A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Leftby Paul Buhle, Dave Wagner
When he was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (1911-1999) was labeled "a very dangerous citizen" by Harold Velde, a congressman from Illinois. Lawyer, educator, novelist, labor organizer, radio and television scriptwriter, film director and screenwriter, wartime intelligence operative, and full-time… See more details below
When he was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (1911-1999) was labeled "a very dangerous citizen" by Harold Velde, a congressman from Illinois. Lawyer, educator, novelist, labor organizer, radio and television scriptwriter, film director and screenwriter, wartime intelligence operative, and full-time radical romantic, Polonsky was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to be an informer. The New York Times called his blacklisting the single greatest loss to American film during the McCarthy era, and his expressed admirers include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Warren Beatty, and Harry Belafonte.
In this first critical and cultural biography of Abraham Polonsky, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner present both an accomplished consideration of a remarkable survivor of America's cultural cold war and a superb study of the Hollywood left.
The Bronx-born son of immigrant parents, Polonskyin the few years after the end of World War II and just before the blacklisthad one of the most distinguished careers in Hollywood. He wrote two films that established John Garfield's postwar persona, Body and Soul (1947), still the standard for boxing films and the model for such movies as Raging Bull and Pulp Fiction; and Force of Evil (1948), the great noir drama that he also directed. Once blacklisted, Polonsky quit working under his own name, yet he proved to be one of television's most talented writers. Later in life he became the most acerbic critic of the Hollywood blacklist's legacy while writing and directing films such as Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1970).
A Very Dangerous Citizen goes beyond biography to help us understand the relationship between art and politics in American culture and to uncover the effects of U.S. anticommunism and anti-Semitism. Rich in anecdote and in analysis, it provides an informative and entertaining portrait of one of the most intriguing personalities of twentieth-century American culture.
Los Angeles Times
- University of California Press
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Read an Excerpt
ADVENTURES OF THE
ARTIST AS INTELLECTUAL
ABRAHAM POLONSKY LIKED TO DATE his artistic perceptions and the beginnings of his political life to his childhood in the 1910s. The legends and legacies that subtly primed the cultural politics of the 1930s and `40s began with the bohemian innocence and proletarian verve of those years before the First World War. Europe had already seen the night-blooming flowers of decadence in the fin de siècle, and the avant-garde theater of Strindberg, Wedekind, and Ibsen had flourished in Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome at the turn of the century. Sophisticated classes there talked about free love and practiced it. America, meanwhile, was breeding a distinctly vernacular modern culture, from Tin Pan Alley and the Yellow Kid to Model-T Fords. After 1910, modernism dominated the public imagination in an urban America where the Industrial Workers of the World, jazz dancing, Charlie Chaplin, constructivism, and Margaret Sanger all seemed to careen together toward the future.
Radicalism, for the moment, looked like a happy extension of the Progressive Era that swept the country. Left-leaning intellectuals and artists, who could rightly claim to have pioneered journalistic muckraking and aesthetic experiments such as Ashcan art and cubism, envisioned themselves leading the awakened masses into the promised land.
The real future, however, lay in a war that would swiftly encompass everything. Wild hopes inspired by foreign revolutions and domestic socialist expectations that had been decadesin the making were wiped out during the Palmer Raids and the associated repression of Woodrow Wilson's outspokenly liberal (as well as deeply racist) administration. Across the Atlantic, European socialism also collapsed, and after the war's smoke cleared, only a haggard Communist regime remained in power on the other side of the world, overburdened with a starving population, a broken economy, a host of international enemies, and a bureaucracy borrowed from czarism. Those who saw the future without illusions about either bolshevism or aspirin-age capitalism knew that it did not work, at least not in the humane sense imagined for "socialism" or "democracy" during more innocent times. Something had slipped away, and nothing was likely to make up for the loss. But the work of the artist's imagination might sustain hope as it realized the individual's and even the civilization's undestroyed possibilities.
The same sense that prevented Polonsky from wildly embracing the Russian-sounding slogans common among intellectuals during the early 1930s prepared him for the complex and difficult times ahead. He would be an artist within the life of the nation and beyond, bearing all the political obligations of the age but also holding back a part of himself for work that politicians of every shade considered neither necessary nor valuable.
Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, nine-year-old son of free-thinking radicals, caught an early glimpse of America's scary possibilities when officers from the new Bureau of Investigation closed in on a Bronx neighbor with (in Hollywood talk) "guns blazing." The raid did not drive Polonsky either to reclusiveness or to hunger for revenge. But the incident punctuated the childhood of the boy who loved both his neighborhood and the world opening to him. He understood the Red scare's significance for Jews as well as for radicals.
Perhaps the best entry into Polonsky's life during this era is the novel he described as the closest thing to autobiography he would ever choose to write, Zenia's Way (1980). The world of the boy, Ram, is more or less transparently Polonsky's own childhood world of East 180th Street in the Bronx, close to the Bronx Zoo, Bronx Lake, Bronx River, and the Botanical Gardens. Although the area was on the verge of becoming a vast housing tract, "miles and miles of empty lots where once there had been farms" remained empty during the late 1910s and early 1920s, not only near real working farms but easily accessible to wilder countryside by way of trolleys. Polonsky begins, identifying his childhood almost taxonomically:
In those days on hot summer nights the mothers used to call their children home across the empty lots. Names mingled with meteors, with lilies, with the perfume of flowering burdock.... Where the lots were deep and rich, it grew more than eight feet tall, with wide foot-long leaves, coarse up close but beautiful as the weed spread for the sun, loaded with twigs of burrs whose purple sticky flowers besieged our whole neighborhood with their fragrance....
We lived and played in a landscape of lots, old neighborhoods with older villages tucked within them ... where still a farmhouse stood isolated among the flowering weeds with the trim garden, grape arbors or wisteria vines.
Other slightly transformed memories, recorded later in an unpublished short story, recall a "tall, wide-eyed boy, with a pale face in which glimmered an ambiguous smile," a boy running through the weeds or heading off to the movie serial "seen weekly at the Mosque Theater." He played in cowboy games, the evil Black Riders against the good White Rider, who (with a secret message on a slip of paper stuffed into his mouth) endured torture rather than put at risk the mythical village. Another favorite narrative featured "the girl and her poor old father" in need of the hero's aid. These, of course, were standard themes of the early film western. Was the boy only playing a game, Polonsky mused later, or was he experiencing "suffering in the profound sense of the word, a knowledge and appropriate choreography in the presence of an idea worth every tribute," something far beyond the serial adventure actor's role on the silent screen? The memories of B movies and of play remained a vital part of Polonsky's feeling for genres and for the craving for entertainment that haunts ordinary people.
Zenia's Way offers even more insight when read as autobiography, its fictionalized details of daily life so closely observed that even the madeup characters give important clues about Polonsky as a child. The boy soon learned about all sorts of real-life mysteries, including love for Laura, a little Italian American who lives a few apartment houses away. According to this fictional account, Laura is that rare girl who plays as an equal in boys' games just as long as they permit her to do so and who refuses to confine her reading to stereotyped "girls' stories" during the schoolchildren's collective library visits. Perhaps because her father is an anarchist, Laura knows more about life than Ram, having "secretly observed, in the darkness of the dark, the motion and the passion" of her parents' lovemaking, an experience that "brought into her life an exquisite tenderness toward her father and a gentleness toward her mother." On rainy summer afternoons, he in her parents' apartment or she in his, the two listen to the only other adults of the neighborhood who talk openly about sexual matters; that listening creates a bond between the two children, an opening to wonder rather than an invitation to shame.
The children's relationship intensifies when her uncle is gunned down by the Red Squad, and her father disappears. Ram and Laura race away together, through the Bronx Zoo, making themselves at home among the "kidnapped" creatures, finally huddling under a canvas in the barn. Ram recalls, "We both felt this park of wild beasts was safer than the world." Later, as he sleeps, Laura leaves him. After a brief reunion, Laura is placed on a train to distant Minnesota for her own safety. Thus ends the boy's first romance. Yet he sees Laura's physical leanness and her sturdy character matched in the novel's philosopher, his father's sister, Zenia. In moments of excitement, with "arched eyebrows, strange beautiful arches of black," Zenia's eyes have an "electric light in them at night that glowed in a kind of wet hardness ... hiding their radiance of gold" above a body "graceful and beautiful ... and filled with authority which she exercised because of her lively spirit and general sense of commanding the universe to obey and show itself for what it was."
