The Measure of a Writer

Friday, October 31, 2014
In December 1935, Budd Schulberg, a Dartmouth College junior and editor-in-chief of the daily paper The Dartmouth , traveled from Hanover some 60 miles west to Proctor, Vt., near Rutland, to report on a strike by men who worked the quarries for the Proctor Marble Company.

The 110 strikers, Poles, Swedes, Irish, Italians and Mexicans, Schulberg wrote in The Dartmouth , were “desperate, no longer patient with equivocal leaders.” Their anger at their low wages, and the conditions in which they worked and their families lived, had lit a match to their discontent.

In impassioned prose, Schulberg wrote that “a visit to the strike area is convincing evidence that it is easy to talk of our world-famous ‘American standard’ but the actual struggle to achieve this standard is long and bitter. As long as such struggles exist so near our own campus, it is wishful thinking to contend that our geographical conditions force upon us an ‘ivory tower’ existence.”

Nearly 20 years later, Schulberg would return to the subject of labor struggles, and the question of what is morally just, with his Academy-Award winning screenplay for the 1954 film On the Waterfront .

One of the most famous films in American cinema, On the Waterfront brought together a wellspring of talent. Directed by Elia Kazan, with a score by Leonard Bernstein, it featured visceral, unforgettable performances by Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

Based partially on the life of Father Corridan, a Catholic priest combating organized crime’s hold on the Port of New York, the movie was shot on location in Hoboken, N.J. In it longshoreman Terry Malloy, played by Brando, struggles between his loyalty to the mobsters who control the union, and his disgust with their brutal tactics of intimidation.

Much of Schulberg’s dialogue entered the American lexicon and has never left.

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been someone, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” Malloy says to his brother, played by Rod Steiger.

“(Schulberg) created a film that even people who don’t know much about film, know,” said Mary Desjardins, a professor of film at Dartmouth.

Desjardins and her colleague Mark Williams have organized a day-long, public symposium on Schulberg, commemorating the centenary of his birth, being held Friday, Nov. 7, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., in Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

The symposium will examine Schulberg’s complex legacy as a writer and social activist and include lectures on his work, reminiscences by family members and a screening of a documentary still in production, Hollywood Renegade: Budd Schulberg , directed by his son Benn Schulberg.

“We’re trying to place him in a larger context of American popular culture and politics,” said Desjardins.

An exhibition of some of Schulberg’s papers, which the college acquired in 2006, opens Thursday, Nov. 6, at Rauner Library with a reception from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., that is open to the public.

When Schulberg died in 2009, his obituaries were couched in “Yes, but,” rhetoric; noting the breadth of his contributions, but also the contradictions. He was a superb example of a certain kind of 20th century intellectual who considered his brief to be nothing less than the way the world worked, a champion of the individual, but also a campaigner for social justice movements — two worldviews whose aims couldn’t always be reconciled, as his experience during the 1950s McCarthy era would demonstrate.

He was a Jew at Dartmouth during a period when Ivy League colleges had a quota on admitting Jews. He was a novelist, screenwriter, journalist and writer about boxing who put himself at the center of some of the 20th century’s most significant, and divisive, events. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, he traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1930s to compare the American and Soviet systems, and, like many other left-leaning artists of the time, found the American one wanting.

The belief that writers had a responsibility to write about issues of social justice characterized all his work, said Desj ardins.

A child of Hollywood who grew up in privilege as the son of a Paramount producer, Schulberg became famous (or notorious, depending on one’s perspective) for writing the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run , a portrait of the fictional Sammy Glick, a striver in the studio system whose name became synonymous in mid-century America with a certain brand of cut-throat ambition and relentless self-promotion.

“He was writing it as an expose , but some people thought he was writing a how-to,” said Williams.

What Makes Sammy Run made Schulberg, in Hollywood circles, loathed but, if not loved, at least respected. “You’ll never work in this town again,” was a common refrain. But the Oscar Wilde adage, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” held true, and Schulberg received a studio assignment to write a script about Dartmouth winter carnival.

The producers told him he’d have a co-writer on the project, which didn’t please Schulberg until he learned that it was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, by then drowning himself in alcohol. Schulberg functioned more as Fitzgerald’s nurse than co-writer, and the two were fired. But the experience led Schulberg to write another novel based on his time with Fitzgerald, The Disenchanted .

