How Hollywood’s biggest politicos leaned right, not left

Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Sony Bono, George Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger are all entertainers who launched their political careers in California, and they are all Republicans. Indeed, aside from Al Franken, no prominent Democratic officeholder on the scene today started out in the entertainment industry. Yet, ironically, a myth that began in the McCarthy era — and persists today — holds that Hollywood celebrities on the left play a powerful role in American politics.

“Quite candidly, when Hollywood speaks, the world listens,” Sen. Arlen Specter once observed. “Sometimes when Washington speaks, the world snoozes.”

The myth is misbegotten, or so argues film historian and USC professor Steven J. Ross in “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics” (Oxford University Press, $29.95), a benchmark study of the role that Hollywood stars and moguls have played in American politics. Like Neal Gabler’s classic “An Empire of Their Own,” Ross’ book allows us look behind the curtain and to glimpse the inner workings of the entertainment industry.

Hollywood began to figure in politics as early as 1918, when federal agents reported that movie stars were playing “an active part in the Red movement.” But, from the start and throughout its history, activists on the left have always been less successful than those on the right. “It was the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, that established the first political beachhead in Hollywood,” Ross explains. “The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but the Hollywood right sought, won, and exercised electoral power.”

Ross surveys nearly a century of Hollywood history through the lens of politics. Of necessity, he drills down into the nuance and detail of corporate and union politics in the movie business. But he also comes into tight focus on a few of the more famous faces. Charlie Chaplin, for example, is singled out as the first star to strike a political stance — an explicitly anti-fascist stance. “No silent star,” Ross writes, “brought political messages to the mass public more effectively than the man millions of moviegoers affectionately called ‘Charlie.’ ”

But Ross also reminds us that Chaplin was hounded by right-wing activists, both in Hollywood and in federal law enforcement, throughout his long career, and he was ultimately driven into exile as much for his politics as for his supposed promiscuity. “You are the one artist of the theatre,” observed the writer Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, “who will go down in American history as having aroused the political antagonism of a whole nation.”

By contrast, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, one of the founders of MGM, is singled out as the archetype of Hollywood Republicanism. He was hailed by Rabbi Edgar Magnin as “an ardent enemy of pseudo-liberals, Reds, and pinks,” and Ross himself credits Mayer with teaching the Republican Party “how to use radio, film, and movie stars to sell candidates and ideas to a mass public.” At a time when Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel were campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, for example, Mayer served as executive director of the Southern California campaign committee for Herbert Hoover.

“Hollywood Right and Left” does not overlook the McCarthy era, although it is only one episode in a much grander saga. But Ross approaches the subject from a new and illuminating angle by focusing on the plight of Edward G. Robinson, an early and committed anti-fascist at a time when Irving Thalberg was comforting his boss, Louis B. Mayer, with a rosy report from Nazi Germany: “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass,” Thalberg said. “[T]he Jews will still be there.” Robinson, by contrast, worked with other stars to organize a boycott of Nazi Germany in 1938, an effort that was not popular among isolationists in America.

“[The] movie colony may root for the Jews all they wish, but don’t think that the people of the United States are going to fall in with your plans,” one estranged movie fan wrote. “Those of us who know World History and the Bible know that the Jews have always been in trouble up to their ears.”

Robinson, who was condemned as “Yiddish riff raff” by another letter writer, was repaid for his activism with surveillance by the FBI during the war, a place on the blacklist, and repeated appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee when it targeted Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Outraged by the smear campaign against him,” Ross writes, “Robinson spent the next three years of his life, and over $100,000 of his own money, trying to clear his name and resume his career.” Ultimately, he was reduced to abasing himself as “an unsuspecting agent of the Communist conspiracy,” although he refused to name names. Ironically, he was “restored to semi-respectability” only when Cecil B. DeMille, “one of Hollywood’s most prominent anti-communists,” cast Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” in 1956.

