Express In Conversation
WALTER BERNSTEIN with Gregory Zucker and Molly Rose Ávila
Walter Bernstein is one of the most celebrated writers for film and television. His writing for television included shows like Danger and You Are There. Due to the blacklist, Bernstein received no credit for his work on films like The Magnificent Seven and The Train. His credited film work includes Fail-Safe, The Molly Maguires, The Front, and Miss Evers’ Boys for HBO. Bernstein was blacklisted from 1950 to 1959 and was instrumental in combating the effects of the blacklist by finding work for friends through the use of “fronts.” He recounts the blacklist era in Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist. Gregory Zucker and Molly Rose Ávila sat down with the author in his Manhattan apartment this past winter to discuss his experiences as a journalist, screenwriter, and political activist as well as his views on the current literary and political scene.
Rail: Please tell us a bit about your background. What were your early literary and political influences?
Walter Bernstein: I was born and bred in Brooklyn and was the product of a very good public school system. I was born about the time when my grandparents were making the move from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn, from the pushcart to the store. They were moving up, and that’s where they stayed pretty much, lower middle class. My father became a school teacher, and worked his way through college. He didn’t particularly want to be a school teacher, but he was the eldest of a family of, I think it was six or seven, and he had to get a job. You could get a job as a teacher then without any further education. It meant security.
I had an aunt on my father’s side who was political. She was a charter member of the communist party. My Red aunt. She was kind of the black sheep of the family and she was never around. She went to Russia, lived there for a while, and worked for the Comintern mainly as a secretary. But I never met her. I had no politics particularly. My main interest was sports. It was the only thing I cared about. But when I graduated from high school the class was so big that you graduated either in January or June. I graduated in January and I couldn’t get into college until September. So my father sent me off to school in France, with my four years of high school French. I signed up at the University of Grenoble. I went to class the first week and never went back. I would just bicycle around and just by chance I fell in with some English students. 1936 was a very exciting time politically: sit down strikes in France. These English kids turned out to be communists. I became closest to a boy named Robert Conquest (later one of the major historians of the Stalin era). He was a communist then. Around that time, the Spanish War broke out. He wanted to go see what was going on and wanted me to go with him, but I used up all the money that I had and went back home. The war in Spain was the beginning of my political education. I knew where my allegiance was, so that really began and sustained my political commitments. There was the Depression, but my father was a school teacher and, although my family never had much money, we were safe. Still, you saw the effects all around. Spain and the Soviet Union were things that changed me. The Soviet Union was on the side of the government in Spain, so they were the good guys. Mussolini and Hitler were the bad guys. Then for four years at Dartmouth I was politically active.
Rail: What was it like being a radical at Dartmouth?
Bernstein: It was a Republican school basically. We did have an enormous fresco in the library’s basement by the Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco. It was the history of the Mexican Revolution with bloated capitalists and it was extraordinary to see it. Nelson Rockefeller, who had been an alumnus, got Orozco to paint it. I don’t think they knew what he was going to do. Our political activities were mostly through invited speakers. I got in trouble for inviting Earl Browder (head of the American Communist Party) and they wouldn’t let him come.
Rail: How did you become a writer?
Bernstein: I always knew I was going to be a writer. After college, I had sold some pieces to the New Yorker, but I got drafted right in February of ’41. I was in the infantry for a while, but, thanks to Harold Ross (editor of the New Yorker), I eventually got transferred to an army magazine, Yank. That was great. They sent me to Tehran with strange orders: I was to go to Tehran and “such other places as are necessary to my mission.” From Tehran I was supposed to go to the Soviet Union. I got to Tehran after 42 days on a freighter and reported to the American Embassy with my orders. They just laughed at me and said, you’re not going to Russia, nobody goes to Russia from here, it was stupid of them to send you here, just stay here. It was a hellhole: hot, nasty, and beautiful. I got lucky because Yank was having its first anniversary and they were having a big radio program with correspondents from all over in Jerusalem. I did that and then was in Tel Aviv, Cairo, and Algiers. I covered the Sicily campaign and the Italian campaign. I was young and stupid. Wherever there was some kind of battle, I would go to see what was going on. I would always go back to Cairo for the Army. In Cairo, there were two Yugoslavs who had been flown by the British from Yugoslavia. They were part of Tito’s partisans, high ranking guys. They had brain injuries, but were going to give a press conference. They were two very heroic fellows. I thought, “Shit, if there is some way of getting to them, maybe I can go to Yugoslavia.”
Rail: Did you know much about Tito at the time?
