Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans on 20th June, 1905. After graduating from New York University she worked as a publisher's reader.

Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour (1934), which tells of the havoc caused by a schoolgirl's invention of a lesbian relationship, was an immediate success. Hellman held left-wing political views and was active in the campaign against the growth of fascism in Europe. She joined other literary figures such as Dashiell Hammett, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway in supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1939 Hellman had her second major success with her play about a Southern family, the Hubbards. The Little Foxes was followed by two anti-Nazi plays, Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944). Her next play, Another Part of the Forest (1946) once again dealt with the Hubbard family.

As a result of her well-known political views, in 1951 Hellman and her partner, Dashiell Hammett, were called to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Hellman agreed to talk about her own involvement with radical groups, but was unwilling to give names of her comrades and as a result was blacklisted. Hammett, as well as being blacklisted, was sent to prison for six months.

Hellman wrote two more plays, Autumn Gardens (1951) and Toys in the Attic (1960), and three volumes of autobiography, An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973) and Scoundrel Time (1976). Lillian Hellman died at Martha's Vineyard, on 30th June, 1984.

You are reminded that this subject has a national reputation through her writings in which she has opposed nazism and fascism. Under no circumstances should it be known that this bureau is conducting an investigation of her. It should be handled in a most discreet manner and under no circumstances should it be assigned to the local police or some other agency.

To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

When in 1934 the success of her first play, The Children's Hour, brought celebrity at the age of 28, she immediately put her fame to work for leftist causes and remained, throughout her life, a bellicose figure in the nation's political arena. This commitment culminated in her courageous defiance of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. As a dramatist, author, screenwriter and activist, Hellman was a commanding presence in America's cultural life for half a century.

Most women as plain as Hellman would have slunk off into a comfortable marriage or sublimated their amorous side altogether. But she defied her facial bad luck as resolutely as she defied the House committee. She had a celebrated and glamorous affair with Dashiell Hammett - and affairs as well with other handsome and distinguished men like the publisher Ralph Ingersoll and the diplomat John Melby. And this was a field from which she never retired. According to people present, she discreetly propositioned a male guest at a dinner the night before she died of cardiac arrest at age 79.


Lillian Hellman - History

Lillian Hellman, one of the most important playwrights of the American theater, died of cardiac arrest yesterday at Martha&aposs Vineyard (Mass.) Hospital near her summer home. She was 77 years old and also lived in Manhattan.

The playwright had been taken to the hospital by ambulance from her home at Vineyard Haven. Isidore Englander, her lawyer and one of her executors, said that Miss Hellman had suffered from a weak heart for several years.

Among Miss Hellman&aposs plays that have entered the modern repertory are &apos&aposThe Children&aposs Hour,&apos&apos &apos&aposThe Little Foxes&apos&apos and &apos&aposWatch on the Rhine.&apos&apos

Wrote for Motion Pictures

She was also one of the most successful motion-picture scenarists, and the three volumes of her memoirs were both critical and popular successes - and even more controversial than her plays.

Yet the Hellman line that is probably most quoted came from none of these, but from a letter she wrote in 1952 to the House Committee on Un-American Activities when it was investigating links between American leftists and the Communist Party in this country and abroad.

&apos&aposI cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year&aposs fashions,&apos&apos Miss Hellman wrote.

She offered to testify about her own opinions and actions, but not about those of others, because &apos&aposto hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and dishonorable.&apos&apos

For this, she risked imprisonment for contempt of Congress, was blacklisted and saw her income drop from $150,000 a year to virtually nothing.

Although she had participated with Communists in many causes, she was not a Communist. &apos&aposRebels seldom make good revolutionaries,&apos&apos she explained.

And Lillian Hellman was a rebel, possessing a headstrong, argumentative, stubborn - some said arrogant - streak that seldom enabled her to admit she could have been wrong. She also found it difficult to admit that viewpoints that conflicted with her own might possess some merit, a trait that in her late years embroiled her in public disputes with the authors Diana Trilling and Mary McCarthy. She rebelled first against her family, especially the wealthier branch of her mother, the former Julia Newhouse. They were Southern merchants of German-Jewish origin, who had settled in Alabama, then New Orleans, where she was born on June 20, 1907.

Her father, Max, moved to New York after a business reversal and began a successful career as a salesman. An only child, Miss Hellmann spent her girlhood shuttling between upper West End Avenue and the genteel boardinghouse kept by two maiden aunts in New Orleans.

Her memoirs, which are less an autobiography than a montage of the people who meant most to her, portray relations of love and tension between the girl and her wet nurse, her aunts, a cousin who was a &apos&aposlost lady&apos&apos and other extraordinary kinfolk and friends. A loner, disaffected from family and school, she took refuge in books.

After a scolding, she ran away at the age of 14. Received with love on her return two days later, she recounted that she learned something &apos&aposuseful and dangerous - if you&aposre willing to take the punishment, you are halfway through the battle.&apos&apos She added, &apos&aposThat the issue may be trivial, the battle ugly, is another point.&apos&apos

In another revealing anecdote, she said she pawned a ring given her on her 15th birthday by her maternal uncle, Jake Newhouse, and bought books with the money.

