This is the first article in PEPS’s newest series, The Breen Letters. This is a series of articles written by descendants of Joseph Breen about their famous ancestor, his family, and his unequalled influence on Hollywood. Each article brings us closer and closer to the man behind the Golden Era of Hollywood.
This article was written by Jack Benton, Joseph Breen’s grandson through his second daughter, Natalie Benton nee Breen. Thank you so much for your gracious and wonderfully-written article, Mr. Benton!
August 29, 2018
They call me Jack, but my real name is John Breen Benton. It’s an Irish thing. John F. Kennedy was Jack Kennedy to anyone who really knew him. The middle name, Breen, was always important to me. My mother, Natalie Breen Benton, was as Irish as they come, though she was several generations removed from the homeland. She was a red head and she had a temper. But, she was also very loving.
My dad was a Texan. He was at Stanford when the Depression hit. His father, a prominent banker in El Paso, Texas, was wiped out. My dad was Jess E Benton, Jr. His father, perhaps obviously, was Jess E. Benton. My dad’s grandfather was a legitimate Western Marshall, both in towns in Colorado and in New Mexico. His life story is quite fascinating.
The Benton and Breen families came in to contact in the late 1930’s. My mother started dating my father. Mary Breen was a bit of a snob and referred to my father as a truck driver. It was not meant in a complementary way. (By the way, my wife’s father was a truck driver, and also served nobly in WW II.) My mother graduated from college. May father never went back to college. He had to make a living. In the end, Mary Breen loved Jess Benton more than any human outside her own off spring. The Natalie/Jess union produced four off spring, two boys and two girls, and lasted until death.
My earliest memories of Joe Breen are of his house in Beverly Hills. As a small child, we wandered around that house quite a lot. The house had a huge room on the bottom floor, of a three floor house. In those days, it might have been called a playroom. I do not recall any furniture in that room.
In the Joe and Mary Breen household, the mantra, “children are meant to be seen, not heard”, ruled the day. Of course, each grandchild’s memories will be different. But, these are mine. So, as a small child, I have no memory of any personal contact with my Breen grandfather. But, I have memories of what adult people were like when they were around him. In a word, involved. Joe was not a passive person, so the folks around him behaved accordingly. The conversation was always loud and vibrant. Indeed, the whole Breen family was like that.
Along with my mother were five other kids, three boys and two more girls. I believe my mother was the second oldest.
At one time, for a short period, Joe Breen owned three houses. In effect, they sold the house in Beverly Hills and bought a ranch in Hidden Valley, next to Lake Sherwood. Will Hays sold him the house. In addition, they owned a beach house, with about 100 feet of beach front, smack dead at the center of the old Malibu Colony. The Breen’s turned over the Malibu house to my folks for the summers of 1949 and 1951. So, clearly by that time, Joe and Mary, who always went by the Irish name, Nana, were not spending a lot of time in Malibu. My lifelong love of the ocean and everything else about the sea started during those summers. I turned seven years of age during the summer of 1949.
A word on Will Hays. Will Hays was a very connected guy. He was head of the Republican National Committee toward the end of the second decade of the 20th Century. He was US Postmaster General in the early 20’s. He knew how to operate in both Washington and in Politics.
The conflict between Hollywood and the censorship community became very severe in the 1920’s. In addition to the Catholic Community, of which Joe Breen was a part, many US States had independent censorship operations affecting what Hollywoood could put on the screen. In 1930, the Hollywood power structure recruited Will Hays and simultaneously set up the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and put him in charge. (Later on, this became the MPAA, Motion Picture Association of Anerica.) One of his missions was to get the censorship issue under control.
Hays stumbled around in the early 30’s to bring some sense of control over the content of movies. Early on, a Catholic group, including both Church hierarchy and a layman, Joseph I. Breen – who had been a diplomat, a Philadelphia reporter, and a very active lay person in the Church – put together their own set of recommendations for Hays, which he immediately adopted in 1930. It was called the Production Code. But the MPPDA did a weak job of enforcing consistent standards. In effect, the studios did not take it seriously.
