When the Hollywood blacklist ended and its victims came home from exile, several of them ended up in Ojai, where the story’s final chapter still is being written. Literally.
By Mark Lewis
Judy Chaikin was looking for a hotel room, not a history lesson. She and her husband had driven up from L.A. in August 1982 to hear their friend Roger Kellaway perform at the “Jazz at Ojai” festival in Libbey Bowl. But all the hotels and motels in town were fully booked that weekend, so the Chaikins ended up at Tiba Willner’s bed-and-breakfast on Patricia Court, just north of Topa Topa Elementary School.
“Tiba was a very chatty person,” Chaikin recalls. “She started telling me about the blacklist.”
Tiba turned out to be the widow of George Willner, a talent agent who in 1951 had run afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, better known as HUAC, which was investigating Communist Party influence in Hollywood. Tiba spoke movingly to Chaikin about the financial devastation the blacklist had visited upon her family.
Chaikin, an aspiring filmmaker, realized that she had found the subject for her first documentary. This chance encounter in Ojai eventually would result in “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist,” which Chaikin made for PBS. As she worked on the film, she kept turning up people who lived in Ojai or had Ojai connections.
“I eventually realized that a lot of blacklist people had moved up there,” Chaikin says.
They ran the gamut of the movie-industry crafts, from actors like Jeff Corey to composers like Elmer Bernstein to cinematographers like Floyd Crosby (father of rock star David Crosby). But it was the screenwriters who really stood out, because their blacklist battle had never ended.
Two blacklisted writers – Michael Wilson and his friend Paul Jarrico – actually lived in Ojai, albeit at different times. Two others – Dalton Trumbo and Waldo Salt – were regular visitors, and each had a child who eventually settled here. A fifth writer, John Howard Lawson, was not a regular visitor, but he too had a child who put down roots in Ojai. That child, Jeffrey Lawson, is now 87, and apparently the only person left in town whose life was directly affected by the HUAC hearings.
Jeff does not appear in Chaikin’s film, but he is writing his memoirs, so he may end up having the last word. Inevitably, his book will touch on the blacklist period, which ran from 1947 to the early 1960s. But his memory stretches back many years earlier, to the time of the Great Depression, when the Hollywood blacklist story really begins. And for Jeff Lawson, strangely enough, it begins not in Hollywood but in Ojai.
During the 1930s, many progressive Hollywood filmmakers boarded their children at the Ojai Valley School. These parents included such future blacklistees as the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, who in 1940 would win an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story.” Stewart was close to John Howard Lawson, an avant-garde playwright from New York who had turned to screenwriting. So when Jack Lawson moved his family from New York to Los Angeles in 1937, it’s no surprise that 11-year-old Jeff ended up at the boarding school on El Paseo Road.
Ojai was little more than a village in those days, and the Ojai Valley School had just the one campus.
“It only had about 40 students,” Jeff recalls.
His parents lived in North Hollywood, some 80 miles away. Periodically they would drive up to Ojai to visit him. But to Jeff, his father was a distant figure even when they were together.
Of course, Jack Lawson had a lot on his mind. By day, he wrote screenplays; by night, he headed the clandestine Hollywood branch of the Communist Party USA.
The party welcomed many new recruits during the Depression, when communism seemed to offer a cure-all for capitalism’s manifest failures: poverty, inequality, racism. And Jack Lawson, as a committed anti-fascist, admired Stalin’s Soviet Union for standing up to Hitler’s Germany.
“He thought (the Communists) where the only ones doing anything about it,” Jeff says.
During the period from 1937 to 1947, about 300 movie-industry people were Communist Party members at one point or another, and half of them were screenwriters. The studio chiefs would never countenance films with overtly leftist themes, but these writers tried to at least infuse their scripts with what they saw as humanist values. These hothouse reds were not revolutionaries trying to overthrow the government; in practice, they were more akin to liberals on steroids. But they had an enormous blind spot when it came to Stalin and the Soviet Union, and it would cost them dearly.
