Asked by the chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 whether he was or had ever been a member of the Communist party, the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. objected to the question and finally said, "I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning." It became a memorable line, and it makes an appropriate title for Lardner's breezy, engaging memoir, "I'd Hate Myself in the Morning" (Nation Books; 198 pages; $22.95). Reams have been written about the Hollywood blacklist and the witch hunts of the late '40s and early '50s. Lardner was a notable victim of all this, not only serving a prison term for contempt of Congress but also finding himself barred for more than a decade from working for the major U.S. studios. He does not, however, write like a victim: "The blacklist did plenty of damage, but it was also a broadening experience for many of us."
His hard years make up only a small portion of a story filled with enchanting details. There is the Long Island, N.Y., mansion he and his three brothers lived in while their father was still rich and famous, a magnet for such visitors as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald ("I have never seen a photograph that conveyed the beauty I saw in her"). There are glittering Hollywood anecdotes featuring everyone from David O. Selznick to Robert Altman, and behind-the-scenes stories about Lardner's two screenwriting Oscars, for "Woman of the Year" and "M*A*S*H." The only sad thing about this book is its timing. Lardner died on Oct. 31 at age 85. He is worth remembering.