The entertainment industry has had its share of challenges to overcome. In reflecting upon the many issue that arouse, one of the most prominent ones was the blacklist. Occurring during the trying time of McCarthyism, the entire nation was experiencing the effects of the Red Scare, leading to an increasing sense of distrust among neighbors. While McCarthyism certainly affected individuals throughout the nation and in different industries, its impact upon Hollywood was particularly unique. McCarthyism directly affected the film-making industry, with individuals’ careers often coming to an end after their names wound up on the ever-growing Hollywood Blacklist.
As a result of the blacklist, individuals in the broader entertainment industry were denied employment because they were believed to be Communists or sympathizers. In addition to actors, the blacklist affected screenwriters, directors, musicians, and a wide range of other entertainment professionals. Though some individuals recovered their careers, scores more found that their careers would be damaged or altogether ended.
Mary Sheeran’s Banished From Memory is a novel set during this difficult albeit fascinating time within the entertainment industry. Focusing upon the perspective of a fictitious 16-year-old named Dianna Fletcher, the novel tells the story of Fletcher’s star in Hollywood beginning to dim. As Fletcher works to continue her family’s legacy of working in Hollywood, she sees an opportunity to revitalize her career when she succeeds in landing a role. Unfortunately, she finds herself working alongside womanizer Bill Royce, who acts unprofessionally towards her and has a strong distaste for her family.
Suspecting that his anger is linked to a secret her parents may have held in relation to the blacklist, Fletcher encourages Royce to share his story with her as she discovers her own. Fletcher’s future appears to be just as murky as her past, echoing the sense of uncertainty that was felt by actual individuals impacted by the blacklist.
In addition to offering an intriguing cast of characters, Sheeran develops strong relationships among them. Not only are the characters in Sheeran’s present depicted in a way that is engaging to readers, but Sheeran also has a thoughtful way of having two different generations communicate with one another. The complexities of acting are heightened by the dramatic backdrop of life during the blacklist.
Interestingly, Sheeran writes in a way that is meant to resonate with readers today. She parallels certain subjects and issues in today’s society with classic era Hollywood and its struggles with the blacklist. Though Fletcher’s peers are different from the performers we have today, some of the issues that manifest in Fletcher’s novel are still present to this day.
Thanks to JKS Communications, I was able to interview Sheeran. Our discussion about her novel is published below.
Annette: What inspired you to tell this story?
Mary: A character was annoying me. (I think this is why they call them “characters.”) She had but a minor part in my novel, Who Have the Power, and her name was Lianna Dru. She was in her 60s – the book was set in both 1866 and 2006 – and a movie star who’d been in a television western in 1960. I was trying to write another book about family secrets, but she kept nagging at me saying I should write about her family, all movie stars – her parents and her two brothers. I found myself wondering about the family and starting to buy or borrow DVDs of movies from the late 1930s, the 40s and 50s – when her parents would have been working and when “the kids” would have started to work. As she pulled me into all of this, and it was fascinating, I realized I’d gotten her name wrong! She was Dianna Fletcher. The hard part about the story was which aspect of the family’s lives to hone in on, but in the end, there was no question but that I would focus on Dianna.
Annette: How did you become interested in the Hollywood Blacklist?
Mary: It came with the territory. The Fletchers had a secret, or the parents did, and Dianna had to find it out because of Bill’s anger at her family.
I was listening to commentaries of the movies and the blacklist kept cropping up. Careers were ended because of it. I realized that was the family secret, and it was something important I needed to explore. Once started, it was hard to stop.
Annette: Are there certain individuals who inspired your creation and depiction of Dianna Fletcher and Bill Royce?
Mary: Dianna’s Dianna. I know her. She’s been at me for years now. I know acting and singing and the fears and joys that are part of doing those things for audiences.
Bill Royce came about by accident. The Fletchers had to have a challenger. The first book I looked at re the blacklist was Victor Navasky’s excellent Naming Names. In the references and footnotes, I found one of his sources was a book by Robert Vaughn called Only Victims. I knew Robert Vaughn as an actor who had a fairly steady career from his youth in the 1950s to about a year before he died, in 2013, from leukemia. In the mid 1960s, Vaughn rocketed to fan mag stardom as the suave James Bond of television, in a series co-starring David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. While Vaughn was starring in U.N.C.L.E., he was also getting his PhD at Southern Cal University, and he was writing his dissertation on…the blacklist.
Bill Royce evolved out of that. He’s not Vaughn. For one thing, he’s taller.
Annette: Overall, what do you think is the key message of your novel?
Mary: We shouldn’t forget this history. It was a time when your career could be ripped away because of what you believed. Not because of what you did. And not really because of what you believed but how people interpreted what you believed. This was flag waving patriotism undermining the Constitution. Those who could have spoken out against it didn’t. All three branches of government participated in this. And those who were against it did not speak out for fear of being considered unpatriotic. A character in Banished completely changes her political leanings and stops her activism.
