Jacoba Atlas was brought up by her father, the Hollywood screenwriter Leopold Atlas, and her mother to believe that only ratfinks inform, that the honorable thing to do, if summoned, was to keep one's silence. But at the age of 22, 16 years after her father died, she was taking a graduate seminar in film studies at UCLA, and one afternoon the subject was the blacklist. After class Atlas mentioned to her professor, one Howard Suber, who as it happened had written his dissertation on the Hollywood Ten, that her father had been blacklisted.
"Was he Leopold Atlas?" asked Prof. Suber.
"Yes," she said. "I'm his daughter."
"Well, he was one of the cooperative witnesses." -- From Victor Navasky's "Naming Names"
She couldn't believe it until she read her father's testimony, given in March 1953, four years after he'd first been approached by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Leopold Atlas, who had three heart attacks between 1949 and 1953, talked right before he died. He named 37 names, and never told his wife or children that he had done so. His family believes the harassment by HUAC contributed to his death, and that the liberal left was as much to blame as the right.
The Atlases are minor characters in Navasky's book, but the elements of their story echo his themes: the human cost of the investigations, the dilemma of informing, the moral confusion and the unhappy legacy of a particularly bizarre period of American history.
Victor Navasky could only be from New York City. Hurried, slightly unkempt, he speaks with that somewhat peremptory tone common among people who were shoved around on subways as children.
For the seven years between 1972 and 1979, Navasky's passion was examining the era of the Hollywood blacklist, the time in the late '40s and early '50s when between 90 and 110 producers, writers, directors and actors were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC) and asked, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" They were also asked to name others who had been in the party -- friends, lovers, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances. Navasky, now editor of The Nation, assembled a collection of interviews, research, philosophy and cultural history into a book, "Naming Names," which has been highly praised by book reviewers around the country.
He writes about the first witnesses, some of whom became the Hollywood Ten, summoned by HUAC in 1947. During this period, friendships were broken, marriages dissolved, men and women who had been successful in a highly competitive field were denied work or dropped from social and business networks.
The HUAC hearings were a companion to the McCarthy hearings, investigating communism in science, labor, the armed forces and government. The probe into communist infiltration of the entertainment industry, however, seized the public attention as no other group did. The movie people, after all, were America's royalty, and the appearances of better-known entertainment industry figures were accompanied by the full blare of publicity, aided often by leaked testimony.
Yet the procedure for which the witnesses went through the tortures of the damned, Navasky maintains, was merely a ritual, a government-sponsored ordeal of public humiliation. "The committee knew who was still in the party," he said during a recent interview. "It was a ritual, and they [the witnesses who talked] were cooperating with that ritual."
His work became a "moral detective story," he wrote. Were those who talked wrong despite compelling reasons? Were the reasons given for talking valid?
"How did it come to pass that scores of otherwise decent individuals were compelled to betray a moral presumption? What are the conditions under which good men do things they know to be wrong? Are there justifications for the informers' actions that reasonable men would regard as extenuating, or are there perhaps even mandating circumstances? Can it be that to live lives of moral equilibrium our values must never be tested . . . ?" he wrote.
Navasky, 48, went to grade school and high school with children whose parents had been blacklisted. He remembers going to pick up a date and seeing an Oscar on the mantelpiece, which seemed strange because he knew the girl's father was in the parking business. As a teen-ager, he worked as a busboy and desk clerk at a summer resort where one guest was the actor J. Edward Bromberg, later to be blacklisted and die of a heart attack after the HUAC hearings and five years of unemployment and harassment. He remembers investigators coming to find out about Bromberg's activities, to see if he really was ill as his attorneys had claimed.
"Here was a period where people, hundreds of people, decent people, talented, smart liberal people -- people whose milieu I understood -- did something that [even] on the surface appeared to be indecent."
Navasky, a graduate of Yale Law School, read through testimony taken by HUAC, interviewed 187 people involved in the drama, and tracked down some interesting characters who had not been written about before. He began by thinking his book would be framed by the story of director Elia Kazan and playwright Arthur Miller, friends whose relationship was strained when Kazan testified and urged others to do so. Both, as artists, made statements on the role of the informer -- Kazan in "On the Waterfront," where the "stoolie," is ultimately a hero, and Miller in "The Crucible" and "A View From the Bridge," where the informers are destructive cowards.
But the Kazan-Miller structure began to unravel when neither man would agree to discuss the other, and eventually Navasky decided "they were metaphorically important but historically not essential to the telling of the story."
His conclusions, although couched in the circuitous language of an intellectual who sees all sides earnestly, are that those who talked were wrong, they were not necessarily bad people, but they served neither the greater public good nor their own by agreeing to go through the HUAC ritual, no matter how compelling their reasons were.
And there were reasons. Some witnesses said they named no one who had not been named before; Navasky examines that theory and finds it full of holes. Some capitulated reluctantly because they needed work and felt their duty to support their families was higher than the demeaning exercise of cooperating with a scurrilous investigation. To this Navasky points out that two-thirds of those asked consistently refused to cooperate with the committee, and their example is "there to be reckoned with."
Others did not want to sacrifice their careers, as they viewed it, for a Communist Party they now felt was wrong-headed and threatening to the country; the duty of allegiance to country was higher than allegiance to friend.
"You can't put everything in the context of everything else," Navasky said in a recent interview. "Of course Stalin was worse than McCarthy -- Stalin was responsible for murder and putting millions of people in labor camps . . . McCarthy smeared reputations. A couple of people committed suicide but in numbers he loses the case. You don't have to talk about the czar when you talk about Stalin, and you don't have to talk about Stalin when you talk about people who did not behave correctly toward their fellows."