In 1934 they took another step toward self censorship. They set up an office inside MPPDA, called the Production Code Administration (PCA), and hired Joe Breen to run it as the administrator of the code. He led that operation with considerable authority for twenty years, retiring in 1954.
So, Joe Breen bought what we called “the ranch”, in Hidden Valley, an area within Thousand Oaks, from his old boss, Will Hays.
As you can see, my memories of Joe Breen as a young child might best be called spotty. From those early years until the Breen’s moved to Phoenix, Arizona for a period, their main home was the ranch. Today, the actor Tom Sellect lives very close to where they lived.
I remember that when we would visit the Ranch, Joe would always insist that he and my father play the card game, Gin Rummy. It almost seemed as if Joe couldn’t wait for my father to be around so that they could play cards. And they would play almost from the time we got there, until we left. My father once told me that he found it a little odd that Joe didn’t want to spend more time with other members of the family, such as his four grandkids. However, rest assured, at that time in my life I certainly did not feel deprived. It was a different period.
My most enduring memory of my grandfather occurred in my parents’ home in Cheviot Hills, a mile or so south of where 20TH Century Fox Studio is located, in West LA. He had left work early, and had come over to my folk’s house for a late afternoon cocktail, I suppose because they were all going to have dinner together. He was driven to my folk’s home because Joe Breen never learned how to drive a car. Exactly why, I do not know. His wife Mary did all of the driving after he retired. Before that, he was driven by chauffeurs. Yes, it was a different period.
In any case, I was probably about 10 or 11 years old. I had written a short story. It was typed. I came down to the living room where he was alone, reading, and enjoying a cocktail and I asked him to read my story. He engaged me immediately, agreed, and took the pages from me. Then he fully concentrated on the story. I even left the room for a while. Then he called me back and told me that, while he had many in Hollywood who could have written the story better, he had few writers in Hollywood who could have come up with the idea. He was very strong with his praise. And, I took it very seriously. In fact, that incident was one of those that stayed with me throughout my life. Though I never wrote fiction as an adult, I became a very good writer, a skill that had a very significant impact on whatever success I had in my working life. In time, I would author a book, publish a distinguished article in the Harvard Business Review, and author countless numbers of reports, speeches, proposals, and published articles. Joe Breen found a moment for me, and the pay-off was huge.
In those days, adults did not feel like they had to spend every free waking hour with their children. Certainly grandparents didn’t. And you know what. That was just fine. Kids were independent. They entertained themselves.
What I did experience was my mother’s loyalty and love for her father. She was very proud of what he did for a living. And, she was proud of how he behaved. One Christmas she told me that, in earlier times, my grandfather would get many, many significant gifts from leading people in the motion picture industry, especially from the studio cadre of leaders, and my mother said that he returned each and every gift. My grandfather understood the term conflict of interest, and I was told that he did not allow himself to be so conflicted. This also stuck with me.
I recall watching the Oscars on TV during in 1954 and watching my grandfather receive an Oscar as an honorary award for his service running the production code. He must have been very proud of that because it rested on the mantle above his fireplace at the ranch from that day forward.
Joe Breen’s heath was never great. He was a lifelong smoker. He smoked through a cigarette holder. He was overweight. I strongly doubt that he ever exercised as an adult, which wasn’t uncommon among his generation. In the early 1950’s he got lung cancer and had a lung removed. At the time, my mother told me that this was the first time such a surgery had taken place in Los Angeles. True or not, it wouldn’t be that surprising. The LA of the early 1950’s was not the LA of today. Thereafter, he was not an active man. That surgery, and perhaps other health issues, took a lot out of him. I don’t recall him being bed ridden in the early 50’s, but I do have a sense of his poor health.
