by Paul Kengor
Lauren Bacall died this week at age 89. Her obituaries are paying tribute to a glamorous actress, a famed star from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the wife of Humphrey Bogart, and a lifetime liberal. She’s also being celebrated by liberals as a fighter for freedom in the arts, one who bravely confronted the closed-minded anti-communists in Washington—a stoic battler against Joe McCarthy and his “witch hunts.”
Sorry, but reality is more complicated.
The facts are that Lauren Bacall herself learned the truth about communism in Hollywood. She admitted to being badly duped by bad guys. She learned her lesson, even as her fellow Hollywood liberals to this day have not, opting instead for a false narrative that feeds a handy caricature. Here’s what really happened:
In October 1947, Lauren Bacall joined a group of high-profile Hollywood actors, writers, and producers for a major public-relations trip to Washington. The group’s stated goal was to defend the First Amendment freedoms of their accused friends and colleagues—accused, that is, of being communists dedicated to infiltrating the motion-picture industry as a means to peddle propaganda. The accused were summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as “unfriendly” witnesses. (For the record, Senator Joe McCarthy had absolutely nothing to do with this.)
Unbeknownst to Lauren Bacall and friends, nearly every single one of the accused was a closet communist formally pledged to Stalin’s Soviet Union. When these individuals joined Communist Party USA, they swore a loyalty oath to strive to “ensure the triumph of Soviet power in the United States.” They were committed to what CPUSA general secretary William Z. Foster openly called a “Soviet America,” or what other hope-filled comrades called a “United Soviet States of America” (USSA).
Of course, these communists didn’t dare tell any of this to their liberal/progressive friends. They assured their pals that they were good liberals/progressives just like them. They would never support a totalitarian dictatorship. They insisted that they were being unjustly hounded and persecuted and silenced. This was an outrage, they said, a violation of their First Amendment/Constitutional freedoms (none of which existed in the Soviet Union).
And thus, they needed the help of their friends. Would these fellow Hollywood liberals/progressives lend a hand? Would they come to Washington to support them?
The liberals were more than game. After consulting with the “unfriendlies,” they created a group called the “Committee for the First Amendment.” It was a classic name for a communist front, one that made communists smile at their cleverness, especially when they were easily duping fellow leftists.
The liberal stars they enlisted ran into the hundreds, with big names like Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Myrna Loy, Paulette Goddard. A group of roughly two dozen lent more than their signatures; they actually set sail for Washington: Danny Kaye, Ira Gershwin, Judy Garland, John Garfield, Sterling Hayden, Gene Kelly, Burt Lancaster, John Huston, Philip Dunne, Billy Wilder, and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Bogart and Bacall topped the list, as they would any blockbuster movie.
“Before we left Hollywood,” said Bogart later, “we carefully screened every performer so that no red or pink could infiltrate and sabotage our purpose.” The street-wise Bogie prided himself in his ability not to be tricked. As one “First Amendment” crusader put it, Bogart “feels that he’s the most politically sophisticated guy in our business.”
The tough-talking Bogie seemed a most unlikely character to be duped. Neither he nor his girl, Lauren Bacall, would be anyone’s sucker.
The crew from the Committee for the First Amendment boarded a plane bearing the name (no kidding) Red Star, which immediately raised suspicions among the liberals, including Bacall, though apparently not enough to stop the voyage. “Coincidence or design?” Lauren Bacall wrote later.
What happened on the road from California to Washington is fascinating political theater. It would make a terrific movie, if someone in modern Hollywood dared to portray it accurately. In my 2010 book, Dupes, I lay it out at length, including the breathtakingly naïve statements along the way from the likes of Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, John Garfield, and so many other Hollywood Golden Agers whose movies I love. These statements were seized by the likes of the Daily Worker, which turned them into giant headlines.
The liberals/progressives, mouthing the talking points of the closet communists, were vicious toward the House committee. They literally compared the congressmen to Nazis, stormtroopers, Goebbels, Hitler, the Spanish Inquisition, and on and on. The four major Hollywood writers called to testify—Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, and John Howard Lawson (a.k.a., “Hollywood’s Commissar”)—were especially belligerent.