&apos&aposI went immediately to tell him what I&aposd done,&apos&apos she said, &apos&aposdeciding, I think, that day that the break had to come. . . . He laughed and said the words I later used in &aposThe Little Foxes&apos: &aposSo you&aposve got spirit after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.&apos &apos&apos

After graduation from Wadleigh High School, Miss Hellman was enrolled at the Washington Square campus of New York University for three years and later studied journalism at Columbia University. But, she said, she often cut classes to explore Bohemian Greenwich Village. This led in 1924 to her first job, reading manuscripts at the venturesome new publishing house of Boni & Liveright.

She left the next year and married the writer Arthur Kober. The marriage ended in a friendly Hollywood divorce in 1932. In between she did book reviews, wrote short stories that she said she did not like, visited France and Germany and read scripts for Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer.

It was a period, as she recalled it, of frequent idleness, discontent and drinking. It terminated when she met Dashiell Hammett, with whom she would live off and on for 31 years. Mr. Hammett told her that she was the model for Nora Charles, the cool and witty wife in his book &apos&aposThe Thin Man&apos&apos - but was also the model for his villainous women as well.

Miss Hellman wrote a play, a comedy, with Louis Kronenberger. She said it amused them both enormously, but nobody else found it funny, and it was never performed. Thereafter, each of her plays were written in several drafts, after long research and under harsh coaching by Mr. Hammett.

The next, &apos&aposThe Children&aposs Hour,&apos&apos was suggested by a book about a lawsuit in Scotland. It is the story of a vicious girl destroying the lives of two teachers by falsely accusing them of having a lesbian affair. Miss Hellman, who was then reading scripts for the producer Herman Shumlin, took it to him and sat in a corner while he read it.

After the first act, she recounted, he said &apos&aposSwell!&apos&apos After the second, &apos&aposI hope it keeps up.&apos&apos After the third,

It opened in 1934, and was an immediate hit. Although it was banned in Boston, Chicago and other cities, and in Britain, Miss Hellman earned $125,000 from its first run, and a $50,000 contract from Samuel Goldwyn to turn it into a movie.

It was a period, as she recalled, when a film could not show a man on a couch with a girl unless at least one foot was touching the floor. But with what would become her legendary skill, she revised her tale of slander to one involving jealousy and a love triangle, rather than lesbianism. The picture, called &apos&aposThese Three,&apos&apos was considered daring enough in that age of Pollyanna films, and it was a success.

Speaking of &apos&aposThe Children&aposs Hour,&apos&apos Miss Hellman said, &apos&aposI never see characters as monstrously as audiences do.&apos&apos For her, it was a play not about a vicious child but about the evil power of a slander, and to some degree anticipated the political investigations of the left that were to come.

By 1935, she was able to dictate terms for an occasional scenario for Hollywood (&apos&aposThe Dark Angel,&apos&apos &apos&aposDead End&apos&apos), and was one of the country&aposs highest-paid writers. Yet she drew closer to the left.

She wrote a drama about a strike, &apos&aposDays to Come,&apos&apos which appeared in late 1936 and was unsuccessful. She then went to Spain, helped write Joris Ivens&aposs film, &apos&aposThe Spanish Earth,&apos&apos and came home to campaign for aid to the Loyalists fighting the Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Meanwhile, she was working hard on a play about a Southern family obsessed with money and power - the play, she later said, that got out of her system her own resentment toward her mother&aposs family. Her close friend Dorothy Parker suggested the title: &apos&aposThe Little Foxes.&apos&apos

Frightened by Success

It was a great hit on stage and in the screen version, which Miss Hellman also wrote. She fled New York after the Broadway opening she explained that she was frightened by success and what it did to people.

With her earnings, she bought an estate in Westchester County and converted it into a working farm. For 13 years, she lived there and helped run it, while writing plays, books and magazine articles and carrying on an active social life.

Interviewers, conditioned by the toughness of her writing, were surprised to find her intensely feminine, fond of clothes and cooking, a short, attractive person with reddish hair and an aquiline nose. Late in life her face was generously lined and her voice was raspy, a condition she attributed to nearly a lifetime of chain-smoking.

While conceding the taut excitement of her work, some critics complained that her plots were melodramatic. She replied: &apos&aposIf you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody&aposs mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.&apos&apos

Deeply engaged with the fate of Spain and what she foresaw as the coming war with Nazism, Miss Hellman was widely attacked as a Communist. But when her anti-Nazi play, &apos&aposWatch on the Rhine,&apos&apos opened in early 1941, the Communist press criticized her for supporting the Allies in what it then called the &apos&aposphony war.&apos&apos

Inspired by Childhood Friend

The play, named the best of the year by the New York Drama Critics Circle, describes a tragic encounter between a German foe of the Nazis and a cynical Rumanian in the home of a cultivated, liberal American family. The hero&aposs American wife seems to have been inspired by a girlhood friend of Miss Hellman&aposs who joined the anti-Nazi underground and was killed.

One of the Hellman memoirs, &apos&aposPentimento,&apos&apos tells the story of &apos&aposJulia,&apos&apos and recounts that Miss Hellman once smuggled $50,000 to her to be used in bribing Nazi guards to free prisoners.

Last year, Yale University Press published a memoir by Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst who was active in the Austrian underground in World War II, and suggested that Dr. Gardiner&aposs experience was the model for the Hellman story. Since the Hellman story ends with her bringing Julia&aposs body back to the United States, some critics raised questions about the authenticity of the Hellman story.

Miss Hellman responded that Miss Gardiner &apos&aposmay have been the model for somebody else&aposs Julia, but she was certainly not the model for my Julia.&apos&apos

During the war, Miss Hellman wrote a scenario for a movie about the Eastern front called &apos&aposThe North Star,&apos&apos extolling the bravery of the people of the Soviet Union, by then an American ally. After heavy rewriting, it emerged as a simplistic affair and she deplored it, although it was well received.

