Writing from Hollywood's blacklist

The Daily Pennsylvanian
March 20, 2003

Watching 84-year-old screenwriter Walter Bernstein, gray-haired and benign, approach the podium at the Kelly Writers House Monday evening, some audience members found it hard to believe he was blacklisted for a decade and lived to write about it.

Bernstein was born in Brooklyn in 1919 and grew up during the Depression.

"Growing up in it," he said, "made you feel like you were really in a system that was out of control."

He served as a G.I. in World War II and came back to America to resume his career as a screenwriter. He had just made a name for himself when he was blacklisted and forced to work illicitly in 1950. Considered one of today's most eminent screenwriters, his works include Fail Safe, The Molly Maguires, The Magnificent Seven and The Front.

Bernstein began by explaining the political influences of his youth -- communists leading the fight against fascism -- and described how he returned from World War II as a communist. Then he read from his recently-released memoirs of the blacklist Inside Out.

"I was placed in 'The Red Channels,'" he said, "a list of people in the entertainment industry who had communist leanings and were blacklisted."

"What was surprising for me," Bernstein read, "was the unexpectedness of it -- it was happening so fast."

He went on to give humorous, anecdotal accounts of his experiences during the McCarthy decade -- a decade of visits from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, illegitimate work, using paid fronts for his screenwriting and fighting against growing fear and anger.

Then he switched to a modern note.

"Students always ask me the same question -- they ask if it could happen again. I think that it could, but only after some sort of external event."

He went on to suggest that Sept. 11 was that event and vented his frustration regarding the Patriot Act.

"We had Senator McCarthy then, and we have Mr. Ashcroft now," he said.

"The book is relevant to young people as a warning, in terms of helping them understand what's happening today and acting against it," Bernstein said.

The audience, which included approximately 50 students, faculty, staff and community members, said they were thrilled with Bernstein's talk.

"Walter is such a wonderful speaker," said Allie D'Augustine, an 2002 College graduate. "A lot of his work is very caring and sincere and alert to people, and I thought he was like that in person."

"It was fascinating," said Laura Meehan, both a staff member in the Neurosurgery Department and a College of General Studies student. "It's just remarkable that someone has to go through this in this country."

Prior to his reading, Bernstein also lectured to an English 285 seminar in the afternoon.

"The class was exciting for me," he said. "It's nice to talk to people who know your work and don't want to stone you."