The Freedom Writers
James Boyd’s dream team of authors and actors
By Bill Case
It seemed unfathomable, but it was an unavoidable truth: By September 1940, freedom, democracy and civil liberties had become nonexistent in much of Europe. Nearly all its countries were suffering under the yoke of tyranny. During the preceding year, Adolf Hitler’s military “blitzkrieg” had established Nazi hegemony over much of the continent. Other fascist strongmen controlled Italy and Spain, and Stalin ruled Communist Russia with an iron fist.
While Great Britain remained free, it was fighting the Nazis alone. Many feared the British would not survive the onslaught of the German war machine, especially after the Luftwaffe began regularly bombing London on Sept. 7. Germany’s propaganda campaign of lies and misinformation directed by Joseph Goebbels justifying its repressive actions was having telling effects too, not only in Europe, but in some quarters of this country as well.
These happenings were viewed with alarm in the United States, but not to the point where Americans were inclined to go to war. A hands-off policy toward the conflict had become the prevailing sentiment. Leaders of the “America First Committee,” like Charles Lindbergh, saw neither a strategic nor moral justification for America to rush to the aid of Great Britain, let alone the rest of Europe. Moreover, President Franklin Roosevelt, running for a third term, had pledged to keep America out of the war, though in retrospect that appears not to have been his ultimate intent.
In contrast, two thoughtful men felt that many of their fellow Americans were taking their rights and liberties for granted and needed to be reawakened to their importance. Francis Biddle and James Boyd were gentlemen of the patrician class who had accomplished much in their chosen fields. A Pennsylvania native, the Harvard-educated Biddle was serving as the solicitor general of the United States in 1940. He would become U.S. attorney general in 1942.
Coal-mining scion and Princeton grad James Boyd had burst on the national literary scene in 1925 with the publication of Drums, a work of historical fiction regarded by numerous critics as the finest novel written about the Revolutionary War. In the following 14 years, Boyd authored four more historical novels, crafting them at Weymouth, his Southern Pines country estate where he lived after moving from his home state, also Pennsylvania, in 1920.
Biddle and Boyd had come to know each other years before through their shared passion for fox hunting. Boyd and his brother, Jackson, owned and managed the Moore County Hounds. While riding with the Boyds in the local hunt, Biddle crashed into a fence and broke his collarbone. Boyd and wife Katharine insisted that Biddle lodge with them at Weymouth until he healed. A close friendship resulted.
The pair envisioned combating the insidious Nazi propaganda by creating, producing and broadcasting a series of radio plays designed to illustrate in dramatic fashion the liberties granted by the Bill of Rights. In Biddle’s autobiography, In Brief Authority, he claims the plays were Boyd’s idea. Boyd’s writings, on the other hand, assign credit to Biddle. What is known is that by September 1940, the two friends had begun considering the necessary steps to bring their project to fruition. They hoped that if a department of the Roosevelt administration sponsored the productions, perhaps writers, actors and a radio broadcasting company would consent to work for free out of a sense of patriotic duty.
Biddle thought his boss at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Robert Jackson, could be persuaded to have DOJ serve as that sponsoring agency. On Sept. 25, 1940, Boyd drafted a memorandum outlining the proposed project for Jackson. His memo pointed out that DOJ was the federal agency most concerned with protecting the rights of Americans, and that its sponsorship would help bring about “a renewed appreciation of their value.”
But what if the listening public concluded that the plays were really Roosevelt administration propaganda? Boyd anticipated that concern and attempted to head it off. “The radio companies, the actors and the writers would be asked to contribute their services. This would counteract suspicion of paid propaganda,” he wrote. “The writers would be given complete freedom of expression. In a word, the Department would act only as a medium through which they would receive an opportunity to present in dramatic form and to the widest possible audience their faith in this country.”
Boyd provided a tentative list of authors and actors, recruiting the greatest names in literature and stage. John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Paul Green, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway were among the writers Boyd would be soliciting to author plays. His wish list of potential actors included marquee names like Burgess Meredith, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Hayes, Paul Muni, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas and John Garfield. Boyd figured each weekly broadcast would run 30 minutes. He called the enterprise “The Free Company,” in recognition that all participants would be working without pay, and the authors would be entirely free to speak their respective minds.
On Oct. 7, Biddle sent Boyd a handwritten letter indicating that the attorney general had approved development of the program, and that DOJ was “very glad that you have acceded to our request to come here and take charge of it for us.” Boyd would become a nominal governmental employee working for a dollar a year.
