When Lauren Bacall Stood Up To Congress’s Communist Scare

She began her lifetime of political activism by protesting Congress’s Hollywood witch hunt.

Actress Lauren Bacall
National Journal
Laura Ryan
Aug. 14, 2014, 3:29 a.m.

Lauren Bac­all died Tues­day at 89, the end of life as a prom­in­ent film star from the Golden Age of Hol­ly­wood. On­screen, she was known for her husky voice and “The Look.” Off­screen, however, Bac­all spent dec­ades in polit­ic­al ad­vocacy””and it all began with a con­gres­sion­al con­front­a­tion.

In Oc­to­ber 1947, Bac­all and her hus­band, Humphrey Bog­art, touched down at Na­tion­al Air­port in Wash­ing­ton to protest in­vest­ig­a­tions of Hol­ly­wood by the House Un-Amer­ic­an Activ­it­ies Com­mit­tee.

The “first grown-up ex­pos­ure to a cause,” ac­cord­ing to Bac­all in her mem­oirs By My­self, would touch off a life­time of polit­ic­al act­iv­ism for the Demo­crat­ic Party.

The duo””along with a bevy of oth­er act­ors in­clud­ing Danny Kaye and John Gar­field””were headed to Cap­it­ol Hill the next day to at­tend a HUAC hear­ing with testi­mon­ies from 10 film pro­du­cers, dir­ect­ors, and screen­writers. 

She was very ser­i­ous about her par­ti­cip­a­tion in what she de­scribed as a “cru­sade.” Al­though Bog­art felt strongly about HUAC’s in­vest­ig­a­tion, too, it was Bac­all’s pas­sion that per­suaded him to go with her to Wash­ing­ton. Bac­all was ex­hil­ar­ated by stand­ing up for what she be­lieved in. 

The act­ors put their ca­reers on the line with the hope that they could turn around the neg­at­ive press the com­mit­tee’s in­vest­ig­a­tion thrust upon Hol­ly­wood and make a stand against the pan­el’s tac­tics.

But their ac­tions ul­ti­mately made little im­pact, even put­ting the group on the de­fens­ive.

The act­ors rep­res­en­ted the newly formed Com­mit­tee for the First Amend­ment””a “non­polit­ic­al group” of some of Hol­ly­wood’s biggest stars “cam­paign­ing only for hon­esty, fair­ness, and the ac­cep­ted rights of an Amer­ic­an Cit­izen.”

The group wasn’t de­fend­ing com­mun­ism, said Bac­all, it was about the HUAC’s meth­ods.

HUAC was in­vest­ig­at­ing private cit­izens for com­mun­ist sym­path­ies across the coun­try, but Hol­ly­wood was un­der par­tic­u­larly in­tense scru­tiny be­cause of its lib­er­al lean­ings and the fear that films could be used as com­mun­ist pro­pa­ganda.

Many in the film in­dustry stayed mum on the is­sue to keep their names off the ca­reer-end­ing Hol­ly­wood Black­list. “It sud­denly be­came risky, even dan­ger­ous, to be a Demo­crat,” Bac­all writes in her mem­oirs. “It was a dis­turb­ing and fright­en­ing peri­od in Hol­ly­wood.”

Dur­ing a na­tion­al broad­cast sponsored by the com­mit­tee called “Hol­ly­wood Fights Back,” Bac­all’s deep voice was un­mis­tak­able: “This is Lauren Bac­all. Have you seen Cross­fire yet? “¦ The Amer­ic­an people have awar­ded it four stars. The Un-Amer­ic­an Com­mit­tee gave the man who made it a sub­poena.”

But people were more in­ter­ested in the stars auto­graphs than in their polit­ic­al views. They did not get a meet­ing with Pres­id­ent Tru­man or par­ti­cip­ate in the hear­ing. In­stead, they listened in­tently from the side­lines of a House caucus room as the “Hol­ly­wood Ten” were grilled by law­makers about their polit­ic­al al­le­gi­ances.

The film­makers un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion re­fused to an­swer ques­tions and de­nounced the HUAC’s in­vest­ig­a­tions. Their de­fi­ance ended their ca­reers in Hol­ly­wood and landed them in jail for con­tempt of Con­gress.

Even Bac­all and the oth­er stars wer­en’t un­touch­able. Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence after the hear­ing, the movie stars flown in from Hol­ly­wood were put on the de­fens­ive by re­port­ers, dodging ques­tions about the polit­ic­al sym­path­ies of their col­leagues un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion, of which they knew noth­ing. 

Com­mun­ist ac­cus­a­tions even­tu­ally com­pelled Bog­art to re­cant his in­volve­ment in the Com­mit­tee for the First Amend­ment, writ­ing an ed­it­or­i­al titled, “I’m No Com­mun­ist.”

“We left Wash­ing­ton still caring much,” Bac­all re­called in her mem­oirs. “but a bit with the wind taken out of our sails.”

But the ex­per­i­ence the be­gin­ning of Bac­all’s life as an out­spoken lib­er­al. 

“When I left the House Of­fice Build­ing I couldn’t help but feel that every Amer­ic­an who cares any­thing at all about pre­serving Amer­ic­an ideals should wit­ness part of this in­vest­ig­a­tion,” Bac­all wrote in an op-ed for the Wash­ing­ton Daily News. “It starts with [Hol­ly­wood], but I’m sorry to say I don’t think it will end with us.”

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