I'd Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir

(This column was first published in the August 23, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

The only thing I found wrong with Ring Lardner, Jr.'s I'd Hate Myself in the Morning: A Memoir is that there is too little about Ring's dad, who was in my estimate among the best truly American short story writers second only to O. Henry. A few paragraphs are, however, devoted to Ring Sr. Here are just two: "A skillful pianist and amateur songwriter, he was blessed with perfect pitch and an astonishing ability to render the way semiliterate Americans spoke and wrote. The combination of that remarkable ear and plentiful opportunities to listen to baseball players and other athletes as a sportswriter had produced a literary style all his own: 'And he give her a look that you could pour on a waffle,' says the cigar-salesman narrator of 'The Big Town' about the man who has fallen for his sister-in-law. Elsewhere in the same collection of stories (which were, along with YOU KNOW ME AL, as close as my father came to writing a novel), we learn about a pricey hotel on Long Island where 'They even got a barber and a valet, but you can’t get a shave while he’s pressing your clothes, so it's pretty near impossible for a man to look their best at the same time.'

"My father didn't want me named Ring and used his column to apologize for it: 'When you are nicknamed Ringworm by the humorists and wits, When people put about you till they drive you into fits. When funny folk say, 'Ring, ring off,' until they make you ill, Remember that your poor old Dad tried hard to name you Bill.'"

No, this book is about Ring, Jr. (just Ring from now on), who was, as a young man, a communist. And why not? Somewhat younger, I lived through those same difficult times, the later years of the Depression when F.D.R. was trying to pull the country up by its own bootstraps and whose vice-president Henry Wallace was, if not a communist, the next best thing. Then in World War II we fought on the same side as the Russians. But history means nothing to our beloved citizens of the far right. In the book's central episode Ring is called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1947, which was early in the Red Baiting times:

"'It seems to me you are trying to discredit the Screen Writers Guild through me,' I replied to Thomas, 'and the motion picture industry through the Screen Writers Guild, and our whole practice of free expression.' I was about to add something about my understanding of the First Amendment when he interrupted again.

"'Never mind your understanding,' he fumed. 'There is a question: Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?' 'I could answer exactly the way you want, Mr. Chairman,' I replied.

"'It is a very simple question,' he continued. 'Anybody would be proud to answer it -- any real American would be proud to answer the question: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? -- Any real American.'

"'It depends on the circumstances,' I told him. 'I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.'

"With that sentiment, I had exhausted Thomas's patience. 'Leave the witness chair,' he commanded.

"When I again protested my desire to testify, he pounded his gavel in exasperation. 'Leave the witness chair!'

"'I think I am leaving by force,' I said.

"'Sergeant, take the witness away!' he ordered. And the sergeant did so.

"It was my first and, I had every reason to assume, my last encounter with Congressman Thomas. Three years later, however, we confronted each other as fellow inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, where I had been sentenced to one year for the misdemeanor of not answering his questions satisfactorily.

"The blue prison fatigues hung loosely on the weary, perspiring man I met crossing the prison quadrangle. In the same costume, I felt that I looked comparatively dapper after eight hours of mild stenographic labor in the Office of Classification and Parole. Thomas's job as custodian of the chicken yard, while not exactly strenuous, had kept him in the August sun all day. He had lost a good deal of weight, and his face, smooth and scarlet at our last encounter, was now deeply lined and sallow, making him look ten years older. I recognized him, however, and he recognized me. We did not speak. How could either of us pick up where we left off? Since my conviction for Contempt of Congress, along with nine other Hollywood writers and directors, I had lost an appeal, and the Supreme Court had declined to review the constitutional issues in our case.

"During the same period, Thomas had been brought to trial for putting nonexistent workers on the government payroll and appropriating their salaries for himself. Offering no defense and throwing himself on the mercy of the court, he had received a mild sentence, later reduced by parole to an actual term of about nine months -- three months less than my own stint. When his case was due to be heard by the parole board, Thomas, I learned later, was worried that I might find some way to use my official capacity to sabotage his application. Actually, the case was taken out of my hands by a civilian clerk. Like the rest of my colleagues in the Hollywood Ten, I was denied parole. But I was the only one to receive, in addition to the statutory sixty days off for good behavior, an extra fifteen days for 'meritorious good behavior.' This was a reward for the improvements I had made in the grammar and style of the prison material I typed."

Unlike later testifiers, Ring didn't call upon the Fifth Amendment in order not to name colleagues so he had to spend time in prison. But when he came out he was treated no better than were those other black-listed employees of the motion picture industry. He did get work but it was under assumed names and at a small fraction of his earlier pay.

