This Day in Jewish History: A Brilliant Actor Who Was Not a Communist Dies Very Young

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Bette Davis and John Garfield at the Hollywood Canteen, which they opened during World War II as a club for servicemen.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, 1952, the American film star John Garfield died, not yet 40. In a screen career that spanned just 13 years he had appeared in over 40 films, mainly in starring roles, making him famous and wealthy. Yet, as he told confidants, he would have preferred far fewer but more challenging roles, and to have spent more time on the stage.

Jacob Garfinkle was born on March 4, 1913; the middle name “Julius” was added when he was still a baby. He spent his early years on Rivington Street, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father, David Garfinkle, was a clothes presser and part-time cantor. Both he and his wife, the former Hannah Basia Margolis, had immigrated from Zhytomyr, in what is now Ukraine.

Julie, as he was called by people who were close to him, was 7 when his mother died. He and his younger brother, Max, were farmed out to various relatives in the area. When David remarried, he moved to the Bronx, where Julie, who was pegged as a problem student, was sent to a junior high for difficult children.

Fortunately the principal of P.S. 45, Angelo Patri, recognized Garfield’s potential. He encouraged Julie to learn to box, and arranged for him to have speech and acting lessons. Garfield even won a state-wide oratory competition, sponsored by The New York Times, speaking about Benjamin Franklin.

His hobo period

Still, Garfield didn’t finish high school, and at 17 he spent some time as a hobo in the Pacific Northwest, jumping freight trains and picking fruit. (It’s said that Preston Sturges’ 1942 film “Sullivan’s Travels” was inspired by Garfield’s accounts of his adventures.)

Garfield trained with several theater companies before making his Broadway debut, in 1932, and was soon invited to screen-test for Warner Brothers. He declined, hoping to be accepted into the new Group Theater collective. He was admitted, but in 1937, after a role that had been promised him (in Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy”) went to another actor in the group, he decided to say yes the next time Warner came knocking.

No roles? No pay

It did, and his screen debut came in 1938, in Michael Curtiz’s “Four Daughters.” When that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, Warner Bros. began giving Garfield a steady stream of lead roles. But Garfield was looking for quality, not quantity, and frequently turned down parts, leading the studio to withhold his salary.

Heart problems, apparently caused by a childhood bout with scarlet fever, kept Garfield from active service in World War II. But he went abroad to entertain the troops and, with Bette Davis, founded the servicemen’s club the Hollywood Canteen.

By 1946, fed up with the studio system, Garfield and a colleague started their own production company, Garfield’s Enterprise. It only made two movies, but both were memorable, “Body and Soul” (1947) and “Force of Evil” (1948). Garfield starred as a boxer in the former and a mob lawyer in the latter, both of them streetwise young Jews.

In 1935, Garfield had married Roberta Seidman, his childhood sweetheart. Katherine, one of their three children, died of an allergic reaction at age 6, in 1945.

In 1951, Garfield, who was politically outspoken and whose wife had actually belonged to the Communist Party briefly, was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He appeared, declared that he was not a communist and refused to name anyone he knew who was.

The FBI eventually closed its file on Garfield, but not before he found himself blacklisted in Hollywood and dropped from a planned TV production of “Golden Boy.” He took the experience hard.

On May 20, 1952, against medical advice, Garfield played several sets of tennis. That night, feeling unwell, he went to sleep early. The next morning he was found dead in bed, of a heart attack. He was 39.

More than 10,000 people are estimated to have crowded the streets outside Manhattan’s Riverside Memorial Chapel for his funeral on May 23.

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