During the preceding 15 years, Boyd had lived the life of a successful novelist, accountable only to his publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and that firm’s legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. Now he would be managing famous writers, some with towering egos, riding herd on them to produce finished plays gratis and on tight deadlines. The Columbia Broadcasting System, which agreed to broadcast the plays, planned to air the first on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m. That was just four months away. As if that was not enough to occupy his time, Boyd was also engaged in exasperating negotiations to purchase The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines, where assorted “Oh, by the ways” kept roadblocking the sale.
Still, Boyd was confident he could meet the daunting CBS timeline, likely assuming he would have little difficulty coaxing scripts from writers, since many of them were friends. Paul Green and Sherwood Anderson had bunked in with the convivial Boyds at Weymouth, as had legendary authors Thomas Wolfe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Wolfe, however, had passed away in 1938, and Fitzgerald’s own death was imminent.
Though he was The Free Company’s national chairman, Boyd couldn’t manage its wide-ranging operations alone. Burgess Meredith (who in later years played the role of the Penguin in the Batman television series and the crusty trainer, Mick, in Rocky) agreed to serve as chair of the actors’ division. William B. Lewis, of CBS, became chair of the radio division, rounding up the network’s directors, composers and musicians to staff the productions. Robert Sherwood (Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Abe Lincoln in Illinois) was named writers’ division chair, but it would be Boyd who did the heavy lifting in recruiting and coordinating the authors.
From October 1940 to January 1941, Boyd sent a torrent of letters to leading American writers urging them to join The Free Company’s ranks. He took pains to personalize each one. He stroked Ernest Hemingway’s ego this way: “Believing as I do in the plain people, the people to whom Lincoln talked, I think that if you have anything to say to these people, you — perhaps above anyone else in this country — ought to do what I am asking.”
Few of Boyd’s targets rejected his entreaties outright, more often begging off for the time being. Eugene O’Neill was not in the best of health. Sinclair Lewis indicated he would like to contribute but could not because he was “absorbed night and day for a number of weeks.” Louis Bromfield expressed concern that he had no experience writing plays for radio and asked to be excused.
But other writers agreed to produce plays for The Free Company. They included Robert Sherwood, Archibald MacLeish (winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and then the Librarian of Congress), Marc Connelly (Pulitzer Prize winner for The Green Pastures), Stephen Vincent Benet (Pulitzer Prize for poetry winner and author of The Devil and Daniel Webster), William Saroyan (winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for The Time of Your Life), Sherwood Anderson (author of Winesburg, Ohio), George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Paul Green (Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Lost Colony), Maxwell Anderson (author of Anne of a Thousand Days and What Price Glory?), and Elmer Rice (Pulitzer Prize winner for The Street Scene). John Steinbeck expressed support and permitted his name to be listed on The Free Company’s letterhead, though nothing in Boyd’s papers indicates the Grapes of Wrath author made an express commitment to deliver a script.
Boyd was undoubtedly elated when Max Perkins reported Hemingway would produce a piece, though, “not for three months because he cannot before he goes to the Orient.” Perkins noted, however, that Hemingway “always does what he says he will.”
Boyd bagged another major trophy when 25-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles agreed to contribute a play addressing freedom of assembly. But before proceeding, Welles, then in the throes of putting the finishing touches on Citizen Kane, needed an answer to a fundamental question. In a telegram to Boyd dated Dec. 15, 1940, Welles wanted “facts from you regarding censorship of my material. Am I right in assuming there will be none?” Boyd gave his assurances.
Saroyan, who declined his Pulitzer Prize out of a belief that commerce should not judge the arts, was also concerned about censorship and whether the prospect of government sponsorship could pose an issue. “Some writers may feel that this sort of work may hem them in — make propagandists out of them,” he pointed out to Boyd. “You may have a job in putting over that they are as free as they have always been.” These concerns ultimately led to a minimizing of DOJ’s anticipated role. The early Free Company broadcasts never mentioned DOJ’s involvement. However, Biddle and other DOJ higher-ups kept in touch with Boyd throughout the project, mostly offering marketing advice.
Boyd thought that an endorsement by someone in the highest ranks of government might jumpstart promotion of the broadcasts, so he inquired of Biddle whether Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, could be cajoled into making a statement during the first broadcast, stressing the importance of America’s civil liberties. He was rebuffed. Boyd then asked MacLeish to work his personal connection with Franklin Roosevelt in hopes of persuading the president to introduce the first broadcast. He tried, but reported to Boyd that “the answer, alas, is no.” Changing his pitch, Boyd sought a brief written testimonial from the president. That gambit failed as well. Running The Free Company, Boyd confessed, was causing him to develop, “the persistence of an Armenian rug vendor.”
