For George Pepper, the Blacklist Isn’t Over


October 27, 2017 will mark the 70th anniversary of the first day that ten courageous screenwriters and directors, known as the Hollywood Ten, refused to answer the illegal questions about their political associations and friends put to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) escalating the resistance to McCarthyism. As a result of McCarthyism, thousands of radicals were blacklisted throughout dozens of industries as “potential communists,”  which eventually resulted in their termination or exclusion from their professions, fines, jail time, even suicide.  Supposedly, the blacklist began to disintegrate thirteen years later, on January 20, 1960, with Director Otto Preminger’s announcement that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would receive full credit for the script of his film, Exodus[i]. In reality, for others,  like my father, the blacklist is still in place.

My father, George Pepper, produced four movies in the 1950s. Two were directed by Spanish film icon Luis Buñuel.  But in the United States, Pepper’s name does not appear on a single film.

In Mexico and France however,  where there was no blacklist, my father’s films are listed correctly.  James Travers, in a 2013 review for Films de France.com, stated that The Young One, was in many respects Buñuel’s “most remarkable film, although bizarrely it is often omitted from discussions of his work and remains his most neglected and underrated film. . . .  Primarily, it is a film which condemns racial prejudice, and was ahead of its time, coinciding with the first wave of civil rights demonstrations in the United States.  Whilst The Young One earned its director a special mention at Cannes, it … was particularly ill-received in America, where the narrow-minded bigotry of some prominent critics consigned it to almost immediate oblivion. . . .

“It was originated and financed by George Pepper, a fugitive of McCarthyism, credited under the name George P. Werker.  Pepper had been a committed supporter of civil rights in the 1940s but fell foul of the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America in the early 1950s.”

Buñuel referred to my father as his favorite producer and fondly remembered his close friend in his memoir, My Last Sigh.  He described my father as a Hollywood organizer, violin prodigy and producer.  Some more missing puzzle pieces of George Pepper’s life can be found in Cold War Exiles in Mexico by Rebecca M. Schreiber, Jean Rouverol’s Refugees from Hollywood and Diana Anhalt’s A Gathering of Fugitives.  So why the 57-year delay?

Hugo Butler, who wrote the four films my father produced, had his credits restored by the Writers Guild of America in the 1990s, when the WGA publicly apologized for its role in the blacklist.  But producers are covered by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Producers Guild. While I have contacted all three, some several times, no calls or emails have been returned.  Wikipedia has ignored requests to create Producer George Pepper’s page.  And despite repeated attempts and requests for help, the IMDB film site keeps overwriting my corrections, insisting that my father’s name must mirror the pen name in the film credits, though Hugo Butler’s real name never appears on the credits either.

This is particularly poignant as the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood blacklist is observed at the Writer’s Guild Theater. The event, which includes Hollywood Ten offspring and stars like Susan Sarandon, Mike Farrell and Lee Grant, will re-enact courageous testimonies before HUAC, as a direct response to the amoral attacks on civil liberties in this country under the Trump plutocracy. While the Ten have been absolved by history and an apology for complicity in the blacklist issued by four talent guilds in 1997,  no such absolution has yet to be granted my father.

George P. Werker, the nom de plume he used to earn a living after he was blacklisted, was borrowed from his mother, Sophie Werker, a tiny Jewish powerhouse from Austria-Hungary.  The family invested its savings on her passage to Vienna, where she could attend a school to train for a career in the opera.  Her only relative, an uncle, came to meet her at the station.  Overjoyed to see his niece, he raced towards her, over the tracks—without noticing the approaching train.  The locomotive claimed his life, before my grandmother’s eyes.

Eventually, Sophie made her way to the United States, where she wed and had two sons and a daughter.  Once satisfied that her children had musical talent, Sophie sublimated her frustrated music career aspirations into child-rearing, insisting they practice their instruments five hours a day, seven days a week.  All three children went on to make a living as professional concert musicians. When my father was four, he and his brother Jack raised money for the Hollywood Bowl with their violin-playing.  Their names were inscribed on the seats.  In the years that followed, Sophie filled an album with newspaper headlines that proclaimed little Georgie Pepper a child prodigy, announcing his solos in symphony orchestra, even a guest appearance in a play.  I remember him quoting  Thomas Edison to explain that his talent was in fact  “one percent genius and 99 percent hard work.”

