Hollywood Red (excerpt)
Lester Cole

In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) cited ten Hollywood writers and directors for contempt of Congress. The leading organs of the daily press were outspoken and unhesitating in their criticism of the Committee's purposes and methods. Those of us who had been cited were heartened by the popular support.

About a week later, a cold-war Congress voted overwhelmingly to uphold the contempt citations. A short time after that, the Motion Picture Producers Association met in New York City and produced what became known as the Waldorf Astoria Decision. This document was a "white paper" formally instituting the blacklist in Hollywood. Somehow the mood had changed very rapidly. The recently indignant defenders of the First Amendment made no editorial comment on these latter developments. The news was merely "objectively" reported.

The first book to tell what actually happened at the HUAC hearings was titled Hollywood on Trial (Boni and Gaer, New York, 1948). It told who supported us, and who opposed us; it spelled out the consequences for both sides. The author was Gordon Kahn, a film writer and journalist who was one of the nineteen men originally subpoenaed by HUAC (although he was never actually brought to the stand). Kahn's book closed the subject, as far as we ten were concerned, for eight years. Then in 1956, a two-volume Report on Blacklisting appeared. Volume I covered the movies, volume II radio and television. The author was John Cogley, executive editor of Commonweal, and the book was sponsored by the Fund for the Republic. The backcover blurb says that Cogley was commissioned to prepare a factual report on the situation. He did — selectively and with discretion. To my knowledge, none of us was consulted about the facts as we knew them.

Over the next twenty-five years, about a dozen more books appeared. At first the authors, if they examined us at all, looked upon us as creatures somewhere between villains and fools — or more generously just as freaks and misfits. Later on, for reasons which will be discussed in the text, we became subjects for more serious young scholars. But they, too, had prejudices and preferences; their political biases also showed, sometimes subtly, sometimes obviously. While some of the writing has been accurate and well crafted, all of these works have been written from the outside. As a result, the political dimensions of the Hollywood Ten have never been personally penetrated. The books have been neither personal nor political.

This story will be personal and political.

In the writer's opinion, there can be no separation. Those "on the outside," the historians and investigative reporters whose works comprise most of the literature on the Hollywood Ten, could not have known (although some pretend to) the feelings and thoughts of those who were cited for contempt, fought the convictions all the way to the Supreme Court, and went to prison after a three-year struggle. Outsiders could not convey to the reader the conflicts we experienced — with others, with our families, and within ourselves — as we held fast to principle and firmly held convictions, only partly aware at the time of the pain, humiliation, heartache and punishment that lay ahead.

What were those convictions that I so deeply cherished? For me, it was never a question of friendships with individuals. The quirks and unpredictabilities were too great. Friends and comrades betrayed, just as others did. On the world scene, I witnessed the cruelties of Stalin, his quest for power over those who dared to disagree. But what gave birth to this paranoid, irrational  action? To me, the context was crucial: for decades, the Soviet Union was surrounded by military forces which had vowed to destroy the first socialist revolution. Even today, the hostility is as fierce as ever. A recent Reuters dispatch quoted a "high U.S. official" who said "Soviet leaders would have to choose between peacefully changing their Communist system in the direction followed by the West or going to war. There is no other alternative. (San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1981) No wonder there was paranoia in the Kremlin!

This hostility to socialism is completely unacceptable to hundred of millions, perhaps billions, of people who wish to go their own way rather than accept the dictates of the Western industrial powers. I agree with Friedrich Engels' classic characterization of Western industrial society: it is not just inhuman but prehuman. Engels said that man is in a stage of his pre-history until there is world socialism, and I share that view. I don't think humanity's history will really begin until racism is wiped out; the exploitation of man by man is abolished; and material, political and social impediments are removed everywhere. Only then will the history of man begin.

I believe that. It is what I have fought for all my adult life, and I hope I will never stop fighting for it. The present political mood only intensifies my concern, with Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig rattling their swords in Washington. They really believe the American people — and the people around the world — are under their thumbs. What the "high U.S.official" told Reuters in 1981 is the continuation of a doctrine which has flourished for sixty years (except for the brief interlude of World War II).

Hollywood Red tells the story of how I have tried to live by my beliefs. For those writing from the outside looking in, it may be difficult to appreciate the joys and gratification of the victories, the friendships and loyalties that come from the struggle. These have been heightened by the other experiences — the failures, betrayals, the anguish, the disappointments in organizational relationships, in other people, and in one's self. I have tried to tell the story candidly, indicating the defeats as well as the victories.

I felt that I could not complete this memoir without certain documents that formed part of the "official record" of my life and times. I waited two years, and then all but gave up hope that the documents I required would ever appear. I managed to write a first draft without them.