Boyd unabashedly lobbied the media. He begged for coverage from stalwarts like columnist Walter Lippmann, New York Times Washington bureau chief Arthur Krock, and New York Post columnist Franklin P. Adams. When Adams asked Boyd to be more specific, he responded, “Simply mention us, derisively, contumaciously, patronizingly, adoringly — any way you will. As one of us, surely you know that writers, like other children, would rather be cuffed than ignored. So say anything you like.” With his tongue placed solidly in his cheek, Boyd added, “If you print this letter, I am a lost man.”
Krock applauded the notion of dramatic plays highlighting civil liberties, but expressed skepticism about the authors chosen to write them. “You have among your scenario writers about five whose views of the meaning of American freedom alarm me somewhat,” Krock wrote. “But maybe they won’t when I hear them on the air.”
Krock was not alone in criticizing The Free Company’s lineup. Philadelphian Francis Henry crafted this sneering message to Boyd: “Your committee seems to be made up of parlor-pinkos and leftists . . . How did George M. Cohan get mixed up with this bunch?”
It is probable that Boyd, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, gave little thought to the political affiliations of the writers. He simply wished to have the cream of America’s writers on board. It is true that MacLeish, Connelly, Hemingway and Welles had expressed sympathy with various liberal causes. As a result, some firebrands on the right labeled those writers “fellow travelers” of the Communist Party.
Boyd spent much of the first quarter of 1941 in The Free Company’s small office in New York coordinating the writers’ activities and beseeching them to submit their scripts on time. There were pitfalls; MacLeish and Welles requested and received extensions because of their need to attend to paying work. Boyd also had to make sure the writers were not preparing scripts covering the same subject matter — free speech, for example. He could not afford to rely on a potluck dinner approach. By Jan. 25, 1941, he had arrived at a tentative timetable for 14 weekly productions, debuting, as CBS had requested, on Feb. 16. Boyd anticipated that the series would open with his own play. It was slated to end on a high note May 18, with a work from Hemingway — American literature’s reigning superstar.
Matters seemed to be well in hand. Sherwood and Saroyan delivered their scripts, and Benet, Anderson and MacLeish were promising completion posthaste. Boyd expected to receive scripts for later in the series from Steinbeck, Hemingway and Elmer Rice. He also arranged for the printing of the texts of each individual play. The booklets could be purchased for 10 cents apiece, covering the cost of printing and mailing.
Then things began unraveling on several fronts. Steinbeck was out. He wrote an apologetic letter requesting a rain check. Another project was distracting him. “When I’ve tried to do two things at once,” he explained, “neither of them were any good.” Rice did not deliver a play either. But the worst blow came when Perkins advised Boyd that Hemingway was out, too. The editor reported that the writer would not be returning to the states “until early June” and was “worn out from finishing ‘the Bell’ (For Whom the Bell Tolls).” Try to “get him early” for the next series, he counseled.
Another devastating blow occurred with the sudden demise of Sherwood Anderson, who had sketched out a treatment of his play Above Suspicion (dealing with freedom from police persecution) prior to departing on an ocean voyage to Panama in early March. He became sick on board and his illness worsened once he arrived. He died there on March 8 of peritonitis, caused by a swallowed toothpick. George M. Cohan stepped up to finish Anderson’s script.
The number of plays to be aired by The Free Company and CBS was down to just 10. Boyd partly backfilled the hole with Walter Van Tilburg’s existing play, The Ox-Bow Incident, in which a hanging by vigilantes denied the victim his right to trial by jury.
To Boyd’s further alarm, CBS requested changes to several scripts, including Boyd’s own play, Jim Crow. His play took place in a small Southern town where a Black man, Jim Crow, shoots and kills a prominent white man in self-defense. A venomous mob appears at the jail bent on lynching Crow. The mob overwhelms the local sheriff, but a white citizen of the town, Thad, steps forward to confront the mob, demanding that Crow be afforded a trial. Unmoved, the vigilantes kill Thad. Horrified by having murdered one of their own, the mob’s members disperse, and Crow’s life is saved. CBS wanted to change the ending to have Crow die while attempting to save the sheriff, or alternatively, Thad. Boyd considered CBS’s proposed scenario preposterous and missing the point. Rather than acquiesce to such interference, an irritated Boyd withdrew the play and substituted another.
