I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir
By Lee Grant
Blue Rider Press, 480 pages, $28.95
Oscar-winning American Jewish actress Lee Grant is one of the rare performers (along with Zero Mostel) to have eventually triumphed over the Hollywood blacklist during McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. She did so through a combination of fierce determination, zesty Yiddishkeit, and youth, being in her early 20s when she first became persona non grata on film and television. The title of Grant’s new memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything,” was inspired by a description in the author Anaïs Nin’s published diary of the artsy American socialite Caresse Crosby: “The word on her lips is always yes, and all her being says yes yes yes to all that is happening and all that is offered her.”
Despite incarnating this Molly Bloom-like optimism, Grant’s negative experiences began in 1951, after she spoke at a memorial for the Hungarian-born Jewish actor J. Edward Bromberg (born Josef Bromberger), who died of a heart attack after being harassed by the all-powerful U.S. Congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities. When Grant suggested that Bromberg was a casualty of the Committee, the resulting backlash placed her on a blacklist for work in movies and TV, even though her film debut as a shoplifter in the 1951 police drama “Detective Story” had earned her an Academy Award nomination. Her other Oscar nods would come for playing a bored, lustful politician’s wife in the 1975 comedy “Shampoo” and a doomed German Jewish refugee in 1976’s “The Voyage of the Damned,” about the real-life ocean liner MS St. Louis, turned back to Nazi Germany in 1939 after Cuba, the United States, and Canada refused entry to its passengers.
Grant was cannily aware that her refugee character could not be too glamorous, yet she did not want to seem too old for future parts, so she demanded special lighting from the film’s director of photography. This kind of practical savvy was linked with emotional awareness of the film’s historical context:
“There is a scene in Voyage where my character sits in front of her makeup mirror and grimly, silently begins to cut her hair off down to the scalp,” Grant writes. “I’ve lost my husband to suicide. In my mind, cutting my hair off is an act of Orthodox Jewish protocol before killing myself. I think the scene takes place after America has turned our boat away and we’re heading back to Germany.”
Grant also won Emmy awards for roles she played during the 1960s, including that of Stella Chernak on the TV soap opera “Peyton Place,” performed with the coiled tensile passion of Maria Callas.
The punchy, plain-speaking narrative of “I Said Yes to Everything” fully credits this capacity for galvanizing passion to Grant’s background and to her upbringing by an adoring Russian mother who is described as a “Jewish child hunted in her cellar by goyim on horseback.” Born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal in 1926 in New York, Grant was exposed to the struggles of the past through family stories about her grandfather Leon, a “clothing designer and committed Zionist who left for Palestine with several other Zionist men before I was born… They all died of malaria while fighting for their cause. There is a plaque in Rishon LeZion with his name on it.”
Grant’s father was born in the Bronx of Polish Orthodox Jewish immigrants, who disliked his choice of a bride. Further undesired excitement occurred when walking down Convent Avenue as a girl, she “discovered that the convents on the avenue had angry nuns who encouraged angry parochial school children to hate Jews. The nuns encouraged the children to throw nails at [my sister] and me. ‘You nailed Jesus to the cross!’ they yelled… How did they even know we were Jewish?”
Although secular in their beliefs, both of her parents were culturally involved in Judaism. Grant followed suit, and although she celebrated her bat mitzvah, she did not dare tell her parents that she had been molested by the rabbi preparing her for that milestone. Her name change was prompted by an agent who informed her that no one could pronounce “Lyova.” Still in her early 20s, she married — for a decade — Arnold Manoff, a leftist screenwriter who was himself blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studio bosses in the 1950s. Grant left the successful theatrical run of “Detective Story” to act in Manoff’s play “All You Need is One Good Break,” about a struggling Jewish working class family that lasted three days on Broadway.
Grant analyzes her ill-fated first marriage this way: “I was married to a sexy, charismatic, intellectual Jewish guy who loved me off and on, mostly off. After the five-year mark, mostly off.” Seeing what the communist witch hunt did to talented writers, directors and fellow actors, many of them Jewish, made a permanent impact on Grant, who became an outspoken anti-blacklist activist at the time and still does not mince words about the McCarthy’s legacy: “For ten years this ranting alcoholic [McCarthy] terrified thinking men and women into complete submission, all the while manipulated by the slimy, revolting Roy Cohn.”
Although the blacklist eased for her in the early 1960s, Grant remains traumatized even today. “I Said Yes” implies that she did not work at all on TV for a dozen years, though IMDb.com lists several small roles in television programs during these years, including one as a goat-seller and avenging angel in 1959’s “The World of Sholom Aleichem.” In this program, she acted alongside a who’s who of Jewish actors, some of them also blacklist victims, including Gertrude Berg, Morris Carnovsky, Jack Gilford, Sam Levene, Zero Mostel and Charlotte Rae.
Once she was considered employable again, Grant did tend to accept everything offered, including the disappointing “Portnoy’s Complaint,” adapted from the Philip Roth novel by director Ernest Lehman, who according to Grant was “playing Erich von Stroheim, reveling in sudden power.” She added, in an understatement, that the resulting film was “not a good reflection of Jewish family life.” Low points also included [“The Swarm”] (http://www.amazon.com/Swarm-Michael-Caine/dp/B000067FP4/?tag=thefor03-20) about killer bees; the unfunny role of Mrs. Lupowitz in “Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen”; and “Visiting Hours,” a Canadian shocker set in a hospital. During filming in Quebec, Grant “heard on the radio one day that [Canadians] still had signs in the countryside that said NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED.”
But there were high points as well. Grant played Marilyn Klinghoffer in the TV film “The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro” and in sublimely ironic casting, portrayed Roy Cohn’s mother in the TV movie “Citizen Cohn.”
In 1980 she directed her first film, “Tell Me a Riddle,” about an aging leftist Jewish immigrant. Grant also directed and narrated the 1986 documentary “Down and Out in America” about poverty during the Reagan era, which won an Oscar for best documentary, and the 1989 fictional TV film “No Place Like Home,” about homelessness.
Combining social conscience with an acute awareness of her roots, Lee Grant is a showbiz survivor, outlasting an iniquitous political era that destroyed masses of talented people.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.