An article that was recently posted at the website mises.org, named for and dedicated to the intellectual legacy of Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian School economist (1881-1973) pointed out that people in showbiz – actors, producers, screenwriters, playwrights – who make a great living and whom you might therefore expect to have some appreciation for capitalism turn out, all too often, to have bought into the lies of socialism – or worse: “Hollywood and Broadway, the world-famous centers of the entertainment industry, are hotbeds of communism. Authors and performers are to be found among the most bigoted supporters of Sovietism.
Sovietism? When was this written? And who wrote it? In fact, although the author’s observations are perfectly valid today, this article was written by Mises himself – it’s an excerpt from his 1956 book The Anti-Capitalist Mentality, published at the height of the Hollywood blacklist.
Today it’s the received opinion that the interrogation of famous movie people by House and Senate committees was a disgrace; the name of Joe McCarthy, the Democrat from Wisconsin who chaired the Senate committee, has become a byword for fascist tyranny. Yes, it was decidedly unfair that a few Tinseltown innocents who thought they were standing up for the First Amendment got dragged onto the blacklist and had their careers damaged. But the fact is that there were Communists in Hollywood; every last one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress, was in fact a card-carrying Communist.
They are now viewed as heroes – witness (among many other cinematic tributes to them) the movie Trumbo, about which we wrote some time back. But as members of the Communist Party, which took its orders directly from the Kremlin, they were agents of a totalitarian enemy and tools of a mass-murdering dictator, Stalin, who was very consciously using them to influence American opinion about the USSR and thereby undermine American freedom.
Why were – and are – so many showbiz people Communists? Mises’s theory was that those who toil in the entertainment industry are “always agitated by anxiety,” fearing the fickleness of the audience and worrying that they will soon be dislodged from their thrones by vigorous young competitors; hence they turn to Communism, which, they think, “will bring their deliverance” because it “makes all people happy.” Mises added that “ a future historian…should not neglect to mention the role which the world’s most famous strip-tease artist played in the American radical movement.”
The world’s most famous strip-tease artist? In 1956, Mises could only have meant one person: Gypsy Rose Lee. Was she a Communist too? That was a new one on us: like most people nowadays, our knowledge of Lee is pretty much limited to the biographical information communicated in Gypsy, the first-rate Broadway musical that follows her from girlhood – when she was overshadowed by her sister, June, a child star in vaudeville, and largely ignored by their mother, Rose, the quintessential stage mother from hell – to the threshold of burlesque stardom. There was no hint of Communist ties in Gypsy.
But sure enough, it turns out that Gypsy Rose Lee was indeed a Red. In interview with Publishers Weekly, Karen Abbott, whose biography of the stripper came out in 2011, said that “Gypsy soon learned that every stripper needed a gimmick and decided to incorporate her exceptional intelligence into her act, to become the ‘intellectual stripper.’ To that end. she read the latest books, magazines, and newspapers voraciously.” Well, we happen to know that because of the lyrics of the Rodgers and Hart song “Zip” (from the 1940 musical Pal Joey), which parodies Rose’s intellectual pretensions. Anyway, Abbott continues: “She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.”
Curiously, a previous biographer of Lee, Noralee Frankel, seems to deny that Lee was a Communist; a review of Frankel’s book, which came out in 2009, refers to Lee as having “convinced the McCarthyites that her having supported Spanish loyalists against Franco in the 1930s and entertained at the New York Council of the Arts, Sciences and Professions did not make her a communist.” There is no mention in the review, or presumably in the book, of her being a regular attendee of Communist meetings, which, of course, does seem to make her a Communist. Which shouldn’t have surprised us, aware as we are of how many showbiz folk in the 1950s were puppets of Stalin, but somehow it never occurred to us that the highbrow ecdysiast, whom Larry Hart’s lyric depicts as a reader of Saroyan and Schopenhauer, was also a fan of Stalin.