Skip to content

Christina Stead and the Politics of Bohemia 2: The Hollywood Background


i. The Fall

Christina Stead’s time in Hollywood in the Forties was brief (eight weeks’ employment at MGM; three or four months looking for work) and by the town’s lavish standards, poorly paid – “I was a $175-a-week-woman, and I counted for nothing.” Testimony to her insignificance is the fact that whatever contribution Stead made to the two films she worked on, it went uncredited. She informed one interviewer, “I was paid…to write screenplays which they didn’t want me to write. I never wrote a word.” And another who asked precisely what work she’d done while in Hollywood, was told, impatiently, “I didn’t do any…Look my dear, it was a racket.”

Her role in this “racket” (less eminent than the biographical note in most editions of her novels makes it sound) amounted, then, to a brief period of work at the end of 1943, when she was employed fleetingly, (and rather inaptly) first with a group of writers on a John Ford war film,They Were Expendable (released in 1945, it starred John Wayne); and after this, when she was set to work on more congruous material, again a part of a large team of writers, brainstorming over the script of a Sidney Franklin biographical picture, Madame Curie – “they had an idea I was English and had a scientific background.” The project was five years old when she began, and the rather grand list of those who had already failed at Stead’s task included Aldous Huxley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos and the Polish emigré writer and actress, Salka Viertel. Indeed, the town, as Stead was later to recall, was a scrapheap for talent, “full of brilliant, distinguished people, but the film-makers didn’t want them.” What they preferred, Stead thought, was “some kind of cheesecake.” Blake and she felt out of place, they “couldn’t wait to get back to New York.”

Madame Curie, 1944

Madame Curie, 1944

Among the “brilliant” and “distinguished” men and women working in the film industry at this time were communists and fellow travellers, many of them exiles, refugees from fascist Europe. Viertel ran a salon in Hollywood attended by Bertholt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, as well as Aldous Huxley, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. And aligned with these in a loose coalition were old New Deal progressives and supporters of the Republican cause in Spain, who found themselves attracted to the lively social life organised by the Party. The writer and director Abraham Polonsky said that at this time, “The Hollywood Communist Party was like Sunset Strip. Thousands of people used to go there, hang around a little while, and then pass on some place else.” So that short as her time in Hollywood was, and dismal as she found scriptwriting on the lot (“a dreary sort of office job”), still Stead found around her in the behaviour of her co-writers, and among actors, agents, producers and directors, that heady mixture of politics and creativity, vanity and passion that had always inspired her best work, and was to once again.

Despite its difficult gestation (written over a quarter of a century and abandoned before her death to “the garbage can or the deep-freeze”), I’m Dying Laughing (1986) is Christina Stead’s most important late work: a brilliant and unflinching portrait of a marriage, from the ardent idealism of youth to personal and political treachery so venal that its consequences for Stead’s couple, Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, are suicide and madness. Stead’s two renegades betray what they hold most sacred, those things most fundamental to their mutual identity: their radical politics, and Emily’s mordant talents as a writer which she squanders on feeble Hollywood scripts. But, as Stead shows to devastating effect, the betrayals they face which bring them to this point are considerable. When their communist friends in Hollywood invite them for the evening, the couple find themselves trapped in a modern day witch-hunt. The zealous comrades (having whetted their appetites with a Californian “light dinner” of grapefruit, chicken, ice-cream and popovers), set about traducing Stephen’s and Emily’s political and private lives. After dining, the assembled company adjourn to drinks in the living room, and the avowed purpose of the evening, as the chapter heading announces, ‘The Straightening Out’ of these “destructive, factional” discontents begins in earnest. The crime of which they stand jointly accused is “petty-bourgeois, pseudo-radicalism”, while Emily’s “delirious” and uncensored “verbosity” is said to be “approaching the psychopathic”.

The outcome of this post-prandial trial is that Emily and Stephen are thrown out of the Party for “petty individualism” and unfit parenting. Fearing further calls to testify, this time in the shape of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, they flee the persecution being meted out to them in the United States from friend and foe alike, in the hope of making a new life in post-war Europe. But once in Paris the couple succumb to a life of gargantuan consumption, debauchery and bad faith. Their need to support increasingly frenzied addictions to booze and pills, and their love of “grand, colossal, poetic” blackmarket French food, crushes any possibility of living according to their principles, any hope of writing seriously: to procure enough money to feed their addictions and their frantic materialism, these “damned souls” must prostitute their talent, their beliefs, even their wealthy children (two of whom are to inherit large fortunes). Finally, stripped of their twin faiths (communism and art), Emily and Stephen come slowly to see themselves no longer “on the side of the angels”, but, now, sunk into the company of those that Stead’s co-writer on Madame Curie, Salka Viertel, had vigorously denounced among the California film colony as “the shits” – traitors who named names, offering up themselves and their friends to the HUAC for the sake of something considerably greater than thirty pieces of silver: their Hollywood wages. In 1973 Stead described the story to Joan Lidoff:

It was all about the passion of – I use passion in almost the religious sense – of two people, two Americans, New Yorkers, in the thirties. They are doing well, but they suffered all the troubles of the thirties. They were politically minded. They went to Hollywood. They went to Europe to avoid the McCarthy trouble. Of course they were deeply involved. And then, they lived around Europe, oh, in a wild and exciting extravagant style. But there was nothing to support it. At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good Communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course…they came to a bad end.

The bulk of I’m Dying Laughing concerns this protracted degeneration. To the bad and bitter end, however, Emily and Stephen battle over their loathed fate. Incessantly bickering and brawling, Emily, in particular produces great floods of speech avowing her desire to renounce the bohemian wilderness into which their expulsion from the Party has cast them, and hold fast to their old beliefs. Neither is willing to relinquish hard-won communist identities: his gained at the cost of impugning his (upper) class; hers in struggling out of poverty and mediocrity by the canny exploitation of her native wit. But after much dissembling they both make clumsy attempts to recast themselves; in at first only small ways Emily and Stephen begin to betray their old selves, and one another, and in so doing, to slough off their pasts. Their metamorphosis is fraught and guilt-ridden. Living in luxury amid the starvation and ruins of post-war France, Emily imagines herself a latter-day Marie Antoinette and is haunted by the death-rattle of imaginary tumbrils. Trying to make rational sense of her fear, Emily (true Stead progeny in her constant recourse to analogies drawn from the natural world), justifies their American rapacity in evolutionary terms: “You have to have generations of dirt and hunger, to survive here; they’re like the roaches and the rats. And we’re nature’s newcomers, for better or for worse. We’ve got to live near supplies and the American canteens and good restaurants no matter what, even if the sound of the tumbrils rings through the cobbled streets, oftener than the garbage collectors.”

But their transformation ultimately – and inevitably, Stead suggests – is a much darker one. What’s being enacted in I’m Dying Laughing is not so much Emily’s vision of evolutionary progression, as a retreat into barbarity, where Stead’s couple give way to self-abandoned behaviour of Sadeian proportions: from the hedonism of Emily’s revelling in her own cupidity; to Stephen’s feeble criminal fiascoes as a gold smuggler; and, finally, to the wickedness of Emily’s near-seduction of her rich step-son, Christy. This cloistered and erotic scene is scripted with some heat by Stead, in taxonomic prose that counts out the racing heart-beats of her tentative lovers, as if to iterate the decadence of Emily’s sin:

…she lived with and near Christy, in exquisite house-gowns and boudoir wraps, of silk, chiffon and lace, bathed, powdered and perfumed, doing his studies with him, eating with him, sitting by his bed at night, and kissing him, kissing him, till the air of the house was to him the odours of her flesh, cosmetics, delicate underclothes and perfumes; till she would see him almost fainting from the odour, worn, with desire…She pointed to her heart, under her rosy breast. The nipple stood up at him through the thin silky material. She looked at him and smiled at it with capricious coquetry. “I am a woman Christy, my precious, you know; and this is what makes a woman, this heart, this breast, this skin, this mouth, this loving mouth that I am pressing to your dear cheek; to your dear -”.

Their deracination now a matter of more than just geography, the couple descend (like so many Stead characters before them) into a bohemian nightmare where they are unable to abide their self-inflicted alienation. Emily is made insane by gluttony and masochistic bouts of starvation, while Stephen’s treachery annihilates the last vestiges of his idealism, leading him to a suitably infernal end: driving out of Paris, he drenches himself and his car in gasoline and sets himself alight. But I’m Dying Laughing is not simply a version of the Fall for the twentieth century. Central to the novel is the idea that these Americans carry with them the seeds of their own destruction. Long before their final confessions – “I gave them names, all the names I ever heard of”, Stephen declares euphorically after testifying to recover his passport – Stead makes us aware that these heretics have already sold their souls to the devil.

ii. “…Dialectical Materialism by the Pool”

I’m Dying Laughing begins in 1935, at the height of the Depression, when “fleshy, rosy” Emily Wilkes is a smart-alec hack, a sturdy, Arkansan scribbler who supports her family by selling articles to the provincial press. On a boat to Europe she falls for Stephen Howard, a pale, “beautiful…El Greco”, an ex-invalid, (a man who is her opposite in every way), but she charms the Princeton scion with her rowdiness and disarray, her “good sense, outrageous hope and bonhomie”. Proud of her independence and of being the family breadwinner, Emily boasts of her literary promiscuity: “I write anything. I was shocked to find out how easily you can write for and against. It destroys your morals, also your idea of truth and morality.” Her plan is to make money from “Pulping and potboiling”, then get out before the rot sets in and write the Great American Novel: “She had always wanted to write a great thing, truth with a bang, thrust out bricks from the wall and make a window on the world.”

Arthur Miller, 1930

Arthur Miller, 1930

A decade later, though, we find her married to Stephen and freelancing in Hollywood, living among “fashionable leftist society” in Pomegranate Glen (perched high above Beverly Hills, overlooking the budding hopefuls of Guava, Kumquat and Persimmon) and making $35,000 a script. This is the mecca to which other ambitious (often left-wing) writers were drawn: in 1950 – five years after Emily’s residence – Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan drew up there in a black Lincoln on loan from Twentieth Century Fox, carrying a script they hoped would shake up the complacent movie world, but whose fate, rather, was to prove emblematic of the way in which Hollywood turned political and artistic idealism into betrayal and bad faith – the very thing, as Miller observed, which caused the inhabitants of this dreamworld to go “crazy”:

We drove into Beverly Hills, perfection to the right and left, the nests of the famous and the rich impressing my ambitious heart and leaving an uneasiness in the mind. The place was so depressingly completed – maybe that was it, the sheer end-of-the-road materiality. The Tudor castle divided by a driveway from the French provincial. To each his individual dream, connected only by the silent little Japanese gardener and his son padding from lawn to immaculate lawn…while nothing whatsoever moved, stirred, cried out, each house suspended in its spell of total achievement and guaranteed against ever becoming a ruin, all too perfect to die. And here was I carrying into this deep dream of peace a script about an old waterfront where sun shone through dust and the acrid smell of steel, a slum where nothing looked completed or else was broken and falling apart. So young in comparison, Beverly Hills seemed frozen in timeless self-approval. Of course, they were going crazy in the houses, but I knew nothing of that yet.

Having lived on the edges of this world, Christina Stead did know something about it and in I’m Dying Laughing, like Miller, she presents Hollywood as a place of fantastic material wealth inhabited by frustrated and self-loathing people, her protaganists, Emily and Stephen, are also “going crazy” trying “to believe in MGM and [to justify] the mistakes of the left”. Successful as she is, Emily’s abiding feelings are of rage and shame – of having sold herself short. And these emotions she relates, characteristically, to ideas of orality and consumption:

My writing’s crap. ..I don’t want to do it. I’m not proud they pay me gold for crap. That Mr and Mrs stuff is just custard pie I throw in the face of the mamma public, stupid, cruel and food crazy. I find myself putting in recipes – ugh! – because I know they guzzle it. They prefer a deep-freeze to a human being; it’s cold, tailored and shiny. I don’t believe in a word I write. Do you know what that means, Stephen? It’s a terrible thing to say.

