Tonight I attended Ben Urwand’s talk about his book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler at the Sydney Jewish Museum interestingly titled, “The Arrangement Between Hollywood and Hitler.” This was evidently his only presentation in Australia.
If you have been following this blog or my account on Twitter, you will know I have been fighting tooth and nail since late June to ensure the world hears from the many eminent film scholars and historians who have made serious allegations of shoddy scholarship against Ben Urwand and his book.
This battle has been fought almost entirely through online rebuttals and critical reviews, as well as via blog posts, tweets, emails and comments. So to come face to face with Urwand, to pose a question to him live, was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss – even if I also knew it would be his room, so to speak, with an audience loaded with his family and friends (Urwand is from Sydney) and attendees, who would be inculcated by his sensationalist claims and dazzling ‘evidence.’
This was exactly what happened as Ben Urwand rolled out his multimedia presentation to suitable gasps and the shaking of heads across the packed crowd of around 130 people.
I was shocked to see him start his presentation by claiming the inspiration for his nine years of research and subsequent PhD thesis and then book, as coming from a Paramount memo signed off by an exec with “Heil Hitler.”
In fact, Urwand has said on numerous occasions publicly, and in his book’s introduction, that it was a comment from Budd Schulberg that Louis B. Mayer had shown movies to the Nazi consul, George Gyssling, that got him started.
When his presentation concluded the first question was from an elderly man to the effect that wasn’t Warner Bros. morally above the other studios? — indicating Urwand’s premise had been accepted hook, line and sinker and as such, the man’s desire to find some “good Jews” amongst all of the other Jewish moguls Urwand had spent 40 minutes portraying as on par with the Nazis.
I raised my hand to ask the next question. When the microphone was given to me, I introduced myself as a grandniece of Louis B. Mayer. There was a ripple of gasps across the room.
My question was as follows:
“Your PhD thesis, and then your book, were predicated on a comment by Budd Schulberg, who was known to hate Louis B. Mayer, that L.B. would screen movies for George Gyssling, the Nazi consul. Here is the key portion of the quote in your book:
‘. . . I heard about the way that Louis Mayer would kowtow, we were amazed when we heard it, but he was definitely doing it. I think the consul even came to the studio and looked at his pictures and said yes, that’s all right, no take that out, it was unbelievable.’ Refer endnote 163
What proof do you have for this serious accusation, which you have repeatedly referred to, considering your own endnote #163 about Schulberg’s comment simply refers to a transcript of him referring to hearsay, and even Schulberg does not mention his source for this claim, nor did he witness this, i.e. ‘we were amazed when we heard about it.’
So where’s your proof?”
Urwand suddenly became tongue-tied and began to refer to something else — I think Louis B. Mayer’s comments on another topic. But I pulled Urwand back and said that was not what I had asked: I asked about his proof for endnote 163.
After a couple of minutes of stumbling around for something coherent to say and some very interesting body language, Urwand simply fell back to his constant refrain when he has been challenged over his six month long, international book tour: “It’s all documented in my book.”
The problem is Ben Urwand, it isn’t. Your endnotes would make M.C. Escher proud.
A question was then asked about the validity of telling the Jewish moguls’ story from the perspective of German archives. Isn’t that exactly what Hitler and the Nazis would have wanted — to control the narrative of their most hated?
Through The Collaboration, the long dead Nazi regime gets to do just that. In Urwand’s story, the bad guys are the Jews. The realities of the time are nothing. The pervasive and frightening anti-Semitism within America is stripped away; the constrictive regulatory environment is denied; and the moguls’ covert and other personal efforts, such as paying for spies to infiltrate pro-Nazi groups, and private, unrecorded actions, all get in the way of Urwand’s fable.
Instead, everyone has a good laugh about Hitler’s love of King Kong and Mickey Mouse.
Urwand was then asked if he would update the book if errors were identified. He answered that in all of the criticism he received, not one error had ever been found but yes, if there were any, he would. Of course, most of the rebuttals have found errors and all point to hugely manipulative errors of omission.
I was grateful for two brave questions from a Hebrew teacher and historian who pressed Urwand to consider his book’s almost total lack of context for the majority of the years his text covers, and his manipulative choice of the word “collaboration” in his title. The questioner even supplied him with a more appropriate German word, but again Urwand staunchly defended his loaded choice.
Interestingly, the next question again took up the word collaboration, but unfortunately she also followed with praise for the book’s endnotes when, in fact, they are like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland.
I went into this event with no expectations and certainly the only thing I came away with was a sense of personal pride that I showed up on behalf of the much maligned Jewish studio heads and executives, including Uncle Louis, who cannot speak for themselves and so defend their legacies against this callow book. Though the last few months have been exhausting, I am so glad I could bring the effort of so many directly to Urwand’s door for his one Australian appearance.
I am grateful for the immense support I have received through Twitter (especially film journos and classic film fans), via my blog and from family, friends and colleagues.
I am in awe of the powerful and thorough rebuttals and critical reviews written by knowledgeable and dedicated academics, historians and esteemed film bloggers (all listed here), many of whom have become part of the support network that seemed to organically embrace me during some very tough times.
I have also received numerous emails and messages of support from many who have not chosen to speak publicly but felt strongly enough to be in touch.
My final message echoes what prominent film academics and historians have said:
It is time for Harvard University Press to withdraw this deeply flawed book from sale. The idea that Ben Urwand continues to receive profits off the back of The Collaboration is shameful. But more than this, having witnessed how he manipulates his audience at his personal appearances,* we know he has no regard for the ramifications of his showmanship. He simply wants to sell books.
Thank you and I hope you all have a wonderful, happy and restful holidays. I’ll be back with more Hollywood Essays in 2014.
Notes: A special thank you to Farran Nehme aka @selfstyledsiren who came up with two excellent questions for tonight’s session but sadly, I was only able to ask one.
*Read film historian Joel W. Filner’s account of crowd manipulation during Urwand’s presentation at the prestigious Wiener Library in London on November 4th, 2013.