I’m writing you today regarding the piece, “WGA Restores Blacklisted Writer Dalton Trumbo’s Screen Credit On ‘Roman Holiday,’” by Mike Fleming which appeared on Deadline New York online Monday, December 19, 2011.
My father, Lester Koenig, was a writer and producer principally known for being second in command on Willy Wyler’s films from WWII (my father was the principal writer of The Memphis Belle) through Roman Holiday. He was blacklisted on the grounds that he had been named by someone as having questionable ties and then, on being subpoenaed, he refused to name names. He was a friend and colleague of Dalton Trumbo. Taking nothing away from Dalton, my father told me that the screenplay for Roman Holiday was a collaborative effort. When Willy Wyler, my father, and several other writers left port in New York on the Queen Mary bound for Europe, Willy was not satisfied with what they had. So Willy, my father and the other writers worked assiduously together every day of the voyage on rewriting the script and they continued to labor over it at Cinecitta (with the addition of some Italian writers) before Willy decided the script was in good enough shape for him to begin to shoot the picture.
Because Willy insisted to the studio that my father was essential to the production of Roman Holiday, he was permitted to be hired for the picture (his role would be credited today as writer and producer; in those days, for complex reasons, his credit on Willy’s pictures was typically “associate producer”), but for Roman Holiday he received no credit at all. In my opinion, the attached photos of my father working with Willy, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn on Roman Holiday testify eloquently that he was, indeed, at the creative core of the film, yet even they, as telling as they are, they can’t tell the whole story.
As I say, my father’s central role in the creation of Roman Holiday is not evident from the film’s credits. The evidence that he was crucial to the creative process that produced the film remains only in the attached pictures, references in two books (by Axel Madsen and Jan Herman), Willy’s effusive and laudatory words at my father’s memorial service in 1977, in which he said that “Lester’s valuable creative contributions to Memphis Belle, Thunderbolt, Best Years Of Our Lives, The Heiress, Sister Carrie, Detective Story don’t begin to be understood from the mere credit of associate producer” (and lamenting that he received no credit on Roman Holiday) and my father’s FBI file, which my cousin Sarah Koenig, a producer on the public radio program “This American Life,” received pursuant to a FOIA request and sent to me. A reading of the FBI file shows that my father was allowed to work 1) because of his value to the production and 2) because he had two small children.
My father later established a reputation as a jazz record producer. (Indeed, Ahmet’s older brother, Nesuhi, whom Ahmet referred to as his hero and his idol, used to work for my father at the label he founded.) But my father died a broken man at 59. I believe the egregious conduct of the grandstanding politicians and the cowardly and complicit studios in establishing and maintaining the blacklist and the abuse my father suffered because of it was something he never got over and his enduring stress over the whole thing led to his fatal heart attack at such a young age.
So far, I’m not aware of anyone at the Academy or the WGA doing anything to set the record straight regarding my father and Roman Holiday; to get my father a credit, let alone an Oscar, as some people received.