Likewise, he said, it is less important that Lillian Hellman, who got headlines when she refused to testify and "cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion" was "wrong about the Soviet Union," or an "apologist for Stalin," or "whether she was honest or bullying with other people," than that she refused to testify.
People who came to believe that what they did was wrong, like the actor Lee J. Cobb (interviewed before his death in 1976), are viewed more sympathetically by Navasky than those who consistently uphold the correctness of having named names.
Cobb, for example, was named as a Communist by the first namer, actor Larry Parks, in 1951. He resisted for two years, by which time his wife was an institutionalized alcoholic and his career -- an actor whose portrayal of Willy Loman in the original "Death of a Salesman" ranks with the all-time great performances -- was a shambles.
"When the facilities of the U.S. are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying," Cobb told Navasky in 1974. "The blacklist is just the opening gambit -- being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That's minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. Phone taps are expected, but the interception of the grocery bill? After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. I had two babies then."
Cobb told how he resisted for 2 1/2 years, meeting with committee investigators but refusing to talk, and thinking himself "stalwart, brave." But finally, "I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn't borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. You are reduced to a position where you either steal or gamble, and since I'm more inclined to gamble than steal, I gambled. If you gamble for stakes where you must win, it's suicidal. I lost."
His friends had completely deserted him after he was named by Parks, he said -- "I'm talking about breakfast, not moral support." Furthermore, he had never been a Communist, merely a friend and co-worker and sympathizer of many. He told Navasky he decided "it wasn't worth dying for."
"I didn't act out of principle. I wallowed in unprincipledness. One of my closest friends pleaded with me not to do a thing like this, as he ran to catch the boat for England. . .
In his last years, Cobb said, "I still have contempt for my former cronies. It was a joke. I never gave any money to the Communisty Party. Today I won't sign a thing. I'm out to pasture. I'm grazing. I take no part in politics . . . I won't fight anymore . . . I never recovered my health, which was impaired. I'm bitter about the anonymous unscathed revolutionaries who are today enjoying prominence and who from their lofty ideological perches sit in judgment on us. A cause does not necessarily ennoble its follower."
Budd Schulberg, the writer, had a different response. He named names (15, according to Navasky) because ". . . I felt guilty for having contributed unwittingly to intellectual and artistic as well as racial oppression. In a small way I helped bring McCarthy down, and I can show it."
Schulberg said he had been expelled from the party, resigning at the same time, because he refused to obey efforts at artistic discipline that party leaders tried to force on him. ". . . these were thought controllers, as extreme in their way as Joe McCarthy was in his."
"Nor have I seen these people interested in social problems in the decades since. They're interested in their own problems and in the protection of the party. You show me where these people have fought for the poor . . .
Navasky writes that the "what have they done lately" defense is irrelevant in the first place, and untrue in the second -- many resisters did continue to be involved in social causes. The notion the informers were battling Soviet atrocities is also false, he argues, because the informers were selective in their testimony, and "the congressional committees were obviously an inappropriate forum . . ."
Navasky has not faced a moral dilemma equal to the question of whether to cooperate with that confronted by the blacklistees, but he did have at least one hard choice to make during the writing of the book, he said.
Having heard rumors of a psychiatrist who convinced a lot of patients to become informers, Navasky tracked down the man, Phil Cohen, who when interviewed in 1974 was teaching photography at an arts institute in Santa Barbara. Cohen had many patients, including the first three who cooperated with HUAC after Larry Parks (acter Sterling Hayden, the writer Richard Collins and agent Meta Rosenberg) and became informers.
Cohen was not a psychiatrist, but a lay analyst without a graduate degree, who had been a Communist Party member but became disenchanted with it. Cohen became the "in" analyst among the Hollywood left crowd; many of his patients were party members who were permitted to see Cohen despite the general party ban on any kind of bourgeois analysis or therapy.
Cohen told Navasky he neither informed on his patients to the FBI nor convinced them to name names, and that his later work as a police officer had nothing to do with his work as an analyst. However, the major HUAC investigator, William Wheeler, told Navasky that Cohen, with whom he socialized, helped him by "conditioning any patients supboenaed by HUAC to testify."
During the interview, Cohen asked Navasky not to use his name because his current employer was a "superpatriot" who did not know about his past Communist associations and he might lost his job. In short, Navasky had to decide whether or not to "name" a name himself; indeed the whole book posed that dilemma to him in a way.
Ultimately he decided that the "claims of history" took precedence over the "claims of privacy." He wrote in a footnote, ". . . people who worked with congressional investigators behind the scenes made their secrecy bargains with the committee, but such understandings are precisely the sort of contracts whose hidden clauses journalists and scholars ought to scrutinize . . ."
"It was a more trivial choice, but one which I was nonetheless sensitive to because of what I was writing about," he said. ". . . I was talking about a period in people's lives that they'd rather not talk about . . . The paranoia of the times continues -- some people have not told anyone about their past."
Navasky did not know whether or not Cohen had indeed lost his job as a result of the book. It turns out that Cohen retired before the book was published.
The tragedies and casualties detailed in Navasky's 452-page book -- for which he said he couldn't use 90 percent of his research -- form part of a fabric that is woven toward a somewhat despairing conclusion. Like a stern headmaster, Navasky wants everyone to "face up" to the truth -- or the truth as he sees it -- and acknowledge the social carnage wreaked not only by the informers and investigators but the cultural approval seemingly given to those who informed.
The "degradation ceremonies" that he believes the congressional hearings were, were possible only "when a citizen delegates his conscience to the state," he wrote.
"Ironically it was the informer who was degraded, because the informer represented a threat not merely to the person he named but to the community. He was a polluter -- and became a perpetual outsider."
The blacklist years deal with "eternal issues," he said -- and lessons as well.