During the late 1940s and early 50s, writer-director Norman Corwin was on the “gray list”: “I was a self-acknowledged liberal, and liberal was almost as poisonous to attach to a person then as it was now.”
Now 96, the radio legend, right, whose career was forged at CBS with many signature broadcasts from the golden age of broadcasting, called to share his thoughts on his friend Frank Stanton, the CBS president who died earlier this week at age 98.
Stanton’s own career was colored in shades of gray, as he led CBS through the Red scare of the 1950s to Vietnam and Watergate in the 1960s and 70s. Although tributes and obituaries singled out his refusal in 1971 to comply with a government subpeona to turn over outtakes from a “CBS Reports” documentary, Stanton succumbed to pressure during the McCarthy era to impose a “loyalty oath” on CBS employees. Although he later expressed regret, many years later blacklisted writers and others expressed their disagreement when the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gave him a First Amendment Award in 1999.
Corwin called the hubbub over Stanton’s award “one of the saddest products of this political disquiet.”
“It may have been in the matter of the loyalty oath,” Corwin says. “But in those days, it was tough to stand up to the constant pressure.”
Overall, Corwin said that it was “remarkable” that Stanton was able to stave off government intrusion into broadcasting, “and I think he contributed to CBS’s reputation as a liberal network.”
As a freshman writer at CBS in 1938, Corwin says Stanton gave his career a big boost when he ordered 1,000 copies of a book of Corwin’s plays, called “13 by Corwin.” With a special forward by Corwin, the book was given to clients, advertisers, and politicians, “people of influence,” Corwin says.
“I thought that Frank went out of his way to encourage talent,” Corwin says. “For this man to use his position to further a career of a young man from the provinces, I thought that was remarkable.
“I always had his support in ways I am not accustomed to. I am not the kind of guy who trusts or is trusted by stockholders. Yet he would invite me to meetings of stockholders to address them. He was that kind of fellow.”
As Corwin’s career rose at CBS, he enjoyed unusual artistic freedom, directing and writing a half-hour show called “26 by Corwin,” in which he was essentially given a blank slate to do what he liked. After the start of World War II, President Roosevelt suggested to CBS founder William S. Paley that they do a series on the British and what they faced, and Corwin was chosen to write it. He did it on the condition that the government not interfere with its content, and FDR agreed. The result was “An American in England,” which Corwin made while working in Britain alongside such legends as Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith and Robert Trout.
After being put in charge of the first wartime radio series, “This Is War!,” Corwin was assigned to create a program that would run on the day of victory in Europe. Again, he was given leeway to create what he wanted and freedom from interference by network executives. “On a Note of Triumph,” which ran live on May 8, 1945, with a Bernard Herrmann score, is regarded as a radio classic.
“Not once did they say to me, ‘How much will it cost? What will be your slant?'” Corwin said. “They first heard the program when it was on the air. That could not happen on another network then, and it couldn’t even happen on CBS now.”
Through it all, Stanton was a “class act. Never was there a sense of a kind of Germanic discipline. It was always flexible and open.”
Corwin’s career wound down at CBS in the late 1940s, as Paley believed that the new medium of television demanded more commercial entertainment. During the McCarthy era, Corwin found himself accused of participating in some “subversive” broadcasts — some of them done during World War II at the request of the network and the government — but he was part of the blacklist. Although he had left CBS in a contract dispute, Corwin maintained what he called a “cordial entente” with the network, and remained friends with Stanton and Murrow. The relationship between Stanton and Murrow often was strained, and Corwin was distressed by it.
In the wake of the quiz show scandals, when, in a puritanical effort to diffuse government inquiry, Stanton demanded that programming be everything it purported to be. He even included Murrow’s “Person to Person” on the list, suggesting that some of the newsman’s interviews with celebrities and politicians were rehearsed. Murrow was furious.
“There were bitter statements issues from both sides,” Corwin says. “It distressed me because I like Frank and I was a warm and close friend of Murrow’s.”
Through the years, as he pursued a career in film, Corwin stayed in touch with Stanton. Once, when the Rand Corporation issued a calendar of famous people’s quotes and prose, he noticed that among them was one of his own:
Freedom isn’t something to be won and then forgotten.
It must be renewed, like soil after good crops;
It must be rewound, like a faithful clock;
Exercised like a healthy muscle.
Free men who forget that lose their freedom.
“That had to be the work of Frank Stanton, who was a trustee of the Rand Corporation,” Corwin says.
He last saw Stanton in 2001, at a luncheon for him held at the Skirball Institute, where they shook hands and embraced one last time. And Corwin has kept letters he got from the former CBS chief, whose background was in psychology and audience research. He singles out one of his favorite lines, which read:
I will trade you a statistic for a sonnet anytime.
Note: The above artwork is a self-made Christmas card that Stanton sent to Corwin. Courtesy of Norman Corwin.