New Search

If you are not happy with the results below please do another search

8 search results for: ben urwand


Neal Gabler’s Reporting for the NY Times Lends Credence to Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler”

Collaboration coverFirst, a refresher for readers who may not have seen several posts I wrote last fall I wrote about the revelatory book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand, Junior Fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, published by Harvard University Press:

In one of those posts I had questioned what I saw as biased commentary on, unfair reviews of, and some weird carping about Urwand’s thorough, careful, and unsensational book about the failure of Hollywood moguls, most of them Jewish, to do much of anything to save Jews in Europe during WWII.

David Denby in The New Yorker had a shockingly censorious piece urging that the book be taken out of circulation until Urwand had revised it. Were such steps ever taken it would be an appalling abuse of free speech, violating the moral right of authors writing history to follow documentary evidence and publish their interpretation of events as they’ve come to understand them. The jaded Denby also claimed that much of what’s in the book was already known, but this missed the point: even if Denby’s post was accurate, can there no new or alternative interpretations of previously examined events, even plural interpretations, arrived at in good faith.  Moreover, though, Urwand’s sources included archives and business records that no English-speaking historian had ever worked with, so how could the book have failed to contain new material? Denby never addressed those points, as I read him.

The push-back against Urwand’s book included attacks on him by Alicia Mayer, grand-niece of mogul Louis B. Mayer, who wrote on her website: “I need your help. Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis.” I urged media outlets to cover her accusations skeptically, taking into account her obvious personal stake in seeing that her great-uncle remain untainted by a critical historian. Another blogger critical of Urwand thought it somehow relevant to question his degree of observance as a Jew because it had been reported he ate a (non-kosher) lobster salad during an interview with a journalist.

Following my posts about Urwand and his book, his publicity tour brought him to the Museum of Tolerance in NYC on October 17, where I went to hear him lecture and meet him in person. The mid-30s Australian scholar’s talk was particularly illuminating, and personal. He began by explaining that he had actually been working on an academic thesis, about Hitler’s taste in movies, information that’s accessible because of Nazi records stating what he showed for himself, and guests, in frequent screenings he held.

Working on his paper, Urwand found records showing that, even before Hitler came to power—because of protests and agitation by Nazis with the weak Weimar regime—the German government lodged protests in Hollywood about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” produced by Jewish film executive Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios. He was a German-born Jew, by then living in the US. The movie, based on novelist Erich Maria Remarque’s global bestseller, depicted pacifism on the part of German soldiers’ in the WWI drama, inimical to the emerging nationalism and militarism in Germany. This sort of influence, flowing from Germany toward Hollywood—often including successful attempts at meddling in the actual scripting and editing of films—continued during the pre-war years, and then once the war began.

Thanks to the slides Urwand showed, he was able to illustrate the documentary trail of evidence he had followed in his research. A handful of those images may be viewed by clicking here.

After a flurry of coverage last fall about Urwand’s important book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitlerthings had quieted down until earlier this month when a lengthy article by film historian Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was published in the New York Times. “Laemmle’s List: A Mogul’s Heroism” reported on the strenuous and often productive efforts of Laemmle to rescue imperiled Jews from Germany.

Though far as I know Gabler holds no special brief for Urwand, his article lends significant support to the thesis of The Collaboration.

For in his piece, Gabler writes,

“It may seem strange that Laemmle alone among the Hollywood chieftains—a group that included Adolph Zukor of Paramount, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Harry Cohn of Columbia and the Warner Brothers—sought to save Jews, since all of those studio heads were Jews themselves and nearly all of them had emigrated from Eastern Europe, over which Hitler was casting his ominous shadow. But almost from the inception of the American film industry, the Hollywood Jews were dedicated to assimilation, not religious celebration. They had come to America to escape their roots, not embrace them.”

It’s a pity that Carl Laemmle died so early in the war, 1939, or I bet he’d have saved yet many more German and European Jews. He was a good-hearted and generous man whose worries about the fate of many of his co-religionists consumed him to the point that his studio work was set aside while he lobbied Hollywood colleagues and such hard-hearted, anti-semitic officials in the US government as Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

I’m hopeful that the appearance of Gabler’s article will move some of Urwand’s critics to reconsider what I view as their reflexive and unreasonable opposition to his book. Watch this blog for further developments.


