Ronald Reagan: B Film Actor, Ladies’ Man and FBI Snitch

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“Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.”

— Arthur Miller [1]

If you are a Hollywood film buff and a political junkie, too, as I am, you will just love Marc Eliot’s latest book, “Reagan: The Hollywood Years.” The author touches on Ronald Reagan’s early days in Dixon, Illinois, but mainly focuses on his film career in which he was cast in one bad B movie after another. The main expose in this absorbing tome is that during the days of the “Red Scare,” late 40s through the 50s, Reagan was a snitch for the FBI! The author writes that Reagan became a “secret informant, code name ‘T-10,’ for J. Edgar Hoover’s red-baiting FBI.” He regularly met with them in LaLaLand and “handed over names of Screen Actor Guild (SAG) members who ‘might’ be Communist sympathizers.” Reagan would also contact his brother, Neil, “from a pay phone on Sunset Boulevard to pass along information” to the FBI. [2]

What brought Reagan, who served as President of SAG, (1947-52), and again in 1959, to do such a terrible thing? I think he was mostly a hollow type of man, vain, insecure and highly self- righteous. The record shows that to protect his rear end, he had become “a commie hunter;” he also carried a gun. The exact number of colleagues on whom Reagan ratted, will probably never be known. Once tagged as a Red “sympathizer,” no matter how scanty the evidence, an individual was subjected to being “blacklisted” and barred from working in the Hollywood Industry. The fact that one’s political beliefs were protected by the First Amendment didn’t stop the witch hunts. Some victims of the blacklisting process were so scarred, that they committed suicide. Mr. Eliot mentions two: Philip Loeb and Barry Crum. [3]

Reagan arrived in Tinseltown in 1937. His prior drama experience came from stage work that he’d done back home in high school and at Eureka College. His also had a better than average speaking voice and projected a wholesome Midwestern look, just what Central Casting was seeking. Like today, however, you can’t get the auditions, unless you have a good agent. Reagan was really lucky on that score. An acquaintance referred him to the William Meiklejohn’s Agency, a well connected Hollywood player, that soon merged into the Lew Wasserman tent. A seven year contract with Warner Brothers quickly followed. Wasserman, a super agent, deserves the major credit for steering Reagan on his nearly 30 year, very lucrative career in Hollywood that lasted until 1965. It all led to the formation of his carefully crafted political persona that was to become his successful calling card.

That job Reagan did as a sportscaster of baseball games (1936-7) worked to his advantage, too. This was at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, where he broadcasted the games, giving a play-by-play account, via information coming over a wire. So, Reagan would be sitting in a studio describing a baseball game being played, say in Chicago. This called for him to make up or embellish things in order to enliven the broadcast. Reagan became an expert at “telling stories” and making things up. The telling story thing he got honestly from his father “Jack” Reagan–a shoe salesman. This skill would serve Reagan well, too, as U.S. President, (1981-89), in selling his disastrous “Voodoo Economics” to the people. [4]

Although the author does discuss in some detail Reagan’s two marriages; first to Jane Wyman (1940-49), and then later to Nancy Davis (1952-2004), and also his relationship with his children, I’m going to mostly ignore that sensitive subject. I will only note that Ms. Wyman is one of my all time favorite actresses. Her role in the riveting film, “Johnny Belinda,” is a classic for which she rightly deserved the “Best Actress” award in 1949. It was Ms. Wyman, who had first “urged” Reagan to run for the “Board of SAG,” but she couldn’t stand his right wing zealotry. His incessant “pontificating” about politics tended to “drive her crazy.”

Hollywood, in Reagan’s day, was then, as it is in 2008, the capital of the country as far as very attractive women are concerned. And, he wasn’t shy about dating many leading ladies. In fact, Reagan’s “love life was no secret…It was the talk of the town,” writes Mr. Eliot. Some of the women worked with him at Warner Brothers. Later at the White House, at Cabinet meetings, Reagan would “gossip” in terms “quite graphically,” about the many gals that he’d bedded over the years. It was “a very long list,” according to the author, more than twenty, and it included some fabled female celebrities that would have made even Warren Beatty, a reported legendary womanizer, gasp in awe. (5) Mr. Eliot names Reagan’s putative love interest.

The author also adds all kinds of juicy tidbits in his book to round out his characterization of Reagan. For example, Reagan was “jealous” of the actor Earl Flynn. Well, that one is easy to understand. Flynn was a dashing figure, a “top-of-the-line” star, compared to the boring, wooden Reagan. Also, Mr. Eliot reveals that Reagan loathed the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, particularly Robert; and that he had a strong dislike for homosexuals; and enjoyed changing his shoes two or three times a day. Reagan also was quoted as saying that he didn’t understand why actors “needed to have a union.” This was another insight into his warped psyche. In August, 1981, then President Reagan ruthlessly fired the striking 11,345 air traffic controllers (PATC0)–busting the union. He did so even though PATCO, and the Teamsters, a national organization, had endorsed him for president over the Democrats’ Jimmy Carter, in 1980. [6]

You might want to know where was the Uber-Patriot Reagan, during WWII? He was making “propaganda movies” in Hollywood, Culver City to be exact, for the government! His eyesight was supposedly “so poor he could be assigned only to limited duties in non combat situation.” When I think about the real patriots that I knew when I was growing up in South Baltimore, who made genuine sacrifices in WWII, such as: Pete “Hooks” Williams, of the legendary “Darby’s Rangers,” who lost a leg at Normandy; “Rip” Burdinski, blinded; Charley Ellenberger, without both of his legs; and Harry C. Agro, who spent nearly three years subjected to vicious beatings every day in a horrific Japanese’s POW camp, I want to scream out about the inequality of it all. [7] Reagan was oiling the propaganda machine, while my heroes were fighting the war. There is plenty more in Mr. Eliot’s gem of a book, on a wide variety of interesting topics, too much for me to summarize here.

I think Reagan, as President of the U.S., pulled a con job on America! He served the Special Interests, not the people. Mr. Eliot’s book opens up a window on the forces, during Reagan’s Hollywood days, which helped to forge this B film actor’s outlook on life. His harmful economic legacy is still with us today. [8]

Notes:

[1]. Arthur Miller’s finest play was the “Crucible,” which debuted in 1953. It was about the Salem witch trials, but it also served as an attack on the evils of McCarthyism, then rampant in the U.S.

[2]. Ronald Reagan’s FBI File No. is #100-382196. Another author, Curt Gentry, in “J. Edgar Hoover,” corroborates Reagan’s spying on his fellow SAG members. He writes, at p. 354, that Reagan was a “confidential informant for the FBI since 1943.”

[3]. “The Inquisition in Hollywood” by L. Ceplair and S. Englund.

[4]. http://www.nationmaster.com/
encyclopedia/Voodoo-economics

[5]. http://www.donaly.com/don_alys
_column27.html

[6]. http://www.counterpunch.org/
macaray06302008.html and
http://socialistworker.org/2001/374/
374_10_PATCO.shtml

[7]. http://www.americanchronicle.com/
articles/5060

[8]. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Ronald
_Reagan/Ronald_Reagan_Legacy.html

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