Don, Bobby, and the Pact

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A Friendship Fractured. For the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (see previous post), it was not always easy to toe the Communist Party line. Doing so estranged him from admired friends like Robert Benchley (pictured above, with magazine to which he contributed). The 1939-1941 alliance between the supposedly anti-fascist leader Josef Stalin and the biggest fascist of them all, Adolf Hitler, was “a rather questionable pill to swallow,” wrote Stewart in his autobiography, but “because I trusted the Soviet Union to have the correct Marxist understanding of the situation, I refrained from publicly criticizing the pact.”

Stewart’s By a Stroke of Luck! (1975) is full of tales of Hollywood and, before that, the Algonquin Round Table in New York City. A screen adapter of talent  (The Philadelphia Story, Life with Father), Stewart (1894-1980) was a native Ohioan who made glittering friends in Manhattan during the Roaring Twenties. He regularly traded barbs at the famed Algonquin Hotel gatherings with Benchley and other writers and humorists. (Stewart describes himself as elegantly attired but inwardly uneasy, ever worried that his jokes wouldn’t go over with the group.)

By the 1930s, Benchley had given up literary journalism for acting, and he and Stewart had budding careers in Hollywood. Stewart, a joiner and Popular Front activist, had a tendency to proselytize: “At my suggestion Bobby [Benchley] started to read the Webbs’ Soviet Russia – A New Civilization and reported after the first few pages that it seemed like it might be a good idea.”

Dialectical materialism didn’t take with Benchley, though, and when the pact arrived, he was incredulous that his friend Don did not reconsider his promotion of the Soviet government and the Bolshevik cause. Stewart caught hell from him, as is recounted in By a Stroke of Luck!:

“All along, since my ‘conversion,’ I had been deeply sure Bobby respected me for my political activities, even though he wasn’t at all interested in them, with the exception of rights for Negroes, about which he felt very strongly, and for which he had once or twice let me use his name on a committee. But now, as he kept pressing me with increasing scorn about the Stalin pact, I felt a horrible gulf opening between us; worse than that, I realized that my confident assumption that he had understood my ‘new life’ and had sympathized with it had been an illusion. I couldn’t answer his questions, other than to plead that Stalin must have had good reasons. ‘What reasons?’ shouted Bobby, and his contempt for me was so violent that I couldn’t answer.”

We’ll close with a passage from a 2005 book by Deborah Martinson:

“Humorist Robert Benchley told the story of one evening finding [Donald Ogden] Stewart at a rich man’s dinner party in Hollywood, waving his caviar-piled cracker and glass of champagne and telling anyone who would listen, ‘Comes the Revolution, none of you will have any of this . . . join us while you can, because we are going to take this away from you.’ “

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