Left in the Past
ROY M. BREWER’s voluminous files show Ronald Reagan’s anti-Communist conservatism had its beginnings in his liberal past by JOHN MERONEY
Recollections of Ronald Reagan’s time in Hollywood are full of myth and misinformation. From the right’s perspective, his role as a union man who campaigned for Truman is conveniently forgotten; the left, on the other hand, has held tight to its view of him as an archconservative Red baiter.
What is indisputable is that the 40th president of the United States came to office with a deep-seated hatred of Communism. But less known than his commitment to its end was that he already had a plan for seeing to it. In fact, it was during the bizarre McCarthy-era Red Scare that the seeds of his campaign against the ideology were planted.
The key to unlocking and understanding Reagan’s evolution was found in 75 legal-file boxes in a house at the end of a dirt road in Canoga Park, where former movie-industry union chief Roy Brewer lived with his daughter and son-in-law. Brewer, who turned out to be both a witness and archivist for Reagan’s time in Hollywood, became the closest thing the future commander in chief—an officer and later president of the Screen Actors Guild—ever had to a mentor.
Brewer saved everything from his life in Hollywood, and as it turns out, his papers form a remarkable portrait of Reagan’s life as a movie star, liberal Democrat and union man. The boxes held a treasure trove of private correspondence, speeches, congressional documents, Communist Party newspapers, transcripts of testimony from executive sessions and minutes from closed union meetings—the total of which provides a new view of the most enigmatic president in recent memory.
The documents are a time machine to Hollywood in the Cold War, revealing something that has eluded us for decades: Reagan’s Rosebud. Brewer’s role was to be the magical helper who provided the unlikely protagonist advice and training.
The documents trace Reagan through the greatest scandal in Hollywood history—the McCarthy-era blacklist. That’s when the crux of Reagan’s life took place offstage, in the shadows of intrigue that engulfed the movie industry from inside its many labor organizations.
It is a chronicle of how Reagan developed anti-Communist strategies in Hollywood that he would refine as president four decades later. The measures eventually led to confrontations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and accelerated the end of the Soviet regime.
I first became aware of the collection a decade ago, when I was a Washington, D.C., reporter researching Reagan. I was fascinated with this Roy Brewer character. In Hollywood lore, he is almost universally despised because of his alleged Red-baiting. However, in newspapers published during the 1940s and ’50s, when he was a representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, he was covered as an influential liberal. But I hadn’t read any recent interviews with Brewer and, frankly, thought he was dead.
When I rang Brewer’s son to get some background on his father, Roy Jr. agreed to cooperate but suggested, “You could just as easily talk to my dad. He’d love that.” Reaching the elder Brewer, I realized his son was correct. I asked one question, and 90 minutes later he was still answering. Of Reagan, he said, “I called him Ron, and he called me Roy.”
Brewer’s assertions were engrossing—he told me he and Reagan led the motion-picture-industry push for Democratic President Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign. He said that later, when Reagan was on crutches after breaking his femur playing baseball, Brewer would drive him to their frequent political meetings. But that was small talk. The point here was to understand the story of how he and Ronald Reagan together waged war against Soviet influence in the Hollywood labor movement in the 1940s and ’50s.
I was accustomed to people in Reagan’s orbit claiming they were pivotal in a slew of his successes, only to discover they’d really just met him once at a rally. I was initially dubious about Roy Brewer, especially his statement about their anti-Communist work. But then he invited me to visit him in L.A.
Figures like Brewer are the reason people go into journalism. They are the keepers of the past. A gritty, often misunderstood character, Brewer was a tough union man, yet he would almost weep when quoting Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” line from Gone with the Wind. The line spoke to his personal determination, New Deal loyalties and socialist leanings. A portrait of FDR hung on his wall. He regarded Joseph McCarthy as a demagogue. (In the archive, I found far-right McCarthyite propaganda smearing Brewer as soft on Communism and castigating Reagan as a “flagrant Red.”) Politically, Brewer supported Reagan in all his campaigns, but in the Florida recounts, he backed Al Gore. He didn’t like George W. Bush.
