SECRET LIVES

America’s First Jewish Sex Symbol

John Garfield was a handsome actor who took his talents into his own hands, until his Communist sympathies brought him down.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

John Garfield was a handsome actor, a controversial artist, and a Communist fellow traveler who inspired “the talent” in Hollywood to produce themselves and become super-rich capitalists – like Oprah.

In May, 1952, more than 10,000 people massed outside New York’s Riverside Memorial Chapel for what many considered “the biggest celebrity funeral” since Rudolph Valentino’s in 1926. Devastated fans hailed Garfield’s sultry performances in Body and Soul and The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Fellow liberals seethed that the Communist Witch-Hunt killed him. And gossips tittered because the married Garfield died as the Los Angeles Times headlined: “in N.Y. Home of Actress.”

As Broadway Method Actor, America’s first Jewish sex symbol, Blacklisted Liberal, and Hollywood’s pioneering independent producer, “Garfield was the star for the whole world, the romantic rebel himself,” the once-blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky recalled. Born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913, he neutered his name Hollywood-style but not his staccato New Yawk-talk – or his politics. This pretty boy was a tough guy too.

It’s tempting to reduce Garfield’s story to yet another morality tale about evil McCarthyites bullying an innocent to death. According to Polonsky, during Hollywood’s Red Scare, Garfield became “a public target for the great simplifiers…. For years the federal government used their resources to prove he had perjured himself and for years they failed, but they did succeed in killing him.”

The story is more complicated: Communists did threaten Hollywood; Garfield himself was a “great simplifier” from the Left; he probably committed perjury; and his heart was so weak he couldn’t serve in World War II. “I believe in fate and he might have died anyway,” Garfield’s widow Roberta acknowledged, “But he wouldn’t have died so angry.”

This movie-script-come-to-life started as an American dream come true. Born on Rivington Street in New York’s impoverished Lower East Side, Garfinkle lost his mother when he was seven. Then a legendary educator redirected this troubled kid from street gangs to theatre troupes. Angelo Patri exhorted his students to “Lay down your own day, follow it to its noon, your own noon, or you will sit in an outer hall listening to the chimes but never reaching high enough to strike your own.”  

Garfinkle followed his muse and started acting, attending the Heckscher Foundation Drama Workshop on a scholarship Patri arranged. Patri "reached into the garbage pail and pulled me out,” his grateful student later proclaimed.

In 1932, having graduated, bounced around as a hobo, and apprenticed at the Civic Repertory Theatre, Garfinkle earned his first acting credit in a Lost Boy. Shortly thereafter, he truly found his calling by joining the Group Theatre. This famous acting workshop encouraged intense, emotional, textured Method Acting and passionate leftwing activism. When the great playwright Clifford Odets cast Garfinkle in Awake and Sing in 1935, critics raved and Odets took pleasure in his close friend and “find.” When Garfinkle went Hollywood – and Jack Warner signed him for seven years while changing his name to Garfield – many in “the Group” denounced this “sell out.”

In 1938, Garfield’s film debut in Four Daughters won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor – and made him a star. He worked steadily, while growing increasingly frustrated by the studio system’s enslavement of actors and Hollywood’s meaningless scripts. In 1947, he would take what insiders considered a lesser role to boost the film that became the Academy-Award winning Gentlemen’s Agreement, Hollywood’s first swipe against anti-Semitism. Garfield plays a returning Jewish war veteran who wants to be on “the sidelines” in fighting anti-Semitism, resents liberal clucking about the “poor little Jews,” then has trouble renting a home because he’s Jewish.  Transformed, he then helps a non-Jewish friend realize that feeling uncomfortable when others tell anti-Jewish jokes is not enough – she should act.

Garfield’s political commitments were heartfelt. His upbringing and the Great Depression convinced him that American capitalism was exploiting too many and benefiting too few. He wasn’t a Communist but his wife was. He – and they – had the ideologue’s typical myopia. So much more clear-eyed than most others back then, they could see, for example, America’s racism. But they were blind to Soviet evil. In 1943, Garfield dismissed word of Joseph Stalin’s mass murders by saying “the stories about Russian terror boiled down to this – the terror of ignorance has been liquidated and the horror of poverty executed.”

