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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Stalin’s Sock Puppet
A new play makes Walter Duranty’s journalistic mendacity relevant to our own time.
5 November 2012

The Party Line: A Play in Two Acts, by Sheryl Longin and Roger L. Simon (Criterion Books, $15.95)

He had two faces, one leg, and no principles. He was a sycophant, a dabbler in the occult, in drugs, in sexual orgies. He was a habitual liar, a serial adulterer, a lout. Of all Generalissimo Joseph Stalin’s useful idiots, he was the most useful, and the most idiotic. And he was one of the most prominent journalists of his time.

Indeed, Walter Duranty not only served as the New York Times’s point man in Moscow, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for his mendacious reportage. Acting simultaneously as “objective” newspaperman and apologist for the Bolsheviks, he denied the Holodomor, Stalin’s deliberate, deadly starvation of some 12 million Ukrainians, which he knew to be true. In dispatch after dispatch, Duranty acted as Stalin’s sock puppet, labeling eyewitness accounts of mass murder as “malignant propaganda.” Seven decades later, the Pulitzer committee and the Times acknowledged as much. Yet neither institution has seen fit to revoke the award.

This flamboyant self-promoter would make an ideal subject for the stage, and it’s a wonder dramatists have ignored him for so long. Happily, the wait is over. Scenarist Sheryl Longin has collaborated with novelist and polemicist Roger L. Simon to create a compelling two-act play, The Party Line.

Shuttling between the Soviet Union and contemporary Europe, their tragedy focuses on Duranty. But it also includes Sid Brody, a composite of the reporters who started by toeing the Communist Party line and ended by exposing Bolshevik atrocities. Vaulting into the future, it then introduces several memorable characters, including Duranty’s son Michael (a fictitious person, since the journalist’s real son disappeared years ago); Michael’s lover, the soon-to-be-assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn; and Stockton Rhodes, a credulous CNN correspondent.

These flashbacks and flash-forwards are more than a theatrical experiment. The playwrights draw a convincing parallel between the agitprop of the Soviet apologists and the expedient political correctness of many present-day journalists. When Stockton asks if Walter was ever a Marxist, for example, Michael replies, “Of course not. You CNN people should know that better than anyone—not reporting Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers so you could keep your cameras in Iraq. It was all about access for you and it was all about access for my father.”

To educate a younger audience with limited knowledge of Marxism’s dark history, Longin and Simon occasionally slip into didactic mode: “I’m inclined to agree with what Lincoln Steffens said after he visited [the USSR]: I have seen the future and it works.” Or: “Rather dreary here tonight. . . . Normally we get an Eisenstein or a Brecht. Gorky himself has joined us here on occasion. . . . Maxim is a charming fellow. Just don’t fall for him because he’s the Minister of Culture.”

For the most part, however, The Party Line sharply illuminates the ways in which twentieth-century fellow-travelers convinced themselves that a mass murderer was actually a conscientious and inspired leader—and how twenty-first-century naifs put on blinders to avoid an examination of Islamic terrorism. It’s fitting that Duranty, who thought he could talk his way into any power group, courted producer/director Cecil B. DeMille—only to find that DeMille confused him with Jimmy Durante. But all that came later, when the damage was already done.

As The Party Line implies, it’s impossible to tell whether a similar obscurity awaits today’s enablers of totalitarianism—or if Fortuyn’s haunting message will continue to fall on deaf ears in Europe and America: “In my beloved liberal Netherlands, I must hear that Allah is great, which is perfectly fine, but that I am a dirty pig and that you are a Christian dog. That is what they say and our politicians think that is okay. They accept being walked over, but I cannot be silent and let that happen anymore. . . . So I speak up and confront people. . . . You say it is dangerous and you are right. So then, I will be finished off. Maybe so. But the problems will remain. They will remain.”

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