Greg Mitchell on Tuesday started filing daily campaign dispatches, but with a unique twist -- the campaign took place 76 years ago. Why? In an amazing 1934 upset, ex-socialist author Upton Sinclair -- leading one of the great grassroots crusades in our history -- swept the Democratic primary for governor of California and appeared headed for victory in November. To prevent that, his opponents invented the political campaign as we know it today. It also marked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics and the creation of the first "attack ads" on the screen -- thanks to Irving Thalberg at MGM. Mitchell calls it "The Campaign of the Century" (the title of his award-winning book, just published in a new edition), and the political and economic parallels to 2010 are profound. These daily reports for HuffPost match the same date in 1934, as one of the dirtiest, most influential -- and most entertaining -- campaigns reached its final days. (Read last Monday's intro piece here and catch up with previous days "_hplink">here. )
October 27, 1934 -- ROOSEVELT SEEN HOSTILE TO SINCLAIR'S CANDIDACY, shouted a headline at the top of The New York Times' front page, CREEL TURNS AGAINST HIM. And: FARLEY LETTER A "MISTAKE." George Creel was a leading Democrat in California and the Farley letter was an endorsement of Upton Sinclair that now was said to have been sent in error.
The White House, after nearly two months of ambiguity and qualification, "definitely turned away from Upton Sinclair today," the Times declared, "with unmistakable indications that it does not care to have the former Socialist elected as Democratic Governor of California." Behind the scenes, unknown to the Times, the White House was moving to get Sinclair out of the race or, failing that, making a deal with hapless GOP candidate Frank Merriam.
"If Sinclair is elected I'll surely come out on a newspaper enterprise," H. L. Mencken wrote to a friend in California today. "Four years of him would be certainly too rich. I fear I'd laugh myself to death." If he did he would no doubt try to buy his friend Uppie a drink, an effort that always seemed to fail.
Speaking of famous columnists: Upton Sinclair's recent curse became Frank Merriam's affliction today when Westbrook Pegler trained his gunsights on the incumbent governor. Pegler had interviewed Merriam and found the experience profoundly disorienting. He had the weird feeling that he had met Merriam before.
Then it dawned on him: Merriam was the glorious, final composite of all the popular cartoon representations of the hack politician. He was bald, his face was plump, his smile dull, his figure stocky and rumpled, his manner that of the inveterate office seeker. Pegler realized that he had seen the likes of Frank Merriam depicted in political cartoons a thousand times, usually with an arm around the shoulder of a fat man in a plug hat labeled THE INTERESTS or THE TRUSTS. Merriam, Pegler decided, was Warren G. Harding come to life.
"He is a statesman," Pegler observed in today's column, "who can be relied on to condemn the housefly and the common cold in no uncertain terms. You will never find him straddling the proposition that right is right and wrong is wrong. Naturally, if Mr. Merriam is elected, his official cabinet will be composed of statesmen of similar character and ideals, just as Mahatma Sinclair must be expected to surround himself with a staff of political and social hypochondriacs like himself."
Variety, confident that the Sinclair threat had expired, turned playful this morning in discussing charges that local newspapers were publishing pictures of actors and passing them off as tramps. "When is a hobo not a bum?" Variety asked. "When is a bum an extra? When is a 1929 tourist a 1934 Sinclair-attracted bum?" These were just some of the questions that had the movie colony "all dizzy and whoozy" since the appearance of suspicious-looking photographs this week in the Times and Examiner.
Elsewhere in Lotusland, Sam Goldwyn finally announced the date for the California premiere of We Live Again, the movie based on Tolstoy that Sam had indicated he would not release until the campaign ended, on grounds that the film about a Russkie might help Sinclair in some way.
Goldwyn was as good as his word. The film would open in San Francisco on November 7: the day after the election.
"It may hearten the cause of conservatism," a wire service reported, "to know that Shirley Temple has decided, after grave deliberation, that she disapproves of the Sinclair EPIC philosophy and is backing her opposition with a day's salary, even if she can not with a vote." Unstated was that this day's pay was not a request but a demand from the studio. Jean Harlow had recently caved in the same manner.
No one in Hollywood was more likely to speak her mind than young Kate Hepburn. It was a genetic predisposition. Because of her cultivated accent and icy demeanor and the fact that she was the daughter of a famous surgeon, Katharine Hepburn was perceived as a product of high society and conservative to the core. The stereotype, however, didn't fit. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, Kate was more tomboy than debutante. Her parents were well-off, and Kate did attend Bryn Mawr, but dinner-table conversations in the Hepburn household did not re-volve around teas and tennis but, rather, feminism, Marxism, Fabian- ism, even nudism.
As the California governor's race heated up this autumn, Hepburn was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film to put Hepburn's career back on track. With that much invested, RKO executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the "Merriam tax," or both.
Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investigator to find out what Hepburn really believed -- and whether RKO had threatened to punish her for those beliefs.
A new edition of Mitchell's book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has just been published. He writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. Contact him at: email@example.com.
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