Blacklisted by Hollywood, my father Carl Foreman made a new life in Britain. But he never forsook the country of his birth
For me, still a schoolboy in that year when he fell ill and died, it all felt quite unreal: the funeral, the film stars and directors who came to it, the returning home to a house that would never be the same. And even though my family had by then lived in California for almost a decade, it somehow felt strange that my father’s ashes were going to remain there, rather than in England. Fortunately, ashes are mobile and a few years later my mother brought them to London. An exile twice over, and the son of refugees from Tsarist Russia, my American father was always concerned with mobility. Moreover, London where he had lived for almost a quarter of a century, had arguably become his real home, even though he only moved there under duress and in his thirties.
My father was Carl Foreman, the screenwriter and producer of films such asHigh Noon — the favourite film of Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton — The Guns of Navarone and The Bridge on the River Kwai. He had been a well-known figure both as a film-maker and as one of the victims of the Hollywood “McCarthyite” blacklist of the late 1940s and ’50s. He reversed the traditional transatlantic trajectory by leaving the US to find freedom and a new life in Europe, though this never changed the meaning of America for him. He always believed that the “red scare” was an unworthy moment that didn’t define America.
Senator Joseph McCarthy himself actually had nothing to do with the Hollywood blacklist. His denunciations and generally spurious lists of potential traitors were limited to government institutions such as the State Department and the US Army. The hysteria that descended on Hollywood was stoked by members of the House of Representatives, specifically the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). Anyone who refused to testify before the Committee was subject to being held in contempt of Congress. Those deemed to be unco-operative witnesses — perhaps because, like my father, they refused to “name names” — were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios. In those days, the studios were a genuine cartel-run mostly by immigrants or sons of immigrants who were desperate to prove themselves good Americans — and if they blacklisted you it really meant that your career was over.
Born in Chicago in 1914, my father had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Already disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact, he left the party when he joined the US Army in 1941 and severed all ties with it in 1946. By the time he was called before HUAC, during the making of High Noon in 1951, he was a convinced anti-communist. As he told the committee then and me much later, he would have happily denounced anyone he believed to be a genuine saboteur or traitor. However, he felt it was wrong to ruin the careers of friends and acquaintances who had joined civil rights or antilynching organisations that the FBI (run by the sinister J. Edgar Hoover) deemed to be “communist fronts”. When a HUAC official told him that he wouldn’t have to name anyone new to be deemed a co-operative witness, so that he wouldn’t be ruining anyone whose career had not already been wrecked, he still refused to take part even though it was professional suicide. He himself had been named in perjurious testimony by a former party member he had never actually met. When he confronted HUAC’s chief investigator with the fact that the committee’s source had lied, the investigator laughed and said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. We’ve got some legitimate ones on you now.”Unable to practise his profession, he left the US in 1952 and began a new life and eventually a second film-making career in London. It was very hard at first. For several years, he worked as a script doctor and wrote under pseudonyms. Even British film companies were afraid to employ him under his real name. (When he co-wrote the screenplay for David Lean’s Bridge over the River Kwai, his name was removed from the print. The screenplay won an Oscar, which was awarded to the French author of the original novel, who could barely speak English.)
My father’s first marriage did not survive the move to England, although it took a decade or so before he was divorced. He was apparently a difficult husband, an angry man and something of a rake in those years.
Unable to write, fearful that his professional life was over, he socialised compulsively and gambled regularly with the likes of Otto Preminger and Sam Spiegel at expatriate clubs like Siegi’s and Les Ambassadeurs. “I felt it was important for me to engage in activities that were normal and red-blooded and American,” he once wrote.
The first real friends he made in England were Anthony Havelock Allen, who had produced Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve and was now with the Rank studio, and the director Terence Young, an Arnhem veteran who later made the first Bond films. After my father died, Havelock Allen recalled what seemed even to him a particularly glamorous evening they spent together, a double date at the Café de Paris with Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. It ended in a row. My father thought that Gardner was one of the most beautiful women in the world, but he wrecked any chance he had with her by attacking bullfighting. Gardner had had a tumultuous affair with Luis Miguel Dominguín, the great Spanish matador. Perhaps there was something of the gypsy about my father, not that he necessarily recognised it in himself. He had dropped out of college, hitchhiked to Hollywood for a year at 19 and then joined a travelling circus. This need to be free marked his personal life and seemed even more urgent in the years when he was trapped in Britain by his lack of a valid passport. When Marlene Dietrich came over to perform at the Café de Paris, my father went backstage to meet her. They ended up spending the night together at the Dorchester and afterwards she said to him, “If I had a man like you, a writer like you, I’d never ask you where you’d been or when you’re coming back. You’d be free.” He never forgot that. He never really settled down until his late forties when he met my mother.