So the theme of betrayal in I’m Dying Laughing begins not with the politics of McCarthyism (which Stead characterizes roughly as the struggle between money and ideology), but before that in Emily’s efforts to feed her family and the equally insatiable “mamma public” (the struggle between money and art). In Hollywood – as Stead would have observed even in the brief time she spent there in 1943 – this battle was particularly galling for writers. For instance, when one of her co-writers on Madame Curie, Aldous Huxley, submitted a treatment for a film of Alice in Wonderland and it was turned down by Walt Disney on the grounds that he “could only understand every third word”, Huxley quickly learned that if he wanted the inflated wages that scriptwriting could bring (unlike Stead, he earned $15,000 for his eight weeks of work on Madame Curie), then the cost to his work would be to diminish and censor it.

A couple of years before Stead left the city, failed and disgusted by it, another emigré – perhaps the most brilliant and incongruous talent to wash up on the backlot – Bertolt Brecht, wrote about prostituting himself at the Hollywood bazaar: “Every morning, to earn my bread/I go to the market, where lies are bought./Hopefully/I join the ranks of the sellers.” The alienation of a writer who sells himself for money, reverberates in I’m Dying Laughing in Emily’s more bombastic proclamations of self-loathing for her compromised success (“I’m not proud they pay me gold for crap”). It is typical both of Emily’s acuity and of her narcissism that she sees in her own riven state the root of what she calls the American Dilemma, the split-personality of a nation trying to have its cake and eat it: believing (greedily) both in the social fascism of the survival of the fittest and in fraternity, equality, democracy, and justice for all.

It is this divided self and the self-consciousness it entails that account for the peculiar savagery of American humour to which the title of Stead’s novel alludes – a brilliant comedy of spite and malice most typically practised in the inter-war years by another group of writers reluctantly drawn, from the Algonquin in New York, by Hollywood’s fabulous stipends: Dorothy Parker and her vicious circle of friends. The resulting self-hatred (Stead suggests) is also what puts the edge on Emily’s razor wit, intent upon showing up these contradictions in American life, not resolving the splits nor papering over the cracks.

When Stead first visited the United States in 1935 she described herself as a believer in the “reports that [Americans] send abroad” of themselves: that “Americans are incurably tough…snipers of the gibe that kills, machine-gunners of quickfire backchat, muckrakers of private potholes and broadcasters of human shame…I thought the whole country twanged with impertinence.” But in I’m Dying Laughing, as accurate as these killing jokes are, ultimately the comedy’s subversiveness proves limited, the knife-edge always turned back upon its wielder, for as Emily points out, in its effect, American humour is quietist, fatalistic: “I’m a humourist: humourists are always pessimists. They’re reactionaries: because they see that every golden cloud has a black lining; so why get an ulcer?”

The kind of self-irony and sense of dis-ease that such humour conveys, was nowhere more palpable at the time in America than among those communists and fellow travellers living amid the opulence of Hollywood, where giving away a percentage of one’s salary to the Party or some other worthy cause, was not always enough to ease the contradictions between fantastic personal wealth and communist or egalitarian beliefs. The actor Sterling Hayden (who later was a friendly witness before the HUAC) mocked his bi-partisan activities, saying: “I was the only person [in Hollywood] to buy a yacht and join the Communist Party in the same week”, but he was not alone: for many, guilt about earning vast amounts of money in the middle of a Depression – and as fascism advanced in Europe – was a motivating factor in becoming active in left-wing politics; more corruptly, others joined the Party believing it a wise career move.

In I’m Dying Laughing, Stephen calls these political careerists the “pork-chop opportunists”, and Emily makes uneasy jokes about the way in which even political theory can be turned inside out and used to justify what the Party called ‘renegade’ behaviour: “Jehesus-Jehosaphat! I’m always doing the opposite of what I want. It’s dialectical I guess. The latest word for selling-out. Ha-ha-ha.” The scriptwriter Budd Schulberg (like Hayden, another ex-communist who turned informer) also noticed and was amused by the sui generis nature of the dialectic in Hollywood: “All these people knew that an awful lot was happening in the world and Hitler was growing stronger…And there they were, sort of fiddling while Rome burned, and I think the Communist Party gave them a sense that they were doing something more serious and more socially useful, which would compensate for the waste of so much talent. Dialectical materialism by the pool…some of it was hilarious.”

Budd Schulberg

Budd Schulberg

At a Party social Stephen attends, Axel Oates (a friend from New York with more than a passing resemblance to Bill Blake), slyly addresses the town’s peculiar malady when he claims that “the greatest picture turned out of Hollywood in the silent days” was Erich von Stroheim’s epic portrait of a “glorious swindler” in Greed. While Emily, thinking of the luxury that her communist friends inhabit (with their fat children and swimming pools and Japanese butlers) talks of a novel she’d like to write, about how they are all losing their way, destroying what they believe in by their avarice (“it might be an epitaph of American socialism” Stephen speculates gloomily):

“This would be a cruel book. I wouldn’t spend much time on theoretical errors or an analysis of our peculiar application of theory, but I’d try to put a finger on essential human weaknesses; the ignorance and self-indulgence that has led us to Bohemia. On that score there’s plenty to say. Ought we all to live well, have our children in private schools, training them for the gude braid claith?.… Socialism can’t die! Don’t we believe that? But it can die – suffocated, here! By us! That’s horrible.”

But if Emily’s proposed book about the failures of the American Left (the one which despite its ragged edges Stead achieves triumphantly in I’m Dying Laughing) is “cruel”, then it only mirrors the world it is meant to describe: at this time Hollywood reverberated to the sound of the sharp tongue and the wise-crack, the anxious laughter of wealthy liberals, the more radical of whom often found their loyalties split to breaking point by the heavy strictures of the Party and its insistence upon material reality, and the problems of living up to any kind of reality at all in tinsel town’s phantasmagoria, in the technicoloured City of Dreams. This dizzying concoction of fantasy and realism, greed and idealism is what Stead captures so brilliantly in I’m Dying Laughing, while elsewhere (though the phrase might have dropped from Emily’s lips) these clashes gave rise to Virginia Viertel’s infamous gibe about comic cruelty in Hollywood: “Malice in Wonderland”.

Virginia was Salka’s daughter-in-law, and her decline and fall in many respects parallels the life of Stead’s protagonist. Unlike pudgy Emily, Virginia was a famous beauty, a glamourous woman whom half of the Hollywood Left were in love with: Ring Lardner Junior (who became one of the Hollywood Ten and who, in the mid-Forties, attempted an adaptation of The Man Who Loved Children) was thinking of Virginia, when he jokingly wrote a slogan to attract new members: “The Most Beautiful Girls in Hollywood Belong to the Communist Party.” She had been in the Party with her friends Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jnr, Robert Rossen, Albert Maltz and Dalton Trumbo and her first marriage was to Schulberg, who, with Elia Kazan, went on to make On the Waterfront in 1954. The two men reworked Arthur Miller’s original script (the one he and Kazan had with them when they first arrived in Beverly Hills), refashioning the Marlon Brando Judas figure who snitches on his workmates into a hero who refuses to be intimidated. Miller and Kazan had originally planned a story about the corruption of the waterfront union and the betrayal of the working man, wanting it to be “a truthful film about a dark cellar under the American Dream”, but many felt that what transpired was an essay in self-justification on the part of Schulberg and Kazan, who, on the 10th April 1952, had appeared before the Committee and named eleven people including the radical playwright Clifford Odets – a compliment he duly repaid.

Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel

Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel

When Virginia’s marriage to Schulberg collapsed, she married Salka’s son Peter, and, fearing the onset of McCarthyism and the rise of xenophobia in America they sailed for Europe after the war, as many other intellectuals were to, reversing the wave of immigration into Hollywood from fascist Europe. From here, Viertel’s life reads like a template for Emily’s in I’m Dying Laughing – the shipboard romance (hers a rather grander affair, with Ernest Hemingway), the messy abortions and disintegrating marriage, the loss of her passport (taken from her because of her Communist past) and decision to testify in order to retrieve it, followed by an intolerable sense of shame giving rise to alcoholism and drug-taking; all leading to the inevitable “bad end” (of the kind Stead insists upon for her own fallen angels in this novel), dying (not laughing) in hospital five weeks after accidentally, probably drunkenly, setting herself on fire.

This is not to try to claim that Stead had Virginia Viertel in mind when she wrote I’m Dying Laughing (the prototype for Emily Wilkes was Stead’s close friend the comic writer, Ruth McKenney), but, rather, to show that hers was just one Hollywood story among many that demonstrate how the tragedy of betrayal, both personal and political, that Stead presents in her final novel should not be read simply as the creative apogée of this writer’s fascination with treachery and monstrosity, but as something which emanates directly from the period. The story is characteristic of the moment, told in Stead’s idiosyncratic brand of realism – a unique take on the idea of realist writing as representative and exemplary: in her world, as one character proclaims, monsters are real, and everyone goes to hell in their own lovely way. But as if anticipating the kind of misreading that would regard her novel as fantastic or overblown, Stead makes the point directly in I’m Dying Laughing when she instructs her reader that the grotesque “trial by jury” which Emily and Stephen undergo at the hands of their friends in the Party, is in no way fanciful but grounded in history and “entirely in the spirit of the mid-century and their society.” Discussing the book with one interviewer Stead reinforced the point that Emily and Stephen were not extraordinary, but typical of their time and country: there were “Many examples, thousands of course, from America – with their great passion for inquisitions.”

The effect of this particular inquisition on many individuals was devastating, even for someone like Kazan who argued for the rest of his life that he had been right to testify, there remained a bitter after-taste, a feeling that whatever the self-justifications, one had, after all, acted (as the Brando character in On the Waterfront says) like a stool-pigeon: “…in the body of my conviction, there appeared the worm of doubt. I still believed what I’d done was correct, but no matter that my reasons had been sincerely founded and carefully thought out, there was something indecent – that’s how I felt it, as shame – in what I’d done and something murky in my motivations.”

If the effect upon the lives of the artists who testified was often devastating, the effect upon their work – and therefore on American culture – was equally immediate and calamitous. In Robert Vaughan’s survey of the repercussions of the HUAC trial on Hollywood (Only Victims, 1972), many of the writers and activists he interviewed from the period claimed that after testifying, the work of those who buckled under the pressure suffered dramatically. One actor (all the interviewees were anonymous) argued that after Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets “capitulated, they made no contribution to the theatre comparable to that which they had made before. Fear is not conducive to a healthy theatre – the Committee spread fear.” Another interviewee claimed it produced: “…a general sense of fear, fear to attack the status quo, fear to assert revolutionary solutions to social ills.” (Or indeed to assert that social ills were a proper subject for dramatic treatment.)

Perhaps because of the great shame still attached to the events, and the failure of the majority of the intellectual and artistic community to stand up to McCarthy’s bullying, there are still surprisingly few fictional representations of this period in American history, or of its fallout, making I’m Dying Laughing, for its testimonial value alone, an important novel: “…there were really no noteworthy plays about such enormous events as the Korean War, the developing nuclear threat, the tragic deterioration of white-black relationships in the decade which followed the Committee.”

iii. Kronstadt

In 1950 while doing research for I’m Dying Laughing (at this time the novel was called The Renegade) Stead came across a recently published collection of essays on the failure of communism. The God that Failed had contributions from Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, André Gide and Stephen Spender, and from an American journalist of Russian emigré parents, Louis Fischer, who argued that for everyone who gave up their Party membership and became an ex-communist there was a final straw, an event that persuaded each man or woman they could no longer countenance their faith, and led them first to leave, and then to oppose the Party. Fischer called these moments ‘Kronstadts’ after the Bolshevik suppression of the sailors’ revolt on the island of Kronstadt in 1921 when, under Trotsky’s command, two thousand protesters were mown down by machine-guns. The sailors (whom only four years earlier Trotsky had called the “pride and glory” of Russia for the strategic role they played in the October Revolution), believed that the revolution for which they had fought was now being betrayed. The day after the massacre the sailors published a manifesto to explain to the world ‘What we are fighting for’:

By carrying out the October Revolution the working class had hoped to achieve its emancipation. But the result has been an even greater enslavement of human beings…the worst and most criminal of all is the moral servitude which the communists have also introduced: they have laid their hands on the inner world of the toiling people forcing them to think in the way that they want…To the protests of peasants, expressed in spontaneous uprisings, and those of the workers, whose living conditions have compelled them to strike, they have answered with mass executions and a bloodletting that exceeds even the tsarist generals. The Russia of the toilers, the first to raise the red banner of liberation, is drenched in blood.

