This Day in Jewish History A Political Screenwriter Who Remained True to Himself Is Born

Budd Schulberg never apologized for 'naming names,’ but later acknowledged that McCarthyism may have been an even greater threat to America than communism.

David Green
David B. Green
Budd Schulberg.
Budd Schulberg.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On March 27, 1914, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg was born in New York. Throughout a life that lasted 95 years, and a career that continued almost all the way to the end, Schulberg remained critical, even provocative, and was true to himself even when that required him to pay a significant price.

Seymour Wilson Schulberg was the eldest of the three children of B.P. Schulberg, a Connecticut-born movie producer of Eastern European stock, and the former Adeline Jaffe, a talent agent and later literary agent who had arrived in America from Russia as a baby. Budd, as he was called his whole life, grew up a child of privilege, in both the East Coast and in Hollywood, where his father was for a time chief of production at Paramount Studios.

Even before he attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he graduated in 1936, Schulberg was writing professionally for the movie industry. In 1934 he traveled to Moscow for the first Soviet Writers’ Conference, and not long after joined the American Communist Party.

Schulberg’s first big splash came with publication of the novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” in 1941. With its depiction of Sammy Glick, a crude and ruthless Jew who rises from poverty to become a movie-studio boss, he angered the industry in whose midst he had grown up, many of his fellow Jews, and his former mentors in the CP, which he had quit when they demanded the right to read his manuscript and order changes so that it would conform to the party message.

During World War II, Schulberg was assigned to the OSS, precursor to the CIA, and worked in the documentary film unit run by director John Ford. After the defeat of Germany, he collected Nazi propaganda films and newsreels that could be woven into documentation to be presented as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. The result was the film “The Nazi Plan,” directed by George Stevens and written by Schulberg. As part of that experience, Schulberg participated in the arrest of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was used to help identify key figures in the movies from which material was culled.

In 1951, Schulberg volunteered to testify before the Congressional committee that was investigating Communist infiltration of Hollywood, and named names of 15 colleagues whom he knew had been party members. This earned him the lifelong enmity of some former friends, but he remained unapologetic til the end of his life, although he later acknowledged that McCarthyism may have been an even greater threat to American society than communism.

One byproduct of the naming-names experience was the 1955 screenplay he wrote for “On the Waterfront,” about a New York longshoreman who broke ranks to testify to authorities about criminal control of the docks. Marlon Brando starred in the film, which won eight Oscars – including one for Schulberg and one for director Elia Kazan, who had also testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Schulberg continued writing for another 50 years – novels and non-fiction, screenplays and plays, and journalism -- although never with the same success as in his early works. He was a prize-winning boxing correspondent for Sports Illustrated, and founder of the Watts Writers Workshop for residents of that impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood.

He was married four times.

In an interview he gave to The New York Times three years before his death, Schulberg said he hoped to be remembered “as someone who used their ability as a novelist or as a dramatist to say the things he felt needed to be said about the society,” and did so while being “as entertaining as possible.”

Schulberg died at his home on Long Island, New York on August 5, 2009.

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