Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009

The Ballad of John Henry Faulk

John Henry Had a Little Hammer by Guy Lillian III


illos by Charlie Williams

In March, 1968, John Henry Faulk came to Berkeley. For a week the student government association ensconced him on the ground floor of Eshleman Hall, with the sole duty of talking to whoever walked in his office door – even callow 18-year-old freshmen. He was not tasked with opening their minds or changing their politics – that, he threw in for free.

I was 18, only in my second quarter at the University of California, with little idea of the Lonely Mountain of knowledge and human experience I was sitting on. Believe it or not, I actually thought myself a conservative, having cheered Ronald Reagan to victory in the California gubernatorial race and Reagan having yet to discover the popularity of tear gas and student murder with his right-wing constituency. My diary entries – obsessively complete – were rife with condescending crap about “hippy-types” and “typical working men.”

But we were talking about John Henry Faulk. I’d seen him only once, on William Buckley’s Firing Line, and enjoyed the wonderful contrast of accents and attitudes. I knew something of what he had done, of course. In the early 1950s Faulk was a dynamic CBS radio personality – host of a daily program, panelist on various quiz shows, a spinner of tall tales from his native Texas – where, to the surprise of those fooled by his folksy ways, he was a professor at the University in Austin and prize-winning sociological researcher. He was also deeply involved in AFTRA, the performers’ union – and a candidate for union office. Along with newsman Charles Collingwood and comic Orson Bean, he was part of a slate ardently opposed to that abomination of the era, the blacklist.

~~

Blacklisting: denying an artist work due to his alleged political beliefs. In the early to mid-Fifties, the most grievous political sin was, of course, membership in the Communist Party … or sympathy for it. Or, in the minds of some, any involvement, on any level, in any manner, towards any group or movement which might be branded as Communist or Red-leaning. It was the era of Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, and it is always the era of paranoid businessmen afraid of losing money.

The specific group afflicting AFTRA was called Aware, Inc., basically consisting of a researcher, a moneyman (a Syracuse, New York grocery store owner), an official of a local American Legion post in that area and various flunkies. For such a tiny group they wielded incredible power. Mindful of the damage done their crusade by Faulk’s AFTRA slate, they took him on in their own inimitable fashion. They published a broadside replete with innuendo and falsehood linking Faulk to Red-sounding movements. CBS, ever courageous, fired him. Afterwards, besmirched as a fellow traveler, he couldn’t get work.

So he hired a good lawyer – in fact, the definition of a good lawyer: Louis Nizer. And sued Aware, for libel.

The story of the lawsuit can be found in Faulk’s own book, Fear on Trial, and Nizer’s memoir, The Jury Returns. It’s fascinating to read of a lawsuit from two parallel points of view, the plaintiff’s and his attorney’s. For analysis of the legal issues and tactics of the attorneys, there is no better text than Nizer’s – the man was master of libel torts, as shown by his prosecution of Westbrook Pegler on behalf of Quentin Reynolds, a case documented in his My Life in Court and the play-slash-teleplay, A Case of Libel. No one had a better understanding of the fundaments of libel: false statement, publication, damage – reparation and punishment. For an attorney or law student, there is no better model than Nizer, and to understand the case of a precedent, there is no better account than The Jury Returns. But to understand the human story of a lawsuit, there is no better voice than the victim’s. Fear on Trial is a powerful and painful memoir.

Faulk won his suit, and though he collected little of the huge judgments against Aware, he exposed their invidious techniques and the cowardice of the companies that did its bidding. He brought to light the salient fact of the blacklist: it didn’t matter to the listers that its targets were by no means Communists – it only mattered that they were in their way. Aware, and the blacklist, went out of business.

And now here he was, a genuine champion of American civil liberties, and here was an 18-year-old fart who walked in through his open door on March 4, 1968, and wrote about it in his obsessively-detailed diary. Remember, and have pity: I was 18.

I spent a good portion of this afternoon – and it was indeed good – talking to a most amusing man. His name is John Henry Faulk; he comes from Texas; he’s a liberal hard and fast, and worst of all, quick. During the days of the reign of Joe McCarthy he was accused of being a Communist and blacklisted from the entertainment industry. Since his vindication he has devoted his life to fighting the type of intolerance and hatred that, in an extreme, almost destroyed his career. All this sounds incredibly serious, but that gives entirely the wrong impression. John Henry Faulk’s ardent liberalism emerges from his short, incredibly Texan figure in a stream of hilarious anecdotes, imitations, and dialects. But there’s a message beneath it all, beneath all the earthy crudity, which is, in unmixed company, no rarity at all.

In fact, when I walked in Faulk was demonstrating as dance step he’d seen at a recent soiree, one where it seemed, he said, that the male was whipping the female with his penis. Such was my introduction to John Henry Faulk.

