How The Wire Recorder Got Written
My parents, Alfred Lewis Levitt and Helen Slote Levitt, were both called to testify before the House Un-American Activities on September 18, 1951. My father, then 35, was an up-and-coming screenwriter; he had written or co-written scripts for three or four films, the best known of which was The Boy with Green Hair. My mother had worked in the 1940s as a secretary at the left-wing Actors’ Laboratory Theatre and as a personal secretary to the actor John Garfield. Both of my parents had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, when the Great Depression convinced many idealistic young college students and intellectuals that capitalism was dead, and that a more egalitarian economic model, regulated by a benevolent government, was called for. These young activists strongly supported labor unions, and were willing to risk being beaten by police when they joined picket lines; they were also ahead of their time in speaking out against racism, deploring militarism and trying to warn the country about the dangerous rise of fascism that was taking place in Europe.
After World War II, America was gripped by fear of Communism. Its former ally, the Soviet Union, was gaining strength and influence on the world stage; opportunistic politicians—chief among them Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin)—sought fame and power by ginning up paranoia, painting pictures of Communist plots to destroy American democracy by infiltrating all areas of public life with traitors whose marching orders came from Moscow. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, a congressional committee, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (also known as the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC), targeted Hollywood. The Committee and its supporters alleged that the motion picture industry was infested with Communists and Communist sympathizers, a nefarious element bent on gaining control of America by inserting its propaganda into the films and television shows its members wrote, produced, directed or acted in. The studio executives, most of them arch-conservatives who hated and feared Communism—and were eager to weaken the film-industry unions that had stood up against them during some recent labor disputes, and in which Communists were active—enthusiastically welcomed the HUAC investigations.
The first round of HUAC’s Hollywood hearings began in the fall of 1947. Many witnesses were called. Most of them cooperated, but ten men – who would become known as the Hollywood Ten - took a defiant stand and refused to answer any of the Committee’s questions, protesting that the questioning violated the fundamental freedoms of speech, belief and association enshrined in our Constitution’s First Amendment. The courts did not uphold their position; all ten were convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in federal prison. Upon their release the Hollywood Ten found themselves blacklisted by all the major studios, whose CEOs had issued a joint statement deploring their actions and agreeing to deny them—and anyone else suspected of being a Communist—any future employment.
My parents were acquainted with most of the Hollywood Ten; a few of them—Dalton Trumbo and Adrian Scott, in particular—were, or would later become, close friends of theirs.
As the years passed and the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union intensified, the “Red Scare” continued to grow and fester. In 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its attention to the movie industry a second time, determined—as were the studio executives—to rid Hollywood of its continuing “red problem” once and for all.
This time a much larger group of Hollywood artists was caught in HUAC’s net and subpoenaed to testify. As in the 1947 hearings, many chose to be “friendly” witnesses; they cooperated with the Committee and answered all of its questions. When asked if they were then, or had ever been, members of the Communist Party, many admitted to having been members at one time but stated that they had become disenchanted and quit; typically, they expressed remorse about their past “un-American” political affiliations and pride in their decision to renounce those beliefs. The witnesses who atoned for their prior associations with Communism were treated sympathetically by the Committee, their apologies accepted.
The remorseful apology was necessary—but not quite sufficient.
In order to “clear” themselves and salvage their careers in Hollywood, the cooperative witnesses had to answer a few more questions, such as: “Who else did you know who was a Communist? Was this person in the Party with you? How about that person?” Once they had admitted to their own Communist affiliations, the cooperators had no legal option but to answer truthfully when asked to “name names.” The people the friendly witnesses named were the next to be subpoenaed; if they named friends who had been in the party with them, as many of them did, those friendships were no more.
