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During the 2023 Writers Strike, This Book Helped Me Understand the Depravities of Hollywood

A 1941 novel by a former Communist Party member about the dog-eat-dog scumbaggery of movie executives and the lying and artless bragging that Hollywood runs on.

There are countless books on the union’s colorful history — the blacklisted writers alone produced enough memoirs to fill a bookshelf — but to save you time: Miranda Banks’s The Writers is a go-to among union members, Gerald Horne’s Class Struggle in Hollywood is a touchstone (when I met up with Lindsay Dougherty, the charismatic head of the Teamsters’ Motion Picture Division, she, too, was reading it), and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting is the most fun of the bunch, strong evidence of how Norman wrote a screenplay like Shakespeare in Love.

But none of the nonfiction compares to What Makes Sammy Run?. The 1941 novel is by Budd Schulberg, who authored the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Hollywood was in his DNA: his father was B. P. Schulberg, a Hollywood producer and exec, and his mother was talent agent Adeline Schulberg.

Budd kept coming up as I read about the blacklist era: apparently, the very active Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, of which he was a member, wasn’t thrilled with the novel. John Howard Lawson, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, told Budd to change it, prompting him to quit the party in protest. Schulberg eventually flipped on his former comrades, becoming a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to whom he named names in between complaining about the party’s attempt to influence his book.

That’s indefensible no matter how annoying Lawson was — there is nothing lower than flipping on your former comrades — but boy was the party wrong about What Makes Sammy Run?. The book traces the titular Sammy Glick as he ascends from Jewish tenement dweller in New York’s Lower East Side, to a copy boy at the paper where the book’s protagonist drama-critic Al Manheim meets him, to screenwriter, and then, eventually, powerhouse producer and Hollywood player. Manheim becomes obsessed with the question posed in the book’s title: What moves Sammy, and where exactly is he going? The young hustler runs people down, he runs with death as his only finish line, he runs “without a single principle to slow him down.” By the book’s end, he runs the town.