Russian Interference, Part 2: Boris Morros Recalls His Time at
ARA Records (1944 – 1945)
In May 1934, Boris Morros, a musical director for Paramount Pictures, was secretly contacted by a member of the Russian NKVD in an attempt to plant Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be his handler.
A decade later, Zubilin arranged for Soviet sympathizers Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern to buy into Morros’ music-publishing operation. With $130,000 from the Sterns, Morros launched the American Recording Artists (ARA) label, which (in addition to producing some fairly decent records) served as a cover for an extensive Soviet spy ring. The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected, and label was a success—at least briefly.
Morros redeemed himself on July 14, 1947, when he came clean to the FBI. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts for the next ten years. Here are his recollections of the ARA operation, from his 1959 memoir, My Ten Years as a Counterspy (New York: Viking Press).
For the full story, see Russian Interference – Part 1: Boris Morris and ARA Records (1944 – 1957).
That summer  it became known all over the music trade that I had latched on to an angel with a wide-open checkbook. I was even approached with offers to buy Muzak, the company that supplies “canned music” to restaurants and hotels all over the country. We visited ex-Senator William E. Benton of Connecticut, who was then an official of the Muzak corporation, but Stern, who was the one who would put up the money, decided that the price of $600,000 asked for the properties was too high. He would go no higher than $400,000…
During August, Stern visited Hollywood, and I made the astonishing discovery that he already knew more about music, both artistically and commercially, than Paul Whiteman, myself, and Stravinsky combined. Meanwhile, I had surmounted many of our difficulties, and records were being produced. That fall we had a hit recording by Joe Reichman’s band. This was “Nobody’s Home on the Range,” a travesty of the song “Home on the Range,” which had boomed into renewed popularity because it was President Roosevelt’s favorite.
But Stern disapproved of almost everything we were doing. He disliked my office staff, including my sales manager. He wanted the man discharged, and wished me to switch control of the sales department to his office. Above all, he thought that we should concentrate on songs of a more cultural type. For example, he disapproved of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” as a vulgar title, and predicted it would never be popular. He asked a million questions such as “Why don’t we sign up Bing Crosby instead of his brother Bob?” It was tiresome to have to point out that someone had had the same idea years before.
This was the man to whom I had to explain a few months before what a bar of music was, what the refrain was, the man who asked the usual foolish question, “What is written first—the words or the music?”
All that fall Stern showered me with daily letters of five to eight pages each. On hearing that we needed record-pressing equipment, he rushed out and bought $17,000 worth of second-hand presses that were so outmoded they could not be used.
I am afraid I was not very patient with my vice-president. By this time I had three shifts working in our little plant. They were turning out thirty thousand platters a day. They had to. Our “Nobody’s Home on the Range” record was headed for the hit class.
Shortly after the partnership arrangement started, both Soble and Stern began pressing me to open a branch in Mexico City. They were still at it, though I had stalled that deal with the argument that before we could do any such thing we must have enough numbers to distribute to Justify a catalogue. However, I was getting more infuriated every day with Stern’s silly letters of abuse and criticism. By now he was disapproving not only of the songs but of the arrangements.
At the end of the year I decided that life was too short to bother with this money man, and so informed Soble. But it was not until March—this was in 1945—that Jack decided he must do something to calm down both of us. He came with Stern to California to settle our differences. They arrived toward the end of the month and visited the plant.
“He is a musical ignoramus on all levels,” I told Soble. “I feel it is impossible to go along with him. The only thing we can do now is to break up this ridiculous partnership.”
“Artistic temperament!” clucked Jack Soble.
The next day they came back to the plant. When the angry words started to fly all over again, Soble suggested that we go to my home in Beverly Hills. I suppose he did not want our employees to hear the dispute. My visitors stayed in Hollywood about a week. Soble, trying to act as peacemaker, kept repeating that the Cause was the one thing that counted, not my petty grievances or Alfred’s. We Just had to get along.
I have never pretended to be an even-tempered man. During that stormy week I called Stern every foul name I could think of in all the languages I knew—and I know profanity as it is spoken and spluttered around the world. Stern, the Harvard man, just sat there and took it with the uncomprehending look of a hurt child.
When the week was over with the issue unresolved, Soble said he had to get back to New York. But he was sure that some way to reconcile our differences would occur to him. He asked me to go with them on their trip East so that we would have further talks while traveling. I got a compartment that connected with the drawing room they shared.
En route Soble came up with what he considered the sure-fire solution: if I would agree to continue working with Stern he would invest another $100,000 in the company.
I refused this, telling Soble, “I don’t want any more of his money. In fact I would be happy to buy back his twenty-five-percent share of the business for what he paid for it.”
“This is going to make Vasya Zubilin very, very angry,” Soble said. “I’m afraid that he will be very hard on your family in Russia —unless you cooperate.”
“You said you were going to investigate this whole matter,” I reminded him. “You have not been impartial. What I want is a simple thing: to be left alone to do my job, unbothered by nincompoops.” I glared at Stern.
On reaching New York, we had a final meeting at the Tavern-on-the-Green Restaurant. When it ended, we were as far apart as ever.
A couple of nights later Martha Dodd Stern visited me in my hotel room at the Sherry-Netherland. She was all sweetness and light. Martha blamed herself for neglecting to take a more active part in the business. “If I had, Boris,” she said, “there would have been no such misunderstandings between you two tried and true Communists.” She kept pounding at the point Soble had: the welfare of the Party should be our only consideration.
“Sorry, Martha, my dear,” I said, “you are being very charming and sweet, wistful and feminine—but too many wrong things have been done, too many said.”
My lawyers began drawing up the papers for dissolving the partnership in April. I paid Stern $100,000 for his one-quarter interest in the Boris Morros Company and its record-making subsidiary, American Recording Artists.
He rendered an account of how the $30,000 allotted him had been spent. I was amazed to see that he had given Zubilin $5,000 cash and charged it to the company. He had also charged petty items, including the purchase of a record player and two dozen tennis balls for Zubilin, as well as the full cost of his and Soble’s trip to Hollywood.
But I was glad to get rid of him. I thought I was also extricating myself from Jack Soble’s spy ring. To put it mildly, I was being naively optimistic.
I had been willing to pay a high price for the privilege of disassociating myself. To raise the $100,000 in cash to pay off Stern, I was forced to sell my share of a film property. But they still wished me to engage in a new venture with Alfred K. Stern.
Jack Soble kept coming to see me. “What can I do, Boris?” he said. “You have put me in the difficult position of having to write a bad report on you to Moscow. I am holding it back. I am afraid that Zubilin will be unable to control himself when he hears that you have split up with Alfred. I’d hate to feel responsible for the extermination of your relatives in Russia. Wouldn’t you?”