By the time George was twenty-four, his left hand had developed a repetitive stress nerve condition and he was obliged to give up the violin. He threw himself into political work, organizing Hollywood intelligentsia.  He had a talent for bringing people of diverse political viewpoints together, and during his term as the executive secretary of  what came to be known as the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP), membership skyrocketed.  According to Larry Ceplair and Steven Enlgund’s  The Inquisition in Hollywood, the non-partisan, political organization of cultural workers became the “the major outpost of progressivism west of the Hudson River[ii],”  temporarily countering  Hollywood conservatives with radical Hollywood intellectuals like Dalton Trumbo, Orson Wells, Gene Kelley and Gregory Peck who wanted the organization to improve the rights, conditions and pay of Industry workers across the country. HICCASP was regularly targeted by anti-Communists in Hollywood. Today, if most Hollywood movies are insulting to average intelligence, perhaps it’s because the blacklist purged the industry of content and any rendition of reality at odds with the “American dream” and prevailing economic system.

My parents and the intelligentsia in their community were pacifists. They worked to support socialist politicians through the electoral system who stood for universal health care and housing, free college education and other such dreams most of us harbor today. For this they were demonized as treasonous.

My parents’ close friends, Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson and Ring Lardner Jr., were jailed along with six other Hollywood screenwriters and directors (Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Alvah Bessie) for “contempt of Congress”—refusing to answer the illegal questions about their private political affiliations put to them by the House Un-American Activities Committee (or, as some prefer, HUAC—the sound made when spitting out a big wad of phlegm.)

Once these first  “Hollywood Ten”  had been jailed, the Fifth Amendment, when invoked, protected subsequent defendants from testifying against themselves and going to jail, though not from public censure and job loss.  My parents were not eager to face California Senator Jack Tenney’s  Fact Finding Subcommittee on Un-American Activities.

One Spring evening in 1951, my mother Jeanette noticed cigarette butts on the apartment landing by their front door and “Who,” she asked herself, “besides cat burglars and FBI men, would carelessly pollute the entry way of respectable citizens?”   Two days later, three FBI men invited themselves inside my parents’ home and seized my father’s  passport.  The following day, George traded his dream of making a film in Bali for a one-way ticket to Mexico, that, like Canada, did not require a passport back then.  My mother, it was agreed, would pack up their Lincoln with as many of their possessions as would fit and join him at the Mexican border within the week. (After he was released from a year in jail in 1951, Trumbo and his family joined my parent’s friends Hugo Butler and his wife, author Jean Rouverol on a caravan to Mexico City as well.)

On April 25, 1951, Edward Dmytryk again appeared before HUAC, now as a “friendly witness” which meant he named communists and communist sympathizers. “George Pepper” was among those he named.  But George was nowhere to be found.  A Los Angeles Times article dated May 4, 1951 announced that authorities had been searching for him for a month.

My mother Jeanette, “Mrs. George Pepper,” was subsequently named by writer Stanley Roberts on May 20, 1952.

And so my parents remained in Mexico for twenty years, along with dozens of other persecuted U.S. labor leaders and activists.  In those days, Mexico City was an azure-skied Mecca for visiting and local artists and politicos like André Breton, Graham Greene and Leon Trotsky. Soon enough my parents were absorbed by a supportive intellectual community that at one time or another included Luis Buñuel, Gordon Kahn, Ring Lardner Jr. and Frances Chaney, Miguel Covarrubias, Otto Preminger, Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Diego’s model Nieves Orozco and her husband, Fred Vanderbilt Field, even B. Traven.  Building a community in Mexico was their act of resistance. And precisely because they continued to resist,  the cauldron of talent became a vital center of intellectual ferment that supported the global movement for human rights.

In Mexico, my father met Director Luis Buñuel, who was himself living in exile.  George introduced screenwriter Hugo Butler to Buñuel and they made The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1954. The film’s portrayal of a shipwreck and isolation echoed the story of the cold war exiles from Hollywood.  Working with Butler as a writer and director, George’s film credits also include Torero (1956) and The Little Giants (Los Pequeños Gigantes, 1958.) Finally he produced Buñuel’s  visionary film The Young One (La Jóven, 1960) written by Butler.

If Buñuel were still alive, I’d tell him he’s one of my favorite film-makers.  Unfortunately, at the time when I might have had the opportunity, what I most admired about him was the swing set in his back yard.

The founding of Olmec Productions to make these films was another one of my father’s acts of resistance.  While the U. S. exiles certainly made the most of their “shipwreck” by  building a rich, generous community which embodied their ideals, life in Mexico as political refugees took its toll on them.  My parents’ mail was read and some letters were seized, including royalty payments from the States.  According to author Jean Rouverol Butler, the FBI sent informers to spy on their Sunday pancake breakfasts at the Odenheims. Two of my parents’ friends and colleagues—Sam Novick and Max Shlafrock were  illegally kidnapped  by the FBI to be brought back to the U.S..  Diana Anhalt documents the details in A Gathering of Fugitives. My mother lost her job teaching economics at Mexico City College when the university administration discovered she had been blacklisted. My father, facing the threat of unemployment and possible prison time in the States, and unable to involve himself in politics for fear of deportation from Mexico, died a premature death like so many expatriates in Mexico.  He never purchased the return portion of his ticket.