The question of betrayal, who has betrayed whom, and the moment that betrayal of the revolution has occurred – the moment of Kronstadt that Stead had read about in The God that Failed – is discussed in I’m Dying Laughing. Shortly before Emily and Stephen decide to abandon America for Europe, they have lunch with old friends: Des Canby, an English aristocratic journalist who has just left the Party and is about to return to London, and the Oateses – the couple based, at least in part, on Stead and Blake – who have also left the Party and are sailing to Antwerp. In Emily’s large, airy living room they sit with long drinks before them and discuss their collective predicament: how to live now that they are, as Emily struggles to describe it, “outside, but inside, inside-outside”. A strange dialectic of the kind Emily joked about earlier is effected where Stephen’s fear of his own desertion (“he might feel like a traitor…it was not right to desert the country, the cause, the friends he had, in trouble”) is transmuted into its antithesis: not Stephen and Emily’s betrayal, but a canticle of betrayals, the purported “crimes of the Soviet Union” against its own revolution.

In an atmosphere of rising hysteria the assembled company heap crime upon crime as if building a bonfire from history that might set fire to the very idea of communism and release them from it, guiltlessly. From Lenin’s ostensible betrayal of the Allies in 1917, to the Party Purge in ‘23 and Stalin’s “murder” of Lenin in 1924. Then to the expulsion of Trotsky in ‘27 and Emma Goldman’s attacks on the party, to the suppression of artists in ‘34, and finally to: “…the twenty-five million to forty million slave labourers – figures varied with passion – exterminated or worked to death in prison camps, the biggest slave system known in human history, not excluding the Romans and the Nazis?” They “shout and crow and…throw dates and events at each other”, chanting the litany of failures, betrayals and crimes: all of them reasons for abandoning their faith, for getting off Lenin’s ideological train to the Finland Station. But this is like a game that children play in the dark, scaring one another with a tale that becomes more hideous with every new twist – played not to frighten one another, but to show how ridiculous fear is, to confront fear and laugh it off. In the same way, Emily and Stephen and Canby and the Oateses face down their own apostasy by listing the increasingly terrible crimes of communism in order to ridicule these spectres and reaffirm their commitment to the cause.

So despite the growing excesses of their list of Kronstadts, the group’s commentary upon them asserts that these are not serious crimes but, rather, are fabricated by the “morning papers”; or are “violent propaganda” from “romantic revolutionists who…didn’t recognize the revolution once it was organized as a state”; or they are “legends” made up by a “leading anarchist” [Goldman] to “sell her books”. They note the hypocrisy when each new decrier of the Soviet system is “suddenly adored by the middle classes”, and artists under attack by the Soviet state become sacred in the West – “as if anyone ever cared for artists…But the crocodile tears!”

There is one event, though, that seriously troubles the women: “it was a shock to me when the Soviets stopped legal abortion. The mother, not the State, should be the one to decide”, Emily protests in an aside to Ruth Oates, seeking female solidarity on the matter. But this bond is undermined by Emily herself who seems to feel that abortion is a woman’s issue and therefore shameful, not fit to be included in discussion with men. Subtly reinforcing the association of womanhood with weakness, Emily (who always seeks to dissociate herself from frailty) tries to push away remaining fears about the Soviet Union by ridiculing the assembled company as effeminate: they are merely feeble “parlour pinks” with “romantic hearts” but no stomach for the fight. Finally Emily closes the book on any remaining doubts by comparing the history of the Soviet Union to the even worse legacies of America and Britain: “heigh-ho!” says Emily, in characteristic mode (as with much that she says, the remark appalls both for its inanity and for its candour), “History doesn’t bear scrutiny!”

Poster commemorating the Kronstadt rebellion, 1921

Poster commemorating the Kronstadt rebellion, 1921

Elia Kazan’s Kronstadt – as it was for many others in Hollywood – came not with any of the momentous international events that are noted by the lapsing communists in I’m Dying Laughing, but over a matter much closer to home, when Party doctrine was applied to curtail the freedom of expression of Albert Maltz, one of its members in the film community. This might point to the provincial and selfish nature of these pool-side revolutionaries (something that Stead accomplishes deftly in I’m Dying Laughing by comparing the levels of persecution faced by dissenters before the HUAC in America, and their counterparts who faced the Nazis in Europe), but it is striking that the Kronstadt sailors, too, felt above all else proscription of free opinion represented the ultimate betrayal of the revolution: “the worst and most criminal of all [my emphasis] is the moral servitude which the communist have also introduced: they have laid their hands on the inner world of the toiling people forcing them to think in the way that they want.”

In February 1946, the screenwriter (and later Hollywood Ten member) Maltz was forced by the Party to, as the sailors in Kronstadt put it, “think in the way that they want”, and made to retract an article he had written for its cultural magazine New Masses. ‘What Shall We Ask of Writers?’ was a polemic against the Party line on literature. In it, Maltz questioned their reductionist response to culture – one shouldn’t judge works “primarily by their formal ideology” he argued: “The source of the problem is the vulgarization of the theory of art which lies behind left-wing thinking, namely ‘art is a weapon’.” It was a slavish adherence to a crudely propagandist view of art that led to wild lurches in policy. Such thinking, Maltz pointed out, was responsible for the New Masses attack on Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist play Watch on the Rhine in 1939 – because its politics were anathema during the Nazi-Soviet pact; while only three years later the film version of this play was acclaimed by the same journal, sanctified now because it followed Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Two months after Maltz’s article appeared, New Masses repeated the about-turn Maltz had complained of when it published a subsequent piece by him, ‘Moving Forward’ in which (with resounding irony) he was made to commit the very thing he had complained of: to go back and rescind his first article, and present its opposing argument.

iv. Drama Queens and Essentialists

With hindsight, one can see that this was an event that was to toll the death knell for the Party in Hollywood, leaving scars long after the event. Nearly a decade later (in 1952) it was still being cited as a reason for disunity among the Left. Here I.F. Stone, in a letter to Dashiell Hammett (a writer who went to jail rather than testify before the HUAC), gives it as his reason for refusing to support a rally against the Smith Act, (passed in 1941, it forbade any large assembly of communists): “VJ [V.J. Jerome, the Communist Party Cultural Commissar] is a hell of a nice guy personally but politically he has tried to ride herd on the intellectuals in a way most offensive to anyone who believes in intellectual and cultural freedom, as with New Masses, often in most humiliating ways – as in the belly-crawl forced some years ago on Albert Maltz…[I cannot support] the dogmatic, Talmudic and dictatorial mentality [Jerome] represents.” The belly-crawl proved too much for some and in the way of Emily’s peculiar Hollywood dialectic the Maltz case was claimed by Kazan and many others as the cause of their decision to testify as a friendly witness before the Committee: because the Party had denied Maltz free speech and forced him to recant, they would now testify before a committee whose avowed purpose was to deny freedom of speech by forcing witnesses to repudiate their former beliefs and publicly confess to the error and guilt of having been communists.

Among those who exhibited this kind of chop-logic was the screenwriter Leopold Atlas, who described to the Committee the meeting (attended, among others, by the new Party head William Z. Foster, Alvah Bessie, and Stead’s close friend, Mike Gold – one of eight New Masses editors), that led to Maltz’s retraction. Atlas couched his version of the event in the hyperbolic terms of the B-movies – melodramas and paranoid film noir – that had been his mainstay in Hollywood:

This was truly a ghastly business…Here one saw the wolf pack in full operation, working on one of our long-term members. The mere recalling of the incident is abhorrent to me…I can only give you my impressions of that meeting. It was a nightmarish and shameful experience.

I remember that Albert Maltz tried to explain his thoughts on the article. I remember that almost instantly all sorts of howls went up in protest against it…From one corner Alvah Bessie, with bitter vituperation and venom rose up and denounced Maltz. From another corner Herbert Bilbernon rose and spouted elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred. Others from every part of the room jumped in on the kill…They worked over him with every verbal fang and claw at their command; every axe and bludgeon, and they had plenty. They evidently were past masters at this sort of intellectual cannibalism…The hyena attack – that is the only way I can describe them – continued with a rising snarl of triumph, and made him crawl and recant…I remember feeling a deep anguish for him as a human being, that his closest friends for years, or at least associates, would treat him so shamefully, so uncharitably, so wolfishly. Whatever the cause, his friends had no right, in all decency, to humiliate and break him in this fashion.

The melodramatic quality of Atlas’s testimony was not unique, as Mary McCarthy noticed in her 1953 essay ‘My Confession’, many of the witnesses before the HUAC were equally theatrical, acting out self-aggrandizing scenes for the Committee in which they placed themselves squarely centre-stage: “When Whittaker Chambers is mounted on his tractor, or Elizabeth Bentley, alone, is meditating her decisions in a white New England church, I have the sense that they are on location and that, at any moment, the Director will call ‘Cut’. It has never been like that for me; events have never waited, like extras, while I toiled to make up my mind between good and evil.”

McCarthy found something phony and contrived in these romantic epiphanies in which the truth about communist evil is suddenly revealed to the accusers of Alger Hiss and William Remington. Stead, by contrast, while condemning the iniquity of those who built their careers upon the courtroom dramas of the HUAC, also acknowledged the excitement of living in such dramatic times. Looking back to the period of Senator McCarthy, Stead told one interviewer in 1973: “It was very unpleasant. So many people, good worthy people were being attacked, and it was entirely for the worst political motives, they didn’t care about the Reds. They were all making their political ways, as some have done of course. Oh, it was a terrific moment, it was worth living through, it was great.”

This sense of exhilaration is something Stead shares with Emily, who, before she is finally destroyed by it, thrives, perversely, on the political tribulations which beset her. Emily’s talent for self-dramatization, laughably, at times, (like the vulgar displays of the communist repenters) makes her place herself at the centre of history’s vortex. But it is precisely this lack of (false) modesty which also allows her to reveal a deeper truth, one concomitant with her communist faith, about the individual’s ability to effect change, and about our connectedness to the world: “each man is history…we are history, each thudding heart” she declares. In the same way it is Stead’s own capacity as a novelist to transcend propriety – and in so doing risk disturbing the reader’s sense of decorum (evidenced in many reviews that find her writing too wild) – that enables her to deliver her own potent brand of verisimilitude, discovering truth about the human condition in just these discrete and complex ways. Stead was aware that it was the conflicts her subjects endured, and the drama that these created in their lives which made them into the kind of raw material that she, as an artist, was driven by. In a letter to her friend, the poet Ettore Rella, Stead affirmed her excitement at having found such promising material: “The American Renegade…it’s very strong, a great character is The Renegade”, and she told another that Emily was a “terrific central character.”

In the same letter Stead also discusses the Rosenbergs (polar opposites to Emily and Stephen, the couple were executed in 1951 for treason), and the way in which their cause – they were accused of spying for the Soviets – had proved a cohesive force, bringing Americans together: “As for the Rosenbergs, Ettore and Jessie, I can assure you that they united this side of the world if nothing else ever could. No one that I have ever heard of here thinks they should have been executed, not even one conservative sheet of the pottiest, not the most Catholic either. And most people think they were innocent.”

Recently, documents released by the Russians and the Americans have given rise to a new wave of scholarship and research into the McCarthy era. An important – though contested – contribution making use of this new information is Ellen Shrecker’s book, Many are the Crimes, in which she reveals that “there is serious evidence against Julius Rosenberg, (but not against his wife, Ethel)” – something Doris Lessing asserts in a revisionist history of her own involvement in the Party and the campaign to free the Rosenbergs. Despite the apparent lack of enthusiasm of Lessing’s friends for the cause, the case of the Rosenbergs did act to mobilise a broad range of support across the world (as Stead observes) in which writers and intellectuals were particularly vocal, speaking out against what was perceived to be a growing witch-hunt of communists in America. Lessing, however, reports that her involvement was more equivocal:

I organised a petition for the Rosenbergs, condemned to die in the electric chair for spying. As usual I was in a thoroughly false position. Everyone in the Communist Party believed, or said they did, that the Rosenbergs were innocent. I thought they were guilty, though I had no idea they were as important as spies as it turned out…I thought the Rosenbergs had probably said, Oh yes, of course, we’ll tell you [the Soviet Union] if there’s anything interesting going on. Not only did I think they were guilty but that the letters they were writing out of prison were mawkish, and obviously written as propaganda to appear in newspapers. Yet the comrades thought they were deeply moving, and these were the people who, in any other context but a political one, would have had the discrimination to know they were false and hypocritical…The letters I got back from writers and intellectuals mostly said that they did not see why they should sign a petition for the Rosenbergs when the Party refused to criticize the Soviet Union for its crimes.

