THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Monday, September 8, 2014

FEAR ON TRIAL by John Henry Faulk

Fear on Trial (published in 1964) is John Henry Faulk's story of his lonely and courageous fight against the practice of blacklisting that transformed him from a popular radio personality into an unemployable pariah.  After a battle that lasted six years, he won -- sort of.

The book begins:

"This is a story of violence.  Not violence involving physical brutality, lust, or bloodshed, but a more subtle kind of violence -- the violence of vigilantism.  In a society that has achieved rule by law, rule by vigilantism is a violence not only against those immediately affected but society itself.  Like all stories of violence, this one took place against a background of intrigue and fear." 

John Henry Faulk, born and raised in Austin, Texas, was an unlikely, but popular radio personality in New York City.  He was on the air for an hour each afternoon, five days a week, on CBS's flagship station, WCBS.  He also made occasional appearances on network TV game shows.

"I spun yarns, reminisced about my childhood in Texas and commented on the news of the day and the foibles of the world."

He had a master's degree in folklore from the University of Texas. Not nearly as well known, of course, he was nevertheless a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. In between his stories, he played recorded music, usually of the country-western variety. He was a hit.

As a radio and TV performer, he was required to be a member of the American Federation of Telelvision and Radio Artists (AFTRA) union. Although Faulk had joined the union in 1946 when he first arrived in New York, he did not become an active member until 1955. He did so because of an organization called AWARE, Inc.

Established in the early fifties, AWARE's founders and members considered themselves to be combatants in the battle against the Red Menace that they perceived to be stalking the world of "entertainment-communications." In truth it was a vigilante committee that published bulletins that accused radio and TV performers of engaging in, at worst, Communist activities or, at best, pro-Communist activities. Its allegations nearly always consisted of innuendoes based on the flimsiest evidence and/or guilt by association.

AWARE's accusations nearly always resulted in the targeted individual being placed on a blacklist and therefore becoming unemployable. At other times, charges concerning certain performers, as well as writers and other people working behind the scenes, were transmitted secretly to sponsors, advertising agencies, or TV and radio stations and networks, and the individual was never told why he/she had been blacklisted.

This was an even worse case scenario for these people, because they were unable to defend themselves since they didn't know why they had been blacklisted. Unfortunately, most sponsors, ad excutives, and station and network executives were reluctant, out of fear, to reveal the source or the nature of the allegations.

Aware's leadership knew that one way it could force its views on the radio and television industry was to gain influence in AFTRA -- especially the union's local in New York.  By the fifties, the organization almost completely dominated that local.

The local's board of directors was controlled by a faction that was elected year after year, a faction whose main issue was anti-Communism.  Some of the directors were also officers in AWARE, including the president of the union in 1955.

That year, a group of candidates calling themselves the Middle-of-the-Road slate ran for the board in opposition to the anti-Communist faction that approved blacklisting and had the support of AWARE.  The insurgents were successful in winning twenty-seven of thirty-five seats.  The Middle Roaders were then successful in electing members of their group to the top three leadership positions in the local.  CBS news correspondent Charles Collingwood became the new president; actor and comedian Orson Bean was elected first vice-president; and the new second vice-president was John Henry Faulk.

"While we were opposed to Communism we were also opposed to the blacklisting and intended to do something to put a stop to it."

"I understood full well that a strong aggressive position in the face of AWARE's attacks was our only way out, that a defensive attitude would be fatal to any effectiveness we might have in union affairs.  AWARE, like [Senator] McCarthy, could only operate on the offensive.  That's why they followed one policy alone -- attack."

It is no surprise that the Middle-of-the-Road slate was attacked in Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had its own witch-hunt in operation, that included its investigations into a perceived Communist influence in the movie industry.

The new union board members had barely taken office when AWARE attacked the slate in its annual report.  The report was especially critical of the top three officers.  It criticized the well-known Collingwood for publicly speaking out against blacklisting, but backed off from accusing him of any activities that could have been construed to be unpatriotic in nature.

The report reserved most of its ammunition for the two lesser-known officers, Bean and Faulk.  But it was Faulk, the most outspoken of the three, who was caught in the crosshairs.

Charles Collingwood
Orson Bean

Apparently, Collingwood, perhaps based on  his work as a war correspondent and his high profile, was beyond reproach.  There doesn't seem to have been any pressure placed on CBS to fire him.  With the other two, however, the situation was entirely different.

"....Orson Bean called to say that he had just been told by his agent that the AWARE bulletin had gotten him into trouble with Ed Sullivan.  Bean had made many appearances on the Sullivan show and had other appearances scheduled, but Sullivan had told Bean's agent that he could not use Bean again till he, Bean, had done something about the AWARE allegations....It seemed to be a clear case of an artist being blacklisted and being told why.  However, Bean's agent did not think that a lawsuit was a wise course.  Sometime later, Orson Bean withdrew from the Middle-of-the-Road slate.  Being a man of integrity, he gave his reasons for doing so.  His professional advisers had made it clear that remaining on the slate would seriously harm his career."

Faulk, on the other hand, did not back off.  After pressure from his sponsors and their advertising agencies, WCBS caved and fired him.  He decided to do what no other entertainer had done before him; he would file a libel suit against AWARE and two founding members of the organization who were deeply involved in the witch-hunt. 

With the financial assistance of friends, especially Edward R. Murrow, he was able to retain Louis Nizer, the most famous trial lawyer of the day.  Nizer, to his credit, charged only a minimum retainer fee.

Justice may be blind, but she may need a good lawyer to keep the blindfold in place.

Nizer warned Faulk that the action, due to inevitable delays by the defendants, would be a long one, but that he would win in the end.

"....[Nizer] said  that I should know it might take several years to bring the case to trial.  During that time, great pressure would be brought to bear on me -- not only economic pressure, but subtle emotional pressures.  It was quite possible that my family would suffer.  He then detailed a rather black picture of legal procedures.  It all added up to a grim warning."

Filed in 1956, the case did not go to trial until 1962.  In those six years, Faulk was unable to find a job in his chosen profession.  He and his family moved to Austin where he unsuccessfully attempted to sell mutual funds; he and his wife also struggled to run a small advertising firm.  Meanwhile, the family's mountain of debts grew ever higher.

The trial, beginning in the spring of that year and lasting eleven weeks, received a great amount of news coverage.  The jury awarded Faulk $3.5 million, which was more than he had asked for in his suit.  At the time, it was the largest monetary award in the history of libel suits.

An appeals court, while upholding the verdict, lowered the award to $500,000.  However, by 1962 AWARE was virtually broke and Faulk netted only about $75,000, and that went to legal fees and to pay debts that had accrued during his years of virtual unemployment.  His marriage could not withstand the strain of the ordeal and ended in divorce and his career as an entertainer never recovered. But he won -- sort of.

In October 1975, a dramatization of this book aired on network TV.  Ironically, the network was CBS.  The TV movie starred William Devane as Faulk and George C. Scott as Louis Nizer.  Faulk served as a consultant on the movie.  The production won widespread critical acclaim and received an Emmy nomination.

In his later years, John Henry Faulk lectured at colleges and universities.  The subject?  The U.S. Constitution, with special emphasis on the First Amendment.

John Henry Faulk (1913-1990)

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