Artists and Their Marching Orders

My old Communist girlfriend was an exotically beautiful actress whose parents had emigrated from Russia and settled in New York City. Nola went to Party meetings and kept up with the correct way to think and behave by reading The Daily Worker. This was back in the fifties. In those days, the bulldog edition of the next morning’s Times, Tribune, News, Mirror and even the Worker would appear at the news stand on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Forty Second Street shortly before midnight. Actors, anxious to read tomorrows review of the latest Broadway play would be waiting there, along with entertainers curious to see if they’d made it into Walter Winchell in the Mirror or Ed Sullivan in the News.

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Beautiful Nola was anxious to read the review of the new Off-Broadway show she’d just opened in. The Times and Trib would be covering it but Nola wanted to see what The Daily Worker had to say. Her face fell when she read it. The play was a socially relevant drama, of course, about the struggles of the Negro. She had chosen a dazzling white suit for her wardrobe. The critic said that this was unconscious racism on her part. She had, in fact, picked the suit because it made her boobs look good.

Sometimes Nola would drag me to upper Broadway where the Thalia, a dusty old nineteen-thirties movie theater, screened Russian language films from the Soviet Union. These were not the brilliant pictures which had come out in the early days of the Revolution, but kitschy agitprop which followed the party line. In one of them an enormous white plane majestically glides down out of the heavens and lands in an airport somewhere in the Ukraine. Little girls with bouquets of flowers rush out onto the tarmac. The door of the plane opens, steps are put in place and down them and onto a red carpet strides an actor playing the part of Joseph Stalin. He is gloriously handsome and dressed in a dazzling white suit. I glance over at Nola in the darkness of the theater; she does not return my glance.

Party members in the arts back then willingly did as they were told. Their indoctrination had been total; they knew in their hearts they were doing what was right. Writers wrote about the downtrodden; actors played workers nobly, capitalists evilly. Musicians composed music of the people. To deviate from the party line was unthinkable. With the advent of the Cold War, this behavior slowly faded away. Now it seems to be back. Artists no longer take their orders from Moscow but, it appears, from Washington. Not to do so results in being shunned (or de-funded).

I’ve been around long enough to see this kind of thing come and go in our beautiful country. Let’s hope it doesn’t last as long as it did back then. This time we’ve got Big Hollywood on our side.

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