Richard M. Nixon and Roy Cohn both make an appearance as villains in The Chelsea Girls: A Novel by Fiona Davis, a former Broadway actress and costume designer who left it behind and became a novelist.
Nixon is in “The Chelsea Girls” as a Congressman on the House Un-American Activities Committee, who at a hearing in 1950 interrogates the (fictitious) heroine of the novel, Hazel Ripley, the daughter of a famous stage actor who as a young actress could get work on Broadway only as an understudy but then writes her own play for The Great White Way and is hired to direct it. Cohn, who’s best known now as Donald Trump’s lawyer and mentor, is in the book in his first real-life public role as investigator for Senator Joseph McCarthy; in a private meeting, he interrogates the other main character in the book, the (fictitious) actress and eventual movie star Maxine Mead.
“Although this is a work of fiction, I hewed closely to the stories of several blacklisted artists,” Davis writes in an “Author’s Note” about the blacklist at the end of her book, in which she includes a list of non-fiction books and memoirs “vital to my research.”
But it would be misleading to call “The Chelsea Girls” simply a novel about Broadway and the blacklist, for several reasons – the main being a surprise twist in the plot more than halfway through the novel.
The awkwardly introduced twist struck me as so historically suspect (despite the claims in the author’s note) that it sent me hunting for an actual history book of the era, which I found, to my delight, in the newly published Broadway and the Blacklist by K. Kevyne Baar.
Below, then, are reviews of both.
Fiona Davis’s novel focuses on the friendship of the two women, Hazel and Maxine, who meet on a U.S.O. tour in Italy in 1945 during World War II. In the first several chapters, they bond over their effort to help the young son of a German officer who is threatened first by a mob of Italians and then by the U.S. Army. Paul ,who speaks only German, tells Maxine (whose grandmother is a German immigrant) that he was working for the Resistance. The boy reminds Hazel of her own brother, who was politically active before he joined the Army and died in combat overseas.
We next see the two in New York City in 1950, where the bulk of the story takes place, told in alternate chapters by Maxine in the first person and from Hazel’s perspective but in the third person. Before the war, Hazel was famous among theater people as an understudy who never got to go on stage for the star; producers would hire her because she seemed to be a good luck charm. Now, armed with greater confidence and experience gained at the USO tour, and inspired by her brazen friend Maxine, she falls into playwriting and directing. Maxine returns from Hollywood and winds up starring in Hazel’s first play.
Those expecting an insider’s insights into Broadway will be rewarded with only a few choice tidbits, e.g.: “From her stints understudying, she knew that a good stage manager – who acted as the glue that held the cast, crew and production teams together — was the key to a smooth ride when it came to wrangling the strong personalities of the theater world.”
There are also some engaging moments when Hazel gets caught up in the Red Scare, such as the oily encounter with a self-appointed vigilante patriot from whom she has to clear her name after she is listed as a subversive:
“I’ll review your file again, and we will have a conversation. Once you convince me that you are not a member of the Communist Party and have never been, I will pass your file on to the FBI. They’ll interview you, and you’ll tell them anyone else you think might be a communist sympathizer. Once we’re all on the same page, I’ll take your name off and give the green light that you’re hirable.” He paused. “It costs two hundred dollars.”
As a novelist, however, Davis has what you could call divided loyalties, or competing agendas. Hazel moves out of her parents’ home and into the Chelsea Hotel, which is described at such enormous length that it would be baffling if you didn’t know that one of Davis’s signatures as a novelist is to set each of her books in a particular New York City landmark.
And so, the story of how Hazel and Maxine get caught up in the Cold War is just one of several in this overcrowded book.
This wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the events felt fully grounded in the reality of the time and place. Of course, it’s silly to want to fact-check a novel, but I felt an urge to Google all along. (One of many examples: Hazel is listed as a subversive in “Red Channels,” but why would this actual right-wing publication, subtitled “The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” list a theater artist?) That urge greatly intensified after the twist.
I suppose it unfair to disclose the big reveal, but since it ruined the read for me, I feel obliged to offer a general summary without details: Suddenly, we’re introduced to a cabal of evil Communist spies, including an entertainer who has an especially villainous handler (he engages in spousal abuse), and who is alarmed when their comrade the real-life Julius Rosenberg (who is mentioned but does not appear as a character) is arrested for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.
Why would the author turn a supposedly well researched look at the Red Scare and its effect on Broadway innocents into a potboiler about conniving Commies? A clue comes from a line that one of the characters says, who’s being attacked by both right and left: “She’d managed to be vilified by both ends of the political spectrum, no mean feat.”
No, indeed. I suspect this was Davis’ misguided attempt to appear balanced – to acknowledge that, yes, we now know there were indeed spies, but there were also innocents accused, lives ruined. But as the journalist Edward R. Murrow reportedly said after he exposed anti-Communist crusading Senator Joseph R. McCarthy as a liar and a demagogue in a series of broadcasts: “There are not always two equal sides to every story.”