ELMA Gussin was born in New York but grew up in Santa Paula, where her mother owned a store. Zelma played on the Santa Paula Union High School tennis team, and she was good enough to compete in the Ojai Tennis Tournament. But her dream was to become an architect.
Her older sister, Sylvia, married Paul Jarrico in 1936, around the time that she and Paul graduated from the University of Southern California. Sylvia then started in on a graduate degree while Paul went to work in Hollywood, where some fellow screenwriters were recruited into the Communist Party. In 1941 he was nominated for an Academy Award for writing “Tom, Dick and Harry,” a Ginger Rogers comedy. (He lost the Oscar to Orson Welles, Herman Mankiewicz and “Citizen Kane.”)
1941 was also the year that Zelma married Mike Wilson, an Oklahoma native and a budding Marxist whom she had met at U.C. Berkeley. They settled in Los Angeles, where Zelma pursued an architecture degree at USC. Mike’s plan was to write the great American novel. But his new brother-in-law had other ideas, according to Mike’s daughter, Becca Wilson:
“Paul said to my dad, ‘Hey, why don’t you come down to Hollywood and make some quick money?’ ”
And so Mike Wilson gave up novel writing for screenwriting, and joined Paul Jarrico in the ranks of the Hollywood reds.
These were stirring times for American Communists. By the end of 1941, America and the Soviet Union were both at war with Nazi Germany, and Hollywood’s radicals were doing everything they could to aid the war effort. Paul Jarrico finally got to work on an openly pro-Soviet film, “Song of Russia,” a tribute to America’s ally. Mike Wilson set his typewriter aside, joined the Marines and served in the Pacific. Everyone celebrated the Allies’ victory in 1945, and looked forward to reaping the rewards of peace.
But the U.S. and the Soviet Union soon fell out over Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe. By 1947, anti-communism was on the rise in America. The House Un-American Activities Committee decided to investigate reports that a secret Communist cell was operating in Hollywood, weaving subversive themes into innocent-seeming films.
Give HUAC this much: There were indeed hundreds of Communists in Hollywood, they did belong to a secret organization that took its cues from Stalin, and they did occasionally try to inject mildly political content into their films. But the results were generally innocuous.
Case in point: Frank Capra’s beloved film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” released in 1946, with James Stewart in the lead role as George Bailey. Mike Wilson had done an uncredited polish job on the script. Presumably he punched up Bailey’s populist speeches denouncing Mr. Potter, the villainous capitalist played by Lionel Barrymore. But nothing Wilson added to that script was inconsistent with Capra’s beliefs, and Frank Capra was no Communist.
The bottom line was that Hollywood was run by capitalists, not Communists. Most producers cared only about making money. When HUAC came calling, they were perfectly willing to throw the reds to the wolves.
Jack Lawson and Dalton Trumbo were subpoenaed to appear at the first HUAC hearings in Washington, along with eight other Hollywood figures, all of them party members or former members. Together, they comprised the Hollywood Ten. They refused to say whether they and their friends were Communists, citing their First Amendment rights. All were cited for contempt of Congress, and served up to a year in federal prison. Meanwhile, the studios announced that these “unfriendly” witnesses were no longer welcome in Hollywood. The blacklist era had begun.
Four years later, HUAC launched a second round of hearings targeting the film industry. By now, the political atmosphere was even more poisonous. China had gone Communist and Stalin had acquired the atom bomb, with help from spies in America. The Korean War was raging, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy was running amok. A full-fledged red scare had erupted. Many HUAC witnesses crumbled under the pressure.
Names were named, and published in the newspapers. One by one, the Communists and ex-Communists and fellow travelers who had escaped HUAC’s tumbrels in 1947 were called to account. This time around, the unfriendly witnesses took a different tack. Instead of citing the First Amendment, they cited their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves. Among the party members subpoenaed were screenwriters Waldo Salt, Paul Jarrico, Mike Wilson – and George Willner, a screenwriter’s agent who specialized in representing his fellow Communists. The “fellow traveler” category included Jeff Corey, who had attended some meetings years earlier but had never joined the party. All were swept into the net, along with many others. They did not go to prison, but they could no longer work in Hollywood.
