Living the Orwellian Life
Sixty-five years ago today, in a remote part of Great Britain, George Orwell was finishing his prescient novel, 1984. At the same moment a continent away in Hollywood, an American woman was actually living Orwell\’s fictional story. In the fall of 1948, actress Dorothy Comingore of Citizen Kane fame had no clue that the U.S. \”thought police\” was spying on her, but she could feel a shadow dogging her steps. Dorothy couldn\’t find a job to save her life and grew so upset about her difficulties, she wondered aloud: \”If I\’ve done something wrong, I\’d like to know what it is.\”
It was as if the moody, random terror that Orwell had so vividly created in his manuscript had drifted across the Atlantic and slipped onto a westbound train for California. Unbeknown to Dorothy, she was being tailed by federal agents, monitored by Congressional investigators, and ranked as dangerous on a top-secret \”security\” list. These facts seemed more ludicrous than Orwell\’s parody of a \”security state.\” But America already was constructing it.
Today, many U.S. writers, artists and activists undergo similar surreal experiences thanks to the National Security Agency (NSA). While we may think that our government\’s scrutiny of our private lives is somehow new and shocking, it isn\’t. America has a tradition of spying on its own. I realized this recently when I picked up my yellowed copy of Orwell\’s classic after reviewing Dorothy\’s private papers. I was struck by the parallels between Orwell\’s imagination, his real-life contemporary in America and what\’s happening to us today. Covert surveillance, travel restrictions, detentions, loss of work and worse. … This is what happens to Americans who think differently than those in power.
This is what\’s happening now.
To understand the beauty of – and potential punishment for – independent thought, let\’s go to postwar Britain, a cold and dreary place. To finish his novel about \”The Ministry of Truth,\” Orwell felt that he had to go to an even darker place. In late 1948, he lived on the Scottish isle of Jura, a remote and barren scratch of Hebridean rock. With little more than a camp bed and a table, the author used his \”natural hatred of authority\” to write a satirical fantasy about a totalitarian world. In it, eternal warfare is the price for a bleak prosperity. The \”Party\” remains in power by controlling the people. Giant telescreens scan the actions of everyone, disembodied voices deliver \”newspeak\” to the masses, and citizens are bombarded with nonsensical slogans such as \”Freedom is Slavery\” and \”Ignorance is Strength.\” (Sound familiar?)
In 1984, the Party prohibits any display of individuality, and the worst crime is thinking for oneself. Yet, before long, two lovers, Winston Smith and Julia, begin to do just that. They try to evade the thought police by joining the underground opposition. But the Party finds them, turns one against the other, and tortures Winston until his spirit finally breaks.
When Orwell\’s book was published, it was called a fantasy. But it served as a warning to Americans such as Comingore. The fiery actress had become famous for starring in Citizen Kane (1941). She portrayed Susan Kane, the mistress of industrialist Charles Foster Kane, who was based on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. She had rendered the mogul\’s paramour with such skill and vulnerability that she was rumored to be short-listed for an Academy Award. She already had won the hearts of millions of moviegoers, according to Variety readers\’ polls, and her gorgeous face graced the pages of Life, Look and dozens of other publications. In the 1940s, Dorothy was a star with a promising career, the admiration of peers, a fine marriage and two children.
The star also had acquired a powerful enemy – the 78-year-old Hearst. The media mogul so hated Dorothy\’s portrayal of his mistress, 44-year-old Marion Davies, that he used his chain of newspapers and radio stations to smear the young woman. Hearst\’s columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell publicly accused Dorothy of belonging to the \”Party,\” in this case the Communist Party, and borrowed Orwellian \”newspeak\” to malign her. As it was, Dorothy never was a dues-paying \”commie.\” But even if she had been, it was her constitutional right to be one. She did associate with screenwriters who were communists or had been at one time: Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), Dorothy Parker (A Star Is Born) and dear friends Cleo and Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus). These people were called to testify about their beliefs in front of America\’s ersatz Ministry of Truth – the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Publicly, union members and artists had to convince the HUAC that their \”incorrect\” affiliations and thoughts no longer existed – or if they did, they were not dangerous to the state.
Orwell would have loved the irony of it all.
U.S. political leaders at the time distrusted labor organizers and free thinkers even if those thinkers had raised money for the war and its victims, as Dorothy had. The FBI began tailing the actress. According to her files, agents reported her attending parties with Russian guests and giving speeches that, among other things, praised Soviet painters for their realism. But her biggest sins were working alongside black musician Leadbelly and singer Paul Robeson to try and desegregate USO clubs (they did), canvassing voters in Watts for state Assembly candidate Albert Dekker (who won) and trying to overturn the judicial lynching of Mexican youths in the corrupt Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial (they succeeded).
Dorothy\’s triumphs embarrassed the status quo.
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