Dalton Trumbo: Grand Junction’s blacklisted hometown hero
Dalton Trumbo’s talent as a writer was equaled only by his knack for getting himself into trouble. His movie scripts won Oscars, and his novel Johnny Got His Gun sold more than 100 million copies, but his refusal to compromise his beliefs got him sent to prison and banned from the film industry. He was at the center of controversy everywhere he went – Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and his Colorado hometown of Grand Junction.
Trumbo’s first novel, Eclipse, came out in 1935, and though it was set in the fictional town of Shale City, it was no secret that it was based on Grand Junction. For someone who spoke his mind with a legendary contempt for the consequences, Trumbo betrayed an uncharacteristic nervousness as he sat down to write to his old boss at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
“I hope you will not be angry if you find characters whom you recognize in it,” Trumbo wrote. He didn’t intend the people in Eclipse to exactly match their real-life counterparts, he said, but he admitted to borrowing many of their characteristics. “I have no apologies although I do confess to some qualms.”
Trumbo, who had moved away from Grand Junction a decade earlier, was justified in worrying how people in his hometown would react. In this thinly veiled satire, Trumbo bitterly depicted how the town treated his father, a hardworking yet struggling businessman and farmer, as well as town patriarch William Moyer, who was idolized while his fortunes were good but cruelly dismissed when those fortunes turned. Trumbo skewered small-town hypocrisy by giving the most sympathetic treatment to the character Stumpy Telsa – the town madam.
Few copies of Eclipse were printed, and Trumbo had hoped no one in Grand Junction would get their hands on the book. But they did. Legend has it that locals hid, burned or otherwise destroyed all copies of Eclipse in Grand Junction because they were offended and ashamed at how they were portrayed. Many despised Trumbo, and his name was cursed in town for decades.
Born in Montrose in 1905, Trumbo was a toddler when his family moved to Grand Junction where he grew up. His way with words was apparent early on. While still a student at Grand Junction High School, he worked as a reporter at the Daily Sentinel. “He never did much homework – he never had the time – but he got by on pure genius,” remembered a friend quoted in Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel by Peter Hanson. During the two semesters he spent at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook, but he had to cut his studies short when his father lost his job in Grand Junction.
The family moved to Los Angeles, where for nine years Trumbo worked nights in a bakery. He kept reading and writing, though, eventually getting a break in the film industry, first as a script reader and then as a screenwriter. He also wrote fiction, and while his short stories and debut novel weren’t big hits, in 1939 he published what’s widely considered to be the greatest antiwar novel ever written – Johnny Got His Gun. Released within days of the outbreak of World War II, it tells the story of a young soldier whose life becomes a waking nightmare after he loses his limbs, eyes, ears and mouth to an enemy shell. Like Trumbo, the book’s protagonist grew up in Grand Junction, again called Shale City, before moving to Los Angeles and working in a bakery.
By the 1940s, Trumbo had reached the heights of success. Johnny Got His Gun won a National Book Award, and he became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriters, making $3,000 a week. He lived on a 320-acre California ranch with his wife, Cleo, and their three children. He was famous for turning out top-quality screenplays with astounding speed, writing while soaking in his bathtub with a script arrayed before him, a cigarette in one hand, a pen in the other. In 1947, however, his career came to a crashing halt.
At the start of the Cold War, Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating communist sympathizers in Hollywood – Trumbo chief among them. Trumbo had joined the Communist Party during the war, when the Soviet Union was an ally, and he was open about the way his politics informed his writing. In a 1946 letter, he said a writer should “use his art as a weapon” for the destruction of fascism, racial bigotry and economic oppression.
The congressional committee summoned Trumbo and nine others from the film industry – dubbed the Hollywood Ten – to confess their communist activities and to identify fellow communists in Hollywood. Not only did Trumbo refuse to name names, he ran playful circles around the committee’s attempts to get him to answer, yes or no, whether he was a member of the Communist Party. “I shall answer in my own words,” Trumbo said. “Very many questions can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only by a moron or a slave.” The exasperated congressman in charge of the hearing, after pounding his gavel over Trumbo’s speeches, finally gave up, dismissing the “impossible” witness from further questioning.