ALTON TRUMBO was among the blacklisted screenwriters who went into voluntary exile — to Mexico City, in Trumbo’s case. Not Jarrico and Wilson — they stayed in the U.S. to make “Salt of the Earth,” an independent film about a Mexican-American miners’ strike in New Mexico. Wilson wrote it, Jarrico produced it and Herbert Biberman (of the Hollywood Ten) directed. At last, they thought, they could make a film with no creative interference from studio capitalists. Instead, to their immense irritation, they ran into interference from a Communist apparatchik: their old friend Jack Lawson, now out of prison and hoping to regain his leadership position in the party’s beleaguered Hollywood branch.
“They had big conflicts with Lawson,” Becca Wilson says. “He had kind of a dogmatic point of view. The party pressed for changes to ‘Salt of the Earth,’ which my father really resented.”
Wilson, Jarrico and Biberman ignored Lawson’s suggestions and made the film they wanted to make, and “Salt of the Earth” earned an enthusiastic reception in Europe. But HUAC condemned the film as subversive, and U.S. distributors boycotted it, so relatively few people in America had a chance to see it.
Up until then, Mike Wilson had been on a roll, despite the blacklist. At the 1952 Academy Awards ceremony, he received an Oscar for co-writing “A Place in the Sun.” His next script, “Five Fingers,” earned him another Oscar nomination. Then came the “Salt of the Earth” controversy, which rendered him persona non grata in Hollywood. The controversy also cost Zelma her architecture job, so there was nothing to keep the Wilsons in America. They took their daughters Becca and Rosanna and moved to France.
Paul and Sylvia Jarrico remained in Los Angeles, trying to hold the party’s Hollywood branch together. But by this point, America’s Communists found themselves in an increasingly untenable position. They were stunned in February 1956 when the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made a speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes. They were further stunned later that year when Khrushchev sent Red Army tanks rolling into Hungary to crush a liberation movement.
Mike and Zelma Wilson quit the party in disgust. “They were just horrified,” Becca Wilson says. “They felt betrayed in some ways.”
Even Jack Lawson was taken aback by the Stalin revelations, according to his son.
“He said to me one day, ‘I guess power corrupts everyone,’ ” Jeff Lawson says. “After the Khrushchev thing, you couldn’t deny it.”
But Jack Lawson continued to toe the party line. This was too much for the remaining Hollywood reds, who no longer accepted Lawson as their leader. It fell to Paul Jarrico to preside over the Hollywood branch’s demise.
“What was left of the party we tried to hold together, but it was more or less a lost cause,” Jarrico told the authors of the book “Tender Comrades.” After Khrushchev’s speech, he said, “even the slowest of us realized that the accusations against Stalin and Stalinism had been true — though we had denied they were true — and that we had been defending indefensible things. That, I would say, was the end of the party.”
It was certainly the end for Jarrico. He quit the party in 1958, and he and Sylvia left to join the Wilsons in Paris.
Mike Wilson was thriving as an émigré screenwriter. His script for “The Bridge On The River Kwai,” co-written with his fellow blacklistee Carl Foreman, had just won an Academy Award as the best adapted screenplay of 1957. But neither Wilson nor Foreman received any credit for it; the Oscar instead went to Pierre Boulle, who had written the novel on which the film was based. Such were the absurdities of the blacklist era. Writers like Wilson could find work, but only if they wrote under a pseudonym, or let another writer take the credit.
Then, in 1960, Dalton Trumbo received screen credits for “Spartacus” and “Exodus,” and the blacklist system began to collapse. The red scare had faded, and self-exiled writers were trickling back to Hollywood. In 1964, Mike and Zelma Wilson decided to join this exodus-in-reverse. Their daughters wanted to go to college in America, and Zelma wanted to rekindle her career as an architect. But Mike had a problem. He did not want to live in Los Angeles, yet he needed to stay close enough to maintain his professional contacts.
“He said he didn’t want to be right inside the belly of the monster, but he wanted to be ‘close to the tit,’” Becca Wilson says.