She also wrote a play, later a movie, &apos&aposThe Searching Wind,&apos&apos about an American diplomat and prewar appeasement of Hitler, and visited the Eastern front outside Warsaw as a guest of the Soviet Government.

Then came &apos&aposAnother Part of the Forest&apos&apos (1946) and &apos&aposThe Autumn Garden&apos&apos (1951), both returning to the theme of bitter strife over money and power in genteel Southern settings. Both were successes.

Never Denounced Stalinism

Miss Hellman was attacked by a number of critics for never denouncing the excesses of Stalinism, as others on the left did.

Mr. Hammett was jailed in 1951 for refusing to submit a list of contributors to what the Federal Bureau of Investigation had branded a Communist front, the Civil Rights Congress, of which he was a trustee. He emerged with his health shattered. Miss Hellman received her summons the next year.

She formally offered to testify about herself but not about others. Further, she refused to let her lawyers cite the fact that she had been criticized by the Communists. She said that to use this &apos&aposwould amount to my attacking them at a time when they were being persecuted.&apos&apos

Balmain Costume for Courage

Wearing a new Balmain costume to give her courage, she said later, Miss Hellman appeared before the House committee, repeated her offer to testify about herself, then invoked the Fifth Amendment on questions about others. The committee did not choose to cite her for contempt. But she suddenly became an untouchable in the movies and the theater.

Her income dropped from $150,000 the year before to a pittance. She had to sell her farm. She worked briefly in Italy on a scenario that was stillborn, and briefly as a salesclerk in a department store, under an assumed name. Not until &apos&aposToys in the Attic&apos&apos appeared in 1960 did her financial straits end. This play again won the drama critics&apos award, but the Pulitzer prize board rejected the recommendation of its drama jury that it receive that honor as well.

In &apos&aposScoundrel Time,&apos&apos a memoir that was a best seller in 1976, Miss Hellman recalled that era with bitterness - not so much for those hunting Communists as for the former leftists who named names, and for those liberals who remained silent or who participated in anti-Communist efforts that she said were subsidized by the Central Intelligence Agency. These events, she said, led directly to Vietnam and the Watergate affair.

&apos&aposSuch people would have a right to say that I, and many like me, took too long to see what was going on in the Soviet Union,&apos&apos she wrote. &apos&aposBut whatever our mistakes, I do not believe we did our country any harm. And I think they did.&apos&apos

Twice Planned to Marry

Mr. Hammett died in Jan. 1960. In an introduction to a collection of his short stories, Miss Hellman said of his last years with her, &apos&aposIt was an unspoken pleasure, that having come together so many years, ruined so much and repaired a little, we had endured.&apos&apos

In an interview in 1973, she shed a bit more light on that relationship, troubled by his drinking, their tempers and a &apos&aposmodern&apos&apos attitude toward marriage.

&apos&aposWe did have two periods of planning to be married,&apos&apos she said. &apos&aposThe first time, he disappeared with another lady. That&aposs not really fair - I was disappearing too. . . . We were both of that nutty time that believed that alliances could stand up against other people. I should have known better, because I had a jealous nature.&apos&apos

During the decade when she was blacklisted by Hollywood, Miss Hellman wrote four adaptations for the stage: &apos&aposMontserrat,&apos&apos based on a novel by Emmanuel Robles &apos&aposThe Lark,&apos&apos from Jean Anouilh&aposs play about Jeanne d&aposArc the book for &apos&aposCandide,&apos&apos an operetta, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and &apos&aposMy Mother, My Father, and Me,&apos&apos based on a novel by Burt Blechman.

All of the later plays got mixed reviews, but are occasionally revived. &apos&aposThe Lark,&apos&apos which Miss Hellman also directed, was described as much better than a Christopher Fry version staged in London. The critics&apos judgments of some of these shows, as with the Hellman plays that were smash hits, have improved as time passed. &apos&aposThe Little Foxes&apos&apos was revived in 1980 as a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and had a successful run on Broadway and a national tour.

By the end of the 1950&aposs, motion-picture offers were coming in again, but Miss Hellman was no longer interested. She explained that she did not want to work in a medium where directors were free to revise a writer&aposs work at will.

&apos&aposToys in the Attic,&apos&apos still another drama about a doomed Southern family, was hailed as perhaps her finest play. It was also her last.

&apos&aposI do not like the theater at all,&apos&apos she said in a lecture in 1966. &apos&aposI get restless.&apos&apos

Elsewhere, she quoted Mr. Hammett as telling her, &apos&aposThe truth is you don&apost like the theater except the times when you&aposre in a room by yourself putting the play on paper.&apos&apos

But she was not idle. Occasionally, she taught classes in writing at Harvard, Yale and the City University of New York. She edited the letters of Chekhov and the Hammett stories and worked on her memoirs: &apos&aposAn Unfinished Woman&apos&apos (1969), &apos&aposPentimento&apos&apos (1974) and &apos&aposScoundrel Time.&apos&apos In her town house on the Upper East Side and her cottage on Martha&aposs Vineyard, she held court for a circle of younger writers.

Miss Hellman at first turned down an offer of more than $500,000 for the movie rights to these books, on the ground that they involved living persons who might be hurt. But she later sold movie rights to the &apos&aposJulia,&apos&apos story and it was made into a film in which Miss Hellman was played by Jane Fonda.

