“Leaving Home: A Hollywood Blacklisted Writer’s Years Abroad” by Anne Edwards
By Jonathan Yardley,
Unlike the uncountable young people who fill the bookstores now with memoirs of lives that haven’t yet been lived, Anne Edwards has earned the right to tell her story. She will turn 85 Monday, and she can look back on a life filled with hard work, interesting travel and occasional adventures (many of them of the amatory variety), in addition to which she can browse a large shelf filled with her own books. These, to be sure, are almost entirely ephemeral celebrity-biographies — her subjects have included Vivian Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Princess Diana, Maria Callas and Margaret Mitchell — and all but a handful are out of print, a fate shared by all eight of her novels. If “Leaving Home” is her effort to make one last plea for the public’s attention, well, she’s entitled.
Back in the day when I was still writing a weekday review for this newspaper’s Style section, I took it upon myself to consider a couple of her many books. It was a decidedly mixed experience. The first of these, “The Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell” (1983), I found notable for its “meticulous” and “sensitive” treatment of the difficult and in many ways unhappy life of the author of “Gone With the Wind.” But in the second, “A Remarkable Woman: The Life of Katharine Hepburn” (1985), there was precious little to praise: “Edwards’ blend of gossip and deference in . . . personal matters makes for a lumpy pudding,” and she “is curiously silent about her sources.”
“Leaving Home” is most definitely of the second category. Readers whose interest in show-business gossip and the author’s sex life is greater than their expectations of narrative coherence and literate prose may find things to enjoy, but more demanding readers will feel, as I do, that this book would have been best unpublished, or at least edited far more tightly than it has been and stripped of the utterly false claim — being blacklisted — made in its subtitle.
Yes, Edwards did work in Hollywood during that period in the late 1940s and early ’50s when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his allies on the House Un-American Activities Committee cowed the movie business into blacklisting a number of screenwriters for real or trumped-up charges of communist activity or disloyalty, but the young Anne Edwards most certainly was not among them. She did have leftish leanings of the conventional Hollywood variety, but this came to nothing more than being put on the “graylist” of the studio for which she worked. She did go to London to work on a film while all this was going on, but she stayed there not because she had been specifically added to the “Hollywood Ten” but because a friend warned her (whether justifiably or not is never made clear) that her passport could be confiscated if she tried to return to the United States, thus preventing her from returning to England should further work become available there. But she was never blacklisted in the way that Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr. and others were — sent to prison in some cases, deprived of the right to work (except under aliases) at their chosen trade.
If Edwards wanted to write about her life and loves overseas, fine; again, she’s entitled. But to claim membership in a persecuted group to which she did not belong is distasteful at best, dishonest at worst. As the term “blacklist” is commonly understood, it refers only to those who were forced out of work by the decisions of others, not to those who chose to leave the country for work and then decided to stay there because they didn’t know what awaited them at home. There could be, I suppose, an element of what might be called “self-imposed psychological blacklist” in this, but it’s a long way from the real thing.
I go on about this because however one may feel about the Hollywood Ten et al. — they may have been principled, but they were also naive and credulous — they were dealt harsh blows wildly out of proportion to their real or imagined offenses. I got to know and admire Lardner during the mid-1970s while working on a biography of his father, and in conversations with him got a vivid sense of just how hard those years had been and how heavy a price he and his colleagues had been forced to pay. If any of those blacklisted are still alive today (Lardner died in 2000), it’s difficult to imagine that they would be pleased to see Edwards clinging to their coattails as a way to sell her book.
Maybe if “Leaving Home” were a better book, this would be a bit less offensive, but there is precious little to recommend it. Edwards (born Anne Louise Josephson in 1927) obviously finds every detail of her life infinitely fascinating, no matter how small, and inflicts upon the reader a catalogue of trivia. Every one of the countless apartments and houses in which she lived with her young son and daughter (she was divorced from their father, “a compulsive, addicted gambler”) in the two decades beginning in the mid-1950s is described in detail that would put even a real estate agent to sleep. Thus on a trip to California in the mid-1960s (no, nobody confiscated her passport), she tells us that the apartment she took in Los Angeles was in a building “unique in that two wings, which graced a wide courtyard, were centered by a small tower that contained two duplex apartments with their own entrance,” that the “pine-paneled kitchen had a built-in dining nook” and that there was “a master bedroom suite that had its own private terrace for sunbathing.” Makes you want to move right in, doesn’t it?
Then there’s the clunky prose. She catches a glimpse of Paul Newman: “It was the depth of intelligence reflected in his face that contributed a lasting impression.” Or: “My relationship to Rod [Serling] — now defined in my head as ‘the other woman’ — was previously unknown to me, and one to which I was not adapting well.” Or: Mary Wollstonecraft “had a child out of wedlock before her marriage to William Godwin, revolutionary, writer, publisher, whose great work ‘Political Justice’ influenced the intellect of the youth in his era.” Et cetera. “Leaving Home” is stuffed to the gills with prose such as that. Bon appetit!
The story, such as it is, takes Edwards and her children to London in the 1950s. She has her ups and downs, but gets rather steady work writing screenplays and eventually, in 1968, publishes a first novel, “The Survivors.” It does well, thanks perhaps to an endless book tour, every stop of which she describes with all the reverence due a passage through the Stations of the Cross. If you want to hear about tiresome publicity girls, airplane flights and big-city hotel rooms, has she got the book for you.
Edwards begins to make serious money and thus is able to live to live in comfy places (“Switzerland was at present my Shangri-la. Gstaad attracted the rich, powerful, and famous. Yet, at heart, it remained a mountain village”) of the sort to which limousine liberals are apt to repair. She has brief encounters and one longish affair (with Serling) before falling into an unhappy marriage that in time collapses. She tells you a good deal more about the general state of her health and, more specifically, her plumbing, than you are likely to want to know.
She also indulges herself, at great length, in that device beloved by writers of unreliable memoirs: the extensive conversation recalled syllable upon syllable decades after it took place. The one with Marlon Brando (it begins on Page 70) is an especially juicy example of the genre, and I commend it to you, but there are many others from which to choose. In the absence of footnotes or other supporting apparatus, I am inclined to treat them, and thus dismiss them, as imperfect recollections at best, whole-cloth inventions at worst. You might want to have a look at them. On the other hand, since no one is paying you to read them, you might just want to skip the whole thing.
LEAVING HOME A Hollywood Blacklisted Writer’s Years Abroad By Anne Edwards Scarecrow. 275 pp. $29.95