Budd Schulberg: More Than a Contender

By LAWRENCE GROBEL
Autograph May 2010


Budd Schulberg.


When Budd Schulberg died on August 5, 2009, at the age of 95, I read the obituaries about him in various newspapers and magazines: how he had written what many believe to be the best book about Hollywood ever written, What Makes Sammy Run?; how he named names during the blacklisted years of the House Un-American Activities Committee; how he wrote one of the most insightful books on boxing, The Harder They Fall, and won an Academy Award for writing one of the greatest screenplays every written, On the Waterfront. He also wrote the screenplay for A Face in the Crowd, which starred Andy Griffin as a rising media huckster.

I spent an afternoon with Schulberg on April 22, 1987, for the book I was writing about the Hustons. Schulberg had known John Huston and his father, Walter, and agreed to see me at the art-filled home of the publicist Harry Rogers. I had read What Makes Sammy Run? and had seen On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd (two of my favorite films) and looked forward to whatever insights Schulberg might provide about the people in Huston’s life. He didn’t disappoint when describing Huston as being both frivolous and serious and Walter as being “impressively self-contained.”


Sanctuary V.


“John was a wild man, especially in the thirties when he was all over the place, doing everything from horses to boxing and Christ knows what else. I knew Hemingway, and John was somewhat along the lines of Hemingway, though I personally found John more appealing. He was very seductive—a man’s man as well as a ladies’ man. I never saw anyone dote on John the way Olivia de Havilland did in the ’40s when they were together. It was embarrassing to watch. John had that affect on women. There was a time when I felt he strayed from the line of integrity, but he somehow came back to it again. He was more serious than he let on, in a way. He was a rebel, and his political consciousness was fairly advanced. His strength was really his love of life. His work and his life was artistic, all of one piece. And that is a considerable strength. He was truly an artist. He has left a body of work that is about as interesting as anyone I can think of.”


What Makes Sammy Run?


“Walter Huston was very un-actorish. He didn’t have the flashing personality that John had. John was flamboyant where Walter was solid. So many actors like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Marlon Brando, once they became film stars they didn’t return to the stage. But Walter did and that’s what attracted me to him. That he hadn’t cut his ties. I remember listening to Walter ruminating about John’s future and saying ‘Nothing would surprise me about John, nothing. If he wound up in jail or won the Pulitzer Prize.’”

Schulberg told me he visited the set of Night of the Iguana in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ava Gardner and Richard Burton were there, as was Burton ’s lover, Elizabeth Taylor. “Ava could really come up with some mighty fine wines,” Schulberg recalled. “I don’t think I ever drank that much champagne. And John was very gentle with her. He would say, ‘That was very nice dear, now would you do it again?’ He would never say ‘Do it this way.’”  But it was Elizabeth Taylor that Schulberg most remembered.

“She was complaining about the hardships of being a child star and how there was a kind of club of all these child stars. They’d all suffered a lot and they were all resentful of what had been done to them—by their parents, by the studios. They were exploited and they felt robbed of their childhood. While we were talking in came this floating paparazzi. Here Elizabeth was talking about this quiet anguish and suddenly she looked up and saw these photographers and it tripped off everything she had been talking about. She went into a fury! She ran into the water, screaming and cursing them with absolute hate. She drove them off.”

On the Waterfront


Budd Schulberg autograph.


Schulberg was at a screening of Fat City in Dublin, Huston’s film about the nitty gritty boxing world, based on Leonard Gardner’s novel. Mohammed Ali was also at the screening and gave Huston the compliment he most cherished: “That’s the way it really is.” Ali was fighting in Dublin that week and Schulberg had a chance to talk to him about the film. “He liked the scene when the black guy was in the dressing room—that’s when he yelled out ‘That’s the way it is.’  And he really loved it when the kid got knocked out. He didn’t care for the negative treatment of boxing, but Huston made some unusually tough movies, and Fat City is an awfully good fight film.”

Schulberg knew what he was talking about when it came to boxing. His second novel, The Harder They Fall (1947) was based on the gangster-managed heavyweight champion Primo Carnera. And in On the Waterfront, he wrote one of the most quoted scenes in movie history, when Terry Malloy, played by Brando, sits in the backseat of a car with his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and blames him for making him throw a fight he knew he could have won. “You don’ understand! I coulda been a contender. I coulda had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum. Let’s face it, which is what I am. It was you, Charley.”

Elia Kazan directed On the Waterfront, as well as A Face in the Crowd, and in his autobiography, A Life, he describes Schulberg’s enthusiasm about the waterfront story. “Budd was wildly excited about the waterfront and was eager to take me across the river and show me the scene. He’d practically lived in Hoboken, had walked the dockside streets, made friends with the dockers, hung out in their bars, drinking even-up with them, amassing an intimate knowledge of their homes, their families, their lingo, and their humor, and of how those who’d defied the rackets responded to the threats on their lives.

