The Women of “Red Channels”

Lee Grant, in a still from The Internecine Project, 1974
Lee Grant, in a still from The Internecine Project, 1974
Lee Grant, in a still from The Internecine Project, 1974

Allow me to introduce you to something not often talked about or written about. Something that happened in the 1950s that doesn’t seem part of history, as far as the media is concerned. Something that, years later, is still not part of our social awareness. Something that had a greatly negative impact in our theater and film worlds, yet has been seemingly swept under the carpet.

Allow me to introduce you to McCarthyism — the investigations of alleged Communists led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy that began in 1950. But wait: you already know of it? Of course you do, as the schooled person that you are. Except you might not know all of it. Allow me to introduce you to a part of McCarthyism not often acknowledged: the women listed in a right-wing journal called Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.

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For performers, writers and directors, being named in Red Channels meant immediate blacklisting. But blacklisted women? Can’t think of one off the top of your head? Allow me to introduce you to at least one blacklisted woman who lost many years of her career due to McCarthyism.

By 1951, Lee Grant was a successful young actress amassing theater, television and film credits, and considered one of the most genuine and talented performers of the era. In 1952, she received her first acting Oscar nomination (of four), for playing the shoplifter in the film version of Detective Story— the the same role she originated on Broadway.

In that same year, Grant was asked to speak at the memorial service for actor Joseph Bromberg (a.k.a. J. Edward Bromberg), who died of a heart attack while in the successful run of a play in London, the city to which he exiled himself due to the stress of being named in Red Channels. He had previously been called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he pleaded the Fifth Amendment and thereafter suffered from stress and paranoia. With a pre-existing heart condition, Bromberg became a fatal victim of McCarthyism.

The memorial service was at the Edison Hotel in New York City, and, according to Grant’s 2014 memoir, I Said Yes to Everything: “The Un-American Activities Committee knew Joe had a bad heart and kept calling him to testify anyway. I feel the committee ultimately killed him.”

That’s all it took. No Communist involvement from Grant. She didn’t belong to any political party, and states in her memoir, “I had been raised in an apolitical household, where current events were rarely discussed. I knew nothing about politics. I was young, basically uneducated, and really ignorant.”

Red ChannelsNo, her ignorance didn’t matter to Red Channels. Shortly after the memorial service, she attended an Actors’ Equity meeting, where a colleague informed her she had made “the list” — simply from her remarks at Bromberg’s memorial. She was immediately blacklisted from working as a performer and it took 12 years to be removed from the list.

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By 1962, HUAC was waning and no longer in the public eye, and trying to justify its existence. Grant’s agent called the blacklist office of CBS television — an entire department devoted to keeping actors from working. Twelve years after being named in Red Channels, CBS met with Grant and her agent and they called HUAC, which wouldn’t clear her from the blacklist unless she named her then-husband, writer Arnold Manoff, as a Communist. She refused.

It took her lawyer and friend Max Kampelman, who lunched with the head of HUAC in 1964, to get Grant off the blacklist. (Kampelman was asked to do a political favor and he agreed.) Shortly thereafter, she received a letter from the government affirming that she was a good citizen. So, from the age of 25 to 36, Lee Grant did not work as an actress.

Marsha Hunt
At 33: Marsha Hunt

If, over the years, you had heard of Grant’s plight, then allow me to introduce you to another victim of McCarthyism you might not be aware of: Marsha Hunt, a hugely successful Hollywood actress who, at the age of 33, stopped receiving job offers due to her name appearing in Red Channels.

Where are the rest of stories of blacklisted women? Many names are connected to the McCarthy-era blacklist, but our society is most familiar with only the men, particularly The Hollywood Ten. One member of The Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo, received notoriety over the years thanks to a stage play written by his son, Christopher Trumbo (Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted), and a documentary.  This year will bring a Bryan Cranston-starring Hollywood film about Trumbo as well.

What about the women?

Let’s not forget the women who suffered from the government paranoia of the 1950s and early-’60s. They lost their livelihoods, their careers and suffered greatly from personal losses. Yet so many of them are unknown.

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Margaret McAleese is a playwright. Her produced plays include Black Mayo, Salley's Garden, Captured, Air Tight, Seven Sisters and There's a Girl in Boston. Her essay "From Haystacks to Handbrakes" is a past winner of the annual "My Brooklyn" writing festival. Margaret has also contributed as a writer for a 24 Hour Novel project and two 48 Hour Film Projects. A native New Yorker, she now lives in a renovated mill along a New Hampshire river, and every day is astounded that the view out her windows is no longer a brick wall ten feet away. Available at her Web site and @MaggieMcAleese.