He was a New York playwright, a prolific screenwriter during Hollywood's 'golden years', a leader and the most vehement member of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, an honored jurist at Eastern European film festivals, a teacher at UC Berkeley, and a film critic. Most respected among his nearly 50 screenwriting credits are his screenplay for Universal's The House of the Seven Gables and his most famous film is the popular Born Free, which he wrote under a blacklisted pseudonym. (You can see the list of his films at the D'Arcy-Kane Agency site.)
Lester Cole was also the spur and a founding member of the Screenwriter's Guild (now the WGA). He was a thorn in the side of the movie-moguls, especially MGM´s golden boy, Irving Thalberg, who banned him from the powerful studio's realm. With typical historic irony, in 1947, as the red-scare began to envelope Hollywood, MGM's mogul-Mayer attempted to dissuade him from his path of confrontation with the congressional House Un-American Activities Committee by offering him his own film as a director. He refused. His greatest regret was not achieving for screenwriters what all other 'composers' had and still have — control over their work.
His life was rich, complex, and full of intriguing experiences, some of which remain unexplained. You can step into the details of a 'witness of the 20th Century' in his raw and uneven autobiography, Hollywood Red, which reveals as much between the lines as it does in the printed words.
Lester Cole and I were good friends during the last years of his life. He died in August, 1985. A few months before, one late afternoon, he gave me a memory which I still treasure. He was already in his early eighties with a body decayed beyond repair though his sense of humor remained intact. He joked his doctors into prescribing a tonic that kept young memories alive: a very dry martini, in fact, two, every day before dinner. The first skidded through his narrow arteries and harangued his tired heart into pumping a little extra blood. It flooded him with unaccustomed warmth, and he sang, "I'm dropping my pants to the world," as he sat back in a muddle of giggles and tears. The second seemed to completely bypass his coronary system and in an astonishing bit of alchemy the alcohol generated a temporary regiment of disciplined neurons — he became clear-headed and articulate. He proclaimed: "I've been this close to knowing the purpose of it all, the answer to the only question that matters, 'Why?'. This close. And I want to live until I've got it in my hand, in my mind. But I won't." He began to cry and after a moment he smiled, his face red and small and wet. "You know," he whispered, "I'm going to live forever, in the memories of other people. That's right, that's how I'm going to live."
I have always loved the Iris, especially the traditional one, purple with a sensuous golden center. It has an innate beauty in the way it grows and develops, and it's wonderfully smart in the way it blossoms. So it was with one of the flower's namesakes, Iris Chang. She was a diligent and perceptive historian who was also a gifted writer. Her 1997 Rape of Nanking became a best-seller and catapulted her to celebrity status which she used in her passionate and eloquent pursuit of historical justice.
On November 9, 2004, Iris Chang put a bullet in her head and ended a charismatic 36-year life. I knew her from a few telephone conversations and a couple of meetings over tea and coffee. I didn't know her family. I didn't go to her memorial service because I don't go to funerals. They say she was depressed; they say she was self-shattered from the depths she explored of humans' horrific treatment of other humans. She left a note asking to be remembered as she was: "engaged with life, committed to her causes, her writing, and her family."
I don't understand depression with any clarity. It seems to be like a virus that re-programs the operating system of the mind and elevates one of an individual's selves that usually only wanders in the deepest, darkest shadows of the memory. And I'm unclear about suicide as well. I've written about it – from a deformed death-row inmate who opts for it to taste a freedom of self-choice he's never had to a woman who discovers that her mortality will coldly erase all that is her life and opts for it to at least hold the eraser herself and warmly blank out all that she is.
These are created characters that lived within me. I wouldn't know how to paint such a profile of Iris Chang. I'm at a loss. And as with all deaths, self-inflicted or not, I've acquired another irrevocable sadness.
She was a bright light, and when it burned out, there was just that more darkness to live with.