*the following is an excerpt from A Leading Man, a biographical tragicomedy about golden-age actor and outspoken member of the Hollywood left Ronald Reagan's turn towards the right to become a political star as his wife Jane Wyman’s movie career ineluctably supersedes his own
Excerpt from Chapter 9:
America is Coming
“Rumor has it,” said Jack Warner, cracking a goofy grin, halfway between amusement and bafflement, “the liquor industry is raising some fuss over your new picture, Janie. Odds are 50/50 Paramount never releases it.”
Ronnie narrowed his eyes like a cowboy facing off with a distant threat, as Janie, visibly distressed, fluttered her hands over the tablecloth. The merriment of other guests filled their collective silence. The restaurant’s host, Michael Romanoff, floated from booth to booth in jacket and tie, hair fastidiously parted, long mustache clinging to his upper lip and shaved everywhere above it.
“Apparently,” Ann Warner said quietly, her green eyes alight with excitement, “they have offered Paramount millions for the negative. They want to pay Barney Balaban not to release the picture. It’s almost like a backwards sort of poetry.”
“Ain’t that rich?” said Jack, juddering his filet mignon with a steak knife and fork. “Imagine running a profit on all the films you don’t release.”
“Well,” Janie said, “if they succeed at keeping The Lost Weekend out of theaters, I hope the liquor industry’ll at the very least consider a pay-off in kind to me as well. I’ll need the consolation booze has to offer.”
Ronnie placed his hand over top of hers. Janie startled a moment, then withdrew from her husband’s grasp. After some consideration, she moved her hand back over top of Ronnie’s.
“I’ve seen some of the dailies,” Ronnie said, “and let me just say, Janie’s performance is terrific. It’ll be a terrific picture, too. Really… ah, not a story to shy from making an audience question their beliefs.”
“But does it make ’em laugh?” said Jack, forking another bite into his mouth. “Cuz if it doesn’t make ’em laugh, I can think of time much better spent.”
“It’s a human story. The novel, I mean,” said Ann, setting her silver-bangled wrist on the table. “About deep inner feelings.”
“If there aren’t jokes, no one’ll care,” said Jack. “Trust me, schnookums, I know of which I speak.”
Ronnie raised his eyebrows. Of course a dash of humor never really hurt anybody, but a story about the intensity of a man’s struggles and suffering, a fellow who longed to make something of lasting artistic worth but couldn’t help getting in the way of himself, well—certainly if ever a subject merited seriousness, there was one. He lifted his napkin from the table and daubed at his mouth. Janie teased at her watercress salad. He brought another bite of chateaubriand to his tongue.
Quieted by Jack, Ann was now intent on freeing the wishbone from her en cocotte Souvaroff.
“We’re here tonight among friends, aren’t we?” Jack said. “Ain’t that fantabulous—enjoying a meal like this among friends? You know, I can’t get Ann out of the house for just anybody—”
Ann threw back her head. “Oh, if you’re going to tell them that, then—”
“No, no, no, dear. I’m not tryin’ to embarrass you. I only want them to recognize—”
“There really aren’t many actors,” Ann continued without batting an eyelash, “we’d call friends in the way that you two are our friends. There are, you know, a great many snakes in this town. People who smile at you one minute and sink their fangs in the next. Having acted on screen myself, I know a little bit about that.”
“For me,” Jack said, “the question is always who I can share a laugh with. I don’t know what I’d do in the contrary. Ask my brother a question, and it’s Yaweh this, Moses that. Serious as the grave. To me a good joke is the closest thing I know to god.” Jack Warner set down his knife and fork and, tilting his head forward, directed a wolfish eye in his wife’s direction. “Salvi Dally himself painted this beautiful lady, you know that?”
Janie nodded and glanced at Ronnie. Did she find it funny that their friend Jack Warner had apparently forgotten their presence at the unveiling?
“We were there, you know,” Ronnie said. “When you revealed it.”
“Ah, yes. Yes, of course, you were!”
Michael Romanoff had by then made his way to their table. “Colonel Warner, everything was to your liking this evening?”
“Marvelous, per usual, good Prince Romanoff. You see,” Jack waved an arm around the table, then tapped the breast pocket on his suit jacket, “he recognizes my military rank even out of uniform.”
“Of course, Colonel Warner.”
“Captain Reagan does enough representing of our boys in green for the bunch of us, don’tcha think?”
Romanoff went on his way, and Jack muttered, “All that mumbo-jumbo about Czarist Russian lineage? A lot of claptrap, he’s no prince. The man’s actual surname is… Gerguson.” He paused, then broke out in a smile of what looked like genuine admiration. “Ain’t that great?”