The government sought to crush my parents’ Hollywood community, but they resisted by taking care of each other and living out the ideals for which they had fought.  They shared money, meals and childcare.  When my father died, Cleo Trumbo flew to Mexico to help my mother.  I returned with her to the Trumbo’s to wait for my mother to settle her affairs and join us.

Of course I want my son to be able to see his grandfather’s names on the films he made.  What I’d love even more is for him to live in a world that embodies my parents’ dreams of basic human rights like equal access to housing, health care, nutrition and college, regardless of culture, class, creed or immigration status.

This summer, I attended Jean Rouverol Butler’s memorial.  Before she died, she donated her copy of The Little Giants written and directed by her husband Hugo Butler and produced by my father’s company, Olmec Productions, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The film is the true story of how a Little League baseball team from Monterrey, Mexico, with limited resources—some of its members were barefoot street children recruits—managed to travel to the United States and, like blacklisted artists facing impossible odds, win the 1957 World Series with the only perfect game in Little League championship history.

In typical docufiction style with elements of cinema vérité, some of the players from the Monterrey team, including pitcher Ángel Macías, play themselves in the film.  The Butlers’ cook Ramona often fed the boys, according to Butler daughter Becky Butler.

As part of their retrospective on Latino film culture in Los Angeles, the Academy has restored The Little Giants and will be featuring the film on November 18 at 2:00.  The Academy has been the first entity to express an interest in breaking my father’s blacklisting by giving him proper credit in their publicity and in the showing of his film.  As this goes to press, nothing has yet changed.

Of my parent’s community of blacklisted Hollywood exiles in Mexico, Jean was the last from the United States to die. We—the children of the cold war and Hollywood exiles stood with her children and—scattered rose petals and the last of her ashes on the Puget Sound singing Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida and Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity for Ever.”  And then, as the petals disappeared in the wake, I recognized that they were gone, generation I of the Butlers, the Smalls, the Trumbos, the Kahns, the Lardners, my mother Jeanette, my papi, George Pepper, each one an increasingly smaller petal, a flicker of fading ash.  That leaves generations II and III of the “cold war exiles” to step up to the plate just like the “Little Giants,” alongside today’s human rights activists like those in Black Lives Matter and the sanctuary and immigrant rights movements.  Pete Seger’s voice still rings in my ears:

“We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.”

***

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist’s testimony before HUAC, journalist Ed Rampell is organizing a reenactment of the HUAC hearings on October 27 at the Writers Guild Theater by Blacklist survivors and actors. Donations to fund the event can be sent to https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute

 

To see Los Pequeños Gigantes or The Little Giants November 18 at 2 pm at the Linwood Dunn Theater at 1313 Vine Street, Hollywood, CA 90028 see http://pstlala.oscars.org/event/los-pequenos-gigantes-little-giants-1960/

 

Margot Pepper is a Mexican-born journalist whose work has appeared in Utne Reader, Common Dreams,  Monthly Review, Z-net, Counterpunch, Dollars & Sense, Prensa Latina, NACLA, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Hampton Brown, Rethinking Schools, El Tecolote, El Andar and elsewhere. Parts of this article were excerpted from her memoir  Through the Wall:  A Year in Havana about her year working in Cuba.  She is also the author of a book of poetry, At This Very Moment, and most recently a dystopian science fiction thriller, American Day Dream.  Learn more at http://www.margotpepper.com and http://www.freedomvoices.org/new/american-day-dream-by-margot-pepper

 

[i]According to Trumbo’s daughter, Mitzi Trumbo in Salon.com (August 7, 2012) in 1959 the King brothers first gave Trumbo credit for the The Brave One following a series of Trumbo’s essays ridiculing the blacklist for the fact that no one materialized to claim the Oscar under his alias, Robert Rich. Trumbo’s name first hit the screen with Spartacus, which claimed all the accolades deserved by Exodus. Mitzi notes,  “The demise of the blacklist was slow, like a giant balloon in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade which has sprung a leak and finally collapsed.”

https://www.salon.com/2012/08/07/trumbo_family_kirk_douglas_overstates_blacklist_role/

[ii]Larry Ceplair and Steven Enlgund,  The Inquisition in Hollywood (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1979), 218; 227-228; 400.

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