Remembering John Henry Faulk's battle against the blacklist
[Editor's Note: On June 28, 1962, Austin native John Henry Faulk was awarded a record judgment in a libel case that helped end the Hollywood blacklist of the Fifties. Willard Manus, a journalist, playwright, and author whose novel Mott the Hoople inspired the name of the British rock band, worked for Faulk at that time.]
John Henry Faulk was a popular New York radio personality back in the Fifties. His daily afternoon show on the local CBS station had a large, loyal following, thanks to his warm, folksy way of telling stories and commenting on the follies of the human race. He was like a poor man's Mark Twain.
Faulk had grown up on a farm outside Austin, Texas, part of a large and raffish middle-class family whose exploits he never tired of recounting in an affectionately satirical way. You'd think that hip, hard-boiled New Yorkers would be put off by his syrupy drawl and corny jokes, but the opposite was true. The longer Faulk stayed on the air, the larger his audience grew.
I got the job of writing for him through my Aunt Jay, a friend of Faulk's second wife, Lynne. Both were left-wing political activists, as was Faulk. Naturally rebellious, he had dropped out of law school to become a writer. Having failed at that, he became a teacher, then a folk artist. He told stories and jokes at political rallies and parties, eventually becoming a minor celebrity on the lecture circuit.
Folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax was also a staff producer for CBS. Having met Faulk in Texas, Lomax felt radio would be a perfect medium for him and introduced Faulk to his bosses, who gave the storyteller a chance to prove himself. Soon, Faulk became not only a radio, but a television success, appearing on such panel shows as Leave It to the Girls and We Take Your Word.
Faulk interviewed me at his West 79th Street apartment. A stocky, handsome man with a near-blind right eye (the result of a childhood infection), he offered me coffee, then addressed me in a businesslike way: "I've never worked with a writer before, simply because what I do is so personal and special," he said in a light Texas drawl. "But because I'm getting all this outside work, I do need help with my daily show. I doubt whether you'll be able to write in my voice and style, but I'm willing to give you a monthlong trial during which you'll have to work for gratis, free, nuthin'! If things work out, though, I'll keep you on at two hundred dollars a week. How's that grab you, son?"
I reluctantly accepted the deal. I had just lost my first post-college job at the Yonkers Daily Times when that newspaper was shut down as a front for a Mafia gambling syndicate. Despite my need for a paycheck, I decided to take a chance with the gregarious and likable Texan, though it did bother me that I'd be working directly for him, not CBS. There'd be no on-air credit for me, either, which meant I'd have no standing with the network or the Radio Writer's Guild. I was, in effect, little better than a ghostwriter. Still, it was a job with a future. I threw myself into the challenge of writing for Faulk. I knew it wouldn't be easy; after all, what could a Bronx boy possibly know about life back in East Texas? I made up for my ignorance by hitting the library and dipping into the treasure chest of American folklore, pulling out gems by such historians as Charles Seeger, Stan Hoig, and J. Frank Dobie (one of Faulk's mentors), and the works of such cowboy philosophers as Will Rogers, Corey Ford, and Alexander ("The Turkey Trotter") McNutt.
The stories I found needed to be shaved down and rewritten to fit the range of characters Faulk brought to life on his show: his Grandpa Bible, Gramma Beckett, Uncle Lee, and Congressman Guffaw. It was a big stretch for me as a writer, but soon I got the hang of it. I was able to capture Faulk's inimitable voice and style, and to live and think like those clodhopper characters of his. I even began to write jokes of my own.
All this was done under the pressure of a daily deadline.
Because I wasn't a CBS employee, I had to work from home, which in those days was my parent's apartment in the Bronx. It meant rising early enough to bang out the material to fill Faulk's hourlong show (which he padded out by spinning hillbilly records and doing lengthy commercials), then catching the subway to the CBS building at Madison and 57th. There, in Faulk's cubbyhole office, he'd go over what I'd written, sometimes red-penciling it, other times rewriting it or making notes in the margins on which he'd extemporize during the show, with impressive ease and skill.
Without question, Faulk was a masterful radio personality, always warm, witty, and entertaining, relaxed to the point of nonchalance – truly an American original, the down-to-earth, irreverent voice of the common man. I admired him greatly.
Faulk was sparing with compliments about my work, but he used most of what I gave him, which gave me confidence.
"I do like your stuff," he said when my trial was up. "I'd sure like to keep working with you, but something has come up which might make such a thing difficult."
Faulk paused and stared at me with something new in his expression: distress.
"I'm fighting the goddamn blacklist," he suddenly blurted. "If I lose the fight, CBS might cancel the show!"