Zelma had the perfect solution: Ojai. She knew it well from her Santa Paula days, when she had come here to play tennis. And so the Wilsons ended up on Del Norte Road in the Arbolada. They enrolled their daughters in Nordhoff High School, and set about rebuilding their professional lives.
Zelma started her own architecture firm. Mike went back to work in Hollywood and picked up where he had left off. He earned his first studio credit since 1952 with “The Sandpiper,” a 1965 vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which Wilson co-wrote with Dalton Trumbo and two other writers.
That same year saw the release of “The Cincinnati Kid,” written by the no-longer-blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr., and with the no-longer-blacklisted Jeff Corey in a supporting role. Shortly after this film was released, Corey and his wife, Hope, drove up from L.A. to visit the Wilsons in their new home. The Coreys fell in love with Ojai, and bought themselves a house on Foothill Road. Before long, Ojai had acquired a good-sized colony of former blacklistees.
Sylvia Jarrico, now divorced from Paul, lived in the Wilsons’ guesthouse for several years in the mid-to-late 1960s. Then George and Tiba Willner moved to town; and they in turn played host to Paul Jarrico for a while when he returned to America from France in the mid ‘70s. Everyone regularly convened at the Wilsons’ home on Sunday afternoons to socialize with old friends like Waldo Salt or Dalton and Cleo Trumbo, who would drive up from L.A. for the day.
As a group, they had much to celebrate. Mike Wilson scored an enormous hit with “Planet of the Apes” (1968), which he co-wrote with Rod Serling. Salt won an Academy Award in 1969 for writing “Midnight Cowboy” (later he won another one for “Coming Home”). Lardner won an Oscar for “MASH” in 1970. Trumbo wrote and directed “Johnny Got His Gun,” based on his novel. With their anti-war and anti-establishment themes, these were just the sorts of scripts that HUAC would have condemned two decades earlier. Now their authors were the toast of Hollywood.
In 1976, the Writers Guild of America (West) honored Wilson with its Screen Laurel Award for lifetime achievement. In his acceptance speech, he warned his listeners that one day “a new crisis of belief will grip this republic, when diversity of opinion will be labeled disloyalty … If this gloomy scenario should come to pass, I trust that you younger men and women will shelter the mavericks and dissenters in your ranks and protect their right to work. The Guild will have need of rebels and heretics if it is to survive as a union of free writers. The nation will have need of them if it is to survive as an open society.”
IKE Wilson does not appear in Judy Chaikin’s documentary about the blacklist; he died of a heart attack at 63 in 1978, four years before Judy checked into Tiba Willner’s bed-and-breakfast. But Zelma and Becca Wilson appear in the film, which aired on PBS in 1987 and was nominated for an Emmy.
As an architect, Zelma was making her mark on Ojai with many high-profile projects, including City Hall, Meditation Mount, the Ojai Valley Athletic Club, St. Andrews Episcopal Church and Oak Grove School. And on Sunday afternoons she continued to welcome many former comrades, as it were, to her home on Del Norte Road.
Paul Jarrico and Lia Benedetti, who lived in Santa Monica, were regular visitors at Zelma’s, especially on Thanksgiving, when they often would encounter Sylvia Jarrico. (Everyone was on friendly terms, post-divorce.)
“Zelma was sort of the centerpiece here,” Lia recalls.
The blacklist community was multi-generational, and so were Zelma’s parties. Dalton Trumbo’s son Chris was a regular, along with his wife, Nancy Escher. When visiting Ojai they might encounter Paul and Sylvia’s son, Bill Jarrico, who lived in his Aunt Zelma’s house for several years in the early ‘90s. Later they would encounter Waldo Salt’s daughter Deborah, who landed in Ojai in the mid ‘90s. “And Jeff Lawson, whom we really didn’t see that much,” Nancy Escher recalls.