New information from both sides of the Cold War has unmasked more of the players, and earlier accusations from both sides have been substantiated in the process: Yes, the Soviets did plant spies in the American government, and, yes, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI did infiltrate the American Communist party (roughly “a thousand informers within the CP”, Schrecker tells us), did besmirch liberals, did bug, spy on, harass, and blacklist suspected ‘Reds’. However this verification of old suspicions has not brought about a greater consensus about what propelled these actions in the first place, nor as to their moral weight. In reviews of Schrecker’s book, critics often praise her “solid research and good writing”, but illuminating as these are, this has not led to an agreement upon interpretation of the facts: “Given what we now know about the designs and disasters of Communism,” one critic berates Schrecker, “it is simply unacceptable to continue to cling to the absurd illusion of heroic Reds as the champions of the highest ideals of humanity.”

The problem of what happened and why during this period is not just one for historians. Memoirists like Lessing – she came to repudiate her involvement with the Party – often fail to explain why so many people felt they were forced into doing and “say[ing] things [they] did not really believe”, nor do they now take full responsibility for their actions at the time. (Though one could argue that Lessing is consistent at least insofar as much of her writing complains of the way in which, in the twentieth century, the “small personal voice” of the individual has been overwhelmed or corrupted by the ideological movements which have swept it up in history.) Part of one’s uneasiness in reading Lessing’s rewriting of her past is the company it places her in.

Reviewing a book about the decline of communism (Francois Furet, The Passing of an Illusion,1999) Edward Skidelsky argues that “like all the best works on communism, it carries the authority of a confession.” But to acquire the authority of confession one must first admit to perpetrating a sin. Lessing’s avowal, like that of Chambers, like Kazan’s, and like many other ex-communists’, is, in fact, a disavowal, losing its testimonial authority by attempting to dissociate the confessor from the thing she confesses to: yes, I was a communist, she admits, but, no, I didn’t really mean it. Her confession echoes those recantings of earlier apostates who left the Party, also claiming that they had been swayed against their better judgment, somehow made to act in a way that put them in a “false position”, unlike those guilty comrades who remained in the Party, who really meant it.

The Rosenbergs who were executed, or the Hollywood Ten who went to jail for their beliefs, might have been used by Stead to epitomize the McCarthy period, providing her with drama and heroism for her novel, but in I’m Dying Laughing (as in all of her writing about the left) she rejected the figure of the martyr, standing true to his or her philosophy, whatever the cost, and chose instead to write about more ambiguous characters; people who cannot live up to their conscience, but who pay equally severe penalties for their failure. And with hindsight we can see perhaps why Stead’s dramas of ambiguity come much closer to the truth of the times: neither Julius Rosenberg, nor the Hollywood Ten did admit who they were or what they had done – Rosenberg denied spying for the communists, and the Hollywood Ten refused to answer the infamous question: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America?”, standing instead upon the First and Fifth Amendments – their constitutional rights to free speech, without self-incrimination.

If Stead was uninterested in writing about black and white morality, it was not because she, too, thought it ridiculous to believe in “the absurd illusion of the heroic Reds”. (Like Emily, she had lived through a history of ‘betrayals’, and these new disclosures would not have dented her essential faith, nor her admiration for those men and women who committed their lives to communist ideals.) But the kind of pedagogic drama advocated at the time by cultural commissars in the Party like V.J. Jerome, figuring champions of the Great Cause, was a source of embarrassment to her. She felt that their demands were demeaning to the writer, stemming from a childish insecurity on the part of the Party, a belief shared by Emily who complains that “Like the child who has to hit every railing with a stick” she is being asked “to hit every tenet of my faith with my pen.”

What did attract Stead (though at times the attraction bewildered her), were not the public battles of history, of the kind that the Rosenbergs and the Hollywood Ten exemplify, but the ways in which these conflicts penetrate ordinary life, and the lessons to be learnt from the ensuing personal dramas, the struggles over conscience. However, this presented its own dilemmas for her as a writer: without clear-cut heroes and villains, the technical problems of novel-writing dilate: what is the plot made up of and how is it to be resolved? Stead’s diaries, quoted in Rowley’s biography, reveal her anxiety about how to structure I’m Dying Laughing: “In the night I worry: I have exposition laid out and plan for my book The Renegade but where is the plot? Death of the conscience?”

The question of plot was a troublesome one for Stead. Many readers and critics have argued that her novels, particularly the later ones, lack narrative strategy and coherence. In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily, in part because she is a writer herself, but more importantly because of her flamboyant theatricality, acts as a kind of conduit for – and mirror of – Stead’s attempts to work out story, not through any laboriously plotted mechanisms, but through the enactments, personifications and dramas of her characters. An example of this is the way in which Emily’s sense of the transgressive and the dramatic leads her to her aperçu about the entanglement of individuals in history. Another time it leads to a (transitory) self-revelation: that she is talking “baloney”, creating a smokescreen to obscure her own pain and guilt.

After a “cruel quarrel” about the way they are living in Paris (dining with collaborators, living on handouts from Anna, Stephen’s millionaire mother) Stephen, angry at the hypocrisy of their lives, shouts, “don’t give me that about workers’ salaries. Because we don’t give a damn about them or we wouldn’t be living like this.” And Emily concedes that they are rotten to the core. As if to affirm this, she stuffs herself with “a big platter of food”, “several glasses of beer” and “half a box of the best French chocolates”, and then, in flagrant bad faith, launches into a diatribe about how people who are martyrs to their cause are always neurotic and suicidal to begin with. Talking of a close friend (Rowley suggests Stead was thinking of the communist critic, Ralph Fox, who died in Spain on Christmas Day, 1936) Emily says bitterly: “I know a man went to Spain to fight in the civil war and it was suicide.” And then unnerved by what she has said, bursts into tears. But for all her self-indulgence and failed conscience, the mercurial Emily still retains some of her grounded, mid-Western sense of perspective, and is as quick to recognize disingenuousness in herself as in others: “I’m a bunk artist. Putting on a scene.”

Mary McCarthy, 1930s

Mary McCarthy, 1930s

Those with less conscience, however, much as Mary McCarthy suggested, found in the drama of the times only chances for their own glorification: star witnesses creating star roles for themselves. In his confessional memoir, Witness (1952), Whittaker Chambers, (another New Masses editor) who gained the greatest fame of all the ‘friendly witnesses’, describes his life as if it were part of some Warner Brothers B-movie about running from the mob. He tells his approving audience of senators that after leaving the Party, he got a gun to protect himself, and, fearful for the lives of his family, he put them into hiding. While Leopold Atlas displayed an equally paranoid talent before the Committee: “After this [the Maltz incident] I knew positively I had to get out. But how, I frankly didn’t know. I believe I have already mentioned that they [communists] were placed in strategic positions throughout the industry, that withdrawal from them would have meant professional and economic suicide.”

In fact reports on communist influence in Hollywood show that out of 300,000 employed in the film business only 324 were eventually found to have belonged to the Communist Party. But the question of the extent of the Party’s influence in Hollywood is still in dispute. For instance Report on Blacklisting claimed that the communist beliefs of those Party members and supporters in Hollywood had no discernible effect upon the movies they produced while, more recently, Adam Gopnik, in a review in the New Yorker of Joyce Milton’s biography of Charlie Chaplin (not a member, but a supporter) maintains: “He probably recast the end of Modern Times at Party Orders, for instance, and the last incoherent speech in The Great Dictator was at least partly fashioned by a Party sympathiser and mentor, named Rob Wagner.”

Chaplin was summoned to testify in 1947, but the hearing was delayed and then cancelled after he sent a statement saying he had never been a communist. Six years later when he applied to leave the country temporarily the comedian was grilled about his political affiliations but was finally granted an exit permit. A native of South London, Chaplin had always declined the honour of becoming an American citizen and, because of this, once he was on the boat, the authorities were able to rescind the permit. On hearing news of Chaplin’s enforced exile, I.F. Stone exhorted the comic to make a sequel to his satire about Adolf Hitler, The Great Dictator, suggesting a movie about Joseph McCarthy entitled The Great Investigator: “Turn the laugh on them, Charlie, for our country’s sake. This capital needs nothing so badly as one final well-flung custard pie.” But Chaplin’s career was broken by this rejection and having officially left the States illegally, one of the screen’s earliest and brightest stars was honoured for his contribution to the American film industry by being exiled from Hollywood for the rest of his life. His fate demonstrates how the threat to remove one’s passport (as Virginia Viertel found, and as Stead demonstrated in I’m Dying Laughing, making it the Achilles heel for Stephen and Emily) proved the breaking point for so many in the McCarthy era, forcing testimonies out of those who had previously held out.

There were those, however, who did not succumb. Pressure of this kind was applied to Arthur Miller in 1953. He was refused a passport in order to travel to Brussels for the first European production of The Crucible, his counterblast to McCarthyism (one of the still rare literary responses to the HUAC, an analogous play about the Salem witch-hunts of 1692). The decision was made shortly after his much publicised break with Elia Kazan following Kazan’s friendly testimony before the HUAC. Miller was informed by the Passport Office that he was being turned down on the grounds that it was “not in the national interest” to let him travel abroad for such a purpose, but rather than inducing him to testify, these restrictions upon his freedom made him even more adamant. Three years later, he was called before the Committee as an uncooperative witness. In his autobiography, Timebends (1987), Miller remembers how he felt: “It was not yet common for American plays to be published and performed in Europe, as mine had been…Of course I knew that they [the foreign journalists] were thinking that what had almost murdered European culture was sitting in this room under the almost palpable power of the American flag, and I wanted to reassure them that it was not going to happen here, at least not today.”

The problems which confronted political radicals at this time, and which beset Emily and Stephen in I’m Dying Laughing, were those that Stead and Blake faced in their life together, and may account for some of the turbulence and sense of outrage with which Stead invested her final novel. As an Australian citizen, she had no problems with her passport and was free to live the peripatetic life that fed her wonderfully various novels, (though after reading in the New York Times that the eponymous heroine of Letty Fox: Her Luck was a member of the Young Communist League, the FBI did keep a file on her briefly, between 1947 and 1948). But Blake, an American who the authorities knew had been active in radical politics, had to make some accommodation with the State department in order to keep his passport and be able to travel freely.

The FBI tracked Blake’s activities for nearly twenty years (from 1943 to 1962) and he was listed as a “key figure” among communists in New York. After the war, when the couple decided to return to Europe, Blake applied for a travel visa, implying that he wanted it only for a short business trip: he was lucky to receive it. But eight years later in 1954, the FBI decided to investigate before they were willing to renew his passport. In June, October and December of that year Blake submitted sworn affidavits to the American Embassy in London stating that except for a brief period in 1938/9, he was not, and had not been, a member of the Communist Party. He did furnish them with vague information about the New York branch of which he had been a member, but by December he went on the offensive claiming that the constant querying of the truthfulness of his affidavits by embassy officials amounted to a “personal insult”. As Rowley notes, the boldness paid off and Blake was issued with a one-year passport, extended to two, after which investigations of this kind ceased altogether. We can only speculate, however, about what might have happened if Blake had not been so fortunate. I’m Dying Laughing amply demonstrates Stead’s awareness (and no doubt Blake believed this too) of the terrible fate awaiting those like Emily and Stephen who bartered with the McCarthyites and renounced their beliefs. It is part of Stead’s genius that in a novel with such monstrous characters, who commit acts of treachery, we are yet made to feel our affinity. And in this, she forces us to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: faced with their situation, how would we have acted?

v. Personal Politics

We expect that there will be no happy endings for Stead’s protagonists in I’m Dying Laughing: no redemption, no chance of heroism. Nor does Stead allow us the satisfaction of catharsis from Emily and Stephen’s dreadful endings – for the reader, too, there will be no release from the burden of history. When his moment comes, and history finally catches up with him, Stephen fails the test; lacking the courage that E.M. Forster hoped for in these circumstances, he betrays his friends in order to keep faith with his country. But haunted since boyhood by Edward Everett Hale’s novel about exile, The Man Without a Country, Stephen’s act of testifying to regain his passport amounts to something more complex than the stark choices Forster’s dictum allows. It is not that Stead mitigates his treachery, rather that she shows us, painfully, its manifold form: for Stephen (as it was for many who came before the HUAC and its various sister organizations) testifying is both an act of loyalty – an affirmation of his love for his country and a statement that he cannot live in exile from it; and an act of betrayal – a betrayal of the friends (and probably family) that he names and the communist beliefs they all held in common, and in good faith. This faith and sense of belonging was once so strong as to have constituted a kind of love. And, as Stephen confesses to Emily, his love of the Party is inextricably tied to his feeling for her:

I know I am a gnat, a mayfly, I know I haven’t the stamina or coarseness of men who succeed, but I must be a revolutionary, not just a rebel; for me, it’s a kind of love, a better kind. I love you and the children, when the house is quiet and they’ve had their food, I love you most, but there is more; and it isn’t love of mankind, it is just love, but this Party and this movement is the body of that love for me. Not better – it’s not better to love the Party than you – you are two, strongly loved.

