Icome from a family of conventional conservatives. But one grandfather was a sort of socialist. He brought Oklahoma into the Union—Oklahoma has the only ‘socialist’ constitution of any state. They don’t draw attention to that and nobody has ever bothered to read it, but ‘Alfalfa Bill’ Murray, as my grandfather was called, cooked it up with a couple of other Populists. They were all William Jennings Bryan men, previously of the People’s Party. There was a great Populist movement around 1894. It was anti-banks, anti-railroad, anti-black and anti-semitic. When Oklahoma joined the Union my grandfather became its first senator at the age of 36 or 37, and over the years moved more and more to the right. I was brought up in his house. He was benignly anti-black, not so benignly anti-semitic; he came to favour the rich, particularly oil companies. He was not corrupt. He died poor.
My father was the equivalent of Minister of Aviation under Franklin Roosevelt. He came from the Mid-West and was very, very conservative. He was a West Pointer. My stepfather was a Mr Auchincloss who was called by the egregious Steven Birmingham the ‘first gentleman of the United States’. From the age of 10 to 17 I lived with Mr Auchincloss. That was the great world, equally conservative. So here you have three different strands: aviation, Mid-western conservatism; a Southern grandfather, ex-socialist, gone to the far right; and a stepfather who was called the first gentleman of the United States and led a life of great grandeur. I quite liked my grandfather and father, but I didn’t like the last life, and so at the age of 17 I enlisted in the infantry for the Second World War just to get away from it all and I’ve never had a better time. The old joke is as true about the Americans as it is about the Brits with the public schools: the army was the first time I had been well fed and it was an eye-opener. This is a picture of somebody brought up in circumstances quite remote form the real world. Throughout the Depression we had seven servants in the house—all of
I was keeping company with a lady called Anaïs Nin, who was a friend of Maya Deren—later an enemy since Anaïs quarrelled with everybody eventually. And one day Maya says, ‘We are making a film, come over. I want the two of you on the scene.’ I have never seen the film, but we are all making ritual gestures at a cocktail party. I do have a piece of the film that Maya gave to me, but I have never actually watched it. It was another world. I was introduced to these people by Kiman Friar, who was giving a lecture to the ymha. He asked me to come, and I came, still in uniform, and I sat down next to this extraordinary-looking woman, Anaïs Nin, whom I had never heard of before. My book was just about to come out, and she had just been written about by Edmund Wilson. We said, ‘Hallo’, and I said that she looked like Mary Stuart. She replied, ‘Does that mean you will cut my head off?’ I saw a great deal of her in the next couple of years. She was a friend of all the surrealists like Andrhc) Breton. Jim Agee was hanging out with that set too. I was in the realist tradition, influenced by Steven Crane—not by Hemingway as people thought. Crane’s Red Badge of Courage had shaped my early work. Then suddenly I was in this world—leftist or anarchist to the extent that surrealists were ever political. It was startling. I was so ashamed of my family I wouldn’t tell anybody. When The City and the Pillar came out later everybody thought I had been a tennis-playing hustler, who was anyone’s for fifty dollars.
No, I was bemused by it all. If you read things I wrote like Messiah, you will find them very right-wing. Very anti-communist, very anti-Russian—everything I had been taught. I wasn’t alienated. I was quite successful with good reviews, a lot of press. I was one of the young novelists that Life magazine photographed, I was in orbit. We didn’t question society.
That was several years later. I knew what to expect. I have a rather mean disposition. The only contemporary figure I identify with at all is John McEnroe. I was to the young novelists what he is to the tennis court. I didn’t like this taboo about homosexuality, and I thought: if you people go on like this I am going to lob one right at you. So I did. The blackout began. My next five books were not reviewed by the New York Times, by Time magazine or by Newsweek. With that kind of blackout you no longer exist. In England all my books were still
Where is the radicalization, if it can be so called? I think it started with seeing the way in which the country tried to exclude anybody who was critical of its precepts: in this case, of its sexual politics. I don’t think I had formulated very much at that time, but I thought that this was really a rather ugly society, that I had become a non-writer on such sectarian grounds; it was just what would happen in the Soviet Union. We are speaking now of ’48 to ’52, by which time McCarthyism had just begun. The most talented of us war writers was a guy called John Horne Burns, who had an enormous success with his novel The Gallery. He then wrote Lucifer with a Book, a novel rather like The City and the Pillar, and they drove him out of the United States—you’ve never seen such a virulent press. He ended up in Italy where he drank himself to death aged 37. I watched this happen to a lot of people. My John McEnroe side was strong at this time, but I had to admit defeat. I couldn’t survive as a novelist. I had no money of my own, contrary to legend, so I went into television drama. In about a year I was the highest-paid television writer. I did it well, but very easily. After ten years I had made enough money not to have to worry about anything. During that time the blacklisting began and all my friends were victims of it. I was too young to have been a Communist. That was thirties stuff and I had been a schoolboy then. The generation ten or more years older than me had all become Communists. They were then being black-balled right and left. Here I was with considerable power in television; the writers are more powerful than the directors, and equal to the producers. I would say: ‘Look, I want Gale Sondergaard for this’, and they would say: ‘We’ve got to clear it with the 14th floor.’ I didn’t pay much attention. Then there was McCarthyism. They would ask: ‘What are his politics?’ Then they would check with Red Channels, an anti-Communist index. There used to be someone called the Butcher of Schenectady, a real patriot who would make stars come up there and say that they really loved America. He would threaten to withdraw all his advertising from television if what he called ‘known Commies’ were on. You had the Butcher on the one hand, Red Channels on the other, and it was terrible.
But I had an immaculate right-wing background, never having joined anything or paid any attention to practical politics—or impractical politics. I was perfectly clean. However, I got more and more irritated and wrote a play called A Sense of Justice, which was also done over here. It was on about ’53 and ’54, and the theme was a guy who decides to kill the boss of a state—somebody like McCarthy—out of a sense of justice. He has no other reason for doing it. It had a bit of a trick ending, with a final Sartrean exchange on the nature of power. When this went out over the air, it suddenly sank in that, though they didn’t have anything on me, I had done something pretty damn subversive, instructing people to kill Joe McCarthy out of a sense of justice.