On the other hand, his life settled into some patterns that would continue for at least two decades. He had an office in Jermyn Street, in central London, where he would write and which happened to have a convenient bedroom in the back, where he sometimes stayed at weekends. He would lunch at the same French restaurant across the street almost every day. Every night, he came home to a couple of bone dry martinis, until my mother eventually persuaded him to switch to whisky and finally wine. For most of his adult life he was also a chain smoker, who would keep two cigarettes going at the same time, one for each side of the typewriter. He gave up the habit cold turkey when I was about six.
My father fell in love with my mother Eve on the island of Rhodes when she was part of the Guns of Navarone production team. He was 45 and she was 20. They were married three years later and she was by far the most influential and happiest part of his English experience. “When I met him, he was angry and distant and some said cold, and [after he married Eve] he became open and friendly and happy,” said Eileen Wood, his long-time assistant.
By the end of the 1960s, my father had in a loose sense become part of the British cultural “establishment”. He was President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, a governor of the British Film Institute and a member of the committee appointed by Jennie Lee, the Minister of Arts, to establish the National Film School. He dined at Downing Street. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, a member of the Garrick Club, and in 1970 was made an Honorary CBE (his friends joked that it stood for “Carl Becomes English”). As well as writing screenplays, he produced British films like Born Free with its cast of lions, The Mouse that Roared, which starred Peter Sellers in three roles, and The Virgin Soldiers, an adaptation of the Leslie Thomas novel.
He only moved us back to America to live after the British film industry was destroyed by the Wilson government’s taxation policies in the mid-1970s. It must have felt like a kind of triumph to be welcomed back by the industry that had rejected him, though by then both he and Los Angeles had changed a great deal, perhaps more than he expected or realised.
It was not long after he moved us to all to Los Angeles that he took my mother, my sister (the historian Amanda Foreman) and me to dinner at a popular Hollywood hangout called Dan Tana’s. As we walked in, I saw John Wayne sitting in one of the booths on the left. The tall, craggy star and my father recognised each other instantly. Wayne waved and my father took us to his table. “Hello Duke,” he said, “I want you to meet my English children.” I shook his enormous hand, thrilled, and then stood there as they chatted, oblivious to the fact that an unlikely reconciliation was taking place that perhaps marked for my father a symbolic ending to his experience of blacklist and exile.
This was the first time they had spoken since a nasty confrontation in Hollywood some 20 years before. I was too star-struck to remember that only five years before I had seen Wayne on television in London, yelling at a beleaguered BBC interviewer about “Carl Foreman and his rotten old High Noon“. Wayne, a crude anti-communist and super-patriot (though unlike my father he avoided military service during the Second World War because of a bad knee), liked publicly to claim credit for driving my father out of the US. Indeed, in a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne said, “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country.” In fact, Wayne had played a relatively minor role in the process that forced my father into exile and therefore brought about the birth of his “English children”.
I think my father had complicated feelings about the way things eventually turned out, including the fact that he had children who did not sound like him. Certainly, he never stopped being angry about what had happened to him and to others. But he also knew that the life he ended up leading was a rather wonderful one, arguably much richer and more interesting personally and creatively than the one he would have led if he had not become a victim of the blacklist.
He felt strangely comfortable in England from the very start. Like so many Hollywood writers of his generation, he was steeped in English literature and history. He told me that when he saw the Houses of Parliament for the first time — and every time afterwards — his heart beat wildly. The London of 1952, despite bomb damage and post-war austerity, was recognisably the London of Joseph Conrad and the Victorian novelists. It was still the capital of an empire, the centre of a coherent culture that foreigners admired for its grace under pressure.
Unlike his children, who grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, he was firm in his sense of nationality. This seems all the more surprising given that he was a second-generation American who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish at home to his immigrant parents. My father and the children he grew up with — whether they were East European Jews or the Poles, Irish and Italians who lived in adjacent neighbourhoods — burned to be real Americans.
My father’s sense of his Americanness remained unshaken even when his government did something worse than the blacklist. In 1953, the State Department revoked his passport privileges and ordered him to surrender it to the US Embassy. This was intended to force him back to the US, where he would not be able to work at his profession. Without a valid passport he would not be able to renew his visa and stay in the UK.
To his amazement, when he went to the alien registration division of the Home Office, and explained his predicament to a man who looked like George Smiley in the le Carré novels, the civil servant kindly told him that the Home Office would consider his case and in the meantime renewed his visa for another three months. For the next three years (until my father won a lawsuit against the State Department and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for the return of his passport privileges), the Home Office continued to extend his visa, even though technically he no longer possessed a valid American passport. This was all the more remarkable given that a Conservative government was in office and that Britain was America’s closest ally in the cold war.It would be hard to overstate my father’s gratitude. While he never considered giving up his American citizenship, that gratitude fuelled the affection he felt for Britain and its people and what he saw as their courage and decency. These were qualities he tried to highlight in films like The Key, The Victors and, of course, Young Winston. The same gratitude made him all the more determined to help foster British film-making talent through institutions like the National Film School and by producing films by young filmmakers.
