|My Brilliant Career (Part Two of Two)|
FEATURE by Willard Manus
MY BRILLIANT CAREER (Part Two of Two)
John Henry Faulk was a popular New York radio personality in the 1950s. His daily afternoon show on the local CBS station had a large and loyal following, thanks to his warm, folksy way of telling stories and commenting on the follies and foibles of the human race. He was like a poor man's Mark Twain.
Faulk had grown up on a farm outside Austin, Texas, part of a large and raffish middleclass family whose exploits he never tired of recounting in slyly affectionate fashion. You'd think that hip, hard-boiled New Yorkers would be put off by his syrupy drawl and corny jokes--but the opposite was true. The longer Faulk stayed on the air, the more his audience grew.
I got the job of writing for him through my Aunt Jay, who was a friend of Faulk's second wife, Lynne. Both of them were leftwing political activists, as was Faulk himself. He had been a rebel as a boy and had dropped out of law school to become a writer. When he failed at that he became a teacher, then a folk artist. He told stories and jokes at political rallies and meetings, and was a minor star on the lecture circuit.
The folksong musicologist and promoter, Alan Lomax, was producing shows for CBS. Having met and admired Faulk back in Texas, Lomax felt radio would be the perfect medium for Faulk's storytelling. He introduced Faulk to his bosses, who gave him a chance to prove himself. Faulk soon became not only a radio but a television success, on such panel shows as Leave It to the Girls and We Take Your Word. He also became a pitchman for the products
advertised on The John Henry Faulk show, both on the air and out in the field where he would visit local stores to promote his program and its sponsors.
Faulk was a stocky, handsome man with a near-blind right eye (the result of a childhood infection). He was taking me on as an experiment, he said when we met at his W. 79th Street apartment, near the Museum of Natural History.
"Ah've never worked with a writer before, simply because what ah do is so personal and special," he explained. "But because ah'm gettin' all this outside work, ah do need help with mah daily show. Ah doubt whether yew'll be able to write in mah voice and style, but ah'm willin' to give yew a month-long trial during which yew'll havtah work for gratis, free, nuthin'! If things work out, though, ah'll keep yew on at two hundred dollahs a week. How's that grab yew, son?"
I reluctantly accepted the deal. I had just lost my first post-college job at the Yonkers Daily Times when that newspaper was shut down as a front for a gambling syndicate. I needed to make some money and was willing to take a chance with Faulk, even though I didn't like it that I'd be working directly for him, not CBS. There'd be no on-air credit for me, either, meaning I'd have no standing with the network or the Radio Writer's Guild. I was, to all effects and purposes, a ghost writer.
Still, it was a job with a future. I threw myself into the challenge of writing for Faulk. I knew it wouldn't be easy; after all, what could a Bronx boy possibly know about life back in East
Texas? I made up for my ignorance by hitting the library and checking out all the books I could find on American folklore. I also dipped into books by Will Rogers, Mark Twain and other American rural humorists.
I couldn't just copy the stories and jokes I found; they had to be shaved down and rewritten to fit the range of characters Faulk talked about on the air--his Grandpa Bible, Uncle Lee, Gramma Beckett and Congressman Guffaw. It was a big stretch for me as a writer, but pretty soon I began to get the hang of it. I took on Faulk's voice and style, began to live and think like those shitkicking characters of his. I even began to make up a few jokes of my own.
None of this came easily, of course. Not only did I have to sweat the writing but the pressure of a daily deadline. Because I wasn't a CBS employee, I worked out of home, which in those days was my parent's apartment in the Bronx. It mean having to rise early to pound out enough material to fill Faulk's hour-long show (which he padded by spinning hillbilly records and doing lengthy commercials), then catching the subway and meeting Faulk at the CBS building at Madison and 57th.
There, in his cubbyhole office, he'd go over what I'd written, sometimes red-penciling it, other times re-writing it or making notes in the margins which he'd then extemporize on during the course of the show, with impressive ease and skill.
Without question, Faulk was a remarkable radio personality. On air he was always relaxed to the point of nonchalance, always warm
and witty, entertaining and likable. He truly was an American original, the down-to-earth, irreverent voice of the common man. I admired him tremendously.
Faulk was sparing with compliments about my work, but he used most of what I gave him, which made me feel confident that he'd keep me on when my four-week trial was up.
"Ah dew lahk yore stuff," he finally conceded when the due-date came round. "Ah'd sure lahk tew keep workin' with yew, but sumthin's come up which might make that hard."
Here Faulk paused and gazed at me with something new in his expression: apprehension.
"Ah'm fightin' the blacklist," he explained. "If ah lose the battle, CBS might cancel the show."
* * *
It didn't seem possible that a powerful and rich corporation like CBS--the Tiffany of the networks, home of famed radio personalities such as Norman Corwin, Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid--would actually take seriously the accusations made by a handful of rightwing zealots (led by three ex-FBI men, a former naval intelligence officer and a supermarket owner) that the airwaves had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers bent on
subverting the American way of life.
