The Hollywood Reporter celebrated its 65th anniversary by publishing a feature story on its founder Billy Wilkerson's role in launching the Hollywood blacklists. Brooke talks to Hollywood Reporter senior writer Daniel Miller about the genesis of Wilkerson's anti-communist campaign and why The Hollywood Reporter published this article now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: November 25th was the 65th anniversary of the first Hollywood blacklist. The list included the names of the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” screenwriters cited for contempt when they refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about their alleged ties to the Communist Party. The blacklist was headline news in the early fifties, when Senator Joseph McCarthy rode to fame on a wave of fear. Now, a feature in last week's Hollywood Reporter recounts how its founder and publisher William R. Wilkerson was instrumental in launching the blacklist era. Hollywood Reporter writers Daniel Miller and Gary Baum penned the piece. Daniel, welcome to On the Media.
DANIEL MILLER: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who was Billy Wilkerson?
DANIEL MILLER: He was the owner, founder, editor and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, which he started in 1930. But he was more than just a newspaperman. He also owned nightclubs. He built the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. And he mixed it up with the A list stars of the day. He was really a force to be reckoned with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was his role in instigating the blacklist?
DANIEL MILLER: Shortly after the end of World War II, Billy began penning columns. His column was called “Trade Views” and it came out every day on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. And these columns were anti-Communist. There was a lurking “Red Beachhead,” as he called it. Billy began naming names in ’46, and uh, many of the names that he named were people who wound up being blacklisted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the people he listed that wound up on the “Hollywood Ten” list, “Spartacus” screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and “Casablanca” cowriter Howard Koch.
DANIEL MILLER: Trumbo and Koch were among the more prominent screenwriters that Wilkerson named early on. Many of the people that he named were just getting their start in Hollywood. Once Joseph McCarthy was presiding over his reign of terror - I guess you could call it – he once called Billy and asked him for advice on how he went about gathering up names. So Billy was an influential guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are many conflicting theories as to what made him such a vociferous anti-Communist.
DANIEL MILLER: Billy Wilkerson's son, Willie Wilkerson, believes that his father was trying to get revenge on the studio heads who had stymied him in the 1920s, when he had attempted to start a movie studio. So basically, Willie believes that his father was holding a grudge for decades and in the late 1940s saw this as an opportunity to hurt the movie heads. Willie told me when I interviewed him that there were two topics that he was not allowed to ask his father about, and this was the mob - Billy Wilkerson is known to have connections to the Mafia - and Communism. So this was not something that Willie appears to have learned directly from his father. The view that I have, along with my cowriter Gary Baum, is perhaps a bit more nuanced. We view Billy Wilkerson as a businessman, first and foremost. The Hollywood Reporter was dependent on the movie studios to buy ads and, in that respect, we see Billy as somebody who was actually in lockstep with the studio heads, who were also anti-Communist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggest that who he really wanted to go to war with was the Screenwriters Guild. You cite an editorial from the 1930s in which Wilkerson asks of the Screenwriters Guild, quote, “What has this great industry done to all of you that you must go into frenzies about the injustice that is done to you, pack into meetings with speechmaking, arm waving, searching for the power to kill the very business that has made many of you rich?”
DANIEL MILLER: That's right. He felt that organized screenwriters could usurp some of the control that the studios had.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk to me about his mob connections. I read that he palled around with bosses like Meyer Lansky and, and Bugsy Siegel. Did that contribute to his anti-Communist stance?
DANIEL MILLER: This goes back to long-held beliefs by organized crime that put them in opposition to organized labor. Wilkerson was closely aligned with mob players like Siegel. In fact, they built the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas together. That relationship soured, ultimately leading Billy Wilkerson to flee to Paris, where he holed up in the George V Hotel out of fear that Bugsy was going to kill him. But at the end of the day, the through line is business. So if the Mafia heads are telling him unions are bad for business, that rubs off on Billy. If he hears something similar from the studio heads, again, it rubs off on Billy and I think it really shaped his worldview.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is The Hollywood Reporter telling this story on the 65th anniversary of the blacklist? Why didn’t you do it on the 50th anniversary of the blacklist?
DANIEL MILLER: The Hollywood Reporter changed hands recently, and that has really given us a clean break with the past and an opportunity to look back and assess our past. This was something that The Hollywood Reporter had never done before, though that wasn't for a lack of trying, at least on the part of one reporter who in 1997 attempted a story that perhaps would have looked much like what I wrote with Gary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the 50th anniversary.
DANIEL MILLER: That’s right. Reporter Dave Robb of The Hollywood Reporter wrote a lengthy piece about THR's role in the blacklist era, and his editor read it over and effectively said, this is a great story but we can’t publish it. The era was just too painful to revisit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the part of the story you felt queasiest about?
DANIEL MILLER: I certainly was no blacklist expert, and one of the ways I got to familiarize myself was basically by reading back issues. I was stunned by some of the bold headlines on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter, phrases like “Commies” and “Reds” in big splashy headlines. How Wilkerson used the publication for his own agenda, it was surprising just how visceral some of his attacks were.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
DANIEL MILLER: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Miller, along with his colleague Gary Baum, wrote a feature about The Hollywood Reporter's role in the Communist blacklist.