Joe Breen had many friends in Hollywood. His bosses were the Studio Heads because I gather that the Code office inside MPPDA was quite independent. Though he later, mid 1940’s, carried a title, Vice President, MPAA, it would seem that his power far exceeded such a title. By definition, he had to be a very independent guy.
Perhaps no producer had more trouble with Joe Breen than Howard Hughes. But, when Hughes moved from Texas to Las Vegas, on a train, in a non-ambulatory state, he reached out to my uncle Joe, Joe Breen’s oldest son, to organize his transportation from the train to the Desert Inn, where Hughes spent the remainder of his life. Apparently, Joe Breen and Howard Hughes had a lot of mutual respect, and I even think, friendship.
I am sure that the studio Heads were not Joe Breen’s buddies because his job involved pushing back hard on things they wanted to do. And that cost them money and, in some cases, may have cost them audiences. But, it must be remembered, they set up the censorship function to avoid having the Federal Government come in and set it up for them, to also avoid State control over movies. They did not want to be regulated by the government. So, they did not just tolerate the Breen Office, they made it work. It was consistent with their selfish interests.
At the same time, Joe Breen was much more than a censor of bad words, dress, themes, etc. He was a movie guy. He knew movies had to succeed, within the constraints of socially acceptable norms – for that period – and he worked hard to make movies work. I am sure he knew every major actor, producer, and director of that period, and many of them were entertained in his house in Beverly Hills. But, Eleanor Roosevelt was also entertained in that house. I am sure he knew all of the Irish actors very well, such as Pat O’Brien. Joe E. Brown was close enough that he even came to one of my parent’s Christmas parties. But he also knew and socialized with Joseph Kennedy, another famous Irishman, whose son became even more famous.
During my high school years, I became friends with a guy whose father was the actor Stephen McNally, a very fine character actor, who had a long and successful career. McNally was the age of my parents. I met McNally in his home one day, and after being told that Joe Breen was my grandfather, he took the time to say some very complementary words. Later, I mentioned to Joe that I had met McNally, and he returned all of the complements.
Mary and Joe Breen had a fairly formal relationship, not unusual for their time. They produced six children. They were Irish Catholics. Mary almost always wore her hair gathered fully behind her head in a kind of bun. My mother told me that once she came down for dinner with her hair down, and was promptly told by her husband to return to her room and put her hair back up where it belonged. But, she was completely devoted to her husband until the day he died.
There were some black sheep in their lives. In the final years of Mary Breen’s life, she lived in an apartment a short distance from my parent’s home in Cheviot Hills. My mother was the major care giver for both of her parents. My then, her older sister was deceased, younger sister and two brothers lived outside of Los Angeles, and the remaining brother was not as involved. In this apartment rested a picture of a man named Johnny Roselli.
In some way, Joe and Mary Breen got to know Roselli. I heard that during a particularly tough Hollywood labor dispute, probably after the War, Roselli somehow influenced the outcome in a fashion that helped the Industry. So, his picture rested there toward the end of my grandmother’s life because he was a family friend. Handsome man. The problem was that Roselli was also alleged to be a member of the Mafia.
Years later, in Congressional hearings in 1976, about the Kennedy Administration’s attempt to kill Fidel Castro, Roselli’s name figured prominently into the discussion. Apparently he and another Chicago crime boss, Sam Giancana, were trying to help the Kennedys. Since I was preparing during that same week for Senate confirmation hearings for an appointment I had accepted in the Ford Administration, I must say I was a little nervous about John Roselli getting so much attention that week.
I am pretty sure that my grandparents did not view Roselli in that fashion. Somehow they had a blind spot. In those days, people did not even know if the Mafia was real. (This wasn’t really confirmed until the 1950’s.) They saw the good side of Roselli. I doubt they ever saw the bad side. LA was a small town in those days. If you read history, it was not unusual for Hollywood types to have acquaintances who were mob guys. The stories about Frank Sinatra and the mob are legend. Even today, mob guys want to be around celebrities and, apparently, celebrities don’t mind it too much.