She herself had criticized her friends Lionel and Diana Trilling, among others, for their writings on the cold war. But when Miss Hellman&aposs publisher, Little, Brown & Company, rejected a book by Mrs. Trilling because it responded to Miss Hellman, the latter commented, &apos&aposMy goodness, what difference would that make?&apos&apos

Mrs. Trilling had to find another publisher, however, and the feud between the two women continued, at one point, in 1981, coming down to battle-by-interview in which they exchanged sharp words.

Mrs. Trilling said that on Martha&aposs Vineyard &apos&aposanyone who entertains me is never again invited to Lillian Hellman&aposs house.&apos&apos Miss Hellman issued a formal statement in which she acidly denied the charge.

The playwright also, in 1979, plunged into a headlong feud with the novelist Mary McCarthy after Miss McCarthy, in a television interview, characterized Miss Hellman as &apos&aposa dishonest writer&apos&apos whose every word, &apos&aposincluding &aposand&apos and &aposthe,&apos &apos&apos was a &apos&aposlie.&apos&apos Miss Hellman sued Miss McCarthy, the Educational Television Corporation and the interviewer, Dick Cavett, for damages of $1.75 million for &apos&aposmental pain and anguish.&apos&apos

Last May 10, Miss Hellman won a preliminary round in the lawsuit when Justice Harold Baer Jr. of State Supreme Court denied Miss McCarthy&aposs motion to dismiss the suit. While Miss McCarthy had argued that her statements were expressions of opinion about a public figure, Judge Baer said that the strong statements seemed to fall &apos&aposon the actionable side of the line - outside what has come to be known as the &aposmarketplace of ideas.&apos &apos&apos

Many of her admirers and other observers were apprehensive about the fact that Miss Hellman had become obsessed with the action and that she might squander a great deal of her energy and wealth on the lawsuit. They also feared that she might erode the freedom of critics like herself to comment.

It was ironic, some said, that despite Miss Hellman&aposs lifelong championing of civil rights, a victory in the case might seriously erode First Amendment protections. Mr. Englander said yesterday that he did not know what impact Miss Hellman&aposs death would have on the lawsuit.

Miss Hellman&aposs veracity also came under attack in 1980 by Martha Gellhorn, a writer once married to Ernest Hemingway. Miss Gellhorn accused Miss Hellman of having passed off fiction for fact in &apos&aposAn Unfinished Woman&apos&apos when she wrote about Mr. Hemingway.

Throughout her life Miss Hellman continued to raise her voice for such causes as civil rights and peace, and with others filed a suit that won a court ruling that the Nixon White House tapes were public property. She also signed petitions seeking the release of Soviet dissidents.

In &apos&aposScoundrel Time,&apos&apos she commented on her disillusionment: &apos&aposMy belief in liberalism was mostly gone. I think I have substituted for it something private called, for want of something that should be more accurate, decency. . . . but it is painful for a nature that can no longer accept liberalism not to be able to accept radicalism.&apos&apos

For many reviewers, Miss Hellman&aposs position and her dramatic art were best expressed in the wistful closing lines of &apos&aposAn Unfinished Woman&apos&apos:

&apos&aposI do regret that I have spent much of my life trying to find what I called &apossense.&apos I never knew what I meant by truth, never made the sense I hoped for. All I mean is that I left too much of me unfinished because I wasted too much time.&apos&apos


The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings in 1947 on Communist activity in Hollywood. Ten writers and directors were held in contempt when they refused to answer questions regarding their political affiliations or beliefs. They later served prison terms after the Supreme Court in April 1950 turned down their appeal that such questioning violated their First Amendment rights. Hearings began again in March 1951, While almost half of those testifying from the entertainment industry informed on their colleagues, others like playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. This route insured that they would not be hired for future work in the industry. In the following letter to HUAC’s chairman, Hellman offered to testify as to her own activities if she would not be forced to inform on others. When the Committee refused her request, she took the Fifth and was blacklisted.

Lillian Hellman, Letter to HUAC, May 19, 1952

As you know, I am under subpoena to appear before your committee on May 21, 1952.

I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed. I have been advised by counsel that under the fifth amendment I have a constitutional privilege to decline to answer any questions about my political opinions, activities, and associations, on the grounds of self-incrimination. I do not wish to claim this privilege. I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.

But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the committee’s questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the fifth amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

I was raised in an old-fashioned American tradition and there were certain homely things that were taught to me: To try to tell the truth, not to bear false witness, not to harm my neighbor, to be loyal to my country, and so on. In general, I respected these ideals of Christian honor and did as well with them as I knew how. It is my belief that you will agree with these simple rules of human decency and will not expect me to violate the good American tradition from which they spring. I would, therefore, like to come before you and speak of myself.

I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you everything you wish to know about my views or actions if your committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the committee is unwilling to give me this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the fifth amendment at the hearing.

A reply to this letter would be appreciated.

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding Communist Infiltration of the Hollywood Motion-Picture Industry, 82d Congress, May 21, 1952, in Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 201𔃀.


The Party’s Over

Lillian Hellman was once a star. She was one of the most successful playwrights of her time, with her first produced work, The Children’s Hour, running for two years on Broadway. As a screenwriter in the 1930s, she earned the top rate of $2,500 a week to write two films of her choice per year. The three volumes of her memoirs—An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)—were best sellers.