Once sat, I listened for awhile, and took part in the discussion, filled with Faulkesque impersonations of his various fictitious and utterly bigoted aunts, uncles and cuzzins and their reactions to the various liberal causes he espouses. [W]hen he used the word “genocide” in relationship with the war in Vietnam … [t]hen I quarreled with him, because I don’t see our actions over there as anything worse than stupid … and he sees them as the darkest shadows of evil. And he said himself that we are not an evil people, merely (in his terms) diseased … “and we’re gonna have to perform some major surgery on ourself!”

John Henry expressed worry about an upcoming International Students’ Strike and was afraid his student listeners might get hurt. Such protests were common in the late sixties, as was the bluster of, as I put it,

campus gun-bearers (one of which sat next to me and spat flame) … nobody will be allowed onto the campus [and] the Oakland Black Panthers will join with them and blockade the place off.

We heard such noise at Berkeley all the time. Such was the tenor of the times. But though John Henry was ardently opposed to the Vietnam War, such anger and bravado wasn’t his style. Viz:

Faulk read a telegram “a prominent man, socially”, living in the same Congressional district Lyndon Johnson comes from, and a former personal friend, sent to the President. It oozed with Texas grease, a smooth Southern Baptist style of venom … The writer is running for LBJ’s old Congressional seat on a “Bring Lyndon Home” platform, and this telegram was to explain to Elbie just why this was being done. “I prayed on my decision … you know I and Mrs. ‘Hicks’ have always had the highest regard for you and Mrs. Johnson …” It was smooth, and sincere, and friendly, and it twisted the knife in Lyndon’s gut – Faulk’s impressive image, hilariously given. Texas, all the way – “You have to know Texas to appreciate this,” he drawled.

He’s worked with Johnson in the past “so I know just how he acted when he read this telegram. ‘Bird’ was woken up by aroar …”

There was much more. He talked about the political comedy album he was planning – Let’s Leave Lyndon Alone and Let Him Fight His War in Peace. When I mentioned the Firing Line interview, John Henry scoffed. He thought he’d beaten Buckley. “I was more adequately prepared,” he said. When I called home that evening, my mother was delighted to hear I’d met Faulk – she’d been a fan for years. He autographed an advertising pamphlet for her. And I wrote down as much as I could remember of the afternoon.

I haven’t given a sufficient feeling of the integral humor of the man, his slinging-ability, talking to his “sweet little wifey” on the telephone: “Well, I’m just sittin’ c’here with Chancelaah Heyns, and he’s askin’ me howta run this university. Says ‘John Henry goddammit you gotta help me out’ …” He’s magnificent. He could even help me become a liberal.

Apparently a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!

~~

Hooked, I returned the next day, but only for about 45 minutes. John Henry mostly listened as I joined a former GI named Fast Eddie – “who wore a [Eugene] McCarthy button on his T-shirt, had hair in his ears and knocked his cigarette ashes into his shoe” – in arguing about a contretemps the previous October at the Oakland Induction Center. The GI paid me a huge compliment.

Well,” [he said], “I don’t know how long you been around here, five, six years, I guess, but …” “Try three months,” I said, apparently forgetting December and January.

There were impediments to my turning left – for one thing, the characters waiting there for me. The soldier boy called himself Fast Eddie. Faulk and he spent long hours discussing a possible antiwar speaking group – to be staffed entirely by veterans. Him I liked. (Ex-G.I.s were always the most effective voices against Vietnam policy; they led the million-strong antiwar march through San Francisco I joined some years later – until some clowns carrying North Vietnamese flags jumped in partway through. (I’ve always suspected those guys were agents provocateur sent by Reagan’s Attorney General – Edwin Meese.)

But Berkeley was a breeding ground for leftist posture – such as the guys threatening to close down the campus the next month, and the “rabid and theatrical leftist screaming at a seated McCarthyite about Franco” on Sproul Plaza, the campus common. It was inevitable that such guys would show up at Eshleman Hall. We drew a guy I’ll call Kenneth. He was almost comically typical. New Yorker … big talker … claimed he’d spent a month in a Selma, Alabama jail with Stokely Carmichael, the angry-and-getting-angrier head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Black Power advocate. He described Southerners as “crackers.” It was clear to me, even at 18, that this guy had never been south of Perth Amboy and the only crackers he knew were Saltines.

Fast Eddie couldn’t stand Kenneth, in fact he thought him “pathological.” John Henry was more tolerant, but when Faulk took us to the Bear’s Lair for lunch (in the rain, holding my umbrella, the rest of us clustered around him), he mentioned a time when Kenneth had used a certain execratory synonym in mixed company. “I have nothin’ against sayin’ ‘shit’ [he said]. I prefer it over some of the other words, like dung or defecation … but this was just plain awful, bad use of it! Using ‘shit’ to hurt people That was wrong.”

