Louis Untermeyer: TV Star to Blacklisted Celebrity
Louis Untermeyer was a well-known poetry critic and anthologist when a unique opportunity came his way.
Untermeyer was offered the opportunity to appear on a new television game show called, “What’s My Line?”
But Untermeyer’s achievement soon led to the most challenging period of his career. Get the full story below.
Also, the first episode of “What’s My Line
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Birth of a Poet
Louis Untermeyer was born in New York City on October 1, 1885, the son of a successful jeweler, Emanuel, and his wife, Julia.
The Untermeyers lived in a four-story brownstone at Lexington Avenue and 91st Street in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
There, Julia read to young Louis, poems such as Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” And, once he was able to read, Louis worked his way through pieces such as Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Dante’s “Inferno.”
In his autobiography, Bygones, Louis Untermeyer wrote, “I read every page, not skipping the many lines I could not understand and, knowing nothing about the poets, found, unawares, I was reading poetry.”
Thus started a love affair with literature and poetry that lasted all of Untermeyer’s life. And that put him on TVs across America.
Arming His Enemies
Untermeyer dropped out of high school at 15. Although his goal was to become a composer or concert pianist, he instead started working in the family business: jewelry.
But also around the time he left school, Untermeyer started writing poetry. He spent his days working for his father’s jewelry firm while penning poems at night. During this period in his life, Untermeyer averaged writing one to two poems per week.
About this stretch in his life, Untermeyer said, “My hours were largely my own, and I employed many of them to further my extracurricular career as a poet.”
In 1911, after 11 years of working in the jewelry business full time while writing poetry on the side, Untermeyer published his first poetry collection, First Love. The book was what we today call self-published, and the volume’s publishing was paid for by Louis Untermeyer’s father.
Three years later, Untermeyer’s second volume of poetry, Challenge, was published. This time, Untermeyer’s father didn’t have to pay to publish his son’s work.
New York-based The Century Company released Challenge.
Untermeyer’s Challenge didn’t garner a lot of attention. But it did catch the eye of writer Upton Sinclair, who included two poems from the collection in his anthology, The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.
Cry for Justice was a compilation of writings published over thousands of years that, according to an inscription inside the book, “voiced the struggle against social injustice.”
That book included an introduction by Jack London. Along with some of Untermeyer’s work, Cry for Justice contained writings by Carl Sandburg, W. E. B. du Bois and, in a chapter titled, “Socialism,” was a piece by Abraham Lincoln.
The inclusion of two of his poems in a book edited by Upton Sinclair, with an intro by Jack London, alongside writings of other illustrious and well-known figures, may have at the time been the pinnacle achievement of Louis Untermeyer’s poetic career.
But nearly 40 years after the fact, Untermeyer would pay for the poems he wrote in his second poetry collection.
Louis Untermeyer Goes Jeweler to Critic
As a jeweler, Louis Untermeyer was successful. He rose in the family business from traveling salesman to Vice President. He eventually took over management of the firm’s factory in Newark, NJ.
But in 1923, after 20 years working for his father, Untermeyer left the company to devote himself full-time to poetry. He had already by that time published several books.
One of these books was Modern American Verse. It was retitled in its second edition, released in 1921, as Modern American Poetry.
The collection included pieces by Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, and Robert Frost.
Not long after delivering the first edition of Modern American Poetry, Untermeyer published Modern British Poetry in 1922.
Soon after the books were published, secondary teachers and college professors in the U.S. started using the texts in their classrooms. The use of Untermeyer’s books in teaching continued for decades.
Countless American schoolchildren and college students learned about poetry through the use of Untermeyer’s books. Still today in the U.S., there are people who relied on Untermeyer’s work in their study of poetic verse.
Other anthologies by Untermeyer include A Treasury of Great Poems and Early American Poets. And he published many original poems, essay collections, and articles and reviews on other poets and their work.
Untermeyer’s vocation brought him into contact with many poets. Some of these artists, such as Amy Lowell and Carl Sandburg, became his friends.
In other words, as the 1950s and the television era began in America, Untermeyer was enjoying a prolific career as a poetry critic and anthologist. His success put him in a good position for a unique opportunity.
A Star is Born
In 1950, television producer Mark Goodson was developing a TV game show. The program would feature four panelists trying to guess a guest’s occupation.