The Breen family paid their dues during WW II. Three sons went into combat. The two younger boys were Marines and fought in the South Pacific. Thom Breen lost his leg on Guam. Jim Breen spent 24 months in combat zones. Joe Breen was an Army Captain, and fought with Patton’s Fifth Army in Europe. He earned the purple heart, many times over. My mother loved the entertainer Glenn Miller. He led a big band. He died in an airplane accident during the war, flying to visit combat troops. I asked my mother, did you cry, were you really sad, and she said, “I was sad, but I had three brothers in combat, and too much else to worry about.”
Joe Breen was a journalist long before he made it to Hollywood. He somehow found himself in Ireland during the Irish War of Independence, during the second decade of the 20th Century. I believe he was jailed by the British for a short time. I do not know exactly what was his involvement. Joe Breen was also the Consul General for Jamaica, where my mother, Natalie Breen, was born.
Regarding Joe Breen and the Code, let me only say that I gather he took his job very seriously. I gather that he did it well. I gather that he cared about the studios and their needs to be successful. I know he was a man of great influence and also a man who networked with some of the most powerful men in the United States at that time. Frankly, he would not have lasted had he felt differently.
People in the industry knew Joe Breen. A dear childhood friend’s father was a very successful cinematographer, Lloyd Ahern. Again, he was the age of my parents. He knew all about my grandfather, who had been out of the industry for years before I started hanging around his house. Flat out, Joe Breen was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood for many years and also deeply respected.
I have never heard a word of scandal about my grandfather. He loved a drink, loved to smoke, loved to argue and debate, loved to be around his friends, and I gather was a very social guy in his prime. But, I never got any sense that he drank to excess. Like all prominent people, he was probably very “I centric.” Frankly, I am not sure it is possible to have great achievements in life without sacrificing the time or attention you pay to other people. There are only so many minutes in the day. The worst thing I ever knew about Joe Breen was that he knew Johnny Roselli, and liked him.
It is said, or has been written, that Joe Breen was anti-Semitic. These are always very difficult discussions because people living today want to insert today’s sense of things, today’s awareness, back into the 1930’s or 40’s. I am no expert. I do not know for sure the answer. But, I do have a strong sense of things.
Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s was very tribal. There were two power sources for a long time, the Irish and the Jews. Many of the Jewish leaders came from New York, so there even existed a characterization of a New York Jew. (MPPDA had offices in both Los Angeles and New York.) These two tribes built a very prosperous Hollywood.
Today, we talk about the elites. Indeed, a man got elected President in 2016 because he ran against the elites. Who are they? Well, they are nothing short of the people who run America: top politicians from both parties, top celebrities, top business people, top athletes, top scholars, top doctors, top journalists, etc. Are people being prejudiced when they group the elites into a bucket and assign specific traits to them because they are among the elites? What about old white men? We hear a lot about that group today, and it is rarely nice.
My grandfather came from an Irish Catholic tribe. At that time, the Catholics taught that the Jews crucified Christ, and blamed the Jews for Christ’s death. Martin Luther is said to have been notoriously anti-Semitic. Catholics growing up in Catholic schools were affected by all of this. I know I was. It wasn’t until Pope John the XXIII, and the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s, that the Church formally softened its position and even eventually, years later, apologized to the Jewish people.
(Now, let me also include, the first Christians, the Twelve Apostles, were all Jews until the day they died. They were called Jewish Christians. The Jews in Palestine discriminated against the Jewish Christians. James the Just, the St James who is called the brother of Christ, who was the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, was executed in the year 62 by the Jewish leadership. In time, Jewish Christians died out, and were not much heard of after the first century A.D. Most Christians came from the gentile community and did not have direct Jewish roots. That is, they were not both Jews and also followers of the Jewish Jesus Christ. They were gentile Christians. By the middle of the second century, Christians became more powerful, and they started discriminating against Jews. There is a lot of interesting history to be learned.)
