Algonquin Round Table’s Only Informed Activist

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Members of the Algonquin Round Table considered themselves the most sophisticated thinkers in twenties’ America. Wised up by the tragedy of World War I, in which many members served, they were adepts of mindless leader-worship and self-importance.

But by the 1930s several of them succumbed to both idolatry, albeit secular, taking themselves very seriously by becoming committed Stalinists. Dorothy Parker and Donald Ogden Stewart abandoned screwball humor for jokes with a political point and defended every zig and zag of Stalin’s policies, with particular emphasis on supporting his version of the Purge Trials.

Not all of the alumni would fall for this line. Herman J. Manckiewiez — Broadway wit and producer of Marx Brothers’ screen comedies, as well as Academy-awarding winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane — would see through communism and political quackery in general, while at the same time exhibiting contradictory traits. Ironic when one considers that he was the most political of the Algonquin group. When the group was navel-watching no further than Broadway, Manckiewiez was denouncing Calvin Coolidge, contributing to the American Civil Liberties and sending money to jailed anarchist Tom Mooney.

At times, Manckiewiez could sound unfashionable Marxist in the 1920s, a decade when even leftists like Lincoln Steffens saw capitalism solving the problems of communism:

“The poor are always suspicious of innovations. They feel instinctively — and almost always rightly — that the new is always merely an improved way of exploitation.”

By the time communism became fashionable in Hollywood, he, a man known for collecting mainly political books, used his considerable political knowledge to show the comrades as ill-educated fools. He castigated a slogan-shouter for Spanish Loyalists for getting all of his information from The New Masses, and hence, not even knowing the “name of Franco’s foreign minister who tortured children.” He found the spectacle of well-paid screenwriters spouting communist jargon while “driving a jaguar” ridiculous. When screenwriters tried to unionize a non-studio backed union, Manckiewiez mocked the effort:

“I think it’s a great idea. Chasen’s can dispense the vichyssoise on the picket line. I want to see the accounting of the first guy who applies to the union good and welfare fund—two hundred dollars a week for school tuition, a hundred dollars for the psychiatrist, three hundred dollars for the cook, two hundred dollars for…You’ll all go out on the streets carrying big signs saying ‘Help! Help! We’re only being paid seven and a half a week.’ And everybody will say ‘How about those poor guys? Seven dollars and fifty cents a week.’ And then somebody else says, ‘No, seven hundred and fifty dollars a week.’ And then duck because you’ll all be stoned to death.”

Nevertheless, he was pro-union, supporting John L. Lewis, but his joining the rival studio-backed Screen Playwrights earned him the label of fascist from the Hollywood Party. But in 1933, years before industry members discovered anti-fascism, he peddled his script about Hitler, The Mad Dog of Europe, which focused in particular on Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. But when no studio would touch it, he was willing to give up his job at MGM to get the movie made. The result of this effort was that Goebbells banned all of his films in Germany. At the time, he even sponsored hundreds of German refugees attempting to escape to America.

Still, Manckiewiez did at times express anti-Semitism. He once defended Hitler’s policies, stating that “All the doctors, lawyers, and professional men in Germany were Jews, and they were getting too strong a hold.” He was a decided isolationist in 1941, calling himself an “ultra Lindbergh,” and believing that the German war machine was too powerful to take on.

Then and now, Hollywood activists reveal to have more money than brains. In Manckieweiz’s era, it was highly paid screenwriters receiving all of their information from the agit-prop merchants of The New Masses. Today, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, and Barbara Streisand either misquote passages, or in the case of Stone, edit out any information harmful to their thesis. For all of his occasional anti-Semitism, Manckiewiez never lost his Round Table disgust with cant and religious fervor. The same could not be said for other members, who took to Stalinism with all the enthusiasm of a convert. But Manckiewiez was the exception. Then and now.

He was that most rare of Hollywood activists: a well-informed one.