[Marxism] Robert Lees
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 5 08:13:00 MDT 2004
LA Times, July 5, 2004
Trusting, to the end
Robert Lees was a man of principle, from the McCarthy era to the hours
before his slaying.
By Martin Miller, Times Staff Writer
In ways large and small, Robert Lees strove to live by his principles.
One of them may have cost him his life.
He believed in civil liberties and personal loyalty. In April 1951, near
the peak of the nation's anti-communist hysteria, Lees was called before
the House Un-American Activities Committee to name names. He did not,
and was blacklisted — a status that abruptly ended his life of wealth
and privilege as a Hollywood screenwriter best remembered for films such
as "Holiday in Havana," and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."
He believed in fairness and generosity. In recent years, Lees and his
longtime companion, Helen Colton, regularly ate at a Santa Monica coffee
shop. Both were light eaters, so they customarily ordered a single
dinner, but he would leave a tip appropriate for two full meals.
He also believed in giving trust, rather than having people earn it.
Lees was adamant about leaving his car, even his house, unlocked. "He
was very trusting of people," said Colton, 86, his girlfriend of 22
years, "some thought naively trusting."
In the predawn hours of June 13, a transient who worked as a deli
meat-cutter during the recent grocery store strike appears to have
randomly selected Lees' home, nestled on a tree-lined street in a
well-to-do Hollywood neighborhood. Police aren't sure whether their
suspect, Kevin Lee Graff, a 27-year-old suspected methamphetamine user,
walked in with any particular motive or whether entry was gained through
the front or back door. But what is almost certain is that both doors
By the end of the Depression, Lees had joined the Communist Party and
began opening up his home as social gathering place for progressive
causes. In spite of this affiliation, Lees ardently supported — and
voted repeatedly for — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"It was a different time in America, there was rising fascism," said
Colton, who met Robert and Jean Lees for the first time at a party at
his house just after World War II. "We had many, many starving people,
homeless, the social conditions were such that to be a Communist didn't
carry a stigma."
Neither Lees nor Colton knew it at the time — both were married then —
but after her divorce and his loss of his wife to colon cancer they
would become a couple themselves some 40 years later.
"When people would accuse Bob of wanting to overthrow the U.S.
government at this time," continued Colton, who noted the Leeses had
after the war hired off the street a Japanese American family interned
at Manzanar. "He would say, 'Why would I want to do that? I'm earning
$1,000 a week, driving a convertible Buick and have [a live-in staff of
Lees' political views put him at sharp odds with the House Un-American
Activities Committee, or HUAC. His decision to take the protection of
the 5th Amendment, which guards against self-incrimination, instead of
naming his writing partner as a Communist changed his life forever. "As
dad used to say," said Richard, noting his father's wry wit, "The play
before the committee opened and closed in one afternoon, and Lees and
Rinaldo would never work together again."
The impact on Lees and his family was swift and severe. Writing
assignments immediately stopped. He would never be a paid screenwriter
again. A swastika was burned into the frontyard of their home, the
children were harassed and ridiculed at school — sometimes by teachers,
Richard said. The family realized it was time to leave Los Angeles.
Other blacklisted writers had fled to Mexico or Europe, but the Lees
through a family connection moved to Tucson, Ariz., where he became a
maitre d' at a hotel restaurant making $2 an hour. It was uninspired
work, but Lees kept writing — a still unpublished autobiography
recounting his blacklisting experience and always his personal journal,
which he faithfully maintained until his death.
"It was pretty awful," remembered Richard, who has an older sister. "We
couldn't say a word about what our father did [in Hollywood] under any
circumstances. We were always looking over our shoulder. The guy
knocking on the door could be the mailman or the FBI with another subpoena."
The menial labor would serve Lees' writing well in the years to come.
"He once told me," Richard said, "that on some level he probably would
have had a more miserable life if he hadn't been blacklisted. That once
out of the cocoon of being a famous Hollywood writer and being forced
into the real world seasoned him in ways that wouldn't have been
After about a year, the family left Tucson. Lees returned to Los Angeles
and, with wife Jean, opened a succession of small retail shops
specializing in clothes and travel. The Lees were able to earn a modest
living again, but nothing like the days before being blacklisted. Lees'
inability to provide for his family ate at him, Colton said. And, she
added, the pain of being blacklisted never left him. (Lees became
disenchanted with communism in the mid-1950s after details emerged from
the Soviet Union about the atrocities committed under Stalin, he told
Buhle in "Tender Comrades.")
"He thought about suicide so his family would have enough money to
live," Colton said. "His plan was to drive to the beach, listen to music
and put a hose in the car."
But the thought of leaving his family, particularly his two young
children, prevented him from going through with it, Colton added.
Gradually, the cloud of blacklisting over his profession began to lift.
With the explosive growth of television in the late 1950s and '60s,
there was an increasing demand for good scripts, and through several
pseudonyms he was able to get work again. His favorite name was J.E.
Selby, in honor of a beloved uncle — and for years residual checks would
come to his home under his real and fake names. Lees quietly and
secretly built a new career for himself writing episodes for "Lassie,"
"Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Flipper," to name a few.
In his last public political act connected to the blacklisting, Lees
actively campaigned against awarding a lifetime achievement Oscar to
filmmaker Elia Kazan in 1999. While admiring Kazan's skill as an artist,
Lees and other critics fervently opposed recognizing an individual who
had cooperated with the HUAC, as Kazan had done in 1952. Like many, he
urged friends to sit silently during the award presentation to Kazan.
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