#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.

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:

A Book Talk about Jim Tully

I was delighted a few weeks ago when Paul Bauer and Mark Dawidziak, authors of Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, and Hollywood Brawler, my favorite biography of 2011, came to NYU to speak about their book at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House. I’d been in touch with Paul and Mark last November after I blogged about the book in a piece called Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully and so was excited to attend their talk and meet them in person, especially because my artist wife Kyle Gallup and our actor and writer son Ewan, would be coming with me.

Paul and Mark gave a great talk, using photographs and film clips to anatomize the story of Tully’s life. Their book chronicles the life of the hobo writer-turned Hollywood insider who minted the hardboiled style of prose that would become even better known later on in the books of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. The pictures accompanying this post should give you some flavor of their talk. It was a treat meeting them afterward, and the next day, having Paul over to our apartment for tea and rugelach. He’s been a second-hand book dealer for many years and so it was great to not only talk about Tully, whose early book Circus Parade I’d been reading, but also to show Paul volumes from our library.

Last November I wrote this about their book, which I stand by today as my summing up of the authors’ visit to New York City.

“Biographers Bauer and Dawidziak steep the reader in Tully’s lifelong struggle to make himself into a significant person; glimpsing his continual act of self-creation is what I found thrilling about this book. The authors chronicle how even in relatively prosperous years, he continued striving to create himself and forge his work. . . . What’s great about the Tully bio–and other books like it that achieve this deep level of discourse with their subject’s life–is that the reader has a chance to assemble, in ways the biographer shows one how to do, how a literary career is lived and aspired toward, and achieved. The successful biography spans the decades and folds of a life, making the living subject comprehensible and one whom we understand. That’s what happened for me with Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, and why this book will be on my best list for 2011.”

Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully

Until recently, I had not read even one of the fourteen books by the early- to mid-twentieth-century American writer Jim Tully (1886-1947) and knew little about him. Given my personal interest in Tully’s subject matter, which included circuses, hoboes, and riding the rails, springing from his twin milieux, rural Ohio and early Hollywood, I’m surprised at myself for having been slow to pick up on him. Now having sampled his work and discovered what an important and successful literary career he made in his life by reading the excellent new biography of him, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, I’m going to do my part here to redress this widespread case of historical amnesia. I believe that now–especially in light of the Occupy movement and the attention it’s drawing to the economic distress afflicting millions in our society–is an ideal time for Jim Tully to be rediscovered. / / more . . .