Randy Cohen’s recent guest on Person Place Thing is legendary journalist, screenwriter, director and producer, Walter Bernstein. The interview, arranged in conjunction with the Writers Guild of America East, allowed the 94-year-old Bernstein to score the most coveted of all coups, the final word.
As his Person, Bernstein picked Harold Ross, founder and first editor of the New Yorker. He described Ross as an entirely literal man who would send an author’s manuscript back covered with blue pencil queries, the most frequent being “Who he?” (Every person mentioned had to be identified. The exceptions were Houdini and Mark Twain considered too famous to require it.)
Place? the Loew’s Cameo on Eastern Parkway, where, as a boy, he discovered film. It became his “reality”; his day-to-day life being then downgraded to “fantasy.” Over the course of his seventy-year career he authored the screenplays of Fail-Safe, The Magnificent Seven, The Train, and the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, among other notables.
Thing? Bernstein named the Red Channels, a six-page pamphlet in which, during the Red Scare of the Fifties, he found himself black-listed along with some 160 other writers. Channels was offered as a guide for the guilty to purge their sins and return to a state of grace by naming names. Bernstein was prepared, he said, to speak about his own activities, but refused to implicate others. Consequently, he and other black-listees had to find “fronts” to get their work through Hollywood . His own experience gave rise to the dark classic, The Front, starring Woody Allen.
In this interview, Bernstein comes off as defiant, even exultant, when discussing those black-list years. Of those who abandoned him, he is charitable. They were good people, he says, but afraid. “They were good people who did a bad thing.”
Asked about the novelist and screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, who did name names, Bernstein is terse. The two never discussed the matter. They did not, in fact, talk for forty years, though they did finally shake hands at a wedding. Schulberg died in the summer of 2009.
You can listen to this interview as a podcast when it posts January 2 on PersonPlaceThing.org.