As a screenwriter and filmmaker with some twenty credits, a few of them reasonably distinguished, and as one of several hundred screenwriters and filmmakers who have FBI files hundreds of pages long, I naturally have some questions: What's so special about screenwriters, directors, and producers? Why did J. Edgar Hoover have such a passionate and persistent interest in them? My own hefty package of FBI pages, which is in a sense an official biographical review of my life, may shed some light on these conundrums. So why not start with the most basic question?
Are Communists born or made? Is it genetically transmitted or environmentally induced? Or perhaps it is Oedipal, a clear instance of wanting to overthrow the government and replace the father. But Freud is currently out of fashion. In the early pages of the file, the FBI emphasizes physical characteristics developed long before I was a Party member. Are they leaning toward the genetic? Once they get going (3), they list everything but my fingerprints, which they didn't have, and my Bertillon measurements, also unavailable. In any event, they meticulously describe me in the following terms: color: white; sex: male; height: 5'10"; weight: 130 lbs.; eyes: brown; hair: brown; complexion: light; peculiarities: wears glasses (astigmatism), scar on chin. I don't remember the scar and can't find any trace of it now, but it sounds interesting. When they get to my eye color, it brings irresistibly to mind the great line in Casablanca when the lead Nazi, played by Conrad Veidt, hands Bogart a packet of documents, his full political dossier, and Bogart, after scanning the pages, looks up at Veidt and asks, "Are my eyes really brown?"
Maybe Bogart had a point. Even the FBI gets things wrong. They initially list me as having been born in New York City (2); as having lived at addresses I know nothing about in Middle Village, New York, and on Hull Avenue in the Bronx (3); and as having signed the nominating petitions for the Communist Party in 1942 and 1943. In fact, I was long gone from New York by those dates, so all of this is incorrect. I think we must start with the assumption that the FBI is not perfect.
They finally get it right and list my birthplace as New Britain, Connecticut, on October 29, 1918. This does conform to what my parents told me. I had also been told that this was the date of the false armistice for World War I. I have not been able to find any mention of this on the Internet, and assume it was only a happy illusion of my father's, who was glad to have his second child and first son born alive, safe from the Huns. But arriving alive was no mean trick.
When my mother was dragged unhappily to the New Britain General Hospital to give birth to me, the scene was truly frightful. The halls of the hospital were lined with coffins for the victims of the flu pandemic who were dying in unimaginable numbers. Little is said these days about the raging flu that killed at least forty million people worldwide, including two hundred thousand in October 1918 in our country. It was considered unlikely that a woman going through the stress of birthing would have much chance to resist or recover from the flu. Ergo, the coffins. But I did emerge alive, and so did she. As a result, I have been reminded on various occasions that I am here on a pass.
To pursue the genetic angle further, I had two grandfathers whom I never knew, but the stories about them make me nervous about my genes. My maternal grandfather went by the name of Dorman, which doesn't sound like the name of an Eastern European Jew, but there it is. The man was peculiar in many ways. He left his home in Lithuania at the age of thirteen or fourteen, probably to avoid the Russian military draft, knocked around the world, even working as a child in a wine-bottling plant in England where, like David Copperfield, he had to wash bottles. He became a sailor and sailed to all corners of the globe, later telling stories of his experiences in far-off ports in Australia and South America. He returned home to Lithuania long enough to marry my grandmother, and together they sailed for America. However, the bride was eight months pregnant, so that when the ship reached Liverpool, they had to disembark. My mother was born in a rooming house near the Liverpool docks.
Many years later, when I was denied a U.S. passport for political reasons, I wondered whether my mother had gained British citizenship by virtue of her birth in Liverpool and whether I would then be entitled to derivative British citizenship. But truly valuing my American citizenship, I never pursued this.
After a minimal period of recuperation, the family boarded another ship for America. My mother was only a couple of months old when she arrived in the promised land in 1892, not long after the Statue of Liberty had been erected. Emma Lazarus's poem was there to welcome the immigrants. Her poetry may not please all the critics, but the words sang a grand concept of America, like a new Declaration of Independence: "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . ."
