Invisible Ink: No 119 - Donald Ogden Stewart
Sunday 15 April 2012
'The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges." For Don Stewart, this was a sardonic line of dialogue that came from the heart. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Stewart graduated from Yale and went to work for Vanity Fair magazine. His first novel, The Crazy Fool, was a hit, and he adapted the book as a film, gaining a lifelong love of cinema.
He had started out as a parodist but by the time he was in his late twenties, this elegant, eloquent writer had run with the bulls in Pamplona with Hemingway, appeared as a character in The Sun Also Rises, written a hit Broadway play, four best-selling books and the brilliant musical Fine and Dandy. An original member of the Algonquin Round Table, he shared an office with Dorothy Parker, wrote many films including Holiday, Love Affair and Life With Father, and also acted. In 1940 he won the Oscar for his screenplay of The Philadelphia Story.
But Stewart was also a committed Communist. He said: "It suddenly came over me that I was on the wrong side. If there was this class war as they claimed, I had somehow got into the enemy's army. I felt a tremendous sense of relief and exultation. I felt I had the answer I had been so long searching for. I now had a cause to which I could devote all my gifts for the rest of my life ... I had won all the money and status that America had to offer – and it just hadn't been good enough. The next step was Socialism."
He was a founding member of the Screenwriters' Guild and the president of the Anti-Nazi League, so that by the time Senator Joseph McCarthy started taking names in the Red Scare, he found himself blacklisted. McCarthy had realized that Stewart was the screenwriter of the anti-Fascist Keeper of the Flame. In this drama, a journalist writing the biography of a national hero slowly discovers that his patriotism is a facade concealing unpalatable truths; the "hero" has manipulated the public out of arrogant ambition. A film version starred Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Stewart was forced to leave America for Hampstead.
The move killed his career. However naive his politics may have been, Stewart loved America, and something died in him when he left. Apart from a final melancholy biography, he never wrote another word.
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