The network also sought script alterations to maximize the speaking lines of the plays’ more celebrated actors. Boyd drafted a letter to CBS venting his displeasure. It is unclear whether he actually mailed it, but nonetheless, the surviving copy provides a window into his agitated state of mind. “Such handling of the writers we want is bound to alienate them,” Boyd wrote. “They are men who stand where they do because they know what they want to say and how to say it. They will not accept peremptory suggestions to alter their scripts radically for the worse.”
Boyd warned that the writers would view CBS’s editing as an attempt to create “just another sustaining program which Columbia is getting out of them for nothing under the guise of patriotism . . . I suggest you let me handle the writers.” In the end, CBS mostly backed off.
Another brouhaha occurred after Boyd circulated the script of his substituted play, One More Free Man. To Boyd’s surprise, Burgess Meredith was upset with the play’s tone. In the plot, the protagonist, John, speaks the truth whatever the consequences. While employed as a manager in a mining operation, he acknowledges to the workers they have the right to unionize. John’s boss demands that John sign a document indicating he said no such thing. John refuses and is fired. As he is unable to support his family, John’s wife leaves him. He eventually finds another job and becomes a union member. Observing that the local union’s president is corrupt, John makes accusations against the leader at a meeting and as a result is ostracized. The story has a happy ending when John’s fellow union members come to realize he was right and recruit him to run for the leadership of the organization.
Meredith, an active leader of the Actors’ Equity Association, considered the play reactionary. In his view, Boyd had cast unions in an unfavorable light. Boyd explained that the plot was balanced by also showing unscrupulous conduct of management. Meredith seems to have been mollified as the two men enjoyed cordial relations for the remainder of the project.
The debut of the first play produced by The Free Company was moved back a week, to Feb. 23. Rather than opening the series with his own work, Boyd decided to lead off with Saroyan’s, The People With Light Coming Out of Them. The play did not contain a civil liberties theme, per se, but it did set a positive tone for the more substantive broadcasts to follow with a message that good citizens emit a positive “light” that benefits the whole of society. Meredith, John Garfield, Tim Holt and Nancy Kelly starred.
Initial reviews of the new show were glowing. The New Republic noted that The Free Company has “roots in American history. Tom Paine, Horace Greeley, and Harriett Beecher Stowe were factors in past crises — strong factors and always on the side of freedom.” Fifteen hundred letters praising Saroyan’s play arrived at the network. A delighted Biddle expressed to Boyd his “great satisfaction” with the creativity of the first production.
The second play, which aired March 2 and featured Melvyn Douglas, Claire Trevor and Charles Bickford, was more controversial. Marc Connelly’s The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek involved a dispute between a school board and a teacher. Upset that a textbook used by the instructor included unflattering, albeit accurate, information regarding figures in American history (John Hancock was a smuggler; George Washington had false teeth; John Adams was a political boss, etc.) the board members branded the book “un-American” and threatened disciplinary action against the teacher. Connelly’s play mirrored a contentious debate over school textbooks then taking place in the country. A series of books written by Harold Rugg proved popular with progressive educators, but some school boards sought to ban the texts, claiming that Rugg advocated socialism.
An indignant letter writer, Helen Vance, complained that The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek was “a very thin disguise for the destructive and anti-capitalist propaganda as defended in the books of Prof. Harold Rugg . . . I am sure that CBS will wish to subject to closest scrutiny any further scripts.” But any negative reviews of The Mole were outweighed by favorable reaction to other early broadcasts in the series, including Sherwood’s An American Crusader on March 9 (the story of Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper publisher martyred for publishing unpopular anti-slavery views); Boyd’s aforementioned One More Free Man on March 16; Benet’s Freedom’s a Hard Thing on March 23 (a Southern slave catches the untreatable disease of “freedom”); and, Van Tilburg’s The Ox-Bow Incident on March 30. Walter Winchell gave two-thumbs up to the series, saying, “The Free Company, one of the delights of the networks, is easily one of the toppers of dramatic programs.”
On Sunday, April 6, Boyd, himself, introduced the seventh play of the series, His Honor, the Mayor, by Orson Welles. The play featured several cast members from Citizen Kane, including Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins and Everett Sloane. The play, narrated by Welles, involved a scenario in which the mayor of a Southwestern border town faces intense pressure from local citizens demanding he stop a scheduled meeting of the “White Crusaders,” a group that is anti-Jewish, anti-Mexican, and anti-everything liberal.
Though sensitive to public sentiment, the mayor is reluctant to act. He feels the group is entitled to meet because the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of assembly. In an early scene, a White Crusader partisan informs the mayor that the group’s primary goal is to eradicate “the Reds” in town. The perplexed mayor responds that there is only one Communist in town, and he’s 87 years old. “Besides,” says the mayor, “there is nothing illegal about being a Communist.”