The excesses of the McCarthy era eventually subsided, but Ross makes the point that the balance of power in Hollywood remained on the right as Murphy and Reagan used the denunciation of supposed “Red Menace” in Hollywood to launch their own political careers. Reagan, of course, has been credited with nothing less than a revolution in American politics, while Jane Fonda, an activist on the left in the same era, crashed and burned. Her counterpart on the right, at least in terms of the visibility and intensity of his role in politics, is Charlton Heston, whom Ross describes as “the first prominent practitioner of image politics,” if only because Heston played not only Moses, but also “three saints, three presidents, and two geniuses.”

Fonda “demonstrated that celebrities could use their star power to draw attention to controversial political issues,” Ross explains. “Her subsequent vilification revealed how the public often view such activism, especially left activism, with suspicion and cynicism.” The woman who came to be known as “Hanoi Jane,” Ross points out, “paid a high price for her activism.”

The bottom line, according to Ross, is that one wing of the entertainment industry seems to have connected with the hearts and minds of the American electorate, and the other has not. “From Louis B. Mayer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood right has told a simple but compelling story of American triumphalism: America is the greatest nation in the world. What else do you need to know?” The Hollywood left, by contrast, has been undercut by its willingness to look behind the façade. “Few citizens want to hear a Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, or Sean Penn point out what is wrong with the United States.” In that sense, Ross’s even-handed but eye-opening book serves as a corrective to some very famous entertainers who simply failed to understand how they come across to their audience.

Q & A with Howard Gordon

Running a television show is the sort of job that rarely leaves you with free-time on your hands, but during the writers’ strike of 2007, “24” executive producer Howard Gordon suddenly found himself with just that – free time, and no scripts to write.  So he decided to try his hand at a novel instead.  Gordon’s debut effort, an international thriller titled “Gideon’s War,” hits shelves this month. 

Jewish Journal:  Why a novel after so many years as a TV Writer?

Howard Gordon:  It’s actually less sudden than it may appear.  I’ve always wanted to write a novel.  I wrote a short novel for my thesis in college with Joyce Carol Oates as my adviser.  When the strike happened, I decided to take the opportunity to explore and flex those muscles again.

JJ:  How did you find the novel-writing experience compared to the collaborative effort of scripting a show?

Gordon:  It’s a little akin to show-running.  Actually, I take that back, it’s profoundly different.  It’s much lonelier.  The terror was far more acute.  I’d become used to relying on others; I genuinely feared not finishing the novel.  It was a real learning process for me.  Having a great editor and a great agent helped, and so did the flexible deadline.

JJ: You seem to be drawn to writing about spies and international intrigue.  What about that world speaks to you?

Gordon:  I’m fascinated with foreign policy, especially with how we (America) represent ourselves internationally, how we project our power.  I thought briefly about joining the State Department when I graduated from college.  I currently serve on the Pacific Council on International Policy, and the Homeland Security Resiliency Task Force, so it’s important to me.  It also appeals to me as a genre.

JJ: The protagonist of your novel, Gideon Davis, is in many ways the opposite of Jack Bauer when it comes to dealing with conflict.  Gideon’s brother, Tillman, seems to share more of the same views as Bauer when it comes to handling terrorism, while Gideon’s more of a pacifist.  Which approach are you sympathetic to?

Gordon:  I identify with Gideon more than Jack.  He tries to talk his way out of things, like I do.  He seeks the peaceful approach, until he’s forced to act.  Conflicts between brothers have always interested me – Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, even a movie like “The Fighter.”  I love how things swing from sibling love to sibling rivalry.

JJ:  So your book is named “Gideon’s War,” and much of the action centers around an oil rig called The Obelisk;  in the Bible, Gideon is one of the Judges, and he fights a war with the Midianites and destroys the altar of Baal.  Baal is often associated with Obelisks.  Coincidence?

Gordon:  Completely!  I didn’t even realize it until I was googling the book one day and made the connection.  Maybe it was a subconscious thing.

JJ: The novel seems tailor-made for a film adaptation, any plans for that?

Gordon:  I’m still considering it.  I didn’t write the novel with that in mind, but obviously if an opportunity comes along, I’d have to think about it.

JJ:  Any other projects in the pipeline?

Gordon:  I’m shooting a pilot in North Carolina for Showtime.  It’s called “Homeland,” and it’s based on an award-winning Israeli TV show.  So you can hopefully look forward to seeing that soon.