#FridayReads, Oct 11–Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler” & Anne Hillerman’s “Spider Woman’s Daughter”

Collaboration#FridayReads, Oct 11–Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler & Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter, a new installment in the long-running Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mystery series established by her late father, the mystery master Tony Hillerman.

Notwithstanding the controversy I’ve reported on earlier that’s greeted publication of The Collaboration, which I had made part of my #FridayReads a few weeks ago, I have been continuing to methodically read it, even while still reading fiction. It’s ironic about all the hubbub, because I am finding it so far, about 80 pages in, an unsensational, moderately engrossing and well-documented account.

The narrative opens by examining “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the 1930 WWI drama released by Universal Pictures that to German officials, dangerously advocated pacifism while also showing cowardice and dishonorable conduct by their troops. The government, two years before Hitler was to win power, viewed it as a threat to to the nation, and sought to have whole passages of the film cut, scenes changed, and dialogue rewritten.  They threatened to remove it from all German screens, and to make it harder for other American pictures to be exhibited in Germany.

After this key opening example, the book becomes a chronicle of the willing cooperation of some American film industry executives–who along with a number of American functionaries and bureaucrats, and at least one Jewish communal organization, the Los Angeles branch of the Anti-Defamation League–worked to suppress American-made movies being produced about contemporary Germany.  Some of this suppression was triggered by German trade officials who after the Great War’s ignominy zealously attacked films from foreign countries that seemed to hyper-sensitive German governments (even preceding Nazi rule) prejudicial against their country and “damaging to their reputation abroad,” or potentially “demoralizing to morale” at home, as they put it, as with “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Hitler was an enthusiast of cinema and theatrical performances of all kinds, as earlier shown in a book I edited and published,  Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the  Third Reich. Once Hitler was in power, with hyper-awareness of both the positive and the damaging  effects of propaganda, he focused his regime on how messages might be spread by movies. With that, the Nazis began even more aggressively lobbying foreign filmmakers to alter the scripts of movies in production, or edit and recut ones already being exhibited on German screens.

For a rundown of the controversy surrounding the book and the overheated things some of its critics have said about it, please see my recent post, Questioning the Critical Reaction to Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler”Collaboration blurbs

A Second #FridayReads, Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman’s new Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Mystery Novel

While reading The Collaboration, I am intercutting it with Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter. I’ve read and loved the Leaphorn and Chee series for years, and made his 1982 book Dark Wind one of my #FridayReads last year.Hillerman paperbacks

Tony died in 2008. About the revival of the series, Anne has written, “When I emerged from the worst of my grief after Dad’s death, I realized that I was also mourning the end of his mystery series. I missed those detectives [Leaphorn and Chee], and I especially regretted that Bernadette Manuelito would never get a book that put her in the spotlight. And then I thought: I could try writing Bernie’s book myself. . . .In addition to Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, I had written several other books, so I knew part of the challenge that faced me. I jotted down some ideas as a rough outline and got to work.”

I’m loving her new book. The protagonist, Bernadette, is a young police officer in Navajo Country, married to Jim Chee, who learned how to be a cop under the tutelage of Joe Leaphorn, wise man of the tribal police force. She witnesses a startling assault on a fellow cop in the book’s opening chapters, which forces her to the sidelines of an important investigation. Despite her chief’s order to drop any involvement with the case, she continues trying to riddle it out, even while Chee and her fellow officers pursue every lead. Bernie’s unauthorized efforts take her all across the dramatic landscape of Navajo Country, speaking with people who may help her understand what’s really going on. Just as in Tony’s books, the sense of place and people is indelible.

Coincidentally, over the summer, working as literary agent for author J. Michael Orenduff, I licensed his 6-book POT THIEF mystery series to Open Road Integrated Media who will publish them in ebook and print editions in January 2014. The books are are set in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico, and feature dealer in Native American pottery Hubie Schutz. They’re titled The Pot Thief Who Studied PythagorasThe Pot Thief Who Studied PtolemyThe Pot Thief Who Studied EinsteinThe Pot Thief Who Studied EscoffierThe Pot Thief Who Studied D. H. Lawrence, and The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid.  When not digging in the desert for ancient pots, or crafting copies of artifacts with his own hands, Hubie’s usually absorbed in reading a classic text. In their earlier editions, the POT THIEF books won numerous awards and raves from mystery readers, including this one from Anne Hillerman herself: “I inhaled this book. Witty, well-crafted and filled with unexpected plot turns, The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid will delight J. Michael Orenduff’s many fans—and win him new ones.”

