In today’s volatile political and social climate, actors and celebrities are often as well known for their causes as for their movies and plays. Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Yoko Ono, and Alyssa Milano, to name just a few, are known for numerous foundations and humanitarian causes, for speaking up and out, and for making huge financial donations. It seems as if this is a new development, due to the omnipresent information that fills our screens regarding the famous. However, if you travel a little further back in time you find Jane Fonda fighting the Vietnam war, and prior to that, Audrey Hepburn leaving acting to focus on humanitarian work for UNICEF. The intersection of arts and activism is not new, and it doesn’t always have clear cut benefits for those who engage in it. Especially in certain eras, morals and integrity stood in direct opposition to fortune and popularity. Many who stood up for the former ended up fading in the latter. For those who aspire to use public platforms to create and facilitate change, Marsha Hunt is a person to both honor and emulate.
Marsha Hunt is a retired actress and activist. She is 101 years old and still lives in her beautiful home in the San Fernando Valley. She has led an amazing life, both as an incredibly gifted and intelligent performer and as a forward thinking activist championing both individual rights and institutional evolution. Everyone should know her name, her unique voice and be aware of her legacy. This article serves simply as an introduction to her incredible life and work. It is impossible to condense all that she has created and stood for into one piece. I’ve included numerous links and additional information at the end of this post.
Ms. Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917. She did it all. While training as an actor, she began to work as a model, becoming one of the industry’s highest paid by 1935. Although she wanted to do theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 17 and was initially signed by Paramount, where she starred in several films. Even at this tender age, she started to assert her rights. She refused to do pin up photos (known as “cheesecake” and “leg art”) and did not take part in the social party scene. She was starting even then, to find her own voice and to stand up for her values. Although she showed promise, Paramount released her from her contract after a few years. She freelanced for a while before ending up at MGM, where she stayed on contract through 1945. Notable films include Pride and Prejudice and Blossoms in the Dust. She also starred in the only wartime film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). While she did not become an A list star, she worked constantly as a supporting actor in quality films. During the war she also sang on USO tours and developed a career in radio. She appeared in over 50 films in her career, over the course of several decades.
Ms. Hunt’s film career came to an abrupt halt when she was caught up in the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Ms. Hunt was and continues to be outspoken, with a liberal belief system that she guards fiercely. Ms. Hunt, along with her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were so disturbed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that they joined the Committee for the First Amendment which was formed in 1947 and made up of many A list actors and Hollywood players. The group went to Washington to protest the hearings and produced Hollywood Fights Back, a star-studded radio program which was co-written by her husband.
Like many other notable actors and screenwriters who dared to stand up to the government and studio system, Ms. Hunt’s career came to a complete stop in Hollywood. She was asked to denounce her activities if she wanted to find more work and she steadfastly refused. In 1950, Hunt was named as a potential Communist or Communist sympathizer (along with 151 other actors, writers and directors) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. Though she would continue to work through her 90s, the blacklist effectively stopped her ascent in major motion pictures.
Not one to sit still however, Ms. Hunt simply knocked on other doors, returning to her first love; theater. She made her Broadway debut in Joy To The World, in March of 1948. She continued to go between theater, working both on Broadway and in Los Angeles, television and radio for the rest of her career. She starred in the first live televised Shakespeare play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1950 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as the star of the Broadway play, The Devil’s Disciple. In 1987 she even appeared in an episode of Star Trek! In addition to opening up time for theater, the blacklist also opened up her time for activism. This was not a new avenue for her to travel. She had worked throughout the war years at the Hollywood Canteen dancing and socializing with service men, especially on Saturday nights, when no one else wanted to. But, after the blacklist, the world opened up to her. As she stated in an interview with Film Talk in response to the question:
“How did you get involved in all the charity work you did for so many years?”
When I had so much free time because I wasn’t allowed to act, I discovered the outside world. I went around the world with my husband and I came back as, what I called, a planet patriot. I fell in love with the planet, not just my country, but all of us. I learned about the United Nations which was right here in this country and I spent twenty-five years working as a volunteer on behalf of the UN, I worked on the Year of the Child, international cooperation, and made a documentary film during World Refugee Year with fourteen stars appearing in it to tell the stories of different refugees. There were still twenty-five million people floating around the world, stateless, with no travel papers, no identity papers, no work permits – fifteen years after World War II ended. The United Nations was trying to get the governments to open their borders and let their fair share of refugees in, so I made this film to acquaint Americans with it. It was very rewarding.
