With the abject failure of my first Broadway play, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," I resolved never to write another play but to give novelistic form this time to the assault, figurative and sometimes literal, that was coming at me from the streets.
It's all a long, long time ago. Only now, after nearly 60 years, does some of the feel of that time begin to return. The color and tone of an era are harder to convey the closer one is to it. Dickens's London comes more vividly to mind than the New York of the early 40's.
Pearl Harbor hadn't yet been attacked; the city like the nation was split in a lot of different ways as to how involved we ought to be in Europe's never-ending woes. Franco's destruction of the Spanish Republic was met by a mute official America. Maybe the silence helped create the craziness, as when the American Legion and the Communists found themselves on the same side for a while, both opposing our involvement: the left because the Russians, incredibly, were suddenly allied with Hitler; the legion because veterans were generally opposed to a replay of World War I.
And if the ranks of the British Army were filled with Irishmen, their brothers here didn't at all mind the British being in trouble now. And besides, a lot of veterans were Irish or Catholic or both, and the church had its concordat with Hitler and was generally perceived to be less than perturbed by fascism. It was all no less confusing then than it seems now.
Wherever one looked, the straight lines went crooked. World War II was several wars, not one. The South was gung ho, Britain having supported the Confederacy in the other century, and Southerners like shooting anyway. The most racist part of the country hated Hitler, who dared raise the swastika over church altars, but of course they were not exactly pro-Semitic down there either. It was like a dropped vase, cracked in all directions; touch it and it might shatter.
And the silence inevitably covered the Jews and their fate. More Jews than not were on the left side of the political spectrum, but here was the Soviet Union lying down with the Jew-hunting Nazi. And Roosevelt, friend of Jews, had denied landing privileges to the St. Louis, the ship carrying a couple of hundred of the Jews allowed to leave by the Germans. The ship's captain first tried landing in Cuba and, turned away, headed back to Germany. There were not many protests within or outside the Jewish ranks. In fact, that ship disappeared over the horizon going east in a bubble of silence, probably the largest crowd to leave the Statue of Liberty behind.
Along with a lot of others, what I made of the silence was that everybody, not excluding myself, was afraid of an outbreak of open anti- Semitism in America should that shipload of refugees be allowed to disembark. (This was a fairly prosperous, middle-class group of people and not what "refugee" seemed to connote, but even that seemed not to count.) Meantime one of the biggest radio audiences in the United States waited eagerly every Sunday for Father Coughlin's harangue against Jews on a national network.
The writing of "Focus" was an attempt to break through the silence; just putting the words down was a relief. But I had no idea whether the subject itself would make publication unlikely, and so it indeed appeared from the moment it was offered to publishers. No one I talked to could think of any fiction on the subject, although the widespread existence of anti-Semitism, from the universities on down through the large corporations and professions, was of course known to everyone. It was like some sort of shameful illness that was not to be mentioned in polite society, not by gentiles and not by Jews.
But I was lucky. Reynal & Hitchcock, a new gentile publisher, had opened only a year or so earlier, and Frank Taylor, an associate of my wife who worked at a medical publisher, had just been hired to get new authors for their virgin list. Taylor was swinging his lasso all over the city and had looped in a number of exciting young talents.
That the book was already making some people very nervous only enhanced its value at Reynal & Hitchcock. If there was no explosion once it appeared, I thought it was quite possibly because "Gentleman's Agreement" had beat it out by a month or two and helped break the ice. But when the left-wing Book Find Club adopted "Focus," some of its members did object on the ground that the book repeated anti-Semitic slurs, as of course it had to when some of its characters hated Jews.
But even recalling all this doesn't quite revive the feel of that time, more than a half-century ago. Rather, I can recall my own amazement that the story was to be published at all, so accustomed was I to the fearful silence surrounding the issue. But I do very clearly remember the day I was supposed to come to the publisher's offices to have my picture taken for the book jacket. I had totally forgotten the appointment until my wife walked in and was surprised to find me in Brooklyn when I had this important appointment on Madison Avenue.
I rushed about getting into decent clothes and walked straight into the edge of a partially open closet door and by the time I arrived at Reynal & Hitchcock's had a nice black eye. This is why I am in profile on the jacket. That long-ago photo, of a young man with hair, looking confidently into the distance, brings back some of the excitement of the imminent publication date and, for all anyone knew, outraged public condemnation.
Some 60 years later a movie has been made of "Focus," so its relevance has apparently not disappeared. The current attacks on people for their appearance - Middle Easterners this time - runs right down the middle of the book's theme. This time around, however, silence is out of fashion, and a lot of us find ourselves struggling very consciously with our fears.
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