The Lady Vanishes

I’m sitting between the two most different women imaginable here at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills: a matronly lumpish type who is well past her 50s, unmade up with short, graying hair and long triangular earrings — her only testament, of sorts, to fashion; and on the other side of me, a plasticized lady of the same indeterminate age, wearing a black leather miniskirt and crocodile skin yellow boots and an expression on her face — if one can call the pearly botoxed look an expression — of disbelief and shock.

We three strangers are sitting in the way back of the temple, in that second room they open up only for special occasions like the High Holidays or this Writer’s Block event featuring Maureen Dowd, who is being interviewed tonight by Aaron Sorkin, “West Wing” creator and more relevantly, for this evening, Dowd’s ex-boyfriend.

Thousands have turned out on this late November evening to hear the redheaded New York Times columnist talk about her new book, “Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide” (Putnam), which had been recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.

About three-quarters of the people in the audience are women — for the most part, women in their late 30s and older; in other words, not the generation of women Dowd is writing about in this book when she says they are turning back the clock on feminism, reverting to traditional gender roles, rejecting all that the women generations before them — probably like the women in this audience — had fought for.

It’s an odd setting for this type of discussion: Hanging over the stage are the two tablets of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. My eyes rest on Lo Tin’af — Thou Shalt Not Covet (thy neighbor’s wife) — as Dowd and Sorkin, flanked by the Israeli and American flags, talk about matters far from holy.

Well, talk is an exaggeration. Spar is more like it. Sorkin, an expert TV writer (“he’s the guy who put the president we wish we had in the White House,” as he was introduced) is self-admittedly no expert interviewer. But still, he cannot get Dowd to straightforwardly answer many questions about her book. Actually, he can hardly get a word in edgewise.

In person, Dowd is like her columns: a coy, witty one-liner queen.

“That’s why I wrote this book,” she explains. “Because when you cover the White House, you never get to write about sex.”

She says how Bush Sr. didn’t know what a bikini wax was and our current president didn’t realize “Sex and the City” was a TV show. But beyond these witticisms, it’s hard to get at the depth of what Dowd is trying to say.

Each time Sorkin tries to ask her a question — Does she think men aren’t necessary? Is feminism really over? — she, Jewishly, answers a question with a question, and interrupts with a question of her own. Why is Sorkin one of the only men in Hollywood who can write a strong woman character (like C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing”), Dowd wants to know. Why are there never any compelling roles for women on the screen, she asks. Compelling questions, for sure, but not ones we’ve come for tonight. Nor is Sorkin getting what he wants, as he tries to turn the interview back on the subject herself. Yes, we’re in Hollywood — OK, Beverly Hills — but just for once could we not discuss the industry? Can we discuss Karl Rove and Presidents Bush and the topic at hand, “Are Men Necessary?” and its subtext, “Is Feminism Over?”

But Dowd practically won’t let that happen.

Which leads me to question her original theory, that men don’t like smart women, that men only want to marry their secretaries and assistants, that men want to go back to the 1950s. Maybe men don’t like women like her. Women who interrupt. Women who talk over them. Women who have to prove how smart they are in the most succinct way possible. Women who make mean and snarky comments — women who are more than challenging: These are women who need to win. Always.

That’s why the woman next to me — the plastic surgery one, the one who probably looks less like a feminist than the plastic surgeon who recreated her, is shaking her head in frustration. Her manicured nails are tapping her folded arms, a defensive posture as she nods her head, tsk tsk tsk. We don’t speak but we catch eyes, and then I turn to my right and see the short-haired woman with the same expression on her face: We are all united in our antipathy, three women of different generations, economic backgrounds and certainly fashion sense. We thought we’d be united here tonight in a rallying call to revive feminism, to get back in touch with our values, to take back the night, to be empowered, but instead it’s just another celebrity event, interesting but insubstantial, a possible role model — oh how we wish Dowd could be who we hoped her to be — fallen from on high.