After Pearl Harbor , Schulberg enlisted in the Navy. He was assigned to the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, D.C., where he worked under legendary director, and Navy Commodore, John Ford.

At the end of World War II, Schulberg and his brother Stuart were sent to Germany to locate Nazi film footage for use at the Nuremberg trials, including f ilm shot at concentration and death camps. Budd Schulberg personally served a warrant to appear as a material witness on Leni Riefenstahl, the director of the documentary Triumph of the Will , a chilling glorification of the Third Reich, who was hiding out at a home in southern Germany.

Then, in 1951, Schulberg, like Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communism in the film industry. He disclosed the names of writers with Communist sympathies, which resulted in many of them being blacklisted for years — an act for which many never forgave him. A member of the party in the 1930s, Schulberg eventually left because he felt that his peers in the movie business, who urged him to make his writing more overtly pro-Communist, were suborning his right to free speech.

In an interview in 2006 with Th e New York Times , Schulberg maintained that, although McCarthyism probably posed a greater threat than the American Communist Party, he’d hewed to principle, saying, “They say that you testified against your friends, but once they supported the party against me, even though I did have some personal attachments, they were really no longer my friends. And I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech, they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the party.”

Schulberg’s stance on HUAC drove a wedge between him and some of his oldest friends, including his childhood pal Maurice Rapf, who was, like Schulberg, a son of a Hollywood producer, a classmate at Dartmouth and a screenwriter. Rapf later helped to found the Screen Writers Guild and returned to Dartmouth to teach in the 1960s.

As boys, the two men were so close that they raised homing pigeons together (a motif that later appeared in On the Waterfront , where Brando’s character raises pigeons) and treated the studio back lots as their playground.

At Rapf’s memorial service in 2003, said Williams, Schulberg recounted how he and Rapf discovered on a back lot a fig tree. Using the figs as missiles, they hurled them at unsuspecting passers-by. Spying someone approaching, the two boys waited and lobbed a fig. Here, Williams said, Schulberg paused to extract maximum suspense. The victim was none other than Greta Garbo, and, Schulberg said delightedly, the fig got her “right in the kisser.”

But by the McCarthy era strains had developed between the two men. Rapf heard he was going to be subpoenaed to testify before the HUAC committee and left town to avoid being served, said Williams. Although Rapf didn’t testify he was blacklisted anyway. Schulberg, of course, went before the committee.

“Until the early ’6 0s they didn’t speak to each other,” Williams said. When both men brought their sons to look at the college, their wives encouraged them to leave the past in the past, and they renewed their close friendship, he said.

In 1957, Schulberg and Kazan collaborated again on the undersung film A Face in the Crowd , a prescient, ferocious satire on the collision of power, politics, fame and the media , starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.

After the Watts riots of 1965, Schulberg founded the Watts Writers’ Workshop, to try to offer a forum for expressing the frustrations of the African-American community. It was in line with his views 30 years earlier at Dartmouth when he wrote about the Proctor Ma rble strike for The Dartmouth : “Members of the Hanover community interested should demonstrate their interest not with theories — radical or conservative — b ut with actual aid.”

On later visits to the college, Desjardins and Williams said, Schulberg frequently expressed his disappointment not only with the limited imagination of the Hollywood studios but the audiences that made hits out of various action franchises and an infinite number of prequels and sequels.

In person, Schulberg was gentle and well-spoken, and absolutely loyal to Dartmouth, said Williams and Desjardins, who met Schulberg toward the end of his life. “He was an old school gentleman,” said Desjardins. Courtly in his speech, he was nonetheless a staunch advocate for freedom of speech.

Williams noted that when Schulberg wrote about the Proctor Ma rble labor strike for The Dartmouth , he was called in by then-president of the college Ernest Hopkins because of the controversy his articles had caused; Dartmouth had always had a reputation as the most conservative Ivy League college, and Schulberg’s pro-labor, pro-union sentiments raised numerous hackles. Some of Dartmouth’s financial supporters had interests in the Proctor quarries. But Schulberg stood his ground, and Hopkins backed him, and the newspaper.

“If there’s absolutely anything Schulberg stood for it was the sanctity of the writer,” said Williams.

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