Biography of Dalton Trumbo: Screenwriter on the Hollywood Blacklist

Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson, members of the Hollywood Ten
Dalton Trumbo (left) and fellow Hollywood Ten member John Howard Lawson just before their prison sentence begins in 1950.

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” It was a question asked of dozens of people brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1940s and 1950s, and in October of 1947, it was put to Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s best-known and highest-paid screenwriters. Trumbo and nine others—dubbed the ‘Hollywood Ten’—refused to answer the question on First Amendment grounds

This stand for principle came at a steep price: federal prison terms, fines, and worst of all, a place on the Hollywood blacklist, a prohibition that kept them from working in their chosen profession. Dalton Trumbo spent much of the rest of his life climbing back to the top. The fall from grace was particularly hard for Trumbo, who had struggled to establish a writing career and had risen to the upper ranks of the Hollywood studio structure less than a decade earlier.

Early Life 

James Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado on December 5, 1905 and grew up in the nearby town of Grand Junction. His father, Orus, was hardworking but struggled to achieve financial stability. Orus and Maud Trumbo often had difficulty supporting Dalton and his sisters.

Trumbo became interested in writing early in life, working as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction newspaper while still in high school. He studied literature at the University of Colorado with the hope of becoming a novelist. Then, in 1925, Orus decided to move the family to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding more lucrative work, and Dalton decided to follow.

Within a year of the move, Orus died of a blood disorder. Dalton got what he hoped would be a short-term job at the Davis Perfection Bread Company to help support the family. He ended up staying for eight years, working on novels and short stories in his spare moments. Few were published.

His big break came in 1933, when he was offered a job writing for the Hollywood Spectator. This led to a job reading scripts for Warner Brothers in 1934, and by 1935, he was hired as a junior script writer in the B-Picture Unit. Later that year, his first novel, Eclipse, was published.

Early Career

For the next few years, Trumbo hopped from studio to studio as he mastered his new craft. By the late 1940s, he was earning as much as $4.000 a week—a major improvement over the $18 a week he had earned at the Perfection Bread Company. He wrote over a dozen movies between 1936 and 1945, including Five Came Back, Kitty Foyle, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and A Guy Named Joe.

His personal life also flourished. In 1938, he married a former drive-in waitress named Cleo Fincher, and they soon had a family: Christopher, Mitzi, and Nikola. Trumbo bought an isolated ranch in Ventura County as a retreat from Hollywood life.

Joining the Communist Party

Trumbo had a reputation in Hollywood as an outspoken critic of social injustice. Having been a member of the working class for much of his life, he was passionate about labor rights and civil rights. Like many of his liberal-leaning Hollywood peers, he was eventually drawn towards Communism.

His decision to join the Communist Party in December 1943 was a casual one. While not a Marxist, he agreed with many of its general principles. “People joined the Communist Party for very good, humane reasons, in my view,” he once said.

The early 1940s was the high point for Party membership in the United States; Trumbo was one of more than 80,000 “card-carrying” Communists of the era. He loathed the meetings, which he described as “dull beyond description and about as revolutionary in purpose as Wednesday evening testimonial services at the Christian Science Church,” but he passionately believed in the Party’s right to exist under a Constitution that afforded Americans the freedom to assemble and to speak.

The Hollywood Ten

Trumbo’s affiliation was well-known at the time, and he, like other Hollywood Communist Party members, was under FBI surveillance for several years.

In September 1947, the family was at their remote ranch when FBI agents arrived with a subpoena to appear before the HUAC. Trumbo’s son Christopher, then seven, asked what was happening. “We are Communists,” Trumbo said, “and I have to go to Washington to answer questions about my Communism.”

About 40 members of the Hollywood community were issued subpoenas. Most simply complied with HUAC investigators, but Trumbo, along with fellow screenwriters Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner, Jr., Samuel Ornitz, and John Howard Lawson, directors Edward Dmytryk and Herbert Biberman, and producer Adrian Scott, decided not comply.

In a contentious hearing on October 28, 1947, Trumbo repeatedly refused to answer HUAC members’ questions on First Amendment grounds. For his intransigence, he was found in contempt of Congress. He was later convicted on the charges and sentenced to a year in prison.

Prisoner #7551

It took three years for the case to work through the appeals process, but Trumbo’s actual punishment began as soon as he returned from the hearings. He and his peers were blacklisted from working for any of the major studios and shunned by many in the Hollywood community. It was a hard time for the family both financially and emotionally, as Cleo Trumbo told People in a 1993 interview. “We were broke, and we weren’t invited anywhere. People dropped away.”

With legal fees draining his savings, Trumbo returned to his B-movie roots and began churning out scripts under various pseudonyms for small studios. He worked right up until the day in June 1950 when he shaved off his signature mustache and flew east to begin his year-long prison term.

Trumbo, now known as Prisoner #7551 was sent to the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky. After almost 25 years of ceaseless work, Trumbo said that he felt “a sense of almost exhilarating relief” when the doors closed behind him. His stint at Ashland was filled with reading, writing, and light duties. Good behavior won him early release in April 1951.

Breaking the Blacklist

Trumbo moved the family to Mexico City after his release, hoping to get away from the notoriety and to stretch their reduced income a little further. They returned in 1954. Mitzi Trumbo later described the harassment of her new elementary school classmates when they found out who she was.

Throughout the period, Trumbo continued to write for the screenplay black market. He would end up writing around 30 scripts under various pen names between 1947 and 1960. In one two-year span, he wrote 18 scripts at an average payout of $1,700 each. Some of these scripts were very successful. Among his work during this period was the classic romantic comedy Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956). Both won Academy Awards for writing—awards that Trumbo couldn’t accept.

Trumbo often passed on work to other struggling blacklisters, not only out of generosity but also to flood the market with so many black-market scripts that the whole blacklist would look like a joke.

Later Life and Legacy

The blacklist continued to weaken throughout the 1950s. In 1960, director Otto Preminger insisted Trumbo receive a credit for writing the script for the Biblical blockbuster Exodus, and actor Kirk Douglas publicly announced Trumbo had written the script for the historical epic Spartacus. Trumbo adapted the script from a novel by Howard Fast, himself a blacklisted author.

Trumbo was readmitted to the Writers Union and from that point on, he was able to write under his own name. In 1975, he received a belated Oscar statuette for The Brave One. He continued to work until he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1973, and died in Los Angeles on September 10, 1976 at the age of 70. By the time Trumbo died, the blacklist was long broken.

Fast Facts Bio

  • Full Name: James Dalton Trumbo
  • Occupation: Screenwriter, novelist, political activist
  • Born: December 9, 1905 in Montrose, Colorado 
  • Died: September 10, 1976 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: Attended University of Colorado and University of Southern California, no degree
  • Selected Screenplays: Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Spartacus, Exodus Novels: Eclipse, Johnny Got His Gun, The Time of the Toad
  • Key Accomplishments: Joined nine other Hollywood figures in resisting the anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Worked for years under assumed names until he was able to rejoin the Hollywood community. 
  • Spouse's Name: Cleo Fincher Trumbo
  • Children's Names: Christopher Trumbo, Melissa "Mitzi" Trumbo, Nikola Trumbo

Sources

  • Ceplair, Larry.. Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. University Press of Kentucky, 2017.
  • Cook, Bruce. Trumbo. Grand Central Publishing, 2015.