Sure, at the end of the Q & A — where many Qs are asked and not many As are given — there will be a line snaking out the door of the temple to sign books and get a smile from the famous columnist. Sure, many women on their way out are glad they got to eavesdrop on such a private public conversation. But right now, in the middle of the event, the three of us are all crossing our arms, tapping various parts of our bodies. That is, until Ms. Beverly Hills stands up, pulls down her leather skirt and excuses herself past us. She’s leaving in the middle, and barely glances at the stage — Dowd, Sorkin, Ten Commandments and all — on her way out.


West Hollywood Lauds Ladies of Lit

Take some chick lit, throw in a dash of mystery and political awareness — plus some first-timer nervousness — and you have the makings for some thought-provoking panels at the fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, scores of writers, readers, children and adults will converge at West Hollywood Park for this year’s event. The variety of panels, authors, stages and programs means that anyone can find their niche, for example, Journal Religion Editor Amy Klein will be moderating “The Many Faces of Jewish Creative Writing.” While both genders will make a showing at that panel, many of the others are heavily weighted in favor of the well-read woman, such as “Chewing on Chick Lit: A Quasi-Serious Discussion” and “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped The Modern Mystery Novel.”

Among the Jewish authors signing, speaking and spanning several genres will be mystery writer Rochelle Krich and novelists Seth Greenland and Jennifer Coburn. There’s also a book signing by Oliver Crawford, one of the last remaining “blacklisted” writers from the 1950s. Crawford, 88, will be signing copies of his newest book, “The Last Generation.” In addition to the authors noted above, Aimee Bender, Lisa Glatt and Lynn Freed — all of whom are scheduled to attend the book fair — spoke to The Journal about their new works.

The Harsh Pain of the Bruised Apple

Lisa Glatt’s “The Apple’s Bruise: Stories” (Simon and Schuster, $12).

The apple’s bruise is its vulnerable spot, the place where all its strength and crunch disintegrates into mealy brownness. It is also hidden by the shiny skin of the apple. The stories in “The Apple’s Bruise” are like that; they are populated by regular people, for whom a regular facade reveals an uglier secret. There is the mother in “Soup,” who finds herself attracted to the boy who, years earlier, bullied her son, and who recently raped a girl. In “What Milton Heard,” a milquetoast neighbor disavows any knowledge of the serial killings happening in the apartment directly above his. A marriage disintegrates in “The Body Shop” after the husband uses his wife’s money at strip clubs and, in a burst of weirdness, carries a stripper off the stage.

But the apple’s bruise (literally) is most poignant in the first story of the collection. In “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” Jewish Hannah bites into that very spot right after her mean, non-Jewish neighbor Erika steals her turkey sandwich. Wanting to appear nonchalant, uncaring about her abuse, Hannah “chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that soft brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” Erika is the girl Hannah has to walk to school with every day, the girl Hannah overhears telling her mother that “[Hannah’s] dirty,” the girl who takes her into the garage, and eats chocolates while pinching Hannah so hard all over her body that Hannah is left with tattoos of bruises. During this little torture session, Hannah is conscious of the smell of gas.

On the day that Erika can’t walk Hannah to school because of a skin infection, Hannah walks herself and gets hit by a car. The accident is debilitating but liberating. Hannah loses “her spleen, half of her calf muscle, the baby toe from her left foot which her father will look for and never find.” But she also gains strength. She is no longer afraid of Erika, no longer worried about being that very-easy-to-squash apple’s bruise.

“Come on in Erika… I don’t bite,” she tells her, thinking that maybe she does bite, that maybe she’s becoming just that sort of girl.”

The story is an autobiographical one for Glatt, who is Jewish and was in a terrible car accident as a young girl that left her in crutches for eight years. It is also Glatt’s most obviously Jewish story, and she plans on continuing the story of Hannah in an upcoming novel.

“When I wrote “Hannah” I had read a series of Holocaust books, and I was really immersed in it for a while,” said Glatt in an interview with The Journal. “I realized, going back over the story [after it was written] that I was conscious on some level of putting those details in [such as the gas]. I was interested in the political and the social become personal.”

