Destroyed by HUAC: The Dorothy Comingore Story




Destroyed by HUAC: The Dorothy Comingore Story by Kathleen Sharp

September 13th, 2013 reset - +

EVIL CAN BE CAPRICIOUS, following a path when suddenly it veers off course and taps you softly on the shoulder.

The “unfriendly” woman should have seen it coming.

Instead, Dorothy Comingore ignored the signposts and quickly crossed the street. It was late afternoon, winter 1953, and the yellow leaves of the liquidambar trees brightened the otherwise forlorn lane. A pretty woman living alone was a suspicious sight in West Hollywood and distrust trailed Dorothy like rocket vapor. As neighbors peeked out their windows, they saw the svelte woman clad in a worn overcoat, red curls coiled around her face. Dorothy walked up the driveway, to the back of a house, and climbed the stairs over the garage. But when she unlocked the door to her apartment, she froze: the pictures on her wall were askew, the venetian blinds were twisted, and a drawer lay open, its private contents strewn lewdly across the floor.

Evil had already come and gone.

Dorothy dialed for help. As she waited for someone (anyone) to pick up, she heard the unmistakable click on the other end. It was the same sound she’d heard a few nights ago, only now, she recognized what it was: “My phone’s been tapped.”

Hanging up, she tried to compose herself. Why would anyone care about her, a faded film star, a “hysterical drunk,” as her ex-husband would say, a woman with so little power that she couldn’t even see her two little kids? Dorothy wracked her brain. Why would someone spy on her? At some point, she realized:

 “I guess I shouldn’t have been an unfriendly witness,” she’d later tell reporters.

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Sixty years ago, the legendary star of the masterpiece Citizen Kane was down on her luck, a wronged woman who had defied the US House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). She was struggling to find her footing in a town where policemen monitored people considered “subversive,” during a time when “national security” trumped individual rights. To understand how far Dorothy Comingore had fallen, you need to know that she was a genuine talent, an actress who’d been discovered by Charlie Chaplin, directed by Frank Capra, and represented by uber-agent Lew Wasserman. It was Orson Welles who’d given Dorothy her big break, casting her as the female lead opposite himself in his directorial debut. Famously groundbreaking in its camerawork, audacious in its theme and ambition, to this day, Citizen Kane (1941) is considered perhaps the greatest movie ever made.

Dorothy is a big reason why. She portrayed Susan Kane, the mistress of industrialist Charles Foster Kane, based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s real-life mistress was actress Marion Davies, and Dorothy portrayed her with such skill and naked vulnerability that she was rumored to be short-listed for an Academy Award. After its premiere, Dorothy won the hearts of millions of moviegoers, according to Variety readers’ polls, and her gorgeous face graced the pages of Life, Look, and dozens of others. In the 1940s, she seemed to have it all: a burgeoning movie career; the admiration of her peers; a fine marriage to scenarist Richard Collins; and most of all, the love of her children, Michael and Judy.

But that was before the onset of the Red Scare and J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance state. By the dawn of the 1950s, it was as if Dorothy Comingore had never existed. Today, in 2013, as we discover a long-lost film by Welles (Too Much Johnson) and read yet another book about him (My Lunches with Orson by Henry Jaglom, edited by Peter Biskind), Dorothy resurfaces. Yet her life has never been probed in the way it deserves. Her story of art, dissent, and surveillance resonates today as we suddenly realize that our government leaders, along with digital media moguls, have been secretly spying on us for years. What happens when data-sifters and intelligence agencies eavesdrop on private conversations? More to the point: how did Dorothy fall from such a starry height to living above a garage, scared to pick up her telephone? The mystery of what happened to this provocative actress has haunted me for the past two years, ever since I was given exclusive access to her private papers. Here, then, is one of Hollywood’s more fascinating true-noir tales.