The program’s panel consisted of an actress, a female journalist, a businessman, and someone from the literary world. Goodson asked Untermeyer to be the show’s literary figure.
The program was initially called, “Occupation Unknown.” But when the show debuted on CBS on Feb. 2, 1950, its name was, “What’s My Line?”.
In those days, a company or product would sponsor a TV show. Stopette deodorant became the sponsor for “What’s My Line?”.
From the start, the program did well in the ratings. And Untermeyer became a recognizable celebrity.
Shortly after the first season of, “What’s My Line?,” started airing, Untermeyer was dining with Robert Frost in a New York City restaurant. Two young women approached their table and asked Untermeyer for his autograph.
Untermeyer said to the women, “I’m sure you’d much rather have the signature of my guest.”
“Who is he?” one of the women asked.
“Robert Frost,” Untermeyer answered, “the poet.”
“Thanks,” the woman said. “But we only collect celebrities.”
Untermeyer’s new-found fame started to attract unwanted attention, though. Soon, CBS and Stopette were going to have to make a decision about one of the stars of their hit show.
The Red Scare Dawns
After Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II, what became known as the Cold War descended across much of the modern world.
Ideological differences between former allies the United States and Great Britain on one side, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, on the other, caused a rift that threatened peace in the Twentieth Century.
One aspect of the Cold War within the U.S. was the fear that spies from the USSR were infiltrating the nation. This led some to grow suspicious of fellow Americans who were Communists.
The thinking went that because the USSR was founded on Communist ideals, that anyone with Socialist political beliefs couldn’t be loyal to the United States.
This belief culminated in what was known as the Red Scare, a period of time between the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which fear amongst Americans of Communist infiltrators reached a hysteric level.
The Red Scare involved the U.S. government investigating supposed Communists. This effort included United States Senator Joseph McCarthy investigating alleged subversives in the entertainment industry.
Part of this investigation was a booklet titled, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” The pamphlet was compiled by men who had once worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
In “Red Channels” were the names of 151 composers, journalists, writers, producers, and more who were reportedly Communists. Those listed in the booklet included Orson Welles, actress Lena Horne, and poet Langston Hughes.
Much of the publication included outdated information.
Indeed, one of the problems with investigating people based on actions they may have taken in the early Twentieth Century is that many Americans at that time identified as Socialists.
In fact, the Socialist Party of America operated from 1900-1929. The organization’s membership included everyone from farm workers to urban intellectuals.
And, it’s important to note, that the Socialist Party of America didn’t identify as a Communist party.
Nonetheless, the booklet called “Red Channels” was followed by those who ran the TV and radio networks of 1950s America. That adherence damaged or ended the careers of many of those whose names it included in its six pages.
And one of those names was Louis Untermeyer.
The Past Bites Back
One of the accusations that “Red Channels” leveled against Untermeyer was that the poet and critic had contributed articles to a Socialist periodical in the 1920s.
Also, remember Untermeyer’s second poetry collection, Challenge, which came out in 1914? That’s the one from which two poems were included in Upton Sinclair’s anthology celebrating social protest.
Well, 36 years after the book was published, the poems in Challenge were to the people who produced, “Red Channels,” more proof of Untermeyer’s seditious tendencies.
After the release of “Red Channels,” letters started flowing into CBS and Stoppette demanding that they fire Untermeyer. Members of the American Legion and the Catholic War Veterans joined the protest.
And on windows of drug stores that sold Stopette deodorant, protestors slapped stickers that read, “Stop Stopette until Stopette stops Untermeyer.”
Amidst the growing outrage, Ralph Colin, outside legal counsel for CBS, called a meeting with Untermeyer and the showrunner of “What’s My Line?,” Mark Goodson.
There, according to Untermeyer, Colin asked him to meet with Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen.
Sheen was the author of the book, Communism and the Conscience of the West, and a highly visible opponent of Communism. The network hoped that news of Untermeyer meeting with Sheen would quell the furor to fire Untermeyer.
But Untermeyer refused to take the meeting. Later he recalled that he told Colin he didn’t take orders from Madison Avenue.
And so, on Oct. 20, 1950, Untermeyer was removed from, “What’s My Line?” The publisher Benett Cerf was named as his replacement.
Louis Untermeyer’s Post-TV Career
About his dismissal from “What’s My Line?,” Untermeyer wrote, “I had become part of the country’s retreat into intolerance, the ruthless alienation of the individual by means of hostility to anyone who did not succumb to the pressure of the complete conformists.”