“He told me the details of the struggle within their corrupt union, who the longshoremen’s enemies were, about the pilfering and the payoffs, where the spoils went, and the secret links to the politicians. He’d uncovered a dramatic gold mine, and, more committed to working on the story than I could have hoped, had written an outline of the possible course of action for the film.”

An insightful word portrait of how a writer does his homework.

William Spratling


Across the Everglades.


When I asked Schulberg who was the most memorable character he had encountered over the years, he told me about William Spratling.

“Spratling was an incredible Renaissance man. He was a good friend of William Faulkner’s and wrote a book with him. He was an architect who had written about architecture. He was a silversmith, a goldsmith, a writer, a dare-devil who flew a crazy plane, and an expert on Mexican art and archeology. He was the father of the Taxco silver business when he went there in the early thirties. Before him it was a dead silver mining town. He took on all these young apprentices and they became millionaires in the silver business.

“He was the only man who appeared in the paper three times as having died. The first time was in 1930 when he took a small 18-foot sailing boat from Santa Monica to Acapulco. A storm washed him into the sea and he was gone for weeks and pronounced lost, but he finally came ashore and survived.

“Next, he took his interest in primitive art to the artisans of Taxco and the Eskimo sculptors in Alaska . He had this crazy idea of bringing the Mexican artists up to work with the Eskimos, and the Eskimos down to work with the Mexicans, to see what each group would produce in a different culture. During one of these flights his plane went down into an enormous frozen valley somewhere in north-central Alaska and he was pronounced dead. But he showed up again.

“The third time he agreed to fly some pre-Columbian sculptures and some gold that John Huston had bought from Taxco to Mexico City, but the morning of the flight it was foggy and Bill flew right into a mountain. He wrote his farewell on the plane’s windshield, but again, he managed to stagger down the mountain, all bruised…but alive!  Huston’s gold and statues were all gone.”

Schulberg wrote the introduction to William Spratling’s autobiography, File on Spratling, in which he concludes: “Sometimes I wonder if he is not only My Most Unforgettable Character, but My Five Most Unforgettable Characters.”

The Communist Party


William Spratling


What impressed me most about Schulberg when we talked was that he struggled with his words. He had a strong stutter and it’s not easy to speak to a stranger, especially when being interviewed with a tape recorder going, when each word is a battle to get out. But Schulberg had lived with this impediment all his life and his stutter didn’t affect his thinking.

He was born into privilege. His father, B.P. Schulberg, rose to be chief of production at Paramount Studios. His mother was a well-known literary agent. Budd—born Seymour Wilson Schulberg—went to Dartmouth in the ’30s and worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the O.S.S.) during World War II, making propaganda and informational films, along with director John Ford.

What Makes Sammy Run? was written in 1941 and at the time was considered a scathing satire on how to succeed in Hollywood. Today it’s more like the how-to bible on moving up the shark ladder. His third novel, The Disenchanted (1950), was inspired by his collaboration twelve years earlier with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a screenplay.

But in 1951, Schulberg was summoned to talk about his Communist affiliations at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). It was at the height of McCarthyism and Hollywood was under the microscope. Was there a “Commie” under every bed? Were our actors, writers, directors, producers “pinkos?”

In 1934 Schulberg had visited the Soviet Union and when he returned he joined the Communist Party of the United States. “It didn’t take a genius to tell you that something was vitally wrong with [our] country,” he later said. “Unemployment was all around us. The bread lines and apple sellers. I couldn’t help comparing that with my own family’s status; with my father. At one point he was making $11,000 a week. And I felt a shameful contrast between the haves and the have-nots very early.”

He felt that at that time, and into the early forties, “95 percent of the people we knew in Hollywood, including all the writers that I knew, were either Communists, fellow travelers, or considered themselves of the left.”  But by 1941 he left the Party because he couldn’t conform to their dictates about what he could or could not write. They thought his novel What Makes Sammy Run? was anti-Semitic and wanted him to rewrite certain scenes, which Schulberg refused to do.

When he was asked at the HUAC hearings who else had joined the Communist Party, Schulberg named eight others, including the director Herbert Biberman and the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. They were among the Hollywood 10 who were blacklisted and convicted of contempt of Congress when they refused to name names.

Lardner ended up spending a year in prison, Biberman six months. And sides were taken ever since, whether it was a noble thing to have named names or an act of betrayal. Schulberg maintained throughout his life that he came forward because the Communist Party was a real threat to freedom of speech in America. “I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech,” he said, “they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the Party.”

In 1965 Schulberg founded the Douglas House Watts Writer’s Workshop where he worked with disadvantaged black teenagers, encouraging them to write. He also founded a creative arts center in New York in 1971. He married four times, had five children, and two grandchildren. He lived a full life, he didn’t back down from his convictions or from controversies, he wrote memorable stories. The obit writers quoted those who admired him and those who didn’t, but whatever one might think of Budd Schulberg, there is no doubt that he remained, until the very end, a contender.

About Steve Cyrkin, Editor

Steve Cyrkin is the editor & publisher of Autograph, and focuses mostly on forgery, market and consumer protection issues.