Similarly, just because the blacklisters exaggerated the Communist threat, particularly persecuted Jews, and trampled the Constitution, doesn’t make the Communists blameless. The Communist Party infiltrated influential American institutions including Hollywood. And while Garfield was a sincere, democratic idealist, many of his allies were sneaky, cynical totalitarians.

Similarly, while supporting some Communist fronts, Garfield supported many good causes, championing civil rights, free speech, a Jewish state in Palestine, economic equality, and America’s war effort. In 1942, he and Bette Davis started The Hollywood Canteen on 1451 Cahuenga Boulevard, off Sunset. Over the next three years, more than 3,000 Hollywood types from stars to stand-ins to stylists, volunteered, cooking, cleaning, singing, and dancing for American servicemen. Within eleven months their one-millionth guest arrived, escorted by Marlene Dietrich and kissed by Betty Grable. Garfield also entertained the troops worldwide and starred in patriotic films including Air Force, Destination Tokyo and Pride of the Marines.

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After the war – and finally freed from his Warner Bros. contract, Garfield founded The Enterprise Studios, an independent production company. “I've saved every penny I made and now I'm going to do the pictures I want to do,” he proclaimed.  In 1919, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had founded United Artists, but they had few actor-successors. Garfield’s example would pave the way for Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions (with Desi Arnaz), and ultimately, Oprah Winfrey’s billion-dollar move to produce herself through Harpo Studios.

Enterprise’s first movie produced Garfield’s masterpiece Body and Soul. Written by Abraham Polonsky, the production reflected Garfield’s values. For example, Canada Lee, an African-American, co-starred, acting in a serious role when blacks usually were relegated to providing comic effect, Many consider the movie the best boxing movie ever. The movie critic J.C. Hoberman, identifying a “Group Theatre mystique” enveloping Enterprise studios, calls the film one of Hollywood’s first Jewish movies, and “the reddest Hollywood movie ever.” FBI files complained that the movie’s bad guy put “the rich and successful man in a bad light.”

Body and Soul earned three Academy Award nominations – but Enterprise was doomed. Force of Evil (1948) with its shyster lawyer entering the numbers racket, was perhaps even more radical – and box office poison. Enterprise made other movies including Arch of Triumph starring Ingrid Bergman and Caught, but lost big money – and business -- as the anti-Communist tornado hit.

In June, 1950, Red Channels, written by a former FBI agent Ted C. Kirkpatrick and a conservative TV producer Vincent Hartnett, listed Garfield and 150 other Hollywood “subversives.” For Garfield, movie offers vanished as pressure to testify before the dreaded HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, mounted.

Garfield eventually testified but refused to name names. He lied by repeatedly denying any knowledge of any Communist ties and claiming not to remember events he hosted. When grilled, Garfield delivered memorable lines, declaring:  “I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to hide. My life is an open book. I was glad to appear before you and talk with you. I am no Red. I am no pink. I am no fellow traveler. I am a Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life."

Desperate, Garfield tried resurrecting his reputation by claiming the Communists duped him. He drafted an article for Look “I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook.” The article was never published – but his wife never forgave him. Out of work, drinking heavily, stressed, terrified, Garfield, who bedded many of his leading ladies, ended up in the home of a young actress, Iris Whitney in May, 1952. She claimed nothing happened. Feeling unwell, he slept in her bed. She slept on the couch. In the morning, he was dead, of heart failure.

His friend Clifford Odets wrote a poignant letter to the New York Times. Defending Garfield’s patriotism, Odets affirmed that “of all his possessions, Garfield was proudest of his American heritage, even rudely so” – a brilliant line.  Honoring his artistry, Odets said Garfield “was just beginning to reveal himself as an actor in terms of wider range, new sensitivity and maturity.” And saluting his “affectionate… charming…. candid” buddy, Odets noted that “Garfield remained extraordinarily free of malice and meanness,” surprising actors with his “rehearsal period humility.” Finishing with the name Garfield’s intimates used, Odets cried: “Julie, dear friend, I will always love you.”

It’s tragic that this mostly-forgotten, impressively noble character who repeatedly struck his own chimes died so sad—and so young. He was only 39.

FOR FURTHER READING

J. Hoberman, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, 2012.

J. Hoberman, “The Jewish Brando,” Tablet Magazine, 2013.

Patrick J. McGrath, John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage, 1993.

Robert Nott, He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield, 2004.