It was in the early 1960s. Joe McCarthy was finally at peace, and I thought the blacklist had also been interred. I was helping put together a folk music hour for CBS-TV under the passionate command of Robert Herridge, the most original and stubborn producer in the history of American television, his shows having ranged from Dostoevsky's "Notes From the Underground" to "The Sound of Jazz" with Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk.
At my suggestion Herridge had added to the cast Cisco Houston, a kind of musical Tom Joad, who couldn't help being lyrical when others were singing picket signs. During a rehearsal, I noticed a page leaving the sponsor's booth with a note. The page came up to Herridge, gave him the note, and waited for an answer. Herridge read the note and tore it up.
I asked Herridge what it was all about. "Somebody told them," he said, "that Houston's name had been in an ad in the Daily Worker sometime or other. No point arguing with them. They got my answer." Cisco stayed on the show. Herridge, however, was in this, as in most other matters, one of a kind.
For a long time after, reverberations of the Red Scare were felt in television and films. Some performers could never rub out the black spot. On the other hand, there were lawsuits filed by former Red-hunters who claimed they were now being defamed when old-time targets fingered them in memoirs as the people who had smashed their careers.
One such case has muttered along into the present. From 1953 to 1956, Vince Hartnett was, as he once testified, "a professional consultant on the Communist Front records of persons working in the entertainment industry." His ever watchful organization was called Aware, Inc., and one of its regular publications, "Confidential Notebook," kept subscribers apprised of politically suspect operatives disguised as entertainers.
In 1956, Aware strongly implied that John Henry Faulk, a folksy radio host and entertainer, was at least a communist fronter. Faulk's career thereupon precipitously fell apart. Faulk sued Hartnett and Aware for libel. Louis Nizer was Faulk's attorney, and, in a celebrated 1962 trial, won a $1.2 million award for his aggrieved client. (It was reduced by an appeals court to $550,000.)
Hartnett retired from national security work, becoming a high school teacher. Faulk wrote a book, "Fear on Trial," published in 1964. Thirteen years later, a dramatization of "Fear on Trial" was on CBS television. Hartnett did not like the way he was treated in that script, and filed a libel suit against Faulk, CBS, Louis Nizer, script writer David Rintels and David Susskind, who appeared as himself both in the original 1962 trial and in the television adaptation.
The pace of Hartnett's libel suit was somewhat similar to that of the Jarndyce affair in "Bleak House." At last, CBS, rousing itself, asked that the complaint be dismissed. In a long, pungent decision, New York Supreme Court Justice Joseph Owen recently agreed with CBS that Hartnett's $4 million defamation action "is legally baseless, is nothing more than an attempt to change what the plaintiff perceives to be the verdict of history regarding his conduct. The change in that verdict must rest in that forum."
The most arresting part of the decision is an excerpt from producer David Susskind's testimony on the television show, which was based on what he had said at the trial. Back in the golden age of television, Susskind had been looking for a child actress, about 8 years old, for a dramatic show. After a long search, he found one. Like those of all the other actors, her name had to be sent to the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, which in turn delivered her name to Vincent Hartnett for political clearance.
The 8-year-old's name did not clear. Susskind called the Young & Rubicam executive in charge of the program and said, "You've ordered me never to protest because it would be hopeless. But this is insane. I beg you to tell me what you have on this child." The agency apparatchik said he'd check. He called Susskind back. "This is not to be taken as a precedent," he told Susskind, "but in this one case, I will tell you that this child's father we regard as suspect, and therefore we will not permit the use of the child on the program."
I don't expect that the time of the Great Fear is taught in any detail, if at all, in American high schools. It ought to be, though. Stories like that of the 8-year-old girl might make today's kids less complacent about their liberties, let alone those of their parents.