Was Staunch Anti-Communist Humphrey Bogart Once a Young Commie Dupe?
While researching declassified archives from Moscow that relate to the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), Paul Kengor, a political science professor with Grove City College, came across documentation that connects an individual named “Bogart” with a New York City based indoctrination program that was active in the 1930s.
CPUSA had established “National Training Schools,” more commonly known as Workers Schools, in several American cities at that time, which typically involved over 400 hours of intense preparation, according to the archives. Some of coursework included “The Study of the Communist Manifesto,” “The Soviet Economy,” “War and Revolution,” and “Strategy and Tactics.”
“I detest Communism just as any decent American does."
In his new book entitled: “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century,” Kengor presents readers with compelling bits of evidence that strongly suggest the “Bogart” cited as a student for the NYC session that ran from Jan. 9 to March 15, 1934 could have been Hollywood actor Humphrey Bogart. But he also cautions against making any definitive conclusions based on current information.
The Workers Schools carefully guarded the identity of those in attendance, he points out. The 1934 session in question included 36 students from the city and other parts of New York. However, just one-third had their full names published in the school’s internal documents.
Bogart is cited on a district page that records residency and again on an evaluation page for student performance, but the first name is concealed. Does this mean the Bogart reference applies to someone other than the Hollywood actor? Kengor explores this possibility at some length and identifies another individual who could have been the student. But the weight of evidence, he argues, seems to point in the other direction.
“The timeline and the geography fit,” Kengor explained in an interview. “We know Bogart was living in New York City in early 1934 when the Workers School was in session and that it was a very difficult time for him financially, professionally and personally.”
Bogart’s first major film success was still a few years away and he was forced to move in with his father, Dr. Belmont Bogart who lived at 25 Prospect Street. But his father died later that same year at New York’s Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. Dr. Bogart was also deep in debt and separated from his wife.
“Overall, the Great Depression was hitting Bogart harder than most Americans,” Kengor observes in the book. “Had he turned to Communism in this period, few would blame him. If Humphrey Bogart had ever considered the philosophy of Marxist-Leninism, it seems that 1934 would have been ideal.”
Bogart’s wife at that time, fellow actress Mary Philips, might also figure into the equation where the 1934 training session is concerned. Listed directly above “Bogart” in the evaluation section of Workers School form is a “Phillips” and in the district section it is spelled “Philips.” The initial misspelling is a common mistake and Bogart’s wife had retained her maiden name for personal and professional reasons. Moreover, she would have been available to attend the Workers School since none of her plays intersected with the 10 week time period when the training was in session.
But there is an even more damning piece of evidence that interlinks Bogart with the U.S. Communist Party. In August 1940, a former communist operative named John L. Leech offered testimony to a Los Angeles Grand Jury that produced a 192 page transcript. Leech had served as an organizer and executive secretary for the L.A. area Communist Party beginning in 1931. Under oath, he named 43 Hollywood figures who were closely connected with the party. Leech identified Bogart as a financial contributor and informed the grand jury that the Hollywood actor took part in a “study club” devoted to teachings of Karl Marx.
For his part, Bogart vociferously denied the allegations in a press statement.
“I dare the men who are attempting this investigation to call me to the stand,” he declared. “I want to face them myself.”
Rep. Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat, who chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), eventually cleared Bogart and other film personalities. However, there were several names Leech presented in testimony that did turn out to be high-profile, Communist Party members. These include Lester Cole, Herb Biberman, Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson.
“How would Leech have known all this if he was not who he said he was?” Kengor asks. “He was a legitimate and credible source and Communist records confirm his role.”
Whatever Bogart’s politics may have been in the 1930s and early 1940s, it is quite evident that he came around and divorced himself from the Communist cause years later. A critical turning point here concerns the public relations efforts Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall organized on behalf of a group called the Committee for the First Amendment in 1947, which opposed HUAC investigations aimed against actors and artists. Bogart and Bacall joined with 27 movie stars, producers and press agents, on an expedition from Hollywood to Washington D.C. that flew on a plane called “The Red Star.” That’s no joke.
When HUAC produced registration rolls, news clips, Daily Worker articles, front-group memberships and party application forms that exposed communist operatives, Bogart realized he had been used and moved quickly to separate himself.
“I am not a Communist or even a Communist sympathizer,” he declared in a published statement. “I detest Communism just as any decent American does. I’m about as much in favor of Communism as J. Edgar Hoover.”
By this time, it’s clear that Bogart saw Communism as a genuine danger to the U.S. Whatever his previous history may have been with various party groups, it’s clear that Bogart was no longer in league with the far left by the late 1940s.
“Like so many others, Bogart was on a journey in search of truth, which is a path that – for every human being –leads a world away from the Communist Party,” Kengor said.
Bogart also benefitted from his friendship with another Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan who also came to see that he was being played as an unwitting spokesperson for front organizations during and immediately after World War II with benign sounding acronyms such as American Veterans Committee (AVC).
Bogart on a USO tour
“Bogart and Reagan knew each other well and were good friends,” Kengor observed. “They were both interested in politics, both were patriots and both held left of center positions for a period of time before coming around. Certainly, Reagan moved more decisively to the right.”
It appears Reagan was actually considered for the role of “Rick” in Casablanca before the part went to Bogart, Kengor points out. Reagan instead accepted the lead role in “King’s Row.”
“Reagan and Bogart liked each other and respected each other and got along very well,” Kengor said. “Reagan went to Bogart’s funeral and Bogart was also a member of Reagan’s fan club.”
It was common practice for the studios to organize fan clubs and Bogart was one of 15 honorary members of the Ronald Reagan fan club. The leading female member was Bette Davis.
How much political influence Reagan had on Bogart is not clear. But by 1952, Bogart had considered voting for Dwight Eisenhower as president even though he had been a Democrat his whole life, Kengor notes.
“The only reason he didn’t I think is because his liberal wife [Lauren Bacall] convinced him to support Adlai Stevenson the Democratic candidate,” Kengor suggests.
In Oct. 1947, Reagan was called to testify before the HUAC committee when he was the 36-year-old head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). He simultaneously championed civil liberties and condemned Communism in a well-balanced highly persuasive manner that earned high marks from both Hollywood liberals and anti-communists.
No doubt, Bogart was listening.