Like most of their friends, my parents chose to be “unfriendly” witnesses. Like the Hollywood Ten, they believed that the Committee was violating their First-Amendment rights by inquiring into their political beliefs and affiliations; but the courts had not upheld that argument in the case of the Hollywood Ten, all of whom had been convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to one-year prison terms. My parents and their friends did not want to go to prison, but they were not willing to cooperate and be forced to betray one another, and they wanted to take a stand against HUAC’s witch hunts. So instead of invoking the First Amendment, they stood on their rights under the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees every American the right to refuse to self-incriminate. On those grounds, this new round of “unfriendlies” declined to answer any questions pertaining to their political associations; since admitting to association with a person alleged to be a Communist could be self-incriminating—the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 required Communist organizations to register with the government, and provided for stripping Communists of their citizenship and detaining them in the event of a national emergency—“taking the Fifth” protected the non-cooperators from having to disclose their political associations and, most importantly, from having to bear witness against others. It also guaranteed that their names would be added to the studios’ blacklist, bringing their Hollywood careers to an abrupt end. The writers, actors and other artists whose names were being placed on the blacklist tried to get their unions to stand behind them, but that effort failed. The unions, intimidated by the witch hunts and eager to prove they weren’t dominated by Communists, kowtowed to HUAC and the studios and cooperated with the blacklisting, essentially telling their members that if they chose not to cooperate with HUAC they were on their own.
I first became aware of the Hollywood blacklist—and of how it had affected my parents—when I was about nine. I can’t pinpoint an exact time, nor can I recall how my awareness of the blacklist’s political context developed, but I can say with assurance that by the time the 1956 presidential election campaign got into full swing, I knew that my parents were on the wrong side of the political divide for their time and place. I also understood that the blacklist was the reason we were always short on money. I went to my fourth-grade class proudly wearing my Adlai Stevenson button, hoping against hope that he would defeat incumbent Republican President Dwight Eisenhower; my parents had told me that if Stevenson were to win, there was a possibility that the blacklist might end soon. But Stevenson lost, and the blacklist continued.
Nineteen fifty-six was also, ironically, the year my parents and many of their friends lost faith in the Soviet Union and quit the Communist Party. The revelation of the atrocities committed during the thirty-year Stalin regime, along with the Soviets’ invasion of Hungary to crush a popular uprising, shook my parents to their core and made it clear to them—along with thousands of other American Communists—that the U.S.S.R. was a far cry from the benevolent worker’s utopia they had once naively believed it to be. Their onetime hero (and onetime U.S. ally) Josef Stalin had been posthumously unmasked as a murderous, authoritarian thug who had presided over a three-decade reign of terror; even the current Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had revealed Stalin’s crimes and renounced the late dictator, was—in my father’s opinion—just another oppressive ruler who had been corrupted by power.
My parents’ decision to break with the Communist Party did not take them off the Hollywood blacklist, and they made no apologies for their former affiliation. They still believed that every American had the right to embrace any political ideology he or she chose, even if that choice had later proved to be wrong; despite pressure from the FBI—which from time to time sent agents to our front door to ask them if they were ready to reconsider their position and “clear” themselves—my parents never for a moment considered putting themselves the position of having to betray others.
Sometime around 1956 or 1957 my father began writing again, having gained an entrée into TV sitcoms through the efforts of a friend; but because the blacklist was still in effect, he had to write under a false name, and my parents and I lived in fear of his being exposed and re-blacklisted. So afraid were they of my father’s cover being blown that my parents warned me not to disclose to any of my school friends even that my father was a writer. If anyone asked what my father did for a living, I was to answer that he was a photographer, which wasn’t an outright lie; he had worked as a freelance commercial photographer during the early years of the blacklist, and continued to do so for a while even after he began writing TV scripts under the pseudonym “Tom August.” (That moniker was derived from my first and middle name, Thomas Augustus; having to pretend to be “Tom August, Jr.” in settings where my father was known only by his nom de plume, and where the risk of discovery was high, caused me at least one very awkward moment. But that’s another story.)
The text that follows reveals the turning point of The Wire Recorder. Unless you’re a reader who doesn’t mind knowing the turning point in advance, I don’t recommend reading beyond this point until you’ve finished the book.
In November of 1960, a few days after I turned fourteen, John F. Kennedy was elected president. He wasn’t my parents’ first choice, but his Republican rival—who was initially favored to win—was scary. Vice President Richard Nixon, as a congressman from California in the late ‘40s, had been a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and a fervent anti-Communist crusader; I remember being afraid that Nixon might, if elected, set up concentration camps for leftists like my parents. But Nixon couldn’t compete with JFK’s charm and charisma when the two of them debated on TV, and he lost.