These self-appointed guardians of the entertainment industry, began publishing a newsletter, Plain Talk (later Counterattack, Red Channels and Aware), which set out to pressure the networks into "purging" themselves of "the Communist Fifth Column" within their
They also took it upon themselves to name the people who were members of the Fifth Column. It was, pure and simple, an attempt to establish a blacklist in the radio and tv industries.
It was all part of the 1950's Cold War, the ideological battle between Russia and the USA, Left and Right. With backing from the FBI, the American Legion and a "communist squad" (a secret NYC police unit that had been keeping tabs on leftwingers since the 1940s), the Plain Talk people published the names of hundreds of showbiz celebrities they accused of being Communists or fellow-travelers. Washington soon joined the fray by subpoenaing these actors, directors and writers and questioning them as to their political beliefs and actions. Some of the accused denied all the charges against them, others took the Fifth and refused to testify, still others confessed to their past leftwing associations and begged for forgiveness, only to be told that they wouldn't be cleared until they named all of their leftwing friends, relations and co-workers.
Turning defendants into informers was an ancient and despicable technique, one that dated back to the days of the Grand Inquisition. Under the guise of rooting out other wrongdoers, it was really intended to humiliate those on trial, break their will, give the Inquisitors control over everyone's lives and thoughts.
The blacklist began to take root in the broadcast industry. The rightwingers gloated over this development, claiming that they had thwarted a communist conspiracy to rule the airwaves. It was a
load of codswollop, of course. No doubt some of the accused were, or had been, lefties of one kind or another. Some might even had been communists. But even if they were hardcore Stalinists, it was utterly preposterous to believe that they could slip propaganda into the kinds of shows they worked on, things like The Goldbergs or Gangbusters or The Aldrich Family (all of which had been singled out by the red-baiters).
Faulk was now caught up in this anti-communist frenzy. Even though he had reluctantly signed a CBS loyalty oath, the zealots still went after him. There was no question about his leftist sympathies; he and Lynne had campaigned for Henry Wallace's Progressive Party; he had entertained at leftist parties and rallies and was a close friend of Alan Lomax (one of the first blacklist victims at CBS). He also had publicly come out against U.S. participation in the Korean War. But again, none of these political ideas found their way into The John Henry Faulk Show. It was about as radical and dangerous as a plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.
CBS could and should have stood up for Faulk--and every other employee on the inquisitors' hit list. But it capitulated instead, unlike NBC and ABC which at least made a few efforts to fight the blacklist. All CBS did for Faulk was arrange a meeting with one of its staff lawyers who served as a "security officer" for the network.
"He told me how ah could clear mah name," Faulk confided in me later. "If ah slip the people at Aware ten thousand bucks, all charges will be dropped against me."
"What are you going to do, John?"
"Ah'm goin' to fight them, dammit! They're a bunch of crooks, a pack of goddamn hypocrites who play at politics in order to enrich themselves. Fuck 'em where they breathe!"
I had to decide whether I should keep working for him. It would mean working for no pay, of course, not even subway carfare. In the end, I decided to hang in there, not only because I liked and admired the man, but to show solidarity with him, give the finger to the witch-hunters.
Weeks went by. Faulk kept up his affable, easygoing front on the air, but off it he was driven and unhappy, bad-tempered. He went into one meeting after another with his lawyer, who kept pressuring him to snitch on his friends, become a stoolpigeon. "It's the only way to save your career," he was told.
Faulk refused to give in. He also refused to buy the witch-hunters off. "Ah haven't done anythin' wrong, dammit," he insisted. "And ah won't pay those sonsabitches one thin dime!"
Then came a ray of hope. Faulk was able to arrange a meeting with the president of CBS, William S. Paley. If Paley, one of the most influential and important men in the industry--hell, in the country--decided to defy Aware and keep Faulk on the air, it would have helped pull the rug out from under the blacklist.
Paley had the weapons with which to defend Faulk. He had a stable of lawyers at his disposal, had access to Congress and the media; and he headed a network staffed with some of the finest, most-respected journalists in the world. He was also fond of Faulk and had often said that he loved his show.
Paley was not only positioned to fight the good fight, but win it.
In the end, though, Paley capitulated to Aware. He chickened out and not only cancelled Faulk's show but dropped him from CBS' payroll. Faulk's other TV shows parted company with him as well. He was now out of work, left with nothing to show for all his years on the air, except his pride and self-respect.
A few years later, Faulk and his new attorney Louis Nizer sued Aware for libel and slander, charging that it had conspired to defame him and render him unemployable in order to consolidate its own power within the broadcast industry. The trial lasted nearly a year; in the end, the jury found for the plaintiff, John Henry Faulk, and awarded him damages that totalled $3.5 million, the largest libel judgement an American jury had ever awarded.
For one reason or another, Faulk never saw a penny of that money, but he did have the pleasure of seeing the blacklist end in the early 60s. He eventually went back to work in the industry, appearing as a regular on the country comedy show, Hee Haw. In 1986 he toured theatres in a one-man show entitled Pear Orchard, Texas in which he reprised all of the characters from his CBS radio show, using many of the anecdotes and quips I had written for him.
He never paid me "one thin dime" for any of the work I had done for him.