“I find trouble interesting,” Glatt continued. “I am interested in human beings with all [their] flaws and complexities, doing terrible things. Some people can do terrible things, and that can be interesting to me.”

Lisa Glatt will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Magical Mystery Tour

Aimee Bender’s “Willful Creatures: Stories” (Doubleday, $22.95).

The emotions in Aimee Bender’s stories are familiar, the characters, not so. While the stories in “Willful Creatures” deal delicately with loss, love, family and pain, the people in them have pumpkin heads, potatoes for children or keys for fingers. This surreal and dreamlike world is simultaneously haunting and tender. In “End of the Line” a man buys a miniature person as a pet, and then tortures him mercilessly, for an enjoyment that is cruel and empty. In the end, he lets the little man go, and the little man returns, broken, to his little community. In “Ironhead,” a family of pumpkinheads have their mettle tested when a child they bore has an ironhead (literally, an iron for a head), and though he is different, and sickly, they love him deeply. In “Dearth” a woman can’t get rid of the seven potatoes in her pot, although she tries, and she eventually comes to love them as her children.

Other stories in the collection are profoundly disturbing. In “Debbieland,” the cool girls lure a nerdy girl (‘Debbie wore the skirt all the girls had been wearing, but she wore it two months too late…) outside, and beat her up knowing she will never tell on them.

“I don’t think I could write the same stories with ordinary people,” said Bender, in an interview with The Journal. “Flannery O’Connor talks about the grotesque as an exaggerated world, where, in the distortion, you see something more clearly that you would not see outside the distortion. If something is too quiet or balanced, or if a quality is more normal, then I am less likely to see it. I am always looking for an access point of feeling, and often I feel liberated by the skewed world. I can find emotions in there that I can’t find elsewhere.”

While Bender says she has only written a handful of stories that directly address Jewish characters or being Jewish — although she did contribute an essay on the guilt she feels when everything is going well to “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt,” ($24.95, Dutton) — she feels that her style is more Jewish than not.

“There is such a tradition of Jewish storytelling that is a little bit magical and a little bit dark,” she said. “So many of the writers that I look to as inspirations are Jewish, like Kafka. He wasn’t writing about being Jewish but he was a very Jewish writer. I do remember loving the [Torah] stories in Sunday school. I loved the bigness of those stories, and how mythic and exciting and dramatic they were. I mean — [Moses] parts the Red Sea! It is incredible. It is a great image. I think on a visceral level, that is the way my Jewishness comes through in my writing.”

Aimee Bender will be participating in “Women on the Edge: Readings, Discussions From the Dark … and Light Side,” at 3:30 p.m. in the Salon.

A Writer’s Life

Lynn Freed’s “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home, Life on the Page” (Harcourt, $22).

The simple act of putting words on a page is something many writers find arduous, difficult and frustrating. In “Reading, Writing and Leaving Home,” a memoir that is equally raw and sensitive, Freed strips back the mystique of writing. The book is a collection of personal essays that Freed wrote over her 20 years or so as a writer, and while it reveals many tribulations that writers face, it also is an inspirational look at what makes a writer.

In “False Starts and Creative Failures,” Freed writes about her continuously aborted attempts to write a third novel. She becomes stuck on the characters name, and then the novel’s title and then the setting. For years, she fixates, unable to move beyond the 40 pages she has written. Until it is written, the novel is like an albatross around her neck. In “Doing Time,” Freed writes about the frustration she feels in teaching writing, a task that she feels is essentially enigmatic, and for many students, an exercise in futility.

“Despite all my years in creative writing classrooms, I still have no idea how to pretend to unravel the mystery,” she writes. “…I feel like a fraud…. How can I help someone breathe life into a flat and pointless piece of writing? I cannot. If there are teachers who know how to work from the abstract to the concrete, I am not one of them.”

Freed grew up in an artistic, Jewish family in Durban, South Africa. Her mother was a stage actress. Her family was traditional, and Freed attended Hebrew school three times a week.

“One can only write what one is, and as I’m Jewish it tends naturally to come into my fiction,” said Freed, in an interview with The Journal. In addition to “Reading, Writing,” she has written five novels and a collection of short stories. “[Jewishness] comes into my writing all over the place, but not because I put it there, but mainly because that is my experience.”

