The name Budd Schulberg is likely to evoke only faint recognition. Yet the film On the Waterfront, which he wrote, remains a legendary classic, and his first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, still defines an American archetype. Schulberg would have turned 100 this year, and the occasion serves as a fitting opportunity to revisit the life and work of a man who was both a portraitist and portrait of his time. He was by turns an ardent Communist, a vengeful ex-Communist, a World War II intelligence recruit, and a firsthand witness to Nazi atrocity—not to mention show-business royalty of a kind.
Seymour Wilson Schulberg was born in 1914 to a life of privilege in New York City. His father, Benjamin Percival Schulberg, preferred “B.P.” to the Anglo name on his birth certificate, just as his son would prefer “Budd.” B.P. rose from modest means on the Lower East Side to become first a newspaperman, then a writer of what were called “photoplays,” and eventually one of the pioneers of the Hollywood film industry. As the son of the production chief at Paramount Studios, Budd could call his playground the backlot of the movie studio that his father had helped create. But B.P. was squeezed out of Paramount in a classic Hollywood palace coup, a move aided and abetted by his penchant for excessive drinking, womanizing with numerous actresses he “kept” on a secret payroll, and gambling. (One night, according to Budd, B.P. lost $20,000 in a card game to Zeppo Marx.) He was forced to work as a producer at lesser studios and was eventually reduced to putting ads in the trade papers offering his services to any studio that was interested. The elder Schulberg died in 1957, when his son was at the zenith of his own film career.
B.P. and his wife, Adeline, were political progressives and loved literature, particularly Dickens, Melville, and the great 19th-century Russian writers. They read aloud to Budd and his brother and sister every Sunday morning when they were growing up, and Budd was, in his own words, “virtually programmed” to be a writer. (His father had let him sit in on story conferences at the age of 10.) Budd later said his mother “was determined I was going to be a combination of Stephen Crane and John Galsworthy.” He told the Paris Review in 2001 that he felt it “a very heavy obligation” and wondered, “What if I couldn’t do it?…It was an obligation pressing on me all the way.” But Schulberg would make good on that obligation to become, in the words of his father, perhaps “the only novelist who came from Hollywood instead of to Hollywood.”
Schulberg went to Dartmouth, where his friends were intellectuals and literary aspirants. Like many young people at the time, they were appalled by the ravages of the Depression and unimpressed by President Roosevelt’s efforts to restore America’s economic health. Schulberg traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 and was quickly converted. He joined the Communist Party during the period known as the Popular Front, when Moscow taught American Communists how to make Communism seem as appealing as possible to ordinary Americans. The party coined slogans such as “Communism is 20th-century Americanism” and “Communists are liberals in a hurry.”
According to the historian Ronald Radosh, when Schulberg returned to his hometown of Hollywood, “he recruited more people to the Communist movement in that early period than perhaps anyone else.” There’s a clear contradiction in an Ivy-educated Hollywood prince ardently throwing in his lot with a “workers’” movement. One might chalk up such a move to admirable idealism. Yet in the biographies of many of the young men who joined the party at this time, one detects the addition of a common personal element: resentment at having been demoted from a position high in the pecking order. For Schulberg, perhaps the seed of resentment was planted at age 17, when he saw his father humiliated in status-conscious Hollywood.
The Communist Party offered the newly déclassé a chance to join the society of the future. In that society middle-class intellectuals would manage “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” They could regain lost power while enjoying the virtuous feeling of being on the side of the angels. In other words, they could have it both ways—always an appealing option. That Stalin eventually murdered most of the intellectuals in the Soviet Union’s new ruling class and replaced them with apparatchiks is something that the American Communists either did not fully know about or chose to ignore.
