Joan Scott, screenwriter who penned scripts for blacklisted husband, dies at 91


Joan Scott was a Hollywood screenwriter who penned scripts for her blacklisted husband and had a successful career in her own right, writing for such popular shows as “Lassie.” She has died at the age of 91. (Los Angeles Times)
June 29, 2012

In 1950s Hollywood, screenwriter Joan Scott seemed so adept at turning out tough-guy scripts that she became known as “the girl who writes like a man.”

What the studios didn’t know was that she wasn’t the writer. Her husband was.

She was married to Adrian Scott, a screenwriter who was blacklisted after refusing to cooperate with the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. He was cited for contempt of Congress and sent to prison as one of the Hollywood 10.

When he was released, he was unemployable, so Mrs. Scott became his “front,” taking his work to story conferences, keeping track of revisions and giving him the notes at home so he could do the rewriting. When his work was used for television shows, she took the credit under a pseudonym, Joanne Court.

Those were bitter years with one unintended benefit: “It was how I learned to be a writer,” she told the Los Angeles Times years later.

Mrs. Scott, who had a colorful career in her own right scripting stories for such popular shows as “Lassie” and “Have Gun — Will Travel,” died June 19 in Woodland Hills, Calif., said her friend, Candy Tanaka. She was 91 and had vascular dementia.

Blacklisted herself, Mrs. Scott fought to gain full recognition for her work from the Writers Guild of America, which in 1980 began restoring credits to the authors of hundreds of screenplays who used aliases or fronts during the McCarthy era. She was a technical adviser with a small walk-on part in a 1991 film about the blacklist, “Guilty by Suspicion,” which starred Robert De Niro.

In the 1990s, the guild changed the screenwriting credits for the 1962 MGM release “Cairo” and the 1960 Disney film “The Magnificent Rebel” from Joanne Court to Joan Scott.

“I think of her as a stand-in for all the wives — and, in some cases, husbands — who were affected by the blacklist profoundly, horribly in her case, and never found their voice,” said Patrick McGilligan, a historian and co-author of the 1997 oral history of the blacklist era, “Tender Comrades.”

“Joan found her voice partly as a consequence of the blacklist, as a front for her husband. She emerged as a very sharp writer in her own right, not Oscar-nominated or famous but with a very interesting career.”

She was born Joan LaCour in Long Branch, N.J., on May 21, 1921. Her mother performed in vaudeville, which led to a peripatetic childhood. Her father deserted the family when she and her identical twin sister were 2.

As the Depression deepened, she moved with her family to Los Angeles. After World War II, when her first marriage, to an Army lieutenant, ended, she joined the left-leaning Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions as a volunteer and later worked as a staff member. She also joined the Communist Party but quit after six months.

In the early 1950s, Mrs. Scott was executive secretary of the Television Writers of America union when a Hollywood columnist wrote an attack piece alleging that she was part of a plot to get communist propaganda into TV scripts. She was blacklisted and called to testify before the House committee investigating subversives in the movie and television industries.

She met Adrian Scott, who had produced the Oscar-winning 1947 movie “Crossfire,” at a rally for the Hollywood 10 and began dating him after he was released from prison in 1951. In 1955, they were married at the home of another Hollywood 10 member, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Many blacklisted writers had resorted to “fronts” to make a living, which led to Mrs. Scott’s fronting for her husband as Joanne Court.

She made her debut as a front in 1955 on “Lassie,” the popular children’s series featuring a brave collie and her young master. Once, when her husband was stumped for ideas, she came up with a new angle, and he insisted that she write the story. From then on, she wrote for the show herself.

“There were funny things about writing for that show,” she told McGilligan. “You had to learn to think like a dog.”

She fronted for her husband on other shows, including “Meet McGraw,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “Surfside Six.”

Her husband eventually began writing under his own name. He died in 1972 at 61.

Mrs. Scott’s only immediate survivor is a sister.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Scott continued her career, writing for daytime soap operas and prime-time hits such as “The Waltons” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.”

— Los Angeles Times