Roy M. Brewer, a Hollywood labor chief in the 1940s and ’50s, whose leadership and outspoken anti-Communism during one of the most violent strikes in American history catalyzed Ronald Reagan into political action, has died in Los Angeles, aged 97. He passed away on Saturday, and the cause was complications from pneumonia, according to Brewer’s daughter, Ramona Moloski.
#ad#Although Brewer never ran a movie studio or directed a picture, for about a decade he had as much sway in the film capital as any mogul or filmmaker. He came from humble origins in Nebraska, and traveled to walk the corridors of power, becoming a confidant and close ally with such figures as Cecil B. de Mille, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Walt Disney.
After experience in labor and politics in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., Brewer arrived in Hollywood in 1945 to take a post as the International Representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (IATSE), the stagehands union. His first mission was to resolve a jurisdictional strike that had been called by a curious group of union locals, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), some 7,000 members strong. The strike turned bloody and was wreaking havoc in motion picture production, making it almost impossible for film crews and actors to work. The violence at Warner Bros. alone resulted in an estimated 150 people being hospitalized. “I wound up with my home under guard and my eight-year-old daughter being escorted to school with a bodyguard for a period of many weeks,” Brewer wrote in a 1978 letter.
Brewer soon concluded that the Communist party was behind the strike, using the welfare of the workingman as a ruse for trying to gain control of the movie industry. He said that the party was interested in Hollywood labor because of the economic leverage it wielded. “The communists were absolutely ruthless in dominating those who they could dominate and in destroying those whom they could control,” he wrote. “They would lie or circulate false rumors of anti-Semitism or whatever. Hundreds of careers were destroyed by the communists long before the blacklist was ever heard of.”
An Early Alliance
In 1946, as the strikes raged on, Brewer and Reagan, an officer on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild, became allies. It was a different era: Reagan was married to a top movie star, Jane Wyman, and was himself a leading man at Warner Bros. Publicly, Brewer took a bold approach in his statements defending the IATSE and criticizing the Communist-party element while Reagan was more guarded and discreet. Behind-the-scenes, however, the two men worked tenaciously at defeating the CSU. The stands Reagan took, and the lessons he learned from Brewer, paved the course for his election to the presidency of the Guild the following year.
A friendship that would last for decades was also born. In 1948, Brewer and Reagan led the Hollywood push for President Harry S Truman’s campaign. Decades later, when Reagan was president, he wrote Brewer, “Looks like we’re both still up to the battle.” In 1983, Reagan appointed Brewer chairman of the Federal Service Impasses Panel, part of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The two communicated frequently. “Everyday I realize how much we all learned from our Hollywood experience back in the post-war ’40s,” Reagan wrote to Brewer in 1986. “I’ve discovered that a great many otherwise well-informed people are completely naïve and uninformed about the domestic communist network.”
Not a McCarthyite
Born August 9, 1909, in Cairo, Neb., Brewer staged his own successful strike at age 15 when he told the owner of the theater where he was an usher that he would add projectionist to his job only if it was accompanied by a higher wage. By 1927, Brewer had become the chief operator at the Capitol Theater in Grand Island, and he used that position to organize other projectionists in central Nebraska. The work exhilarated Brewer, and caused him to mount a successful campaign of his own for the presidency of the Nebraska State Federation of Labor. At 23, Brewer was reportedly the youngest state federation president in the country. He presided over some 30,000 members and used his post to lobby the state legislature on labor issues. He also helped manage the 1936 reelection campaign for Senator George Norris, a staunch New Dealer who ran as an Independent. It proved to be an especially rancorous battle wherein Brewer himself was accused of being a Communist. In the 1950s, that experience would make Brewer especially sensitive to the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and unsubstantiated attacks on alleged Communists. Brewer said he regarded McCarthy as unethical and dishonest and argued that McCarthy caused great harm to what Brewer considered the moral cause of anti-Communism. Brewer’s view was a stinging rebuke to McCarthy because by then Brewer was one of the most prominent anti-Communists in the country.
His work captured the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, and in 1943, Brewer was appointed to a top position at the War Production Board in Washington. There, he worked to secure food and housing for the country’s industrial labor force because of rationing and shortages during World War II.
Having proved himself as skillful in precarious labor situations, Brewer was selected by Richard Walsh, the president of the IATSE, to head the union’s office in Hollywood, where there were more members than anyplace else in the country. In the 1930s, the IATSE had been controlled by organized crime, but had recently cleaned house. Brewer’s hiring represented another move away from racketeers. Brewer’s liberal pedigree made him an especially potent force in skirmishes with the Communist party, which consistently tried to paint him as a right-wing zealot. “I knew the philosophy of labor and I knew intimately the lines of authority and loyalties that held the movement together,” he wrote. “When I arrived in Hollywood, I felt like I was in a foreign land. I knew very little about the communist movement but I did know about the labor movement.”