But Schulberg was no mere party hack; he wanted to be a serious writer. Early on, he managed to get a job as a junior screenwriter for the independent producer Walter Wanger on a modest light comedy set in Dartmouth during the winter carnival, a setting Schulberg knew well. He was paired with an older screenwriter now down on his luck: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Schulberg had deeply admired Fitzgerald’s books but considered him a relic of the Roaring Twenties. And since Fitzgerald had partly created that decadent age, Schulberg also viewed him as a target. Earnest young Communists such as Schulberg held the excesses of the Twenties responsible for the economic collapse that followed. The pairing was a typical clash of generations: Schulberg was in his twenties, Fitzgerald in his forties; Schulberg was a Communist, Fitzgerald gradually had become a Roosevelt supporter, like Schulberg’s own father.
Yet Schulberg appreciated Fitzgerald’s talent and achievements, and he understood that the masterful Great Gatsby was as much an indictment as a celebration of the culture of the Twenties. The two shared much in the way of artistic and moral sentiment even though Schulberg was at the beginning of his career and Fitzgerald was reaching the end of his. Both had experienced a fall; both were toiling in Hollywood’s vineyards to make ends meet; and both were working on novels about Hollywood, Fitzgerald feverishly attempting to finish his ultimately unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and Schulberg working on the novel that became What Makes Sammy Run? By the time the odd couple flew to Dartmouth to take notes on the winter carnival there, a genuine bond had formed between them.
The trip did not go well, to put it mildly. Fitzgerald had been struggling with his alcoholism for years and occasionally fell off the wagon. As Schulberg later recounted, they were talking to some students on a nearby ski slope when Fitzgerald got into an argument with one of the jocks. “Don’t you know who I am? I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald!” he boomed, and things quickly fell apart. The drinking went on unabated, and Fitzgerald was soon fired from the project. He used his now meager income to continue writing The Last Tycoon, which was eventually published in 1941, a year after his death. What Makes Sammy Run? came out the same year.
Fitzgerald had read Schulberg’s manuscript and was relieved to find that it didn’t overlap with his own. But it’s plausible that he drew on his conversations with Schulberg in creating Tycoon’s narrator, the young Hollywood-raised daughter of a studio boss. It’s noteworthy that the three novels that are arguably the greatest Hollywood novels ever written, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), The Last Tycoon, and What Makes Sammy Run? were published just before America entered the Second World War, when Hollywood cinema was at its fabled peak. Fitzgerald’s book romanticizes film culture, West’s turns it into a surreal nightmare, and Schulberg’s uses it as the setting for something much closer to home.
What Makes Sammy Run? is the story of a rising Hollywood heel, Sammy Glick. He’s a young guy “in a hurry,” an amoral hustler rapidly moving up from the Lower East Side of Schulberg’s father. Glick’s ascendance is viewed with fascination and alarm by the less ambitious, more socially concerned Al Manheim, a newspaper drama critic. The book crackles with energy and brilliant dialogue, a style very much influenced by the “hardboiled” sensibility of the time. It’s the lean, bracing style made famous by Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, among others. Schulberg’s novel is bold and gripping from the first line, and it never lets the reader go:
The first time I saw him he couldn’t have been much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.
“Good morning, Mr. Manheim,” he said to me the first time we met, “I’m the new office boy, but I ain’t going to be an office boy long.”
“Don’t say ain’t,” I said, “or you’ll be an office boy forever.”
Sammy made a huge impression on readers at the time. It also sparked a backlash. Some critics saw in Sammy Glick a classic anti-Semitic portrait and accused Schulberg—as some would accuse Philip Roth a quarter-century later—of being a self-hating Jew.
Such criticism ignored the book’s assorted positive Jewish characters. Indeed, far from being a simple document of self-hatred, the novel is more accurately understood as a reflection of the snobbery that cultured sons feel toward their self-made fathers. Having been born to wealth and furnished with an expensive education, such sons frequently look down on the scratching and clawing their elders had to do to make comfort and opportunity possible. It’s no surprise that photos of the young B.P. Schulberg conform uncannily to Budd’s descriptions of Sammy Glick.