One of the principal strengths of I’m Dying Laughing (and a characteristic of Stead’s whole oeuvre) is this refusal of any simple partisanship. In her interview with Joan Lidoff, Stead refused to condemn the real people upon whom the characters of Emily and Stephen were based: “They did break up. She did break down. Though who could stand it? It’s not their fault.” This is not Stead letting anyone off the hook (she has rightly been described as a novelist who is “merciless, cruel and unforgiving”), but rather acknowledgement of the tangle of human motive and behaviour. And it is just such qualities of attention and understanding that make Stead, in I’m Dying Laughing, into the best kind of witness, rather than (as those who dabble in morality often tend to be) the worst kind of judge. Stead is able to convey Emily’s and Stephen’s disintegration in I’m Dying Laughing, while desisting from moralizing about it because she grounds every action firmly in the material world. In this she can be thought of as a Marxist writer. This does not mean that the novel is crudely didactic (Stead thought “if you believe a thing intensely it’s in the book, you don’t have to write slogans”). Nor that there is no psychological dimension to her work (Emily’s is one of the most compelling and explosive portraits of female pathology in twentieth century literature), but Stead’s world, as Engels required, is multi-dimensional, connecting the various parts and showing their interactions.

Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country, orig pub.1863

Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country, orig pub.1863

One of the most interesting, and self-reflexive, ways in which this is demonstrated in Stead’s posthumous novel is through the pursuit of the relationship between Emily’s writing and her family’s need for respectability and money. A constant theme is that Emily is restrained as a writer by financial consideration and the belief that truth-telling will turn her into a pariah (a common experience for writers in this period: as Lillian Hellman put it: “Truth made you a traitor [then] as it often does in the time of scoundrels”): “…upstairs Emily flirted with the idea of writing a great novel. She sketched out one idea after another, and in each of them she wanted to tell some truth that would offend some section of the community. Some of the truths would offend everyone and get them on the black list.” Among the more important lessons here, is Emily’s (and Stead’s) understanding of, and their struggle with, the fact that writing is not a neutral or rarefied act, but something always tending to get you into trouble from one quarter or another. Such an idea might be commonplace in these post-fatwa times, but contemporaries of Stead, even writers who had been communists, were still able to convince themselves that art was a transcendental form, taking you beyond all the difficulty (and messiness) of the political or material world.

Two such were W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. In his recently published Diaries (Volume One: 1939-1960), Isherwood describes the moment when, having sailed for America at the onset of the war in Europe, Auden and he “confess” to one another their desire to abandon the compromises of the political realm which has preoccupied them throughout the Thirties, and return to the safety and sanctity of art:

One morning on deck, it seems to me, I turned to Auden and said: “You know, I just don’t believe in any of it any more – the united front, the party line, the antifascist struggle. I suppose they’re okay, but something’s wrong with me. I simply can’t swallow another mouthful.” And Auden answered: “No, neither can I.”….Now, in a few sentences, with exquisite relief we confessed our mutual disgust at the parts we had been playing and resolved to abandon them, then and there. We had forgotten our real vocation. We would be artists again, with our own values, our own integrity, and not amateur socialist agitators, parlour reds.

The irony, here, is that Isherwood justifies his political apostasy, making arguments that raise art to a pedestal, figuring it a place of “value” and “integrity”, as he heads not for the American wilderness to practice his “real vocation” and be an “artist again”, but to try his luck in Hollywood: a place notorious for its squandering of artists (even of the calibre of Faulkner and Fitzgerald), and whose existence was predicated upon the part-playing he and Auden professed to find so distasteful. On arriving in the city Isherwood quickly moved into a central position among the left-leaning group of writers and artists – the Brechts, the Manns, Huxley, Garbo, and Virginia Viertel – that Stead, less famous, less glamorous, only skirted the very edges of. But like Stead, and like hundreds of other writers who spent time there hoping to make their fortune, he found Hollywood a mirage, and left in the autumn of 1941 to become a volunteer in a Quaker colony for German refugees recently arrived in Pennsylvania.

Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, 1939

Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden, 1939

In I’m Dying Laughing Stephen describes the Communist Party as being “the body” of his love, a “better love”, perhaps even than his more selfish love for his wife and family, because it represents a hope for mankind, and the belief that a brighter future is possible. For Stephen the loss of this optimistic love ends in the nihilism of suicide; for Emily in madness, a different kind of self-abnegation. When Isherwood and Auden turned away from the Party and the “body” of love and hope it represented, they found themselves (as did others who veered from communism at this time) looking for something to replace what had been expunged. For Isherwood the gap left by abandoning his radical politics was not satiated by anything Hollywood had to offer, and still remained with him in Pennsylvania. As Christopher Hitchens noted in his review of Isherwood’s Diaries, he found the Quakers rather puritanical and family-oriented for his tastes. Auden returned to his Anglo-Catholicism, while others looked to a variety of forms of future-gazing, prophecy, religion and mysticism. In his Diaries Isherwood records one hilarious exchange about Aldous Huxley’s new-found beliefs between him, his son Julian, and a flabbergasted Bertrand Russell: ““Did he – I mean – er, that is – do you mean to say he actually, er really – prays?” “And why,” asked Bertrand, “does Aldous talk about Ultimate Reality? Surely one kind of reality isn’t any more or less real than another?””

Still searching to fill the gap, Isherwood finally turned to an Indian mystic, Swami Prabhavananda, joining the commune in New York where he practised meditation and yoga. For a while this seemed to fulfil his needs, causing him to decry earlier emotional entanglements as a sham (just as he and Auden had rejected what they came to believe was the play-acting of their earlier political relationships): “If there’s anything I’m sick of, it’s personal relationships, on which I and the rest of my friends used to expend a positively horticultural energy. Ah! what a coldness there was underneath those ‘darlings,’ those kisses, those hugs, those protestations! Here [with Swami] I’m happy to say, all that seems meaningless.” It’s tempting to see this (as Hitchens tends to) as another charting of the well-travelled path from youthful radicalism to curmudgeonly, misanthropic old age, but we can also see in it a disorientation peculiar to this time of oscillating allegiance: where was the true self to be found, how to know false roles and cast them off? Isherwood’s attempt to remove himself from political and personal relationships, and the realm of compromise and betrayal that these entail, was perhaps an attempt to escape from vulnerability of this kind and to vacate the self – a less drastic form of Stephen’s and Emily’s nihilism – stripping it down, in this case, to Prabhavananda’s cult of asceticism. Huxley’s brand of turning inward and away from the world, began, rather more infamously, one morning in May 1953 when he took four-tenths of a gramme of mescalin.

In Witness, Whittaker Chambers affirmed Isherwood’s fears, highlighting the dangers of personal relationships, particularly for those involved in radical politics, by making it clear that successful testimony before the HUAC was based precisely on the degree to which an informer was willing to exploit intimacy, and betray it: “The informer, particularly the ex-Communist informer…risks little. He sits in security and uses his special knowledge to destroy others. He has that special information because he knows these others’ faces, voices and lives, because he once lived within their confidence, in a shared faith, trusted by them as one of themselves, accepting their friendship, feeling their pleasures and griefs, sitting in their houses, eating at their tables, accepting their kindness, knowing their wives and children.”

Despite this damning self-condemnation, the overall image presented in Witness (what Stead liked to call a “best-smeller” in America), of a man who informs on friends in the name of his country, made men like Chambers not just respectable but heroic, turning around the age-old Christian repugnance at the Judas figure of the traitor. As Victor Navasky argues (in Naming Names, 1982), Witness “helped to bring about the metamorphosis of the informer from rat to lion, from stoolie to patriot.” And in 1954, two years after the publication of Witness, Kazan’s transformation of the Brando character in On the Waterfront had the same effect on the public imagination, turning another traitor into a martyr. In Chambers’s reading of history, Stephen’s and Emily’s downfall would occur, not because they have betrayed everything they believed in, but because they are unable successfully to effect the proper transformation: incapable of seeing themselves as patriotic, to the end they remain rats and stoolies. As the Brando figure in Kazan’s film says, “Conscience. Ah dat stuff can drive you nuts”, but unlike him – and unlike Kazan who claimed in his memoirs to have experienced only “embarrassment” – Emily and Stephen are unable to overcome their qualms about betraying their friends and are destroyed by their treachery.

What was required of a witness, and what the renegades Emily and Stephen despite their perfidy cannot accomplish, was a complete transformation, one which included the extinction of the old self. Only from such a conversion could “the Committee be certain that his break with the past was genuine. The demand for names was not a quest for evidence; it was a test of character.” The result for those who (for whatever reason) decided to testify, was just such a dramatic change of character, often palpable in the art they subsequently produced. After Clifford Odets came before the Committee in 1952, the work of this most truculent and politically subversive writer became more introspective, to the point where in his final play, The Flowering Peach (1954), as one critic put it: “Odets’s primary concern…[is] to establish man’s acceptance of the will of God and the fate of cosmic justice. Thus, the radical Odets comes to accept the futility of the rebellious gesture and shows that redemption is finally born of acceptance, not protest.”

Chambers asserts that the most significant characteristic of a witness is the degree of intimacy he has achieved with his subject – how friendly the friendly witness has become: “If he had not done these things he would be no use as an informer.” It is not surprising, then, that among Robert Vaughan’s list of namers and named from the HUAC trials there appear not only friends indicting friends (like Kazan and Odets) but those who also named former spouses and lovers, brothers and sisters. In this way the HUAC trials turned out to be a family affair, causing rifts that would never mend, inflicting the kind of pain that only family betrayal can: examples of these estranging relatives were Harold J. Ashe who named his former wife Mildred, who in turn named him; Ruth Fischer who named both of her brothers, Gerhart and Hanns Eisler (Gerhart was a Party member, Hanns – one of Brecht’s chief composers – was not); and Anne Frank, the wife of screenwriter Melvin Frank, also testified, naming her sister, Virginia Viertel, who, as I have said, completed the family’s perfidy by naming her ex-husband Peter and her sister, too.

On the day Elia Kazan confessed to Arthur Miller that he, too, had handed over to the Committee the names of former comrades in the Party, Miller drove towards Salem to begin research for The Crucible. Although Kazan was not a relative, he had loved him as a brother, and this wrenching of familial bonds lead him to feel that what was happening in America was beyond the political, “it was really becoming something else, something one could not name.” Ironically, the act of naming names was so personal, Miller implies, as to be in itself nameless, somehow beyond description:

I was carrying several contradictions at the same time, my brother-love [for Kazan] as painfully alive in me as it had ever been, alongside the undeniable fact that Kazan might have sacrificed me had it been necessary. In a sense I went naked to Salem, still unable to accept the most common experience of humanity, the shifts of interests that turned loving husbands and wives into stony enemies, loving parents into indifferent supervisors or even exploiters of their children…

Responding to the intimacy of the betrayal in I’m Dying Laughing, Stead shows how, just as the denunciations of friends and family invested the HUAC trials with passion – making it personal – so petty tyrants within the family might pick up a trick or two from the politicians: Stephen’s mother, Anna, (trying to gain control of her grandchildren’s money) enacts her own McCarthyite vendetta, creating a blacklist of Stephen’s and Emily’s friends, communists and others beyond the pale, whom they have to agree not to see any more if they wish to retain guadianship of their children.

