At the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts, Sam Wanamaker took a momentous decision. Rather than be forced to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, then zealously investigating the alleged threat posed to America by Communists, the actor and director moved his young family to the UK. His daughter, actor Zoë Wanamaker, was born in New York, but would grow up in London.
While she knows “snippets of information” about her family history, there are big gaps to fill in. “I kind of feel I owe it to dad to understand his story better,” says Zoë at the start of her episode of Who Do You Think You Are? It’s a remarkable story, not least because Sam Wanamaker is the man whose energy and vision were central to the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe being built in London.
Zoë heads first for Washington DC and a meeting with her sister, Abby, at the city’s National Theatre. It was here in 1943, an era when the USA and USSR were uneasy allies, that Sam starred as a Russian soldier in a play called Counterattack. Immersed in the part, method actor Sam joined the Communists.
Although Sam left the party in 1947, he continued to be active in left-wing politics. At the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act Reading Room, Zoë sees the file the Bureau compiled on Sam. It reveals, for instance, that Sam gave a speech when two of the ‘Hollywood 10’, writers and directors who defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities, were released from jail.
Speaking with historian Professor Martin Sherwin, Zoë describes how her father privately worried that he was “cowardly” for leaving the USA. “This is the reaction, I think, of a deeply moral and honest person,” says Sherwin, “but by 1951/52 there was nothing positive that he could have contributed, so I’m glad he did what he did.”
As Zoë discovers when she travels to Sam’s childhood home, Chicago, her father’s radicalism had deeper roots than his theatre work. Born in 1919, the youngest of two brothers, Sam was the son of Maurice Wanamaker, an immigrant from the Ukraine. Through such records as the 1920 census, Zoë gradually pieces together Maurice’s story. He arrived with his parents and siblings on the SS Mount Temple, which docked at New Brunswick in Canada in 1910.
As a memoir written by Maurice reveals, his initial time in the USA was beset by difficulties. His mother, Gittel, died shortly after reaching Chicago. Maurice found himself at the centre of a 22-week industrial dispute, which began when clothing manufacturers Hart, Schaffner & Marx tried to cut the wages of its largely immigrant workforce.
While the bitter strike was unsuccessful, it did lead to the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union. Maurice was an ‘inside guard’, the equivalent of a shop steward. “It starts here, it starts in Chicago in 1910,” says Zoë of her own father’s radicalism.
Zoë’s final journey is to Nikolayev in the Ukraine, where Maurice was born in 1895. Here, she learns how, in the early 20th century, pogroms, violent attacks against the Jewish population, were tolerated by the authorities. No wonder Zoë’s great grandparents were desperate to leave. “It’s given me a different relationship to my own Jewishness,” says Zoë. “It’s given me a deeper understanding of what being a Jew means.”