“John Pepper” AKA Joseph Pogány – not the brother of Willy Pogany

Recently, I came across the proceedings of the 1952-1954 case Pogany v. Chambers and Random House. In October 1952, Willy Pogany (1882–1955) had filed for libel that occurred the memoir Witness, written by Whittaker Chambers and published by Random House in May 1952. It was the second libel case Chambers had ever faced: the first came from Alger Hiss.

(For those interested in law cases: William A. Hyman represented Pogány, William F. McNulty represented Chambers, and Horace S. Manges of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, with Edward C. Wallace, as Counsel represented Random House. The appeal judge was James B. M. McNally. More about lawyers and the judge follows below.)

On page 214 of Witness, Chambers had recalled: Some years later, I was to see the commissar for war himself, Joseph Pogany, the brother of Willi Pogany, long a scene designer at the Metropolitan Opera House. Under the name of John Pepper, Joseph Pogany was the Communist International’s secret representative to the American Communist Party.

While he may have read about both Poganys back in the 1920s, Chambers seems to have assumed they were related. Though a polyglot, he did not know (much) Hungarian, nor apparently that pogány means “citizen” — a safe name to adopt for non-Magyar Hungarians during the turbulent years of the late 1800s and early 1900s as various governments came and went. (You can see, too, how Chambers spells Pogany’s first name as “Willi” — sehr mitteleuropäisch as well as deutsch-kommunistisch but to be expected from the translator of Bambi.)

In his suit, Pogány claimed: Said Joseph Pogany, alias John Pepper, was not the brother of the plaintiff; plaintiff and Joseph Pogany were not related; plaintiff never knew, met, talked to nor associated with Joseph Pogany and had never had any dealings with him of any kind. By said publication concerning plaintiff, defendants maliciously intended to and did convey the false, scandalous, defamatory and libelous meaning and impression that plaintiff was and had been closely related to and associated with a Communist leader and spy, and had or had had Communist sympathies and affiliations and consorted or had consorted with Communists, criminals, spies and murderers.

Though he could provide no specific example of damages, Pogany was able to specify an amount for damages: $1,000,000 (nearly $10,000,000 in 2020 dollars).

Pogany lost the case but appealed. On October 5, 1954, the judge ruled, after some explanation, “With appropriate exception, complaint is dismissed.” Pogany had to pay Chambers and Random House $152.85 each ($1,478.66 in 2020 dollars). Another two-year legal ordeal had passed by Whittaker Chambers.

What lay behind the case of Pogany v. Chambers?

Was Willy really wiped out by Whittaker’s words?

If he was not, Mr. Hyman (Pogany’s lawyer) said, “then we must be realistic and know that where special damages are concerned, it is most difficult to get any employer-executive of a corporation, or man who would give a man work, to come into court and say — I turned this man down because his brother is a Communist. They don’t do that today.” Mr. Hyman continued, “That is one of the peculiar results of this new contagion, the freeze out system, where silence is the answer to a situation. I think it is a great injustice, not only to Mr. Pogany, but I respectfully say it opens up the opportunity for use of a dangerous weapon in the hands of unscrupulous people.”

Unlike some of the support cases cited, however, Mr. McNulty pointed out, “Here the statement that Joseph Pogany was the ‘brother’ of the plaintiff can mean one thing, and only one thing, to wit, that Joseph Pogany and the plaintiff were born of the same mother. By no stretch of the imagination could it possibly convey any other meaning to anyone who has even the most elementary understanding of the English language.”

Or, had red Communists or Com-symp pinkos put Willy up to the lawsuit?

Mr. McNulty (Chambers’ lawyer) surmised, “There is probably more to this case than meets the eye.” Which led Mr. Hyman to say, “I resent that, Your Honor.” To which Mr. McNulty retorted, “I can resent some of the things you have said.” To which Mr. Hyman replied, “You are not gong to go so far as to impute something against me, too,” etc., until the judge intervened by declaring, “There will be no altercation between you two or anybody where I am the judge”!

Or, was Willy really a bit wacky over lawsuits?

As it happens, Willy had been involved in past newspaper-noted lawsuits…

Take the “Call the Doctor” lawsuit of 1920 (New York Times, page 5 on October 2, 1920). Pogany, already known as “Hungarian artist, illustrator, and designer of stage costumes,” asked for $200,000 (more than $2,600,000 in 2020 dollars). He was suing Charles Frohman Inc., David Belasco (producer) and Ms. Fania Marinoff (a principal) because, in the play Call the Doctor, Ms. Marinoff said her sweetheart, Hungarian artist named “Pogany Willie” was a “cheat, fraud, and deceiver.” What did Willy want? After all, Ms. Marinoff had correctly used last name-first, first name-last as is the Hungarian custom! Pogany was specific: $100,000 for “false statements concerning his character” and $100,000 for “use of his name for ‘purposes of trade and business’.”

A few years later, Willy wound up on the receiving end in “Wife Sues Willy” (New York Times, page 6 on April 10, 1937). Lilian Pogany charged Willy with desertion and adultery. She asked for $500 a month in alimony, $5,000 for her attorney, and custody of the 16-year-old son Peter – asking the court also to set aside a “Mexican divorce” which her husband had forced her into back in 1933.

Lawsuits did not seem to hurt the name of Willy Pogany. On January 1, 1928, he received a full-page article (well, less the advertisements) in the New York Times called “Will Pogany and Film Art” (page 113). His obituary (New York Times, page 69 on July 31, 1955) called him one of the “most facile and gifted artists of his time.” While noting his many murals, book illustrations, and stage designs, the Times did not mention his mural in the Communist Party USA’s building on Union Square [reputedly reported in a now-hard-to-find edition of American Labor’s Who’s Who (New York: Hanford Press, 1925), a copy upon which I would greatly like to lay my hands.] Nor did the obituary mention Pogany v. Chambers.

Here is the crazy thing: Willy’s undated obituary photo looks a lot like Joseph’s 1923 photo. (I’d add Willy’s at this point – but I don’t want to get sued.)

(For those interested in Joseph Pogany, Thomas Sakmyster wrote a carefully researched biography published in 2012 called A Communist Odyssey: The Life of József Pogány / John Pepper. For those with subscriptions or other access to the Times, a search on site:nytimes.com with “Willy Pogany” will lead to more than 30 articles that mention him.)

4 Responses to Willy Pogany, Million-Dollar Libel-Labeler

  1. R.Kirk says:

    What was Chamber’s defense?
    (1) Sorry, it was a mistake, but no damages.

    or

    (2) They really were brothers.

    • Once Willy Pogany brought the suit forward, neither party disputed Willy’s claim that he was not the brother of Joseph Pogany (József Pogány – Comintern name “John Pepper”).

      During appeal, Chambers’ attorney stated first and foremost “The alleged libel consists of a single, purely incidental mention of the plaintiff.” He noted that the disputed quote “does not characterize the plaintiff ‘as a communist or as a communist sympathizer’ but only states that ‘he was the brother of a communist’ is not libelous or actionable per se.”

  2. Rick Marschall says:

    Very interesting. I am a collector and historian of illustration; taught its history at School of Visual Arts and Phila College of Art. I have many works by Pogany (pronounced “Pogansh,” for what it’s worth). I never knew of these matters. Thank you.

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