Edwards was a child performer who acted in the Meglin Kiddies with Judy Garland. She lived for a time with her uncle, who owned the Hollywood restaurant, Chasen’s, a watering hole for the stars of the day. Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy in one of the restaurant’s booths, which is kept at the Reagan Library.
Edwards said she fled the U.S. for England in the 1950s when her agent warned her that the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the agency investigating people with suspected communist ties, was sending her a subpoena.
“Without question I was affected by it because I wasn’t allowed to use my name, and I knew I couldn’t work in Hollywood anymore, and I was mainly a scriptwriter at that time, I was very young, I was only about 25, 26 at that time, and I had two little children, and I was a single mother. So suddenly I didn’t have a job and that was pretty tough,” she said during the “Anne Edwards: My Life as a Writer” event.
Edwards suspects the committee took an interest in her because of her first husband’s uncle, the director Robert Rossen, who had also been called before the committee.
“He was one of the first 19 that the committee had brought up and luckily nine of them were kind of dismissed and 10 of them went to jail but he did not,” she said.
Some of the groups the committee called had communist ties from the 1930s, which Edwards defended as being legal at the time.
Others had been involved in the Spanish Civil War as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, those U.S. volunteers who fought for Spanish Republican forces against Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator.
“Out of that whole thing, there were probably a dozen people who were really communists and there were hundreds of people that they called up,” Edwards said. “I had never been a communist or listed with anything, but however that was what it was and you were guilty by association, and they wanted to call you up in front of the committee, and the reason they did that and scared you into that, these scare tactics, is they wanted you to give names, that was the whole thing is for you to give names, and they preferably wanted famous names because the more famous names they had the more press they had, and that was what that was all about.”
Another reason Washington politicians targeted the Hollywood industry was that the writers and filmmakers had focused on stories about the Great Depression, she said.
“And some of those books that you might call left-leaning books or left-leaning plays, left-leaning screenplays, ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ all of those books, those things were suspect at that time,” she said. “There were so few, I mean I can’t even think, there were a few people all of us knew through the grapevine, maybe three people that might have actually been card-carrying communists, you know, but the rest were not that at all. … There were very few that were actually involved with anything to do with Russia I have to tell you that. But they were certainly very liberal people and very left-leaning people, and they were trying terribly hard to get us out of the Depression, to help the people that needed help and to let the world see what was going on at that time — to let them know about the Okies and the this and the that, that was what those films were, and now of course they’re the lead films on Turner Classic Movies, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which was considered one of those things, is one of the finest pictures that ever came out of Hollywood and it’s played constantly on Turner Classic Movies.”
Not such a Funny Girl
Later in life, Edwards recalled visiting New York and attending a book party at the Drake Hotel where she met the psychic Jeane Dixon.
“She sees me standing at the other side of the room, and she comes winging across to me where I am, and she said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I have these tremendous vibes,’” Edwards said, thinking to herself, “My God, is she making a pass at me?”
Dixon told Edwards that she had to return home immediately or miss one of the biggest opportunities of her life. Following Dixon’s advice, Edwards returned to England to find her phone ringing.
Sidney Buchman, author of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — another blacklisted writer — was on the line, asking her to join him in writing the screenplay for the Broadway musical “Funny Girl.” At that time, the name Barbra Streisand didn’t mean much to her since she was living in England.
Edwards said she and Buchman listened to voice recordings of Fanny Brice to prepare for the screenplay. Funny Girl is based on the life of Fanny Brice and her relationship with gambler Nicky Arnstein.
The Arnstein character was pretty shallow and needed to be worked on for the film, Edwards said after seeing the play.
“I mean, he was just like an Arrow Collar ad: There was nothing to him. So we began building up Nicky’s role. That’s what really caused the problem, and (Streisand) was very, very upset about that. His role was just whittled down and whittled down. You know Nicky Arnstein was always away some place traveling somewhere and Barbra was center.”
Edwards would later write a biography of Streisand which prompted the movie star to send her a lengthy fax.
“She sends me this long fax, and it’s all about this, that, and the other. … ‘You did this and you did that. Well it’s the truth, but you could have left this out, you could have left that out,’ and then at the end she said, ‘P.S., and I didn’t like your first draft of Funny Girl either.’ Oh, dear.”
Edwards was at her Switzerland house when she received a sealed package from Judy Garland’s lawyers that included Garland’s tapes, letters, poetry, passport and even her Screen Actors Guild card.
In her will, Garland had left her papers to Edwards.
“I first wrote to Liza, and I said, ‘Liza, I have all of your mother’s papers, and I would be very happy to ship them to you. I don’t know why she left them to me, but she must have felt you two girls were too young and maybe there were things in there that she didn’t want you to know,” Edwards recounted.
Edwards said Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, wrote her back, declining to take them.
“She really didn’t want the papers and she didn’t want to read them, and she felt she didn’t want to remember her mother in that way,” Edwards said.
Edwards said she was writing novels at the time and spoke to her editor about what to do. Her fear was that Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, would come out with a salacious book about Garland just for the money. Edwards said her editor convinced her to write the book.
“Looking back, I’m really sorry that I wrote it in a way,” she said. “I’m not sorry about the book because I think the book is good, but it really sent me into a tailspin for a while.”
Deans had arranged for an expensive burial but he never paid the funeral home, Edwards said. When the funeral home contacted Edwards a month after Garland’s death, saying Garland still had not been buried, Edwards said she was stunned. Edwards said she didn’t have the kind of money it took to carry out the $40,000 burial and she wasn’t sure if it was her place to make that decision. She shared her problem in a letter to Frank Sinatra, who she was interviewing by mail for another project she was working on.
“And about 10 days later I got a call from this man at the funeral place, and he said to me, ‘I want you to know that Mrs. Garland is being buried and that Mr. Sinatra is covering all of the burial expenses.’ So that is how Judy Garland finally found a place to rest her bones.”
Edwards said she would never again write a book about someone she was close to.
“I think I cried every night for God knows how long as I was writing that book because I was finding out things that I thought, ‘Oh God, if I had known then at the time maybe I could have helped her, maybe I could have done something,’” she said.
Edwards’ talk was sponsored by the Marietta Gone with the Wind Museum, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Museum director Connie Sutherland praised Edwards.
“She has a way of telling the truth, and if it’s really, really bad, that’s why it hurt her so much after the Judy Garland book, which she said she wished she hadn’t written,” Sutherland said.
“When you love someone and you’re friends with them, you don’t want to have to write the awful truth, but if you’re a good writer you do. And to me, that’s the difference. That’s why it hurt her to get through it, because it’s all of those things, and still she did it because at the core that’s what she is is a writer. And if you’re writing nonfiction you tell the truth, whether it’s about yourself or another person.”