This was the world Joe Breen lived in. So might he have referred to “New York Jews”, or “the Jews think this or that”, or “the Jews have an attitude about this or that”, or “that dealing with Jews is not easy”, and so forth? I imagine he would have. At the same time, his major bosses, the studio heads, were all Jews. Whatever took place, it didn’t seem to bother them very much.
The world was tribal. California was still a remote place, looked down on by people from the East Coast. Many of the Jews in Hollywood had East Coast roots and were not terribly respectful of Californians. In Los Angeles, the Jews had their Country Clubs, such as Hillcrest, a few hundred yards from 20th Century Fox, and also Brentwood; and gentiles had theirs, such as Los Angeles Country Club. It wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s or later that these clubs took on members from both heritages.
I even read in a book that Joe Breen might have had dealings with Germany in the 30’s. Well, he may have. Germany was becoming a force in the world economy. Hollywood was trying to grow their franchise globally. Hitler was the democratically elected head of Germany. Germany was trying to get on its feet after having been devastated by WW I, and by the terms of their surrender agreement. Then the depression hit in 1932. Everyone was distracted. And there was nothing resembling today’s global communications. Unless you were truly a student of Germany you didn’t know what was really going over there until war broke out.
Hollywood wanted their movies viewed in Germany. So, Hollywood did not want their movies indiscriminately negative about Germany, or any other European country. So might the Breen Office have occasionally toned down criticism of Germany in American movies during the 1930’s? It is certainly possible. They did not know Germany as we know Germany. Was Breen pro-Hitler or Pro Nazis. Absurd!! No way.
The last decade of Joe Breen’s life was hard. Essentially, he wanted little to do with Hollywood or his past life. For reasons unknown to me, in the later 1950’s, Joe and Mary Breen moved to Phoenix, and then later, to Sun City, outside Phoenix, perhaps the very first retirement community, built by Del Webb, who also co-owned the New York Yankees. Webb was a family friend. Thom Breen, Joe’s youngest son, worked for Webb and had a leadership role in building Sun City.
The Breens had lived like super wealthy people. But, in fact, he was always a salaried employee, albeit, at a very high salary, and was never a man of numbers. They did not accumulate great wealth and this may have influenced their decision to move to Phoenix. In the end, Mary Breen out lived their wealth.
At one point, during the early 60’s, Joe and Mary Breen lived for several months in their daughter Natalie’s home – my home. Joe was bed ridden at that time. My recollection was that they relocated to Southern California in the early 1960’s, and when they were not living with us, they were living in an apartment in West LA, near St. Timothy’s Catholic Church. Joe was mostly bed ridden in the 1960’s and died in 1965, when I was living in Pakistan, working for US AID, the foreign aid and assistance arm of the US foreign policy community.
So how do I sum him up? I pray for him every Sunday of my life. I liked him. I liked his fire and his aggressiveness. I admired him. Even as a young kid, I knew he was interesting. I think he had a life well lived. I think he made a heck of a contribution. And I am very proud to call him my grandfather.
The question has been raised by you, what could be the role of The Code in the 21st century? I honestly think that the answer is, not much. We are a free country. Our citizens have many and varied attitudes, many and varied moral codes. The most important principles, those based upon the Ten Commandments and The Golden Rule, those flowing from the major world religions are, in all senses, a part of our legal structure. The Code was right for its time. It probably made movies even better. Film makers couldn’t take cheap shots – be it language or pictures tied to sexual behavior – so they had to put more effort into their scripts. But, in a world of the Internet, in a world of massive and global production and distribution of movies, and in a world of so many freedoms that are relatively new from an historical standpoint, a centrally managed and enforced code would essentially be both a violation of human rights and also impossible to enforce.
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!