After meeting Brewer, I spent the next five years traveling between Washington and L.A. and building our relationship. We had suppers at Musso & Frank, milkshakes at the Polo Lounge (“I used to live here,” he’d tell the maître d’) and pancake-and-egg breakfasts at Jerry’s Deli and Carrows, often at all hours of the night. He revealed the archive to me piecemeal, then once he trusted me, I was allowed to go through it on my own. When his daughter and her husband sold their house in 2005, I was given exclusive, unfettered access to the collection.
The archive showcases Reagan the liberal before liberal became a dirty word. While the broad strokes of his Hollywood years are familiar—Warner Bros. star, SAG president, host of the hit CBS anthology series General Electric Theater—what specifically happened during that time is part of the little-known history of Reagan and even Hollywood itself.
The Hollywood in which Reagan worked was very different than the time portrayed in blacklist dramas like The Way We Were, The Front and Guilty by Suspicion. The Communist Party operated more like an underground cult than a political party, recalled the people I talked to, including some who never ended their party membership.
American Communists believed the Soviets represented the future. Today’s public perception is that Communists were merely liberals in a hurry. That’s because the Reds “wrote their own histories,” as screenwriter Richard Collins, a former Communist, shared with me. They erased the part about their connections to Moscow.
Brewer was a tough union man, yet he would almost weep when quoting Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” line from Gone with the Wind. The line spoke to his personal determination, New Deal loyalties and socialist leanings.
Just as Reagan was becoming a movie star at Warner Bros. (more than a dozen pictures in his first four years), Soviet spies Mikhail and Yelizaveta Mukasey began operating in Hollywood. As the L.A. Times reported in 2009, the couple finessed their way into mingling with Hollywood’s elite—Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, even staunch anti-Communist Walt Disney. “Many famous people in Hollywood were in touch with the White House...and through them we got the information we needed,” the Times quoted the couple from their 2004 memoir.
And what has been typically portrayed as anti-Communist hysteria—for instance, that writers exploited their position for the party agenda—may be true after all, according to documents.
Congressional testimony from a screenwriter active in a Communist Party front group quotes party head John Howard Lawson lecturing at a La Brea Avenue school for actors: “It is your duty to further the class struggle by your performance. If you are nothing more than an extra wearing white flannels on a country-club veranda, do your best to appear decadent, do your best to appear to be a snob, do your best to create class antagonism.”
He would instruct writers: “Do not try to write an entire Communist picture. The producers will quickly identify it, and it will be killed by the front office. Try to get five minutes of the...party line in every script you write...If you can make the message come from the mouth of Gary Cooper or some other star who is unaware of what he is saying, by the time it is discovered, he is in New York, and a great deal of expense will be involved to bring him back and reshoot the scene.”
Radical ideologues certainly have a right to their soapboxes. However, when one considers Lawson was cofounder and first president of the then named Screen Writers Guild, his speech takes on a different light. An oral history by screenwriter and Communist Party member Paul Jarrico supplements the document in Brewer’s archive. “Oh, we were certainly involved in efforts to affect the content of films,” says Jarrico. “We were wide-eyed about the possibility of writing movies that would affect millions and millions of viewers.”
(Ronald Reagan’s usual sunny disposition—he was after all, often called the happy warrior of politics—would change to fury when the topic turned to the troubles at the time he and Brewer were leaders in Hollywood. They thought it was a travesty that by the Vietnam era, Communist filmmakers had rehabilitated themselves as civil libertarians and blacklist victims. “The biggest fairy tale since Snow White,” Reagan would say.) But it was the comrades who took to the streets who primarily steeled Reagan for what became the driving force of his life: the defeat of Soviet Communism.
In 1945, a strange battle erupted in Hollywood’s 42 craft unions that reflected the Soviet Union’s overarching goal of controlling the worldwide labor movement. Undercover Communists seized control of a painters’ union, formed a larger umbrella group with cartoonists, readers, secretaries and publicists and called a jurisdictional strike, with the goal of taking over other unions.