Her personal life was equally glamorous. After a brief early marriage, she flitted from romance to romance, courted by everyone from theater producers to diplomats to writers. The last category included Dashiell Hammett, who was the love of her life despite the fact that for most of their thirty-year affair he was married to someone else. She played elegant hostess to literary luminaries at her Upper East Side town house, her upstate New York farm, and her Martha’s Vineyard beach house. In 1976, at age seventy-one, she joined the likes of Raquel Welch and Diana Ross as a model for the Blackglama furs advertising campaign, with the famous tagline “What becomes a legend most?”

Hellman’s star rose and fell several times during her life, but since her death, in 1984, it has been in steady decline. Now she has become a legend of quite a different sort, as unfashionable as the mink she posed in. Nothing she wrote has reverberated as loud and long as Mary McCarthy’s devastating quip about her on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” McCarthy’s remark alluded to Hellman’s once-celebrated memoirs, which have been challenged by many sources, including a woman who was likely the real-life model for the most famous chapter of Pentimento. It told the story of an American Resistance fighter in Vienna— identified by Hellman as a childhood friend of hers, whom she supposedly risked her own life to help. (The story was made into the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.) But, of course, McCarthy was alluding also to communism, the “big lie” of the twentieth century, and Hellman’s notorious support for it.

“How had it happened . . . that Lillian Hellman, once so honored and famous, admired for her blunt and plainspoken style, had become the archetype of hypocrisy, the quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness?” Alice Kessler-Harris uses this question as the launching point for A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, her reconsideration of the writer’s life and career. Her book is at least the fourth biography of Hellman (the fifth, if you include Joan Mellen’s joint biography of her and Hammett), and Kessler-Harris knows she will not break new ground. Rather, she seeks to reevaluate Hellman from a contemporary perspective, exploring “not only . . . how the world in which Hellman lived shaped the choices she made, but . . . how the life she lived illuminates the world she confronted.” This is no hagiography, but it is an apologia of sorts.

Hellman, Kessler-Harris argues, was an idealistic figure trapped in an ideological age. She believed unbendingly in a “moral politics” of economic and civil equality her enemies distorted her steadfastness into hard-line Stalinism. As Hellman argued in Scoundrel Time, she and others who supported the Communist Party were acting “in the best traditions of American dissent,” defending the right to freedom of speech. Kessler-Harris believes that Hellman was particularly vilified for being an unbeautiful woman (an early boyfriend told her she looked like a “prow head on a whaling ship”) who behaved flamboyantly and unconventionally her “quick and angry style” and “sexual energy” would have been unremarkable in a man. (This is a woman who wrote in her diary at age seventeen that sex was “like eating a meal.”) “Hellman’s actions alone . . . cannot account for the transformation in her reputation,” Kessler-Harris concludes. “Rather, over time, critics, reviewers, political friends and enemies collectively formulated a life that reshaped Lillian Hellman, turning her into something of a Rorschach test.”

Perhaps. But the question that remains unanswered is why, at this late date, does Hellman remain a polarizing figure, at once exasperating and transfixing? If the curtain has not yet gone down on this woman whose life, as critic Robert Brustein once remarked, “will eventually be considered her greatest theater,” it is partially because she died with the spotlight still on her, leaving unresolved her role in one of the twentieth century’s most vexing debates. But her ongoing status as a “Rorschach test” for the twentieth century says less about Hellman herself than about the particular difficulties that century posed—and her knack for exploiting them.

The climax of Hellman’s drama was surely her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Her communism was no secret: She had been blacklisted in 1949 after refusing to sign the Hollywood producers’ loyalty oath. Kessler-Harris speculates that Hellman, “like all her friends,” had become interested in communism as early as 1934—in the midst of the so-called Red Decade, when party membership in the United States increased dramatically. Though in her memoirs she denied having ever joined the party, Hellman admitted to her attorney Joseph Rauh that she was a member for two years starting in 1938—a period when Hammett and Dorothy Parker (another of Hellman’s lifelong friends) were also associated with the party. “The question was not why did she join . . . but how could she not have joined?” Kessler-Harris writes. But communism was hardly the only choice for left-wing intellectuals in the 1930s many, including Mary McCarthy, identified as socialists or Trotskyists. So the issue seems to be why Hellman continues to be condemned for her communism, while most of the other leftist intellectuals of her age managed to write such affiliations off as a youthful dalliance.

Though exact details about this time are hazy—either because of Hellman’s notoriously poor memory or because she deliberately covered things up—it is clear that she was unusually consistent in her support not only of communism in the abstract, but also of the Soviet Union. A trip to Spain during 1937 sealed her fury against the Fascists, blinding her to evidence of Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Even as other American Communists criticized Stalin’s efforts to control Franco’s opposition, Hellman continued to “support the Republican cause as though it were still unified,” Kessler-Harris writes. And while others, including McCarthy, were already speaking out against Stalin, Hellman treated the rumors of Stalinist brutality with skepticism. In April 1938, the New Masses ran a statement of support for “the efforts of the Soviet Union to free itself from insidious internal dangers”—in other words, a defense of the purges and show trials. Hellman signed it, as did Parker, Malcolm Cowley, and Langston Hughes, among others. But unlike many of the other signatories, she never repudiated it.

Even after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact the following year, when many American sympathizers abandoned communism, Hellman continued to side with the Soviets. In 1943, she played host to Itzik Feffer and Solomon Mikhoels, Yiddish writers sent to the United States to generate support for the Soviet Union. Mikhoels was assassinated by Stalin in 1948 Feffer died in the gulag in 1952. Hellman said nothing publicly to condemn their deaths. Not until the mid-1960s did she speak up against Soviet suppression of dissent.

