Billy Wilkerson left a complicated legacy in Hollywood.
On this day in 1946, the founding editor of The Hollywood Reporter published a column on an issue that, he wrote, concerned more than just Hollywood writers. “It concerns millions of readers who depend upon the free trade of ideas,” he wrote, as well as “still more millions of children–who can’t read yet–but who were born with the right to hope for a free world.”
Ironically, given this language, “A Vote for Joe Stalin,” Wilkerson’s article, would be credited as a turning point in the early history of the Hollywood blacklist. During the blacklist era of the late 40s and 1950s, studio chiefs refused to hire actors, directors, screenwriters and others due to their alleged ties to communism. Playing out against a backdrop of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and McCarthyism, the blacklist changed Hollywood forever, and Wilkerson helped to shape who was on it.
The blacklist era officially began a year after Wilkerson's column, when the major studios agreed they would deny work to the now-infamous Hollywood 10, who had publicly denounced the House Un-American Activities Committee. But before that, Wilkerson would spend that year haranguing unfortunates in the Hollywood community who would go on to become targets of the blacklist, often losing their careers. Eight of the 11 men he named in July 1946 would go on to become part of the Hollywood 10, Daniel Miller and Gary Baum wrote for the Reporter in 2012.
Wilkerson did his damage in the weekly column, “Tradeviews,” published in the Reporter. Between that first column in 1946 and the naming of the Hollywood 10 in 1947, Wilkerson called out numerous Hollywood producers, writers, directors and actors in "Tradeviews." At the time, the Reporter was an industry newspaper known for Wilkerson's column, which appeared on the front page.
“The stakes were high for Wilkerson,” Miller and Baum write. “The possibility of a boycott of [his] trade newspaper, which he founded in 1930 and kept afloat through the Great Depression, loomed large. And there were moral considerations: He was, after all, going to damage hundreds of lives–perhaps many more.”
Despite personal misgivings and career ones, Wilkerson went forward with identifying people as communists in his column. “Billy began naming names in ‘46 and ...many of the names that he named were people who wound up being blacklisted,” Miller told Brooke Gladstone at WNYC. Although some of the most famous people Wilkerson named already had established careers, such as Howard Koch, cowriter of Casablanca, “many of the people he named were just getting their start in Hollywood,” Miller said.
By 1950, a pamphlet naming more than 150 movie workers helped to formalize the blacklist–but there was never just one list, which was part of what made this period in Hollywood history so frightening and dangerous for performers and workers. People of color, Jewish actors and those who were not born in the United States were under particular threat.
Miller and Baum’s article was part of a series that the Reporter did to recognize the publication’s involvement in the blacklist. It included an apology from Wilkerson’s son, William Wilkerson III. That apology shed some light on Wilkerson’s possible motivations for taking on the blacklist: it began “as a schoolyard spat with the movie brass,” he wrote. Before starting his magazine, Wilkerson wanted to make his own film studio. “Without the help of the studio titans who owned everything related to film production at that time,” his son wrote, “... it would have been next to impossible for Wilkerson.”
However, the situation may have been more complicated than simple revenge, Milller told Gladstone. “We see Billy as somebody who was actually in lockstep with the studio heads, who were also anti-Communist,” he said.
Whatever his motivations, Wilkerson’s participation in the blacklist era allowed him to shape Hollywood in darker ways than he would have been able to as a studio owner. As Miller and Baum write, "There eventually might have been a Hollywood Blacklist without Wilkerson, but in all likelihood, it wouldn't have looked quite the same, or materialized quite when it did, without his indomitable support."