Who do you think you are?
Zoë Wanamaker

Zoë Wanamaker - How we did it

McCarthy Witch Hunt

Zoë is an American who moved to the UK with her family when she was three. Her parents had to flee America as a result of political events, specifically the intense anti-communist investigations known as McCarthyism, in the 1950s. Zoë wanted to find out the truth about her father's early life, his political allegiances and why the family had to leave the USA so abruptly.

Father: Sam Wanamaker

Step 1

Sam Wanamaker
Sam Wanamaker

To search for clues, Zoë set out for Washington, the political heart of America, to meet one of her family members, her older sister Abby. Zoë knew that at one stage Sam was a member of the Communist Party, but didn’t know why he joined or why he left. Abby and Zoë met at the National Theatre, where Sam had performed in a play in 1943.

Step 2

Abby had brought various archive documents to show Zoë. One of the documents was an affidavit written by Sam in order to get his passport renewed. In it he described his method acting preparation for a role as a Russian soldier at the National Theatre, during which he learned about the way of life in the Soviet Union.

In the process he became sympathetic to communist ideals and joined the Communist Party. This was not uncommon during the Second World War, as Soviet soldiers were often seen as heroes. But Sam soon realised that the individual was not significant within the communist worldview, so when he headed for Hollywood he left the Communist Party.

Step 3

Abby showed Zoë something else from the family archive. It was a scrapbook that Sam's father Maurice made of his son's early career. The scrapbook contains pictures of Sam with illustrious Hollywood co-stars like Ingrid Bergman.

Step 4

Knowing that Sam had once been a member of the Communist Party, Zoë went to the FBI headquarters to search through specialist records for a file on him. The file revealed that informants told the FBI that her parents were communists in 1947. In the same year, a government committee launched an investigation into communist influence in Hollywood during which 'witnesses' were subpoenaed (ordered by law) to give evidence in Washington.

Seeing the hearings as an attack on free speech, Sam Wanamaker joined a public protest. When people began to be imprisoned for refusing to speak at the hearings, some public figures distanced themselves from the protest - but not Sam. He was also recorded as having links to organisations such as the American Peace Crusade. Zoë then found startling evidence in the FBI file which proved that Sam was about to be called as a witness by the Senate Committee in 1951. It seemed that it was the threat of imprisonment or being asked to give evidence against his friends that could have prompted his flight to the UK.

Step 5

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Professor Martin Sherwin describes anti-communist paranoia in 1950s USA

Zoë met a specialist expert, Professor Martin Sherwin, who described the extreme anti-communist paranoia of the time.

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