Archive documents—and court decisions from the 1950s—disclosed their goal: to create one industrial union for all of Hollywood. While the vast majority of the members would be rank-and-file laborers, the organization would be controlled by Communists. To succeed, they had to drive a wedge between labor allies and create chaos in the existing labor structure.
“Every place you turned, you found the bitterness, you found the hatred, you found persons criticizing one another,” Brewer said in a congressional hearing on labor, describing the environment in Hollywood. “A man was either with the Communists or he was isolated and smeared.”
At the time, Reagan was appointed to a special SAG panel to meet with the leaders of the new “painters plus” union, with the goal of settling the strike. At first, he resisted Brewer’s diagnosis that the strike was Communist-driven. In an unpublished interview with a scholar, Reagan said, “We met virtually seven days a week, twice a day, for seven months. I can’t tell you how many times we would apparently settle the difficulties. We’d go home and say, ‘We’ve got it all straightened out. We’re meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning.’ And at 10, [the painters’ union] would walk in with their lawyers with about 17 whole new issues.”
Of course, 11th-hour reneging during collective bargaining does not a Communist make. But as meetings progressed, Reagan personally witnessed the machinations that were under way. He watched as Brewer’s predictions came true.
In meetings at SAG headquarters on Hollywood Boulevard, leading man Sterling Hayden was making subtle efforts to maneuver the group behind the ever-expanding painters’ union. On its face, this didn’t make sense to Reagan, as actors couldn’t benefit from a painters affiliation. When Reagan pushed the issue, actors he thought were friends suddenly gave him the cold shoulder.
Reagan became increasingly apprehensive about the events unfolding around him. In fall 1946, pandemonium erupted on the studio picket lines. Reagan watched from inside Warner Bros. as strikers hurled rocks and bottles at security guards and workers who tried to cross. One technique for dealing with people who refused to join the strikers was to stop them at the gates and, as Reagan remembered it, “open the car door, with the window rolled down, break [their arms]—and then send them on in to try and do their job.”
The mayhem increased, and Reagan’s suspicions turned to alarm, especially when he heard about Herbert Sorrell, who was leading the charge for the painters. At a union meeting in November 1946, Sorrell deployed his men to target the Screen Actors Guild, according to an archive transcript provided by a whistleblower.
“You know, I don’t like to hurt people,” said Sorrell, who happened to be an ex-prizefighter, “but if these white-livered friends of ours are going to continue to go through the picket lines, we can’t consider them our friends. There may be trouble tonight!” His words were met with applause.
Every evening around midnight, the phone would ring in Reagan’s house on Cordell Drive. It would be instructions from Warner Bros. on where to find a bus in the morning that would shuttle actors and other employees through the lines. “I remember one morning I was late,” Reagan later told a scholar, “and when I got there, our bus was still on fire from the bomb that had been thrown.”
In an unpublished 1975 interview contained in the archive, Reagan said, “It was a very violent, trying time.” One reason the chaos was so intense was that Sorrell and his advisers turned to allies in the longshoremen’s union on the San Francisco waterfront—also under Communist control—for help. The archive led me to a lengthy recording of a longshore-man recalling those days. “We were hired to do a little sabotage work,” he said.
The strikes electrified Reagan. He sat up nights at home studying details of the Hollywood rancor, wondering where the next betrayal might take place and determining what he could do—or what speech he could give—to fix it. Ever the union man, Reagan worried about the men who lost work because of the picket lines. (In 1960, he guided actors in their first strike, which led to residuals.)
In one-on-one meetings with workers, he would explain what he saw as the fallacies of the painters’ union and its claim to be for democratic unionism. “They want control,” Reagan would say as he presented facts to support his position. Eventually, he began to speak publicly to scores of union members and anyone else who would listen. He and Brewer found liberals and conservatives such as Allen Rivkin in the Screen Writers Guild and Cecil B. DeMille in the Screen Directors Guild who agreed with their view that this was a struggle not just for integrity in trade unionism but for the soul of Hollywood.
Reagan and Brewer convinced them to build a coalition across the partisan divide in their locals and guilds. That strategy essentially stopped the Communist Party in Hollywood.
