October 22, 2019

Land of the ‘Lost’

"A Nation Lost and Found: 1936 America Remembered by Ordinary and Extraordinary People" edited by Stanley K. Sheinbaum and Frank Pierson (Tallfellow Press, $24.95).

In 1936, there were 130 million Americans, roughly 3 percent were Jewish, and many existed on the margins of an anti-Semitic society. FDR was re-elected president of the United States in 1936 — a landslide victory. But for most Americans, 1936 was still the middle of the Depression, an economic disaster that had engulfed the nation seven years earlier, and whose end was nowhere in sight.

That that America was a different nation — and we a different people — is evident from the personal memoirs recalled in a new book, "A Nation Lost and Found: 1936 America Remembered by Ordinary and Extraordinary People."

Actor Gregory Peck tells us, "It was a very good year for college boys without independent means," while Shirley Temple Black recalls the trials and tribulations of being a child movie star, indeed more than a star, the No. 1 box office draw at MGM. She was 8, but says she passed for 7 the following year.

We are offered vignettes and memories by musicians Dave Brubeck and Artie Shaw, who were just starting out; and anecdotes of the times by writers as diverse as journalist Daniel Schorr, novelist Elmore Leonard and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who wrote the scripts for "Julia" and "Ordinary People," and remembers the time when he "was a comfortable 9-year-old neurotic."

And of course Studs Terkel is present — his books the model for this one — living in Chicago, struggling as an actor in soap operas, then working for the Federal Writers’ Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) formed under the New Deal, followed by a brief Washington stint in a civil service job, then back to Chicago. You went where the work was, the Depression imprinted on nearly everyone’s life.

The book’s editors, Frank Pierson and Stanley Sheinbaum, grew up in New York, but live in Los Angeles today. Pierson, head of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and former president of the Screenwriter’s Guild, is a successful writer and director ("Dog Day Afternoon," "Cool Hand Luke," "Cat Ballou"). He has won an Oscar and received plaudits and Emmy nominations for his HBO docu-drama, "Conspiracy," a chilling account of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which formalized the details of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution.

Sheinbaum, a political activist who served as past chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union, organized the defense in the trial over Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, and has been a leading Mideast peace activist since the late ’80s, when he and four other Americans met for the first time with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. That unofficial and proscribed (by Israel) meeting helped set in motion the Madrid and Oslo peace conferences.

In 1936, Pierson lived in five unheated rooms of a fifth floor walk-up in New York City’s West Village. He was an 11-year-old whose father was unemployed, whose family had become poor, though "we never felt poor." The family’s wealthy former friends and employers would not give Pierson’s father a job, though they did make sure that all the children had full scholarships to private schools and Yale.

Sheinbaum’s family saga was slightly different. His father went from bankruptcy to bankruptcy. The family of three sons and parents shared a single room apartment with a kitchenette in the Hotel Royal on the corner of Broadway and 104th Street. There were no wealthy former friends to help with scholarships for schooling. Nevertheless, the Sheinbaum children, like the Piersons, made their way in post-Depression America.

Today Pierson and Sheinbaum live in the midst of ease and affluence, partly a result of their talent, partly their ability to seize opportunity, partly, I would guess, by dint of character and personality. They have called on friends and colleagues to contribute their recollections. And so we have accounts by many screenwriters and Hollywood people, including two blacklisted Californians (screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and actress Marsha Hunt), journalists and civil rights activists, and even the presence of the late Leah Rabin (Sheinbaum’s friend).

Surprisingly, there are no black voices here, except for that of a poor, Southern sharecropper interviewed in 1936 by a writer who was given employment by the WPA. That interview, reproduced here, is heartbreaking. Pierson acknowledged he found it painful to read, to accept that this man’s world was so delimited and closed, outside literacy, outside even the culture. There seemed no hope for change or growth for the man, his wife or his children. It was as though they inhabited another America beyond Pierson’s reach.

In 1936, there seemed to be a closeness among the many have-nots. People were connected in ways that elude many of us today; and so all of the memories are actually more personal than political. They deal with family and with character; and, at times, with an experience so searing it reads, in recall, as though it happened yesterday: A girl’s betrayal of her favorite teacher; a young man’s warm recollection of his first job, still fresh and clear like a quick, clean snapshot; and comedian Red Buttons’ description of his first night of love with a prostitute. It still lingers, like a romantic film, more than 65 years later.

Today, we still have poverty on a vast scale, but the machinery and luggage of daily life is different: Despite computers and television and cell phones, life feels less immediate and direct; more synthetic and distant. In 1936, there were feelings of hope, openness, and change. Even now it has such a California feel, such a Jewish feel. The sense of it comes off the page.