Lawson had moved to Ojai from Santa Monica in the early ‘80s. Jeff, who fondly remembered his days at the Ojai Valley School, decided that Ojai would be a good place to raise his son. He and his family ended up in a house near Tiba Willner’s, and he and Tiba became close. Over the years he also has socialized with the actor Robert Brown, who had his own brush with the blacklist. But Jeff always had a troubled relationship with his father, Jack Lawson, who died in 1977, a loyal Communist to the end. When interviewed by reporters, Jeff tended to be critical of his father, and of communism in general. This did not always go down well with his blacklistee peers.
“I had a lot of anger toward my father, mainly because he was so aloof,” Jeff says. “So I was looked upon, I think, as sort of a loose cannon. … Tiba said, ‘You don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.’ They were more into circling the wagons, that sort of thing.”
n May 1996, the Ojai Film Society decided to honor Mike Wilson’s memory with a special Ojai Playhouse screening of “Salt of the Earth,” followed by a gala dinner at Wheeler Hot Springs featuring Paul Jarrico as the keynote speaker. A week before this scheduled event, Zelma Wilson died unexpectedly of emphysema, at the age of 77. The Film Society proceeded with the event anyway to honor both Wilsons, and the Ojai Valley News, in an editorial, placed Zelma in rarified company: “And so in the tradition of Edward Drummond Libbey and J. Krishnamurti, we add the name Zelma Wilson to the exclusive list of those who helped shape Ojai’s unique character.”
Zelma’s passing robbed Ojai’s blacklistee community of its centerpiece, but the second generation was stepping up to fill the gap. Chris Trumbo and Nancy Escher moved to town in the mid ‘90s and settled in the East End. So did Deborah Salt, whose mother, Mary Davenport (Waldo’s ex-wife), had been a regular Ojai visitor over the years.
“There was a lot of that vibe up there,” Deborah says. “So many knew blacklist people, or were blacklist people.”
Paul Jarrico finally took the plunge himself, moving to Ojai with Lia in December 1996. Paul had never quite regained his footing in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but he led a long and ultimately successful crusade to restore screen credits that had been denied to blacklisted writers. Among the beneficiaries were the late Jack Lawson, belatedly credited for “Cry, the Beloved Country,” and the late Mike Wilson, finally credited for his contributions to “Lawrence of Arabia.” Posthumous Oscars went to Wilson and Carl Foreman for “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and to Dalton Trumbo for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One.”
In October 1997, Jarrico helped organize “Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist,” a star-studded event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of HUAC’s first Hollywood hearings. Jarrico and Ring Lardner Jr. were on hand to accept public apologies from the presidents of the film-industry guilds that had failed to stand up for union members targeted by red-baiters.
“It was incredible,” says Judy Chaikin, who directed the event. “It was in fact the culmination of everything Paul had been working for.”
The celebration continued the next day with a luncheon at which Jarrico was a guest of honor.
“It was a wonderful weekend for him,” Lia Benedetti Jarrico says. “It was just really a triumph.”
“It was a Hollywood ending,” Chaikin says. Then she pauses. “That was the last we ever saw of him.”
After the luncheon, Jarrico got in his car to drive home to Ojai via the Pacific Coast Highway. After rounding Point Mugu, he ran off the road while approaching Oxnard, crashed into a palm tree and was killed. He was 82 years old.
After Jarrico’s death, Chris Trumbo carried on as the community’s torchbearer. The play he wrote based on his father’s letters – “Trumbo: Red, White & Blacklisted” – enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run beginning in 2003, with Nathan Lane as Dalton Trumbo. Chris later reworked this material into the 2007 film “Trumbo.” He was still at work on his book about the blacklist when he died of cancer at his home in Ojai in 2011, at the age of 70. (Nancy Escher says that the historian Larry Ceplair is completing the book.)
“When Chris died, that was a huge tragedy,” Deborah Salt says. “For Chris, Ojai was a safe place,” Nancy says. “He found peace and happiness here. I think we both had the same feeling when we arrived in Ojai. This is where we belonged.”
Salt is long gone from Ojai; she moved to L.A. a decade ago. But Jeff Lawson still lives here in a book-stuffed apartment near Soule Park, where he sits and works on his memoirs, and wrestles with his father’s fraught legacy.