- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

CHEAT AND CHARMER

By Elizabeth Frank

Random House, $25.95, 539 pages

REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

The Hollywood novel is a particular genre, one that has attracted some of its finest practitioners: Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Nathanael West, and lesser talents like Budd Schulberg and P.G. Wodehouse. I add the name of Elizabeth Frank, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (Louise Bogan, the poet) to that distinguished list with a bit of reluctance.

Her would-be political novel (the title comes from a poem by A. E. Housman) starts out as a serious examination of the House Un-American Activities Committee 1952 expose of Hollywood’s communists. It peters out into a confusing catalogue of who’s seducing whom in Hollywood, New York, Chicago, Paris, London. At the end, it finds a reader saying: “Who the hell cares?”

The novel’s chief protagonist is Dinah Lasker, a charter member of the Hollywood left, married to a highly successful studio writer. She had been a Communist Party member from 1938 to 1944. Between those dates occurred Stalin’s infamous Moscow trials, the later purges, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Gulag, Stalin’s deliberate starving of the Ukrainian peasantry and other assorted genocidal horrors.

None of these horrors seemed to bother Dinah. As a loyal Communist, Dinah accepted or ignored these barbarous events, attended cell meetings, dutifully paid her Party dues and remained steadfast in her loyalty to Stalin. When she left the Party it was not out of conviction but because of an ultimatum from Jake Lasker, her husband-to-be.

The author herself, who was raised in Los Angeles as the daughter of a Hollywood producer, is presently teaching literature at Bard College. She appears to know her way around the world’s film capital. Yet she seems unaware that the Communist Party, with writers like Dalton Trumbo, had made serious inroads into the scripting and production of American films so there was every reason for concern about Stalinist propaganda in American films.

Otto Katz, a Soviet agent who penetrated the film studios, once boasted, “Columbus discovered America but I discovered Hollywood.” V. J. Jerome, a CP operative who supervised the Hollywood left, was there to collect the hefty dues paid by Hollywood Communists. Ronald Reagan, onetime president of the Screen Actors Guild, wasn’t chasing phantoms when he led the fight against Communist penetration of the Hollywood unions.

When the fictional Dinah is called before the House Committee and ordered to name names of her Communist cell mates, she has a choice: either obey the Committee’s directive or else refuse to inform, risk a jail sentence and endanger her husband”s lucrative career as Hollywood writer-producer. So she names names including that of her actress sister, Veevi, short for Genevieve, and that finishes her sister’s career. Several of those named by Dinah are blacklisted.

Instead of examining what is a moral question, the novel becomes an almanac of sexual high jinks. The moral question is not merely whether being an informer is some kind of self-betrayal but whether if Dinah had named names to the House Committee of pro-fascist, anti-Semitic reactionaries in Hollywood she would have been similarly condemned by friends and colleagues.

What I am suggesting is that the Hollywood left exemplified Arthur Koestler’s mordant sentence: “the sin of all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” The Hollywood left had no trouble condemning the House Committee but was singularly protective of the Stalinists in their midst.

Few novels I have read over the years, classic or popular, have an assortment of such unpleasant characters, real, undiluted creeps. I don’t expect a Hollywood novel to be full of nature’s noblemen but, except for the children in this novel, there isn’t a single person anyone would really enjoy being with or would want as a friend.

There are few redeeming qualities in the book’s characters and yet they are a fascinating galere, headed by Veevi, whom Dinah, her own sister, describes as “a born predator with the conscience of a cat.” Veevi’s husband, the world-renowned writer Michael Albrecht, has left her for a younger woman. In the end Veevi, having bedded down everybody within reach including her adolescent nephew, falls asleep while ginning and smoking in bed and dies of burn wounds.

This is a big, sprawling and ambitious novel, which despite its weaknesses, is more than a good read. It is also about the globalization induced by Hollywood and its offspring Bollywood.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. His updated biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian,” has just been published.

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