Haynes Johnson interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Capturing Our Times through History and Journalism: Conversation with Haynes Johnson, journalist and writer, 1/31/02 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Haynes, welcome to Berkeley.

Thanks, Harry. Glad to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

In New York City. I was born there in 1931, in Manhattan, and then my parents moved out to Long Island, to Forest Hills. So actually I think of that as my town, although I'm a native New Yorker.

In retrospect, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

Well, totally. My father was a newspaperman, and I guess I worshipped my father. My mother had been trained to be a concert pianist, but became a housewife, and I was her first child. She not only loved music, but she loved books. I had a grandmother, my Grandmother Adams, who lived with us and would read to me before I could read. So I was very fortunate to grow up in a house in which we had the advantage of an interest in ideas and books and conversations. I look back on how lucky I was. The conversation was always there about contemporary events. That was during the Depression period, and I was a child at the time of Pearl Harbor, and I remember that. My father went off to become a war correspondent, and I pored over the papers, reading his stories from the South Pacific, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, of the surrender on the Missouri, and all of those things. So it became part of me, it was just sort of in me.

I didn't set out to follow my father's career as a newspaperman, but I did. He was very good about that; he never wanted to push me into anything I didn't want to do. He had been the son of a lawyer who died when my father was thirteen. He worshipped his father, but didn't feel he knew him. My grandfather was a scholarly man, read Greek and wrote poetry, but my father never knew him. So I was taught to be best of friends with my father. I called him by his nickname, not "Dad." It was "Mike." His name was Malcolm Johnson, and it's interesting, I don't know why this is, but I and my sister both called him Mike until the day he died, and my two younger siblings, brothers, called him Dad. Why that happened, I don't know. But it was a very close relationship with my father.

It must have been an interesting emotional experience to read words that were written by your parent. Talk about those kinds of feelings.

Well, it was. As I say, I went on to [become a] war correspondent, but later on. He was a successful newspaperman, and I guess I imbibed that or something, absorbed it, whatever the description would be. But it was also the idea that books were terribly important and reading was very important. My mother used to have a curfew, but when I was very small I loved to read, and I would read all night. I'd take books, and she said, "You have an 11:00 curfew time, you're not allowed to read after 11:00." I still [love to read]. That was the way I grew up, and it wouldn't have been had it not been for a household in which you have those advantages.

Are there any books that you read as a young person that stick out in your memory?

Sure. I remember, as a very small child, the Bullfinch mythology books. I loved those. I loved the King Arthur tales. I loved even the old children's books that you had at the time. And we had -- and this was way before my time -- but my father had a bunch of Tom Swift books called The Science of Fiction -- it wasn't just science fiction, but it was a science of fiction. I read some of those -- I thought they were kind of silly, really, to tell you the truth. But Howard Pease, going to sea in a tramp steamer. I thought that was wonderful. I wanted to go, maybe enlist on a tramp steamer and to Cathay or the Orient or something. It was great.

That's the thing about books, they were an opening, a window where you could transport yourself. I read a lot of all kinds of books, and I still do. I take books to bed with me; I stake them on the bed. And some I've read over and over again.

When did the thought enter your mind that, "I think I'm going to be a writer"? Did it happen so naturally that you didn't even notice?

When I was in grammar school -- I went to P.S. (for Public School, in New York City) 101 -- I was in, it must have been sixth grade, and we would have these "declamations," and I would describe the stories and read them to the class, and I was certain that I was going to wind up being a writer. What kind of writer, I didn't know. I wanted to write books. I wasn't consciously thinking of being ... I later became a newspaperman, as well as an author of books, but I didn't consciously follow it. It just seemed to happen. I like [writing]. In high school, I was the editor of my school paper, and I wrote, so I just naturally grew into that sort of [person].

The other profession that you have is that you're a historian. Did this love of history and this concern for history come along at the same time?

It's a funny thing about that. Again, we were talking about family, how much we are influenced by the environment and the people with whom we're in contact. My Grandmother Adams was very, very old. She was born in 1865, I think it was. She was the youngest child [in her family]. Her father was born in 1810. They were from the South, and they went to New York as passionate New Yorkers. But she would tell stories, I remember, about Reconstruction, and about the family, and the history of the family, and who they were. We had a book on my father's side that my great-great grandfather had written in 1804 or '05. These were narratives, they weren't just boring genealogies, "So-and-so begat so-and-so." They were stories about the American Revolution. I thought that was wonderful. I don't know whether that inspired my sense of history or not, but I guess it did.

I wanted to be a newspaperman later, but I always knew I wanted to write books. I wanted to write about history, and I wanted to write about America, as much as I could, to talk about who we were and what was happening to us. And later on when I went to graduate school --

You went to Wisconsin, right?

Yes, in Madison, Wisconsin, where I studied American history. And I knew that's what I wanted to do, but I wanted to combine the two fields, journalism and history, somehow. I've been very lucky, Harry. I wound up doing exactly what I wanted to do. I'm blessed by that.

We're going to talk about what you did in one second, but one other point that I wanted to bring up. You and your father are the only father-son pair that have won the Pulitzer Prize. Your father won it for the story that became a basis for the screenplay On the Waterfront. Tell us about that.

