Norma Barzman, blacklisted screenwriter, dies at 103

Norma Barzman, a screenwriter who moved to Europe in the late 1940s rather than be subject to the congressional investigations and professional ostracism that overtook her industry for a decade, died Dec 17 at her home in Beverly Hills, California. She was 103 and widely considered to be one of the last surviving victims of the Hollywood blacklist.
Her daughter Suzo Barzman confirmed the death.
Norma Barzman and her husband and fellow screenwriter, Ben Barzman, were among the hundreds of film industry figures — including screenwriters, actors, directors, stagehands and technicians — who found themselves iced out of Hollywood after World War II because of their unwillingness to discuss their affiliation with the Communist Party or its many associated front groups.
The Barzmans were both longtime members of the party, having joined in the early 1940s. Although their membership officially lapsed when they left the country, they did not renounce the party until 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
“I’m very proud of my years as a communist,” Norma Barzman told The Associated Press in 2001. “We weren’t Soviet agents, but we were a little silly, idealistic and enthusiastic, and thought there was a chance of making a better world.”
For a time in the 1930s and ’40s, being a communist, or just sympathetic to the cause, was considered de rigueur among the Hollywood left. But with the onset of the Cold War, attitudes began to shift. Rumors of a government crackdown percolated.
The couple were sitting on their front lawn in July 1947 when a woman in a convertible stopped to talk. After a guarded introduction — her name was Norma, too — she told them that there was a police car at the bottom of the hill, stopping anyone turning onto the street to ask them about the Barzmans. Years later, they would realize that the other Norma had taken the stage name Marilyn Monroe.
That fall, the House Committee on Un-American Activities called a group of screenwriters, directors and producers to testify about their connections to the Communist Party. Ten of them refused to answer questions, and each was later found in contempt. Though the Barzmans were not among that group, which came to be called the Hollywood Ten, they feared they would be subpoenaed soon.
A few weeks after the hearings, a group of Hollywood executives released the so-called Waldorf Statement, which declared that the 10 witnesses, as well as anyone else who refused to discuss their relationship to the Communist Party, would be blacklisted from the industry.
Work for the Barzmans quickly dried up. Finally, in 1949, an opportunity arose for Ben Barzman to work on a film in London, where the blacklist didn’t reach. They set sail on the Queen Mary, expecting a six-week trip.
They would not return to the United States until 1965, and they would live abroad until 1976.
After several years in London, they moved to Paris; they eventually settled in Provence, France. They became local celebrities of a sort — the family that defied the blacklist — and made friends with the likes of French actor Yves Montand and Pablo Picasso.
Ben Barzman continued to write screenplays, usually for European productions, though often without credit. Norma Barzman got some work, too, but it was harder, especially since she also was raising seven children.
Another friend, Sophia Loren, “pinched my cheek one day and called me ‘la mamma,’ which drove me wild,” she said in an interview for the book “Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” (1997), by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle.
By the time the Barzmans returned to Hollywood in the 1970s, the film industry and the community around it had changed significantly, and they never managed to restart their careers.
“I’ve been so blessed, even when I was suffering,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “So I wasn’t bitter then, and I’m not bitter now. I guess because I still feel there’s so much hope. You have to work at things, whether it’s a marriage or a democracy.”
Norma Levor was born Sept. 15, 1920, in Manhattan — specifically, she liked to recall, atop the kitchen counter of her parents’ apartment on Central Park West. Her father, Samuel, was an importer, and her mother, Goldie (Levinson) Levor, was a homemaker.
Norma enrolled at Radcliffe College in Massachusetts but left in 1940 to marry Claude Shannon, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who later became known for his work in computational linguistics.
They moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where he had a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study and where she worked for the economic branch of the League of Nations, which had relocated there from Switzerland at the start of World War II.
The couple divorced in 1941, a year after her father died. Seeking a fresh start, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles — with a six-week stop in Reno, Nevada, to finalize her divorce.
She worked as a features writer for The Los Angeles Examiner while taking courses in screenwriting at the School for Writers, which was later added to the federal government’s list of subversive organizations.
“Shortly after I arrived, I came to understand that all the progressive people I liked and who were politically active were communists,” she was quoted as saying in “Tender Comrades.”
She met Ben Barzman, another aspiring screenwriter, at a party at the home of Robert Rossen, yet another screenwriter. Ben Barzman insisted that modern movies were too complex for women to write. She pushed a lemon meringue pie in his face. They married in 1943.
Norma Barzman wrote the original stories for two films made in 1946: “Never Say Goodbye,” a comedy starring Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker; and “The Locket,” a noir thriller starring Laraine Day and Robert Mitchum. In Europe, her work included another screenplay, “Luxury Girls,” but her name was kept off it until 1999.
Ben Barzman died in 1989. Along with her daughter Suzo, Norma Barzman is survived by another daughter, Luli Barzman; five sons, Aaron, Daniel, John, Paolo and Marco; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
After returning to Los Angeles, Barzman wrote a column on aging for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a memoir, “The Red and the Blacklist: The Intimate Memoir of a Hollywood Expatriate” (2003).
She also became outspoken in her criticism of the blacklist and the role many in the industry played in it. Larry Ceplair, a historian who has written extensively about the blacklist, called her the era’s “keeper of the flame.”
In 1999 she joined some 500 other people outside the Academy Awards ceremony, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, to protest an honor being given to director Elia Kazan.
To avoid being added to the blacklist, Kazan had testified before the House committee, identifying several friends and colleagues in the industry as former communists and earning long-lasting enmity from many in Hollywood.
Barzman, who was there with her teenage grandson, carried a sign that read “Kazan Is a Fink.”
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