It’s a small world out there for mystery writers and readers and I’m really excited that Anne Hillerman’s brought back her father’s great characters, and that fans of the Leaphorn and Chee books will soon be able to discover and enjoy the POT THIEF mysteries.Anne HillermanAnne Hillerman back cover



Questioning the Critical Reaction to Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler”

The CollaborationReaders here may recall I’ve previously written about Ben Urwand’s book  The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. The first time was last June, in Still More to Learn about Corporations’ Complicity with the Third Reich, after the NY Times’ Jennifer Schuessler wrote a preview story on Urwand, a young Australian* scholar, and his thesis: that major Hollywood studios, including many of its key moguls including Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer, worked with the Third Reich to make their movies acceptable to the Nazis, thus permitting them to continue being shown to German audiences. Urwand contends this “collaboration” started before WWII, and continued during the war itself. The book has now been officially published, and as I expected, there is criticism of it and the author. I know from my involvement with independent scholar Edwin Black‘s IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001), that writers who tackle big targets get the most criticism. Moreover, Urwand is something of an unconventional scholar–he holds no teaching position, is a Junior Fellow of of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and has a biography that includes time spent as a member of the successful rock n’ roll band, The Attachments.

Vociferous criticism has come from New Yorker film critic David Denby, and film historian David Thomson. I respect both of them as writers, but Denby’s claim that much of what’s in the book was already known, is not accurate. Urwand’s sources included archives and business records that no English-speaking historian had ever worked with, so how can the book fail to contain new material? Even if it were correct, can there no new interpretations of previously examined events? Though I don’t agree with the jaded Denby or the skeptical Thomson, I don’t consider them to be arguing in bad faith.

However, some of the other commentary has been way over the top, and coming from questionable sources replete with big credibility issues. For instance, a grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, Alicia Mayer,* who keeps the family flame burning with a website called Hollywood Essays, is campaigning to discredit Urwand’s book, and is getting some coverage doing so. Outlets covering her should ask about and report on the large personal stake she has in seeing her great-uncle exonerated by history. Her comments ought to be viewed with great skepticism. There is a slight hysteria in her attitude, as in the opening line of one piece, she pleads with readers: “I need your help. Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis.” Her plaint doesn’t address the substance of the book, only suggests how horrible is to be a descendant of someone accused of bad conduct in business. In a bizarre twist, she’s even going after the publicity firm that’s working with Urwand and Harvard University Press:

“After a cunning and manipulative pre-launch campaign by Goldberg McDuffie Communications (GMC) for Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, which resulted in odd, gushing ‘reviews’ for the book back in late June, the tide has now turned and negative reviews (scroll down) are flowing just as the book is released. Even as an editor, it never occurred to me that book publicity could have a dark side but Lynn Goldberg, Megan Beatie and Kathleen Zrelak of GMC have orchestrated interviews, coverage and appearances for the perennially grim-looking Urwand, that will in hindsight appear unworthy at best, and sinister at worst.”

This is weird, ad hominem crap that should utterly disqualify the party slinging the stuff from being taken at all seriously.

An underlying subtext here, which probably explains some of the vituperation directed toward Urwand, is that while he is himself Jewish, some people question his motives in laying blame on the men that ran some of the big studios, who happened to be Jewish, as if no co-religionist should find fault with a fellow member of the tribe. Such parochial defensiveness is an extreme response to a scholar’s work. Personal unease over the charge that Jewish moguls in Hollywood let personal self-interest drive their policy toward the Third Reich is blinding some critics from giving a fair reading to Urwand’s book.

There’s even one attack from a blogger* who seeks to call in to question Urwand’s Jewishness because it was reported he ate a lobster salad (non-kosher) during an interview with a reporter. Alicia Mayer, along with Denby demanded that Urwand’s Harvard University Press withdraw the book from distribution, “correct” it according to their reading of it, and then only then re-release it! Were such steps ever taken it would be an appalling abuse of free speech and the moral right of an author to follow historical evidence and publish the results as they see fit.