Alas, to make a long story short, the liberals/progressives were stunned, dumbfounded, shocked beyond belief, and deeply betrayed when they got to Washington and found that the accused communists were undeniably and unmistakably just that: communists. Congress, both Republicans and Democrats alike, openly presented mountains of evidence: registration rolls, news clips, Daily Worker articles, New Masses’ bylines, front-group memberships, party applications, forms, cards, checks, cash, and even numbers. The world quickly learned some crucial facts. To wit:
• Dalton Trumbo, Communist Party registration card, no. 47187, code no. “Dalt T.” A total of 39 citations with communist or communist-front affiliations.
• Albert Maltz, Communist Party registration card, no. 47196. A total of 58 citations with communist or communist-front affiliations.
• Alvah Bessie, Communist Party registration card, no. 46836. A total of 32 citations with communist or communist-front affiliations.
• John Howard Lawson, Communist Party registration card, no. 47275.
As for Lawson, he was a one-man communist-front. Congressional investigators presented the May 18, 1934 Daily Worker identifying Lawson as no less than one of its own correspondents; a November 1946 issue of Masses & Mainstream listing Lawson as a member of its editorial board (along with Alvah Bessie and Dalton Tumbo); and the awful fact that Lawson (who was Jewish) was a sponsor of the odious American Peace Mobilization, which from 1940-41 had accommodated Hitler because of Hitler’s alliance with Stalin. It was one of the most insidious communist fronts. Joining Lawson in the front were Albert Maltz, Budd Schulberg, Herbert Biberman, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Artie Shaw, and Will Geer.
The evidence was undeniable—and only made the likes of Lawson, Trumbo, Maltz, and Bessie even angrier. Lawson was fuming. He had to be escorted out of the hearing room as he screamed at the House committee: “Hitler’s Germany!… Hitler tactics!”
All of which brings me back to Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Bogart, much like his Hollywood persona, was a mercurial fellow. You didn’t backstab Bogie. Already a loose fuse, he grew redder and redder as the facts on Hollywood’s communists rolled in, and then he detonated. “You f---ers sold me out!” he yelled at Danny Kaye.
Unbelievable as it may seem, Lauren Bacall later said that as she and Bogie and the others flew to Washington, they did not know that most of the unfriendlies called to testify were secretly members of the Communist Party. “We didn’t realize until much later,” she admitted, “that we were being used to some degree by the Unfriendly Ten.” She conceded that they had been foolishly naïve, headstrong, emotional, and that they had hastily strolled into something “we knew nothing about.”
Most members of the Committee for the First Amendment felt that way. The group fell silent, withered, and died.
That’s the history. The villains were the communists who lied to and exploited their liberal friends. The communists had hung the liberals out to dry, tarnishing their reputations with the movie-going public. Liberals like the wonderful lyricist Ira Gershwin now appeared before the California legislature to explain how he could be so oblivious as to host meetings for a communist front at his home. All the liberals endeavored to explain themselves.
Bogart, too, looked to repair the damage. He went public with a strong statement explaining why “I am not a communist,” nor, for that matter, “a communist sympathizer.” “I detest communism just as any decent American does,” wrote Bogie. “I’m about as much in favor of communism as J. Edgar Hoover.” He pledged that his name would never again “be found on any communist front organization as a sponsor for anything communistic.”
(For the record, in Dupes, I include a lengthy analysis on whether Bogart had attended a Communist Party training school in New York in 1934, when he was much further to the left than where he was by the end of his life. I found a “Bogart” on the registration list held in the Soviet Comintern archives on CPUSA. It was a question that I had wanted to ask Lauren Bacall, but never had the chance. Frankly, I doubt she would have been agreeable.)
Bogart conceded that the trip to Washington had been “ill-advised, even foolish,” “foolish and impetuous.” He told Newsweek, “We went green and they beat our brains out.” He said that liberals like himself could no longer “permit ourselves to be used as dupes by commie organizations.”
All over the world, the press took potshots at Bogie: “Was Bogart’s Face Red?” chuckled the headline in London’s News Chronicle. “Don’t try to fox me again,” columnist George Sokolsky warned Bogart in an open letter in the New York Sun.
By 1952, Bogart even considered voting Republican. He almost cast a ballot for Eisenhower in the presidential election, but his unrelentingly liberal wife vehemently objected. Lauren Bacall would remain well to the left of her husband—and of the nation, for that matter.
But at least in 1947, Bacall and her fellow liberals learned a hard lesson. Yes, she would remain a liberal, but she was chastened by this experience. May she rest in peace, hopefully far removed from the schemes of lying Stalinists.
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