It could be that Hellman simply hated to admit that she was wrong. (She was similarly stubborn about her writing, once telling a director that “no one ever changes a word that Lillian Hellman writes.”) But it seems equally possible that she truly did not think she was wrong. She remained convinced that the witch hunt for American Communists, and the trampling of civil liberties that it involved, was more pernicious than the threat of communism. Yet she did not want to go to jail—as Hammett did for four months in 1951—for refusing to “name names.” On the advice of her lawyer, she stated that she would testify about herself but not incriminate anyone else: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously said. This ingenious compromise was largely viewed as a moral triumph for Hellman, a way to preserve herself without compromising her principles. Writing in the New York Post, Murray Kempton called it a “courageous act of conscience . . . worthy of a lady.”

But when Hellman, who seems to have been constitutionally incapable of letting anything rest, brought up the matter again in Scoundrel Time, she turned public opinion against her. Here she not only asserted her own heroism under fire, but also wrote with naive indignation about the “American intellectuals” who refused to “fight for anything if doing so would injure them.” The anticommunists responded with fury. Hellman was distorting her own record, they claimed (correctly, as we now know), by saying that she had never been a member of the Communist Party. But worse, she was distorting history. “For a decade,” Hilton Kramer wrote trenchantly, writers “have been laboring to persuade us that the Cold War was somehow a malevolent conspiracy of the Western democracies to undermine the benign intentions of the Soviet Union.” Some have argued that the worst that can be said for the supporters of communism was that they turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Irving Howe wrote that their greatest crime was to “befoul the cultural atmosphere.” But others, including Mary McCarthy, believed that they were complicit in Stalin’s mass murder.

McCarthy’s antipathy to Hellman dated back to 1944, when she panned Hellman’s film The North Star, a melodrama about members of a Soviet collective farm who resist their German occupiers. McCarthy objected to Hellman’s portrayal of the Soviet Union as “idyllic” and peace loving: “The picture is a tissue of falsehoods woven of every variety of untruth,” she wrote. They argued publicly about the Spanish Civil War at a dinner party in 1948, where Hellman also supposedly claimed that Solzhenitsyn had exaggerated the number of gulag victims.

When McCarthy called Hellman a liar on The Dick Cavett Show, then, she was condemning not only Hellman’s writing, but her version of history. This must be why Hellman labored so strenuously in her own defense, persisting in her libel suit against McCarthy long after nearly everyone had advised her to give it up. Had they had their day in court, the matter would almost certainly have been decided for McCarthy. Not only had the tide of history turned in her favor, she also had marshaled significant documentation of Hellman’s falsehoods. But Hellman died a month before the trial, leaving her reputation in limbo and her life full of unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the ultimately unquantifiable debate over who finally did more harm—the Communists or those who persecuted them—remains as much a political flash point as a historical quandary.

Hellman never sought to help answer these questions during her lifetime, shunning all biographers. Kessler-Harris finds her “a most uncooperative source,” even after death. In appointment books and diaries, she altered the names of friends and lovers. She asked many of her correspondents to return her letters, which she then destroyed. Compounding the confusion, A Difficult Woman avoids the chronological approach, telling Hellman’s story in layers: her family life, her sexual history, her writing, her politics, her finances, her religion, and so on. As the reader struggles to match up these divergent strands, Hellman becomes even trickier to grasp. (A timeline would have been extremely helpful.) This strategy also results in some weird repetitions and even weirder omissions. We are told multiple times that The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, but not until late in the book does Kessler-Harris reveal why he went to jail.

The jury is still out on just about every judgment of Hellman, including her literary merits. Kessler-Harris writes that “no one could doubt that Hellman was a serious playwright,” and calls The Little Foxes (later made into a film starring Bette Davis) “one of the important plays of the American twentieth century.” The superlative is conspicuously absent. If Hellman had been indisputably a writer of the first rank, history would almost certainly have judged her politics more kindly. (As just one point of comparison, consider how little later critics have made of Hemingway’s politics.) But though she was respected as a social realist in the tradition of Ibsen and Shaw, Hellman had a moralistic streak that could shade into propaganda. Her best-known plays—The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes—take moments of intense psychological drama and drain them of much of their interpersonal resonance, leaving characters who are far more memorable for the positions they argue than for their own attributes.

Hellman emphasized ideas rather than style at a time when female playwrights were expected to stage light drawing-room farces—a choice that likely contributed to the perception of her writing as “unwomanly.” She insisted to a journalist in 1941 that, although she was a woman and a playwright, she was “not a woman playwright.” One can readily see why: Misogyny pervades her contemporaries’ reactions to her work. One critic wrote that the theater needed “a good stiff dose of pure hellishness,” and Hellman was “just the girl to give it to us.” Leonard Bernstein, who sparred with Hellman over their joint adaptation of Candide, spoke of her behind her back as “Uncle Lillian.” Hellman once told a group of college students that being “difficult” meant “refusing to alter a line, protecting your own work, arguing for salary”—in other words, typically male behavior.