At the end of that same month, during Thanksgiving weekend, I went to a weekend camp and met a girl I liked and who I thought liked me. When I told my parents about this girl, and told them her name, they recognized her unusually-spelled surname as that of a man—presumably her father—who had once been a friend but who “might be hostile” to them now. I have no idea what the reason was, and I don’t think it had anything to do with the blacklist, but a seed was planted. What would happen, I wondered for some time afterwards, if I wanted to date a girl whose parents were hostile to my parents? I knew that my parents and their friends felt hostility toward their former friends who had cooperated with the HUAC investigations and named names; they called them “stool pigeons” and refused to speak to them again. What if I were to fall in love with a girl whose father had been a stool pigeon? Even worse, one who had given my father’s name to HUAC?
Though such a situation never arose (I never saw the girl from camp again), the idea stayed with me. Years later, when I became seriously interested in being a writer and was trying to think of possible projects, I thought once again about a love story involving a boy whose father had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period and a girl whose father had been a “friendly witness.”
I didn’t act on that story idea right away; my earliest efforts at fiction, in high school and college, tended to be more autobiographical and introspective. I’d had a rough time with social adjustment throughout my childhood and adolescence, due to what I now know were the social-skills deficits caused by Asperger’s disorder. I began seeing a psychotherapist in my mid-teens, and much as I tried to fight it, self-pity was an ever-present companion in both my life and my writing. When my professors and my parents concurred that my short stories and plays had a streak of self-indulgence and that their self-pitying protagonists were unsympathetic, I took the criticism to heart. I concluded that my writing projects—though they would, of necessity, draw on my life experiences—should not be autobiographical.
Once again I turned to my old Romeo-and-Juliet blacklist story idea, but this time I thought of a different approach. If I were to flip the genders, making the girl the one whose father had been blacklisted and the boy the one whose dad had been a cooperator, the story would automatically be less self-focused; it would be more challenging to write, but maybe more fun as well. Then I thought: what if the boy was unaware that his father had been an informer? Suppose the boy’s father had been so ashamed afterwards of having ratted out his friends that he’d lied about it to his son, allowing the boy to grow up proudly thinking that his father had defied HUAC and been blacklisted? When the boy and girl met, thinking that both of their fathers had been blacklisted would give them a deep connection and perhaps help them fall in love; but in the course of the story, perhaps through some unwitting action on the part of the girl, the boy would learn the truth and a crisis would result.
I can’t recall exactly when the idea of a wire recorder as the medium of the ugly revelation first popped into my mind, but I’d always been a nostalgia geek, and period-specific technologies had long intrigued me. Old telephones. Old radios. Old typewriters. Old cameras. Something must have triggered a memory of having seen a wire recorder in use sometime in my early childhood. I hadn’t seen one or even heard mention of wire recorders in the decades that followed; even by the late ‘50s, they had long since been replaced by tape recorders.
The earliest notes I have about my blacklist-romance story concept date from around 1972 or 1973, when I was in my mid-twenties. I remember playing around with the story, making more notes and then writing an outline sometime later that decade. My first serious attempt to complete a story draft came another decade later, in the form of a partially-completed novel and an outline of the unfinished chapters; I presented this manuscript to my parents, and their review was disappointingly mixed.
In 1985 I wrote the complete story, this time as a screenplay. I wrote it on my first computer, a Kaypro 2x with two floppy drives that I’d purchased the year before; I proudly submitted it to my parents, thinking it was a masterpiece, only to have them deflate my excitement with criticism even harsher than they had given the earlier novel version. My mother’s feedback was especially withering: “You used to know how to write,” she said. She blamed the computer, theorizing that the effortless editing and re-editing that the new word-processing technology made possible had somehow degraded the quality of my writing. My father’s criticism was that the story didn’t develop or build on itself, it just “played itself out.” I showed the script to an acquaintance who was an experienced critic of screenplays; her comment was that my lack of formal training in screenwriting was evident.
