Norma Barzman, now 102, victim Hollywood blacklist: “Marilyn Monroe came to warn us”

When I was preparing for my 2008 visit to Hollywood, trying to contact actors and directors for interviews about their careers in film, I hoped to get in touch with veteran screenwriter Norma Barzman (b. 1920), yet I didn’t know how to get hold of any contact info. That is until my guardian angel stepped in: American-born actress Betsy Blair, formerly married to Gene Kelly, who had been residing in London for several decades. When I was on the phone with her, during one of our many conversations, I asked her if she knew how to get in touch with Ms. Barzman. ‘No problem,’ she said, and she gave her telephone number right away. ‘What should I do now?’ I asked. ‘You think I can call her out of the blue?’ ‘Sure, we’re all leftists, she won’t mind. Just tell her that I gave you her number.’

And how right she was. Ms. Barzman didn’t mind at all; when I called her, I introduced myself, told her who I was and what I do, and she didn’t mind at all meeting me in Los Angeles. ‘Call me again when you’re in town, and we’ll set up an appointment,’ she said. And that’s precisely what happened; we met in Nate ’n Al’s on North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, for a very interesting early lunch. It was very crowded there, it was so noisy, but that didn’t bother any of us.

Most people wouldn’t know who Norma Barzman is. How could they; she lived a life out of the limelight, and as a scriptwriter, she only had a few screen credits, going back to the 1940s and 1950s, and for some scripts she worked on, she was not credited. But once she starts talking, her life story is all the more amazing. She was 87 when we met, but when we were looking at the menu of Nate ’n Al’s, she said, jokingly, ‘I may be old, but I’m not that old. I don’t remember Hollywood Boulevard with wooden sidewalks.’

Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker in “Never Say Goodbye” (1946), about a soldier leaving the woman he loves. Ooriginal story written by Ben and Norma Barzman | Film Talk Archive

Her autobiography, “The Red and the Blacklist: An Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate,” published in 2003, put her back on the map. She wrote about how she and her husband Ben Barzman (1910-1989) were blacklisted screenwriters during the 1940s, because of the post-war McCarthy witch-hunt toward anyone with leftist affiliations. Mrs. Barzman had been a member of the Communist Party from 1942-1949, but sixty years later, she remained unapologetic about her involvement, especially considering ‘Hitler was invading the Soviet Union, so there was no reason to be anti-Russian. They were our allies at the time.’ Being progressive, she fought fascism, and the Party, she thought at that time, best fit her ideology—and her husband’s.

Just a few other blacklisted American screenwriters and filmmakers, they fled the country and moved to Europe; the Barzmans left Hollywood and moved to France for a thirty-year exile. Dalton Trumbo and Jean Rouverol went to Mexico. The Hollywood Ten made headlines—a group of ten directors, writers, and producers who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) when they were called to testify.

According to history.com, ‘HUAC’s work served as a blueprint for the tactics employed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R) in the early 1950s. He led an aggressive anticommunist campaign of his own that made him a powerful and feared figure in American politics. His reign of terror came to an end in 1954 when the news media revealed his unethical tactics and he was censured by his colleagues in Congress. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, HUAC’s relevance was in decline, and in 1969, it was renamed the Committee on Internal Security. Although it ceased issuing subpoenas that year, its operations continued until 1975.’

As a result of the Hollywood blacklist, many careers were broken, and lives were destroyed, but some came back—actress Lee Grant, for one, who had also been blacklisted, later won two Academy Awards (1975 and 1981). She told me during our 2016 interview, ‘Each award was like being able to say to the blacklisters, ‘So where are you now, what are you doing?’ I was getting awards for being there, and I survived them.’ The wounds of the Hollywood blacklist, of the ‘dark ages’ as Marsha Hunt, another blacklisted actress, described it, had not healed yet, after all those decades. And like Ms. Barzman, Marsha Hunt is a centenarian too; next October she celebrates her 105th birthday (Ms. Hunt passed away on September 6, 2022, at her home in Sherman Oaks, at age 104; this paragraph has been updated on September 10).

Ms. Barzman asked me not to record our conversation on audiotape, but allowed me to take notes during our lunch—which I did, extensively, although it wasn’t easy. It also means that I don’t have too many quotes, so this interview is written more as an article rather than a one-on-one conversation.

