Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front delivers a vivid re-creation of the 1950s Red Scare in which many of Hollywood’s most talented writers, actors, and directors found themselves blacklisted and prevented from working in the film and TV industry because of past or present Communist associations and their refusal to name names. In the film’s concluding scene, Howard Prince, a no-name restaurant cashier used as a “front” by several blacklisted writers to submit their scripts (a common and risky subterfuge in that era), triumphantly tells off the committee and goes to jail a happy hero, cheered by an adoring crowd against a swelling soundtrack of Frank Sinatra singing about fairy tales coming true.
For director Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, star Zero Mostel, and several other Hollywood blacklist survivors involved in the film, The Front provided a chance to shine a light on a dark and deplorable time in America’s recent past, and to take a well-earned post-Watergate victory lap with its fairy-tale ending. But that Hollywood ending was far too long in coming for artists who faced jail time or lost their reputations and their livelihoods in the blacklist era, and for many it never came. Still others, through luck, connections, and striking instances of community-under-siege solidarity, managed to endure and thrive in the face of Red Scare repression.
Award-winning biographer Julia Bricklin’s spellbinding Red Sapphire: The Woman Who Beat the Blacklist recounts a remarkable tale of blacklist-era resistance in the story of Hannah Weinstein, a left-liberal American journalist, publicist, speechwriter, and political activist who chose European exile for herself and her young daughters as McCarthyite investigators closed in. Settling in England, Weinstein reinvented herself as a film and TV producer who worked almost exclusively with scripts secretly penned by blacklisted American writers, including Walter Bernstein, Adrian Scott, and future Oscar winner Ring Lardner, Jr. Weinstein became a pioneer and innovator in the new medium of episodic television with Sapphire Films’ popular and enduring The Adventures of Robin Hood, which ran for 144 episodes between 1955 and 1960.
As Bricklin reveals, not only did Weinstein’s reliance on blacklisted writers keep those writers’ careers alive; as the show’s popularity rose in the US, it also kept their egalitarian and pro-worker values in play in a society that was increasingly turning away from them. Robin Hood “episodes frequently pushed back on Red Scare culture with their choice of plots,” Bricklin writes. “In several of them, conflict centers on the lower-class members of Nottingham being denied political rights as well as some economic rights. . . . What most viewers did not realize was that they were watching a thinly veiled commentary on the plight of the blacklisted writers and McCarthy hysteria in general.”
I spoke with Julia Bricklin about how she came to write about Hannah Weinstein, and what Weinstein’s story reveals about her tumultuous era and its echoes in our own.
This interview was edited for space and clarity.
While I was reading Red Sapphire, I went back and reread Victor Navasky’s 1980 oral history Naming Names to re-familiarize myself with the era of the Hollywood blacklist that’s crucial to Hannah Weinstein’s story. Navasky talks about his interviews with Dalton Trumbo, Albert Maltz, and other writers who came under attack in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Beginning your research on Red Sapphire nearly forty years later, you couldn’t do that, because most of these people are long gone. Can you talk about how you came to take on this project, how you sourced the book, and how you pieced Hannah Weinstein’s story together?
I tripped over this story. I was tasked with writing a fictional version of a slice of Robin Hood, and I was doing research for that. My grandmother was very into Robin Hood. For reasons I mention in the book, it was her escape in the ’30s and ’40s. But sourcing was really difficult when it came to first-person interviews because nobody’s alive from that area. [Blacklisted screenwriter] Walter Bernstein was still alive when I wrote the book, and he didn’t pass away until last year. He was 101. Norma Barzman [author of The Red and the Blacklist: An Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate], who is 102 and lives pretty close to me, is still alive, and she was one of Hannah’s compatriots who pulled her over to Paris. And the last one was Al Rubin. He was the conduit between the writers and the production who traveled back and forth between New York and London. There are also a lot of sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces who gave me some insights as to what it was like to grow up as the son, daughter, niece, or nephew of a blacklisted writer. And that in itself presents problems because the adults didn’t want the children to know how bad things were. So it wasn’t until their later lives that they pieced together just how awful it was, and conversely how much Hannah Weinstein helped them put groceries on the table, and really gave them a morale boost that they could still keep writing.
