"Dad had a premonition from his youth that he would die violently," Richard Lees told Los Angeles Times staff writer Martin Miller. "I think when you have a sensitive child like Dad and put him in a universe of murder and wars and the rest of it, you internalize the worst of it and start to think why am I any better than that guy that got shot at Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Bulge or in Korea, Vietnam or Iraq? He was a dear fellow, a sweet man, who was like everyone else trying to make it through this business we call living."
Lees' father, 91-year-old screenwriter Robert Lees, was one of two victims in a stark homicidal rampage that Los Angeles Police Capt. Al Michelena called "obviously very gruesome murders."
In the early morning hours of June 13, Kevin Lee Graff, a 27-year old methamphetamine user and itinerant drifter, broke into Lees' Hollywood home and used kitchen knives to decapitate the former blacklisted screenwriter. Sometime later that morning Graff, carrying Lees' severed head in his hands, jumped a fence and stabbed to death a neighbor, 69-year old Dr. Morley Engelson.
There was nothing political about the slaying of Robert Lees. Not until now. Not until journalist and unapologetically conservative Op-Ed columnist Cathy Seipp had her say.
You may have seen Seipp on The Dennis Miller Show or read her scribblings in The Weekly Standard, Reason, Forbes, and TV Guide, among others. She also maintains a blog at http://cathyseipp.journalspace.com where like-minded myopic reactionaries can find comfort food in her sometimes painfully simplistic musings.
"If you read the L.A. Times today," Cathy wrote on July 5, "you know that Robert Lees, the 91-year-old screenwriter murdered last month by the crazy homeless decapitator, was a Communist who refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the '50s and was blacklisted. Therefore, he is to the media not only a victim of a peculiar and horrible random crime but also something of a saint."
If not speaking ill of the dead - especially one killed in a crime that Police Chief William Bratton called "horrific" and "barbaric" - is tantamount to nominating the deceased for sainthood then Seipp may have a point. But the Times article that so offends Seipp's far-to-the-right sensibilities is nothing more or less than a look back at the life and career of a remarkable man who died a most remarkable death.
Screenwriter Robert Lees joined the Communist Party in 1939. He was, as the Times feature points out, one of many "radicalized left-wingers" stigmatized by the Depression and anxious to grasp a system, any system, that could deliver "a more just and fair society."
With partner Fred Rinaldo, Lees wrote comedies for Abbott and Costello, Robert Benchley, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. But his political views were no laughing matter to the HUAC and soon he was called to testify.
Rather than name partner Rinaldo as a Communist, Lees invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. He was summarily blacklisted, went underground, and was forced to use a front for the teleplays he wrote to keep his family clothed and fed.
Seipp was not offended only by Times writer Martin Miller's attempt to beatify Robert Lees. She writes:
"The magazine the Writers Guild sends out to its members, called Written By, naturally began this canonization process even before the Times and has a Q&A with Lees (culled from interviews Ed Rampell did in 2002 and 2003) in its summer issue, which I just got in the mail last week."
"I have no beef with Lees' answers." Seipp snipes. "He was who he was, and I suppose never changing your mind about anything in 90-plus years on earth is something of an accomplishment - but Rampell's questions cross the line from gently lobbed softballs to outright shilling."
Rampell asked Lees a total of fourteen questions. Here are two of them with an excerpt of Lees' responses. You decide if this constitutes modern-day Communist shilling:
RAMPELL: What's the difference between a whistleblower and an informer?
LEES: The informer sacrifices everybody for his own good. The whistleblower sacrifices himself for the good of others.
RAMPELL: Do you think that there's a new kind of blacklisting and McCarthyism today?
LEES: There's no question that the PATRIOT Act is doing the same thing (as McCarthyism) to everybody with an Arab connection. Tarring a large group with a guilt by association or name. It's a wide brush and it has all the similarities with what took place previously. Now it's coming to the point eventually where if you don't agree with the (Bush) administration, if you're against the Iraq War, and you have peace demonstrations, you're liable to be said to be aiding and abetting the enemy and you could very well be in the same thing as in the McCarthy era. You were aiding and abetting the Soviet Union, presumably - now you're aiding and abetting the Arabs. It comes down to the Fifth Amendment.
Seipp also attacks Rampell's interview with the late screenwriter for its Writers Guild of America "agenda-driven thinking." In other words, in Cathy Seipp's world the Writer's Guild is still a hot bed of commies and pinkos. Never mind the fact that exalted conservative Ronald Reagan was once the head of a Hollywood labor union ("Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild and was an FBI informer," Lees remarked to Rampell)
Seipp's online readers, posting through the comments board, were not so quick to goose-step to her childish, red-baiting comments.
"Your mealy mouthed attempts to play down the despicable nature of the HUAC is duly noted," wrote "Howie". "The courage displayed by the people who refused to help that loathsome committee demolish the Constitution is obviously alien to you, but you owe each and every one of them a debt of gratitude for what they did."
Howie closed with a well-deserved poisonous salutation to Seipp: "You are a despicable coward."
Journalist David Ehrenstein wrote: "Lees, as is well-known, is responsible for writing what is far and away the most important Communist film of all time, 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein'. Clearly more insidious than anything Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Dovshenko ever did, it turned an entire generation of American youth into raving, murderous Stalinists."
I'm also fond of Elizabeth Irwin's reaction to Seipp's channeling of the ghosts of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn:
"Why do so many conservatives feel obligated to seize upon the occasion of the death of a progressive as the perfect time for launching a smear campaign? This is exactly the sort of thing that happened after the Reverend Martin Luther King died.
"So Robert Lees was a liberal-in-a-hurry who was a bit naïve concerning politics. Does that make him a monster in your eyes? How can you fixate on this small and modest elderly pensioner when we have Bush, Cheney, and their Patriot Act to contend with? Show some compassion!"
As I mentioned earlier, Seipp - whom a mutual acquaintance tells me has a high IQ but I suspect she keeps it under lock and key and has forgotten where - is the only professional journalist to dare make political hay over the tragic and grotesque murder of Robert Lees. For that breach alone I wish I had the power to erase her voice from the journalistic spectrum.
But that would be un-American.
© 2004, Rodger Jacobs
All Rights Reserved
Rodger Jacobs is an award-winning journalist, screenwriter, and documentary producer. He lives in Los Angeles and concurs with Jack Kerouac's summation that L.A. is "the loneliest and most brutal of American cities."
Visit his website to find more of his writing.