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In 1939 — the year that Nathanael West published The Day of the Locust — Dorothy was one of thousands of girls auditioning for the movies. But unlike the other beauties, she hadn’t arrived here uninvited. The prior year, Dorothy had been working at a community theater in Carmel, California, commanding the lead onstage, when Charlie Chaplin happened to be in the audience. He was so taken by her performance that he “bawled at the end,” he later admitted. Chaplin followed her to an after-theater party, where guests played parlor games. In one, Dorothy pretended to be a socialite who dropped her g’s and stroked her fox stole, which happened to be the host’s cat purring on her chest. Chaplin knew talent when he saw it, and helped Dorothy secure a Warner Brothers contract.

In Burbank, a casting director eyed the 24-year-old and gave her a new name, a heady salary of $75 a week, and a room at the luxurious Town House on Wilshire Boulevard. “I feel like Apple Annie at the Waldorf!” she squealed. Warner’s publicity machine lurched into gear, and one fanzine described Dorothy as a “personality cocktail, with every ingredient from laughter to tears.” But instead of acting, Dorothy found herself modeling “Latin blouses” and sun suits, posing for so many movie posters that “I fell unconscious.” She objected, saying she wanted to be an actress, not a cutie. But the studio was mired in the Depression, and let her and dozens of other contract workers go.

Fortunately, Columbia took her on, giving her parts in B movies. She played the sister of a convict in Prison Train and a pretty girl in a few scenes of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Federal law had just limited the workweek to 44 hours, but studio conditions were still abysmal. Dorothy and the other girls had to change their costumes on set, in the open, while fleshy men in checkered pants made crude advances. When Dorothy demanded a common dressing room, she became known as a “willful” woman — one who needed to be taught a lesson.

At the time, she was playing a straight man in some Three Stooges movies. In Rockin' thru the Rockies, her big scene was getting tossed into a swimming pool while protesting, “Oh, don’t do that!” She was cheery enough on the first few takes. On the eighth try, her skin began to itch from the chlorine; at take 18, her eyes stung, and by take 30 even the cameraman cringed. According to a news account at the time, the whole day was spent shooting Dorothy’s pool scene by order of the producer: Let’s show her what happens to a difficult young actress. After the 97th take, Dorothy climbed out of the pool and unleashed a fury that scorched even Moe’s ears. After calling studio chief Harry Cohn a schmuck, she stomped off the set, and, for that, she was suspended for a month, without pay.

Other “willful” women such as Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Joan Crawford were getting suspended for “insubordination,” too. But without their cachet, Dorothy was reduced to eating beans and circling the drain of despair. Then, she met an up-and-coming scenarist, Richard Collins. Well-bred and pro-union, Richard had co-written a few screenplays such as Suffragette (1937), but his knowledge of literature made Dorothy’s conversations with other men seem insipid. Richard introduced her to fascinating people such as Dalton Trumbo and Budd Schulberg, and gave her advice and chocolates. “He made a new woman out of me,” she later said. That spring, they were married.

It was a magical time. The newlyweds danced in nightclubs with tufted satin walls and spent hours gossiping with friends in intimate circles, rings of smoke rising from their lipsticked cigarettes and brandy-tipped cigars. Wherever they went, the couple dazzled people with their wit and elegance. Then suddenly that summer, as hot winds blew through the canyons, Dorothy got a call from her friend Sylvia (aka Mrs. Ring Lardner Jr.). Apparently, Silvia’s boss, Mr. Orson Welles, needed a date to attend the premiere of The Wizard of Oz at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: was Dorothy available? And how! The starlet borrowed an evening gown and was soon photographed on the arm of the boy genius. Months later, she heard from Welles again, only this time it was professional. He was making a film and needed an actress who could manage a difficult role — someone who could play a giggly shop girl, a rich man’s second bride, and a hard-drinking cabaret singer. Dorothy showed up for the audition, met an assistant, and totally disregarded his instructions. Her audition was so terrific, that Orson offered her the part. But she hesitated.

