Saturday March 07, 2020
HUAC and the Battle of 1898
Amid Otto Friedrich's great account of the Hollywood 10—the unfriendly witnesses to appear before HUAC in 1947, and the bluster back and forth—in his great book on Hollywood in the 1940s, “City of Nets,” is this appearance by the 11th member of the Hollywood 10, Bertolt Brecht, who, here, despite Friedrich's description, reminds me of nothing so much as Droopy Dog, disarming his opponents with a kind of lugubrious, disinterested stillness:
Brecht always looked a bit like a raccoon, or a fox, sharp-eyed, wary, quick, but never more so than now. He also smoked one of his cheap cigars. “I was born in Augsburg, Germany, February 10, 1898,” he said. The committee seemed strangely unready for him. “What was that date again?” Thomas* asked, as though he had missed something important. “Would you give that date again?” asked Stripling**. The date was repeated. Representative John McDowell*** echoed it: “1898?” Brecht repeated it: “1898.” The committee then offered Brecht an interpreter, David Baumgardt, a consultant in philosophy at the Library of Congress, and Stripling resumed his interrogation: “You were born in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany, on February 10, 1888, is that correct?” Brecht docilely agreed to the misstatement. One of the attorneys, Bartley Crum, intervened to say that it was 1898. Brecht agreed again. “Is it ‘88 or ’98?” Stripling asked once more. “Ninety-eight,” Brecht said.
This account gave me great joy this morning.
* J. Parnell Thomas, U.S. representative from New Jersey's 7th district, and chairman of HUAC, who, a year later, would face corruption charges (relatives on the payroll, fraud, kickbacks, tax evasion), to which he would ironically plead the Fifth; he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
** Robert E. Stripling, chief investigator for both HUAC and its forerunner, the Dies Committee. A civil servant, he resigned after Democrats took control of Congress again in January 1949. In a quote in the New York Times, he said he would return to Texas to rest and then “accept a position offered me in the oil industry.”
*** McDowell, a representative from Pennsylvania, wasn't re-elected in 1948 and committed suicide in 1957.