It didn't seem possible that a rich and prestigious corporation like CBS – the Tiffany of the networks, home of such radio luminaries as Edward R. Murrow, Norman Corwin, and Eric Sevareid – would take seriously the accusations made by a handful of right-wing zealots (led by three ex-FBI men, a former naval intelligence officer, and a supermarket owner) that the airwaves had been infiltrated by communist sympathizers bent on subverting the American way of life. These self-appointed guardians of the entertainment industry began publishing a newsletter, Plain Talk, to pressure the networks into "purging" themselves of "the Communist Fifth Column" in their ranks.
They also took it on themselves to name the people who were members of the Fifth Column. It was, pure and simple, an attempt to establish a blacklist in the radio and TV industries – all part of the Fifties' Cold War between Russia and the USA. With backing from the FBI, the American Legion, and a "communist squad" (a secret NYC police unit that had been keeping tabs on leftists since the Forties), Plain Talk began publishing the names of hundreds of showbiz celebrities they accused of being Reds or fellow-travelers. Washington joined the fray by subpoenaing many of these actors, writers, and directors, and questioning them as to their political beliefs and actions. Some of the accused denied the charges against them, others took the Fifth and refused to testify, still others confessed to being leftists, only to be told that they wouldn't be cleared until they had named their left-wing friends, relatives, and fellow workers.
The blacklist began to take root in the broadcast industry. The patriots gloated over this development, claiming that they had thwarted a communist conspiracy to rule the airwaves. It was a load of codswollop, of course. No doubt some of the accused were, or had been, lefties. Some might even have been communists. But even if they were hardcore Stalinists, it was utterly preposterous to believe that they could slip propaganda into the shows they worked on, things like The Goldbergs, Gang Busters, or The Aldrich Family, all of which had been singled out by the witch-hunters.
Now Faulk was caught up in this anti-communist frenzy, even though he had previously – and reluctantly – signed a CBS loyalty oath. Faulk's leftist sympathies were a matter of public record: He and Lynne had campaigned for Henry Wallace's Progressive Party; he had entertained at leftist parties and rallies, and was a close friend of Alan Lomax (one of the first blacklist victims at CBS). He had come out against U.S. participation in the Korean War. But none of these political ideas found their way into The John Henry Faulk Show. It was about as radical and dangerous as a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.
CBS could and should have stood up for Faulk – and every employee on the inquisitors' hit list. Instead, the network capitulated – unlike NBC and ABC, which at least made token efforts at fighting the blacklist. All CBS did for Faulk was arrange a meeting with one of its staff lawyers who served as a "security officer" for the company.
"He told me how I could clear my name," Faulk told me later. "If I slipped the editors of AWARE [the renamed Plain Talk] 10 thousand bucks, they'd drop all charges against me."
"What are you going to do, John?"
"I'm going to fight them, damn it! They're a bunch of crooks, a pack of goddamn hypocrites who play at politics in order to line their pockets. Fuck 'em where they breathe!"
Now I had to decide whether I should keep writing for him. He urged me to stay but made it clear that he couldn't afford to pay me: "I'm on the verge of losing my job and simply can't take on any extra expense."
Ultimately, I decided to hang in there, not only because I liked and admired the man, but to show solidarity with him, give the finger to the Red-baiters.
Weeks went by. Faulk kept up his pleasant, easygoing front on the air, but off it he became driven and bad-tempered. He took one meeting after another with his CBS lawyer, who kept pressuring him to snitch on his friends, become a stool pigeon. "It's the only way to save your career," he was told.
Faulk refused to name names. He also refused to buy his enemies off. "I haven't done anything wrong," he shouted. "I won't pay those sonsabitches one thin dime!"
Then came a ray of hope. Faulk was able to arrange a secret meeting with the president of CBS, William S. Paley. If Paley, one of the most influential and powerful men in the industry – hell, in the country – decided to defy AWARE and keep Faulk's show going, it would have helped pull the rug out from under the blacklist. Paley had the weapons with which to defend Faulk: a stable of lawyers, access to Congress and the media, and a network staffed with some of the finest, most respected journalists in the world. He was also fond of Faulk and had often said that he loved his show. Paley was positioned not only to fight the good fight, but to win it.
In the end, though, Paley chickened out, not only canceling Faulk's show but dropping him from CBS' payroll. As a consequence, Faulk's panel-show producers parted company with him as well. He was now jobless, with nothing to show for his years on the air but his dignity and self-respect.
A few years later, Faulk and his new attorney Louis Nizer sued AWARE for libel and slander, charging that it had conspired to defame him and render him unemployable in order to consolidate its own power within the broadcast industry. The trial lasted nearly a year; in the end, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded Faulk damages that totalled $3.5 million – the largest libel judgment an American jury had ever granted. For one reason or another, Faulk never saw any of that money, but he did have the pleasure of seeing the blacklist end in the early Sixties. He eventually went back to work in the industry, appearing as a regular on the comedy show Hee Haw. In 1986, he toured the country in a one-man play titled Pear Orchard, Texas, in which he reprised the characters from his CBS radio show, using many of the anecdotes and jokes I had written for him.
He never paid me so much as "one thin dime" for any of my work.