Kazan and Miller

"Long, Bitter Debate From the '50's: Views of Kazan and His Critics"

by Richard Bernstein

[from the New York Times, May 3, 1988]

One might say that Elia Kazan's greatest quarrels are behind him. The man who directed "All My Sons" and "Death of a Salesman" on Broadway and both the stage and screen versions of "A Streetcar Named Desire," then, just when he was riding highest, "named names" before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, says he has achieved peace of mind.

It was not easy. Along the way he has engaged in a long and bitter debate with other figures from the theater, the playwrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman conspicuous among them, ever since that day in 1952 when he identified eight people who had been, along with him, Communist Party members in the Group Theater in the 1930's.

Mr. Kazan's autobiography, "Elia Kazan: A Life," has recently been published by Alfred A. Knopf. And while it can be read for many things, including its many, often rather confessional, tales of loves and labors, it will be seen by many as an extension of the debate about the early 1950's investigations of Communist influence in the entertainment world.

More Tone Than Content

In his book, Mr. Kazan, who is 78 years old, covers a half-century as an actor, a stage and screen director, a writer of popular novels and a pal of moguls, starlets and authors, many of whom have long been enveloped in the hazy glow of legend.

Moreover, in their accounts of the House committee's hearings, the various memoirs, including Mr. Kazan's, provide few revelations that might change minds about the investigations. There are no important disclosures, no striking new information. But, there is in all these books a tone, less of anger than of sadness, arising out of diverging political paths.

Mr. Miller, who also testified before the committee but refused to answer questions about other people, says little, overtly hostile about Mr. Kazan personally, though, at one point in his autobiography, "Timebends," published by Grove Press last year, he refers to "those who groveled before this tawdry tribune of moralistic vote-snatchers."

For Mr. Miller, the hearings came out of paranoia and hysteria. He writes: "With the tiniest Communist Party in the world, the United States was behaving as though on the verge of bloody revolution." Mr. Miller, who said in a telephone conversation that he had not yet read Mr. Kazan's book and therefore declined to comment on it, argues in his own book that most of the people targeted by the committee had long since given up their youthful, idealistic enthusiasm for Communism and the Soviet Union.

Arthur Miller

"Yet," he writes, "the committee had succeeded in creating the impression that they were pursuing an ongoing conspiracy."

In Ms. Hellman's well-known view, Mr. Kazan is one of the scoundrels of her own memoir, "Scoundrel Time," published 12 years ago. She clearly associates him with a type lacking in the courage to stand up for what she called "the right of each man to his own convictions." Ms. Hellman, who also appeared before the committee but refused to answer questions, represents a common view of the period, namely that the investigation of Communist influence was a witchhunt in which many people who had done nothing more than express their opinions were grievously harmed.

"Lives were being ruined and few hands were raised in help," she wrote.

Mr. Kazan comes to a different conclusion based on the idea that Communism was a real and present danger to democratic values. He presents cooperating with the committee as a necessary, if painful, duty of good citizenship

"I'd had every good reason to believe the Party should be driven out of its many hiding places and into the light of scrutiny, but I'd never said anything because it would be called 'red-baiting,'" Mr. Kazan writes, describing his shift from refusing to cooperate to a decision to name names. He says, "The 'horrible, immoral thing' that I did I did out of my own true self."

"I'm sure, but I'm not that sure," he said about his committee testimony. "Any time you hurt people, and I did hurt some people, you don't like it. You have to ask yourself."

An Edge of Bitterness

Then, the moment passes and an edge of bitterness intrudes into his generally cloudless mood as he recalls the political context of the investigations in the days before the current liberalizing trends in the Communist world had made themselves felt. "Stalin," as he put it, "was still the guiding spirit."

"All these people didn't say a thing about it," he said of some of his critics, speaking of Stalin's awesome excesses. "I remember those things and I'm glad I was on the other side."

Mr. Kazan chose sides via a personal experience in 1935, when he was a young member of the Communist Party in the Group Theater in New York. He recalls how the party cell, which met secretly once a week, was ordered to take control of the Group Theater. Mr. Kazan demurred. As a result, a "ritual of submission" was organized in the form of a criticism session during which he was sternly rebuked for his ideological errors by a party emissary. Mr. Kazan resigned right afterward, saying the incident was designed "to stop the most dangerous thing the Party had to cope with: people thinking for themselves."

Incidents With Monroe

There are other parallels in the memoirs, particularly those of Mr. Miller and Mr. Kazan, who collaborated in the playwright's early successes. Both books are full of tales of romance and infidelity. Mr. Kazan, in fact, was the lover of Marilyn Monroe when Mr. Miller met her, and, in the early days of their acquaintance, the three spent a good deal of time together in Hollywood. Mr. Kazan describes one night when she came to his hotel room to announce that she was going to marry Joe DiMaggio, then spent the night with Mr. Kazan.

Mr. Kazan describes on his first meeting as "having the classic good looks of the American small-town girl." She was with her first lover, Johnny Hyde, at the time, and Mr. Kazan says she looked at him with "that dazed starlet look of unqualified adoration and utter dependency."

Mr. Miller, who married Monroe after her divorce from Mr. DiMaggio, is more elaborate and theatrical in his recollections, describing her as an example of perfection that seemed to "invite the inevitable wound that would make her more like others." He could not, he says, place her in any world he knew. "Like a cork bobbing on the ocean, she could have begun her voyage on the other side of the world or a hundred yards down the beach."

Two Views of a Meeting

A crucial political meeting between Mr. Miller and Mr. Kazan, described by both authors, took place at Mr. Kazan's country home, where the director told the playwright of his decision to cooperate with the committee. Mr. Miller remembers the meeting taking place after the committee hearing; Mr. Kazan maintains that it was before. Mr. Kazan's basic argument was that he did not want to destroy his film career--a probable consequence of refusing to answer the committee's questions--for the sake of a cause he did not believe in, namely, protecting the anonymity of Communists or former Communists.

Mr. Miller remembers acknowledging a "gloomy logic" to Mr. Kazan's argument, but he ends up disapproving his decision, reflecting that Mr. Kazan would have "sacrificed me had it been necessary" meaning that he would have told the committee of Mr. Miller's own earlier contacts with Communist Party members.

"I felt my sympathy going toward him and at the same time I was afraid of him," Mr. Miller writes of the meeting. "it was sadness, purely mournful, deadening."

Mr. Kazan says that afterward Mr. Miller snubbed him on the street once and spoke negatively about him behind his back but never said a word to him directly. "I would never really feel toward him what a friend should feel," Mr. Kazan writes. "Nor, I imagine, he toward me."

As for Ms. Hellman, she recalls a brief meeting with Mr. Kazan at the Plaza Hotel in 1952 during which, she says, he seemed to be "fumbling" for words. She went to make a telephone call, learning thereby that Mr. Kazan had decided to become a "friendly witness" for the committee. With that, Ms. Hellman pleaded another appointment and left abruptly.

Mr. Kazan gives a similar version of the same meeting, though he does not describe any "fumbling," saying instead that he laid out to her, in much the same way he had to Mr. Miller, his decision to cooperate.

"Lillian was silent as a coiled snake," he writes. "I believe now that she wanted me to become the 'villain' I became. life was easier for Lillian to understand when she had someone to hate."

Then, summing up, he declared in conversation: "I'm tough. I had to be I mean, it's either that or give in. You have to take your choice."

  • For more, see an excerpt from Leonard Moss's introductory book on Miller.

  • Go to the American 1950s home page.
    Go to Al Filreis's home page.

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