Was the American harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler (1914-2001) a communist ? The question may seem irrelevant or even unseemly. Shouldn’t an artist be judged on his talent rather than on his political opinions ? Such was not the opinion of the british intelligence service MI5. In the 1950s, the service, responsible for internal security and counter-espionage in the United Kingdom, kept a close and discreet watch on the player, pianist and composer.
At the time, Lawrence Cecil Adler, born from Russian parents, was an important figure on the American artistic scene. Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Salvador Dali and Fred Astaire were amongst his closest friends. The gossip press even claimed that he had an affair with the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman.
On McCarthy’s list
But in1947, when the “Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union broke out, Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his “witch hunt”. Larry Adler, who was said to have “communist sympathies”, was blacklisted. No longer allowed to work in his native country, the greatest performer of classical music on the chromatic harmonica was forced to go into exil. He settled with his family in London, in the Primrose Hill district. The MI5 quickly took an interest in this popular musician, fearing Adler would use his fame to “spread communist ideals”, as attested by the 70 or so cables declassified by the British archives.
In an exchange with the British Home Office, the MI5 asserted that on the occasion of a 1951 concert in Paris, Adler had donated funds to the French Communist Party. “According to our information, Adler is a member of the American Communist Party and of at least 15 other organizations of Communist persuasion”, the MI5 continued in its dispatch.
In further correspondence with the U.S. FBI, MI5 continues: “Although we have no indication that he is in contact with the British Communist Party (PCB), we consider that if Adler is allowed to establish himself in the UK, the PCB will use his notoriety for political propaganda purposes.”
The musician died in August 2001 in the British capital at the age of 87 years. In the UK, he had worked with Sting, Elton John, Kate Bush, Robert Palmer, Jon Bon Jovi, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Lisa Stansfield, Sinéad O’Connor and Meat Loaf. Shortly before his death, Larry Adler told “The Guardian” newspaper: “I had great sympathy for the Communist Party. So let’s see if you can guess why I never joined.”