No one would hire Trumbo after this, leaving him, as he described in a letter, “broke as a bankrupt’s bastard.” He received hate mail addressed to “Traitor Trumbo” and “Bolshevik Dalt T.” In 1950 he was found guilty of contempt of Congress and was sentenced to a year in a federal penitentiary, becoming prisoner No. 7551. Upon his release he found himself on Hollywood’s blacklist, banned from working on movies, but that didn’t mean he stopped working.
Trumbo secretly continued writing scripts using 13 aliases and fronts. It was one of the most successful stretches of his career, with Trumbo winning two Oscars, albeit not under his real name. Using British screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter as a front, Trumbo wrote the Academy Award-winning story for Roman Holiday, the movie that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career. He won the best screenplay award for The Brave Ones, which he wrote under the alias Robert Rich. A member of the Writers Guild accepted the award on behalf of Rich, who, of course, didn’t actually exist.
It became an open secret that Trumbo was still writing, and by 1960, Hollywood allies Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas helped strike a blow to the blacklist by employing him – no pseudonyms involved – to write two of the year’s biggest films, Exodus and Spartacus. Trumbo had prevailed.
Trumbo’s fame has grown since his death in 1976 at age 70. A feature film about his life, titled Trumbo and starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane and Helen Mirren, is slated for release this year. In 1993, the University of Colorado-Boulder named the Dalton Trumbo Memorial Fountain Court in his honor, but back in Grand Junction, Trumbo’s reputation took longer to recover.
By the 21st century, most of the anti-Trumbo faction in Grand Junction had died. Eclipse, the book that caused him so much trouble in town, had been out of print for more than a half century, and the only remaining copy at the city’s library was locked up, out of sight. Rather than let the book that had once shamed their city fade from memory, the people of Grand Junction decided to resurrect it. In 2005, the Mesa County Public Library Foundation reprinted Eclipse as a fundraiser, and the community rallied to the cause (though not without a few lingering naysayers in opposition).
“We realized there was a real, almost cult interest,” said Miffie Blozvich, who was instrumental in the project. “The Trumbo family gave the library the copyright to the book and we went through the grueling process of retyping it.”
Community leaders came to the library foundation with copies of Eclipse that their families had guarded, sometimes hidden, as well as Trumbo memorabilia, such as high school yearbooks and even a wedding invitation. In the new edition, the group added a list of the characters and the names of the actual people they represented. “The Trumbo family was so happy about the project that I get choked up remembering their reactions,” Blozvich said. “It was a big turning point for them – for him to be recognized for the person he truly was, after all the scorn and suffering.”
“We are proud to say he was from Grand Junction – from Shale City,” the reprint’s introduction reads. “The rest of the world associates Dalton Trumbo with two places: Hollywood, California, and Washington, D.C. … but here in Grand Junction, Colorado, Trumbo is forever associated with Shale City, the fictitious name given to his hometown in screenplays, novels and a play.”
The new edition of Eclipse was released on what would have been Trumbo’s 100th birthday. A group of Trumbo aficionados, nicknamed the Dalton Gang, wanted to do more to recognize Grand Junction’s famous son. They raised $45,000 to erect a bronze statue of Trumbo in front of the Avalon Theatre on Main Street.
It is an unusual statue befitting a unique man. The bronze Trumbo sits in a bathtub with a cigarette in one hand, pen in the other, writing easel in his lap. Passersby often stop and wonder at this homage. Sometimes, they even put their children in the tub with him to take photos, or give him a rubber duckie, or tie a warm scarf around his neck. Some of the folks who stop to interact with the strange monument, especially out-of-towners, might not know who Trumbo was, but the people of Grand Junction are doing their part to make sure the world remembers their local boy who – eventually – made his hometown proud.