“I’m several months pregnant,” she confessed.

Any other director might have let the expectant mother go — but not Welles. “That’s okay,” he assured her. That’ll just show RKO that I’m serious about delivering this film on time.

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The 24-year-old director was filming a saga about an American capitalist, Charles Foster Kane, who was modeled on the then 76-year-old newspaper titan Hearst. Old man Hearst’s power was waning while the brash young Welles was coming into his own. Dorothy joined his cast of young unknowns — Joseph Cotten, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead — and felt elated in the company of so much talent. Best of all, she wrote, “Orson left me completely alone with regard to my lines and characterization.” In their scenes together, Welles would signal to Dorothy when he was using his eyebrows to act for the camera, and when he was projecting to the gallery. She always took his cue.

It was an arduous production, so much so that every cast member was laid up for a spell, except the pregnant star. A week after Citizen Kane wrapped, Dorothy headed to the hospital, in labor, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Dorothy, Richard, and Welles were ecstatic that both creative projects had been delivered on time, and Welles promised the new mother that they’d work together on his next film, Sister Carrie.

Promoting any work, book or movie, can feel like pelting season on a mink farm, and Welles was about to get skinned alive. He contacted the most influential reviewer in town, Louella Parsons, and gave the Hearst columnist a private tour of his movie set. “She was utterly charmed by Orson and terribly impressed by everything he did,” wrote Dorothy. Later, he threw a large preview screening, and nearly everyone present realized that they had just seen a work of brilliance. Dorothy’s performance got rave reviews: “(She) is put through a range of emotions that would try any actress one could name,” said the Hollywood Reporter. Then came Hedda Hopper: Dorothy recalled that “because of her ambition to take Parson’s place in the Hearst regime, [Hopper] wired Hearst that the [movie] was about him.” Hopper, perhaps for the same reason, hated Citizen Kane and called it “a vicious and irresponsible attack on a great man."

Hearst then unleashed the unique brand of yellow journalism that had made him such a kingbreaker. Employing battalions of reporters in 30 cities across the United States, Hearst set out to bankrupt the young director. His team used Welles’s private life against him and questioned his willingness to fight for his country. Syndicated columnist Walter Winchell piled on, making blunt references about Dorothy, Welles, and their “communist” leanings. That last phrase seemed rather silly since the US had just struck the Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union in an effort to defeat Nazi Germany, but never mind. Hearst then widened his attack by threatening to expose all of Hollywood’s long-buried scandals, including the ones he had suppressed at the moguls’ requests. Frightened, Louis B. Mayer and the other studio chiefs tried in vain to buy Citizen Kane in order to burn the negative. Hearst’s friends intimidated the owners of major theater chains, who in turn refused to show the film. Even so, Citizen Kane played in enough choice theaters to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Picture — along with nine Academy Award nominations. But that wasn’t enough. By early 1942, Citizen Kane had played in only a fraction of the country’s theaters and nabbed just one Oscar, Best Original Screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles.

RKO quietly stuck the film in its vault.         

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After seeing Dorothy on the big screen, every studio in town wanted to borrow her. But RKO refused. She then fell so ill a doctor ordered bed rest. But when she didn’t show up for work, the studio suspended her. Dorothy had hoped to star in Sister Carrie, Jane Eyre, or some other classy production, but upon returning to work found nothing to do. “I must have said the wrong thing at the right time,” she told friends, “and I’d like to know what it is.”

Hearst’s yellow ink had stained her reputation. According to documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Dorothy had landed on a government watch list for the crime of “distributing Communist literature to negroes.” It’s true that Dorothy had canvassed Watts, stumping door-to-door for actor Albert Dekker, a state Assembly candidate. (He won.) And yes, she had worked with musician Lead Belly and singer Paul Robeson to try and desegregate whites-only USO clubs. (They succeeded.) And she had indeed urged voters, soldiers, and Baptist teetotalers to support “union solidarity” whenever possible. At a time when Hollywood workers were organizing themselves, she became a marked woman. A few years later, the US House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) became a permanent fixture, and Dorothy’s FBI file had grown thick. HUAC’s stated mission was to investigate “subversive activities in the entertainment industry,” but Richard, Dorothy, and thousands of others believed it was out to strangle free speech and organized labor.

