There was no “Hollywood Ten” or a lengthy blacklist of directors and producers, but Sen. Joe McCarthy was no fan of showbiz.
The U.S. Senate last week unsealed more than 4,000 pages of transcripts of closed-door hearings McCarthy conducted in the early 1950s.
Tinseltown was not the main focus of McCarthy’s witch-hunts. The House UnAmerican Activities Committee had almost exhausted that redbaiting crusade a few years earlier. But McCarthy found a new angle.
McCarthy’s Senate committee was charged with investigating the government for subversion and espionage. To get to writers and artists, he went after anyone whose name ever appeared on a government payroll.
That list included Oscar-award winning composer Aaron Copland, who had traveled to Italy as a Fulbright scholar, filmmaker Julien Bryan, who made documentaries of foreign lands for the State Dept., actress, director and producer Margaret Webster, who participated in the State Dept.’s teacher-student exchange program.
He also interrogated novelist Dashiell Hammett, who penned “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man,” as well as Harlem renaissance writer Langston Hughes.
“Sometimes he was hauling them in simply because they wrote a book that happened to be in a library that the government owned,” says Senate historian Don Ritchie.
The unsealed transcripts are filled with examples of McCarthy’s bullish style, but they also show witnesses standing their ground.
Case in point: Copland, who was only questioned in private. After denying several times that he was a communist, Copland grew frustrated.
“I spend my days writing symphonies, concertos, ballads, and I am not a political thinker,” he said.