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A Remarkable Life Ends

I was lucky enough to meet Budd Schulberg, the legendary novelist and screenwriter responsible for “On the Waterfront,” “What Makes Sammy Run?” and other classics, who died this week at 95. It happened at the 2003 Telluride Film Festival. I was bowled over to shake hands with the Oscar-winning writer, and doubly impressed when the snowy-haired Schulberg, then 89, introduced two teenagers accompanying him as his children. He stammered slightly, as he had since boyhood, but he was gracious, vigorous, and utterly riveting as we discussed what is surely one of the most remarkable lives any American ever lived.

The son of an early Hollywood mogul, Schulberg's associations with the famous and fascinating began when he was still a child. Consider this sample of the people with whom Schulberg played, worked, partied, argued or socialized: Zeppo Marx, Clara Bow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, John Ford, Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra and Spike Lee. As a boy, he mischievously pelted Greta Garbo with figs from a hideout on a studio backlot; as a young man, he arrested Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl on behalf of U.S. occupation authorities in Germany; in middle age, he tried to tackle assassin Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Robert F. Kennedy on June 4, 1968.

Schulberg's career calls to mind that of Leonard Zelig, the fictional protagonist of a Woody Allen film who rubbed elbows with everyone from Calvin Coolidge to Babe Ruth. The difference, though, is that Zelig was a passive cipher, while Schulberg was fierce and committed in everything he did. Hollywood hated him for the devastating portrayal of movie-making corruption in “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet Schulberg wrote it and stood by it because it was true. In the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party out of genuine disgust at American poverty and racism. He left the party out of even greater disgust at the Nazi-Soviet pact, Stalin's liquidation of intellectuals (including many, such as writer Isaac Babel, whom Schulberg knew personally), and the Hollywood party's attempts to control what he wrote.

In 1951, Schulberg testified voluntarily before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming several Hollywood Communists. He remained unrepentant about this until his death. When we talked about it in Telluride, he explained simply that he owed no loyalty to a group that had apologized for the murder of his friends in Russia and behaved like little dictators within the U.S. The epitome of American liberalism, Schulberg saw the Communists as no less obnoxious than the segregationists and corrupt unionists whom he attacked in his essays and films. His testimony earned him the permanent hatred of many on the Hollywood left, just as “What Makes Sammy Run?” had enraged the studio bosses. But there was perfect consistency in Budd Schulberg's adherence to the truth, as he saw it, above any cause or organization.

With Schulberg's passing, America has lost one of its most eloquent living participants in the cultural and political history of the 20th Century. He made a lasting imprint on his era without ever losing his integrity. Even more than his honesty, though, what I'll always admire is the sheer energy with which he made his way in the world for 95 amazing years. Budd Schulberg filled life's goblet to the brim. He'll be missed.

By Charles Lane  | August 7, 2009; 3:33 PM ET
Categories:  Lane  | Tags:  Charles Lane  
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I met him at F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, MD almost 15 years ago. I have to say he was funny, gracious, brilliant and interesting in all the ways I imagined great writers like Fitzgerald to be. Thank you for honoring him.

Posted by: jaygatsby27 | August 12, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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