I was in high school at the time. I went to a public school in grammar school, and then I went to a private school in Manhattan, on Central Park West, the MacBirney School, which J.D. Salinger had gone to. I think the reason they sent me there was it was a boys' school, only three hundred boys. It was an excellent school. But my father was a war correspondent -- he wanted me to be around boys. So I did that. But at that time, in high school, he started writing a series of articles. He spent six months, at least, of his life, examining crime on the New York waterfront -- murder, corruption of a massive scale, a reign of terror on the docks. For every pound of cargo that was delivered to the Port of New York, which was the greatest in the world then (still is), was a fee that had to be paid to gangsters. And he wrote those series of articles -- there were twenty-four, and then another series, and so forth. He called it "Crime on the Waterfront." He won the Pulitzer Prize for that. I still am immensely proud of my father for what he did, and I am in awe of the courage it took, because during that time, the minute those articles began appearing, we began getting threatening calls, terrifying calls -- they're going to kill my family or my father, my mother. So we had an unlisted phone number from that date to the day my father died, just simply because it was difficult. But he kept on writing, despite the threat that he was going to be killed. Then he wrote a book, and he sold it to Hollywood, and that became the movie On the Waterfront, which was made five years later. It took five years, eight screenplays, and whole panoply of people involved before it finally came out. It was a pretty good movie.

Yes, very good, and made Marlon Brando a movie star.

Well, he was a star before that. He had done Streetcar before then, you know, A Streetcar Named Desire, both on the stage and on the screen, and a great actor. But it may be his most famous role -- that, and The Godfather later. But it has been said that it was maybe the finest performance by an American actor in film. I wouldn't quibble with that.

I'll tell you a story about that. My father was an advisor on the movie. They shot it in Hoboken, on the docks. He had never met Brando before then. Elia Kazan was the director; Budd Schulberg wrote the actual screenplay based on my father's articles. And I remember my father telling the story about when they watched the rushes -- the film had been finished, and they were all gathered in the room to watch the rushes of the movie -- and Brando was there. Brando was extremely temperamental, and he was going through a very, very temperamental stage. And he looked at this thing, and he just stood up and shouted, "This stinks! It's terrible!" And he stormed out. And, of course, it was an absolutely magnificent performance -- artistic, temperamental, whatever, that was what he was.

You became a reporter; you won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Civil Rights movement. Tell us a little about that.

In Selma, Alabama, yes.

And that was what year?

1965 was the Selma march, and the story that led to the final passage of the Civil Rights Act ... and it led to the laws passed banning segregation. But I was always interested in civil rights and race relations. I'm not sure why, but I think because my family were southerners. My father got his job in New York because he had exposed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and they were going to kill him and burn down the paper. The governor of the state had to offer him protection.

This was what state?

Georgia. Not a very good place to be in 1925 or '26. And his father, the lawyer, defended Leo Frank in a case, which was a horrendous case, which led to the birth of the modern Klan. So I guess I grew up with that kind of background and interest. I was interested in race relations. My father was what we would call now a liberal -- passionate, absolutely, against injustice. And so was my mother. When the Civil Rights movement was beginning, I wanted to ... my first book was on race relations in Washington, D.C., and then I covered the Civil Rights movement in the South. I had some success partly because I understood the South in a way maybe I wouldn't have had I been just a New Yorker. I was born in New York and all that, but I knew something and they couldn't con me about how wonderful we are to the "colored people," quote, or the "black people," or "Negroes." So I covered the civil rights struggle in lots of places, and then finally six months in Selma, Alabama. And happily won the Pulitzer Prize.

Was there a particular satisfaction in doing that story beyond just the Pulitzer?

Well, I tell you, this is all very personal stuff, but because the year that I won was the first time that the Pulitzer Prizes had ever been given out in person. It was the 50th anniversary of the prizes, and so they decided in honor of this event to have a black tie dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and every living Pulitzer Prizewinner was invited -- the playwrights, the novelists, the musicians, the historians, the poets, and all the journalists. My father was invited, obviously, because he had won. A day before they announced the awards, I got the word privately that I had won. I called my father -- this is was what's so wonderful, because we would be the first [father and son] in history to win the prize -- I called him up at his office in New York, and I said, "Mike, you're going to the Pulitzer Prize dinner, aren't you?" He said, "Yeah, why?" "Well, I'll see you there." He said, "Well, what do you mean, 'I'll see you there'?" I said, "Well, I'll see you there." He said, "Well, Haynsie, I don't think I can take -- " he called me "Haynsie" " -- I don't think I can get tickets for you." I said, "No, I'll see you there." "Well, what do you mean you'll see me there?" And he kept on, because he was getting very angry with me. And I said, "Well, because I won." "What do you mean you won?" And I told him I won. He said, "You're not kidding me, are you, Haynsie?" And he just pausedÉ.

And that was so wonderful because we had this great event, in black tie, in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, and we were on the stage. When they announced that I had [won], they announced that we were the only father and son winners, and they talked about my father and so forth, the legendary figure. They asked him to stand up, and he cried. That's what was good about it. If you're going to win, that was the way to win.

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