Urwand and his book do have defenders. Among them are Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University, a leading figure in the study of 20th Century Germany. He endorsed The Collaboration with the statement below that is printed on the book and continues to defend it vigorously, especially on his twitter feed, @RichardEvans36.

“Full of startling and surprising revelations, presented in exemplary fashion, without any moralizing or sensationalism. The Collaboration shows how Hollywood and especially the big studios went along with German demands to censor movies not only before but especially after the Nazi seizure of power.” 

I will continue to write about Urwand’s book in the weeks to come, as I complete my own reading of it. Meantime, here’s a video of Urwand discussing his work.

 * Oddly, Australia is a recurring motif here, as Urwand, Alicia Mayer, and the blogger who questioned why Urwand was eating lobster salad are all from Australia. Please note I have chosen not to link to the websites of Alicia Mayer and the other blogger from Australia. 


#FridayReads, Sept. 20–Erskine Childers’ “Riddle of the Sands & Ben Urwand’s “Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler”

Riddle of the SandsAs noted in the above tweet for my #FridayReads a week ago, I was then enjoying the two excellent books named above. The first–The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903–is arguably the first espionage thriller of the 20th century, though it’s written nothing like spy fiction is written today. It’s a heady and languorous narrative full of maritime adventuring set in the waters of the North Sea and its tidal rivers. The characters tumble in to some intrigue involving Britain and Germany, and the book fascinatingly anticipates many geopolitical issues that became even more pertinent to international relations in the following decades, during WWI and WWII. I used to stock and sell Childers’ book when I ran Undercover Books from 1978-85 as it was frequently assigned to high school students in the local school systems. This in itself is kind of amazing, because it is a complex, sophisticated book and I have a hard time imagining many high school students nowadays reading it, and getting through it. I think it’s also read often by sailors, mariners, and merchant seamen, for as the title suggests the characters are able to develop keen intuition for navigating the waters and the intrigue in to which they are plunged. Recently, Michael Dirda, one of the best book critics around, wrote a fascinating review of ‘Riddle’ in the BN Review which reminded me I had always meant to read the book. I found the second-hand Penguin edition pictured here, and have been relishing every new turn in the unfolding plot. I recommend you read Dirda’s review, even if you don’t have time right now for the book itself.Riddle of the Sands back

The other book, my nonfiction this week, is  The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by a young Australian scholar named Ben Urwand, a revelatory and controversial investigation into what he believes–based on documents and correspondence he found–was the close relationship, even alliance from the 1930s, and in at least one instance stretching in to the 1940s, between several US movie production companies and the Third Reich. I learned about the book in the summer, when the New York Times previewed the book, and I wrote about it then in a post titled Still More to Learn about Corporations’ Complicity with the Third Reich. I wrote then,Collaboration

In 2000, while an editor at Crown Publishing, I acquired a book that later became an international sensation and a bestseller in the US. It was IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black. I believed it was imperative that the book be published because it documented hitherto unknown revelations such as the fact that IBM’s punch card tabulation system was licensed to the Third Reich which then used the technology to catalog and keep track of Jews and others under its rule they deemed undesirables. Turned out that corporate complicity with Hitler was as American as cherry pie.

I want to add that later, in 2006, I edited and published another book in this area, Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich, in which scholar Steven F. Sage put forth a startling thesis, that long before the Final Solution, Adolf Hitler’s crimes included a kind of theft of intellectual property. The author marshaled lots of evidence to to show that a trio of plays by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) had provided Hitler with the script for his hegemonic career. With egotism and braggadocio, he saw himself as the star of a historical drama that mimicked Ibsen’s works. Sage showed that baffling incidents, including poor strategic choices, became understandable as part of a connected plot. He also traces ties between Hitler and a literary cult that warped Ibsen’s humanistic vision to suit their fascist designs, elevating Hitler as their anointed instrument. Sage’s book, and now Urwand’s, point to Hitler’s obsession with narrative drama, whether on the stage or on the silver screen. Both authors document Hitler’s propensity to repeatedly view the same theatrical and cinematic presentations. Sage writes that Hitler would see the same play over and over again, until he reached a point where he felt like he had in some sense become the drama’s hero. It’s striking that the two authors have, in this respect, developed similar theses. If you’re interested, I’ve pasted in the flap copy to Ibsen and Hitler at the bottom of this post which you may click on to read in full. Ibsen & Hitler