Whether Polonsky really fell in love with a little Italian girl or shared intimate emotional moments with an aunt is not nearly as important as his vivid awareness of the life around him. This awareness would later make his art possible. Even favorable critics complained that Aunt Zenia was too finished, too wiseand they had a point. Like Laura, Zenia was an invention, even though Polonsky in fact slightly knew a real aunt who took a medical degree in New York and returned to Russia to join the Revolution. Just as the fictional Laura was Polonsky's imagining a love like that for the ballerina whom he would eventually marry, the fictional Zenia was Polonsky's recreation of his family, with its radical Jewish immigrant sensibility.
The women of Polonsky's fictional worldso unlike I. B. Singer's or Philip Roth's unpleasant characterizations or the etched proletarian superhero women of Old Left iconographywere the wise ones, especially in matters of personal life. Even Ram's fictional mother (drawn, Polonsky insisted, directly from his own mother, Rebecca Rosoff Polonsky), constrained to limit the boy's behavior, delivered an occasional warning slap, not only to protect him but to civilize him in ways that the neighbors could not have imagined. These female companions were, in fact, preparing the child for a unique cultural role.
Male bonding offered no comparison, at least until his college days. Boys seemed to come and go, without leaving a mark. But love also brings loss. Ram's childhood, so full of sacred memory, closes when Laura is shipped off to relatives. Likewise his youth closes with Zenia's departure, a fiction that corresponds with a stonier family reality and Polonsky's own adolescence in 1920s America, where grandiose visions (or illusions) of world transformation would disappear into art and private pleasures.
Above all loomed the dark reality of his father's frustrated and difficult life. Born during the 1880s in the pale where most Russian Jews lived, Henry Polonsky was the son and nephew of pedagogues, himself well educated. En route to the United States early in the century, the elder Polonsky (according to family legend) hopped off a freighter in Palermo and stayed to learn the language, one of a half-dozen that he could read and in which he proudly owned books. Soon moving on to New York, he worked and married a woman from a devoutly religious but also upward-bound family. He urgently wanted to become a doctor, perhaps as distinguished as his brother-in-law, dentist Max Rosoff, who taught at Columbia Medical School. But a medical education was a long haul, at heavy odds, for a young, married Jew in Progressive Era America. Instead, Henry entered pharmacy training in 1909 and regretted it the rest of his life. Faced with heavy financial obligationsa daughter born nine years after Abraham, and a son after thathe dreamed hopelessly of returning to school; meanwhile, he clung to health made precarious by diabetes and grudgingly accepted his fate. Polonsky describes him literally in Zenia's Way:
My father was slight ... although not small. He had ... warm or passionate eyes. He was good-looking but his face always seemed a little drawn. He was warm, temperamental, witty.... [W]hen he didn't own drugstores which he couldn't afford to keep, he used to work for Eimer and Amend, the chemical manufacturers downtown. Mostly, though, he seemed to be wanting to have a different profession entirely and often spoke of it as if it were still possible. Anyway he was clever and witty about it.
Like so many Jews of his time, Henry was both a socialist and a skeptic. As recalled in Zenia's Way, his actions sometimes reveal "someone who has for too long wondered that perhaps the life he had chosen was not the one he might have preferred to live." He had, in short, been compromised in too many different ways. Typical for an educated Russian immigrant, he considered his own world of business and his son's world of school and neighborhood friends full of "backward people," outsiders to the family's educated, sophisticated circle. All the more, then, he loved literature, especially the Russian writers and George Eliot, his absolute favorite. He kept an expansive personal library of many literary and some scientific classics. Not drawn to political activity in the United States himself, he directed his legacy to the son born in 1910, whom he named, with pride and expectation, Abraham Lincoln.
If Polonsky's father never ceased to feel Jewish in every secular drop of his cultivated European blood, that feeling in no way extended to religion. When the family on both sides pressed him to have Abraham barmitzvahed, he relented only so far as to have a Protestant seminary student teach him the Hebrew phrases to be memorized for the ceremony. He never even considered the alternative, the cheder teachers notorious for their slaps and insults. The famed realist Yiddish writer Joseph Opatoshu, upon whose short stories the film Romance of a Horsethief was based, devoted an entire novel, Hibru, to describing the stifling atmosphere of the cheder. It was published in 1918, just a few years before Polonsky would have been sent to one of those infamous sites of rote memorization.
