February 23, 2009
A Small Tent – Blacklisting Myself: Memoir of a Hollywood Apostate in the Age of Terror, by Roger L. Simon
BYLINE: Ronald Radosh
LENGTH: 1627 words
The question Roger Simon seeks to answer in his unsparing, alternately funny and sad but always fascinating second-thoughts memoir is: Why did he change from an idealistic Hollywood leftist to a person who ended up voting for George W. Bush? How, Simon asks, did he come to have the improbable distinction of being “favorably profiled by both Mother Jones and National Review?”
During the tumultuous 1960s, the aspiring screenwriter and novelist was a young man with a left-wing political bent. Migrating to Hollywood after attending Dartmouth, he would sit by a dilapidated old pool near the apartment he was renting, reading novels about old-time Hollywood — including Budd Schulberg’s classic What Makes Sammy Run? Simon had actually met the writer when his father, who had been a classmate of Schulberg at Dartmouth, introduced the twelve-year-old Roger to him at a Yale game. Little did Roger Simon suspect that, like Schulberg, who became a pariah after breaking with the Communists in the 1930s and later testifying as a friendly witness before HUAC, he would end up as an apostate from the Left.
When Simon went to Hollywood, his apostasy lay far in the future. Left-wing Hollywood had been living off the myth of the old anti-Communist blacklist for decades, and Simon was captivated by it. He joined the Writers Guild and avidly sought out the remnant of the old Hollywood Left still living in Los Angeles. He was, he writes, a “wannabe blacklisted screenwriter.”
Soon Simon was on the way up. He created the character of Moses Wine, a “left-wing hippie detective” who was the protagonist of his eight detective novels. The first of these, The Big Fix, became a bestseller and was made into a movie, whose screenplay Simon wrote, starring Richard Dreyfuss. He had other screenwriting successes, including the adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story, and hitched up with some of the most prominent names of the new Hollywood hip Left.
Of course, no New Leftist in the 1970s was worth his salt if he didn’t take the obligatory trips to the existing socialist paradises. Simon made the journey to all three: Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, and, of course, the Soviet motherland itself. These trips and the contacts he made there were considered, Simon writes, “groovy” in Hollywood and gave him a certain “panache.”
Through his contacts, Simon was invited to China as part of the “U.S. China People’s Friendship Association People’s Friendship Tour #2.” Travelling to China as it was just emerging from the Cultural Revolution was quite a different experience than it is for someone taking a first-class trip there today. One was visiting a strange place where everyone dressed the same and there was little to purchase; as one entered the greeting center from Hong Kong, one listened to tinny loudspeakers playing “The East Is Red.” As Simon writes, there seemed to be little want, and everyone had what they called “three rounds and a sound”: a watch, a sewing machine, a bicycle, and a transistor radio. Maybe they didn’t require anything else? In this materialistic world, he mused at the time, maybe their way of life was even superior? But Simon goes on to explain his thoughts back then: Perhaps he was suffering from some form of Stockholm Syndrome. After all, he knew how brutal the Cultural Revolution had been, and he knew that he was visiting “a country whose perverted logic made Orwell’s Animal Farm look rational.”
Nevertheless, he couldn’t wait to get home to Hollywood to tell everyone about it. He would, at cocktail parties, have to admit to some “appropriate reservations,” but it was more important to be basically positive and “create envy and admiration.” Simon went on to write a novel about his experience, Peking Duck, but was not wholly honest in the book about “the totalitarian world I’d been visiting.” He needed to protect his reputation as a cutting-edge radical.
Simon gives us similar pictures of his experiences in Cuba and Russia. In the late 1980s, he got involved in a mystery-writers’ organization called the International Association of Crime Writers, which he later suspected was serving as a Communist front. He was flattered to be chosen the North American vice president of its executive committee. During an organizing meeting in Mexico, he met one Julian Semyonov, who convinced him that he had to take a sponsored trip to the USSR. Taken from Moscow to the Black Sea, he was followed constantly, stayed in bugged hotel rooms, and was given an invitation to work for the KGB. This last offer was made by an attractive young woman whose entreaties the spy agency obviously thought Simon would accept. The experiences helped make him think. “The more time I spent in the Soviet Union,” he writes in this book, “the more I despised, more precisely dreaded, them and their culture.” Leaving the country, he says, “felt like being released from jail.”