Unlike his wife, Richard was a card-carrying member of the Community Party (and a dues-collecting officer to boot). The anxiety of searching for work, the stress of a growing family, the undercurrent of mistrust running throughout the movie industry — it all took its toll on the marriage. In 1944, Dorothy gave birth to their son Michael. A few years later, Richard was called to Washington, DC, to testify in front of HUAC along with 18 of his friends, including Lardner, Trumbo, and Bertolt Brecht. Ten of them refused to answer questions and were promptly jailed. Richard, who hadn’t been called to the stand, returned home only to find himself banned from every studio. By then, the trials and tribulations of Dorothy and “Dick” were such that they had divorced.

Dorothy remarried, but that didn’t turn out well. In fact, it broke her heart. Richard remarried, too, and Dorothy took to the bottle. There was the week-long binge at the Garden of Allah, the seedy hotel that had once been the home of a silent screen siren, where five-year-old Michael and eight-year-old Judy ran wild through the grounds while mother drank herself stupid. Richard either couldn’t — or wouldn’t — pay child support, and his ex-wife and children were left to fend for themselves.

Dorothy could have taken the course sailed by her ex-husband. In spring of 1951, Richard Collins had asked to appear before HUAC and the committee obliged. In Washington, DC, he publicly named names. Dorothy heard him on the radio, speaking in a steady voice as he casually built a bonfire with the remnants of other peoples’ lives. After hearing Richard betray his colleagues — including those who had loaned the couple money during their salad days — Dorothy shaved her head in shame. It was a grand, theatrical flourish for a woman who was clinging to the lowest rung of the ladder.

The one bright spot in Dorothy’s life were her children. She took them to visit her dear friend Chaplin on the set of Limelight. Michael was entranced by the funny antics of this precise, nimble man. He loved the dusty smell of the studio and the way that light fell on some faces but not on others. Occasionally, Dorothy would drop in on Salka Viertel, the grand dame of European émigrés, whose Sunday afternoon salons had the feel of a Viennese coffeehouse. At any given time, you could find novelists Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), Adolph Huxley (Brave New World), and Christopher Isherwood (Prater Violet) arguing politely about politics. Dorothy could spar with the best of them. In the evenings, she’d slip outside to smoke a cigarette. As fog rolled in from the Pacific, she’d listen to the cicadas’ chorus and think about her “babies,” oblivious to the fact that federal agents might be spying on Salka, watching the salonistas come and go.

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Things came to a head in early October, 1952, when Dorothy walked into Room 518 of the federal building downtown, her high heels clacking in the halls. The hearing room was packed, yet only two members of HUAC had bothered to appear at their own session. The sharp-nosed Rep. Clyde Doyle (D) and dapper-looking Rep. Donald Jackson (R) were seated at a table along with aides and lawyers. Behind them was draped the America flag, and to the side stood HUAC investigator William “Bill” Wheeler.

Wheeler had moved his family from the environs of Washington, DC, to the outskirts of Los Angeles to help the committee. A jolly but imposing man, he worked with local law enforcement agencies and had grown friendly with several policemen and sheriffs deputies. He felt no compunction about spying and had persuaded Richard (among others) to turn on his peers. Lately, Wheeler’s stature had swelled, thanks to the release of a movie, Big Jim McLain. Starring John Wayne, the film was based loosely on Wheeler’s life as a “red buster,” and contained several clumsy references to “bad” labor unions. Only a few people knew of Wheeler’s screen deal, but that morning he was a star.