If critical judgments of Hellman’s work were based as much on assumptions about women’s writing as on the work itself, as Kessler-Harris argues, so were contemporaneous judgments of Hellman’s personal behavior, which likewise would have generated far less astonishment had the offender been a man. After an early marriage to the playwright Arthur Kober, which apparently ended amicably after Hellman realized she was not cut out for monogamy, she never committed herself to any man. Throughout her thirty-year relationship with Hammett, himself a notorious womanizer, she conducted affairs with a sundry cohort of men, including the Broadway producer Herman Shumlin (who produced The Children’s Hour) and diplomat John Melby, whom she met on a visit to Moscow in 1944–45. Her sexual appetite continued unabated into old age: Legend has it that she propositioned a much younger guest at a dinner party the night she died. But while Hellman’s desire to maintain her personal freedom is sympathetic, in the end she seems less a role model than a cautionary figure.

The Hellman who emerges from these pages is dynamic and complex, fraught with contradictions. Indeed, many of those who knew her best testify to the warring forces in her personality. Her first agent, Robby Lantz, once told her, “You are above all entirely and impressively a lady yet also a great gentleman.” Her friend Morris Dickstein described her to Kessler-Harris as “at once a perfect lady and at the same time . . . obscene.” She was a “tough broad . . . who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth,” the New Yorker reported in a profile in 1941, but also a nurturing companion who, when Hammett was serving in the army, sent cookies to his entire barracks. Beloved for her generous hospitality and her fine cooking, she could also be shockingly stingy, demanding steep compensation from those who sought to reprint even brief passages from her work. She lived richly (often in hotels) and dressed elegantly, but would file insurance claims for items as petty as a missing blanket. (For a staunch Communist, she certainly was fixated on the control of her own finances.) John Hersey said of her that he knew “no living human being whom so many people consider to be their one best friend,” but others told gruesome stories of her penchant for mean quips. Hellman herself was known to apologize for “the snake in my mouth.”

Hellman’s final and greatest contradiction might be her own legacy: at once hero and villain, patriot and traitor, valued playwright and scorned memoirist, beloved friend and despised enemy. If the purpose of all biography is to separate truth from myth, that task proves particularly challenging in the case of this “difficult woman”—not least because Hellman herself sought to preserve that myth at almost any cost. But it is challenging also because Hellman, in death, has come to symbolize far more than she did in life. If the questions that swirl around her are still unanswerable, it may be less because she was small than because the questions remain so big.


Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2010). She is at work on a biography of Shirley Jackson.


Lillian Hellman’s Convictions

The distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to what has come to be known as the short 20th century, from 1914 to 1991, as the history of the relationship of the West with communism. As it took power in the Soviet Union and then spun out to influence all aspects of personal and political life, the idea of communism and the reality of Soviet influence penetrated every corner of the world. The way we write history, particularly in the United States, ranks among the least visible and yet most unfortunate consequences of the conflict. I discovered that as I struggled to write about the American playwright, activist, and, yes, one-time Communist, Lillian Hellman.

It is no secret that Hellman, like many intellectuals and artists of her generation, briefly lent her name and her good offices to American communism. Affiliation with the Communist Party USA and allegiance to the idea of communism constituted meaningful, and perhaps for a short time even central, parts of her life. But for historians of the 20th century, questions of communist affiliation in thought or deed have become much more than a brief encounter. Rather, such questions, and the mirror issue of anticommunism, have become ways of seeing, indispensable lenses.

Particularly in 20th-century American biography, they are often the canvas on which a life plays out, no matter how inconsequential the association. Like hidden incest, or a concealed lie, communism often became the shadow player (the secret sharer) in the story, the scab that had to be scratched. Considerations of affiliation and loyalty (within the CPUSA, to one faction or another, or to none at all) anchored the life. Assessments of timing and contrition measured the worth and value of the human being, inevitably coloring him or her pink or red or an innocent white.

My intent when I set out to write about Hellman was different. I was drawn to her because I thought she embodied some of the major contradictions of the 20th century. I was fascinated by the woman who became a famous playwright at a time when writing serious plays was not considered a womanly act by the Jew who practiced no religion yet resisted the label of a “non-Jewish Jew” by the Southerner who never stopped campaigning for racial equality and civil liberties by the shy young girl who turned into a self-aggrandizing and abrasive woman by the serious artist who earned her living by her pen and became a Hollywood celebrity. As a writer, Hellman once ranked with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, yet later her plays were tagged as minor melodramas. She drew on themes of truth and honesty, and she spent her final days defending herself against accusations of lying about her politics and her beliefs. I thought we could learn something from Hellman about how those contradictions engaged some of the major 20th-century issues of identity, sexuality, celebrity, politics, and authenticity.

As I explored them, I discovered that not only could I not separate those issues from Hellman’s political persona, but also that to get at them, I would need to sweep away a curtain of suspicion and doubt. The common view of Hellman as a communist colored everything she touched. Though her friends described her as warm, generous, funny, always up for a laugh, her enemies called her an “ugly” woman. Her public character, which, granted, could be nasty, rude, and abrasive, was often captured in a single expletive. She was, I was told time and again, a “Stalinist.” That word, and everything it conveyed, constituted sufficient explanation for her life, cloaking significant achievements in negative judgments without so much as a second look.

Willy-nilly, I found myself asking the questions that others had posed before me. Did she deserve the epithet? Was she or wasn’t she a member of the CPUSA? How active was she? Did she follow the party line? When did she quit? Did she, in the end, come clean? Did she repudiate her former connections, turn in known Communists? And, finally, the litmus test for morality and ethics: Did she, when she learned about the evils of Stalin and Stalinism, distance herself from the CP, join the anticommunist crusade? Like everyone else, I wanted an answer to the key question: What did she know, and when did she know it?