“Well,” Ronnie said, “he runs a fine establishment.”
“That he does. We all agree. We’re friends here, I know,” Jack said. “Let me tell you then if I couldn’t laugh when I see a picture, I don’t know what I’d do. The whole world’s got troubles. Even if, from my lips to God’s ear, tomorrow morning we ride our tanks straight down the Fuhrer’s throat. Then Hirohito on Friday…”
Ronnie found himself glancing at Romanoff’s decorative carpeting for a moment as he processed Jack’s blurring of sex and war.
“But ain’t all fun and tulips,” the studio head continued. “We got radicals of our own, you see? And I don’t mean Olivia de Havilland. I’m talking the workers, Herb Sorrell and his carpenter’s union, this CSU. Rabble-rousers born and bred, they wanna strong-arm us into forking more dough their way? Ain’t that great, ain’t that peaches? Talk about snakes. I’m trying to run a profitable business, and this bunch are always tugging on my sleeve for a bigger piece of the steak. Well, ain’t gonna work out that way. We got a man in the rival union we can work with. IATSE. This fellow, he’s someone we like. A friend. We’ll work with him ’til CSU’s all the way out the door and on the curb. Then see who’s laughing.”
Ronnie trimmed the fat from a piece of chateaubriand. Jack’s ways were harsh, yes, but then given his role, perhaps he had to be. Sometimes, he just needed someone sensible to remind him what really mattered.
“My father always believed in the rights of organized labor,” Ronnie said.
“And may he rest in peace, Ronnie,” Jack said.
“Well, I happen to believe in a place for organized labor too. Why, can you imagine where this country would be if…”
Janie pursed her lips and scanned the room. She and Ann excused themselves to go powder their noses. There went her husband talking politics again, or ‘getting into it’ as she would say to him with distaste. “We’ll meet you outside,” Jack called across the restaurant to the departing women.
He counted out the bills from a fold in his jacket with ostentation. “Well, now, Captain, would you say that settles the matter?”
Ronnie shot him a wry look: friendly, sure, but not in full agreement by any means. Let him settle the bill, but that didn’t mean Ronnie had to accept Jack Warner’s terms. There was always room for a little productive jostling in any friendship. As they headed for the door, Jack stopped at table after table to say hello, grasping shoulders, laughing right into people’s ears, as if he owned the joint, doting especially on a young starlet whose name Ronnie couldn’t place. Once outside, Jack leaned close with a childish grin.
“I had her, you know.”
“Pardon me?” said Ronnie.
“That gal in there. Twenty-two and already on her way to her first big role. I had her. Sweet piece of action.”
Ronnie looked away, struggling to contain his scorn. Well, nobody would ever accuse Jack Warner of being a pious man. Or even a good one. In a way, that was what Ronnie liked about him. Even if he didn’t like this particular facet of his character. Ronnie felt conscious all of a sudden of how much he counted on Janie, his own wife, for affirmation. It was a kind of vulnerability, in a way, his fidelity.
But she was worth it. They were worth it. Mermie too.
Now he looked again to Jack, as they waited on his limousine, and found the studio head appeared to be offended. In that face was a boy from a Jewish ghetto who’d beaten the odds against him, every injury done. Would he be roped down by anything so quaint and genteel as the marriage concept, or decorum regarding so-called professional conduct? It wasn’t Ronnie’s defense of organized labor that had upset him, or his hidden scorn. Instead, it was the absence of Ronnie’s vocal approval. Rather than admitting to a type of unseemly advantage-taking, it was as if Jack Warner had confessed a vulnerability for which Ronnie was meant to reassure him.
“What are ya, Ronnie, a homo?”
Ronnie squared his jaw and looked down at the rank displayed on his uniform. “Janie’d be pretty surprised to hear that, I think.”
“Only joshing ya, only joshing ya. But more than half of ’em in this town got wives, or hadn’t ya heard?”
“Don’t mean to disappoint you, Jack.”
“I only happen to be pretty well satisfied with the lady coming home with me tonight.”
Ronnie then attempted a joke about the fake Russian prince and was saved, at last, by the reemergence of the women from Romanoff’s.
“Girls,” Jack said. “My lovely Ann! Let us, to our horse and chariot.”
“Jack, dear,” said Ann, arranging her stole, “if you insist on making a fool of me whenever we go out—”
“Ronnie and I were only talkin’ baseball!”
“Don’t go telling on yourself. Hanging over that girl in there.”