That he made such marvelous contributions despite this is further testimony to the spirit of this now elderly man who tells us: "So I am resigned to being a cripple for the rest of my life. A deaf cripple, that is. A deaf cripple with a heart condition. Yet there is a sense in which I don't really feel old at all. Part of that must come from my lifelong sense of being the youngest in whatever group I was involved with. In grade school, at Andover and at Princeton, I was always one of the very youngest in my class. I was one of the youngest to be published in a national magazine, probably the youngest city news reporter in New York, the youngest Hollywood publicist and, when Budd Schulberg and I wrote some scenes for A Star is Born, one of the youngest writers ever to see his work on the screen. I was twenty-two when my first child was born, and I believe I was the youngest to receive an Oscar for screenwriting in addition to being the youngest of the Hollywood Ten. Anyway, my image of myself is pretty much the same as it was thirty or forty years ago. Even bent over and leaning on my canes, I am taken aback when I tell people my age and they don't act surprised -- which they almost never do. And although if anyone asked me about my prospects, it would remind me that a fatal ailment could show up any day, such a thought doesn't enter my head spontaneously. In fact, I often catch myself engaging in unrealistic long-term planning: Should I take advantage of the bargain rates by renewing my subscription for three years not just one?"

Ring had achieved much despite the black-listing: "Two Oscars, one for best original screenplay [Woman of the Year], the other for best screenplay adapted from another medium [M*A*S*H]; The Writers Guild West's Laurel Award for distinguished achievement; a similar award...from the Writer's Guild East; the 1998 Nantucket Film Festival's First Annual Writer's Tribute,..." but I still rate the statement that he wasn't allowed to make before HUAC as his very best effort. It is easy for us now to salute him for it; if only it was then as well:

"I wish to speak briefly on two matters which seem to me very pertinent to these proceedings. The first is my own record as it has been impugned by the testimony of some of your witnesses.

"My father was a writer in the best tradition of American literature. That tradition is very closely allied to the democratic ideal in American life. Not only I but three of my brothers have also been writers. Two of those brothers were killed in the same great struggle to preserve that democratic ideal, one as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain in 1938, the other as a war correspondent in Germany in 1944. I make no claim to the genius of my father or the courage of my brothers but I do maintain that everything I have done or written has been in keeping with the spirit that governed their work, their lives, and their deaths.

"My principal occupation is that of a screenwriter. I have contributed to more than a dozen motion pictures, among them Woman of the Year, for which I received an Academy award, The Cross of Lorraine, about the resistance movement in occupied France during the war, the screen version of the play, Tomorrow the World about the effects of Nazi education, Cloak and Dagger, about the heroic work of our Office of Strategic Services, and an animated cartoon called The Brotherhood of Man, based on the pamphlet 'The Races of Mankind' and exposing the myth that any inherent differences exist among people of different skin color and geographical origin. My record includes no anti-Semitism, anti-Negro feeling or opposition to American democratic principles as I understand them.

"Secondly, about un-American activities in Hollywood. The atmosphere there is considerably different than that of the small segment of Washington to which I have been exposed in the last ten days. Compared to what I have seen and heard in this room, Hollywood is a citadel of freedom. Here anti-American sentiments are freely expressed and their spokesman heartily congratulated. Here there is such fear of the effects of free speech that men are forbidden to read statements and are cut off in mid-sentence lest they expose too much of what is going on here to the public. What I am most concerned about is the ultimate result that might come from a successful fulfillment of your purpose. On Tuesday, the Chairman said that there was subversive material in motion pictures and proposed that it be prevented in the future by an industry blacklist. The motion picture producers have not indicated they are gullible enough to fall for such a ruse, but if they ever did, the fact that I might be prevented from working at my profession would be of little account. The really important effect would be that the producers themselves would lose control over their pictures, and that the same shackling of education, labor, radio, and newspapers would follow. We are already subject in Hollywood to a censorship that makes most pictures empty and childish. Under the kind of censorship which this inquisition threatens, a leading man wouldn't even be able to blurt out the words 'I love you' unless he had first secured a notarized affidavit proving that his leading lady was a pure white, Protestant gentile of old Confederate stock."

It is not easy to read these pages by a good American about the mistreatment we meted out to him. But the task is well worth the effort. If only for the list in the spirit of Tom Paine of "irrational convictions" each of which "is the earnest belief of millions of Americans" on pages 189 and 190, this book belongs on our list of required reading.

Get this book if only to turn to those pages. The remainder is great as well.