However, the showtrial that exemplifies the times in I’m Dying Laughing is not a HUAC one, but an equally fratricidal inquisition, in which members of the Communist Party anticipate the treachery of these later friendly witnesses, also selling out their friends and comrades for reasons both of submissive orthodoxy (even “rich and influential people, take party criticism like little children” Stead believed), and of financial gain. In I’m Dying Laughing the Party cabal in Hollywood is determined to expropriate the inheritance bequeathed to Stephen’s daughter by his first wife. They hope to influence Stephen’s sister, Florence, into bringing Olivia up as a good communist who will donate her money to the Party. To this end, they try to bully Emily and Stephen into giving up their parentship of the child, accusing Emily of being a mentally unstable, unfit mother. Their assault on the Howards is enacted in the name of party loyalty: the couple’s criticism of Earl Browder and his accommodating line (exemplified by his famous declaration -“Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism”) is deemed “ultra-leftist” and “deviationist”.

Their dinner-trial is hosted in his home in Persimmon Glen by the stylish communist scriptwriter, James Holinshed. During the evening Holinshed’s erstwhile partner, Godfrey Bowles turns to the assembled company and reads out a document, approved by the Party, that he has sent to the court in support of Florence’s custody battle: “It concerns Olivia, the rape of Olivia”, Bowles tells her incredulous parents. “The – WHAT – of Olivia? Oh Jehosophat -” is Emily’s jittery reply. The rape is figurative, of course, but the violation of Emily and Stephen by their friends and comrades is quite tangible. Bowles is more circumspect in the language he uses in his deposition, however, at least at first. Combining pseudo-medical language with disavowals of professional expertise, his testimony begins with an air of objectivity, listing Emily’s putative transgressions: ““…we observed the signs in Emily Howard of a degenerating psychism, of intellectual lesions perhaps even physical, though we are not competent to say. There were verbal incontinence, detailed recital of insignificant events, a general excitement, incoherencies of speech, unsuitable confidences in public-”

But as he continues, and as Emily and Stephen are quick to appreciate, the (vulgar) dramatist takes over – as it was to with the HUAC witnesses – turning Godfrey’s testimony into something more akin to a treatment for a Hollywood melodrama about Little Orphan Annie and her Wicked Step-Parents than a submission in court:

“…we are speaking of a little, sheltered girl. Conflict and economic and psychological tensions, and even suppressed conflict will produce mentally or even physically battered resentful and rebellious children, who will not adjust to any norm. Yet what is more normal than the family relationship? And where it concerns children of a sweeter more pliable nature, as for example Olivia Howard…it may produce either victims, masochists, or natures which become double-dealing, secretive, unstable, furtive; or insinuating and deducing natures, children who are not frank and self-reliant, or too much so who sit in judgment -” “What a cast of characters!” said Stephen. “Won’t sell,” said Emily, “too morbid, not for the suburban mamma.”

Anna, and, ironically, the comrades, are able to make these threats against the beleaguered couple, by playing into their fear of the courts because, as Emily declares, at this time: ““They’re taking children from guilty communist parents, ‘communist’ meaning guilty. The court would be enquiring into our bank accounts and laundry baskets; and Grandma and Florence would be seen white as snow, for guzzling is not considered wrong in this country -“” But the theme of family betrayal, which acts as a mirror in I’m Dying Laughing for the divisions created in the McCarthy period, is not only present in these carnivorous displays, or in Emily’s recollections of her own family as “brutal”, “bestial” and “savage”; destructive family relationships are the epicentre of nearly all of Christina Stead’s novels. “Stead’s loathing of the rank futility of home and hearth is equalled, in literature, only by that expressed by the Marquis de Sade” Angela Carter believed, and in her biography (Christina Stead. A Life of Letters, 1989) Chris Williams observes that family warfare lies at the heart of much of Stead’s writing: “…in the relationship between Michael and Catherine in Seven Poor Men of Sydney, of Nellie and Tom in Cotter’s England, of Sam and Louisa in The Man Who Loved Children, of Teresa and her father in For Love Alone, of Eleanor and her daughter inMiss Herbert (The Suburban Housewife), of the Massines in The People with the Dogs, and between Stephen, his mother and sister in I’m Dying Laughing.”

But while it is true that Stead’s view of family life is frequently a cruel one, her responses to it are never defeatist: she told one interviewer, with resilient perversity, that The Man Who Loved Children was a “celebration of unhappy family life”, and another, that the knocks and bruises, or the coddling, that family life inflicts were not harmful for children, but part of an important learning process from which they should not be shielded: “…certainly family relations have some effect. But there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and that is, children grow up anyway. You see some of them, they’ve been horribly spoiled, but they grow up anyway, and they’re really quite all right. They manage to survive parental care. Supercare.” It’s a view at odds with that expressed in I’m Dying Laughing at the Holinshed dinner by Godfrey Bowles and his wife, Millian, who seem at some pains to protect their children from the facts of life. Millian, rather ridiculously, but with great sanctimoniousness, explains to Emily and Stephen that she does not usually drink alcohol because: “We don’t want our children to feel we have a life they can’t participate in.”

This vein of piety continues throughout the attack upon Emily and Stephen by Holinshed and Bowles – joined now by another scriptwriter, a leading Party apparatchik Jay Moffat Byrd (a character bearing great similarities to the playwright and scriptwriter John Howard Lawson). Holinshed and Bowles have both been in psychoanalysis – Bowles’s “cure is the most celebrated on the West Coast” – and as a result, their belligerence comes cloaked in the language of therapeutic self-righteousness. They act as if their confessions, performed on the analyst’s couch, have purified them, made them wise, even Christ-like. As McCarthy and his fellow senators were to demand of witnesses to the HUAC, what these righteous comrades require from Emily and Stephen is that they confess and atone for their sins, just as in analysis Holinshed and Bowles have: “it would be thought a good thing if this were in the form of a signed document which could be circulated.” Such an act, it is implied, would purge them of their “deviationist” errors and return them to the fold.

Perhaps to encourage the recalcitrant pair Godfrey offers his own confession: he tells them that the only reason he adopted children was to stop him from leaving his wife (a woman he thinks of, revoltingly, as “his ideal”), but after the adoption he still wanted to leave her. The job of his analyst, Dr Stumpf (psychiatrist to “the stars and the directors”) was to sort him out and return him to the nest. This rather stunning admission elicits no reciprocal confidence from Emily, however, merely the uncomprehending question: “Why are you going to this Dr Glumpf-glumpf? I think it’s unhealthy.” And the combative assertion that psychoanalysts are all “psychos”.

Undeterred, Jim Holinshed presses on with his own admission of a near-miss with a “four-alarm bitch”, after whom he tramped round Paris and Berlin, tricked into thinking she was having his baby. Ditching this tigress once she contracted typhoid (and anyway “she was no virgin”), he hooked up with Heidi in Denmark, and Regina in Copenhagen. But wearying of the game, he returned home to his wife, Vera, who now sits silently across the room as he details his conquests to the assembled company. When Emily (as ever, fearlessly speaking her mind – the very thing the comrades have accused her of) says she thinks infidelity is nothing more than rotten betrayal, Millian Bowles, (who like Vera Holinshed, seems to have kept hold of her errant husband only by means of these humiliating public recantations), looks “across at her with a faint superior smile.” But Emily’s “Hix-in-the-Stix” perceptions of life are not to be so easily punctured. What Stead suggests with great subtlety, and to rather creepy effect, is that for all their ostensible sophistication, Vera and Millian have fallen for one of the oldest plots: double-crossed by their roving husbands, these confessions of guilt (scripted by Hollywood professionals) are offered in order to increase their wives’ sense of moral superiority and to allay their anger.

Despite their apparent duping, it is clear that women are the cause of some anxiety among this suave set. When Emily admires a painting by Vera (“but that’s really fine art”), her husband Holinshed roundly dismisses it, and her, claiming art as antithetical to the biological function of womanhood: ““Oh, Vee’s an artist, but it’s the way with women – kids, progressive schools to be paid for, orange juice, all-night baby-sitting – I don’t know what it’s all for, but it’s necessary for women. If women don’t have children, their art’s cramped and if they do, they don’t have art. So men have art. Fair enough.”” Scandalized by this, Emily retaliates with a spirited support of the working woman, and the woman artist; a vindication all the more heartfelt for being a defence of her own life, which, through the course of the evening, comes under mounting attack:

“Damn it, that’s an outright stuffed shirt viewpoint; so you get it straight all the time, eh? I can beat any man alive, I bet, in my writing, and children and house and all. I think it makes a woman an artist, it doesn’t hinder her. If she’s hindered it’s her own fault; she or her husband don’t want her to win…I think it’s possible for a woman to be a wife and mother and woman and artist and success and social worker and anything else you please in 1945.”

What Stead suggests in this ‘trial’ scene – surely one of the most corrosive portraits of political radicals in twentieth century literature – is an answer to Emily’s question about how the American left could destroy itself, and why. The comrades’ vanity, bullying, greed, and misogyny is appalling not just in itself, but for its hypocrisy: these are people whose communist beliefs (in solidarity and community) should preclude their self-regarding behaviour, but who travesty their faith by using it to justify the inquisition they subject Emily and Stephen to. The divorce of ideals and practice, that old political divide between ends and means, Stead implies here, is as a consequence of the theatricality imbuing the time. It’s a drama built upon the idea of manifest destiny, and the sense – as Mary McCarthy perceived – of individuals becoming actors, staging their lives under the spotlight, gaining significance by their role in backing the winning side in history.

In I’m Dying Laughing Stead forgoes the expected McCarthyite trial and instead her communist dramatists star in their own home-made production, but the point she is making by highlighting their amateur performances, rather than those of the HUAC in their more professional show-trial, is that the ritual of disguise, part-playing, testimony and confession was common to both these sets of players. For instance, Whittaker Chambers, like Stephen in I’m Dying Laughing, who adopts a pen name for his insurrectionary pamphleteering – and like his prototype, Ruth McKenney’s husband, Richard Bransten, and like Bill Blake – used pseudonyms; most often Chambers was masked as ‘George Crosley’ (Blake’s nom-de-plume was W. Stephen Marlowe). A recent biographer, Sam Tanenhaus, says that when Chambers was working for Russian military intelligence (between 1931 and 1937), he was “without a fixed identity, lived at a total of 21 different addresses, had signed false names to leases, passports and cheques, had invented aliases for his wife and children, had paid no income tax.”

Ruth McKenney

Ruth McKenney

But Chambers was not alone in leading a double life. Secrecy was important for many members of the Party (who feared losing their jobs) and particularly so in Hollywood. The local branch often did not issue membership cards (for fear of discovery), and some members had secret names, there was “a sense of the forbidden that occasionally had the feeling of a game.” Mary McCarthy admits that she was dazzled by some of the communists she met at this time precisely because of the mystery attached to them: “The idea of a double life was what impressed us…It was hard not to respect somebody who has an alias.” While Stead never makes the criticism explicit, her argument about the theatricality and hypocrisy of some of the comrades, makes a point similar to that of Christopher Hitchens who says, in a review of a biography of Whittaker Chambers, that “the Communist Party, with its [own] evasions and euphemisms” was never going to be an effective opponent of McCarthy’s bad-mouthing and double-dealing.

vi. Foxwarren: Hollywood in England

Fifteen years after their Hollywood sojourn, Stead and Blake were hard-up and living in England. A meeting with Hannah Weinstein (whom Blake had probably first known in Hollywood, and for whom he had recently completed some research) led to Weinstein offering the couple free accommodation in a cottage in the grounds of Foxwarren, a country estate in Surrey that she and her company, Sapphire Films, had taken over four years earlier for the purpose of making programmes for British television. Weinstein was keen to use the cheap and available talents of American blacklisted writers who could no longer find work in the film industry at home.