Book cover of “The Inquisition in Hollywood” (1980), written by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund

When she looked back, Ms. Barzman said she was excited to be part of the progressive Hollywood community in the mid-1940s, at the time when she also wrote her first scripts, ‘because I never thought so many people could be like-minded about something good to help other people.’ In the beginning, she couldn’t believe it until she came out to Los Angeles and saw it with her very own eyes; they all gave ten percent of their income to the Party, but once World War II was over, ‘we knew that some reactionary people in Hollywood just couldn’t wait to get back at us.’ She referred to “The Inquisition in Hollywood” (1980, written by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund), ‘a very good book about what happened.’ The studio heads were very upset in those days when the country unionized, and many reactionaries at the studios in top positions wanted to make it impossible for the unions to operate. So they decided to jump on the union people and the labor people; they weren’t even thinking in terms of communists. It got much bigger than just focusing on members of the Party, because so many people—‘thousands, probably,’ she said—weren’t even communists or socialists. ‘They had just signed a petition for something decent, or they had given some money for something,’ she said.

In September 1947, the Committee for the First Amendment was formed by directors John Huston, William Wyler, screenwriter Philip Dunne, and actress Myrna Loy. A group that included leftists, liberals, and communists, it was a defense committee for those who were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Other members included, alphabetically, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Dandridge, Bette Davis, Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Judy Garland, Ira Gerhswin, June Havoc, Sterling Hayden, Paul Henried, Katharie Hepburn, Lena Horne, Marsha Hunt, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Evelyn Keyes, Burt Lancaster, Groucho Marx, Groucho Marx, Burgess Meredith, Vincente Minnelli, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Ryan, Frank Sinatra, Billy Wilder and Jane Wyatt.

In October 1947, many of them flew to Washington, D.C. to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee. ‘I wasn’t on that flight,’ Ms. Barman told me, ‘I wasn’t important enough. That was only for the stars, for people like Humphrey Bogart and Betty Bacall. And when Bogart came back, Warner Bros. told them they would be suspended if they stayed on the Committee. In the beginning, we didn’t realize how serious it was; we realized that when the members of The Hollywood Ten were called to testify, they were going to be tried in contempt of congress. And when our friends couldn’t work anymore, then we knew something bad was happening.’

Book cover of “Love, Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam” (1992), edited by Miriam Marx

Actor and comedian Groucho Marx lived across the street on Sunset Plaza Drive in Beverly Hills. He used to come out with the baby carriage, pushing his baby daughter Melinda (b. 1946) on his daily stroll. The Barzmans didn’t know him, but he was always friendly. They talked and he made jokes. One day, he acted very strange and peculiar, and didn’t want to talk with them. When he walked back, he put the brake on the pram and only told them something like, ‘It’s too hot for you in two ways, and the most I would do for you is give you some ice cubes. That’s as far as my sympathies go.’ Mr. Barzman thought that he maybe tried to tell them something. That was around five in the afternoon.

So she and her husband were out there, sitting on the lawn of their home on 1290 Sunset Plaza Drive in Beverly Hills, having a cool drink, and they were waiting for their children to come home. There was a hot Santa Ana wind blowing, and the housekeeper had taken the children to the beach, so they could get some fresh air. Suddenly, a convertible—an elderly Cadillac—with a beautiful blonde woman came up the hill and pulled up their driveway. They looked at her because they didn’t know who she was or what was happening. The woman got out of her car, and walked a couple of steps; she looked nervous and scared. Ms. Barzman asked her if she was okay. But the young woman said that she was stopped at the bottom of the hill by two sheriff’s cars; they were stopping every car that was going up and asked everyone if they were going to number 1290 because that house was under surveillance. ‘I thought I ought to warn you,’ the young woman said to the Barzmans. She was going up the hill to Judy Garland’s house for a cocktail party. Ms. Barzman remembered that she shook the young lady’s hand and said, ‘My name is Norma.’ ‘Ooh, my name is Norma too.’ Then she got back in her car and left. Ms. Barzman then wanted to call her mother and tell her about what had happened. ‘When I picked up the phone, I heard a conversation, a phone call, that I had with a friend of mine two days before. I could hear it playing back. Then I put down the phone because I realized that my phone was tapped and I knew they were watching us.’

A few years later, when in exile in Paris, her husband was reading the Herald Tribune and he spotted a familiar face: it was Norma, the blonde who had tipped them off about the surveillance. She was an aspiring actress who had played small and supporting roles. Her name was Marilyn Monroe. Ms. Barzman, ‘So Marilyn Monroe came to warn us.’

