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As Bard celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2010, events and exhibits will be happening all over campus. For this edition of Voices of Bard, we shine a spotlight on a remarkable alumnus: Howard Koch (‘22) who left Annandale to build a career as a scriptwriter for some of the most influential radio and film productions of the mid-twentieth century. His success seemed assured until the House Un-American Activities Committee began its investigations of Communist infiltration into the film industry. In 1951 Koch was blacklisted for his work on the movie Mission to Moscow -- a movie made at the request of President Roosevelt but, during the paranoia of the Cold War, subsequently viewed as pro-Communist propaganda. During this time, Koch and his wife lived in Europe, working under assumed names. Though cleared to work five years later, Anne and Howard Koch had grown roots away from Hollywood, and they resettled in Woodstock. In this appreciation, we take a look at some of his accomplishments and challenges. We also remember him as an involved alumnus who returned to Bard many times to show his films, talk with the community about his experiences and influence, and once to see his anti-war play A Revolutionary Affair brought to life in a student production.
Howard Koch was born in New York City in 1901, the only child of middle class parents. Raised in Kingston, he must have been a precocious boy as he was ferried across the Hudson to enter St. Stephens at the age of sixteen. Howard found himself to be an excellent student, but out of his element emotionally and socially. Most of his classmates were postulants for the Episcopalian ministry, attending compulsory evening chapel service. Koch remembered that he preferred to bribe the student who marked attendance by writing his English compositions, and then spend his free time on the tennis courts.
At the end of his first year, he was asked by an upperclassman to substitute as the summer preacher at St. John’s Church in Barrytown. In his memoir, Koch vividly recalls his experiences and some of the personalities including the Zabriskie family who built Blithewood:
…Most of my “flock” were country people of slender means, the majority of them violet growers, the prevailing horticulture of this section of Dutchess County. But it seems in every Episcopal parish there is at least one wealthy family whose contributions are its main support. Often they occupy a special pew with their name on a brass plate. In this instance the family was the Zabriskies…The elderly widowed mother looked and behaved like a somewhat eccentric dowager empress. Her daughter, son-in-law, and their children were all handsome with the easy, natural manners of those so accustomed to the advantages of wealth that they feel no need to impress…(Koch As Time Goes By 28-29)
Like an actor learning his trade, I began to experiment with meaningful pauses and gestures and developed certain tricks with my voice to dramatize the points I was making. Finding that the dry, warmed-over sermons didn’t provide much opportunity for histrionics, I began to make changes in the texts, at first just a word or two, then sentences and paragraphs. I remember having a moment’s pause when on Saturday I found myself rewriting the Easter sermon of the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. But I was basking in the warm response of my congregation. The Zabriskies were even bringing their weekend guests to hear the “boy preacher” and dear old Mary Ricks was seeing more angels than ever floating over my head. By the end of the summer I had discarded the book altogether and was writing my own sermons. I hope that the then head of the New York Episcopal Diocese, Bishop Manning, in the spirit of Christian charity will forgive my youthful presumption. At any rate it gave me intense satisfaction when the fall college term commenced and I returned the “cathedral” to Bishop P.” that I had increased his congregation by at least ten souls who might otherwise have perished in Episcopalian outer darkness. (As Time Goes By 31)
As a sophomore, Howard took a class with Lyford Edwards, a radical and charismatic professor who established one of the country’s first Sociology departments at St. Stephen’s, then under the leadership of Bernard Iddings Bell. Students in Edwards’ classes were sent into prisons, brothels and out to picket lines to learn about social issues first hand. His social conscience awakened, Koch remembers:
Soon I began to realize that nearly everything of any importance I had learned in the previous sixteen years had to be unlearned. Piece by piece, my neat little bourgeois world came apart. By the end of the semester, I stood among the wreckage wondering how I could rebuild with more durable materials. (As Time Goes By 32)
After college, Howard attended Columbia Law School obtaining his JD. He married, fathered Hardy and Karyl, and opened a private law practice in Hartsdale, NY. The language of the law, however, did not captivate him, and he discovered himself to be temperamentally unsuited to the various roles of lawyer, husband and father. He began writing plays, and in this, he realized some success. Within a few years he had two plays produced on Broadway in New York, and one, The Lonely Man, which opened in 1937 at the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project. This latter play starred an unknown but captivating John Huston as Abraham Lincoln, transported to 20th century to battle slavery in other forms. It was a hit with critics, Lincoln scholars, the public, and one John Houseman who would soon hire Howard Koch as a writer for the independent Mercury Theater on the Air.
Koch, in the meantime, had been living in Kingston and working with a local theater group. When hired by Houseman in the spring of 1938, The Bardian ran a short notice about the career transition of their alumnus:
Founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman in 1938, Mercury Theater on the Air was the radio incarnation of their live New York theater company. Soon after the transition to radio, Houseman hired Howard Koch to write the scripts for the weekly hour long programs that dramatized classic and contemporary literature.
Koch was paid $75 to write 60 or more pages of script each week. He began with a dramatization of Hell on Ice, a series based on a book about the ill-fated De Long expedition to the North Pole, and moved on to lighter fare with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen. His success with these earned him another $50 per week. Next, as national tension increased over America’s inevitable entry into WWII, Orson Welles envisioned a science fiction piece, and they settled on a Halloween presentation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, which Howard Koch rewrote as Invasion From Mars.
Listen to the entire original "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast:
(from Internet Archive)
Koch remembered working so hard on the script during the week prior to the show that:
After listening to the broadcast in my apartment, I went to sleep, blissfully unaware of what was happening outside. Houseman called later that night to break the news but I was too exhausted to hear the telephone ring. The next morning — blessed Monday, when I could afford the time for a haircut — I walked down Seventy-Second Street on my way to the barbershop. There was an air of excitement among the passersby. Catching ominous snatches of conversation with words like “invasion” and “panic,” I jumped to the conclusion that Hitler had invaded some new territory and that the war we all dreaded had finally broken out (Koch The Panic Broadcast 16)...When I anxiously questioned the barber, he broke into a broad grin, “Haven’t you heard?” and he held up the front page of a morning newspaper with the headline (The Panic Broadcast 24):
I was an astonished contributor to this bizarre event which still occupies students of social psychology searching for clues why rational behavior was suspended on such a vast scale. In the course of forty-five minutes of actual time — as differentiated from subjective or fictional time — the invading Martians were presumably able to blast off from their planet, land on the earth, set up their destructive machines, defeat our army, disrupt communications, demoralize the population and occupy whole sections of the country. In forty-five minutes! (The Panic Broadcast 11-12)
The dust settled over the next few months, and Howard Koch moved to Hollywood to stake his claim as a screenwriter. However, his prior experience working with John Huston, led to a collaboration on one final stage play: In Time To Come, about Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Koch provided most of the writing, Huston enlivened its stage impact, and Otto Preminger produced and directed the play which opened on Broadway late in 1941. It received glowing reviews in New York, but with the advent of Pearl Harbor, the public was not interested in a play about peace; it closed within six weeks. See In Time To Come (PDF), which includes scans of the first four pages of Koch's personal manuscript of this play (a gift from Howard Koch to Bard College).
That same year Huston and Koch also co-wrote Sergeant York, a film starring Gary Cooper that dramatized the true story of a pacifist who becomes a WWI war hero. This theme was more in keeping with the public appetite as America entered the Second World War, but Koch himself remained aloof from the prevailing mood of bellicosity.
The following year (1942) permanently established Koch's Hollywood success: with Julius and Philip Epstein, Koch wrote the screenplay for Casablanca which they adapted from an unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Writing in Bard's Alumni Magazine he said:
My collaboration with the Epstein brothers was entertaining and, to a degree, productive. They came up with all sorts of amusing lines and incidents for the various characters...while I tried to fit the bits and pieces into some kind of dramatic continuity. However, after a week or so we were unhappily aware that, while we had some interesting elements, they didn’t add up to a workable story…At this point we had to face the fact that our collaboration was not producing the desired result and time was running out…(May 1967)
The Epsteins transferred to another assignment, and Koch was left with an unfinished script, a pending filming schedule and several highly paid stars waiting to begin work.
…The next weeks — or perhaps they were months, I’d lost all track of time — were a nightmare of which I remember only fragments. In desperation I decided to forget there was no story line and just start at the beginning, writing scenes as they came to me and using the Epstein material wherever it fitted in. I had only the vaguest notion where each scene was leading, only hoping that it would lead to another scene and another and that the sum total, if I lived that long, would add up to a film that wouldn’t be bad enough to end my brief career in Hollywood. Fortunately I had the help and encouragement of Bogey and the director, Mike Curtiz. Bogey would invite me into his dressing room with his usual “relax and have a drink.” We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle—and off I’d go to develop the idea into a scene. Mike was comforting in another way. When I’d tell him some idea wouldn’t work, it wasn’t logical, he’d say in his Hungarian idiom, "Don’t worry. I make it go so fast on the screen no one notices." (Alumni Magazine May 1967)
When shooting began, the first act was completed, and a race ensued. Some days Koch would provide the scenes on the morning they were to be shot. In 1979, Koch related the following to an audience at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck: "Ingrid Bergman kept asking me: ‘Who am I going to end up with?,’" to which Koch would reply, “I don’t really know yet.” (Register Star July 23, 1979) Despite the feverish pace and high pressure working conditions, the script and the filming ended more or less simultaneously, and the film opened in January of 1943. The following year it would receive three academy awards: Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay.
Exhausted by several years of extended work schedules with no breaks, Koch was scheduled to fly back to Kingston to visit his ailing father. Despite this, he was asked to postpone his visit to write a screenplay for a documentary from the book Mission to Moscow, a pro-Soviet account of an American ambassador’s time in Russia. Initially he refused the assignment, but when he was called directly to the office of Harry Warner, he was told by Harry and Jack Warner that President Franklin Roosevelt had personally requested that the film be made. Under these circumstances, Koch agreed, but negotiated several terms for himself, including a personal secretary to accompany him east where he would be able to both visit family and begin the script. As work and extensive research progressed, a relationship sprang up between Howard Koch and his secretary, Anne Green. By the time the script was complete, he asked her to marry him.
At its release in 1943, Mission to Moscow received a great deal of attention, much of it generally favorable. But the world had witnessed Stalin’s purges of the thirties, and watched the aftermath of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 1939; there was sure to be controversy over a film that presented many Soviet accomplishments in a positive light. Critics who opposed New Deal policies vigorously attacked it as pro-Communist, while many moderate scholars and anti-communist liberals felt that the film whitewashed Stalinist policies. Splits within the existing Communist Party in America further complicated the response to the film. Koch himself accepted the criticism, believing much of it to be justified, but he had had no ideological agenda when writing the script, and he believed that they had covered the topic with integrity. Time moved on: Howard and Anne shared the birth of their son Peter; more movie scripts were accepted and written. Mission to Moscow, however, had political implications that would help to divert Koch’s professional trajectory.
Beginning in 1947, J. Parnell Thomas chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), setting out to expose the “Communist subversion” within the Hollywood community. Read transcripts of testimonies from Ronald Reagan and Albert Maltz. Active Communist Party members were targeted first, while the members of the Screen Writers Guild, or other politically conscious writers’ organizations were carefully tracked. Testifying as a “friendly witness,” Jack Warner distanced himself from other anti-HUAC movie studios by proclaiming “An All Out Fight on Commies,” naming as a Communist anyone he felt was liberal or left wing, regardless of his or her actual party affiliation (Ceplair Inquisition in Hollywood 258). Howard Koch was one of these people; he was soon named as one of the ‘Hollywood Nineteen’ and subpoenaed to testify before HUAC. Mission to Moscow was, needless to say, buried somewhere in the Warner Brothers archives. Koch recalls:
That nightmarish week in Washington will remain with me the rest of my life. We were in our own capital, yet no foreign city could have been more alien and hostile…Although I was one of the nineteen, I was in one sense an outsider from my group since I disagreed with the stand taken by the majority. Led by members of what later became known as the “Hollywood Ten” and approved by all three of our lawyers, they decided not to answer any of the committee’s questions relating to their political associations and beliefs. Their position was based on a literal interpretation of the First Amendment protecting an individual’s freedom of belief and expression. I had every respect for their principled position…My disagreement was purely tactical. (As Time Goes By 167)
Believing that refusal to answer the committee’s questions would only deepen public suspicions that they ‘had something to hide,’ Koch proposed instead that they answer questions fully, and defend each other’s political beliefs and associations. In support of this point of view, John Huston arranged for a planeload of liberal Hollywood personalities to testify at the hearings, calling themselves the “Committee for the First Amendment.” Though these stars spoke on behalf of the first Amendment, and in defense of Hollywood, they did not directly mention any of the ‘Hollywood Nineteen,’ effectively canceling the support they had been called to Washington to deliver (Inquisition in Hollywood 282).
Koch’s testimony was subsequently cancelled, and he was disappointed in his desire to be able to defend his position before the committee. In response to the HUAC hearings, Warner Brothers and other movie companies turned out more than 50 anti-Communist propaganda films between 1947-1954 — indeed, ironically proving J. Parnell Thomas’ assertion that Hollywood films were used as powerful teaching tools (You Must Remember This). Along with many others (some of whom were jailed), Koch was eventually blacklisted in 1951 and thus unable to find work in this country as a screenwriter.
Howard and Anne Koch moved with their son to Europe, eventually settling in England where they were both able to contract work as screenwriters, working as “Anne Rodney” and “Peter Howard”. After four years, they returned to the United States, built a home in the woods outside of Woodstock, and enjoyed the community of like-minded people who live in the area. Howard Koch would make other movies; notable among these was The War Lover, starring Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner.
The Hollywood lifestyle, however, was no longer something to be desired. In an act that perhaps best symbolizes the reprioritization of his values, he auctioned his Oscar from Casablanca to help pay for his granddaughter’s graduate school tuition. When asked if he had any regrets, he said no, “All it did was hold up some books on my bookshelf” (Daily Freeman 12/7/94).
Koch was generous with his time, and often spoke at events that recalled his earlier accomplishments. He returned to Bard on many such occasions, meeting several generations of students over three decades.
He also began writing plays again, and one of these, a musical satire in protest of the Vietnam War, was produced at 'The Red Balloon,' a thriving student center in what is now the Central Services building.
At one event in 1984, he introduced Casablanca in Sottery Hall.
In 1992 he participated in a filmed question and answer session in Preston Theater that was used in the documentary You Must Remember This. This film was shown at the Jim Ottaway Jr Film Center in the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Center on April 8, 2010 with an introduction by director Cambiz Khosravi. See pictures from this event below (click images to see fullsize).
The DVD of this documentary is available at Stevenson Library for students, faculty and staff.
The life of Howard Koch spanned almost all of the 20th century. While he will perhaps be best remembered for his inspired adaptations of existing stories, his works have been woven into our cultural dialogue, and we thank him for giving them voice.
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