Ring Lardner Jr., Screenwriter, Dies

Thursday, November 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Ring Lardner Jr. and Robert Kenny

NEW YORK (AP) — Ring Lardner Jr., the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters who were jailed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, has died at 85.

Lardner, whose father was the humorist and baseball writer, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in New York City.

Lardner's satirical screenplays earned him two Academy Awards, but he was best known for his refusal to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee if he had ever been a Communist.

Lardner was a Communist but held that his political views were none of the government's business.

``I could answer the question exactly the way you want,'' he said under questioning in 1947 from Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, a Republican from New Jersey. ``But if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.''

Lardner, with Michael Kanin, won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 1942 for ``Woman of the Year,'' starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In 1970, he won an Oscar for best screenplay based on another medium for the movie ``M A S H,'' which was based on a Richard Hooker novel.

From 1947 to the 1960s, Lardner had a hard time finding work because he was blacklisted along with the other members of the Hollywood Ten, who included Alvert Maltz, Dalton Trumbo, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Herbert Biberman, Robert Adrian Scott, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie and Edward Dmytryk. Of the 10, only Dmytryk, who died last year, finally named names.

Lardner served about nine months in prison in the 1950s, then worked in Mexico, New York and London writing TV series. He employed various pen names to conceal his identity.

He and the other members of the Hollywood Ten ``made it more difficult for the thing to happen again, because they resisted and prevailed,'' said The Nation magazine publisher Victor Navasky, who wrote a book, ``Naming Names,'' about the blacklists. ``He was one of the least bitter people I've ever known.''

He recalled that Lardner extended his hand and hello to writer Budd Schulberg, who cooperated with the committee, when he ran into him in the mid-1960s.

``I don't believe in blacklisting,'' Lardner explained.

Lardner's daughter, Kate, said her father always downplayed the courage he'd shown in refusing to answer the House committee's question and was sympathetic to those who named names later.

``He claimed that he hadn't behaved in a heroic way, which I don't happen to agree with,'' Kate Lardner said. ``They wanted to make the point that the committee had no business doing what they were doing, and that's why they took the stand they took.''

In August, the Writers Guild of America corrected the credits of eight blacklisted writers on 14 1950s and 1960s films, crediting Lardner and Hugo Butler for ``The Big Night,'' a 1951 film noir starring John Drew Barrymore.

Del Reisman, former president of the Writers Guild, said Lardner's career was irreparably damaged by being blacklisted.

``Woman of the Year'' was ``such a marvelous screenplay, warm, witty, charming and to the point. Ring was off and running,'' Reisman said. ``But what the blacklist really did was to deny not just American audiences but worldwide audiences a number of outstanding entertainments that he was on his way to writing.''

In 1997, Lardner appeared at a tribute to survivors of the blacklist era at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences theater. It was held exactly 50 years after the Hollywood Ten appeared before the House committee.

Denied a chance to read a prepared statement before the committee, Lardner finally got a chance to read it 50 years later.

``It was very simple. It said that he had certain attitudes and beliefs in life that he felt were his own business,'' Reisman said. ``He said, and this is pretty close to quoting because it was so vivid, `I have neither the talent of my father nor the courage of my brothers. But I have certain convictions.'''

Lardner, who was born in Chicago and grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and Great Neck, is survived by his wife, Frances Chaney, an actress who was also blacklisted; three sons; two daughters; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Members of the Hollywood Ten arrive