In March 1958 Stead and Blake left their one-room flat in London and moved into the roomier (if barer) “little stone hut”, as Stead called it, above what had once served as the estate’s stables. A few months later she described the bucolic scene in a letter to a friend. Slipping into the vernacular, Stead watched with amusement the exploitation of this earthy, English pastoral (and England’s favourite Green Man myth) by invading American artificers, masters of cardboard and trompe l‘oeil:

Foxwarren does suggest old England, cockfights, and some portfaced squire getting The Fancy down for dark work in the barns. I expect Foxwarren itself (a magnificent park it once was with a warm beautiful ‘Queen Anne’ manorhouse, on a very high hill brow over-looking much common and countryside) was named after the foxes there: we have quite a lot in the now restricted park…There is the ‘deer park’, some paddocks which were a deer stale, hence no use for grazing now (they ruin the land as sheep do): this deer park now has a Hollywood two-dimensional castle on it, a heavy baronial affair used for the ‘Robin Hood’ series (TV) and the English history series being done by the Encyclopaedia Britannica (now an American concern).

Later, however, Stead, improvising cleverly and good materialist that she was, was able to recycle these fabulator’s props for more immediate use. In October 1959, suffering from ‘flu and the autumn cold Stead wrote to a friend:

This place, though not so much as last year, still has some theatre relics, some properties around; left over from the ROBIN HOOD days; and I found, eg an old screen, hessian on wood. It had something pasted on it, presumably a ‘wall’ or ‘booth’ but I have stood it against the wall facing, which is all stone, etc. I had first decided on a ‘window’, what the stage calls a practicable window, which is down in the stable. But I found the cupboard door, which is now under my feet acting as a mat; and so on. (The floor is cement – old stable floor.) I am not VERY warm, but not so bad as last year…

At Foxwarren the Blakes met again some of the writers they had known in Hollywood – Jerome Chodorov, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott and Ring Lardner Jnr, who had all spent a year in jail as a result of their refusal to testify before the HUAC. Rowley says that Stead was particularly impressed by Lardner Jnr, describing him in a diary she kept at Foxwarren as “dark and tall, with a lank, Indian-looking face”; he was the scriptwriter for the Robin Hood series (he also worked on Sir Lancelot), together with Ian McLellan Hunter, and as with most blacklisted writers the need for subterfuge meant that they wrote under pseudonyms such as ‘Oliver Skene’ and ‘Philip Rush’, changing them from time to time in order to allay suspicion.

Ring Lardner, Jnr, prison mughsot, 1955

Ring Lardner, Jnr, prison mugshot, 1955

Like many who came under her patronage, Lardner Jnr had decidedly mixed opinions about Weinstein, seeing her both as a philanthropist and an exploiter. Stead shared his doubts, harbouring equivocal feelings towards her landlady of the kind which (as with her conflicted feelings about her friends Ruth McKenney and Richard Bransten) sparked in her the desire to create, to write out of this ambiguity. So at Foxwarren, Stead put aside Miss Herbert (which she had been writing on and off for five years) and began a new work of fiction based on Hannah Weinstein and her husband, variously called Fan Pearl or The Golem:

Because of her past which, because of past connections with the great radicals, people thought of as a radical past and because she was a clever convincing talker, talents like Catchbone and many others, with better names, saw their future and fortune in her. She enjoyed creating her own society, was charming, gave parties and was believed to have helped many people: at least she helped them in little ways, or at least in her company they met “useful” people. The poor, degraded, frightened could for the first few months find a sort of welcome with Fan: at that time she was feeling her way, she had an idea; she would build a new theatre empire out of the free-floating and high-paid talents of the radical world. The persecutors had done her a favour: they had thrown these brilliant talents on the labour market and denied them all employment: they had once worked for fantastically high wages, now they must work for nothing and find doors shut, or must work under assumed names…These high-starred gentry found in her a foster-mother; they were anxious to work for reduced wages.

Weinstein was not the only one in Britain happy to benefit from the persecution taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. In Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman’s account of the McCarthy era, she recalls that Alexander Korda quickly lighted upon the opportunity to acquire the services of blacklisted writers at cut-down rates, offering her one-fifth of her Hollywood wages to work for him an offer she readily accepted because “we needed the money and it was no time to argue.” Later, she claimed even that diminished recompense was denied her when the miserly Korda “cheat[ed her] out of a third of the fifth he had offered…”

One page of Stead’s putative novel about Weinstein was scribbled on the back of a script for Robin Hood. The work was never completed, perhaps because the similarities between Weinstein and her husband, and Stead’s characters in I’m Dying Laughing – begun in the late 1940s – were too great. (Weinstein, like Emily and Stephen, thought of herself not as an exploiter but as a communist.) As Rowley records: “Hannah Weinstein and John Fisher had something of the crazy qualities of the McKenney-Bransten menage. Hannah was charming and hardworking, tiny and full of energy, but she had an ‘unquestioning egotism’ and a weakness for luxury. Fisher was empty, authoritarian, fraudulent and an incurable spender.” Stead wrote to a friend that Weinstein was incapable of seeing the damage her husband was doing to the business: “She’s going down with him, down, down to the devil.” And in January 1961 Stead’s diagnosis of their relationship proved accurate when Fisher was declared bankrupt and responded to the shame (as Stephen reacts to his, in I’m Dying Laughing) by trying to commit suicide. Shortly after, Foxwarren was put in the hands of the receivers and the Blakes moved to Hawley near Camberley.

In 1991 the writer Michael Eaton and filmmaker Philip Saville having read some of the recently published work on McCarthy in Hollywood, came across the story of the blacklisted writers who ended up in England working for British television. They, in turn, put these exiled scriptwriters into a script of their own, Fellow Traveller, intercutting between the dramatically different stories of their lives: before the HUAC trials and the golden, glamorous days of the Left in Hollywood, rallying the film community to the noble anti-fascist cause; and then to the bleakness of post-war England, all rain, ration books and lousy coffee. In particular Eaton and Saville pieced together and dramatized a story that had hung around Hollywood about a psychoanalyst, posing as a communist, who worked for the FBI by persuading his worried patients as they lay on his couch, that it was right for them to testify. In his autobiography of the McCarthy era, Alvah Bessie (one of the Hollywood Ten, who, as Atlas reported to the HUAC, had been present at the Communist Party meeting which forced Albert Maltz to retract his New Masses article) wrote of the time when he went to a psychiatrist for help after dreaming that an F.B.I. man was sleeping with his mother.

Ring Lardner, Jnr's, The Adventures of Robin Hood, filmed at Foxwarren, 1956

Ring Lardner, Jnr’s, The Adventures of Robin Hood, filmed at Foxwarren, 1956

A corresponding incident is reported by Sterling Hayden who appears to have visited the same analyst, Ernest Philip Cohen. When Emily argues, at the Holinshed dinner, that Marx and Freud are diametrically opposed she is asserting the official line – as Doris Lessing writes in her autobiography Walking in the Shade, “communists did not go ‘into analysis’, for it was ‘reactionary’ by definition”, a point Emily makes when she reminds the dinner-party comrades that psychoanalysis is “boogoy [bourgeois] – it’s anti-Marxian.” Navasky corroborates this saying that in the Forties analysis was grounds for dismissal for communists in America. But on the West Coast there were a few men man who practiced with the approval of the Party, one of whom: “(…turns out to have been a lay therapist), who was in and out of the Party, had enough informer-patients to justify an enquiry as to whether he was indeed converting his patients into informers, as alleged, whether under his care they persuaded themselves that informing was a sign of emotional maturity.”

Cohen was analyst to Hayden, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield and many other agents and writers and, as it transpired, at least a dozen of his patients co-operated with the Committee. The idiosyncrasies of Cohen’s career certainly suggest double-dealing: he moved from therapy to become a captain in a sheriff’s office, and later still, special agent in the Department of Justice, where he seems to have turned his skill in coaxing confessions from clients to work upon real criminals, with equal success.

In Fellow Traveller the betraying psychiatrist is exposed when he attends a Peace Conference in England a few years after the war’s end. The ‘hero’ of the film, a screenwriter exiled to England to avoid the call to testify before the HUAC, and writing scripts for a television series of Robin Hood, confronts the psychiatrist, asking how he, a communist, has been able to get a visa to attend a Peace Conference at a time when McCarthy’s men are keeping dissidents from leaving the country by withholding their passports (much as the iron curtain kept East European dissidents sequestered at home). The conference in the film was probably modelled upon the Sheffield Peace Conference of 1950 which in her memoir Lessing says that she helped to publicise by leafleting door to door.

I was met at every door with a sullen, cold rejection. The newspapers were saying that the festival was Soviet inspired and financed – and of course it was, but we indignantly denied it and believed our denials. It was a truly nasty experience, perhaps the worst of my revolutionary duties. It was cold, it was grey, no one could describe Sheffield as beautiful, and I had not yet experienced the full blast of British citizens’ hostility to anything communist.

In the event the conference never took place. It was cancelled because incoming delegates were refused visas, and transferred, as a footnote in Lessing’s book states, to Warsaw. But despite the Party’s disapproval of psychiatry, the idea of the communist as confessor, of a charismatic father figure, was a potent one. To some the party leaders themselves were priestly, quasi-religious characters and, as Mary McCarthy suggests, perhaps those involved in show business and the arts were particularly susceptible to them, finding in their combination of public performance and powerful mystery a mirror for their own lives:

…I had a curiosity about the Communist men I used to see there [at CP fund raising parties], not the actors or writers, but higher-ups, impresarios and theoreticians – dark, smooth-haired owls with long white lugubrious faces and glasses. These were the spiritual directors of the Communist cultural celebrities and they moved about at these parties like so many monks or abbés in a worldly salon…these men, who had the air, as they stood with folded arms, of listening not to a disagreement but to a confession.

If the figure of the father-confessor loomed large in the McCarthy era, then I’m Dying Laughingmight be thought of as a portrait of its corollary – the renegade daughter who needs to confess all. But rather than a symbol of filial obedience, the lost lamb returning to the flock, Emily’s confessions, the “irresistible…verbal excess” which compels her to articulate every fear, idea, secret and betrayal, make her a taboo-breaking figure. The volatility, intelligence and comedy invested in her speech act in some profane, Foucauldian manner, not to assuage the guilt but to multiply the sin, making it worse by repeating it, spreading it around. An early demystifier (who nevertheless understood the attractions and mystifications of power), Stead did not believe that the flawed and tyrannical figure of the father, the politician or the psychiatrist was capable of delivering Emily (or any of us) from the burden of responsibility for her own life.

vii. American Amnesia

It had been a long haul (Stead had begun to sketch out ideas for I’m Dying Laughing in the early Forties) but in 1965 she believed she had accomplished her task and finished this most troublesome of novels. She duly posted the manuscript to her editors and a few close friends to garner their initial reactions to the work. But the responses Stead received were not at all those she had hoped for. While many of her readers thought the novel brilliant, they also believed there was still more work to be done on it.

Cyrilly Abels, her New York agent, wanted to know more about Emily’s past and felt that Emily’s and Stephen’s disagreements with the Party weren’t clear, while Maurice Temple Smith, her editor at Secker & Warburg in England, wanted substantial cuts and a re-think of the first half of the novel. The feeling was that a new generation of Sixties rebels were embroiled in different political battles and had forgotten, or were unaware of, what happened in the (albeit very recent) period of history that Stead describes in I’m Dying Laughing. Because of this Stead would need to explain what had stirred her protagonists’ passion and sense of injustice, to spell out why Stephen and Emily had become communists, and what it meant to be a member of the Party. Her friend, the poet Stanley Burnshaw, wrote to her from London after reading an early draft of I’m Dying Laughing, warning her how outlandish the period now seemed: “The whole Hollywood situation sounds incredible today, and so does all the kowtowing to the party hacks through the forties and fifties. The CP and the radical movement are absolutely nil here; you wouldn’t believe it. And your novel will come upon a reading public that regards the American experience with the CP and the radical left as nonsensical, idiotic, meaningless.”

So Stead struggled to emend the manuscript as she had been advised. Her principal alteration was the creation of three new back chapters that precede her original starting point in 1945 and the geo-politics of the Hollywood Glens. These fresh chapters give an account of Emily’s and Stephen’s meeting a decade earlier en route to Europe; the odd couple’s surprise at falling in love in Paris while attending an anti-fascist writers’ conference; and the comedy and tribulations, particularly those concerning food, of their early married life back in New York. (Faced for the first time with the “millionaire asceticism” of Anna, her prospective mother-in-law, Emily has to suppress the epicurean habits she has acquired in France and remember that marrowbone and gravy, not veal cutlets and truffles, are to be the order of the day.)