A dozen people or so were scheduled to testify that day and, one by one, they refused to cooperate, “breathing defiance at the committee,” according to one account. When Dorothy was finally called, she sat at the microphone, her green eyes flashing.

Attorney Frank S. Tavenner Jr. began: “Were you a member of the Communist Party?”

Dorothy moved her lips silently and, after a beat, Tavenner asked why.

“I am counting to 10,” she explained. “I do that occasionally when I am angry.”

“Then, I wish you’d count to 15,” he retorted.

“I’d have to take off my shoe,” she said.

The crowd erupted in laughter, along with photographers’ flash bulbs.

The inquisitors studied the witness. Dorothy had worn a gauzy wrap dress that cinched her waist. Her hair was piled atop her head and her large earrings sparkled in the light. One observer noted that she “added a touch of glamorous recalcitrance” to the proceedings. The Congressmen pressed the lady to answer their questions. At one point, the men seemed to be enjoying their power game a little too much, and Dorothy angrily accused them of “playing pocket pool” with themselves under the table. The remark was stricken from the record; Big Jim Wheeler looked disgusted.

The following day, the newspapers covered Dorothy’s testimony as if it had been a variety show. One headline said it all: “Our Girl is witty! Sarcastic! Funny and Bold!” Dorothy appeared to have triumphed, but she was about to get beaten. Richard had filed for full custody of their children and, after a turbulent trial, Dorothy lost. She did secure weekend visiting rights along with a court order demanding that Richard pay her back child support — about $9,000, which was a huge sum back then. But bereft of her children, Dorothy fell into a deep depression. It was around this time that she discovered that someone was tapping her telephone and ransacking her place. Then, when it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, the unimaginable happened.

While supping alone at a corner tavern and “minding my own business,” she told a reporter, she was approached by two men. They bought her a drink — then another. An hour later, they offered to drive her home, but instead, the men took Dorothy to a park and stuffed a $10 bill into her pocket. When she objected, they arrested her for “solicitation,” or prostitution. It turned out that her new “pals” were actually sheriff deputies from the vice squad and, in their report, they claimed that Dorothy had approached them, suggesting they drive to “some dark place.” There, she allegedly offered herself for 10 bucks, saying, “I don’t usually charge, but I’m broke.”

At the county jail, she was mobbed by reporters. Someone had obviously tipped off the press, and she was blinded by a scrim of popping flashbulbs. For the third time in five months, her face would be splashed across the morning papers, only this time, her hair would be disheveled, and her eyes red and puffy. Those who knew Dorothy refused to believe that she had turned into a hooker. One male columnist stated that she’d been framed, and even HUAC defender and conservative writer Morris Ryskin smelled a rat. “That Wheeler plays rough,” he said.

Dorothy vowed to fight the charges — until she learned that her children had heard about mom’s arrest in the schoolyard, and they didn’t want to see her. For the first time in ages, Dorothy sounded weary. “I’ve had nothing but trouble lately,” she told the newsmen.

“I guess I shouldn’t have been an unfriendly witness.”

A week later, Richard asked the court to prevent Dorothy from seeing the children and, based on her prostitution arrest, the judge agreed. Her current husband then asked the same court to commit her to an asylum. In that hearing, Judge Schweitzer gently asked the former star if she’d like to spend “a little time” in the hospital. “It won’t be long,” he promised. Plus, if she agreed, the district attorney would drop the “solicitation” charges. What else could Dorothy do but sign the papers? A few hours later, she was bussed out of Los Angeles to one of the most notorious insane asylums in the West: the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. There, she spent not just “a little time,” but two, long, horrific years.

The real tragedy was that Michael never saw his mom again — not until he was a grown man. By then, themes like forgiveness and redemption began to slowly appear in the family’s lore. But that’s another tale, one that “willful” Dorothy would later write.

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Kathleen Sharp is the author of Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire, which AudioGo just released as an audio book.

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