The personal portrait of Reagan that emerges is in striking contrast to the image of a grandfatherly two-term conservative Republican president. It is even farther from the figure now being invoked by GOP presidential candidates
Hayden confirmed as much in 1951, when he revealed in sworn congressional testimony that he had been a covert operative for the Communist Party, with the specific mission to swing the Screen Actors Guild to join up with the painters.
In the archive is a copy of the testimony (along with never released recordings of Hayden being interviewed by a Saturday Evening Post reporter), in which Hayden said Reagan “was a one-man battalion against this thing. He was very vocal and clear thinking on it. I don’t think many people realized how complex it was.”
By vanquishing the painters’ union, Reagan and Brewer preserved IATSE and SAG and the larger American Federation of Labor structure in Hollywood. Their strategy also essentially saved the motion-picture industry, which was struggling financially because television was siphoning moviegoers and courts were ruling that studios could no longer own movie theaters, as they had for decades.
With that financial specter haunting Hollywood, the last thing needed was a national boycott claiming movies were full of Reds. “We fought them on and off the record,” Reagan wrote in 1951. “We fought them in meetings and behind the scenes.” That same year, Brewer said he considered his friend Ron to be the most effective person in the movie industry at fighting Communism.
The archives shed light on another mythologized piece of Hollywood history: the hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. I grew up hearing about the Hollywood Ten—filmmakers railroaded by congressional witch-hunters in 1947, ostensibly because they were liberals.
According to that familiar narrative, they rebuked the committee when subpoenaed. If there’s a “profiles in courage” touchstone in Hollywood, this is it. Those who did testify, such as Brewer and Reagan, are regarded as Judases.
However, a letter from John Huston found in the files says this story is a well-constructed myth. And if anyone would know key facts about those days, it would be Huston, a non-Communist liberal Democrat who opposed the hearings because he believed it was unconstitutional to require a citizen to state his political beliefs.
Writing on the filmmakers who refused to answer questions from congressmen, Huston recounted, “Some of them had already testified in California, and their testimony had been false. They’d said they were not Communists, when in truth they were. To have admitted it now would have been to lay themselves open to charges of perjury.”
Huston said that at the time of the hearings, they convinced him they were standing up for principle—the “freedom of the individual,” as he put it. However, as he later learned (and wrote in the letter), “they were really looking after their own skins. Had I so much as suspected such a thing, I would have washed my hands of them on the spot.”
When Brewer and Reagan were called to the stand, they described their fight—strange as it may seem today—against Stalin’s network in Hollywood. “We have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping those people’s activities curtailed,” Reagan said. “After all, we must recognize them at present as a political party. On that basis, we have exposed their lies when we came across them. We have exposed their propaganda, and I can certainly testify that, in the case of the Screen Actors Guild, we have been eminently successful in preventing them from—with their usual tactics—trying to run a majority of an organization with a well-organized minority.
“In opposing those people, the best thing to do is make democracy work. In the Screen Actors Guild, we make it work by ensuring everyone a vote and by keeping everyone informed. I believe that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, if all the American people know all of the facts, they will never make a mistake.”
There is enough evidence contained in the files to conclude that what Brewer and Reagan initiated in Hollywood had an impact on world history decades later. It is no coincidence that Reagan’s clandestine 1980s campaign with Pope John Paul II to support the outlawed Solidarity movement in Poland helped turn the tide against Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe.
Astonishingly, the papers in the archive show that Reagan and Brewer launched the forerunner of their strategy in the movie industry. And the personal portrait of Reagan that emerges from the archive is in striking contrast to the image of a grandfatherly two-term conservative Republican president. It is even farther from the figure now being invoked by GOP presidential candidates.
Today, the dirt road in the Valley where Roy Brewer lived the final portion of his life is paved. I attended Reagan’s funeral with him in 2004, and he died two years later, at 97. After that, the documents in his archive were fully processed. And I continue to follow those paths along the strange and consequential journey he and Reagan took through Los Angeles.
JOHN MERONEY is a writer for the Atlantic. He is completing the book Ronald Reagan in the Hollywood Wars.
1: Getty Images
3–7: Roy M. Brewer Collection
9–10: Bettmann / CORBIS