He was a quick study. By 1948, the CSU had been vanquished because of Brewer’s strategy of keeping it on the defensive and revealing that its cause had little to do with helping the plight of stagehands and technicians. Later, evidence in several court cases confirmed claims made by Brewer and Reagan that the CSU was dominated and controlled by the Communist party, and that its tactics had been orchestrated by a Communist law firm. “This is the record of Roy Brewer, the man the Comrades have tried to smear,” wrote journalists Murray Kempton and Victor Riesel. “They hate him more than they would a combination of Trotsky, Truman, and Tito. The union gets Brewer at $125 a week, and the movie industry gets him for nothing — although he’s worth his weight in uranium.”
”Courage and Leadership”
While Brewer was attacked on an almost daily basis during the 1940s and ’50s by Communist-party publications such as the Daily Worker and the People’s World, he was celebrated by most of Hollywood. His popularity cut across political and ethnic lines. He was elected president and chairman of the L.A. Permanent Charities Committee, and for seven years was president of the American Federation of Labor Film Council. In 1952, the American Jewish League Against Communism honored Brewer with a special award citing Brewer’s “courage and leadership in the motion picture industry.” The organization said of Brewer, “His fight against communism has made him a shining example in the ranks of labor.”
During the Vietnam era, as the Hollywood Communists from the ’40s began to be trumpeted as heroes by many historians and cultural critics, Brewer’s reputation suffered. He called the scenario of the Communists “fighting for a principle and their individual right to express that principle against a group of bigots” revisionist history. “The real truth is that they were a secret conspiracy, acting under direct instructions from the Soviet Union.”
In scores of books and documentaries, Brewer is lumped in with McCarthy’s red baiting style and comes off as a ferocious figure. Yet he was far from that, according to screenwriter Richard Collins, a leading Hollywood communist in the ’40s. “I had made an irrevocable split with the Party… and I remember my trepidation over my first meeting with Roy Brewer,” wrote Collins in 1952. “I had never seen him, would not recognize him on the street. I expected… a local-type fiend, breathing fire and brimstone. When he opened his mouth, I awaited a string of reactionary sentiments,” Collins wrote. “I found him a quiet and reasonable man — and, even more astonishing to me, he is on record as a liberal Democrat. He is also a good trade unionist, vitally concerned with the interest of his men. This was an extraordinary revelation to me… The Communists did that good a job on him!”
Brewer seemed to take the attacks against him in stride, but he relished opportunities to tell his story. Often portrayed as a “clearance man” for whom artists suspected of Communism had to submit themselves and go through degrading rituals of renouncing their suspicious pasts in order to get work, Brewer said the characterization was untrue. In fact, Brewer couldn’t hire or fire artists from jobs because he never ran a studio or had his own production company. “The individuals that were cleared, cleared themselves by their actions and their statements and by convincing the American people basically that they had no subversive intentions and that whatever association they had with the Communist Party had been severed,” he said. “The only person that could clear an individual was that individual himself.”
He did, however, defend filmmakers such as Edward Dmytryk, a pioneer of film noir, who had been a Communist but later broke from the party, repudiating it in 1951. He also championed John Huston, whom the American Legion threatened to boycott in 1952 because of his alleged sympathies to the Communist party. Brewer embraced Huston and persuaded the Legion to stop its attacks.
Brewer took great satisfaction in the defeat of Soviet Communism in 1991. He felt vindicated when the Venona intercepts and other documents from Soviet archives were made public showing the depth of espionage in the U.S. and the Kremlin’s control of the Communist party in America. For him, these revelations helped confirm what he and Reagan had experienced firsthand in Hollywood. However, Brewer remained frustrated that individuals who fought communism were often ostracized in respected and influential circles. In a 2002 essay for the Los Angeles Times, Brewer criticized a retrospective on the Hollywood blacklist era sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “I hoped it would be the beginning of the industry finally acknowledging what really happened during the era,” he wrote. “I realize that was wishful thinking. There is no acknowledgement that Soviet communism was indeed a threat to the security of the free world or that the Party was indefatigable in its goal of influencing our culture. In its role as historian, the Academy failed the industry, especially those too young to remember this era.”
Brewer’s wife, Alyce, died in 1994, 65 years after their wedding. He is survived by a son, Roy M. Brewer Jr., and a daughter, Ramona Moloski, as well as 10 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
— John Meroney is at work on a book about Ronald Reagan’s life in Hollywood. He provides the audio commentary, with director Vincent Sherman, for Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection, just out from Warner Bros.