“When you first start writing, you don’t have an audience at all, and I think it is a blessed event,” said Freed, reflecting on the 20 years she has been a writer. “And when you have an audience, you have to resist trying to please them as you have always pleased them. With age, you have to resist trying to do the same thing again. One gets more careful, and possibly, a little slower.”

Lynn Freed will be participating in “Memoirs Light the Corners of My Mind,” at 12:15 p.m. in the Assorted Lives Pavilion.


7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, May 21

Ah, love. We get a heaping helping of it at the Getty’s “Love Story Weekend,” which continues today. Hear noted actors read short stories by noted writers — Regina King reads Charles Johnson, Alec Baldwin reads John Updike and William H. Macy reads Etgar Keret.

May 20-22. $15-$20. 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.

Sunday, May 22

Klezmer fuses with Middle Eastern rhythms in Yuval Ron and Sha-Rone Kushnir’s new performance of original music and stories, “The Legend of Baal Shem.” Sponsored by the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and a grant by the city of West Hollywood, the free concert honors West Hollywood’s large Russian Jewish immigrant community with a focus on the Ukranian-born founder of Chasidism, the Baal Shem Tov.

4 p.m. Free. West Hollywood Park and Recreation Auditorium, 647 San Vicente Blvd. (323) 658-5824.

Monday, May 23

Richard Nanes’ classical crossover music has been performed by the London Philharmonic and at Lincoln Center, with his “Symphony No. 3, The Holocaust” world premiering at the Kiev International Music Festival. You’ve heard his music on the Bravo Network, and possibly on EWTN (the Global Catholic Network). But for those who want to own his “Symphony No. 3, The Holocaust,” the opportunity has just now arrived. It’s available on video and CD through the Web., ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, May 24

Gary Baseman’s illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and on the cover of the New Yorker. This month, however, you need look no further than our own fair city. “Gary Baseman: For the Love of Toby” opens this month at Billy Shire Fine Arts, featuring cartoonish depictions of the lovable cat Toby in different curious and sometimes naughty situations. Base man indeed!

Noon-6 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 5790 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (323) 297-0600.

Wednesday, May 25

Sunday marked the opening of UCLA Hillel’s Dortot Center for Creativity in the Arts’ new photography exhibit, “Resistance and Rescue in Denmark,” by Judy Ellis Glickman. But for those who missed it, the show continues through June 30. The images depict the history of the rescue of Danish Jewry during the Nazi occupation.

Free. 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081.

Thursday, May 26

Jewish music mixes with Latin beats in this evening’s Skirball concert featuring Septeto Roberto Rodriguez. Rodriguez and his band perform songs from his latest album, “Baila! Gitano Baila!” and the public gains free admission to the Skirball’s exhibits, including “Einstein,” before the show.

7:30 p.m. $15-$25. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Friday, May 27

Chuck Goldstone has mused on everything from PC vs. Mac users to the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, and now has a new book of humorous writings out titled, “This Book Is Not a Toy!: Friendly Advice on How to Avoid Death and Other Inconveniences.” If you missed him yesterday at Dutton’s in Brentwood, he reads some of his silliness in person today at Vroman’s Pasadena.

7 p.m. Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena. (626) 449-5320.

Changed My Life

If you look really closely you can see me in the new movie “Isn’t She Great?” the Jacqueline Susann biopic starring Bette Midler. It’s the scene in Central Park when a young career woman on a bench near the lake is voraciously reading Harold Robbins’ “The Carpetbaggers,” nearly licking each delicious page. She’s not the real me of course. She comes awfully close enough.

For a time, I loved Harold Robbins, just as I loved the novels by Jacqueline Susann. When I was 13, and then 14 and 15, I read their low-brow books as a Real Life 101. I read Robbins’ “A Stone for Danny Fisher” and learned how a man looks at a woman. I read “The Valley of the Dolls” to learn how a woman looks at a man. I read Robbins and Susann to discover how a Jew, an American Jew, looks at life.