Hannah Weinstein seems to have made a conscious choice to rely almost entirely on blacklisted writers for Sapphire Films and Robin Hood. Was it primarily an act of leftist solidarity, a recognition that the best talent in the business was going unused, or was there also an element of taking advantage of their desperation?
As I mentioned in the book, there are two camps. One would say, “Oh, she really took advantage of these writers who weren’t working, and she was able to get them for really cheap.” Another camp says she wanted the quality of these writers, and she wanted to help them too. I believe both are true. She could not possibly pay them what they were used to [before the blacklist]. The budget wouldn’t allow for that. But she did give them a lot of leeway to work creatively in these shows, and she gave them carte blanche to write about all of the things that were happening to them within the context of a program. And given the sheer volume of scripts and ideas and notes that went back and forth in the mail [between England and the US], I don’t know when all of these people slept.
This must have been risky, and complicated, with all the secrecy involved in hiring and paying them.
When I started researching this, it was really hard for me to accept or envision that the consequences were dire if they were caught. I thought, “Wasn’t it sort of a wink-and-nod situation? Everybody’s making so much money off this that CBS and NBC would’ve just let the shows keep going, right?” No, not a chance. Not between 1953 and 1959. The government did not care if [the networks lost a] few advertisers, or if their advertisers lost money. It was a gray area with Robin Hood in that they were working for a British production, but that British production was only possible because American companies were bankrolling it. Johnson & Johnson, Wildroot Cream Oil, and some other [Robin Hood] advertisers would’ve lost their shirts had anyone found out.
As I talk about in the book, the functional part of it was really intense. Hannah had to find a law firm that was willing to essentially break the rules by accepting documents and employment contracts and payments for these writers who were not supposed to be getting work. And there was creative executive Al Rubin in the middle, acting as a conduit between Weinstein’s company and the writers. When you read their letters—the bulk of which I had—the fear [of being caught] is palpable. “Can we please write about this?” [the writers would ask]. “No, you have to change that, because some sharp tool at the network is gonna figure out that that’s you and your personal stamp.”
The more successful these episodes became, the closer people started to look at who was writing them. And it wasn’t that they really suspected something nefarious so much as they said, “Who is this ostensibly non-blacklisted writer named Joe Schmoe who writes for Robin Hood? I want him to start working on one of our shows. Can we get him in here for a meeting?” And then, all of a sudden, Hannah and the lawyers and the agency that was acting as an intermediary were like, “This guy doesn’t exist. He’s really Adrian’s Scott. What are we gonna do?” And then the tap dance begins. One of the great examples I put in my book was “Please don’t talk about him in the newspaper because he’s going through a divorce. We don’t want his wife to know that he’s making money.”
One of the things I found really interesting in Red Sapphire was reading about who Hannah Weinstein was before she went to Europe. Most people familiar with the history of the Truman era know the story of Henry Wallace’s 1946 anti-Containment speech at Madison Square Garden that got him fired as Secretary of Commerce. But I had no idea that it was Hannah Weinstein who provided the platform and filled the room.
It’s pretty incredible. I mean, talk about a woman behind the scenes—and there she stayed. There’s some misogyny in there when Henry and the Progressive party take the fall [with little or no mention of Hannah Weinstein]. But some of it is just being a victim of people who are very frightened of this third party emerging to challenge the Democrats too. So there’s plenty of blame to go around. But she was very, very good at what she did, and she was very good at getting people on board and not taking no for an answer. And of course, as you read in the book, she’s very good at organizing. When you’ve got these political rallies at Madison Square Garden, it’s really hard for the press to ignore it. And that frightened a lot of people.
How did she transform herself so quickly from a political organizer to a filmmaker and TV producer?
Some of it was the sheer need to make a living, from what I understand from her family and friends. She had three children in the mix. She did not have job opportunities in New York anymore, and she was going to be subpoenaed, whether it was from the House [Un-American Activities Committee], or McCarthy, or somewhere in between. She really had no future politically or financially in New York.
