Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

Larry Adler and the Cold War

Academic journal article Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History

Larry Adler and the Cold War

Article excerpt

In July 1951 the overseas British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) wrote to the internal British Security Service (MI5) seeking information about an American citizen living in London. The request was prefaced with a sentence that this essay seeks to explain:

   L. ADLER cannot return to the United States with any hope of
   earning a living there, owing to the allegations against him that
   he is communist sympathiser. We have no trace of him, and should be
   grateful if you would let [us] know if you have any record ... or
   if anything is known about him in this country. (1)

This correspondence opens a personal MI5 file, first released in April 2011 through the United Kingdom National Archives. Using that file, this paper will throw new light on the Cold War years of one of America's most celebrated musicians: the harmonica virtuoso, Larry Adler. Some details in the first section of the paper, on the 'Red Libel Suit' in Connecticut, USA, may once have been familiar to keen contemporary observers of American blacklisting during McCarthyism. (2) But the second part of the story, when the paper shifts to Great Britain and differences between American and British intelligence agencies are revealed, has not previously been told. (3)


Although he did not then know it, in 1948 Larry Adler was at the height of his American career. He had already performed alongside musical luminaries--Duke Ellington, Eddie Cantor, Benny Goodman and George Gershwin--and could command high fees and huge audiences. He was as comfortable playing Bach and Vivaldi with the New York Philharmonic, as he was with a breezy Broadway musical. But in November 1948, his agent booked a small concert for Adler and Paul Draper, an accomplished classic-style tap dancer with whom he had worked since 1941, in the school auditorium in Greenwich, Connecticut. This booking was his nemesis. It marked the beginning of Larry Adler's descent from celebrity to pariah in the United States, it altered irrevocably the trajectory of his life., and it added another name to that growing list of blacklisted entertainers.

In December 1948 Hester R. McCullough, a 32-year old Connecticut housewife and member of the Greenwich Community Concert Association, was concerned about the politics of the two entertainers who were shortly to perform in Greenwich. (4) On the advice of her husband, John T. McCullough, an associate picture editor of Time Magazine, she telephoned a journalist with the New York Journal-American, Igor Cassini, to inquire about Adler and Draper's apparent communist connections. Cassini referred her to J.B. Matthews, a consultant for the Hearst corporation and a professional anti-communist investigator. Matthews gave McCullough a list of organisations, several of which had been declared subversive by the Attorney-General in 1947, and with which Adler and Draper were allegedly associated. (5) McCullough was an amateur vigilante--'I guess you might say I was always on the lookout for them [subversives]' (6) --but was encouraged by blacklisters from the world of newspapers: Cassini, Fulton Lewis Jr, Westbrook Pegler and George Sokolsky. (7) Cassini published a letter (read to him over the phone) in his Journal-American syndicated gossip column on 19 December; she sent the same letter to her local afternoon paper, the Greenwich Times, which published it two days later. (8) It alleged the entertainers were pro-communist and that the money paid to them would be transferred to Moscow for use against the American way of life. (9) She also protested to the sponsors of the concert, the board of directors of the local Community Concert Association. The board formally questioned Adler and Draper, found they supported the presidential bid of Henry Wallace but were not subversive and approved their right to perform at Greenwich High School on 21 January 1949. McCullough was 'horrified'. (10) The concert generally, and the 'incredibly skilful' Adler in particular, received an adulatory review:

   After the initial shock of hearing the Bach Violin Concerto in A
   minor played on the harmonica, one is amazed at the variation of
   tone and the subtle handling which Larry Adler coaxes out of his
   instrument. … 
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