Nine years after her encounter with Ben and Norma Barzman, Marilyn Monroe played the leading role in “Bus Stop” (1956), opposite Don Murray | Marvin Page Motion Picture and Television Archive

As members of the Committee for the First Amendment, the Barzmans had indeed scheduled to host a committee meeting that evening, but it was canceled after Humphrey Bogart had called them in the morning to say he would resign from the committee. Warner Bros. had told him to do so if he wanted to keep on working at the studio. All Hollywood studios cooperated with HUAC by issuing a joint statement on November 24, 1947, saying, ‘We will not knowingly employ a communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force, or by any illegal or unconstitutional method.’

The Barzmans left for England to work on “Give Is This Day” (1949), directed by Edward Dmytryk, a member of the Hollywood Ten. When they were in London, friends from Los Angeles called them and told them not to come back because they would be sent to Washington immediately to testify and would never be able to work in Hollywood again. Subsequently, they were blacklisted. The investigations intensified, so they stayed; first, they lived in rental homes until they bought a house in Paris in 1954, a city she was familiar with as she had lived there as a child from 1927 until 1930. Now, as exiles, they became friends with Pablo Picasso, Yves Montand, and Simone Signoret. Other blacklisted American directors and screenwriters, such as their close friend John Berry, and Jules Dassin, also moved to Paris. ‘Considering the situation in the U.S. at that time, around 1951, it was very nice not to be in Los Angeles.’ From 1951 until 1955, she didn’t work on any films, she only worked for television.

“Give Us This Day” (1949, feature film), screenplay by Ben Barzman.

In 1965, the Barzmans rented Rory Calhoun’s house on Sunset Boulevard for the summer, but it wasn’t until 1976 that they decided to return to Los Angeles for good; things weren’t the same anymore. Ms. Barzman said, ‘We still had a few old friends we could share things with, but the community as we had known it was no longer there. Several people who had stayed in town looked beaten down, even if they had been able to work on the black market.’ She also felt she had lost too many years while she was away—France had been very kind to her, but it had lasted too long—and now that she was back in California, she hoped to become the woman she always wanted to be.

Looking back after all those years—going through the blacklisting, surviving it, and living in exile in France for three decades—Ms. Barzman said, ‘It was a whole new world out there, and we were very fortunate to live there. Those three decades abroad were very rewarding, and the friendships that we found, were strong. With the circle of friends we had, we were a tight group. And most importantly, it didn’t have a negative impact on our children, as they have all become wonderful people. Sometimes they had difficulties acclimatizing and they had to figure out which country and culture they felt most at home.’ During her years in France, the Barzman family also lived in a farmhouse in Mougins, near Cannes, for quite some time, where they enjoyed a social life that included several celebrity friends. ‘The Cannes Film Festival was only there for two weeks every year, but we were the center for film people from all over the world during that time,’ she said, referring to the time when she flourished and entertained film stars at their home in the South of France.

When I met Ms. Barzman in 2008, she no longer had any sympathies for communism. One of her regrets is that they ‘should have known much earlier how terrible the Soviet Union was. Ben and I went over there in 1964, and we saw with our own eyes how awful it was—and it was.’ She said she rather leans toward socialism and still would have helped all the causes she helped and that she believed in, but the Communist Party was terrible and frightful. ‘To this day, I don’t understand that I did not see that. I was so stupid.’

As Nate ’n Al’s became a bit too crowded and noisy by then—even chaotic—and many people were waiting for a table, Ms. Barzman and I decided it was time to leave. A few pictures were taken inside the restaurant, including the feature image, and she gave me an autographed copy of her second book. I thanked her dearly for her time and for the book, and after we said goodbye, I saw the dynamic 88-year-old screenwriter, activist, and journalist for the Los Angeles Examiner and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, among others, disappearing gracefully in the crowd on North Beverly Drive. I then looked for a nearby bench to sit and organize my notes a bit so they could be useful, knowing I missed so much precious information since I was writing down as much as I could. That must have been quite a sight. There was so much more to talk about, but I hope I scratched the surface of her long and colorful life just a little bit.

A few days later, I called her to tell her once more how much I appreciated our conversation that morning at the restaurant. After my return to Europe, I got on the phone right away to talk to Betsy Blair, telling her that the conversation with Ms. Barzman would never have been possible without her. Betsy Blair died of cancer the following year at age 85. RIP. She published her autobiography “The Memory of All That” in 2003.

