Shut Up He Explained: A Memoir of Growing Up on the Blacklistby Kate Lardner
When Kate was not yet two, her father, David, was killed while on assignment
With a wicked sense of humor and a born writer's perfect timing, Kate Lardner conjures up the Hollywood of the McCarthy era. In a kaleidoscopic and irresistible memoir, Lardner brings to life her jumbled childhood in a household of artistically talented, larger-than-life grown-ups.
When Kate was not yet two, her father, David, was killed while on assignment for The New Yorker in war-torn Germany. Two years later her mother, the actress Frances Chaney, married David's brother--a marriage that endured for more than fifty years. Ring was already a successful screenwriter, having won an Oscar for cowriting the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy hit Woman of the Year; in 1971 he collected another one for M*A*S*H.
Shortly thereafter, Ring was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Asked about his membership in Hollywood's Communist Party, Lardner said: "I could answer. . . . but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning." This much-publicized declaration of silence sent Lardner to prison. Subsequently neither he nor Frances could get work, which marked the beginning of Kate's blacklist childhood--and took the family from Mexico City to rural Connecticut to Manhattan.
Kate Lardner presents a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at the personal and family costs of weathering this ruthless and absurd period in history. She writes: "I wanted to tell my story of the events I had inherited. A therapist once told me she had the dirty job of ushering me into the real world. And now that I am more or less there, I have decided the time has come."
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Shut Up He Explained
By Kate Lardner
Random HouseCopyright (C) 2004 by Kate Lardner
All right reserved.
Santa Monica Memories
A couple of years after my real father died, we took the train from New York to California to marry his brother. "Going to Canyonfornia to marry Uncle Bill" is how my mother said we kids put it, and this rings a bell. My mother was used to calling her brother-in-law Bill-not Ring, which he preferred-because that's what the family always called him. But my brother Joe, who was two, and I, Wfteen months older, weren't used to calling him anything because we hardly knew him. My mother said she hardly knew him, either. He was her husband's brother and she wanted us to have a father in the worst way and it had to be the right kind of father. She said she couldn't marry somebody just for her. It had to be somebody for her and for me and Joe, and she didn't think anybody else was right. She assumed that if he was David's brother and his name was Lardner he had to be okay.
Also there was a letter that had gotten my mother's attention. It was a turning point in a bicoastal correspondence that went on for a year and a half in which Ring said he wanted very much to see her.
Dear Lass, it began. I want very much to see you even though I am at a loss to know what good could come of it. I suppose the notion in back of our minds is that we might get married someday but when I think about it that concretely it doesn't seem a very likely prospect. I don't think you're in love with me and I'm pretty sure I'm not in love with anyone, and whatever element of sober self-interest there is in my nature would certainly mitigate against falling for any doll with two children. On the other hand, I want to see you which must have some signiWcance. . . . But to get down to one concrete fact, I would like to kiss you. Signed "Ring."
My mother thought that was pretty nice. In addition, they were both Communists, and I'm told there was a certain rapprochement between them because of it.
Ring had been very impressed by the Soviet Union when he was there in the summer of 1934 and very much antagonized by what he saw in Germany immediately after that. He had stayed in the house of an architect in Munich whose son belonged to Hitler Youth, and just talking to him and seeing the marching in the streets made him feel very worried about what was happening there.
He joined the Party in 1936. With the U.S. recognition of
the Soviet Union in 1933, Communist Party membership had jumped dramatically, attracting creative artists, students, and
direct-action unionists as well as the disaVected and deprived. In the depths of the Depression (with a quarter of the workforce unemployed) they really had a lot of doubt about whether
the system of private industry and capitalism could survive.
The Communist Party seemed the most visible force for social change. It was never a question of Communism versus democracy, said Ring. Those who inclined toward Communism or who became members of the Party in Hollywood (as he did) were thinking of trying to institute a new economic system. It seemed as if capitalism had come to an end. It seemed that the whole system had broken down and was not going to be Wxed-that it needed a change. Ring assumed that in America, socialism would be achieved by democratic means.
My mother was an actress, and her loose connection with Communism began with her Wrst Broadway job in 1936 in a play called Marching Song by John Howard Lawson-a play about a sit-down strike in a factory. The cast included several left-wing actors whom she admired. She didn't actually join the party until sometime in the late thirties, but when the Spanish civil war broke out in July 1936, the actors in the company got involved in working for the Spanish loyalist cause, mostly raising money for medical assistance and ambulances. (The nonintervention policy of the United States didn't permit material aid for either side.)
David had been left of center, though politics just didn't play an important part in his life. But when he died, my mother felt strongly that his death must not be in vain.