The book is also informed by the elitism of intellectual Communists. Party members claimed to speak in behalf of the working class while frequently disdaining the workers’ limited education and culture. The irony of the Hollywood screenwriter with his fat salary and radical politics remains plangent, then and now. Yet behind the irony a certain logic was at work. The screenwriter held both his bosses and the unwashed masses in contempt. It was he alone, the thinking artist, who truly understood virtue.
Schulberg created a character who struck a nerve, and the name “Sammy Glick” came to be a synonym for every amoral striver, just as in the previous decade Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt” had become a term to describe the complacent middle-aged, middlebrow businessman. What Makes Sammy Run? was turned into two different musicals for the stage, in 1964 and 2006. After the second of these, Schulberg lamented that “young men come up to me and tell me how much they admire Sammy Glick.”
Perhaps that’s why Schulberg’s Communist Party chiefs didn’t like the manuscript when he dutifully showed it to them. Sammy was just a little too charismatic, a little too alluring. And the emphasis on Sammy’s psychology was an insult to the social-realist explanations for behavior that the party insisted on. (Schulberg does make it a point to have the narrator, Al Manheim, visit the Lower East Side neighborhood from which Sammy sprang, suggesting that such deprived economic conditions will inevitably give rise to more Sammy Glicks.) The party’s literary mandarins told Schulberg in no uncertain terms that the book was not to be published. But Schulberg was enough of an artist to insist on the intrinsic value of his creation and chose to publish the book and leave the party.
During the Second World War, Schulberg served in the Navy before moving to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. There he worked with the director John Ford in the documentary unit tasked with making propaganda films to explain the meaning of the war to American servicemen. As a result, he was one of the first Americans to see Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated. After witnessing the horrific results of Nazi ideology, his next assignment was to help interrogate Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Schulberg had her examine footage of films and point out Nazi leaders who would shortly be on trial for their crimes. (Ironically or not, Schulberg’s 1953 collection of short stories is titled Some Faces in the Crowd.)
In 1950 he published his novel The Disenchanted, a thinly veiled portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald during his last, desperate days. The book drew heavily on Schulberg’s experiences with Fitzgerald, and if the portrait is harsh, it’s also compassionate and powerful. It became a successful play and, like Sammy, a musical, if one can imagine such a thing. For a moment, Schulberg was the type of American success that Sammy Glick dreamed about. But the following year he volunteered to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to be questioned about his earlier activity with the Communist Party—and to name names. To the chagrin of many of his former comrades, Schulberg cooperated.
In this, he was far from alone. One of the Hollywood Ten (a group of writers and directors fired for their suspected Communist ties), director Edward Dmytryk, originally refused to cooperate and was sent to prison for contempt. After being released, he appeared before the committee again as a friendly witness and provided the requisite names, hence making himself employable in Hollywood once again. He went on to direct The Caine Mutiny. Stage and film director Elia Kazan—perhaps the most reviled figure among those called to testify to this day—cooperated with the committee right away, though not without some anguish.
But however mixed their motives might have been for cooperating, Schulberg and Kazan both clearly harbored a long-festering resentment for their former political associates. Kazan had been called on the carpet by the party in the mid-’30s for refusing advice on how to direct a play he was mounting at the Group Theatre. He told the party members they knew nothing about theater and insisted on directing the play the way he thought proper. He was vilified and humiliated by the party for years after. Both Schulberg and Kazan had felt the sting of the Communist Party’s authoritarianism, and yet they, along with the playwright Clifford Odets, gave the names only of those who had already been singled out or about whom the committee already knew.
After Schulberg was cleared by the Committee—he spent the first half of his life alternately damned and praised by various official committees—he continued to write novels, among them The Harder They Fall, a boxing story that became Humphrey Bogart’s last film. (Schulberg wrote about the sport throughout his life and became the first boxing editor for Sports Illustrated.) But it was his collaboration with Kazan in 1954 that produced perhaps his greatest work, On the Waterfront. It won him and Kazan Oscars and remains a high-water mark for postwar American cinema.