Being a victim of the Red Scare damaged Untermeyer, but it didn’t ruin him.
From 1961-1963, Untermeyer worked as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the forerunner to today’s U.S. Poet Laureate.
And Untermeyer continued to publish, mostly anthologies of other poets’ work. By the time he published his autobiography, Bygones, in 1965, he had produced at least 150 books.
Louis Untermeyer lived to be 92 years old. He died on Dec. 18, 1977, in Newtown, CT.
In their obituary, The Washington Post called Untermeyer the 20th century’s “most notable friend and popularizer of British and American poets and poetry.”
In 1991, forty years after Untermeyer’s dismissal from, “What’s My Line?,” the man who first asked the poetry critic to be on the show, Mark Goodson, published an apology of sorts in The New York Times.
An Apology for Louis Untermeyer
After “What’s My Line?” Mark Goodson went on to have a highly successful career in television. He gave American TV some of its most-famous gameshows. These include “The Price Is Right,” “Match Game,” and “Family Feud.”
In 1991, forty years after witnessing the firing of Untermeyer, Goodson wrote a New York Times piece recalling that experience.
Goodson wrote, “It’s difficult to forget my feeling of helplessness and embarrassment at this strange trial that permitted no witnesses, no cross-examination, and where the prosecutor was also the judge. I confess that I did not try to fight that decision.”
Goodson goes on to explain that soon after “Red Channels” came out, more lists were produced that purported to identify subversives. To avoid another Untermeyer-like controversy, CBS implemented a new process for vetting potential guests and panelists on its TV shows.
That process involved an employee of CBS’s security team checking to see if a proposed show participant was on any of the lists that reportedly identified “subversives.” If someone was on a list, they weren’t booked, no matter what.
Goodson explains: “The sort of scene with Untermeyer stopped taking place. Performers were no longer confronted with the reasons that they were removed from shows or not booked in the first place. Essential to the blacklisting was a conspiracy of silence. Explanations were never given.”
But Goodson also started to fight back.
In 1952, the humorist Henry Morgan was a panelist on Goodson’s show, “I’ve Got a Secret.” But then Morgan was listed in “Red Channels.”
To save Morgan’s gig, Goodson said he conspired with the show’s host, Garry Moore.
If Moore refused to do the show without Morgan, Goodson would refuse to produce the show. Despite risking cancellation, Moore agreed.
The show wasn’t canceled and Morgan stayed on.
Others weren’t so lucky.
Ruination by Red Scare
Actor Philip Loeb was fired in 1952 from the show, “The Goldbergs” because his name appeared in “Red Channels.”
Afterward, no one would hire Loeb. He committed suicide three years later.
Charlie Chaplin was blacklisted. While visiting Britain with his family in 1952, he received word that he risked being arrested if he returned to the U.S. He did not return, not until 1972 when he received an Honorary Oscar award.
Or there’s the case of Anne Hale, a public school teacher in Wayland, Massachusetts. Teaching ran in the Hale family.
Anne’s father, Matthew, had taught President Theodore Roosevelt’s children in the White House.
In the 1930s, Anne joined her local chapter of the Communist Party. She stopped paying her party dues in the 1940s, but by then she was on an FBI watch list.
Once the Wayland School Committee got wind of Hale’s supposed subversiveness, they voted two-to-one to fire her.
Hale moved into her home’s basement and tried to rent out the upstairs, but no one would rent from her. She took a job cleaning dog kennels but was fired from that when her boss learned about her past affiliation with Communism.
A shoe factory in Boston hired Hale. She would need to rent an apartment to live there, though, and no landlords would rent to her.
Hale eventually moved in with the family of Otis Hood, who ran the Massachusetts state Communist Party.
A teaching job was extended to Hale, in 1968, sixteen years after being fired in Wayland.
By then, though, Hale was in poor health. She died at age 60 from a brain tumor.
Hale wasn’t allowed to tell her students goodbye when she was fired as a teacher. Instead, she wrote them a note.
In it, she said, “I have been working for a long time in the best way I knew to make sure that the ‘liberty and justice for all’ of which we speak every morning is always with us and that it will grow better. Those who don’t agree with me may say harsh things. Just remember these things, which I am sure you know—I love my country and I love you.”
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Sources: Louis Untermeyer: TV Star to Blacklisted Celebrity
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