like hundreds of their blacklisted friends, refused to buckle under the pressure of the domestic Cold War offensive against communists.

Once domiciled in Europe, however, their communism receded into the background. Given their refugee status, they could not be active politically. But there is little evidence that they reflected on the nature of communism and their adherence to it. It was only in the 1960s, when Norma heard humanizing stories about Leon Trotsky from his nephew, producer Samuel Bronston, and witnessed what she called the treachery of the French Communist Party toward the events of May 1968, that "true political doubts" were sown.

Nevertheless, Norma's political narratives are compelling, especially when she describes their life in Hollywood in 1947 and 1948 under the shadow of House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenas. They were warned, by Groucho Marx and a young, blond starlet who said her name was Norma Jean, about agents recording the license numbers of automobiles coming up their street. They were convinced by fellow party member Bernard Vorhaus to switch houses to bamboozle the subpoena servers. Then, tiring of the idea, the Barzmans returned home only to confront a marshal at their door bearing a subpoena for Vorhaus.

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