Ring and Frances Wrst met in November 1941. Ring had come to New York from California with his wife, Silvia, after the shooting was complete on Woman of the Year-the Wrst movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Ring and Michael Kanin had written the script, for which they received a hundred thousand dollars-the highest price paid for an original screenplay at that time. This all happened a couple of months before my mother and David's marriage. The four of them went to the '21' Club to celebrate. My mother and Ring saw each other just a handful of times after that before our move west.
Polly, who came to take care of us three months after David was killed, went on the train to California with us. She was leaving behind, according to my mother, "an unfortunate life" because she'd been having an aVair with her sister's husband (her sister was my mother's housekeeper). So presumably Polly welcomed the move. As for my mother, she didn't give it much thought. She just said we'll go, and we did.
I remember lots of people turning up at Pennsylvania Station to say good-bye: my maternal grandmother, Marie; good old friends and actors my mother worked with in radio. (A radio magazine in the early forties called her one of the country's ten top radio actresses. And E. J. Kahn Jr. wrote a piece for The New Yorker about taking out a girl who looked like a movie star, inspired by one night with my mother as his date when they went to nightclubs and everyone thought she was Constance Bennett. Her hair was long and blond then and hung down over her face.)
They were all well-wishers at the station with wine or champagne or little presents for us kids. And then we took oV on the 20th Century Limited and switched to the Superchief in Chicago.
The four of us shared a drawing room. The trip was very pleasant, I had always thought. Then one day, years later, my mom piped up and a mix-up of my memory of it ensued.
I had recently begun interviewing my parents extensively because I wanted to know where the hell they were while I was growing up. I also wanted to know where I was. And I wanted to tell my story of the events I had inherited. A therapist once told me she had the dirty job of ushering me into the real world. And now that I was more or less there, I had decided the time had come.
"It was Wne except I got my hand caught in the fan it seems to me," my mother said.
"It's funny, I thought it was I who got my hand caught in the fan," I replied.
"No, I got my hand caught. Not you. It wasn't bad . . ."
"But that's my one memory of the trip."
"Well, I got caught . . ."
"It's interesting I can't remember . . ."
"Yeah, I know, but you make these mistakes from time to time. I don't know that it got caught badly. It was just a small accident. But we were all very excited. It was an exciting thing to be doing."
Our trip took two nights and three days; and, by what can only partially be construed as a coincidence, Ring's ex-wife, his two children (my cousins/soon-to-become-stepsiblings), and their maid (as they were then called) were leaving Los Angeles at roughly the same time. It was estimated that we'd pass one another in the vicinity of Kansas City.
When we reached our destination, my mother, Polly, Joe, and I moved into a stone Basque house on a hillside in Coldwater Canyon, which Ring had been sharing with his best friends Alice and Ian Hunter and a very large housekeeper, Margaret. The Hunters moved out to make way for us, while fat Margaret stayed put. I shared a room with my brother Joe. Then, after a six-day acclimation period, so designated by our elders, Ring and my mother Frances took oV for their nuptials in Las Vegas and a honeymoon trip Ring planned to familiarize my mother with the West: from Death Valley (the lowest part of California-282 feet below sea level) to Mount Whitney (the highest-14,494 feet high) and then on to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Carmel.
The trip was geared toward giving Frances a shot at the open road where she could practice her driving. Driving was a recent undertaking for her. Ring was told by his friend Phil Dunne that he had just made one of the most touching gestures of faith ever toward a bride who had only recently undertaken driving instruction. "Jesus it was awful!" my mom exclaimed after a particularly unnerving lesson. "I've got to learn! Only I wish people would stop saying 'any dope can drive a car.' " In addition to having his entire car overhauled, the backseats repaired, and a new top provided, Ring had also had the fenders straightened and
repainted so that, to all outward appearances, they were virgin territory.
By then the Cold War had started, but almost everyone in and around the U.S. Communist Party was still holding on to a dream of permanent world peace. The cooperation that had once existed between Russia and the United States still looked possible to them. Their optimistic thinking was that the sentiments of peace and harmony might win out. But a month before our move West, a series of editorials ran for eight days in the Hollywood Reporter and caused a good deal of talk. "Is Hollywood a Red Beach-Head? Yes-and no" the articles began, in an eVort to promote the idea that Communists were seeking to control the Writers Guild and "the thought that goes into American letters, arts and sciences." On the third day, the series had hit home. "Let us take a look at another member of the Guild's executive board-Ring Lardner, Jr. . . . The Reporter has this to ask Ring Lardner, Jr. Are you a member of the Communist Party? Are you at present assigned to the Party's Northwest (propaganda) section? Do you hold Party Book No. 25109?"
