INTERVIEW WITH RING LARDNER JNR
INTERVIEWER: Roll 10119, thirteenth of February, interview with Ring Lardner, Jnr. So could we start off by... Could you tell me when you first became that HUAC was turning his attention on Hollywood and how you got to know about it and how you reacted?
RING LARDNER: Well, of course, there was a considerable change in the whole political atmosphere of the country right after the War, after Roosevelt died and Truman took over an Winston Churchill made his speech in Missouri about the Iron Curtain and the Republican Party won the majority in Congress in the 1946 election, for the first times since Herbert Hoover's day. And we knew that there was talk of something of the sort. There had been a lot of strikes that year and there was a lot of anti-labour sentiment among the porticoes. The Un-American Activities Committee which had been a temporary committee of the House, under Martin Dies when he obtained the power of the chairmanship of this investigating committee, that it changed his character and he became domineering and he loved to badger people and more or less insult them and make them feel embarrassed and he gloated at being able to do that. And he turned into a most objectionable character that way and so that at the end of his life, I think he was more or less detested by everybody that had anything to do with him.
a few years before, was made a permanent committee and they announced very soon that one of their targets was Hollywood. In the Fall of 1946 I was married to my present wife, Frances Cheyney, and we went off on our honeymoon and talking to somebody, a friend in Hollywood from wherever we were, we were told it might be a good idea to stay away a little longer, because there were some subpoenas being handed out by a Un-American Activities Committee of the California legislature. This was in the Fall of '46. And then a few people were called. I was not called for those hearings. But we soon knew that there were hearings scheduled for Los Angeles in the Spring, and those hearings were held, they were not open to the public, but there was a lot of rumour about who appeared and what was said and the Committee announced that there would be open hearings in the Fall. We still didn't know how they would determine who was subpoenaed, but we knew enough about the possibility of being targets for... Dalton Trumbo and I, for instance, discussed the various alternatives and decided that it wasn't a very good prospect. If you did get subpoenaed, you didn't have much of a choice of what to do. Either you completely co-operated with the committee, which meant saying yes or no to the question about whether you were a Communist or ever had been and if the answer was yes, as it was in my case, we knew the next question was, who else was? We certainly didn't want to go into that. Anyway, we took the attitude that it wasn't any of their business what party we belonged to. As one of our group, Alvah Bessie, said actually, before the hearings. at that time Dwight Eisenhower was declining to say whether he was a Republican or a Democrat and we said, if he had a right not to reveal his political affiliations, so did we. There was the possible of invoking the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, the self-incrimination amendment but we would be put in the position of saying it was a crime to be a Communist and the committee council or chairman would probably say, what do you mean, self-incrimination? It's perfectly legal to be a member of the Communist Party. and in any case, it would not put the whole case into the courts in the same way. See we knew that we might be indicted and convicted of contempt of Congress, but that we might get that overruled in the courts and we thought we had a fair chance of winning in the courts, especially the Supreme Court, which had issued some decisions which seemed to back our position. Now that turned out to be an illusory hope.
INT: Do you remember where you were when you actually received the subpoena and how you felt?
RL: , well, my wife and I had just bought a new house in Santa Monica with a tennis court and we were in Escrow with it, when somebody came to the door of our rented previous home and gave this to me at the door. And then there was quite a lot of telephone exchanged about who had got them and who hadn't and we gradually found out who was involved without still understanding quite why they'd chosen the particular people they did choose. I don't to this day know how they made the selection.
INT: Fine OK. Now, can you tell us why refused to recognise the authority of HUAC at the actual hearings?
RL: We refused to recognise the authority of HUAC because the First Amendment clearly said that Congress shall make no law regarding the freedom of the press. That had already been interpreted to include a motion picture. If Congress couldn't make any law regarding the motion picture, there was no point in Congress investigating the field of motion pictures. So, that was a challenge to the committee's authority and we specifically challenged the right to ask individuals about their political beliefs or associations, which are regarded as one's private business.
INT: And the legal advice that was given to you?
RL: Well, the legal advice was somewhat mixed. , as a matter of fact when Trumbo and I, who had discussed this and decided the only thing to do was not answer the question, we found a number of people who wanted to answer the question, some who wanted quite proudly to say, yes, they had been Communists, and the lawyers were still trying to figure out what the best way was. They gradually agreed with us that the best way was not to answer the questions, but there was a good deal of difference of opinion about how you did that. One of our lawyers said, look if I defend you before a jury, I'd rather try to argue before a jury than any of the judges around here. He was an ex-judge himself and had been Attorney General of California, Robert Kenny his name was. He said, I'd like to be able to argue that you were trying to answer the questions, so that there's a point of fact I can argue. I can't argue with a jury, the judge would give all the rulings on the law, I have to have some point of fact that will give them grounds to acquit you if they want to acquit you. And the only grounds would be if you said you were trying to answer the question, but in your own way, so you didn't commit the offence. And as a result, we in various ways said to the committee - I'm trying to answer this in my own way and some of us were louder and more obstreperous than others, but I think we actually antagonised a good many people as well as the committee and we knew we were antagonising them, but even some of our friends in the committee for the First Amendment, a group of Hollywood supporters who would come to Washington to attend the hearings and lend us their moral support, some of them felt it would have been much more dignified to have just said that question is none of your business and I don't care to answer it. And since, in retrospect, this particular lawyer's argument about what he could do with a jury, turned out to have no effect. It would have been better, I think, to have done it that way.
INT: Now the first thing they did was to call friendly witnesses. Could you just briefly describe your feelings as, you know, that testimony was given, who the witnesses were and kind of what happened, just quite briefly.
RL: The first week of the hearings was devoted to the so-called friendly witnesses, who included a number of motion picture executives, including Louis B. Meyer, Jack L. Warner, and a number of actors, including Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, Ronald Reagan, Gary Cooper, and a few other individuals including Ayn Rand who was there really I guess because she worked beside me in the motion picture business, but she had been born in Russia and lived there until she was a young woman. And she testified that she had seen a picture MGM made called 'The Song of Russia' and that it showed Russianchildren smiling, which was a phenomenon she had never observed during her years inthe Soviet Union. And then there were other kind of strange witnesses, like one, Ginger Rogers' mother, Leila Rogers, who testified that her daughter had been made to say a line in a script by Dalton Trumbo and the line was 'fair and fair alike, that's democracy' and Leila Rogers pointed out, of course... I mean, share... sorry, 'share and share alike, that's democracy' and Leila Rogers said, of course, that isn't democracy, that's socialism. So that's how they were trying to insert their propaganda in in the movies. So we heard this and several of these actors testified about a few actors within the Screen Actors Guild, who they said caused trouble in the union and they suspected of being Reds.
INT: Can you describe what happened in the court room and how it felt, the atmosphere and so on and so forth and what actually happened during the hearing?
RL: Well, these hearings in '47 of course were not televised, but there were a lot of cameras in the room, including newsreel cameras. And witnesses did appear in parts of their testimony in newsreels, which existed in almost every movie showing in those days. There were an awful lot of newspaper men there. There were stories in papers all over the country, got a great deal of attention in the press, quite significant headlines. But you got the feeling that this was pretty much a public display and it was somewhat alarming, because it was also a kind of a a slightly threatening atmosphere. There were uniformed men who sort of stood by you as you were a witness and when the chairman dismissed you, they would escort you right back to your seat. , it was on the whole not a very pleasant place to be.