Ronnie glanced from Ann to Jack, then at Janie. “I’m bound to agree with whatever he says. I believe it’s in my contract.”
“My husband,” Janie said. “The politician.”
~ The Battle for Warner Brothers
All that’s happening, at first, is we’re out with our signs, in perfect marching order, about three hundred CSU union members and affiliated supporters, sweating it out for the cause. That big WB logo right over our heads. Now here come the county sheriffs shoulder-to-shoulder, in steel helmets and swinging nightsticks, driving us back toward the studio’s outer wall. You know there’s gonna be trouble because, guess what, they’re wearing gas masks. I look up and on the roof above us, no exaggeration—snipers toting 30-30 Garrand rifles. How-de-do, top-of-the-morning to you! It’s the war come home, but this time the enemy’s working men and women.
The morning’s October 5th. Olive Street entrance, our seventh month strong. It’s scalding out there, sun’s barely up, temperature climbing all week. Nowhere to hide, heat radiating off the stucco. I’m sweating through my shirt and out of my hat, the brim pulled low to keep the brightness from my eyes. Everyone’s looking forward to the weekend. But these guys got other ideas apparently.
All we’re asking for is a better shake. We held off on striking all through the war just to get to the moment we’re at now. With Roosevelt gone, who believed the Popular Front was gonna hold? We had to be ready for the tide to turn against labor. We had to get one step ahead. C’mon, I know these guys. Who wants to wreck their whole business for the sake of another Newport Beach vacation home instead of what we were asking?
We’d done such a number on Disney in 1941 that Uncle Walt came to the bargaining table in a snap this time around. Leaving only MGM, Columbia, Paramount, and yeah, the rest of the usual suspects. Including Warner Brothers.
Sure, we had some stars walk off the lot in support, and I’m not gonna forget it: Bette Davis, Harpo Marx, Joseph Cotten, Walter Huston.
They say Cary Grant himself skipped out on reshoots. Though, you ask me, Mr. Grant didn’t feel like doing his reshoots, that’s all.
Some of the real marquee names lined up with us too, in short sleeves under the sun, right on the pickets: Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, and Mr. John Garfield, a true champ, this guy. He goes over where we have our cafeteria set up outside Warner Brothers, steps behind the table, starts ladling out grub for our people. That’s a stand-up guy, you see?
But SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, they refuse to take a side. They say, and—sure, I see the point—our CSU guys are skilled craftspeople, we can take other work while this strike goes on, build a house for anybody. You know, anything except movie work. While movie actors, they’re supposedly hitched to the business. They claim there’s nothing else they can do. Their faces are their bread and butter, not anything they do with their hands.
I see the point but don’t know how much I buy it. OK, let’s say it’s true. What I want them to tell me is this: How long you think the studio bosses last without their movie stars? How long? What, are they gonna make scab pictures starring Kary Grantt and Rozalind Rhussel, hope nobody notices?
No movie stars means no movies. No movies means no profits.
If SAG comes through for us, that ends it. It ends it!
Here’s how the studios want it to end: a whole squad of Chicago goons with brass knuckles, six-inch pipes, hammers, and battery cables. This type, I know. This type, we were prepared to stand our ground against. But the police, who ought to be throwing in on our side, are in cahoots with the goons. So when a couple of cars turn the corner and accelerate into our people, the fighting starts. It’s hardly a fight. We’re getting blown over. I know my way around a boxing ring, I can dish it out to these bastards as good as I take, but the cops lob tear gas canisters at us and I got that rancid stuff all up in my eyes and my nose, my throat’s closing, I’m stumbling around, can’t hardly see, getting tenderized by thugs who knew enough to wear goggles and handkerchiefs around their mouths. It’s right then the sheriffs turn the hoses on. Absolutely blasting our people, right up against the gate. They got us pinned to that outer wall looming high overhead. They grab us from the asphalt and pass us over to sheriffs who throw us in their wagons. I know a supply chain when I see one.
“The Battle for Warner Brothers” the papers called it. An ugly thing. The public’s offended. So much that the bosses have to settle with us, let CSU back into the working fold.
“Nobody’s victory,” they said.
These bastards are waging a war. Don’t believe me? Go, take a look at the record—it’s IATSE and Brewer, our fellow laborers, in bed with the studios, and they’ll do whatever it takes, any means necessary, to drown us.
‘Communist’ they call me.
‘Un-American’ they call me.
Now you got me here, telling you. What’s that about?
They wanna make people think Herb Sorrell’s a monster. It gets down to where if you do not agree with somebody, you must be a Communist. Rile ’em up, scare ’em nice and good.