Layered into this often comic narrative are Emily’s and Stephen’s explanations of their growing radicalism. Between them they recite the bloody roll call of twentieth century American history: the defeat of The Wobblies; Frank Little’s hanging in Butte Montana in 1917; the execution of the Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti; the glamour and heroism of John Reed; Eugene V. Debs polling one million votes for socialism in 1920, the slaughtered Lindbergh baby, and now the Depression and millions of homeless Oakies (“how did it happen?…The USA is a rich country”). In the face of all this, they find only the weak hope of Roosevelt, undermined by the lack of any national “system” or philosophy to solve the country’s vast problems. In characteristically droll and allusive manner, Emily proposes an American fable about this worried nation burying its head in the sand: “We started out like no other nation with a philosophy, a constitution – a cartload of furniture to fix our little grey home in the west. But the landlord, known as Wolf, is knocking at the door, and even he is going to be hungry, tonight. No, I won’t think about it till I get home again.” Stead was later to claim that political explanations were weighing the book down, hampering the central theme of the Howards’ marriage, but much of the finest writing in I’m Dying Laughing emanates from attempts, like this one by Emily, to dramatise the state of the nation. Despite Stead’s desire to curtail the literariness of her writing, her gift for transfiguration shines through in passages like these where she (and Emily) characterise the stale political world, lightly transforming it (here, by alluding to the childhood mythology of The Wizard of Oz and Little Red Riding Hood) and so bringing it to life.

Albert Maltz, prison mugshot

Albert Maltz, prison mugshot

About the same time as Stead was working to reanimate her readers’ memories, reminding them in these early chapters of what it felt like to be young in the Thirties, Albert Maltz was also confronted with a lack of comprehension about his communist past. Explaining why he had knuckled under and agreed to re-write his New Masses article, why he had adhered to Party discipline, Maltz also had to look back to recount how, in the pre-war years, the Party had become the focus for (and repository of) a powerful idealism – the belief that communism might deliver a kind of paradise on earth:

Well, in those years people concerned about the future of the world had a great deal of interest in, or excitement about, the Soviet Union…one heard things that were very exciting to intellectuals – that abortions were free, that divorce and marriage were up to the people to decide, as well as the fact that they had no unemployment and we had tremendous unemployment.

And then if you began to observe the domestic scene you found that the Communist movement at that time stood for a good many things. It was the Communist movement that was organizing the unemployed. It was the Communist movement that raised the slogan ‘Black and white, unite and fight!’ and spoke out against racial discrimination. It was the Communist movement that proposed social security, which became the law of the land. It was the Communist movement that was very important in the organizing of the CIO and the industrial unions.

And if furthermore you had read in the Marxist classics, you found what I still think to be the noblest set of ideals ever penned by man…where else in political literature do you find thinkers saying that we were going to end all forms of human exploitation? Wage exploitation, exploitation of women by men…the exploitation of colour by white peoples, the exploitation of the colonial countries by the imperialist countries. And Marx spoke of the fact that socialism will be the kingdom of freedom, where man realizes himself in a way that humankind has never seen before.

The question of the influence that such ardent political feeling had upon art (asked of radicals and the films they made in Hollywood) has also been the cause of much speculation in relation to Stead’s writing. I have argued that the politics of Stead’s novels has flummoxed many critics. Her tendency to concentrate on left-wing figures that are unheroic and unappealing, as in I’m Dying Laughing, on renegades who inhabit (what she thought of as) bohemian wastelands, has confused some into believing that the political weltanschaung in her books is at odds with the political views she claimed in life. The issue has been most clearly understood by Angela Carter who asserted that Stead wrote as consistently from the Left as Evelyn Waugh had from the Right – she “takes the validity of the ideology for granted”. The way in which history was playing it out, Emily’s never-ending list of Kronstadts, made one’s relationship to the Party more complicated, but never diminished one’s belief in the ideas (the same ideas as those extolled by Maltz) behind it.

It was not just Stead, as Carter says, who took it for granted that good, intelligent people would support communist ideas, if not be Party members: the intelligentsia in American and Europe was dominated in the pre-war years by left-wing hegemony. This spirit of the times is well-expressed in Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowlands. Set in England in the Fifties, it tells the story of the love affair between the American poet Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. Getting to know one other they discuss their political beliefs and Lewis tells Davidman he was never a member of the Communist Party, not even in the Thirties. Davidman, finding this impossible to comprehend, demands to know, in a tone half-bemused, half-accusatory: “Why weren’t you?”

By the mid-Sixties, when Stead was confronted with the daunting prospect of going back and annotating her characters in I’m Dying Laughing, the worst excesses of McCarthyism were over, (though trials continued as late as 1964). A decade later Lillian Hellman’s account of the period was added to that of Burnshaw and Maltz. She, too, believed that Americans had already forgotten what happened under McCarthy, and because of this, those who had failed to speak out, who had been duped into writing for CIA funded magazines (like Encounter) or supporting CIA backed organisations, now felt no need to apologise for their acquiescence (however unintended): “None of them, as far as I know, has stepped forward to admit a mistake. It is not necessary in this country; they too know that we are a people who do not remember much.” Hellman’s reasons for not forgetting were personal as well as political. McCarthy not only interfered with her ability to make a living, and destroyed her faith in an intellectual community which failed to defend the persecuted, “whether they were my teachers or my friends or strangers whose books I had read”; it also hastened the death of the man she loved.

Dashiell Hammett went to jail in 1951 for a year for refusing to name names, he was ill when he went in and worse when he came out, Hellman reports. Called to testify again in 1955, he had a heart attack later that year, and although he lived another five, the time in jail, harassment by the Inland Revenue and the strain of being followed by the FBI, all considerably weakened his health. Arthur Miller, like Hellman was one of the few prominent artists and intellectuals who did speak out, and who refused to comply with the Committee’s requests for information about communist friends. A decade after writing The Crucible he, too, was taking stock of the past, considering whether or not he could forgive his former friend Elia Kazan for his behaviour during the time of the trials (he had not only testified as a friendly witness, but in 1952 took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging others to do likewise), whether Miller should work with him again in the setting up of a centre for the Arts in New York, the Lincoln Centre: “What it came down to now was whether his political stance and even moral defection, if one liked, should permanently bar him from working in the theatre, especially this kind of publicly supported theatre.”

In making his decision Miller found himself, as Stead, Maltz and Hellman had, coming up against the problem that America, a country with its eye always on the next ‘hot’ story, was forgetful about its own, even very recent, history: “I had not changed my opinion that his testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee had disserviced both himself and the cause of freedom, and I had no doubt that he still thought himself justified. In the intervening years, of course, the whole Communist issue had gone cold, and a new generation hardly understood what it had all been about.” But there were some around Stead who never gave way to this kind of collective amnesia, companions in memory who, like Miller, refused to forget. When the most trusted of these, her husband, died in 1968 it seemed to Stead as if the times had gone to hell: “You came at a bad time” she told Joan Lidoff, grouchily in 1973, when she arrived to interview her five years after Blake’s death. But she recounted to Lidoff, with some poignancy, the quality of Bill’s memory and the reinforcement it afforded her over the maligned I’m Dying Laughing: “I read it to Bill. His eyes had gone. And he liked it. Well, of course, his memory was perfect for detail. He remembered all of that. But people don’t remember all that, you know. The thirties was a hundred years ago. So I started to go to work and explain it all to people. And it got me down. I don’t want to write like that, filling in all kinds of details. These reference books kill me.”

Perhaps it was unease at the ferocity of Stead’s portrayal of monstrosity and debauchery that disturbed those who looked at it and demanded re-writes, rather than simply the belief that America was now living in an “eternal present”, suffering from a form of collective forgetting: though the country’s forgetfulness troubles its more conscientious biographers: Elmore Leonard, for instance, often returns to the idea that American modernity is intent upon expunging history, he writes of the “the past…being wiped out by condominiums”; Studs Terkel has said that as a nation Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, the terrible and wasting effect of which is the “elimination of the past, of history”; Gore Vidal habitually refers to his country as “the United States of Amnesia”; while Frederic Jameson’s formulation of ‘The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ is precipitated by, and a response to, “the matter of historical deafness”. It seems likely, however, that beyond the dilemmas posed for the writer by this shunning of the past, Stead’s readers felt there was need for some explanation for the terrifying picture of human beings that she presented in I’m Dying Laughing that the optimism of youth was necessary to counterbalance and explain Emily’s and Stephen’s great and lavish Fall.

But having struggled for so long with this demanding novel these final acts of reworking and elucidating her story proved too onerous for Stead, and as Ronald Geering, the executor of her estate, relates in his Preface to her book, Stead came to believe she was being drawn into writing a different novel and into sacrificing some of the force of the original version. “My forthcoming novel is now in the dustbin or as good as” Stead wrote despondently to a friend: “I ploughed it under – instead of dying laughing it was dying of boredom and overwork and what Bill used to call ree-search. It is not my métier and it got me down, so low I could not even read a book – any book.” The difficulty was compounded by the fact that once again Stead was presenting fallen, not positive heroes. She had chosen to write about this period not by focussing on a trial of the HUAC, but by presenting a witch-hunt perpetrated by those on her own side. She did not seize the opportunity to display left-wing heroism, to show the brave struggle and ultimate vindication of those who refused to testify and then were cast out, but, typically for her, concentrated instead on those on the left who reneged on the faith, gave up and lost their way.

viii. Monstrous Humans

Unlike Stead’s characters, the man with the most to lose – the writer with the largest pay packet in Hollywood – refused to play the part of Judas. Dalton Trumbo was earning $75,000 a script at MGM before he was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten for declining to answer questions about his political beliefs before the HUAC at their first round of hearings in 1947. (It really was baffling to the prosecutors on the Committee as to why such wealthy people should be communists: when asked what he thought about this, Louis B. Mayer, who, among many others, named his employee Trumbo, answered: “In my opinion, Mr Congressman, which I have expressed many times, I think they are cracked.”) Twenty years later, though, Trumbo was, rather remarkably, neither acrimonious nor judging of those who had informed on their friends: “…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some were diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims…”

Others of the Hollywood Ten (all of whom had been imprisoned for a year for refusing to testify as friendly witnesses before the Committee) felt they were unable to deliver such Christ-like absolution, not only because Trumbo exonerated the informers, but because (more importantly) in so doing he depoliticized the struggle of those who had resisted. Questioning survivors of the period, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund found that the rest of the Hollywood Ten: “…disagree[d] violently with Dalton Trumbo’s speech of forgiveness – his infamous “only victims” speech, delivered to the Writers Guild when it awarded him its Laurel Award – because they d[id] not see themselves as victims, but as political fighters.” Similarly, Stead would have found the idea of characterizing her two renegades as victims, both repugnant and inaccurate. To do so would have been to call forth in her readers feelings of sympathy and commiseration for Emily and Stephen: as Angela Carter pointed out in a trenchant review of Stead’s work: “Stead’s greatest moral quality as a writer is her lack of pity…for Stead, pity is otiose, a self-indulgent luxury that obscures the real nature of our relations with our kind.”

In her drawing of Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, Stead fleshes out something that is infinitely more ugly, self-deceiving and destructive, than victimhood. However, I’m Dying Laughing amounts not to a portrait of monstrosity, as this might suggest, but of humanity, delivered without blandishment, without flattery. Indeed, Stead’s illusionless view of humanity (one might call it her literary creed) is articulated in the novel by Emily’s friend: addicted to pills and a battered wife, the pathetic Violet Trefougar, thinking of bullies and victims, articulates what Stead shows us on every page of this novel: “Every human being” she declares, ruefully, “is a sort of monster if you get to know them.” (While Emily, more characteristically, sharpens her aphoristic wit on the subject of the nature of humanity like this: “Nothing inhuman is alien to me”.)

Denying her readers what have become (at least at the tail end of the twentieth century) among the more stultifying pleasures of the text, Stead refuses to collude with us by lubricating our feelings of moral superiority, because she knows, like Emily’s granny, “a battling old lady who subscribed to the Clarion” and whom Emily owns as her “ideological” parent, that “life is really tough: you can’t flatter it.” So we are blasted, rather, with an altogether less onanistic and more disturbing picture. As with the contorted and savage portraiture of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, Stead’s bruised creatures bring us face to face with ourselves, “never asking”, as Carter writes with some wonder, “if [we] wish to be so furiously enlightened.”

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: