Marsha Hunt, Actor, Activist and Survivor

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 JolieOprah WinfreyYoko 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.

Marsha being surprised by the crew of her documentary for her 75th anniversary. She is in her late 90s in this photograph.

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:
Review

Book website:
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
IMDB bio
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

Video:
Marsha discusses her career and the Hollywood Blacklist


Thomas Bird Confronts Monsters of History - Both His and Ours

Photo by Barbara Katz

When the lights come up on Bearing Witness, Thomas Bird's one-man show at the Odyssey Theatre, Bird is standing near a bench which he informs us is outside the gates of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.  This is where the Nazis sent their political prisoners and the educated classes, the intelligentsia, where they proceeded to work them to death. This is also where the most beautiful Jewish women from all the other camps were brought, so that Nazi officers could use them as prostitutes.  Many became pregnant, at which time they became test subjects for Nazi doctors conducting whatever bizarre experiments they wanted to.  Needless to say, the endgame for these women too was death of one kind or another.

Thomas Bird is a Vietnam War veteran who served with B Company, 2nd of the 5th Cavalry, of 1st Cavalry Division in 1965-66. In 1978 he founded the Vietnam Veteran's Ensemble Theatre Company (VETCo), and, as Artistic Director, presented 26 plays both Off- and Off-off-Broadway, including the highly-acclaimed Tracers at the Public Theatre in New York. For his work at VETCo, he was awarded a Drama Desk Award for "giving voice to the trauma of Vietnam."  (He also co-produced HBO's Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam - winning Emmy, Ace and Peabody Awards - and was featured in the film The Killing Fields.)

So why did Bird's show start at Mauthausen?

Thomas Bird's father was a military doctor who arrived here in 1945 with the American forces liberating this camp.  Mauthausen was the last Nazi death camp to be set free, and the event was overwhelming for all involved.   Bird tells us that the impact on his father of seeing the skeletal condition of the living prisoners - as well as the stacks of dead bodies in shallow graves - was enormous,  In addition, something happened when Doctor Bird was tending to the surviving victims that haunted him for the rest of his life, and which Bird's father could only tell his son about on his deathbed.

Bearing Witness chronicles Thomas Bird's spiritual journey in search of his father and the bond they once shared.  I found it to be a deeply powerful piece of confessional theater, which I spoke with Bird about afterwards.

Photo By Barbara Katz

SF:  Your show is called Bearing Witness.  What are you bearing witness to?

TB:   I'm bearing witness to my father and the strong moral and ethical principles that guided him.  I'm honoring his service in World War II and trying to understand the terrible pain he experienced when something tragic happened during his treatment of survivors.  I'm also bearing witness to the killing fields in Vietnam, and all the blameless villagers who were wiped out for no reason in a war driven by body counts.  In a larger sense, I am bearing witness to the innocent victims of both wars, and the toll that has taken on our shared humanity.

SF:  Your anecdotes about killing Vietcong soldiers and about seeing your infantry buddies get killed are so harrowing, as are your reflections about what it took for you to come to terms with that experience.  Do you think that this country has similarly come to terms with what happened there?

TB:   Hardly.  It's part of our cultural sickness - maybe even the origin of it.  This country has never expressed sorrow or remorse for all the violence we did, all the destruction we inflicted in Vietnam.  We continue to believe that it is somehow weak to learn from our mistakes, and so we commit them again and again.  The business of America is business, so we deal with our guilt by making countries prosperous after we've decimated them.  But there is never any true accountability.  Never any soul-searching or moral acceptance of the result of our actions.  So the violence festers within our national spirit, and the sickness grows.

SF:  How would you say this "sickness" manifests itself in our time?

TB:  In so many ways.  Violent video games for one, which I find as appalling and deformative as the slaughter at My Lai.  School shootings for another.  The AR-15 is basically the same as the M-16 we had in Vietnam.  That was the first weapon that could shatter bones,  It's a killing machine, and it has no place in civilized society, much less in the hands of teenagers.  It's all part of this epidemic of what we called "mechanical killing" - which itself involves the loss of Empathy.  Recovering my sense of empathy is what saved my life when I was choked with guilt for what I went through in combat.  I discovered my purpose, my creativity, when I got that back.  But it's the loss of empathy, and the loss of our moral compass, that is killing this country now.

SF:  What about Donald Trump?

TB:  You mean Mister Bone-Spur, our Deny-er-in-Chief?

SF:  Right.

TB:  Yes, he gets 5 deferments - 5! - to keep from having to serve his country in Vietnam. But still he feels qualified to put down John McClain, who - whatever else you think about him - is a real hero who made genuine sacrifices for his country.  Trump is shameless, he has no bona fides, no claim to honor of any kind, and he is as far away from the real military as chocolate is from vanilla.

I am proud to have served my country, to be part of a tradition of serving in the Infantry that goes back to the Greeks.  But you have to separate the War from the Warrior.  That's something my Dad and I agreed upon.  You can be for the soldiers but disagree with the war. That is our American right, and it's at the heart of what has made this country great.  But Trump has tried to equate the two and to use this as a weapon against his critics.  Don't believe it.

That is certainly one of the things I've tried to put into Bearing Witness.  Military might is one thing, but who are we if we lose our empathy, our humanity?  That's why I cried at Mauthausen, for the way that all those innocent people were slaughtered in the Nazi death machine.  But I look around now, and I have to wonder if we've really learned anything from that terrible lesson.