People in New York read the story and told my mother about it. "I don't remember the details," she said. "All I know is it made little shivers go through my heart." She said she had no way of knowing that our life was going to take the turn it did. No one really did, my mother said. She never thought about it. And it wouldn't have stopped her from anything if she had known. She knew Ring was a Communist. They had that in common. "That was good." She just thought they were all kind of peculiar in Hollywood with all their money. They should be making little pictures about the working class. Like the Italians: Open City and The Bicycle Thief.
For the time being, this editorial seemed to do no serious harm, for as Ring reported in a letter before our move, his career as a commercial screenwriter was making phenomenal progress. He signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox for two thousand dollars a week, with the number of weeks he worked pretty much up to him. But the Cold War intensiWed very quickly, and by the tail end of the honeymoon there were rumors in the Hollywood Communist Party that subpoenas were going out from the California State Committee on Un-American Activities. My parents got word that the committee might be investigating Ring, and friends suggested they delay coming home.
Meanwhile, my brother and I were taking in the wonders of our new home in Coldwater Canyon, which included a dumbwaiter in the kitchen that sent food up to the second Xoor. This predated more puzzling juvenile wonderings about such things as "Reds," "subpoenas," the "left wing," "stool pigeons" . . . (The Mostel family didn't say stool pigeon, but used informer instead, because of their tender feelings for pigeons.)
What I remember most about Coldwater Canyon is an old wooden gate falling on my head. I don't know how this happened.
Then a year later we moved to a big house in Santa Monica with a tennis court and I lay in the backseat of the car watching the palm trees go by.
Our move came just after a subpoena had been served. The rumors about the California committee had proved false. But an investigation of Communist subversion of the movie business was under way by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington, and a U.S. marshal came to the door with a subpoena for Ring. However, subpoena sounded like penis to me, and penis reminded me of Charlie, an older boy in Santa Monica, masturbating in his doorway, telling us it was good for you. So this thing was served and it was fortunate the interior decorator hadn't cashed the checks my parents had given her because the decorating in the new house had to come to a halt.
Still, the tennis court located behind the house-which was four blocks from the ocean-got a good deal of use, for a while anyway. At a minimum, my stepfather-uncle-whom by then I thought of as my father-had a doubles game every Sunday afternoon and sometimes it was made available in the morning to Greta Garbo, our neighbor. The tennis court had a hard surface, not cement (probably asphalt), with a tall referee's chair. My brother Joe and I climbed the chair and roller-skated and bicycled on the court.
You could label our stretch in Santa Monica a mixed bag. There was Will Wright's peppermint-stick ice cream, the roller coaster at Beverly Park (in West Hollywood) that I rode up front, and the construction sites my brother and I frequented, where slugs popped out of electrical boxes and dropped to the Xoor. They had no value, but to me they resembled coins and I collected them. And in our household there was the unpopular notion that American Communists were among the most fervent and farsighted supporters of such basic principles as freedom to organize and demonstrate, freedom of speech, and equal rights for minorities and women. I was spanked for using the word nigger even though I didn't know what it meant.
And I started taking some of these issues to heart.
The spanking happened on the sidewalk in front of our house by the ocean on Georgina Avenue under the palm trees where I was jumping rope spouting a new rhyme I had heard around the block. "Eenie, meanie, miney Moe, catch a nigger by the toe"-when nigger sent my father Xying.
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Some would like to quantify Kate Lardner's considerable authorial skills as being genetic, passed down through blood and ink from her famous dad, Ring Lardner, Jr.. Not so. Kate's real father was killed when she was a small child. Several years later her mother married Ring Lardner. Let's give this lady credit where credit is due - she has penned a wry, sad, funny memoir all on her own. Granted, she did grow up in an artistic Hollywood household during the McCarthy era, a time when actors and authors were hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked not only about their membership in Hollywood's Communist Party but that of their friends. Ring Lardner's response to these queries is oft quoted: 'I could answer....but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.' For this, Lardner was sent to prison. After his release he found himself blacklisted and was unable to find work. Of the letters her stepfather wrote from prison, Kate said, 'My dad gave me the letters when I began interviewing him. I never expected to use them to the extent that I did. But I read them over and over and I wanted the reader to have the experience I had reading them. The waiting. The hope of parole. The visit.' 'Shut Up He Explained' (a title taken from a short book penned by her grandfather, Ring Lardner, Sr.) is the affecting story of a childhood spent in the shadow of Blacklisting. Of the alcoholism that has plagued her family Kate said it was and is a disease of 'isolation and low self-esteem.' She felt very much set apart due to the Blacklist. Yet, she never felt shame but rather saw her step-father's action as heroic. Still, it was this event that ordained the family's future and shaped the childhood of a small girl. Far from a bleak memoir, this series of remembrances is often high spirited. After all, the author grew up among a remarkably talented group of people who knew how to sometimes make the best of times out of the worst of times. Read it and hope that such a devastating event never takes place again, and marvel at a family's resilience.