erik lundegaard

Saturday April 18, 2020

Walter Bernstein on the Origins of Red Channels

More notes from Walter Bernstein's book “Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist,” which is recommended. Bernstein's a great writer: straightforward and graceful, with self-effacing wit and no wasted words. And still alive at 100? Wow. Good for him. 

Bernstein is one of the first guys I‘ve read who goes into the origins of Red Channels, the blacklist for television. Turns out it was three simple steps:

  1. “Back in 1947 three ex-FBI agents had formed American Business Consultants (ABC), bankrolled by a businessman named Alfred Kohlberg, best known as a lobbyist for Nationalist China. The ’Business' part referred to radio and television networks and the advertising agencies that controlled the casting for the network shows. The ‘Consultants’ determined, for a fee, whether these casts were free of Communist taint.”
  2. “ABC also published a newsletter called Counterattack that pointed out which tainted performers were appearing on what shows. It gave the names and addresses of the programs' sponsors and urged its readers to help defeat communism by writing in protest to these sponsors.”
  3. “Later ABC published a booklet called Red Channels, subtitled The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. ... Red Channels became the bible of the blacklist movement. There were eight listings for me, all of them true. I had written for the New Masses and Mainstream, both Communist publications; had joined organizations in support of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; had joined another organization to demand more rights for black veterans of World War Two; and had been active for Soviet-American friendship and Russian War Relief. I would have felt insulted if I had not been included.”*

* This line has a real “Here comes the future and you can't run from it/ If you‘ve got a blacklist I want to be on it” vibe. 

The three ex-FBI agents who started it were, according to Wiki, John G. Keenan (co. president; businessman); Kenneth M. Bierly (later a consultant to Columbia Pictures); and Theodore C. Kirkpatrick (managing editor of Counterattack, group spokesman). Francis J. McNamara was the editor of Counterattack. He was a former Army intelligence major.

It’s tough to find out much about these guys. The New York Times lists nothing for any of them, for example. Or, more oddly, you‘ll find nothing under “Theodore C. Kirkpatrick” or “Theodore Kirkpatrick” but if you search for “Kirkpatrick ’Red Channels'” you‘ll get half a dozen from 1950, all of which inclulde some reference to “Theodore Kirkpatrick.” The articles began in late August and ended in late September and most focused on an actress named Jean Muir, who worked at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, returned to the stage, and was a regular on an early TV show, “The Aldrich Family,” playing Mrs. Aldrich. She was fired that fall for being a “controversial person.” Why? Because for six months in 1946 she’d been a member of the “Congress of American Women,” which had been started by progressive Elinor S. Gimbel (yes, of Gimbels dept. store), but which was apparently affiliated with a Soviet organization as well. That's why she was named in Red Channels and why she lost her job when a couple dozen people complained to NBC. From her 1996 obit:

“I am not a Communist, have never been one, and believe that the Communists represent a vicious and destructive force, and I am opposed to them,” she said after being dismissed from “The Aldrich Family.” General Foods said it had no opinion on the accuracy of the charges against Ms. Muir but that it had no choice but to dismiss her because the accusations made her “a controversial personality.” Ms. Muir did not work in television again until 1958.

Again, this is why any current cries of a “blacklist” against right-wing actors, writers and directors is absolute bullshit. Are ex-FBI agents creating organizations to investigate conservatives and right-wingers in Hollywood—to see what right-leaning organizations they belong to or might've belonged to in the past? Whose names they print up in a booklet that encourages phone-calling and letter-writing campaigns to put these conservatives out of work? All while Democrats on a U.S. House subcommittee investigate same? And even jail people for not answering charges?

If anything like that begins to happen, please drop a line. 

Posted at 10:05 AM on Saturday April 18, 2020 in category Books  
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