A Greylisted Writer
Much is now known about the blacklisting of writers in the 1950s and how many were forced into exile in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. But there was also ‘greylisting’, the strong-arming of writers to deny their pasts under threat of prosecution. With President Trump’s current tactics with journalists in mind, here’s the story of one of them.
An author needs to be remembered by the public for something, anything, and Vera Caspery is known almost as much for a tune as a book. She was born in Chicago in the last year of the nineteenth century. Her father’s death and the approach of the Great Depression left the family penniless, so she began writing for money to support her mother. Moving to New York, she succeeded as an advertising copywriter at a time when the industry was completely male.
Her first novel was negligible, but her second, ‘The White Girl’, published in 1929, concerned a Southern black woman who passes herself off as white. Critical reception was good, and there was even speculation that the liberal-minded Caspary was black.
She joined the Communist party under an alias because she had misgivings about certain aspects of membership. Stalin’s pact with Hitler further distanced the Jewish Anti-Nazi League writer. By this time, Caspary had formed good contacts; her unsuccessful play, ‘Blind Mice’, had an all-female cast and became a film, ‘Working Girls’, and in 1941 she began work on the murder mystery that made her name.
‘Laura’ has elements of comedy, romance and mystery, and while its lead character is no femme fatale, in Otto Preminger’s hands it became the perfect noir thriller. Acidic journalist Waldo Lydecker worships the murdered Laura, whose painting ensnares the detective on her case. The investigation is conducted in a dismissively offhand manner and the twists are fairly guessable, but Lydecker became synonymous with waspish hacks everywhere, and a scene in which the detective obsesses over the portrait has a necrophilic intensity.
The film starred Gene Tierney (above) and Dana Andrews, and was hugely profitable, but Caspary got a raw deal from her contract, saying, ‘Once a writer sells a story to Hollywood, they can kiss it goodbye.’ She never considered herself a mystery novelist, and wrote mainly about female independence and identity.
Her novel ‘Bedelia’, an update of ‘Lady Audley’s Secret’, was an energetic period crime drama concerning a possible female serial killer, but it became a weak British film.
During America’s rabid anti-Communist era, Caspary’s old alias came to light, and she was greylisted and bullied into signing a letter stating that she had never been a member of the Communist party. Humiliatingly, she was forced to sign in order to continue her work. She continued to write in the 1950s, but now she was stuck with mostly romantic comedies for the major studios.
Still, ‘Laura’ always haunted, and its title track remains a jazz standard to this day.