Sophie Hearn grew up hearing about the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1951 campaign to root out Communists in the film industry. Her father’s impassioned testimony in defense of the First Amendment—and his refusal to answer questions about his political associations—left him blacklisted for years, destroying his promising screenwriting career and putting his family on the edge of financial ruin.
The shadow of the blacklist follows Sophie through college and into adulthood, affecting her politics, her career ambitions, and her relationships. But it’s not until she reunites with Steve Elwood, a long-lost childhood friend, that she’s forced to face the full impact of her family’s past.
About the Author:
As a result of the courageous stand his parents took against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, Tom grew up in the shadow of the infamous Hollywood blacklist.
He caught the writing bug early on from his parents, but, aware of the odds against making a living writing, Tom initially took up teaching as a “day job” – which turned into a rewarding career in itself. For thirty-three years he taught elementary, middle, junior high, and high school in some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighbourhoods. After retiring in 2008, he began working seriously on the novel he’d conceived decades earlier, based loosely on his and his parents’ experiences before, during, and after the blacklist, and into which he was now able to incorporate his teaching experiences. In the summer of 2017, at age 70, Tom finally completed his historical romance: The Wire Recorder.
Things had gone well for Larry Hearn after the war. His screenwriting career had taken off faster than he’d expected, and by 1951 Hollywood seemed to be smiling on him. But trouble was in the air. The House Un-American Activities Committee was on its way to Los Angeles to identify Communists in the film industry, and one by one, the subpoenas flew out and found their marks.
“This is it,” Larry said. “They’re really going to get us now.”
Yes, he and Ruth had been in the Party along with many of their friends. They’d both joined as college students in New York City, she at Juilliard, he at the Columbia School of Journalism. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and it had seemed obvious to them, and to countless other young intellectuals, that capitalism was a failed system that had collapsed under the weight of its collective greed. They had continued as members after moving to Hollywood, but by then the revolutionary fervor of the ‘thirties had begun to dissipate. None of the leftist groups Larry and Ruth had been involved with after the war were more than discussion forums, little collections of armchair idealists no more likely to influence the content of motion pictures than to overthrow the United States government.
Well before the start of the HUAC hearings, the Hearns had begun to drift away.
“I’m sick of all this idealization of the Soviet Union,” Larry said one night as they drove home from a meeting. “I can guarantee you the Soviet Union is no utopia, no matter what they want us to think. No country can be that perfect. Especially if it’s run by rigid ideologues like those guys tonight.”
“I know,” Ruth said. “But I’m not going to quit. Are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, there are some jerks in the Party, like those guys tonight, but where would we be today without it? No unions in Hollywood … the Sleepy Lagoon boys would still be in prison … ”
“You know what? You know what makes me want to stay in? It’s all this shit that’s going on right now. All the pressure.”
“I know. I feel the same way.”
“Nobody’s going to strong-arm me into changing my politics. Not HUAC, not McCarthy, not the studios … and not the goddamn guilds that are marching in step with the studios like a bunch of fucking sheep.”
Two weeks later, Larry got his subpoena.
Larry had, of course, no intention of cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Along with his friends, he planned to invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to disclose his “subversive” affiliations, denying the committee grounds to make him bear witness against others. But though there was never any doubt as to that choice, his gut tightened as his appearance date drew near and the reality of standing up to a panel of U.S. congressmen loomed large. Excellent writer though he was, Larry was neither skilled nor schooled in the art of public speaking, and his worry centered more on his possible ineloquence under pressure than on the virtual certainty that the studios would blacklist him. As he listened to the radio newscasts of the HUAC hearings, he paid close attention to the unyielding words of the other “unfriendly witnesses”—many of them close friends of his—and measured their effect, asking himself if he could be as articulate as the best of them in the face of authority at its most hostile and frightening. Whatever the scenario, he intended to emerge with his dignity intact.
Then he got a brilliant idea.
He dug the now-little-used wire recorder out from the clutter of his study and carried it into the living room, cleared away some knickknacks from the table next to the old Philco radio (for which he’d finally bought the replacement tubes) and set the machine beside it. He found the special cord the salesman had given him and, carefully following the instructions that had come with it, soldered the stripped-and-tinned nibs at one end to the radio’s innards. After inserting the plug at the other end into the recorder’s microphone receptacle, he was ready to record his compatriots’ words of resistance as they came over the radio waves each day.
He recorded all of them, resisters and cooperators alike, applauding the defiant ones and spitting curses at the name-naming sycophants.
Again and again he replayed the oratory of the better-spoken non-cooperators, taking notes, studying every nuance of rhetoric, ruminating over how his own voice of protest might emerge when it came time to make his stand.