Yet here, too, Schulberg generated controversy. Some critics charged that the film was contrived as a justification for “snitching.” Terry Malloy, the hero portrayed by Marlon Brando, works on the waterfront and stands up to a corrupt union boss. Were Schulberg and Kazan offering an allegory of their HUAC testimonies and spinning it so that they were heroes, too? This remains a popular interpretation, but more recent scholarship, as well as Arthur Miller’s own autobiography, has shown that Miller had been working on the story as early as the late 1940s, long before Schulberg and Kazan (and Miller himself for that matter) appeared before the committee. The early version was called The Hook. Kazan was slated to direct the film, but Miller withdrew his screenplay for reasons unrelated to the present matter. Years later, Kazan learned that Schulberg had been working on a similar story himself. So the origins and deeper meanings of On the Waterfront remain, as with every great work of art, shifting and ambiguous. Undeniable, though, are the film’s power; its compelling, on-location, black-and-white, “documentary” photography; its beautiful score by Leonard Bernstein; and its ability to move audiences for more than 60 years.
Schulberg and Kazan’s follow-up to On the Waterfront was A Face in the Crowd (1957). Based on one of Schulberg’s short stories, it portrays an uneducated, guitar-strumming unknown named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who, with the help of the savvy TV producer Marcia Jeffries, rises to the top. Rhodes becomes a folksy TV personality whose endearing on-screen demeanor is sharply at odds with the increasingly power-hungry egomaniac played, rather histrionically, by Andy Griffith. In a way, Rhodes is another Sammy Glick, only from Arkansas instead of the Lower East Side. His rise is observed with increasing horror by the producer and her friend, a thoughtful, earnest, liberal journalist named Mel Miller. The film is one of the first to show the potentially dangerous effects of television, as hustlers like Rhodes manage to reach a position in which they’re able to select, advise, and promote politicians as they see fit. Again, one can see a trace of Schulberg’s residual snobbery here. Mel Miller easily could be a stand-in for the young, educated progressive Schulberg, and in fact the character is writing a book to expose Rhodes. The film is strident and moralistic, but there is great artistry on display. Schulberg’s script and Kazan’s deft, energetic direction—he often cuts to a scene just as the action has already started, and quickly fades out while the action is still continuing—make it a prophetic and unforgettable roller-coaster ride.
Nothing in the remainder of Schulberg’s career matched the heights of his work from the 1940s and 1950s, but he continued to write just the same. One of his novels, Sanctuary V (1969), was a jaundiced take on the Cuban revolution. He wrote short stories, such as the modern gem “A Table at Ciro’s” (1941), as well as scripts and journalism. Perhaps more important, Schulberg embarked on a project to teach writing to poor teenagers in Los Angeles, an experience that became a book in 1967, From the Ashes: Voices of Watts. The better part of his social conscience had never left him. Along with his memoir Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince (1981), he wrote another book of reminiscences, the highly entertaining (and sobering) The Four Seasons of Success (1983), in which he relates how a group of writers he knew well—Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and Thomas Heggen—dealt with success.
Heggen’s story is particularly moving. The young writer achieved instant fame as the author of the novel Mister Roberts, which became the long-running play and then film starring Henry Fonda. But he confessed to Schulberg: “Everyone is now waiting for my second book. But I don’t have one. I used everything I knew to write Mister Roberts. What else can I possibly do?” He slashed his wrists in his bathtub and died at age 30. Surely the darkest season of success, and an imaginable alternative ending to Schulberg’s post-Sammy life.
Budd Schulberg was made of sterner stuff. Despite temptations from Hollywood, the winds of political extremism, the dangers of American success, and the inner turmoil of fear and resentment, he lived nearly 100 years. He had a typically messy Hollywood personal life, with four marriages (his third to the actress Geraldine Brooks) and five children. In his later years, he found serenity far from Hollywood, in Quogue, New York, observing swans. This he naturally turned into a book, Swan Watch (1975). What made Schulberg run? The answer is to be found in his impressive body of work, which will endure.