In one of the dozens of closely written notebooks that Polonsky deposited with his private papers, he envisions a dialogue in which a grandfather insists that God sent him to America "to civilize it." When the grandmother insists that there is no god, the grandfather answers curtly, "It's too soon to tell that to the Americans!" The passage never made it into print, but the mentality did: America was not a country to be civilized at will or perhaps at all. This conversation could not have been taken from real life, because Polonsky's own paternal grandfather remained in the Old Country, and his mother's father spent his days davening, as Polonsky said, "in murmured dialogue with God." But the point holds for left-wing Jewish culture then and for a generation or two to come. Not that all or even most Jews ever fit this mentality, but as Woody Allen quipped about Manhattan, the world's premier Jewish city, other Americans were convinced that Manhattanites (by which he meant Jews) were a bunch of atheist-communist homosexuals and, relatively speaking, they were right. In short, the Polonsky family constituted proud disbelievers (or believers in un-Americanisms), a people apart.
Polonsky's maternal grandmother (bobbe), an avid storyteller, read to him endlessly in Yiddish from the fiction of the Jewish Daily Forward, transposing historical characters rather than just translating the language. For her (and for the credulous boy), in a story that Polonsky recalled repeatedly, Huck and Tom in that most famous of all American adventure stories were actually Jewish boys rafting the Volga, and Jim was a muzhik, a runaway serf whom they assisted in his escape! Polonsky swears that the world of the shtetl that he sought many decades later to reconstruct in Romance of a Horsethief was dictated by Bobbe's voice. She had, in his vivid memories, remained with him at every moment. When Polonsky also swore that she gave him all the stories that he would ever need, we can take him at his metaphorical word: she bestowed upon him a literary way of looking at the world. He would become many things but would remain always a storyteller.
Yiddish literature was not just a literature of storytellers. From its rise during the later nineteenth century to its slow fade during the 1930s to the 1960s, it was a literature of a particular kind of storyteller. The first popular Yiddish fiction writer, pen-named Mendele Mokhir Sforim (literally "Mendele the Bookseller"), already demonstrated in his satirical shtetl parables the simple, radical technique of ridiculing the existing authoritiesreligion and businessby drawing upon a counterculture, or counterauthority, of what Yiddish savant Aaron Lansky has called "redemption in the everyday." Social discontent, a sense of solidarity with the poor, and an overwhelming sense of emerging crisis for the Jewish community (threatened, by the 1880s, with new pogroms) flowed easily into socialist movements, especially the Jewish Labor Bund, toward the end of the century. But they also flowed into the folk art of a displaced petit bourgeoisie.
The output of Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and hundreds of other feuilletonists, poets, playwrights, and novelists quickly filled new periodicals in Yiddish-speaking communities around the globe, especially in Eastern Europe, Paris, London, and New York. These writers resisted bourgeois versions of Enlightenment (the Jewish Haskalah, which sought to eradicate Yiddish as a "mongrel" language, in the Jewish wealthy classes' upward climb) with nearly the same vigor that they resisted organized anti-Semitism. Moreover, they viewed both as products of an ugly capitalism. In the United States, Yiddish was inherently linked with the Left, its rise in the 1890s a part of the first wave of Jewish socialism and labor activity. Twenty years later the pioneer generation had become more bourgeois, but the "1905ers," tempered by pogroms and simultaneously shaped by the first Russian Revolution, brought new political vigor and a new taste for Yiddish culture.
Yiddish, inherently a fusion language (drawn from High Middle German with doses of Hebrew, French, and Slavic), was a sort of living catalog of Jewish experience and occupied an even more curious space in vaudeville-era America. Yiddish books sold in the thousands, while Yiddish theater, the so-called Second Avenue Broadway, drew some of the biggest crowds (and best-paid actors, thanks to unionization) in New York. Even silent films with Yiddish subtitlesJewish theater restaged for the camerabegan to occupy a niche. This was only a spectacular sideline, however, to the role of Yiddish speakers and their children in popular culture at large.
Yiddishkayt, an ambiance of ironic humor, storytelling, and a marked musical adaptiveness, provided the force and spirit behind a thousand popular culture gestures that went to the heart of goyish America and the world. Often enough its native speakers, like George Burns, learned how to play seamlessly to the gentiles without a hint of contradiction (as The Burns and Allen Show's suburban house and perfectly assimilated son demonstrated on television decades later). But for the close observer a feeling of being outsiders always lingeredeven if it was more and more just a memoryand it linked the Jew to other outsiders, to working people, to nonwhites, and even to the stubborn hope for capitalism's end. As the most popular Yiddish novelist, Sholem Asch (father to Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records), put it simply, "We must work out a world order which shall rest upon equal distribution of labor and rewards."
Art historian Avram Kampf adds that progressive Jewish artists of the 1910s and '20s, from Max Weber to Marc Chagall, often sought to reenergize the old symbols of Jewishness in the times' modernist terms. Popular artists likewise responded to the same impulses, although drawing still more from vernacular Yiddishkayt than from religious Judaism. The beloved cartoonists of the ghetto weekly Groysser Kundes (the Big Stick) depicted Marx as Moses leading the Jewish children across the Red Sea of capitalism and with biting satire made out contemporary Jewish intellectuals as Old Testament figures in modern clothes. Yiddish stage actor Muni Weisenfreund translated the old symbols into new media, becoming the movies' Paul Muni, playing idealists as well as gangsters from the classic stock of character types. So did future director Sidney Lumet, a child actor on the Yiddish stage; so did E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, writer of 1930s America's favorite protest and fantasy music, from "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" to "We're Off to See the Wizard"; and so did Abraham Polonsky, who spoke Yiddish only in joking phrases but understood it perfectly wellright down to Yiddishkayt's emotional core.
Like many other universalist intellectuals of Jewish origin (Lewis Mumford, the illegitimate son of a Jewish businessman and his German maid, immediately comes to mind), Polonsky had one other major source of childhood enlightenment: the New York Public Library system. At age ten he wrote a paper on fire prevention that won a grade-school essay contest and flattering comments from his teacher, Mrs. Bronstein. When the same teacher asked each student to write an in-class essay describing himself or herself as a particular inanimate object, Polonsky chose Mambrino's helmet (the barber's bowl that poor Don Quixote took to be a noble warrior's headgear) and briefly related how the novel had made such an impression upon him. A surprised Mrs. Bronstein made an appointment with Polonsky's parents and warned them not to discourage him from becoming a writer, something they had no intention of doing. (In another version of this story, the son announces to his parents that he has decided to become a novelist.)
Mrs. Bronstein also wrote an official letter recommending that her precocious student use the adult section of the then-grand public library branch a block south of Sutton Place at 185th Street. He already had been to the children's section many Saturdays; this time he went as an adult, even a would-be writer. But young Polonsky still looked the part of a bothersome boy. Brushed off by a librarian who would not take seriously a child his age, he pulled from the shelf almost at random Dimitri Merejkovsky's The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci and checked it out for home reading. The day was memorable in other ways: rather than taking a bus, he walked to the library and back, each way saving a nickel that his mother gave him but arriving home hours late and worrying her terribly. When he tried to claim the dime she slapped him, but the library visit would still be a positive experience. Like the pictures in his father's medical books (Pathogenic Microorganisms was the boy's favorite), the biography of da Vinci left a lasting impression of the connection between art and suffering. Specifics he could learn later. For now the library signified his expanded literary world, an opening to authors with whom, he began more and more to think, he had a definite affinity. Meanwhile, still reading from his father's collection, he ranked The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe near the top of his list, as had several generations of Americans from all social classes. Polonsky personally paid homage to the master of the weird by visiting the Poe Cottage in the Bronx. So he grew.
Excerpted from A VERY DANGEROUS CITIZEN by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner. Copyright © 2001 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Paul Buhle is Lecturer in the American Civilization Department at Brown University and coauthor of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (1997). Dave Wagner is the former political editor of the Arizona Republic. He has written on film for Cineaste and Filmhaeftet (Stockholm).
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