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Beacon Senior News

Grand Junction forgives but never forgets Dalton Trumbo

May 24, 2021 02:18PM ● By Diana Barnett
Dalton Trumbo the man in the bathtub Legend statue

Dalton Trumbo’s controversial book rattled the community

Many who pass the sculpture of the man in the tub in front of Grand Junction’s Avalon Theatre don’t know about the controversy that made him famous—at least to Grand Junction residents.

A literary success later in life, Dalton Trumbo’s writing career began while attending Grand Junction High School. He wrote editorials and covered sports for the school paper, “Orange and Black,” and competed on the school’s debate team. When his writing caught the eye of Daily Sentinel publisher, Walter Walker, he began covering local news stories for the community.

In 1924, Trumbo went off to college at the University of Colorado. However, that lasted only a year because he ran out of money, and his family was unable to support him. Although he soon followed them to California to find work, his memories of Grand Junction’s places, people and events stayed with him.

Dalton Trumbo (front, left) and the Grand Junction High School Debate Team in 1924

 

Locally inspired

Printed by a London publisher in 1935, Trumbo’s first book, “Eclipse,” was an obvious portrayal of Grand Junction and its prominent citizens, although the literary work went unnoticed for quite some time.

Once discovered, however, city residents were shocked at Trumbo’s treatment of beloved civic leaders. Early readers compiled a list of the characters in the book and the townspeople they represented. The protagonist, John Abbott, closely resembled the successful owner of the Fair Store, William J. Moyer, down to the littlest details. Mr. Benge, who owned the local shoe store, and Trumbo’s Sentinel mentor also appeared in the book.

Many residents refused to read it and certainly didn’t allow their children to see a copy. Diann Admire remembers her mother buying the book and subsequently burning it after reading it. 

“Mother had known the Trumbos when they lived in Montrose, and she attended school with Dalton, graduating a year ahead of him in 1923,” said Admire, 88. “She just couldn’t believe that he could write such things about Mr. Moyer and Mr. Benge, who she thought might have helped the aspiring writer with his college expenses.”

Admire and her husband moved away for several years but it wasn’t until they moved back to the Grand Valley in 1993 that she read the book.

“I borrowed it from a friend,” she admitted. “I guess I was also upset at the treatment of local leaders of that time.”


Bending the truth

One of the major factual events Trumbo describes in great detail in his book was the building of a natatorium for the community. 

Previously, the only places for kids to swim were the canals and the Colorado River, which had resulted in several drownings over the years. Abbott, the Moyer-based character, decided to fund a city pool after an employee’s son drowned. The natatorium was built as part of the YMCA downtown and its major unveiling was attended by city leaders, including the governor and his wife. 

The town’s children waited in swimsuits all day for the pool to officially open, lining its sides during the grand opening. Admire’s mother was one of those children waiting to jump in the water.

Named after its benefactor, the YMCA and pool were later torn down and rebuilt on the Lincoln Park grounds. Today the Lincoln-Moyer pool is still a major summer attraction in Grand Junction.

While Trumbo included the good works done by city leaders, he also added enough sultry details to antagonize locals, such as Abbott taking his store assistant as his mistress.


A life of controversy

While Grand Junction residents were still miffed about “Eclipse,” Trumbo was busy writing in his bathtub in California. He often received close friends in his unique “office.” 

His next novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” won a national book award. But he found his true calling when he wrote his first screenplay in 1936. He became in high demand, penning more than 50 screenplays over his lifetime, such as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Roman Holiday.”

Dalton Trumbo and his wife, Cleo, at a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

 

Trumbo’s life was to be as controversial as his first novel. As a member of the Hollywood Ten, he was one of many in the film industry accused of being a communist during the McCarthy era following World War II. He was imprisoned for 11 months after refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. After his release, he was blacklisted, unable to find work in his own industry. 

With the help of friends, he wrote under pen names so he could still support his wife and three children. It wasn’t until 1960 when Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write the screenplay for “Spartacus” that the actor/producer included the writer’s real name in the film credits. Otto Preminger followed suit, listing Trumbo as the writer for “Exodus,” thus breaking the blacklist.

Trumbo, depicted in his bathtub, became the first Legends sculpture in Grand Junction. Additionally, a reprinting of “Eclipse” dedicated book sale proceeds to the Mesa County Library. The same book that practically tore the community apart served to bring it back together.

“People may not have approved of everything Trumbo wrote, but it does describe our history in fictional form,” said Admire. “Just because everyone doesn’t agree with it doesn’t mean it isn’t part of our community, our history.”

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