In New York, the wandering Jew opened a barbershop in the ghetto of Manhattan and was soon successful. Part of his success was due, I was told, to his being widely known as Crazy Dorman, a man who had learned in his travels to like raw green vegetables like lettuce, unknown to the Jews from the shtetl; my mother told of his raising green vegetables in flats in the cellar because it wasn't possible then to find them in the shops. I wonder, now, how he managed to grow vegetables in the dark.
Also he kept a brilliantly colored parrot, probably an enormous macaw, the kind with jaws that can crush a coconut. The bird sat on a perch in the barbershop. To the delight of his customers, Dorman talked to the splendid creature and fed it nuts from his own lips. On one occasion, the parrot bit clear through grandpa's cheek. There was much blood. Grandpa was shocked and infuriated by this betrayal, and flung the bird with all his strength to the floor, where it lay as if dead. This was too much for him, and he lovingly picked up the bird and cooed it back to life. This may be the only time my grandfather showed any affection for another living being.
New York at the turn of the century was a wild and interesting place, already, according to H. G. Wells, the most important city in the world. It was also a place of filth, death, poverty, and disease. Thousands died every year of typhus and tuberculosis. TB, consumption, the white plague: all synonyms for a disease known to mankind for thousands of years—the ancient Greeks and Egyptians recorded its ravages—typically infecting the lungs and usually associated with crowded and unsanitary conditions. In the Jewish ghetto, a few dozen square blocks in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, more people were packed into a single square mile than in any other city of the world, twice as many as in the densest section of London.
The elevated railroads were running, first powered by steam. The subway was being built, and by 1904 it was boasted that you could ride from the Battery to Harlem in fifteen minutes. New York was not yet the financial center of the world, because Wall Street and finance capital had not yet developed, but it was an era of capital accumulation. The railroads ran across the country and ran the country; the automobile was being born and along with it the Rockefeller oil empire. Edison and Nicola Tesla had developed electricity to light our cities, turn our motors, and electrify our industry. America was becoming a world power, and Teddy Roosevelt intervened to help settle the war between Russia and Japan in 1905, becoming America's first Nobel Prize winner (for peace) the next year.
It was the heyday for political corruption in all the cities and states, not just at Tammany Hall in New York. Flourishing alongside the corruption were muckrakers, journalists who exposed the graft and bribery by which the new enterprises bought and paid off legislators, police, judges. Even branches of organized religion, like the Episcopal Church, spiritual guardian of the wealthy establishment, became slumlords, charging outrageous rents to immigrants forced to live ten and twelve to a room under appalling conditions.
One muckraker was Lincoln Steffens, whose autobiography I read when I was sixteen. His description of civic corruption, which boiled down to pitiless profit making by the rich and powerful, made such an impression on me that I believe it started me on the downward path that led to this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) file.
There was not yet a Federal Bureau of Investigation. But because criminals and other undesirables were able to move from state to state to avoid prosecution, President Theodore Roosevelt began to organize a national police agency to replace the ineffective and indifferent state police. The FBI as we know it did not come into being until after World War I.
So far as I know, Grandpa Dorman was not guilty of criminal behavior or exploitation of labor. But he was a man who went his own way. A womanizer, he took advantage of his modest prosperity to ship his wife, daughter, and even the third child, a son, off to Europe on a number of summer trips to visit the old country, freeing him to play the field. By the time she was twelve, my mother had been across the Atlantic three times. On the last trip, her mother died during a typhus epidemic in Vilnius, and my mother, with three-year-old Willie in tow, returned to New York and a succession of stepmothers.
A good student in the local grade school, she had written a twelve-page letter from Europe to her teacher in New York. It was so prized that it was framed and mounted on the school wall. She dreamed of further schooling and becoming a writer. But her father could not be bothered even to attend her graduation and would not hear of sending a girl on to further education.
