Dan Leab reviews Kate Lardner's Shut Up, He Explained: The Memoir of a Blacklisted Kid (Ballantine, 2004)
Mr. Leab is Professor of History at Seton Hall University and founding editor of American Communist History.
The author is part of a famous literary family. Her father, who died while serving as a front line correspondent in Germany during the latter days of World War II, was one of the sons of the successful acerbic humorist Ring Lardner. Her mother, the attractive, competent actress Frances Chaney, after a brief time as a widow married her late husband’s brother, the author and highly successful screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr. (one of the Hollywood Ten). Both she and her husband were involved with the Communist Party, and both were blacklisted early on, although years later after much travail they managed happily to resurrect their careers. While he refused to testify about his Communist affiliations at the Congressional hearings in 1947 that led to his blacklisting, over a decade later he discussed them and his unwillingness to answer the Congressmen’s questions in a Saturday Evening Post article, which Kate Lardner unhappily touches all too briefly on this piece.
It was her parents, not Kate Lardner, who suffered blacklisting, and this-- what I would call game playing with the concept-- underlies what seems to me to be the problem with this book. A middle-aged Kate is looking back on her childhood and her teens. That her parents were blacklisted obviously made a difference in their lives. At least initially before her father could find work “under the table” it certainly impacted economically on the family, but her story does not deal much with hard times. There does not really seem to have been a bad patch, and soon enough he found work, even if it went unrecognized and inadequately paid for. In some ways her memoir does not seem very much different than any other child in her milieu. Some of the names she drops are more important than those impinging on an average child. Such persons as Will Geer and Joseph Losey still are remembered. And her parents remained concerned about the impact that Left politics had and continued to have on family. But what she reports about her life as it moved into her teens is about what one would expect about maturing during the later 1950s and early 1960s.
What she calls “the penal interlude” (when Ring Lardner, Jr., was in prison) takes up about 40 per cent of the book. And these pages are replete with excerpts from correspondence between her stepfather and mother. Some of it is fascinating, some of it is mundane; all of it is interesting, in part because of the famous names that are part of the correspondence, and in part because of the subject matter, especially how does an imprisoned parent deal with a child and wife. She also reprints in full a copy of a letter that Katherine Hepburn wrote on behalf of Ring Lardner, Jr., which in his Saturday Evening Post article, he wrote that she simply later refused to acknowledge and ignored his references to it. This section is the most important part of what is an uneven book, notwithstanding her use of excerpts from newspaper stories (dealing, for example, with the harassment of actor Larry Parks or the flip-flopping of director Edward Dmytryk, the member of the Hollywood Ten who recanted) in order to move her narrative along.
Moreover, her limited discussion of her later life either in high school or college, or subsequently as an adult, although interesting when it deals (and does so in very limited fashion) with her parents in the main offers the reader few insights. Much of that life, especially her marriages and affairs are presented so elliptically as to be almost meaningless, and indeed difficult to comprehend. She obviously carried a burden that resulted from her parents’ blacklisting and her stepfather’s incarceration, but except for the fact that her last name was Lardner I think it doubtful that this book would have been published. Yet it is of considerable value because of what it reprints and those letters will some day be of great use to anyone writing about what happened to the Hollywood Ten after the hearings.
Kate Lardner, despite what seems to me to be shortcomings in her memoir, comes across as a person with whom one would like to sit down with for coffee and a conversation. It seems to me that she knows a lot more than she says, especially in the latter part of the book, and it certainly is not written true confession style, as were recent books by Betsy Blair and Norma Barzman, which dealt with the same blacklist era. Kate Lardner is some ways is reticent about herself and about Frances Charney and Ring Lardner, Jr. Perhaps that may be the missing dimension, perhaps she is too opaque, especially given the context of the reprinted correspondence between them, and that certainly is readable, worthwhile, and useful.
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