There’s already been a fair amount of criticism of Urwand, who is something of an unconventional scholar–he holds no teaching position, is a Junior Fellow of of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, and has a background that includes being part of a successful rock n’ roll band, The Attachments. You can learn more about Urwand and his book here. The critics of the book have included David Denby in the New Yorker, who seems to take personal offense at the thesis, and claims there’s not much in the book we didn’t know already. I don’t share his jaded response and am eager to continue reading how and why executives likes Louis B. Mayer produced movies that they hoped would please the Third Reich and be shown to audiences in Germany.


Did the Koch Brothers’ Help Dad Build an Oil Refinery for Adolf Hitler?

Wow, this is going to be a blockbuster book. Jane Mayer’s latest, due out Jan 19th, is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. It’s the subject of a NY Times news article tonight by Nicholas Confessore who must’ve gotten an early copy.  He reports on the collective portrait of rightwing billionaire families, including Richard Mellon Scaife, who before his death in 2014 spent more than a billion dollars of his Mellon family fortune pushing conservative causes; most notably, in the 1990s he harassed Bill Clinton through the infamous American Spectator magazine (see “Troopergate” if you need a reminder). I recall of this with firsthand memory because in the early 2000s I edited and published Susan MacDougal’s memoir of the years she was pursued by Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Wouldn’t Testify the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail., whose probe was an outgrowth of Scaife’s bankrolling Whitewater into a faux scandal. After discussing Scaife, the book examines an earlier brother pair, Lynde and Harry Bradley; and the DeVos family of Michigan. Apparently, Mayer then moves on to the bulk of her book, the Koch family. Confessore releases this explosive finding from Mayer’s investigation:

“The book is largely focused on the Koch family, stretching back to its involvement in the far-right John Birch Society and the political and business activities of their father, Fred C. Koch, who found some of his earliest business success overseas in the years leading up to World War II. One venture was a partnership with the American Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis, who, according to Ms. Mayer, hired Mr. Koch to help build the third-largest oil refinery in the Third Reich, a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine.”

As editor, I also acquired IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001, Crown Publishingby Edwin Black, and on this website blogged several times about The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand. I have an eye for these sort of titles, and I’m sure this one by Mayer will be fascinating, and important.


#FridayReads, Sept 12–George C. Chesbro’s “City of Whispering Stone,” w/Mongo the Magnificent

City of Whispering Stone frontContinuing my theme from last week, today’s #FridayReads is another mystery featuring Mongo the Magnificent, former circus dwarf turned criminology professor and private eye, in City of Whispering Stone, published in 1978, which I read that year, then ordered and sold in my bookstore, Undercover Books in Cleveland, Ohio. The plot of this novel—Book II in a series that would ultimately have fifteen titles—would have been very topical and timely at the time, as it concerns Iranian students in NYC, an Iranian circus strongman who is a member of the troupe that Mongo once performed in as a headliner, and the political fate of the Shah. In real life, this would have been during the Carter administration and amid the tumultuous revolution that ended with Ayatollah Khomeni and the mullahs in control of the country,when American hostages were held captive for 444 days in Tehran. The mullahs have hold power ever since. Chesbro must’ve had a keen line in to the Iranian expat community in the US, because of the depiction of the dissident students reads like a contemporary dispatch from the New York Times. In the novel, the performer/strongman has mysteriously vanished and Phil Statler, impresario of the Statler Brothers Circus, Mongo’s former boss, hires the detective to locate him. The writing is great—noirish and tough, and very good at revealing the mindset of Mongo, an ultimate outsider who’s never fit in anywhere in his whole life. Back in my bookstore days, I never read beyond the earliest books in the series, so in the weeks to come, I’ll go back in the sequence and re-read Shadow of a Broken Man (1977, Book I), then move on to An Affair of Sorcerers (1979, Book III); and The Beasts of Valhallah (1985, Book IV), and perhaps others.