Bernstein: Nothing. The British were keeping these guys under wraps. The British didn’t really know what to do with Tito because he was a Communist and had backed another Yugoslav general. But Tito was the only one doing any fighting so they felt they had to support him, but he was a communist and they weren’t sure what was going to happen with him. I tracked these Yugoslav guys down and wrote them a letter, full of whatever left wing jargon I could think of. I got an immediate answer back from them saying “come” and I came. They wanted publicity and guns. They offered to sneak me into Yugoslavia. The Germans controlled the cities, the partisans controlled the countryside. I had to go in through Bari, Italy. The OSS Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA had an office there and I went to see the head guy, the major. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I told him I’m going to Yugoslavia. He said, “No, you’re not. Nobody goes to Yugoslavia. Stay here and write about us.” One of the Yugoslavs had come up to Bari also and they had a little office there. I went to see him, told him what the major said, and he said, “Fuck ’em. It’s our country. If you want to come, we’ll take you.” I went with a delegation that was going to a youth conference at Tito’s headquarters. It took about a week. There was some fighting, but not really anything much. We got to Tito’s headquarters and they arranged for me to see Tito once. I was going to see him again, but I ran into a British major at the British mission. He asked me what I was doing in Yugoslavia and I told him. He said, “Most irregular, most irregular,” and he kept saying that. He took me to the British mission. Churchill’s son was there, Randolph Churchill, and he thought the whole thing was a big joke. He was a reactionary son of a bitch, but he was very nice to me. He told me I had to get out of there even though I was probably going to be court-martialed. They flew me out and the day after the Germans dropped a couple of battalions of paratroopers on the place. Tito got away just in time.
I might have been court-martialed, but the New York Times or the AP guy wrote a piece about me that was on the front page of the Times. With that publicity the Army just kicked me out, but they held up my piece on Tito and the partisans. I had my choice of going home or going in on D-Day. I chose home. I always felt a little guilty about that. In any case, by that time I’d also spent a little time with Italian partisans. I had seen that the war was being conducted mainly by left wing people, by the communists, by the partisans. They really were a heroic Red Army. I was pretty indoctrinated by then and I joined the party a year or two after I got back. I stayed in it for ten years, until ’56. Hungary kind of did it for me, but by that time the American party was losing any kind of status that it had. It wasn’t doing much of anything. It just seemed incidental to everything. Then I got blacklisted for about 10 years.
Rail: Given your experience in war reporting, what do you think of the ways coverage of war has changed from World War II to Vietnam and, now: Iraq and Afghanistan?
Bernstein: I believed in my war. That was a big difference. We all believed in it. If there was such a thing as a just war, from our point of view, that would be it. It was an anti-fascist war. It was true that I didn’t write about certain things. I didn’t write about prisoners being shot. I didn’t write about the fear that the soldiers had. It was self-censorship. My stuff, as far as I knew, was not censored.
If you really wanted to end the war in Afghanistan tomorrow, institute a draft. All the mothers would rise up. I think the war reporting, both for Vietnam and now, never questioned the basic premises of the war. Hurt Locker was an interesting movie because it could have been about any war, any army. You could tell that same story about the German army, the individual heroism or fear, whatever it is. The problem was that it took the war for granted.
Once you’re embedded with a company, you feel an obligation to them. You go with them. You see them being killed. I think some people have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and written good books. The daily reporting can be very good. It can be horrifying. It can tell the truth about the war. But nobody wants to question a system because a system will rise up and kill you.
Rail: In the American media, many foreign leaders who we don’t understand or know much about are vilified. Given the effort you made to understand what Tito was doing, what do you think of the way the media handles the emerging leaders in a place like South America?
Bernstein: I was in awe of Tito. I was a kid and he was a very handsome, imposing man. Still, I was most moved by the members of the Youth Congress because they had come from all over Yugoslavia. Some of them had taken two or three months to get there and had to fight their way through. They had a vision of a democratic multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, which was, for me, very moving. It wasn’t so much a feeling that the leader was great. I kept thinking of Brecht’s line, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” As for what’s going on today, it’s ideological. They have Chavez and Castro to hate. They hate somebody who will take on the empire.
Rail: Why did you join the Communist Party?
Bernstein: They were the ones leading the fight. Even before the war, they were fighting for the rights of African Americans and unemployed. The Party was the place to be if you wanted to get anything done, if you wanted to fight. And of course they were the only ones who were attacking the system as a system instead of just trying to paper over the cracks.
I felt I could be rich and holy at the same time. I could write movies, make a lot of money, and still be a communist. In Hollywood, they were good liberals and tolerated radicals. When I first went out to Hollywood I was working at Columbia Pictures for a left-wing producer. One day, I was helping him move his desk and a man came to the door. The man asked, “Is that one of your commie writers from New York?” The producer said yeah and laughed and that was the end of it. The man at the door was Harry Cohn, co-founder of Columbia Pictures. Cohn didn’t care because he knew he controlled the movie at the end of the day. The environment was such that I felt I could go on being a member of the Communist Party and also work in Hollywood.
Rail: How did you become a screenwriter?