In Cuba, Simon went to a film festival where he met with the Frenchman Régis Debray, at the time a revolutionary follower of Che Guevara. Simon stood in awe, even knowing, as he writes, that “the man was Che’s most famous apologist and that Guevara had been responsible for the ruthless killings of many of his one-time allies.” He already knew that Cuba “was a kind of giant jail of once-ornate homes and run-down DeSotos, its people sad, desperate, and undernourished.” Even so, Simon was still “in the grip of the romantic fascination” of being behind the forbidden Iron Curtain.
But the cognitive dissonance began to trouble him. For quite a while he lived in a sort of “twilight zone where many in my generation found themselves, sympathizing, in principle, with the egalitarian socialist ideal while encouraging, even helping, writers and other dissidents to escape those societies.” Gradually he became disillusioned with the pervasive left-wing assumptions and culture of Hollywood. Liberal-Left politics, he observed, had become “the accepted norm, a ticket to employment or, if not that, a safety net for those already employed.” Where once it was primarily the writers who were leftists, this zeitgeist began to permeate the entire community, including the once-conservative executive suite.
Simon attributes this to the arrival in Hollywood of the “baby moguls” — heirs of 1960s campus radicalism who broadcast their left-wing credentials while owning multiple homes. Despite their radical poses, claims Simon, they weren’t the ones making left-wing movies: Those films were actually produced by non-political executives who thought they could make a buck. “Once ensconced in their positions, [the baby moguls] were the antithesis of left-wing, riding around in studio Mercedes and going to fancy expense-account dinners.” The revolution could wait.
Simon gives readers a romp through Hollywood from the 1960s to the present, as he becomes a player among the likes of Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Paul Mazursky, Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, and the Black Panthers. The highlight for this reader is Simon’s nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the late, troubled genius of comedy Richard Pryor. Pryor, he writes, was the only star who “treated people high and low alike”; he never kissed up to studio executives he despised. Seeing something in Simon that he admired, Pryor agreed to sign him on as screenwriter for his next film, which became the major hit Bustin’ Loose.
Before long, Simon became victim to what he calls “the continuing collision between racial politics and the entertainment industry.” The problem: One of the first “African-American produced movies in major studio history” had a screenwriter [who] happened to be Caucasian. When the NAACP awarded the film a prize, no writer was mentioned, and Simon was not invited to the ceremony. He had become “a white non-person.”
The two events that finally ended Simon’s dance with the Left were the O. J. Simpson murder trial and 9/11. Simon had met Simpson at parties, at which the actor/football star seemed “jovial, handsome, and harmless.” As a writer of crime novels, he followed the trial closely, and concluded that Simpson was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and that the DNA evidence alone should have convicted him. He thought that the jury’s verdict was racially biased and a miscarriage of justice.
The 9/11 attacks started him on a quest to understand the nature of Islamic radicalism, in the course of which he discovered the blogosphere. Simon began his own blog, which eventually led him to a whole new career: He co-founded the media company PJ Media (where I now blog).
Simon is certain that a blacklist against conservatives exists in Hollywood today, but that it is different from the old one in the days of HUAC. Today, he writes, “an almost invisible thought control” exists “where ‘liberal’ conformity is so pervasive that a formal blacklist is unnecessary.” He points to the ritualized “Bush bash” as an example. A studio executive might have a meeting with, say, a writer or director and begin with some chit-chat. It would probably begin with something like, “Did you hear what the idiot said today?” Everyone would know whom “the idiot” referred to. If you differed from this orthodoxy, according to Simon, you had essentially three choices: You could argue and be unemployed; you could ignore it and stay in the closet, “in which case you felt like a coward”; or you “could stop going to the meetings altogether — you could, in effect, blacklist yourself.”
This last is what Simon chose to do. It is Hollywood’s loss.
Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is co-author of Red Star over Hollywood: The Film Colony’s Long Romance with the Left, and author of Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left.