In a subsequent scene, the same lone, aged Communist citizen urges the mayor to follow the will of the people and break up the meeting. After all, he maintains, it was Lincoln who said that once the people grow weary of their existing government, “they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” The mayor rejects that advice and successfully defuses the situation by holding a counter demonstration during the White Crusaders’ meeting.
Welles’ play resulted in a firestorm, courtesy of media titan William Randolph Hearst and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Believing that the lead character in Citizen Kane represented a thinly veiled and unflattering caricature of himself, Hearst unleashed his immense power in a no-holds-barred effort to suppress the movie and ruin Welles. Hearst-run newspapers across the country denounced Welles as a Communist and sought his blacklisting by the film industry. Taking their cue from the mogul, various leaders of the American Legion found evidence of Welles’ Communist sympathies in His Honor, the Mayor. The mayor’s statement that it is not illegal to be a Communist and the use of Lincoln’s quote regarding the peoples’ right to overthrow their government were cited as proof.
The Free Company got caught up in the ensuing crossfire. The chair of the Legion’s National Americanism Commission claimed that the radio plays were “cleverly designed to poison the minds of young Americans.” Another Legion spokesman said, “The name itself, Free Company, sounds suspiciously Communistic.” Moreover, Hoover, presumably at Hearst’s behest, opened a file to investigate the allegedly subversive activities of Welles and other members of The Free Company. Boyd was mentioned in the investigation, though the FBI concluded that it was not “deemed advisable to pursue additional inquiries” concerning him, maybe because of his close relationship with Biddle.
Other newspapers, not controlled by Hearst, saw things differently. The Chicago Sunday Times observed, “William Randolph Hearst is piqued with Orson Welles. The rest is camouflage.” But nevertheless, Hearst’s attacks succeeded in causing a nosedive for Welles. Film historians say his long career never got fully back on track.
After the dust-up, Burgess Meredith rebutted the diatribes against the writers by mentioning for the first time on air that the attorney general and solicitor general endorsed the plays. He also dispelled whiffs of the writers’ supposed anti-Americanism by enumerating their impressive military service records. Among them was Boyd, who had honorably served in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service in Italy during World War I.
The final four plays of the series were Paul Green’s A Start in Life, concerning the travails of a Black family (April 13); Archibald MacLeish’s The States Talking (April 20), in which the states respond to the criticisms of America by the Axis powers; Maxwell Anderson’s Miracle on th Danube, focusing on religious liberty, starring Paul Muni and Meredith (April 27); and lastly, Sherwood Anderson’s Above Suspicion, with George M. Cohan and Paul Henreid in the lead roles (May 4). A hard-cover anthology of the plays hit the nation’s bookstores on May 5.
To Boyd’s gratification, radio ratings increased following the Welles-Hearst debacle. On May 6, he reported to Biddle that a recent broadcast had attracted at least 5 million listeners, attributing the uptick to the “Hearst-American Legion attacks on the Free Company.” Boyd reported that CBS was interested in a second series, but he rejected the idea. He told Biddle that “aside from the question of my own time, it would be impossible to continue to get scripts of the same high caliber. There are not many other writers of the same standing available, and we could not ask the writers who had already contributed their work without compensation to do so again so soon.”
After closing down The Free Company, Boyd seemed to harbor doubts whether its activities had achieved any measurable impact. In correspondence with Perkins, he noted his despair. “I feel sickened by this blank sickness of the world and just now see no light,” he wrote. “There is nothing to do but stand as firm as we can by the best we are able to believe in. I can only hope that there are enough of those who will do this to save some fragments from the cataclysm.”
Thereafter, James Boyd turned to other affairs. He consummated the purchase of The Pilot in May, providing a new writing outlet that was entirely in his control. He turned from historical novels to poetry. His final book, Eighteen Poems, was published on Jan. 1, 1944, just a month before his untimely and sudden death at age 55 in Princeton, New Jersey, where he’d traveled for a speaking engagement at his alma mater.
Seven months after The Free Company’s final broadcast, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the country plunged into World War II. Americans came together overnight, united in a struggle against tyranny and in defense of the freedoms written about by The Free Company. Boyd may not have envisioned that it would take a war to awaken Americans to the importance of their freedoms, but he and The Free Company had sounded the alarm bell. PS
Pinehurst resident Bill Case is PineStraw’s history man. He can be reached at Bill.Case@thompsonhine.com.