Despite their “tough-love” attitude toward my writing (which they still strongly encouraged), my parents had believed early on that my basic story idea—blacklisted writer’s daughter, informer’s son who doesn’t know his dad was an informer—was an intriguing and workable premise. Around the same time that I wrote the first novel version, they wrote a screenplay version of their own, giving the story a very different take. They converted it to the genre to which they were accustomed after nearly thirty years of writing sitcom scripts: a light, fluffy comedy. I hated it, and I told them so. But they continued to re-work it. [I did make one tribute to their efforts: the Old Testament quote in Chapter 23, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (Ezekiel 18:2),” appeared in my parents’ version – the title of which, in fact, was Set on Edge.]
While my parents re-worked, edited and tweaked Set on Edge, I continued to do the same with The Wire Recorder.
I must have done some work on the story during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but I remember very little; much of those two decades are a blur. But I do know that sometime after I retired from teaching in 2008, I got going on it again.
I took a close look at both mine and my parents’ earlier attempts to tell the story; I knew that none of the time-and-place settings we’d used in the past had worked. It had to take place at a time when the male protagonist would still have been young enough—no older than his early 20s—to have not yet found out the truth about his father. I’d set one very early version of the story in 1963, when the boy and girl would have been in high school, and a high school was the setting; a later version took place in the late ‘70s and had the two characters, both Los Angeles teachers, meet on a train while traveling in Europe.
For some unknown reason my parents, when they wrote their comic interpretation of my story, had resisted the idea of a period setting; perhaps they had thought a screenplay that didn’t have to be done in period would be more salable to a budget-conscious producer. So they had set it in what was then the present (circa 1985) and made the two young people around the age I was then. I’d tried to convince them that an informer’s son reaching his thirties without someone spilling the beans to him about what his father had done was far less plausible than two L.A. teachers meeting on a train in Europe, but they hadn’t listened. Unfortunately for them, the producers to whom their agent shopped the script around had agreed with my position. One of them wrote: “While this is an intriguing premise, it’s impossible to accept that [the lead male character], in his thirties, has never learned the truth of his father’s involvement with HUAC.”
At some point, I finally got a decisive fix on when and where the story had to take place. Both characters would be young hippie radicals in Santa Cruz, California, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where they would be part of the group that had dramatically altered the once-sleepy beach town after the opening of the University of California campus there in 1965.
I had been part of that group. I’d been a member of the first freshman class at UC Santa Cruz and had transitioned—along with a sizable cohort of my peers—from “pioneer” students living in trailers in a muddy field, to dorm life, then finally to an off-campus bohemian culture that may have been more hip and vibrant than the parallel scene that had unfolded 75 miles to the north in San Francisco.
Of course, it wasn’t all good. There were some lost souls—myself among them—who spent years in that hippie-dippy, touchy-feely paradise of escape trying to “find ourselves” while others of our peer group moved away and moved on. It was painful to remember some of the dead-end paths I’d wandered down. But that was where my story needed to unfold.
I’m going to take you back in time now, to the early ‘70s.
By the time I graduated from UCSC in the spring of 1970 (I’d missed graduating with my class of ‘69 as a result of having changed my major too many times), I was very serious about wanting to be a writer, and had also developed a keen passion for photography and filmmaking. I knew how remote the odds were of being able to make a living in those pursuits. So as I continued to do photography, make short films and develop new story ideas, hoping that I might someday write a brilliant original screenplay that would make me rich and famous, I thought about the possibility of teaching one or more of those subjects. Not at the college level, of course, nor in a public school; those were out of reach. But there was another option.
In the early 1970s, “free schools” were popping up all over California. They were little private schools that ran on small budgets and charged tuition on a sliding scale that almost anyone—even hippie parents without traditional employment—could afford; they taught liberal, humanistic values and controlled their students with a gentle touch. Sometimes control was a bit too gentle; there were many free schools, most of them short-lived, where discipline was way too lax, the students much too “free” and academics not very rigorous. Some of those schools—if you could call them schools— went way off the deep end with the “do your own thing” philosophy, creating an environment where illegal and unconscionable things (e.g. teachers having sex with students) took place. Nevertheless, they attracted hip, antiestablishment parents from all strata of society who were disenchanted with the rigid routines and uninspired curriculum of the public schools.