In addition to world wide charity work, Ms. Hunt made a huge difference right in the San Fernando Valley, opening the first homeless shelter for women and children. This is especially poignant because her own baby did not survive. During the turmoil of the McCarthy era, she gave birth to a baby girl, born prematurely, who later passed away. This was a true heartbreak for her and she did not have any other children.
Ms. Hunt’s creative spirit is expressed in numerous ways. In 1993 she published The Way We Wore … a beautiful coffee table book detailing fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photos are of her, in glorious outfit after glorious outfit. Many are studio shots used as publicity for her 50 movies, some are fashion shots for the designers. Each photo is explained and detailed by Ms. Hunt in her own charming manner. I actually met Ms. Hunt when I was directing and costuming a play set in the 1940s. She lent us clothes, making sure that each piece was truly representative of who would wear it. Her knowledge of fashion rivals many who made it their life’s work. Her generosity of spirit was on display even in such limited contact.
One of the most charming surprises, but one that goes to the heart of Ms. Hunt’s belief system is the song that she wrote about love and marriage equality for same-sex couples, titled Here’s To All Who Love. She wrote it at age 95, and it has become an anthem at marriage ceremonies. She wrote it as a gift and it is has been received as one.
There is a documentary by Roger Memos about Marsha Hunt. It had a short run in 2015 but in order to recut it for streaming services, Mr. Memos is raising funds. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with Ms. Hunt and features countless interviews, clips and insight. It is a labor of love and an amazing project. If you would like to read more about the documentary you can check out the Facebook page. If you would like to donate to the GoFund account to help with the sound mix, closed captioning, the film’s website and the film trailer, please click here.
In preparation for this article, I sent Ms. Hunt some questions to answer via email. Rather than edit them, I will share them with you as is.
What similarities do you see in the political climate today and during the 1940s and 1950s? Are there differences that you feel are more or less dangerous?
At 101 years of age I am not as well informed as I once was. But of course I favor, as always, the most peaceful, most even handed solution to problems.
I don’t know if you would remember, but we have actually met! You were extremely generous in helping me costume a play that I directed, set in the 1940s. I came over and you lent us clothing and gave me a copy of your book, which I treasure. How do you feel that fashion (or the lack of it) affects women’s power and collective voice? I have been watching the new congress and all of the new younger and female members of the House in their bright clothes and fashion forward choices. Does this, in your opinion empower or diminish them?
I think there is an effect but it’s hard to define. I think how well, how effectively, a woman legislator dresses can tell us something about her IQ, the effective, the becoming, the appropriate, which then empowers them. I don’t think “fashion” diminishes unless it’s extreme – then it can be negative, but I think that’s pretty rare. I guess women in government dress without “headlines’. If they were fashion plates it would be distracting from their effectiveness in what they are there to do. It would become the wrong topic.
What do you want to tell women and actors who find that their activism is more important to them than their acting careers? Do you think it is worth it, if being known for your politics is hurting your castability. Do you think that is a truism, or simply a fear?
When you take positions you lose some people just as you gain others. On matters of importance to me, it is worth it.
What role do you think that the unions should play in helping actors become activists? Should the union be neutral or an active partner? (NB: Ms. Hunt was active in SAG prior to the blacklist and served on the board)
The union is there to protect and help the actor so when one’s union takes a position the individual is spared blame or credit for it. At that extent we are protected by our unions.
Do you see any positive aspects to social media as it it used today? Do you see it as a danger (do you not care about it at all??)
The internet/social media is a way of “getting it out there” but then nothing remains private including opinions.
What changes would you like to see, both in the nation and in the entertainment/film industry, in regards to women specifically.
The changes in the entertainment/film industry ideally would be that it that it be an open opportunity to write, direct, produce whether a woman or a man.
Sweet Adversity Documentary:
The Way We Wore
Links to additional articles:
NPR: Actress Marsha Hunt, 100, Has Matters Of Principle
Movie Maker: Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind
British Film Institute: Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian
LA Times: Actress Marsha Hunt survived the blacklist without apologizing for her activism
Film Talk: Marsha Hunt: “MGM let me play absolutely everything, the studio gave me such joy”
Huffington Post: Marsha Hunt Pens ‘Here’s To All Who Love’ Gay Rights Anthem