The question hanging over “The Chelsea Girls” (at least for me) is: Were there actually theater artists, or any popular entertainers, who worked sinisterly as spies for the Soviet Union? Actor Howard Da Silva comes the closest to an answer in “Broadway and the Blacklist” when, called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1951, he was asked whether he was a member of the Communist Party: “It seems vital to say that the object of this committee is a smokescreen. Nobody, either in Washington or Hollywood, thinks there is a group in Hollywood dedicated to overthrow Southern California by force and violence.”
Da Silva’s exchange is one of many verbatim transcripts excerpted in “Broadway and the Blacklist,” a compact history by K. Kevyne Baar, a former professional stage manager and field representative for Actors Equity Association who also worked as an archivist for NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. (The book is dedicated to Da Silva and the People’s Theater of Cleveland where Da Silva was artistic director when both of Baar’s parents worked there, “and the man responsible for bringing them together.”)
Baar wrote her PhD thesis on the 1955 HUAC investigation of Broadway, which took place over four days at the federal courthouse in Foley Square downtown. Baar devotes one of her ten chapters to an account of those hearings, in which 23 theater artists testified, 22 of whom refused to answer questions – and none of whom were subjected to any Broadway blacklist as a result. Indeed, theater served as a refuge for those entertainers who had been blacklisted by the movie, radio and television industries. In fact, Actors Equity Association took a stand on behalf of its members against blacklisting, condemning it “in all its forms” in a resolution, and succeeded in putting anti-blacklist language in its basic agreement with the League of New York Theaters. This is in sharp contrast to the unions for the blacklisted industries, the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, which actually supported blacklisting its members. (SAG didn’t eliminate its requirement that members sign a loyalty oath until 1974!)
“There was no blacklist on Broadway,” Baar writes at one point more than halfway through her book, which may make you wonder momentarily about her choice of title.
Still, as Baar makes clear, the theater was a target from early on. Congressional investigations of communism in the theater go back to 1938, when what was then called “the Special House Committee for the Investigation of Un-American Activities’ held hearings into the Federal Theatre Project. The Roosevelt Administration had set up the FTP in 1935 to provide jobs for unemployed theater artists and to give the public what Harry Hopkins, the administrator of the Works Progress Administration, called “a free, adult, uncensored theatre.” The hearings, in the words of one who testified, were intended “to prove that communism exists and dominates the Federal Theater Project.”
Based on Baar’s account, which includes excerpts of the transcript, the 1938 hearings proved no such thing. One example cited at the hearing as Communist activity was that a supervisor did nothing when a white woman reported to her that an African-American colleague had asked her out on a date.
The head of the project, Hallie Flanagan, was an especially lively witness. She testified she was in charge of “combating un-American inactivity” – which is to say, unemployment. When she was asked whether she believed “theater is a weapon,” she replied: “I believe that theater is a great educational force. I think it is entertainment. I think it is excitement. I think it may be all things to all men.”
Nevertheless, a year after the hearings, Congress abolished the Federal Theatre Project, which had presented live theater across the country at low cost or free to some 25 million Americans, or almost a fifth of the entire U.S. population at the time.
Baar next devotes a chapter to the 1947 Hollywood hearings, where the “Hollywood 10,” screenwriters and directors, refused to testify, denounced the hearings, and were cited for contempt of Congress, receiving jail sentences. The major Hollywood movie studios then banned them from working for them. Baar credits the statement at the time by the Motion Picture Association of America (“We will not knowingly employ a Communist….”) as the beginning of “the blacklist era,” an era lasting roughly 11 years, until 1958, although some of its ill effects lingered past that.
The Hollywood hearings involved many artists who had a background in the theater, which is surely the reason why Baar begins her book with a brief history of both the Theatre Guild and the Group Theater. Group Theater member and director Elia Kazan is infamous for having “named names,” admitting at the Hollywood HUAC hearings that he had himself been a member of the Communist Party for 19 months and naming other Group Theater members who were. But, in Baar’s excerpt, when Richard Nixon asks him whether the Group Theater was “a Communist group whose purpose was to propagandize for the Communist Party,” Kazan answers at length that it was not. “The Communist attempt to take over the Group Theater failed.”
“Broadway and the Blacklist” provides a brief context of the “fearful conformity” of the 50s that fueled the Red Scare, and the reasons for it, including the Soviet Union’s development of the atomic bomb, and “the revelations about Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, who were presumed to be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of
Communist penetration of the government.” Yet it’s clear where Baar’s sympathies lie. There is a notable tone of satisfaction in her excerpts of Arthur Miller’s uncooperative but politely erudite testimony before the Committee, and in the hearings that HUAC held yet again about Communist influence on Broadway in 1958, returning to the courthouse at Foley Square. This time, 18 of the 19 subpoenaed refused to testify, including Joseph Papp, who had by then launched the New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park but still also worked as a stage manager for CBS. Not long after the 1958 HUAC hearings, CBS dismissed Papp from his job. “He opted for arbitration,” Baar writes, “and became the first person to win reinstatement during the blacklist.” But, years later, Papp saw no reason to brag about what was, even in apparent victory, a terrible situation: ‘You can’t understand, unless you were part of it, how grim those times were.”