She soon left home, found work in one of the miserable shirtwaist factories, and supported herself. Her only sweet memory of those days is when the family dog, a German shepherd (another of Dorman's idiosyncrasies), encountered her in the street and went crazy with joy at the meeting. In 1911, my mother was seventeen, a very pretty girl working in the needle industry, when the Triangle Waist Company caught fire, trapping 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women. Two dozen men were also among the 140 people who died in the blaze. But employed elsewhere at the time, my mother was not one of them.
My paternal grandfather was altogether different. No scoundrel, no womanizer, but difficult in his own way, he was a world-class misanthrope who apparently had no use for anyone. His sad story is an old-country soap opera: Forced to divorce the wife he loved because she was infertile, he had to marry another woman he cared nothing about.
In family accounts, the heroic oldest daughter, Tillie, made her way to America from the Ukraine and settled in New Britain, Connecticut, where she slaved away for years, saving every nickel and sending for her siblings and parents one by one until the family was assembled. Grandpa, indifferent to the blandishments of the new world—apparently indifferent to everything—obtained a horse and wagon and went about the streets buying old clothes and junk, which he disposed of at a modest profit. His several younger brothers, who also settled in New Britain, became successful entrepreneurs as wholesalers of fresh produce, which they obtained from as far away as California. Their offers to help my grandfather or involve him in their business were rudely rejected. He didn't need or want help from his kid brothers. The horse and wagon remained his only capital equipment.
My father, six or seven when he arrived in New Britain, was named Hillel, the name of a fine prophet from the Hebrew Bible. When he was sent to school, he spoke no English and the teachers knew nothing about Hillel. It sounded like Willie to them, so he became William Gordon. He did all right in school and helped with the care of the horse. But like everyone else, he kept his distance from his father, who seemed to sleep not at all, but to sit up all night smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table, dropping ashes on himself, and occasionally setting himself on fire. I like to think he was brooding about his lost love.
I do know there was one moment when he behaved like a loving father. His son, my father, was so overcome by this event that he told it repeatedly throughout my childhood. During some school holiday, Grandpa, mysteriously moved, took a dime out of his pocket, offered it to his son, and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. There is no record of what happened to the dime, but Willie Gordon went on to New Britain High and became a baseball player. He was a catcher, and on one occasion the bat swung back too far and broke his nose. This was a proud moment. Who could be more American than a catcher who had had his nose broken by a baseball bat during a game? As a result, when we lived in the Bronx many years later, he took me to Yankee Stadium, where I saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri, the Murderers' Row of the 1927 Yankees, during the greatest days of a great team.
Did I inherit more DNA from Grandpa Dorman or Grandpa Gordon? Grandpa Gordon, like Grandpa Dorman, was fond of dogs. He had a German shepherd to whom he spoke Yiddish. So, two dogs in the background. I certainly like dogs, but am indifferent to macaws. Perhaps the FBI has its own take on this. Foreigners, you know, and Russian Jews at that. Can subversion be far behind?
My father and mother met in the summer of 1913 at Orchard Beach, a small Connecticut resort town on Long Island Sound, where they had each gone independently to spend the summer. Along with other friends, they arranged to operate an ice cream parlor and live all together in a large old house. To avoid unwanted and unjustified gossip, they pretended that my mother was my father's sister. Ergo, she assumed the name Gordon. She was both a beauty, as a photo I have of her proves, and a girl who won all the dance contests. I am told that there was a popular national entertainer at the time named Kitty Gordon. As a result, it was decided that my mother should also be known as Kitty Gordon. My father, fresh from New Britain, fell madly in love with the glamorous girl from the big city. After the summer he pursued her to New York, and they were married in 1914. Incidentally, that summer a popular song was "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles." This became my parents' signature song, which I heard in the cradle. It didn't matter that I could never carry a tune. I still love that song.
They settled in New Britain.
By 1921, my mother had decided there was no future in such a backwater, and she persuaded my father to move to the big city, where my father, with the help of friends, opened a hardware store at Thirtieth Street and Seventh Avenue in the heart of the fur district. This store became very much a part of my life for almost twenty years, and I barely managed to escape becoming a hardware merchant and make my contributions to the art of film.