In many ways, his adoptive country suited him more than his own. He particularly loved its tolerance of eccentricity. America, during his lifetime at least, often seemed to put a premium on conformism, perhaps because it was a society which for decades had been assimilating millions of newcomers.
But he never stopped loving the country of his birth. It was a deep, fierce, painful kind of love, not just because it was maintained in the face of rejection, but because it was love maintained in the fullest possible knowledge of his country’s flaws. On the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination he and the actor Eli Wallach almost got into a fistfight on live television with the drunk and disrespectful Labour politician George Brown. Though opposed to the Vietnam War and despairing of America’s support for Third World dictatorships in the name of “containing” communism, he detested the anti-American excesses of the anti-war movement. In particular, he loathed Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam to express solidarity with the soldiers who were killing her countrymen.
When I was at school, I came across E.M. Forster’s famous quotation, “If I had to choose between betraying my country or my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” At the time, I thought it was a wonderful, courageous sentiment and I said so to my father. To my shock, he turned on me in something close to fury. Foster’s quip was disgusting, self-indulgent nonsense, he said. Think what it means, he urged me, to betray millions of trusting strangers. A character in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle observes that for an exile, home is where “the bread tastes better, the sky is higher, the air is spicier, voices ring out more clearly, the ground is softer to walk on.” For all the gratitude my father felt for England, my sense is that he felt a constant low-level homesickness. Hence the care packages that came over for nearly 25 years.
Both in Britain and on location, even in places like Morocco or the north of Finland, friends and even friends of friends would arrive bearing a certain kind of hard salami from Chicago, proper American pickles and Lindy’s cheesecake. With his writer friend Herbert Baker, who was back in LA, he would place bets on National Football League games, using a kind of code in telegrams that caused endless confusion and argument.A parade of Hollywood folk coming over for Sunday brunch was also a kind of cultural lifeline to “home”, whether it was Zero Mostel, Martin Ritt, José Ferrer or Joan Crawford (with whom he’d had an affair many years before), who would bring her own flask of Smirnoff vodka because she preferred it to the icy Stolichnaya and Wyborowa we served at home.
He had left an ostensibly egalitarian society for a notoriously caste-ridden one. But as an American and a filmmaker he found himself the carrier of a kind of social passport that gave him the ability to go anywhere and talk to just about anyone. Eventually, he felt that he was intimate enough with the country to be comfortable with Britain or Britons as a subject.
The end result was Young Winston (1972), which may be my personal favourite of all his films (and which sadly is only available in a truncated version). I see it as a kind of Valentine to the Britain that had embraced him — an expression of love and understanding, a hymn to an imperial Britain whose vestiges were deeply unfashionable in 1972 and have now almost completely vanished. Even the villains of the piece — Lords Salisbury and Kitchener — are depicted with affection. It always amazed me that he could have written the wrenching father-son scenes in Young Winston, which, he said, drew on his own experiences with his own unforgiving father. To me, they seemed like blueprints for conversations that he and I had a few years later.
Yet my father never became one of those Americans who “go native” in Europe and become terrible snobs. Certainly, he enjoyed the traditional rituals of British life that then bound Britons to their past. He was immensely proud of his CBE. But he never tried to look or sound or act anything other than American. Even the dark suits he had made in Savile Row were cut in that American style familiar from Cary Grant films.
When we finally returned to America and Hollywood in 1975, I think he missed England and the second life he had built there even more than we did. Hollywood had changed. The studio system was dead. It had been replaced by a version of today’s clustering of global corporate subsidiaries run by men who all too often lacked the old moguls’ redeeming love of movies.
Nevertheless, he tried to Americanise or acculturate his English children, whether it was trips to American football and baseball games, or the .22 rifle I was given on my 13th birthday. He was very proud to introduce me to his friend General Omar Bradley, the D-Day commander, whose autobiography he wanted to make into a movie. (It used to amuse him that former Technical Sergeant Foreman, who had turned down officer training during the war, could find himself dining with the five-star general whom he’d always admired so much).
The general was one of his lifelong heroes. Others included Gary Cooper — who put his own career on the line for him when he was blacklisted, despite being a staunch Republican — and Winston Churchill. It was one of the great delights of his life that Churchill, a huge movie buff and fan of The Guns of Navarone, had asked him to make a film of his autobiography, My Early Life. When my father went to meet Churchill to discuss the project, he felt he should make sure the old man knew why he had come to Britain. “I had some political problems back in the United States,” he started to explain. Churchill chuckled and said, “Dear boy, we know all about you. But we don’t like political blacklists in England. And speaking for myself, I don’t care what a man believes in or believed in when he was a boy. My concern is whether he can do the job.”