I never met Joe Stalin. What’s he hiding behind that mustache, I wonder? Quickest way I ever seen to make a Commie? A substandard wage scale. So give your thanks to Uncle Walt, not Russkie Joe.
I’m only a dumb painter, that’s all. A dumb painter who believes in fairness and dignity and the goddamn American Dream. A dumb painter who had—pardon my being frank—the balls to stand up to Walt Disney. Next thing you know here come these bastards with their insinuations.
You see the ad they placed after we won our federal ruling in 1941? “We are continuing our investigations of your leaders. We are not yet ready to disclose our identity or to turn over our findings. You must answer the question of your own conscience: ‘AM I A LOYAL AMERICAN OR A LOYAL DUPE?’”
Awful damn brave, don’t ya think? Awful American? My dumb mug’s splashed all across the papers—‘Herb Sorrell’ this, ‘Herb Sorrell’ that—and these bastards hug the shadows and stir their little cauldrons of fear. Speak up for fairer wages—all of a sudden they make you out to be the anti-Christ.
Tell me again, which side was Christ supposed to be on?
It’s no secret: IATSE’s mob-tied. Chicago-tied. Goes back to Capone. How do I know they operate like I say? Because they offered a bribe direct to me. Fifty-six thousand, nice little briefcase.
Guess where I told ’em to put it?
We offer a clean alternative with CSU. I run the show, so I’m in a position to know. We’re by the book. With IATSE in the palm of their hand, the studio bosses got no plan to quit, trying to sway our brother and sister unionists against us. These bastards encroach on our rightful CSU jobs to this day, to this hour.
Any labor leader who accepts a bribe or a gratuity oughta be shot, and I’m not talking vigilantism either. A full-on firing squad, some thirty to forty strong. Regular union members, regular folks, behind the rifles. Let’s make it the law of the land. That money they’re taking: it’s a trade-in on the belief of every member, every due paid, that a union representative has his people’s best interest at heart. It’s Judas ten thousand times over. Not only are they betraying their members’ hopes, they’re replacing those hopes with cynicism and disbelief.
You see what they’re doing to us out there?
You paying attention at all?
The name Herb Sorrell has been dragged in mud throughout these United States as a subversive element, and people who have known me all my life think something is wrong. They do not understand it. They cannot understand.
The people I’m fighting against have access to the press. They have a large staff of fancy publicists. They get their word out much better than I do.
Look, I make no bones about who I am. Yeah, when I was a kid starting at the studios I was prejudiced against foreigners because I was bothered by how they spoke. I was prejudiced against Jews because it always seemed like they had a hard time mixing with the group. I bought what I was told about Negroes too, I ate it right up, ignoring all of history, and the evidence right in front of my face. I’ll even tell you I went to a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan and found their regimentation impressive. Even considered joining. That was before I understood they wouldn’t take Catholics. Now, see? I had friends who are Catholic. And anyone who disrespects my friends is disrespecting me.
Over time I’ve gotten to know all different types of people. Visited their homes. Seen they were no different than you or me. Everybody working hard to carve out a place in this country. When I understood that, I said I’d do whatever I could to benefit working people, my friends.
I explain these things to you, because I want you to know I ain’t holding nothing back. If I was to join the Communist Party, I’d tell you. I got no reason to hide anything, especially that. Do I strike you as someone scared to share what he thinks?
CSU has a place for everybody. It follows like night follows day that when you eliminate any small minority next it’s gonna be a larger minority. If today it’s the Communists, tomorrow it’ll be the Jews. Then the Negroes. Then labor unions. Look, that was Hitler’s plan, wasn’t it?
Me? I wear who I am right on my sleeve. I got no hidden designs, no fancy pretensions. I talk loud. I like a big sandwich for lunch and a long drive along the coast on the weekend. I like a great movie. Grapes of Wrath, ever seen it? How about Juke Girl? I love my wife and kids. I don’t need more than one vacation home for my family. I have worked in a factory since I was 12 years old and seen direct with my own eyes what a strong union does for the workers. What I do, what my people do, it’s vital to the finished product.
Lighting on a set is so intense it can eliminate all shadows, you know that?
To get shadows into a motion picture somebody needs to paint ’em there.
J. T. Price’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Post Road, Guernica, The Heavy Feather Review, Fence, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. A Leading Man, the novel manuscript from which this excerpt is drawn, is currently on submission to publishers. He is the editor-in-chief of the Brazenhead Review based out of Black Spring Books in Brooklyn. He can be found online at jt-price.com.