February 8, 1999
Ben Margolis, 88, a Lawyer in Hollywood Blacklist Case By ERIC PACE
Ben Margolis, a California lawyer known for his spirited counseling and defense of movie-industry figures who had been blacklisted, died on Jan. 27 in Portland, Ore. He was 88.
In the early 1950s, after Margolis was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he said, "I'll fry in hell before they get any information out of me about my clients."
He also advised clients facing similar interrogations to reply, when they were asked whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party, "None of your business."
Paul Jarrico, a screenwriter who was blacklisted for two decades, has recounted that when he appeared before the House committee, he was flanked by two lawyers: Margolis, on his right, and Robert W. Kenny, on his left. "I was getting a little heated in my answers," he recalled, "and Kenny was whispering into my left ear, 'Take it easy, take it easy,' and Margolis was whispering into my right ear, 'Give it to 'em! Give it to 'em!"'
Margolis and Kenny went before the United States Supreme Court in 1958 representing 23 former Hollywood actors and writers who contended in a lawsuit that they had been unconstitutionally blacklisted by the movie industry.
The 23 included the actress Gale Sondergaard, who had won the first Academy Award ever given to a supporting actress for her work in the 1936 movie "Anthony Adverse." The group also included Howard da Silva, who had, in the words of the film historian Ephraim Katz, "pursued a successful career as a character actor in films, specializing in mean heavy roles."
The 23 had been accused of having Communist affiliations. They refused to answer questions from the House committee, claiming the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination.
They contended that because they had refused to answer, they were unable to find work in movies. They sued the studios for $56 million, but their suit was rejected in California.
The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and in 1958 Margolis and Kenny argued before the court that their clients' right to due process of law and to the equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment had been violated.
That amendment prohibits only discriminatory action by the states, not discrimination by individuals. But Margolis contended that the California courts' dismissal of the suit constituted "state action" and therefore violated the amendment.
He also argued that the state courts had granted relief in similar cases and were discriminating against the 23 plaintiffs. In addition, he presented an alternative argument: that the movie industry, which the plaintiffs' suit characterized as a "huge monopolistic combination," was really a "super-government" whose actions were equivalent to those of a state.
Despite his efforts, the Supreme Court decided that it should not have agreed to review the case because it rested on an "adequate state ground," and it dismissed the suit. Justice William O. Douglas dissented, saying the California courts were guilty of unconstitutional discrimination.
Margolis fared better when he represented Oleta O'Connor Yates, a leader of the Communist Party in California, before the Supreme Court. She had been sentenced to a year in jail for contempt of court after refusing to testify at a 1952 trial of West Coast Communists charged with advocating the violent overthrow of the government. The Supreme Court set aside her sentence in 1958.
When Margolis went before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, he refused to answer questions about Communist affiliations or organizations. He became the fifth Los Angeles lawyer to do so.
While he was being questioned, the committee's chairman, Representative John S. Wood, a Georgia Democrat, said he was getting tired of Margolis' "contemptuous attitude."
Unfazed, Margolis shot back: "I feel nothing but contempt for this committee and I'm proud of it. This committee has no right to tell people how to think."
In 1959, the committee asserted that an "elite corps" of Communist lawyers was promoting the party's cause in the courts, in Congress and at certain government agencies. A report from the panel identified 39 lawyers, including Margolis, who it alleged were among more than 100 who had been identified as Communists before the committee in the past decade.
A native New Yorker, Margolis was raised partly in Santa Barbara, Calif., and went on to study at Hastings Law School in San Francisco. He practiced law in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles. Over the years his practice included labor, civil rights, real estate and other kinds of law, and he was known as an advocate for underdogs.
He is survived by his wife, Valerie; three sons, Ken, Roger and Gregory, and five grandchildren.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
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