I’d never really thought much about working with kids; when I wandered into a free school I’d heard about in Santa Cruz one day in January of 1971, I was thinking more about the photography and filmmaking I wanted to teach than about the students to whom I would be teaching those subjects. I didn’t even have a focus on what age of students I wanted to work with. But I connected almost instantly with the kids in that school, developing warm relationships with students as young as six and as old as sixteen. In my first couple of months volunteering there, I thought I’d been born again. But—and this is somewhat painful to disclose–I was needy, and still had the social-skills deficits that went with the territory of the place I occupied on the autism spectrum; unaware of the cause of my chronic social ineptitude, and despite years of psychotherapy, I had only limited self-awareness. Consequently, my experiences in that school—and in several others I was involved with—were not healthy experiences for me or for the children.
The way I functioned with children was not the way of a mature adult, much less that of a teacher. It was as if I were just another child among them. The kids figured out early on that I needed them more than they needed me, needed their love and approval much more than they needed mine; kids being kids, they quickly got the upper hand. Though I continued to volunteer at that free school and others, the adults who ran those schools saw my poor leadership ability and never considered me for a paid job. Pathetically, I kept on trying. (How I got from that low place to eventually being a successful public-school teacher is another story.)
Throughout that rocky time, I kept writing.
Those years weren’t fun for me to remember in 2009 (nor are they now), but in those memories I found the ideal setting for my children-of-the-blacklist story.
Back in 1972, a year after my first experience in a free school, I’d written a more than 300-page screenplay based on that experience. I didn’t need my parents to tell me that that was nearly three times the maximum length for a salable script, but that’s how long it ran.
While trying to flesh out my new concept for The Wire Recorder after my retirement, I came across that old screenplay. As I plodded through its 300-plus pages, I realized that nearly all of its characters and many of its settings could be made part of my blacklist-children story, which I had now decided to write as a novel.
Tami, Michelle, Melissa, Susan, Joanne Vaughn and Cal and Toni Wright all began their lives in my 1972 free-school screenplay, as did many of the other characters in The Wire Recorder that are associated with the fictitious Santa Cruz Open School. At first the idea of lifting all those characters, along with many scenes, out of Our School and integrating them into The Wire Recorder seemed a little crazy. It felt like plagiarism; I’d written Our School so long ago, and had been such a different person in 1972 than I was in 2009, that it took some doing to convince myself that there’s no such thing as plagiarizing yourself, even the “yourself” of more than half a lifetime ago. So I made the leap.
I excised the main character from Our School—a naive twenty-something guy named Rick who, in the course of trying to find himself, bumbles into a free school desperately in need of a teacher—and replaced him with my two Wire Recorder protagonists. I took a few scenes from Our School,mainly scenes that showed the kids and their interactions, and grafted them into the middle of The Wire Recorder; among those were the scene in Chapter 16 where Melissa meets Susan and Michelle for the first time and the three of them are harassed by Joey, and the chapter (17) that introduces Tami. I now had what seemed to be a perfect setting for Sophie and Steve to reunite as adults, to connect on the basis of both their parents (or so they thought) being blacklisted writers, and ultimately for the devastating revelation to take place. And yes, it was plausible that Steve Elwood might have reached his early twenties without knowing the truth about his father, especially in light of what happens in Chapter 8.
Our School was not the only one of my early stories I borrowed from in putting together The Wire Recorder. Barry Fell, the lead character in an original screenplay called Barry that I wrote in 1970 as part of my senior project at UCSC, found his way into Chapter 12, as did some other scenes from that same script. In that story the title character, a sad, confused college student who faces the Vietnam draft after dropping out of UCSC, has various misadventures and in the end cannot decide what to do about his impending induction into the Army. Much of the conversation among Sophie, Steve, Craig, David, Bob, Rodney and Sylvia on the day the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia was taken almost verbatim from a scene in that script.
I’m going to stop here. The rest of the story is publishing-related stuff that will bore you to death, if I haven’t done so already.
I hope you enjoyed The Wire Recorder and the story of its birth.