Book covers of Norma Barzman’s “The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate” (2003) and “The End of Romance: A Memoir of Love, Sex, and the Mystery of the Violin” (2006)

In 2003, Ms. Barzman had written her celebrated memoir and first-hand account “The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate.” Three years later, she published “The End of Romance: A Memoir of Love, Sex, and the Mystery of the Violin” about ten days in her life that she had omitted from “The Red and the Blacklist”—not related to the Hollywood blacklist. In later years, she worked tirelessly to get blacklisted writers’ credits restored to films that were released with a different nom de plume. She spoke at film schools and universities about the blacklist, about what happened to her friends, filmmakers and activists. Despite everything she went through, she told me, ‘Oh yes, I was angry because I couldn’t bear to see my friends and their families hurt. But I’m not bitter because there’s always something to work for, whether it’s a marriage or a democracy.’

During the Academy Awards ceremony in March 1999, on the night of the awards, she became a key figure when she joined the protest outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles; the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Science had decided to bestow an Honoray Oscar to controversial filmmaker Elia Kazan. In 1952, he was called before the HUAC and named names. Ms. Barzman, her 14-year-old grandson and approximately 500 others turned up with signs such as ‘Elia Kazan, the Linda Tripp of the 1950s,’ ‘Don’t whitewash the backlist’ and ‘The blacklisted: reel heroes.’ Several writers, screenwriters and artists—survivors of the 1950s witch hunt and their families—were still struggling to come to terms with it. Ms. Barzman concluded our conversation, saying, ‘The Oscar for Kazan pointed out the importance of exploring the historical record of the blacklist.’

Orson Welles in France, 1982. He said, ‘Elia Kazan is a traitor. […] I have to add that he is a very good director.’

Her husband Ben Barzman, who wrote scripts for films such as “Back to Bataan” (1945), “El Cid” (1961), and “The Blue Max” (1966), died in 1989 at age 79. The Barzmans have seven children, including TV director Paolo Barzman, born in Cannes in 1957.

Hollywood screenwriter Henry Myers (1893-1975), who scripted films such as “Million Dollar Legs” (1932) for W.C. Fields, and “Destry Rides Again” (1939) starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, was Ms. Barzman’s cousin. ‘Henry was my hero. I worshipped him, and so I wanted to write. I think I always wanted to write,’ she said.

Norma Barzman (b. Norma Levor) will be celebrating her 103 birthday next month, on September 15. Have another wonderful year ahead!

Beverly Hills, California
March 28, 2008

Leaving Nate ’n Al’s on North Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, with an autographed copy of Norma Barzman’s “The End of Romance: A Memoir of Love, Sex, and the Mystery of the Violin”

1. FILMS OF NORMA BARZMAN INCLUDE

NEVER SAY GOOBYE (1946) DIR James V. Kern PROD William Jacobs SCR James V. Kern, I.A.L. Diamond (adaptation by Lewis R. Foster; original story by Norma Barzman, Ben Barzman) CAM Arthur Edeson ED Folmar Blangsted MUS Friedrich Hollaender CAST Errol Flynn, Eleanor Parker, Lucile Watson, S.Z. Sakall, Forrest Tucker, Donald Woods, Peggy Knudsen, Hattue McDaniel

THE LOCKET (1946) DIR John Brahm PROD Bert Granet SCR Norma Barzman [uncredited], Sheridan Gibney CAM Nicholas Musuraca ED J.R. Whittredge MUS Roy Webb CAST Laraine Day, Brian Aherne, Robert Mitchum, Gene Raymond, Sharyn Moffett, Ricardo Cortez, Henry Stephenson, Reginald Denny

YOUNG MAN WITH IDEAS (1952) DIR Mitchell Leisen PROD Gottfried Reinhardt, William H. Wright SCR Norma Barzman [uncredited], Ben Barzman, Arthur Sheekman CAM Joseph Ruttenberg ED Frederick Y. Smith MUS David Rose CAST Glenn Ford, Ruth Roman, Denise Darcel, Nina Foch, Donna Corcoran, Ray Collins, Mary Wickes, Bobby Diamond, Jean Acker

