Politics Over Humor: Donald Ogden Stewart

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Robert Benchley, humorist and member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, once said of writing for the New Yorker in the 1920s, “you could write anything you liked, as long as you did it in evening clothes.”

Benchley, no radical, was likely referring to the magazine’s toleration of him skewering everything and anything with his lethal wit.

But, within a decade, members of Benchley’s group would apply this phrase to politics, and in their “evening clothes,” would fist-clench for Stalin.

This was never true than in the case of blue-blood screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, who fired off sophisticated comedies while at the same taking deadly serious the task of defending the indefensible actions of Stalin.

Stewart, a Yale University graduate who once ran with the bulls with Ernest Hemingway (who in turn put a thinly-veiled version of Stewart in his novel, The Sun Also Rises), became involved in the Hollywood Nazi League in the mid-30s.

Stewart’s “sophistication,” so obvious in his adapted plays like The Philadelphia Story, was not of the political variety as he was duped by a Comintern agent masquerading as a refugee from Nazi Germany (he was not), Otto Katz.

Through Stewart, Katz used this pose to gain entry into the more-money-than-brains Hollywood elite. Hosting dinners with Hollywood heavyweights on behalf of Katz, Stewart, who by his own account was “a romantic” communist, gushed, that he “was proud to be sitting beside” {Katz”}, “proud to be sitting beside him in the fight.”

Still drawing a more-than-handsome salary, Stewart typified the Hollywood Communist mocked by an authentic ant-fascist Salka Viertel:

“…all these people do is sit around their swimming pools, drinking highballs and talking about movies, while their wives complain about their Filipino butlers.”

Later, critics of the Hollywood Party, like liberal journalist Murray Kempton would cite Stewart as an example of the descent in literary quality among Communist writers after much better writers such as Edmund Wilson left the Party.

Stewart’s commitment to “being on the people’s army” was put the test when Stalin linked arms with the dictator the screenwriter formed the Hollywood Nazi Party over. The 1939 Non-Aggression Pact between Hitler and Stalin, which allowed both to jointly invade Poland, an action that started World War Ii, drove scores of members out of the Party.

But not Stewart, who, nevertheless, true to romantic form, took the Pact personally: “How can that guy Stalin do tis to us?,” he said. And violated the one rule of the Alguquin Round table, which was to take nothing on faith, when he said of his remaining in the Party, “I didn’t think I could abandon Stalin without surrendering my life raft” which he clung to like “a man who was drowning in a world which didn’t make sense.”

That Stewart was betraying his roots in the satirical 20s was borne out when Benchley (“say it in evening clothes”) savaged him over the Pact. At a dinner party, Benchley confronted Stewart for his “hypocrisy as an anti-Nazi in not attacking Stalin’s pact with Hitler.”
To whit, this figure known for witty throwaway lines completed the final break with the no-sacred-cow-humor of 20s New York. naively replied, “Stalin must have good reasons.”

And that was that. Not even the Nazis breaking the Pact by invading Russia in 1941 brought him back to the 20s fold. In typical fashion, Stewart took the invasion personally. Hearing news of the invasion on the radio, Stewart, declaring it “one of the happiest nights of my life” gushed,

“I could continue believing in my remote dream, the country where the true equality of man was becoming a reallity under the philosophy of Marxism and Leninism and the leadership of the great Stalin.”

After that, Stewart cranked out what he called “his best script,” the leaden and pontificating Keeper of the Flame (1943), was blacklisted, and moved to England, where not even the country’s legendary humor resurrected the satirist in “evening clothes.”