Lester Cole was born in New York on 19th June, 1904. The son of Polish immigrants, Cole dropped out of high school in 1920. He wanted to be an actor and appeared in two early Hollywood movies, Painted Faces (1929) and Love at First Sight (1930).
Cole turned to writing and his first screenplay, If I had a Million was filmed in 1932. The following year Cole joined with John Howard Lawson and Samuel Ornitz to establish the Screen Writers and Authors Guild. Cole held left-wing political views and in 1934 joined the American Communist Party. Fellow members included Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Gordon Kahn, Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Waldo Salt, Richard Collins and Robert Rossen. He was also a member of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and became well-known for his left-wing activities.
Other screenplays written by Cole include Pursued (1934), Wild Gold (1934), Too Tough to Kill (1935), Follow Your Heart (1936), Some Blondes are Dangerous (1937), Sinners in Paradise (1938), Invisible Man Returns (1940), Footsteps in the Dark (1941), Hostages (1943), Blood on the Sun (1945), Objective Burma! (1945) and High Wall (1947).
After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
Cole appeared before the HUAC on 30th October, 1947, but like, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and John Howard Lawson, he refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this.
Cole did release a statement about his political views: "I want to say at the outset that I am a loyal American, who upholds the Constitution of my country, who does not advocate force and violence, and who is not an agent of a foreign power.... This Committee is determined to sow fear of blacklists; to intimidate management, to destroy democratic guilds and unions by interference in their internal affairs, and through their destruction bring chaos and strife to an industry which seeks only democratic methods with which to solve its own problems. This Committee is waging a cold war on democracy."
The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Cole was sentenced to twelve months in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution and fined $1,000. Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, the script that he was working on at the time, Viva Zapata (1952) was finished by John Steinbeck. Following his release from prison, Cole worked a series of odd jobs before moving to England.
Cole eventually returned to the the United States where he began collaborating on screenplays under an assumed name. This included the highly successful, Born Free (1965). He also wrote his autobiography, Hollywood Red (1981) and reviewed films for People's World .
Lester Cole died of a heart attack on 15th August, 1985.
(1) Lester Cole, statement (October 1947)
I want to say at the outset that I am a loyal American, who upholds the Constitution of my country, who does not advocate force and violence, and who is not an agent of a foreign power.
This Committee has announced many times its interest in facts pertinent to this inquiry. I believe many such facts are embodied in this statement.
I have been a working screen-writer in the Motion Picture Industry since 1932. To date, I have written thirty-six screen plays, the titles of which and companies which produced them are attached.
I was working in Hollywood in 1933 when screen writers, faced with an arbitrary fifty percent cut in salaries, formed the Screen Writers' Guild for the purpose of collective bargaining.
From the very start there were attempts to create strife within the industry by groups who used the same technique employed by this Committee.
After years of failure by James Kevin McGuinness, Rupert Hughes and other of your friendly witnesses to disrupt the Screen Writers' Guild, and with it the industry, a desperate appeal was made to Martin Dies, former Chairman of this Committee. Or maybe Martin Dies made the appeal; at any rate the investigations began.
When the Dies investigation proved unsuccessful because of the united resistance of the men and women of the industry, a new tactic was employed. Willie Bioff and George S. Browne were called into the fray.
These two men, Browne and Bioff who ran the IATSE, the union which was represented here the other day by Mr. Roy Brewer, took on the job of creating chaos in the industry. They bought full page advertisements in the Hollywood trade papers, the Reporter and the Daily Variety, announcing their intentions of taking over all independent Hollywood Guilds and Unions, but only, of course, for one purpose; the eradication of Communism. You will recall that Al Capone, just before going to jail, called upon the American people to "eradicate" all subversive un-American influences in American life, including Communism. By a strange coincidence, the warning of Browne and Bioff also was issued but a short time before they too went to jail for the extortion of huge sums of money; a shakedown of the motion picture industry.
For fifteen years these men have engaged in slander, malicious gossip, near libel; in fact, in every method known to man but one traditional American democratic procedure.
As in years gone by they accommodated Martin Dies, and later extortionists Browne and Bioff, today McGuinness, Incorporated is playing footsie with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They think the Committee is stooging for the Motion Picture Alliance; the reverse is true.
From what I have seen and heard at this hearing, the House Committee on Un-American Activities is out to accomplish one thing, and one thing only, as far as the American Motion Picture Industry is concerned; they are going either to rule it, or ruin it.
This Committee is determined to sow fear of blacklists; to intimidate management, to destroy democratic guilds and unions by interference in their internal affairs, and through their destruction bring chaos and strife to an industry which seeks only democratic methods with which to solve its own problems. This Committee is waging a cold war on democracy.
I know the people in the motion picture industry will not let them get away with it.