The night before his appearance, Larry decided he wanted his own testimony to be recorded as well. Ruth had planned on attending the hearing to lend him moral support, but Sophie was home from nursery school with a sore throat.
“Why do you want to record yourself?” Ruth said.
“To play it for Sophie when she’s old enough to understand. Of course, that’s assuming I do well. If I don’t do well … if I sound timid … stumble over my words … I’ll erase the recording.”
“You’ll do just fine. But I can’t imagine wanting to hear yourself talk. No matter how well you do. And I have no idea how to operate that damn thing.”
“It’s simple. I’ll have it all set up. All you have to do is turn a lever when you hear them call me.”
Larry’s careful preparation paid off. He did well.
After he had declined to answer the first two questions about his political affiliations, one of the questioning congressmen said to him: “Mr. Hearn, as I am sure you are aware, it is the purpose of this committee to investigate and expose Communist influence in the motion picture industry. I should think that a person with your distinguished and valorous record of service to your country would wish to help this committee defend those same ideals which you and so many others fought to preserve. Am I correct in making this assumption?”
Larry’s voice was strong and clear as he spoke, trying not to look at all the cameras and microphones pointed at him. “I am indeed interested in defending the ideals on which this country was founded … and therefore am vigorously opposed to, and deeply repelled by, the activities of this committee—”
“Mr. Hearn,” the congressman said, trying to cut him off.
“… which have made a mockery of the United States Constitution and the American tradition”—feeling his voice start to quaver, he took a mid-sentence breath—“of freedom of speech and freedom of thought … and attempted to stifle those freedoms—”
“Mr. Hearn—” The congressman rapped his gavel three times.
“… by creating a climate of fear and hysteria”—he took another deep breath as the cameramen’s flashbulbs popped around him—“which is what this committee plainly thrives on.”
“Mr. Hearn,” the congressman said, “you are entitled, in this great and free nation of ours, to hold whatever opinion you will with regard to this committee and its work. If, however, you are truly interested in preserving the right of free political expression in this country, then I should think you would want to help us expose those individuals who are bent on destroying that freedom.”
Larry took another breath. “I believe the greatest threat to freedom in this country today is the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the self-glorifying, publicity-seeking witch hunt it’s carrying on in the guise of a legitimate investigation.”
Ignoring Larry’s denunciation, the congressman asked him about his
membership in the Communist Party. Another quizzed him about his involvement with organizations, committees and causes suspected of being Communist fronts. Listening at home as the reels of the wire recorder spun, Ruth heard him repeatedly invoke the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer one after another of their queries.
She had tried to get Sophie to stay in her room, but her daughter came out into the kitchen just in time to be confused by the sound of her father’s voice.
“Is that Daddy?”
“Yes, sweetie, that’s your daddy.”
“Why is he on the radio?”
“Someday you’ll be old enough to understand … and you’ll be very proud of him.”
Everyone knew the blacklist was real—though the studios denied its existence—but always there was the nagging if irrational question for those affected by it: Is it really just because of the blacklist that I’m no longer getting work? If I were the writer I thought I was, wouldn’t they still want me, blacklist or no blacklist?
For the first few months after the studio work dried up, Larry tried to see his unemployment as a gift of time, time to work on the projects he’d been toying with since his pre-Hollywood days: plays, short stories, perhaps even a novel. But all he could think about was his present situation, which might someday be a rich source of material but was too immediate to write about now. He spent hour after hour slumped at his desk, alternately looking at the light filtering in through the blinds and staring at the blank sheet of paper in the typewriter.
When the reality hit that he could no longer support his family as a writer, Larry sought other employment. He worked as a part-time assistant in a film lab, sold encyclopedias, graded papers for correspondence courses. He tried his hand at commercial photography, using a Rolleiflex camera he’d bought before the blacklist, but he lacked a “good eye” and failed at it.
Ruth’s contribution, besides giving her husband the emotional support he was desperate for, was to teach private piano lessons. Early in the blacklist period she had contemplated applying for a position teaching music in the Los Angeles public schools, but dropped the idea when she heard that teachers were being fired because their husbands had been tarred by the HUAC investigations.
Larry and Ruth worked together in every way they could to keep the family from going under. They scrimped each month to keep up the mortgage payments so that there would be a house for Sophie to grow up in. They struggled, and they survived.
Title: The Wire Recorder
Author: Thomas A. Levitt
Publisher: Thomas A. Levitt
Publication Date: November 8th, 2017
Page Count: 312
ISBN 13 - 978-0997310702
ASIN - B077BQ2YMS
Genre(s): Historical Fiction, Historical Romance
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