Bernstein: I always wanted to write movies. In my time, if you wanted to be a serious writer you wrote novels or plays or poetry. Writing screenplays meant going to Hollywood and selling out. But I always wanted to. Right after the war I had a book published, a collection of pieces, mostly from the New Yorker about the war. On that basis, I was able to get an agent who got me a job. I went out to Hollywood for 10 weeks and stayed for six months. I loved it.
Rail: What do you think of the movie-making business today?
Bernstein: Well, it all comes down to money. One of the good things about the whole digital revolution is that you can now make a movie very cheaply. The question then becomes distribution. How do you distribute it? How do you get it to people? Is it possible to get your money back? The answers to those questions are still up in the air.
My hope is that, as these issues get resolved, more effort goes into content. Now it’s all form. But we never really made political movies. There were a few in the ’30s during the Depression, but we never made movies like the Italians made in the ’60s and ’70s. Those were great movies, but that’s not our history. Also, when you have major studios owned by big corporations, something falls through the cracks only very occasionally. I liked a movie very much a couple of years ago that never went anywhere. It had a dreadful title: In the Valley of Elah. It was an extremely good, bitter movie, but it only got done because the writer/director had had a success with Crash.
Ultimately, the question is who owns it? Who pays for it? The Writer’s Guild is very involved in this question of when the writers get paid. Somebody has to write it.
Rail: When you teach writing, what kinds of issues do your students engage?
Bernstein: What disturbs and distresses me is that the subject matter is so bad. They don’t want to write about anything personal. They say, “I’ll do a science-fiction,” or “I’ll do this animated thing about this boy that’s really a fish.” It can make your eyes roll. They don’t want to engage. It’s not that they should be writing political screenplays, but the subject matter should have some kind of relation to the world as it is.
Rail: You’ve done a great deal of work for television. What are your views on the potential for television as an artistic medium?
Bernstein: It’s kind of a bastard medium because it’s not a play and it’s not really a movie. Although, as the technology gets better it’s shot more like a movie. Still, it’s owned by big corporations who are not going to be interested in doing a miniseries about, say, Lenin. You’re not going to get anything that questions the system. The level of talent is very high. My son, Andrew, has directed House and E.R. What appalls him is how low the bar is set.
Rail: Looking at early television there seemed to be a sense that television was seen as a medium that could educate people and democratize culture. For example, a program like You Are There, which you had written for, seemed to be an effort to educate viewers about historical events.
Bernstein: It was, absolutely. The same is true of shows like Omnibus. The networks made time for those things. The Lenny Bernstein series for Omnibus was wonderful. It was educational and interesting. The thing about all those bastards who ran the studios and networks is that they were terrible shits, but in some shitty way they cared about their product and they wanted it to be good. Their values were pretty crappy and they were tyrants, but now I think these corporations look at the movie business like it’s the shoe business. The producers want 12 or 13 percent profit and, if not, forget it.
Rail: What do you think of the charges that television has led to a kind of cultural decline or dumbing down of the American public?
Bernstein: I believe this empire is in decline, in general, and I think it drags everything along with it. It’s content that matters. And they’re scared of content. There’s always been a dumbing-down. But I think that in popular art, as far as movies or television are concerned, there’s a high level of technology and a very low level of content.
Rail: When you talk about a conflict between form and content, your work seems to fall into a tradition in American social realist writing. Do you think there’s any prospect for a revival of social realist content in American film or literature?
Bernstein: I hope so. As it becomes easier to make a movie, I think that by the law of averages, a few things that we think are good will drop in. But think of who has control of this new apparatus. Whoever is in control has the duty of maximizing profit. If he can make useful idiots out of the writers, fine. These are the people who make the decisions. I don’t know where the breakthrough would be now. But, “The old is dying and the new has not yet been born, and in this interregnum many morbid symptoms appear.” Great, great quote from Antonio Gramsci. We’re in that period.
Capitalism has been enormously resilient and still has fangs left. One of the saddest things for me to see has been the failure of the left in the capitalist countries. It’s heartening to see what’s happening in Latin America. To say something heretical: I don’t think the world is better off without the Soviet Union. With all its corruption, it stood for something. It acted as the opposition and you don’t have that now. Without any real alternatives, when a character like Obama comes along, you just invest so much in him.
I find myself waiting for the football season to start, or the baseball season. Something I can look at that makes me feel good. Although the function of a fan is to suffer.
Rail: Let’s talk a little bit about the blacklist. Sadly, this has renewed relevance given Ann Coulter’s effort to revive the reputation of McCarthy or Glenn Beck’s claims about socialists and communists in academia and government.
Bernstein: Well, I was blacklisted from 1950 to 1958 or 1959 in movies and then for another couple years in television. The only thing I knew at that time was that I was in a book called Red Channels. Everything in it was true about me, for example, that I’d written for the New Masses. At the time, I was writing on Danger, which Sidney Lumet was directing. The producer was an ex-actor and a decent guy. He came to me one day and said, “I can’t use you anymore. I’m supposed to tell you it’s just because we’re moving to a different kind of writer and we’re changing the whole writing thing, but it’s really because you’re on some kind of list.” I knew pretty much what was going on, so I said, “Just put another name on it.” I thought up another name and I wrote several more scripts under that name. He came to me again and said, “Ain’t working. The people upstairs think the writers are so devious and cunning that they’re using other names. You’re going to have to have somebody who can come up and go to meetings and be you under a different name.” That began the next phase. It was a question of finding what we call a “front.” The writers were luckier than actors and directors because you didn’t have to show your face. I was lucky to have had the relationship with Lumet and the producer, Charlie Russell, because I worked for them. We worked on Danger and then I worked for two or three years on You Are There.
I had problems getting fronts because they would do it for different reasons. Some would do it because they wanted a cut of the money; others did it because they were burgeoning writers and wanted the credits that they would get. Some did it and wouldn’t take any money because they thought what was going on was bad and just wanted to help. The length of time that they usually helped was limited. You were always scratching around trying to find somebody else. It was not a good time, but—and this is another terrible thing to say—there are things I look back on that I actually miss. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the connection to other people. I miss the kind of selflessness that came out. We helped each other however we could. It was extremely important to me. When the blacklist was over and we all went back to this dog-eat-dog business that we’re in, there were friends that I kept from that period, but it wasn’t the same, really.
I was lucky in many ways. I made a little group with two other writers, Arnold Manoff and Abraham Polonsky. We helped each other. If we knew of work we would call a blacklisted writer and say, “Here’s a job you can have.” Otherwise, it was not a good time. People who I knew or was close to became friendly witnesses. That was tough to deal with. Despite the parallels you mention, I don’t sense today the kind of atmosphere of fear that there was then. It was pervasive. There was a fear of being called “left.” And there was fear among the public as if the big bad Red Army was waiting in Montauk to invade. What I sense now is the venom and the hatred and the feeling of fury that comes from helplessness. That wasn’t there, but the fear was. People I knew would cross the street if they saw me coming.
Rail: Were you ever thinking of quitting the business?
Bernstein: They quit me. No, I’d never known how to do anything else. Also, I was working. I was making a living however bad it was. I worked and we were doing good things that we could feel pleased about.
I was here in New York doing television. There were people here who would offer me money even though they wouldn’t go out to dinner with me. Nobody really liked it. They were scared. They went along. After I was cleared, a couple years after, I got a letter from the man who’d been the head of dramatic programming at CBS. He was now an independent producer, a movie producer, and he had some job. He wanted me to write it for him and he wrote me this letter telling me about it. At the end, he had a post-script and he said, “If you see them, please give my regards to…” and he named all the fronts that we had. Everyone knew.
I think people are scared today because things have not gotten better for them. The Soviet Union collapsed, there’s no more Red Scare, but things aren’t better. They get whipped up by the Coulters and the Becks and Michele Bachmann. They tell you things are getting better, but the unemployment doesn’t change. Same old.
Rail: Speaking of a culture of fear, in scripts for films like Fail-Safe or The Front, you critique the Cold War culture of fear. Have screenwriters and filmmakers today done enough to critique the contemporary social and political scene?
Bernstein: They’ve done what they could. Screenwriting is not like book-writing. With book-writing or playwriting, you get a relatively small amount of money, but you control your work. Nobody can change it unless you agree. In screenwriting you take the money up front and they own everything. You have no rights really. You gave away copyrighting a long time ago. You fight for your script if you can. I was lucky in that I worked with a number of very good directors who respected the script, with whom I was friendly. I was able to say that that’s my script up there. The writers do what they can on a union level. We had a big strike last year, year before, which turned out well for us. We are going into negotiations now with the companies. I don’t know what’ll happen. I think the companies will be much tougher. Nobody wants a strike now. They’ve given up the fight for content pretty much. We have a low budget contract apart from the major contract, which gives up money in return for control. What we’re asking for is so minimal even in that: The right to write the second draft, the right to come to previews, stuff like that.
Rail: What do you make of the prevalence of remakes and sequels? Is there a crisis of creativity?
Bernstein: I don’t see a crisis of creativity anymore than there’s always been. They do remakes because of their own insecurities. They see a picture, and, if the picture did well, they will do it again. They always remake the wrong movie. They don’t remake a movie where they look at what failed and fix it. That requires a certain creativity. It’s much easier to say, “Oh we’ll do Sabrina again and have Harrison Ford instead of Bogart.” They wonder why it goes on its ass. The creativity is there, but it’s a battle to fight. You fight, if a place like Hollywood is where you want to be. It was always where I wanted to be. I still get excited when I go onto a movie set, even after all these years. I love it. I love the thing.