My personal guess is that she also wanted to remove that specter from her family. By leaving, she could prevent her brothers and her father from being in the same crosshairs as herself. So she went to Europe, and I don’t think she planned to stay there very long. I think she just went there knowing that she could set up camp with [exiled producers and screenwriters Norma and Ben] Barzman and [former William Morris Agency executive] John Weber and Boris Karloff, and everyone else [from the American Left] who was in Paris at the time. I don’t even think she planned to leave Paris. But she went over there and she found this colony of people who, like her, were still writing about the Spanish Civil War and the specter of fascism.
And again, she didn’t take no for an answer. She browbeat John Weber and the Barzmans and everyone else there to teach her how to make these newfangled small films for a small screen. And the way Norma Barzman told it to me—with some hyperbole I’m sure—Hannah went down to a production on the river Seine and learned over three days how to wield a camera and shoot and edit. I don’t really believe it happened in three days, but I’m sure it was a short amount of time.
I think Hannah’s real prowess was bringing intellectual property to the small screen. As you read in the book, she managed to get the rights to these John Dickson Carr [Colonel March of Scotland Yard] novels. Everyone was into detectives then, and it was really a coup for her to get the rights to these books. I know for a fact the writer of those books would have said, “Absolutely not” had he known who was going to be producing those.
As a woman, as an American, or as a leftist?
All of the above. He was very conservative, even for the time. But she did it. She brought that intellectual property to the screen, and she sold it to Lew Grade in England, who himself had a really dire need to get content. He was looking at one of the first television commercial licenses and needed something special to put on his channel. It needed to be clean, it needed to be smart, it needed to be suitable for the small screen and the big screen, the way that British cinema was at that time.
Besides acquiring the right kinds of properties at the right time, it seemed like Weinstein also invented this whole new and more efficient way of running a production company with her modular set-building approach. How did she figure out how to do that?
It was really a coup for her to get Peter Proud [as Sapphire Films’ first art director]. I don’t even know if Hannah knew this, but during World War II, Proud was an artist as well as a set designer, and he made fake sets of what looked like British troop movements. He would take photographs of them and they would get them into the hands of the Nazis to make them think that British troop movements were imminent, and that they had more equipment than they did, and personnel in places where they really didn’t. And some would argue that that changed the outcome of the war. Peter Proud was really, really talented. And he was able to build these sets that were modular, so [with Robin Hood] you could roll in some brick walls and roll in an archway and a couple of potted plants, and boom, you’re in a different castle than you were half an hour ago. It was really something, and it was really cost-effective. They were able to make these fabulous sets and still stick to a very minimal budget.
One thing that comes up often in Naming Names is that the fear of being named and blacklisted, and the resentment toward those who named, created suspicion and division in Hollywood, even among ostensibly like-minded people. One thing we see in Red Sapphire is how, over in Europe, there seemed to be this thriving and welcoming leftist community that Hannah Weinstein fell into, especially in Paris where she landed first.
Every country has their moments. My colleague, Rebecca Prime, does a great job [in Hollywood Exiles in Europe] portraying the lives of Americans and people from Canada and other countries who set up a colony of sorts in Paris. And then Hannah sort of took the reins and set up one in England. They did a magnificent job providing a place where it was safe for people to explore their creativity and also speak out against the political climate that was seeping into all of the industrialized countries at that time.
What really rang true to me was the camaraderie and support that these writers got is very similar to what’s going on with the WGA today and the writers’ strike. Because outside of that, just as back then in the ’50s, the Republican Party—because that was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s party—did a really great job of giving the veneer of elitism amongst the writers. They said, “Look at these salaries and look at these intellectual snobs. The fact that they’re out of work or they’re being investigated really shouldn’t concern the entire American populace.”
And you see so much of that today with this sort of anti-intellectualism. So it was really heartening to me to see the support among these fellow writers and people who were willing to speak out.
Red Sapphire: The Woman Who Beat the Blacklist
By Julia Bricklin
Published September 5, 2023