Connecting Trumbo, Price of Liberty

I said last week that I went to see the film Trumbo because I wanted to learn something more about myself.
During the mid-20th century blacklist years, I married a man from a “Workman’s Circle” family — cultural, nonreligious Jews. His cousin was office manager for the U.S. headquarters of TASS, the Russian news agency which was then, of course, highly suspicious. When we visited her in New York, our pictures were taken by a government functionary stationed outside the door.
At that time, Dalton Trumbo had been the best of Hollywood scriptwriters. The movie industry then was still largely in the hands of the Jews who built it, men who had seen a new opportunity and took great advantage of it. When HUAC rolled into fierce anti-Communist action after World War II, it found a fertile field in California: Jews = Progressive = Communist.
Trumbo, who was not Jewish, refused to name names when he was called before that infamous committee, and lost his freedom and his livelihood as a result. Sadly, some Jews “sang”: Edward G. Robinson, earlier a supporter of progressive causes, tried to excuse his action by saying he only gave up people his questioners already knew about, including — of course — Trumbo, whose silence became a symbol of all the accused.
After serving his year in federal prison, Trumbo began writing again, only under a variety of pen names; he was even able to secure jobs for some of his blacklisted friends. But the quality of his work was a giveaway; when movies scripted by “unknowns” began to receive Oscar nominations, his skill outed him. Then the bravery of two Jews in high entertainment places gave Trumbo back his real name. The persecution of that sad episode in our country’s history, begun in 1947, finally ended in 1960, when Otto Preminger, a “cultural” Jew who had come from Austria to America well before Hitler’s rise to power, cracked the blacklist by identifying Trumbo as writer for his film Exodus. Kirk Douglas quickly followed, producing and starring in Spartacus. “I was young enough to be foolish,” he later said about the making of this award-winning classic.
So — after seeing Trumbo, what more did I learn about myself? I found out this: Douglas became intrigued by the Spartacus character from the novel of the same name written by Howard Fast, whose story The Price of Liberty had intrigued and preoccupied me since the time of the blacklist. It appeared in Jewish Short Stories, a tiny volume produced in 1945 by the National Jewish Welfare Board for distribution to all Jews then serving in the U.S. armed forces. One of my right-wing Republican uncles gave me his copy when he returned from Army Air Corps duty in Italy.
I read and reread the 10 included stories, often using them as I taught teens and adults in Jewish schools and synagogues until that poor little book — printed on wartime paper with no rag content at all — fell to pieces. I found all the stories, including The Price of Liberty, in other collections, but years later I was able to buy what’s maybe the world’s last remaining copy from Amazon. Its back cover is gone and its pages are loose, but it will always be my most treasured book. I don’t have to open it to read the ending of Fast’s story, which I memorized years ago: “The price of liberty is in the blood of brave men, and it was never bought otherwise…?”
Fast knew from personal experience that printer’s ink is what runs through the veins of brave writers, for his own name was on the infamous blacklist. But his powerful fiction about Johnny Ordronaux, a Jewish “Spartacus” of sorts during the War of 1812, had already been sent out across the world, to inspire brave Jewish fighters everywhere. Without seeing Trumbo, I might never have made that incredibly important connection!

Leave a Reply