I do relish reading detective fiction and many different mystery series. As readers here may recall, I’ve written before about the novels of Michael Connelly (who created series character LAPD Detective Harry—short for Hieronymous—Bosch); Henning Mankell (Swedish police lieutenant Kurt Wallander); the late Tony Hillerman (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee), whose series was revived in 2013 by his daughter, novelist Anne Hillerman, introducing new series character, Bernadette Manuelito; Philip Kerr (Munich police inspector Bernie Gunther); John D. MacDonald (salvage expert Travis McGee); and J. Michael Orenduff (author of the POT THIEF mystery series, with protagonist Hubert Schuze, dealer in Native American ceramics). Last year, I wrote an appreciation of one of Mankell’s Wallander books that can just as well apply to all of these series, edited for inclusion in this post:

Henning Mankell’s thriller 2004 thriller Before the Frost, features Detective Kurt Wallander and his grown daughter Linda, who like he had earlier in life, elects to become a police officer. With surprising synchronicity, in Michael Connelly’s Detective Harry Bosch novel The Drop, (my May 10th, 2013 #FridayReads), his young adult daughter informs him that she is going to choose police work for her career. I don’t believe these two writers, one in Sweden, the other in Los Angeles, read each other’s work or have directly influenced each other. Instead, I believe that these authors—who have each written ten or more books featuring their detective protagonist—become extremely invested in their characters and loyal to them, so that in their protean creativity, they endow the two characters—both late middle-aged single fathers—with full lives and late-in-life-joy from growing closer to their children. This highlights one of the things I love most about these books, Mankell’s and Connelly’s, as well as mysteries by other authors I enjoy, featuring characters Travis McGee, Bernie Gunther, and Joe Gunther (no relation to the former), by John D. MacDonaldPhilip Kerr, and Archer Mayor, respectively: The author is so devoted to their creation that they give them full lives, and I as a faithful reader, become devoted to them, too.

City of Whispering Stone back


#FridayReads, Oct 18–A.B. Guthrie, Jr.’s Classic Western, “The Big Sky”


Today my #FridayReads is a re-read, prompted by a book discussion during the past week about novels of the American West. It all began seven days ago, with last week’s post in this vein: “#FridayReads, Oct 11–Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler  & Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter.”  I had shared the post in my social networks, including with authors Urwand and Hillerman, and was delighted mid-week when I heard from Ms. Hillerman  with a thank you for my piece.* Her new book–a revival of the mystery series written over several decades by her late father, the mystery master Tony Hillerman–though only on sale about a week, had quickly leapt on to the NY Times bestseller list. On the Wordharvest Writers Workshop Facebook page, Anne had linked to an article about books and asked this question:

Craig Johnson’s work [the Sheriff Longmire series] was the subject of an article about Western archetypes. The writer praises Johnson’s Walt Longmire character as a perfect example of the Western hero. Who do you think is the quintessential Western hero in fiction? 

In response, I got up from my desk to dig out my copy of a favorite Western novel,  The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., a terrific novel set in the old West. I needed to check the year of publication, to include it in my answer, so I went over to a nearby bookcase where, though it’d been a long time since I took it off the shelf, I knew I’d find my old copy of Guthrie’s modern classic. There, residing between a New Directions edition of Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper and a Dover Classics copy of H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha. I quickly found the copyright page in the Guthrie–1947. Then my hand landed between the cover and the book’s first leaf, discovering there an inscription. Hmm, I didn’t remember this book had one. Looking at it, I realized it was to me, written by my brother Joel, who died suddenly in December 2009, age 58. Dated 9/22/72, on what would’ve been my 18th birthday, the note was written in Joel’s still-familiar hand, a firm print that brought with it an instant evocation of his personality and character. Joel wrote:

Phil– 9/22/72

You will like this story and the following two, The Way West and These Thousand Hills. Do not ! read the foreword by Stegner until you finish  The Big Sky; he gives everything away. Love, Joel

Over the years I’ve also noticed the way old samples of handwriting from my father Earl or mother Sylvia prompt a strong sense of them. They died respectively in 1992 and 2006. Though Earl’s been gone the longest, his handwriting–also in print, not script except for his signature–still carries all the sweetness of him. My mother’s less legible script is tremulous, bespeaking some nervousness when she sat down to write.