Then on February 11, 1980 the material I had formally requested and paid for finally arrived, pre-paid, first-class mail. Eagerly, I carried the ten-pound cardboard box up the two flights of stairs to my flat and tore it open.

Floating loose on top of the five roughly bound volumes were two letters, polite to the edge of cordiality. One was from David G. Flanders, Chief of the Freedom of Information Privacy Branch, U.S. Department of Justice, FBI; the other was from Clarence B. Kelley, Director.

Mr. Kelley's was a form letter instructing me in the reading of the codes. Mr. Flanders informed me that I would find enclosed 856 pages. stapled into documents as the originals were received and appeared in the files. Further, he wrote that I had been the subject of a "Security Matter" investigation which began in 1940 and continued until October 27, 1972, Also, I was the subject of a "Fraud Against the Government" investigation for three months beginning in September 1949. And, finally, I was again the subject of a "Special Security Matter" investigation in June 1972 while still the subject of the original investigation that had started in 1940.

Of a record containing more than a thousand pages, a hundred odd were blacked out. For these I was not charged ten cents each. But for those on which all but an indecipherable line or two were left intact, with the balance obliterated by black ink — including, on every page, the names of the agents and informers — there was no discount for deletions. It was still ten cents per page or fraction thereof.

After examining what was left, and those sections of it which were understandable, I felt some brief additions from this harrowing tale might be helpful. Whenever I do quote from this source, I will footnote it as such. Much of it will serve to authenticate some of the assertions zealously collected by informers from such sources as Walter Winchell, the commercial press and the film industry trade papers, Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. For this assistance to one not addicted to clipping such choice items, I can only express thanks to those diligent, special FBI agents and their paid and volunteer informers.

Much time, effort and cost were, of course, wasted. More than a hundred times it was reported that a dark green Buick (or tan Chrysler) bearing such and such a license plate, "which later was discovered to be registered to Lester Cole, was seen to stop in front of the house of Albert Maltz, or Ring Lardner, or John Howard Lawson." As often as not the informer's name was inked out, or such a vital report was followed by this: "(Source unreliable)." 

They were on my trail and tail from Hollywood to New York, and when I went abroad vigilance was transferred to the CIA. My mail to and from this country, sent and received, was monitored in the post offices. Some anonymous agent noted all the names on the envelopes of my correspondents. Whether the contents were also read, I do not know. Perhaps the answer could be among the hundred-odd deleted or inked-out pages.

Eager to accept any and all information, there were some matters for which, for political reasons, I was given credit, even authorship, when it was deserved by others. A classic example of this occurred in 1947. A year before James Cain, well-known popular author of such novels as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, was weary of the rip-off by the producers. They paid a writer but once for his material, but could use it again and again. Cain came to the Screen Writers Guild with a plan to put an end to this malpractice. His proposal was modeled after the very successful organization of the songwriters, who had formed a licensing company called ASCAP. Under ASCAP rules no song, whether on a record or played live on radio, could be used without paying the authors, composer and lyricist, a fee for each performance. It put an end to free use of their material and changed the miserable economic status of the membership overnight. James Cain was a politically conservative man, and there was no way to attack his plan by red-baiting him. But when I, as vice-president of the Guild, joined in its advocacy, the red-baiters had a target. Suddenly I was publicized as the author of Cain's proposal, which he had entitled "The American Authors' Authority" (the AAA). Cain, easily seduced. apparently believed the canards of those who sought to discredit his plan, and in 1948 angrily denounced me, Ring Lardner and Gordon Kahn as stealing his plan and of being loyal first to the Communist Party and only then to the Screen Writers Guild.

The following FBI report was obviously written not by an agent, but by one of their industry informers, most likely a writer-member of the Hollywood Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals — about which more later.


      [Released as no longer confidential on June 20, 1979. upon request through Freedom of Information Act.]

      HQ MDW PERIOD FROM 1700, 27 Sept. to 4 Oct. 1946 (Following a section on which is ink-written Not Relevant")

      THE AMERICAN AUTHORS AUTHORITY (AAA) was fathered and hatched up by the (COMMUNIST) SCREEN WRITERS' GUILD and hastily adopted by the RADIO WRITERS GUILD. The purpose of the AAA is to constitute a trusteeship over the brains of all writers. It would not merely control but would own the copyrights on everything from a two line filler or sonnet or magazine article to a book or play. These literary products, it would "lease" or "license" to publishers and producers who accept the AAA's conditions and recognize its domination. In this way all creative writing to reach the public would have to funnel through one narrow and carefully guarded gap. This screen for thought control of America indicates evidence of long, careful preparation as formulated in the eighteen pages of the "SCREEN WRITER." The AAA "Red Front Plan" was adopted at a single meeting without benefit of prolonged discussion which follows all Marxist projected plans in parliamentary procedure. As to person-alities, the President of the SCREEN WRITERS GUILD is one EMMETT LAVERY, supported by the Communist Party in his recent unsucessful attempt to get the Democratic Party nomination to Con-gress. LAVERY is an old time joiner of all the old familiar CP Front organizations. DALTON TRUMBO, editor of the SCREEN WRITER, and one of the propagandists for the AUTHORITY aforementioned, is best known for having written "Johnny Get Your Gun," serialized in the COMMUNIST DAILY WORKER during the time the Communists were working with the Nazis, 1939-1940. It was circulated to make Americans refuse to go to war. LESTER COLE, First Vice President of the Guild, is a notorious follower of the Communist Party line. JOHN HOWARD LAWSON and RING LARDNER, JR., are followers of the Party line undertakings. PETER LYON, a fellow traveler, is also on the committee. It is interesting" to note that the DAILY WORKER and other Communist organs endorse the plan of the AAA. It is further reported that the AAA contemplates using this authoritarian plan as a future wedge into the American political structure.

      In order to counteract the AAA, fifty prominent writers on 18 [?-unclear] September formed the American Writers Association. The Association lending every effort to expose the nefarious plot of the AAA. Local chapters of the organization are in the process of being formed in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Ill. and Hollywood, Cal.

      (A..2) (1074)

All references to "Communist" plotting are not only untrue but preposterous. However, we were in a Cold War hysteria, and the campaign of the "fifty prominent writers" — all anonymous, naturally, was sufficient then, along with producer pressure, to defeat James Cain's much-needed proposal, depriving writers of the benefits ASCAP members have enjoyed for more than fifty years.

At this writing (March 1981) the Writers Guild members are preparing to go on strike to achieve but one part of such an arrangement, and without the help of those "nefarious" red plotters.

There are also some ironically amusing, inadvertent errors in the vast FBI file. One informer reported in 1945, that I attacked the Cagney Brothers, Jimmy and his producer-brother, Bill, for having deleted a portion of my screenplay of the film, Blood on the Sun. I had, this unnamed source wrote, accused the producers "... of substituting veracity for public reception and . .. writers should be protected from such mistreatment." Obviously, I had written the reverse: that hoped-for "public reception" should not be substituted for "veracity." (More on this later.) But as busy as the FBI was with hundreds in Hollywood being watched and monitored, such innocent slips must be forgiven.

I paid my ten cents a page for even less. One sheet was completely inked out with the exception of this one line:

      "ACTION: None. This is for your information."

Over and over different informers sent in similar "infor-mation." I was listed in twenty-odd organizations, from the League of American Writers (as vice-president and "lieutenant to Donald Ogden Stewart"), to a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the League Against War and Fascism, the Committee to Aid Republican Spain — and on and on. It is true, I was active in them all. Now I wonder where did I ever find time? Somehow I did.

Hollywood Red - Lester Cole | Scene4 Magazine December 2015

Hollywood Red - Lester Cole | Scene4 Magazine December 2015

An informer reported that he joined the Communist Party (his name blacked out, of course) and that after becoming acquainted with me concluded that he "never heard Cole teach or advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence." That, of course, was hardly enough to conclude any investigation, since another informer (name blacked out) reported that from 1939 on, as executive board member, treasurer, vice-president and president of the Screen Writers Guild, I "worked with the C.P. to capture the Hollywood trade unions."

It wasn't until February 1961 that I had the first inkling of the FBI's interest in me. The foregoing items are from the files finally turned over to me under the Freedom of Information Act.

My one FBI interview wasn't terminated as claimed. I recall it well. There were two agents, both well-dressed in three-piece suits and straw hats, one in his twenties, the other about fifty. The latter did the talking. When the interview was "terminated," the older one then asked to speak to my wife. It was eight in the morning. Kay was still asleep, and I told him she had nothing to say to him. He wanted to know how I could speak for her. Did I really have the right to make such an assumption? I said yes, I did.

Whereupon he looked at me with something akin to haughty condescension, shook his head sadly, then tsk-tsked: "Male chauvinist." They walked away. Then the interview was terminated.

From then on I suppose I was aware of the possibility of surveillance. Aside from suspecting my phone to be tapped, I was followed all over the U.S. and when in Europe was under the scrutiny of the CIA. My mail was observed, if not opened, and it continued, according to the report, for thirty-two years. Suddenly it stopped. Why then, when my activities became po -litically more open than ever before? Or had it stopped? Was it just that for the eight years since the report ended they had failed to send me the documents?

I wrote to the Chief of the Department, David G. Flanders; I wanted its report on me for the past eight years, and if they didn't send it, I wanted to know why not. Within two weeks, I received the following reply:

      WASHINGTON, D.C. 20535

      MAR 10 1980

      Mr. Lester Cole
      Apartment 4
      741 Kansas Street
      San Francisco, California 94107

      Dear Mr. Cole:

      This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated February 20. 1980, which was received at FBI Headquarters on February 26, 1980.

      Your letter indicated that the FBI had stopped pursuing your activities in October, 1942. [sic]

      As we stated to you in our letter of February I, 1980 you were the subject of a Security Matter investigation which began in August, 1940, and continued until October, 1972.

      This investigation was closed on October 27, 1972, since you were no longer believed to constitute a potential or actual threat to the internal security of the United States.

      One of the documents we forwarded you dated October 27 ,1972, contains information which is classified "Confidential" according to the FBI's current classification guidelines. For your information, a copy of the Federal Register pertaining to the FBI's system of records is enclosed.

      The criteria as to why your Security Matter Investigation was closed has been circled in red. If you remain dissatisfied with the classified information, you may appeal to the Associate Attorney General as we stated to you in our letter of February 1, 1980.

      Sincerely yours,

      [s] David G. Flanders David G. Flanders. Chief Freedom of Information-Privacy Acts Branch Records Management Division


This investigation was closed on October 27, 1972 since you were no longer believed to constitute a potential or actual threat to the internal security of the United States."

Thirty-two years! Myself and how many others like me, for how long, tracked, trailed and tailed. Hundreds of thousands of citizens' tax dollars paid to agents and informers, all to end in nothing. What frustration it must have been for them!

You will notice that Mr. Flanders signed his letter "Sincerely." This was one year, of course, before his new President leaked the story, in March 1981, of a plan to "unleash" the FBI and CIA and resume widespread wiretapping, "black bag" break-ins, infiltration of citizens' groups and every manner of harassment of lawful political activities. When public opposition blew too stormy, Ronald Reagan backtracked — the plan was just a "proposal" under consideration.

But has the plan been abandoned? Just a few weeks ago, in May 1981, the Los Angeles Times reported the latest version, this time confined to the FBI (is the CIA too busy elsewhere?). It would authorize the FBI to employ illegal methods to harass individuals and groups who carry on constitutionally protected activities. Then, without waiting to be asked, or even looking at the trial record, Reagan rushed to give a presidential pardon to two top FBI officials who were convicted of widespread abuse of the rights of wholly innocent and unsuspecting people. This is a clear signal that the political paranoia of the current administration prevents it from seeing anything wrong with "official" lawbreaking.

This lawbreaking began in 1936, under J. Edgar Hoover and President Roosevelt, and has only periodically abated when public opposition grew too much.

Most Americans have little recollection of the dark decades of HUAC. From 1938 to 1975 it traveled like a carnival throughout the country, breaking up families, turning friends into enemies, destroying reputations and lives. Public revulsion to this shameful period of our nation finally caused the elimination of the Committee in 1975. Congress sent several rooms full of HUAC files to the national archives to be sealed for at least fifty years. Now the administration's right-wing ideologues have revived the Senate Internal Security Sub-committee and are doing their best to reinstall another HUAC in the House of Representatives. Congressman Don Edwards has asked "Will we move those miles of records — rumor, gossip, innuendo, yellowing clippings — back to Capitol Hill?"

It can happen here; when bigots are permitted to burn wooden crosses, how long will it be before they start burning paper documents, old-fashioned documents like the Constitution and its Bill of Rights?


Hollywood Red: The Autobiography of Lester Cole
is published by AviarPress.

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Lester Cole was one of the "Hollywood Ten" and one of the founders of the Screenwriters´ Guild (now the Writers Guild of America). He died in 1985 at the age of 81. Yet his legacy and presence are still quite real both in Hollywood and in Europe where he is remembered as a "screenwriter's screenwriter" and an irrepressible activist. A successful New York playwright, he was contracted to Hollywood in the early 1930s and wrote over 40 films during the heyday of the Dream Factories. As one of the founders of the Screenwriters Guild and a thorn in the side of the movie-moguls, especially MGM’s Irving Thalberg, he fought throughout his life for the rights of writers to control their work. The scourge of the Blacklist that began in 1947 ended his studio career, but he continued to work under "front" names and continued the fight as an advocate and provocateur. His last major film was Born Free, written under the euphemistic pen-name of "Gerald L.C. Copley". He was a film critic in his later years and a revered teacher of screenwriting at UC Berkeley.

©2015 The Estate of Lester Cole and AviarPress
©2015 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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