Memories of an Almost Perfect Exile
Screenwriter Jean Rouverol’s spirited account of fleeing the United States during the Hollywood blacklist years domesticates the genre. Were it not for the unusual circumstances surrounding her family’s sojourn in Mexico, Refugees from Hollywood would have been a family history rather than the chronicle of a political era. But thanks to the writer’s focus and conversational tone she manages to achieve both.
Such memoirs have generally been written by men-most recently by Ring Lardner Jr., Walter Berstein, and Bernard Gordon. These dwell on the consequences of their left-wing affiliations: the legal battles, unemployment and, in the worst of cases, prison. Rouverol’s concerns are more down to earth: How do you run a home, care for four children under the age of 10, continue your career as a screenwriter and radio actress, and dodge a subpoena without your father-in-law finding out? When do you decide to pack up, lock the door behind you, and take off for Mexico?
Some years ago I had the opportunity to ask her. At the time I was doing research on American political refugees who, like Jean and my parents, had moved to Mexico during the ’50s. Our interview took place in her comfortably cluttered Santa Monica apartment with its few pieces of sturdy furniture and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, jammed with well-thumbed books, taking up most of the floor space.
Jean is as unpretentious as her apartment and she answered me in much the same way she writes, simply but with great energy and humor. Her hair has gone gray, and her face and figure are fuller than I remembered but she moves swiftly, with grace. Her voice, the same voice that answered my long-ago phone calls to her son Mike with a cheery ?Bueno? is still vibrant and enthusiastic, negating the worry lines etched deeply into her forehead. The sound of that voice took me back to my adolescence in the ’50s when Jean was never without a baby cradled in one arm, a small child resting against her hip. Everything within her orbit moved, giving off an energy of its own. The only time I ever saw her alone was when I caught an occasional glimpse of her back through a partially opened door. Seated behind her desk, typing or taking notes, she became an object of awe for me-a woman writer, the only one I knew.
Even then I recognized that the Butlers-we didn’t know her by her professional name in those days-were unlike the majority of Americans residing in Mexico: They read books, tried to learn Spanish, weren’t Republicans, and didn’t work for the U.S.Embassy or a large American company. At the time of our interview, the first of many, Jean was still writing Refugees from Hollywood and, as she does in the book, she began with the events leading up to their flight: Two men wearing hats.
According to Jean, the only men in southern California who wore hats were FBI agents. After they dropped by looking for her husband, screenwriter Hugo Butler, the couple decided to disappear-temporarily. They left their home and possessions behind and lied, saying they were off on a holiday in order to spare Hugo’s father, who suffered from a heart condition and disapproved of his son’s politics. The two grandmothers took charge of the children and the cat. Hugo and Jean moved from one friend’s home to another or spent the night in motels, with Jean occasionally joining the two younger children at her mother’s. Each morning they reported to work at Columbia Studios, often dressed in yesterday’s clothes, fearful a subpoena might be delivered to them at the studio.
They lived with other fears as well. What would they do if the blacklist caught up with them and the work ran out? Was it possible that former Japanese internment camps were being reconditioned as “relocation camps” and that they and others like them were in danger of detention under the provisions of the McCarran Act? If this were indeed true, where would they go without passports, routinely denied to anyone with a political history? All countries required them with the exceptions of Mexico and Canada.
They might have continued living in the United States, as did the majority of those under suspicion, had it not been for news Jean overheard on the radio during the spring: Attempts to serve subpoenas on several Hollywood professionals, including Hugo, were continuing. He decided to leave for Mexico immediately and investigate the possibility of earning a living there.
Meanwhile, Jean emptied their Los Angeles home with the intention of joining him with the children in Ensenada as soon as the school term was over. As she explains in her memoir:
By now the storage people had come and gone, and our parachute bags, typewriters, etc. were fitted, along with the children and cat, into the twelve-year -old Cadillac limousine we’d bought just before the crisis, a tall, black, stately vehicle complete with holders for bud vases. It was early afternoon. I made sure the children’s doors were locked, and at last, feeling for all the world like my Mormon grandmother setting out for the wilds with a handcart expedition, I revved the motor, hit the accelerator, and we were off?
Ten minutes later their brakes failed. Despite such mishaps, which occurred with startling regularity, Jean and her brood did reach Ensenada. But their lives were on hold for months, while their close friend, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, was serving a prison sentence for contempt..
When Trumbo was released, the Butlers drove back across the border, and met up with friends in San Diego. Then both families took off for Mexico -the Butlers in their 12-year-old Cadillac and the Trumbos in a nearly new Packard. Dalton, driving a jeep hauling a small trailer containing his books and a carsick-prone sheepdog, took up the rear. As their convoy headed south, the Butlers had no way of knowing they would not return to the United States on a permanent basis for the next 13 years.
In the course of her narrative Rouverol provides some insight into the political climate at home, describes the American political expatriate community residing in Mexico at the time, and touches on the fate of other blacklistees in both Mexico and abroad. Her gift lies in her ability to convey the nature of life in exile, in particular, its unpredictability. Her mournful refrain, “Of course things didn’t work out as we thought they would,” surfaces and resurfaces throughout. Her pages are filled with accounts, some tragic, some outrageous, some surreal, about trying to rebuild their lives under extenuating circumstances.
During the first years the American community in exile and, in particular, the Hollywood contingent, which Jean writes about with great affection, clung to each other for mutual support. Their close-knit relationships helped them overcome the initial obstacles inherent in settling in-that and their ignorance.
Although they knew that having left the United States did not render them immune to official harassment, they-and most of the others-were blissfully unaware of the extent of the vigilance and the potential dangers. A complex investigative network consisting of the FBI, working in close collaboration with the CIA and several local police agencies, monitored their movements. The U. S. Embassy in Mexico City withheld passports and other official documents on political grounds, exercised control over the hiring policies of American firms, and controlled the flow of information to the local and international media. In addition, the Mexicans generally collaborated with the American government, although this tended to vary from one administration to another.
While the author touches on the negative aspects of the refugee experience in Mexico-the occasional detention and deportation, the corruption, machismo, anti-American bias, and the gradual environmental deterioration of the city-she chooses not to dwell on them. (The book’s original title was We Happy Few.) While documenting one of our country’s gloomiest eras she manages, on the whole, to maintain a joyful optimism, grateful for her family’s having emerged from the experience generally unscathed and ultimately enriched. As a result, I was left with a strong sense of admiration for the protagonists and a twinge of regret at having finished the book so soon. If you choose to read only one book about the Hollywood blacklist experience, be sure to read this one.
Diana Anhalt’s articles and poetry have appeared in both the United States and Mexico. Her book, A Gathering of Fugitives: Memories of American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965, is scheduled to be published by Archer Press in November. She lives in Mexico City.