FANCIULLE DI LUSSO, a.k.a. LUXURY GIRLS and FINISHING SCHOOL (1952) DIR Piero Mussetta [Bernard Vorhaus] EXEC PROD Valentino Trevisanetto SCR Ennio Flaiano [Norma Barzman] CAM Piero Portalupi ED Gabriele Varriale MUS Nino Rota CAST Susan Stephen, Anna Maria Ferrero, Jacques Sernas, Steve Barclay, Marina Vlady, Brunella Bovo, Rossana Podestà

2. BOOKS OF NORMA BARZMAN

THE RED AND THE BLACKLIST: THE INTIMATE MEMOIR OF A HOLLYWOOD EXPATRIATE (2003)

barzman-norma-the-red-and-the-blacklistWhen Norma Levor first hit Hollywood, she was a vivacious twenty-one-year-old, fresh out of Harvard and her first marriage, clad in her perky pink cashmere top. Within an hour of being unleashed on Hollywood society, she was squabbling with a left-wing screenwriter Ben Barzman who claimed technology had made American cinema “way too tough for women.” Angry, Norma plunged a lemon meringue into his face. Three months later they were married by a defrocked Rabbi.

So begins Norma Barzman’s extraordinary memoir, The Red and the Blacklist, which fizzes with the wit and energy found in the classic Hollywood comedies of the forties. But it is also laced with the fear and claustrophobia found in the forties film noirs, as Norma and Ben are driven from Hollywood – during the post-war McCarthyite witch-hunt – into an emotionally thirty-year exile in France.

While studded with celebrity, adventure, gossip, and sex, The Red and the Blacklist is also a unique record of the political tempest of the time, marked by the author’s dazzling power of reflection and insight, and animated by a larger than life cast of supporting characters including Pablo Picasso, Harold Robbins, Sophia Loren, Charlton Heston, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Losey, John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, Groucho Marx, and – in a delightful cameo – a very young Marilyn Monroe.

NORMA BARZMAN is a screenwriter and novelist who lives in Beverly Hills. She was a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner in the forties and a columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate in the eighties. She wrote the screenplay for Never Say Goodbye, Luxury Girls (of which the Writers Guild of America has recently restored her credit), and is battling for credit on the classic film The Locket. She lectures frequently on the blacklist era and is the co-author (with Ben Barzman) of the novel Rich Dreams. She attended Radcliffe College and is the mother of seven children. She is currently finishing a novel called Cremona, a mystery suspense about violin making and creativity, fantasy and reality, women and romantic love.

Hardcover, dust jacket – 464 pp., index – Dimensions 23,5 x 15,5 cm (9,3 x 6,1 inch) – Weight 818 g (28,9 oz) – PUBLISHER Thunder’s Mouth Press / Nation Books, New York, New York, 2003 – ISBN 1-56025-466-1

THE END OF ROMANCE: A MEMOIR OF LOVE, SEX AND THE MYSTERY OF THE VIOLIN (2006)

barzman-norma-the-end-of-romanceThe great violinist Yehudi Manuhin went to his grave asking himself what was the real story behind the Cremonese violin the Amatis, the Guarneris, and Stradivarius. Why did Cremona, a provincial backwater in Lombardy, Italy, produce this sublime instrument?

In 1973, during the rise of the Red Brigades and the resurgence of fascism in Italy, Norma Barzman, a blacklisted screenwriter living in Southern France, travels to Cremona with her cousin, Henry Myers, the writer of the legendary Marlene Dietrich / James Stewart movie Destry Rides Again. Henry, a natural bon vivant and the love of Norma’s life, is nursing his diminished talent in deathly isolation in New York. To bring him back to life, Norma persuades Henry to write his long dreamt-of novel on Cremona.

Their adventure opens Pandora’s box of long-suppressed emotions, and forces each to reassess their feelings towards each other. Importantly, Norma – who becomes entangled with a young violin maker – stumbles upon the mysterious origins of the violin which unveils the suppressed history of Cremona, whose sun-bleached walls hide dangerously threatening secrets, intrigues and the shameful history of anti-semitism in Italy. In doing so, she raises the ire of local fascists, thus putting her life in jeopardy.

NORMA BARZMAN is a screenwriter and novelist who lives in Beverly Hills. She is the author of the celebrated memoir The Red and the Blacklist. She has worked for the Los Angeles Examiner, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. She was the wife of blacklisted screenwriter Ben Barzman.

Softcover – 285 pp. – Dimensions 21 x 13,5 cm (8,3 x 5,3 inch) – Weight 284 g (10 oz) – PUBLISHER Nation Books, New York, New York, 2006 – ISBN 1-56025-813-6