“His memory is incredible,” says Benn Schulberg, 25, son of legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who just turned 92. “We’re at lunch today talking about boxing in the ’20s, and he’s telling me detailed information — he can tell you the color of the trunks they were wearing.”
It’s a little disconcerting talking to someone 67 years younger than his own father, but the effect is somewhat lessened by the fact that Benn’s younger sister Jessica is in the next room of this well-appointed West Hollywood apartment, where their father is just now receiving guests, framed against a floor-to-ceiling view of Beverly Hills.
“He was with Bobby Kennedy,” continues Benn, “the last one to talk with Bobby when he went down. And he arrested Leni Riefenstahl in Germany.”
Wait, I’m sorry: Budd Schulberg, writer of On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd — not to mention the definitive Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? — arrested the director of the Nazi propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will?
“He was in the OSS under John Ford, and Ford put him in charge of collecting evidence,” says Benn, who is working on a documentary about his father. “He would literally be at concentration camps right as they were being liberated. He arrested Riefenstahl and brought her to Nuremberg. He was in his Navy uniform, so she didn’t know he was a Hollywood guy, and she told a story of how she came to Hollywood and she was so well received, and he knew that she wasn’t.”
Budd Schulberg is here at the home of agent Paul Alan Smith to be interviewed about his career before an intimate group hosted by the Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash; tomorrow the group will give him a “Golden Jalapeño Award” at a gala fund-raiser for Culture Clash’s Writers Portal Project, patterned after Schulberg’s own Watts Writers Workshop, which he founded and financed within days of the 1965 Watts riots.
In a halting voice, but with clear command of the trenchant details, and only occasionally prodded by KPCC radio host Kitty Felde, Schulberg recounts his years growing up as the son of B.P. Schulberg, who was possibly the first official screenwriter — for Edwin S. Porter in New York, director of The Great Train Robbery — and later went on to head Paramount Pictures.
Despite Schulberg’s great provenance, there is an elephant in the room and it is his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, which preceded that of Elia Kazan (director of Schulberg’s two biggest film successes), and which a half century later still causes white-haired guests at this very event to brag about refusing to shake Schulberg’s hand. Yet the closest anyone gets to the subject, for which Schulberg remains unrepentant, is an audience member’s question about Hollywood Ten member John Howard Lawson’s claim that the anti-Semitic overtones of What Makes Sammy Run?, published in 1941, might have encouraged the rampant Nazism just then mobilizing in Europe.
“People today have no idea what it was like being in the party,” Schulberg says. “We had assignments every night, and a meeting at the end of the week where you had to report on what you did. I decided that I wanted to stop and write a novel, so I asked for a leave of absence. And the answer came back: ‘Only if the party considered it socially useful.’ John Howard Lawson was the head of the party out here. That was the beginning of months of negotiations, and I finally said, ‘I don’t think I can write a novel that way.’ When you write screenplays, you’ve got the producers on your back; now to write a novel, you’ve got the left and the party on your back. And so I just left [the party]. There was some talk that because Sammy Glick was Jewish, the book was anti-Semitic. My answer was that everybody in the book is Jewish.”
“In A Face in the Crowd,” I ask Schulberg, “your character Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith, is a homespun Southerner whom everyone loves, but who is really a dissembling megalomaniac with utter contempt for his audience.”
“We all know the movie,” snaps Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya. “What’s your question?”
“My question is, having lived this long, do you feel like you accidentally scripted the current president of the United States?”
Schulberg, a lifelong Democrat, takes a moment before answering: “I think I might have been prescient about a few other occupants of the White House as well.”