People think the blacklist was broken in 1960. Maybe for Dalton Trumbo, who got his name up on the screen, but for many artists, they were broken by it and never came back. Credits withheld from the screen or from Oscar awards are still being restored, most posthumously. And that’s just for writers. There’s no way to restore parts that were given to someone else.
Annette: Why should people today know about the Hollywood blacklist?
Mary: When I dare to read the comments in news articles, I see people accusing those who support, say, national health insurance or helping the homeless, of being Commies, and that’s so old! People who joined the American Communist party in the 30s or who worked with them did so because the US economy had collapsed. The American party was aggressive on issues such as civil rights, unions, health insurance, and women’s rights, and that attracted people. These issues involved progressives in the Hollywood community. These activities elicited strong feelings and backlash from others (Hollywood had been rampant with strikes in the 1930s and before the war; Disney Studios was nearly destroyed by strikers, and Walt Disney blamed the Communists, though he had no proof). Hollywood was a tinder box, and after the war, it exploded.
Congressional Republicans, back in power after more than a decade, were anxious to dismantle the New Deal and Social Security, and they aligned New Deal with Communism. The investigations into the motion picture industry was a gift that fell into their laps. It guaranteed star-studded headlines. Congressmen (that’s what they were!) would toss movie titles around as carrying Communist propaganda – It’s a Wonderful Life was one of them. Because the movie studios were weakened by dramatic declining attendance and loss of their theaters, they would not defend their employees. Instead, they started the blacklist, although their best writers could write, under different names, for far less money.
Conservatives in Hollywood led by John Wayne and Walt Disney in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals were alarmed at what they called disruption by many progressives and also linked them with Communism. They invited the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the possibility of Communist infiltration of the movie industry. They had their good reasons. Disney’s studio had suffered a bitter strike before the war and it nearly destroyed the once happy place. He blamed it on Communist infiltration. He resigned from the MPA.
Despite several decades of investigations by HUAC and all of McCarthy’s blustering, not one Communist was found in the State Department or military and not one line of Communist propaganda was found in movie scripts. However, the investigations and the blacklisting of artists in movies and in broadcasting affected the movies we saw, the television programs we watched, and the women and men portrayed on both screens.
Dianna comes to realize that there was also an invisible blacklist of talented people when a Puerto Rican friend could not try for a Puerto Rican role – Maria in West Side Story, a part Dianna feels she should have.
There’s also a question of what do you do when someone you love or admire does something you cannot abide. Some years ago, there was a controversy at the Oscars about giving Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar. He’d named names, betrayed his friends, and given them over to constant surveillance by the FBI and possible internment in camps for suspected subversives (that’s real; camps were allocated by the McCarren Act). He helped to ruin their careers and their families’ lives. That’s what naming names did. But Kazan was a master movie maker. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with Jerome Robbins’ who named names to save his career and probably conceal his homosexuality? He created West Side Story and beloved musicals and ballets.
How do you deal with brilliant artists who do things that we find morally reprehensible?
Dianna, although protected by her family’s power to some degree, finds that as she matures, her body is objectified and she’s pinched and patted and slobbered over. Roles for women increasingly objectified women’s bodies on and off screen – sex is a way to lure people away from television. How do we deal with this objectifying of women in work we admire? And do you continue working in a field that lays traps for women? How can you not if that’s your calling?
These are all issues the novel raises.
These are issues still with us.
Annette: How can this story connect to today’s audiences?
Mary: Throughout our history, we’ve had times, as a country, when we’ve been almost at each other’s throats, or fear has been exploited to drive us apart, or editorials shout that we’re subverting democracy, but we’ve always gotten through these periods, not without pain or even war. Our time has a difference, though: We have 24-hour news, cable, and social media. That’s tremendous power that we need to use wisely. There’s an exacerbation of taking in only what we want to believe, and that’s essentially living with fear. When people are afraid, we tend to blame those who are least at fault because they can’t strike back. We need to be on our guard about fear. FDR was probably right.
After all the serious discussion about the blacklist, though, I should point out that this is also one fun novel if you love movies. Hollywood 1960 is a fun place to visit – still many classic movie stars active and many of them pop up in the book – Katharine Hepburn (my favorite, so she pops up a lot), Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Lana Turner, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, and many more. They certainly turn up at the Oscars, and the Oscar awards begin and end the novel. And the story is essentially a romance – a tempestuous relationship between Dianna and Bill as they peel away the layers of family secrets.
I am already surprised at reactions to the novel from very different people. Some people respond to the movie parts and some never heard of the blacklist and are shocked – or they did and they’re glad to see that part of the story. It took some work to weave those parts together in the book, and it’s gratifying when people respond to that. And I’ve had no complaints (yet) that I took the part of Ben-Hur away from Charlton Heston.
Banished From Memory is available for purchase starting on April 28, 2019.