I know what you must think of me. Gloria Steinem described the appeal of Jacqueline Susann novels to Susann’s biographer Barbara Seaman this way: “‘Valley of the Dolls’ is for the reader who has put away comic books but isn’t yet ready for editorials in the Daily News.” I guess that was me.

But I had ambitions. For a long time I thought that the proper role of a Jewish novelist was to write stories of ambition and decay. In such stories, heroes and heroines rose from desperate beginnings, fired with desperate ambitions to have desperate love affairs, before they reached their desperate ends. I was ready, desperately. I knew that I’d have to camouflage my heroine’s ethnic background; to keep the Jewishness subtle, if not excised. Being Jewish was a writer’s permit, I believed, not her subject matter. After Jacqueline Susann, I found literature, which to me was Leon Uris. Philip Roth, who came next, was, in comparison, next to Proust who, though not being Jewish, was next to God.

I say all this to explain what Andrew Bergman’s new movie, “Isn’t She Great” gets right. The desperation part. Jackie Susann, who died in 1974 of breast cancer, was so desperate for success at the time she met Irving that she was even willing to write a book. She knew nothing about literature, but had failed in everything else, including demonstrating cookware in the grocery store.

It’s this mixture of ambition and desperation that has been part of the Jewish experience. It’s the part that most of us are now eager to forget. We’ve arrived, and our children all go to universities. We forget that once upon a time we lacked pretenses and read for experience and fun. And we wrote out of personal destiny, because we must.

Bergman makes the most of this. He reminds us that once upon a time, not so long ago, Jews were outsiders, and outsiders, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. That outsider status was the major reason, as opposed to our erudite literary sensibility, for our success in the media. We knew how to speak directly from the gut. (Today there are a few of these genre-benders left: Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon. But as I say, I’ve moved on to God.)

Jackie, along with her husband/publicist, Irving Mansfield (Nathan Lane), transformed the marketing of books, creating the national book tour. The success of the book tour, as “Isn’t She Great?” makes clear, is that it brought vulgar, Jewish commercial sensibilities to the American heartland. Do not be embarrassed, the movie thinks this is a good thing. The movie (based on an article by her one-time editor Michael Korda) takes us back to where it all began, when the book business was an effete WASP enterprise. Visiting the rarefied cloister of book publishing in the ’50s, few of us would ever go back.

When Jackie and Irving take the fey Korda surrogate, called here Michael Hastings (David Hyde Pierce ) to Sardi’s for another overstuffed lunch, they literally vacuum the pomposity out of the air. Midler announces to the maitre d’ that they want seats for “two adults and a gentile.” Why does that line ring so true? It’s the excess, stupid. Midler, playing Susann in all her New York-Jewish glory is undaunted by Hastings’ disapproval, unfazed by America in all its pretenses. It is Hyde Pierce, the classic WASP who is transformed by the Jews. He’s Pygmalion in reverse.

Bergman and screenwriter Paul Rudnick have merciless fun at the expense of the American heartland on the book tour itself. Jackie and Irving barge into quiet bookstores bombarding pasty-faced “American Gothic” clerks; Susann is a whole circus in a tight-fitting dress. Still the film insists, the whole country is better for the journey the Mansfields were on.

The irony, of course, is that Susann, for all her truth-telling about the world of ambitious Hollywood, could not tell the truth about herself. Her autistic son, her fight with cancer, even her Jewish heritage, were all secrets unknown by the public until after her death. Her limited foray into first person was a biography of her dog, Josephine.

Still, for all her limits, Jacqueline Susann is now part of a venerable pantheon of the Jewish low-brow. Deny them if you want, but what’s the point? America was eagerly awaiting what Jews had to offer, from burlesque and vaudeville to movies and novels. It’s a short leap from Jacqueline Susann to Lenny Bruce and then to the political activists who brought us the civil rights, Vietnam and feminist movement. It’s a stretch, you think, but not all that much.

As for me, I’ve found that writing bad, compulsively readable literature is hard work. I’ve tried to duplicate her voice, her irony and her bitterness on several occasions. Maybe I haven’t lived enough.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life.”

Her website is

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through