The Big Sky beautifully captures the era of the lone mountain man, as personified in pop culture by the 1972 Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson, which was itself based on a novel, Mountain Man, by Idaho writer Vardis Fisher. Guthrie’s later novels, which Joel also recommended to me in his inscription, cover subsequent epochs–the wagon trains in The Way West and the advent of the first great ranch herds of cattle in These Thousand Hills. The three books are a proper trilogy, with each covering about a twenty-year period of American history.  To Guthrie’s trilogy I will also add  The Awakening Land Trilogy, a great series by Conrad Richter, made up of The Trees, The Field, The Town, again describing one arc of American history.  

By the way, my answer to Anne Hillerman’s good question went like this:

I do like the literary character of Walt Longmire [also a good TV show], but to keep climbing higher up the pinnacle of literary greatness I’d go to A. B. Guthrie’s Boone Caudill from The Big Sky (1947). Also, from history, I want to put in a word for Hugh Glass, true life survivor of a grizzly bear mauling in the 1820s, who’s been a character in fiction as recently as 2001, when I edited Montana writer Michael Punke’s terrific novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge

Thanks to Anne Hillerman, for prompting me to re-read A.B. Guthrie’s fine novel. Here are pictures I’ve taken of all the relevant books in this post. The links to the books above are all ‘live,’ and if clicked on will take you to Powell’s Books of Portland, OR, where you can buy any of them if you wish, with a fraction of the purchase price being returned to me for the upkeep of this website.
* Coincidentally, I also had a pleasant encounter with Ben Urwand, author of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, when I heard him lecture last night at the Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which I will write about in the week to come.


Still More to Learn about Corporations’ Complicity with the Third Reich

July 3 Update: Owing to the NY Times article I cited on first publication of this post, Publishers Weekly reports today that Harvard University Press has moved up by two weeks the release date of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. I’m pleased to see so much early momentum gathering for this important book.

In 2000, while an editor at Crown Publishing, I acquired a book that later became an international sensation and a bestseller in the US. It was IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation by Edwin Black. I believed it was imperative that the book be published because it documented hitherto unknown revelations such as the fact that IBM’s punch card tabulation system was licensed to the Third Reich which then used the technology to catalog and keep track of Jews and others under its rule they deemed undesirables. Turned out that corporate complicity with Hitler was as American as cherry pie.IBM

In the years since Black’s book was published, I’ve seen a lot of other histories of the Third Reich, but few have struck me as packing the same historical punch as the book on IBM. Until today, that is. Reading the NY Times on the web, I saw this headline, “Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis,” tipping an article about a forthcoming book,  The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand, a 35-year old historian from Australia. The story by Jennifer Schuessler reports Urwand has found copious documentation showing how very willing Hollywood executives were to make their movies in ways that would please Nazi officials, including Hitler himself. Some of these execs were Jewish, but they cooperated anyway. The Times reports that in Urwand’s book,

9780674724747“On page after page, he shows studio bosses, many of them Jewish immigrants, cutting films scene by scene to suit Nazi officials; producing material that could be seamlessly repurposed in Nazi propaganda films; and, according to one document, helping to finance the manufacture of German armaments.”

Urwand also found that Jack Warner, of Warner Bros., personally ordered that the word ‘Jew’ be removed from all dialogue in the 1937 film ‘The Life of Emile Zola,’ which focused on Zola’s defense of the persecuted Jewish soldier, Alfred Dreyfus. Mr. Urwand writes that Warner Bros. was the first studio to invite Nazi officials to its Los Angeles headquarters to screen films and suggest cuts. . . . ‘There’s a whole myth that Warner Brothers were crusaders against fascism,’ Mr. Urwand said. ‘But they were the first to try to appease the Nazis in 1933.’”

The cooperation, or as the author insists, collaboration, continued until well after Kristallnacht in November 1938. He found evidence that in December 1938, MGM was financing German armament production as part of a deal to circumvent restrictions on repatriating movie profits, according to the Times, which adds, “Urwand said that he found nearly 20 films intended for American audiences that German officials significantly altered or squelched. Perhaps more important, he added, Jewish characters were all but eliminated from Hollywood movies.”

I’m eager to read Urwand’s book when it comes out in October from Harvard University Press, and in the meantime I recommend you read Schuessler’s story. There’s also been early coverage of Urwand’s book in Tablet magazine in an article by David Mikics. And here’s video of Urwand talking about his book: