May 5, 1953—After three years of dodging inquiries into his past membership in the Communist Party, the threat of exposure of his homosexuality led Jerome Robbins to inform on eight people before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The decision to “name names,” the product of his terror over homophobia, drove a wedge between the rising dancer-choreographer and the associates blacklisted because of his action.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Robbins, the taskmaster and perfectionist who left indelible marks on both Broadway and American ballet. He had already collaborated with the equally young composer Leonard Bernstein on the jazz-infused dance piece Fancy Free and the Broadway musical that sprang from it, On the Town. As a dancer, he had enthralled New York City Ballet audiences in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Tyl Ulenspiegel, as well as with his choreography of such works as The Guests, Age of Anxiety, and The Cage. His innovative choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I lent an unexpected element to that musical.
Another choreography assignment, this time for Wonderful Town, brought Robbins further success. But only three months after that musical premiered, Robbins ended up informing on that show’s book writer, Jerome Chodorov.
In later years, Chodorov was forgiving toward his old theatrical collaborator: “I never was bitter about Jerry, because I figured in those days a homosexual was very vulnerable...Jerry was a weakling, but he was a very talented weakling. And I don't think he did it out of viciousness. He did it out of fear. That's my personal feeling. He didn't want to hurt anybody. He certainly didn't want to hurt himself."
But Chodorov was unusual in his live-and-let-live attitude. More typical was Robbins’ sister and brother-in-law, who were so appalled by the testimony that they would not speak to him for more than two decades.
To understand the depth of the bitterness Robbins aroused, it should be remembered that he not only informed, but, unlike several of the so-called "friendly witnesses," did not warn those friends he named before the committee. Moreover, he informed on an unusually large number of people—some being what HUAC craved the most: new names not identified before. In addition to Chodorov, the eight included:
* Madeleine Lee Gilford, an actress and activist, who had taught Robbins “the lindy” as he was preparing Fancy Free;
* Lloyd Gough, an actor;
* Elliot Sullivan, another actor, in the hearing room at the time of the testimony;
* Edna Ocko, a dance critic who had been his friend ever since she had favorably reviewed his Frankie and Johnny in 1938;
* Lettie Stever, who worked in the office of Robbins’ agent Dick Dorso and had recruited the choreographer into the Party;
* Lionel Berman, a filmmaker;
* Edward Chodorov, Jerome’s brother, and a playwright, author and film producer in his own right.
After testifying, Robbins, sitting on a sofa, said to playwright Arthur Laurents, “It’ll be years before I know whether I did the right thing.” Laurents, his best friend, was much more certain: “I can tell you right now, you were a shit.”
However stung he may have felt initially by the remark, Robbins’ feelings about the matter later tended to agree with Laurents. In his journal he wrote, “Maybe I will never find a satisfying release from the guilt of it all.”
While there were some who felt that Robbins was primarily motivated by ambition in informing, the general consensus followed Jerome Chodorov’s line that Robbins wanted to conceal his sexual orientation from the public. Edward Chodorov, not as forgiving as his brother, was one. Told by Jerome that Robbins had named them (remarkably enough, without any prompting from the committee), Edward responded cynically: “Stabbed by the wicked fairy!”
What were Robbins’ alternatives to informing? He could have simply remained on Broadway as he had been doing. A number of blacklisted actors, writers and directors were able to choose this route because theatrical funding was more diffuse than in Hollywood and, thus, less likely to boycotting by pressure groups such as the newsletter Red Channels.
But work in the theater was more sporadic and not as well-paying as the movies. If Robbins hoped to make it to Hollywood—as he would do, triumphantly, in the not-so-distant future—the film world would be closed out to him. Aging out as a performer, with choreography jobs harder to come by, he might have had to become simply a dance teacher.
But exposure of his homosexuality was simply nerve-racking to him. An engagement to dancer Nora Kaye (with whom he was then living) would have helped only temporarily in providing protective cover for his orientation. But Ed Sullivan, who was sympathetic toward HUAC, had already threatened him with exposure in his newspaper column for his lifestyle.
In those pre-Stonewall days, public knowledge of his true orientation would have wrecked Robbins’ career. The impact of being “outed” (a term not used at the time) could readily be seen outside the entertainment industry, for instance, in the “Lavender Scare” of the time. Though running parallel with the “Red Scare” at the time of Robbins’ testimony, it extended longer and caused more lasting damage to those in national security positions. Thousands of workers were driven from the federal workforce from the late 1940s into the 1960s because of their sexual orientation.
So Robbins testified. As a result, Madeleine Lee Gilford, and her husband, the comic actor Jack Gilford, saw their film and TV work disappear through the end of the Fifties, forcing them to survive “mostly on unemployment insurance,” she said later.
Over a half century later, the Gilfords’ travails would be chronicled, in thinly fictionalized terms, by their son Joe. Robbins (who, before he died in 1998, burnished his Broadway legend as director of both West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof) appears in the script as “Bobby Gerard.”
The play’s title gives a sense of the opprobrium that Robbins, despite his reputation as a dance genius, earned for his testimony: Finks.