~~

Wednesday, March 6 wasn’t the last day I saw John Henry, but it was certainly the most illustrative. Present that day was an older woman named Miriam, I think, feisty and a fighter, a very short old gal [oh, Jesus!], with a very alive, aged, but not in the face, 55 or 60 [HA HA] I suppose: a world traveler who knows newsmen, an employee of a news agency, against the Vietnam war and apparently so damn depressed about the world today – without optimism, without even hope. The flint sparking her misery was a scene she witnessed: a gang of goons beating up a draft inductee on a bus when he indicated he wouldn’t accept induction. She was so sickened by this that she … gently scoffed at John Henry’s advocations, particularly that of enlisting whatever help possible to end the war.

She said she once felt as Faulk does, and had worked in Robert Scheer’s 1964 campaign for Congress, which, needless to say, failed. [Scheer was strongly anti-war.] “I don’t like the person,” she said, “I consider him another Mussolini,” but she worked in his favor anyway. That evidently proved something for her, and she reiterated her disenchantment with the world – at least at present.

John Henry rose to her challenge, replying in terms that led me once again to believe that, despite his anti-Vietnam stance, the guy is really pretty square. He’s optimistic about this country, and spelled it out, sure, by chiding her cynicism as something “we can’t afford” and as a ploy of the administration. “I know that there’s either doom or salvation on the way, and I’m optin’ for salvation. Heck, if I were in a flood, as the water came up my nose, I’d say, ‘Why, it ain’t even damp out!’”

This from a guy who had been so beaten up by the blacklist he couldn’t even get a stand-in’s job in New York for ten dollars a day.

~~

That same week, I finished classes for my second quarter at “the Big U.” I was taking a seminar from a Ph.D. candidate named Barbara, as memorable in her own way as John Henry. In fact, who are we kidding? Barbara was blonde, beautiful, sweet, well over six feet tall, very Nordic if you get my drift, and she liked my writing. The last day John Henry held his office hours, she asked me to stop by her office, and the thought of that visit still makes my hands tremble, and not with palsy.

At the time, though, I was too stupid to think that she was interested in aught but the paper I was writing –about Ken Kesey and Edward Albee, brilliant writers with but two things in common: both wrote in English and both featured some really horrible female characters. My papers lauded the writers’ talent, and I’ve since suspected – and admit that this may be fantasy – that Barbara, while impressed with my essay-writing ability, was distressed with the subject matter, and wanted to teach me that there was more to her gender than Big Nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Martha from Virginia Woolf.

Okay, so I was hot-for-teacher. So I was lost in fantasyland. So what? So what about the chin she dropped on my shoulder and the nice soft Nordic … pressure against my back as we talked about my paper? Fantasy? I don’t know! All I know is that I cut the conference short to get to John Henry’s office. Witless almost-a-virgin imbecile!

I’m glad I didn’t tell John Henry about Barbara – he’d’ve beaten me to death for leaving her company for his. As it was, that afternoon, the last time I saw him, he let me take his photo, pipe held in his smile, and said, “So long, L’il Guy!”

~~

John Henry never released his antiwar album; Lyndon Johnson withdrew from politics soon after and the Texas connection with Vietnam went with him. I watched the TV version of Fear on Trial, disgusted that the rights had gone to CBS, the cowardly network that fired John Henry, for a pittance. I saw The Best Man, which afforded Faulk a good speaking role, and sometimes caught his storyteller gig on Hee-Haw. Like his walk-on in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was so unworthy as to be infuriating. In 1990, John Henry died, honored by history – but from the day the blacklisters came after him, through the day he destroyed them, to the end of his days, poor. .

But nevertheless, great. John Henry Faulk didn’t “make me a liberal,” nor even turn me against the war in Vietnam. That would follow the death “in country” of my cousin, Jimmy King, later that year, and the savage Establishment brutality Ronald Reagan would level against my campus in springtimes to come. But John Henry had an undeniable effect. His personality, his character, his courage, his story showed me the principle and the quality of that side of the great American debate. John Henry faced down injustice. His “little hammer” was actually a mighty one, and it helped beat my self into shape.

I haven’t done much talking about my own politics this week [I wrote one night], and I suppose that’s deliberate, because my mind is changing, I guess. It all boils down to the three most common words in the world: I don’t know.

John Henry’s work was well begun.

~~

Bibliography:

Fear on Trial by John Henry Faulk, University of Texas Press, 1976, 1983

John Henry Faulk: The Making of a Liberated Mind by Michael C. Burton, Eakin Press, 1993

The Jury Returns by Louis Nizer, Doubleday & Co., 1966

 

 

 

 

 

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