Wednesday, March 9, 2016


It's the kind of romance you'd expect of a screenplay by the late Dalton Trumbo. An arduous affair--impossible, really—but full of high drama, and with the requisite happy ending. It would make an Oscar-worthy movie, and although Trumbo couldn't be listed as the writer, his name would appear on the screen big as life, as was not allowed during the “red hysteria” years Hollywood blacklisted him and others suspected of being dirty rotten commie traitors.

Hollywood producers are still famous for screwing around with stories and titles, and probably always will be. Not much point, however, in messing with this story, because it not only isn't fiction, it's better than fiction. The title? Well, were it up to me I'd call it simply Dalton and Cleo.

Bruce Cook related the tale of this romance in his 1977 book Dalton Trumbo, based on interviews with friends and with the lovebirds themselves.

Their first meeting was only half auspicious: Trumbo fell for Cleo Fincher almost immediately, proposing to her after only a few minutes of banter. She decided he was crazy, and turned him down. At first blush there was not much to say for a serious match. She was nineteen, a carhop at an all-night drive-in; he, an up-and-coming writer at M-G-M but at thirty-two a heavy drinker living with his mother and sister.

Yet, Trumbo was nothing if not persistent and creative. For over a year he visited the drive-in every night that Cleo worked. With every visit he proposed, and each time she turned him down. He'd already taken to having a chauffeur drive him on dates, and this included his nightly visits to woo Cleo. Gradually, very gradually, she began to soften. He'd won the alliance of a couple of Cleo's good friends, sisters who worked at the same drive-in. The sisters weren't keen on Cleo's boyfriend.

Trumbo's courtship came close to disaster after Cleo finally agreed to a movie and dinner with him. The boyfriend found out, panicked, lied that his divorce had finally come through, and persuaded Cleo to run off to Reno with him and get married. This they did on the night of her date with Trumbo, leaving him at the theater waiting haplessly for Cleo to arrive. When the newlyweds returned to Hollywood, Trumbo hired a private detective who found out the boyfriend had lied about his divorce and that his marriage to Cleo was invalid. He told Cleo. Now leery of the boyfriend Cleo still felt loyal to her commitment to him. The year was nearing its end. Trumbo feared that if Cleo spent Christmas with the boyfriend it would put a sentimental seal on their relationship. Desperate to prevent this from happening, he launched a final gambit:

...choosing a day on which she reported at six P.M. to work until two in the morning. He put [the sisters] on notice and asked them to let him know as soon as she showed signs of weakening. Every half an hour that day Cleo got a telegram pleading his case, accompanied by a gift—“ not sumptuous or lavish but something chosen to please her.” Each time a telegram came, it was brought directly to her by a kid from Western Union on a bike; business was slow at the drive-in, and as the night wore on and the telegrams piled up, Cleo found herself going broke tipping the messenger boys. In the meantime, Trumbo had gone to the house of a friend...who lived in the Valley, determined to wait it out. There, about ten-thirty that night, he got a call...telling him to come right away— not to waste a minute, for Cleo at last saw things his way. He ran out and jumped into his car (on such a personal mission as this one he was driving the Chrysler himself and had given his chauffeur the night off) and roared off into the night— in the wrong direction. He was in Burbank before he discovered his error, then had to backtrack to Cahuenga, then down to Yucca, where he arrived at the drive-in many minutes late. [Soon the sisters] emerged [from the ladies room] bringing a weeping Cleo across the parking lot to his car. That was that. She had given in completely. Distraught, confused, hoping for the best, she surrendered to him.

Their marriage, which gave them three children, followed a Trumbo script as well, lasting through the vicious blacklist and its financial struggles, including Trumbo's year in prison for contempt of Congress, until death did them part—Trumbo died in 1976; Cleo remained loyal to their love until her death at age 92.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. What a lovely story, Mathew. I am a sucker for real-life romances like that. I will have to get that book now.

  2. Thanks, Tracy. The book's focus is mostly the blacklisting period, which was the part the movie with Bryan Cranston emphasized almost exclusively. In fact, the movie is what made me want to read the book. One thing I left out here is a little exchange between the Trumbos in describing to Cook their romance. Cleo thought something was missing. “It doesn’t make it clear here that if you were an ordinary man, things wouldn’t have been nearly so difficult for you.”

    She kept reading—and kept frowning. Finally with a sigh she finished.


    “You don’t get the feeling out of this of how glad I am I married this crazy man instead of some dull son of a bitch.”

    1. That is even better. Thanks for adding that.

      I did figure it covered mostly the blacklisting, but still... I think I would find it all interesting.

  3. Trumbo, the Hollywood Ten, the blacklisted writers, and that whole time period are endlessly interesting. Thanks for the post.

  4. My pleasure, Elgin. Thanks for the visit.