Halfway through this process, I caught myself. The cold war was over, I told myself. I did not need to act, as E.H Carr, put it, as a “hanging judge,” prepared to condemn or celebrate the virtues of my subject. Rather it was time to ask, So what?

I’m not arguing that an individual’s relationship to socialism or communism is unimportant. Quite the contrary. I am arguing that it is time for historians to place communism in the context of a dynamic, many-faceted, rapidly changing century to separate the history we write from our own fears or hopes to recognize how communism, writ small or large, has shaped our efforts to interpret a difficult century.

At bottom, that is a question of how knowledge is constructed and history written, a recognition that if the cold war once demanded that historians and biographers situate themselves on the left or the right, as sympathizers or as apologists, that time is now past. The end of the cold war provides the opportunity to move outside old debates, to re-evaluate our perspectives, and to start seeing the 20th century with fresh eyes.

More than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps we can ask what we lose when we limit our inquiries into Hellman’s politics to searching out whether she was or was not a communist. What, I wonder, can somebody as robust as Hellman tell us about the meaning of political commitment? What do we learn when we focus on some of the issues that the long and bitter confrontation between the communist and noncommunist worlds obscured or decentered?

Lillian Hellman provides a useful vehicle, for her life contains plenty to deplore as well as to admire. She became involved with socialist ideas and communist activity in the 1930s. She applauded Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War and accepted the Stalinist rationale for the Moscow show trials of those years, staged to purge the enemies of a paranoid leader. She did not denounce the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. She probably was, for about two years, between 1939 and 1941, a member of the Communist Party USA. She continued for many years after that to be a fellow traveler in the sense that she remained sympathetic to the broad goals of social justice for which she believed an abstract communism stood, and she courageously advocated peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union when many people believed that position to be close to treason. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, she refused to name names—and claimed in a carefully worded letter made public at her hearing that she could never comfortably belong to any political group. Her famous line, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” reflected a life-long commitment to the right of individuals to believe as they wished. Later she was tarred for expressing no public remorse or guilt for her communist sympathies even after the corruption and slaughter endemic in the Soviet Union had become public knowledge.

By most standards, Hellman’s political involvements occupy a relatively narrow canvas. She was, after all, a bit player, influential neither in party circles nor in the larger world of political thought. Ironically, perhaps, she attracted most attention as a communist when in her 1976 book, the third volume of her memoirs, Scoundrel Time, she accused liberals of behaving in a cowardly fashion during the McCarthy years and thus brought to the surface barely shrouded tensions.

We could stop the story here. Aha! we might say, she was a member of the Communist Party, and all her life she lied about it. From that point, the spin on her life would be easy and the hypocrisy apparent. She posed as a moral arbiter and got her comeuppance when the author Mary McCarthy told a national television audience in 1979 that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

But if we push our questions one step further, we might learn something more about the complicated dimensions of the 20th century’s tussle between capitalism and socialism. Three possibilities come to mind.

First, Hellman’s life illuminates something of what economists call the moral dilemma of capitalism as it plays out in the real lives of real people faced with difficult choices. Simply put, the dilemma pits capitalism’s need to make profits that enrich the few against its need to legitimize itself by doing good for the many. The Depression decade of the 1930s, when Hellman came into full adulthood, provides a case in point, a moment that challenged the credibility of capitalism and fostered widespread demands to restrain its worst abuses. For many, including Hellman and her circle of friends, some form of socialism seemed the only viable alternative to a system that had broken down.

As a writer, Hellman repeatedly and directly exposed the corrupting power of unconstrained capitalism. The Little Foxes (1939), her most famous play, depicts an intrafamilial struggle in which siblings compete not only to acquire a foothold in the capitalist world, but also, each of them, to derive a larger share than the other. The cost of victory, she tells us, is the loss of humane values and the alienation of the next generation. Is it merely irony that her success as a playwright produced financial rewards and celebrity that provided Hellman with both a comfortable lifestyle and access to powerful voices?

We watch her then—a product of capitalism’s open door, a woman who could have walked away from the economic crisis—grapple with the moral dilemma posed by the opportunities open to her. We observe her, and admire her in the mid-30s, as she becomes active in the Dramatists Guild of America and then organizes for the Screen Writers Guild. Perhaps, we imagine, she is already a member of the Communist Party, whose instructions she is following. Why should she, already a success, otherwise promote unionization? But her letters reveal a principled concern. She wants union success in order to ensure that writers get at least a modicum of control over their work, and, not incidentally, better financial rewards for their talent. Years later, her beloved SWG ousted its communist leadership. Hellman remained a dues-paying member of the guild.

There is, some would argue, something of the hypocrite in Hellman. While fiercely condemning the corrupting power of money, she cultivated those with wealth and fame and enjoyed the benefits of living well. To some she seemed little more than a celebrity hound. And yet the tenor of her behavior suggests something of the conflict identified by the British philosopher G.A. Cohen, who asks provocatively in the title of his 2000 book, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (Harvard University Press). No life lived under capitalism, Cohen argues, can be a pure life, because such a life involves seeking a moral goal in a contradictory environment. Watching how Hellman lived her life, warts and all, teaches us about the choices faced by individuals who pursue a left agenda under the most difficult circumstances.

Second, Hellman teaches us about the complexity of the American left and left-wing politics in the 20th century. Her political choices reflected the difficulty of thinking strategically in a sharply divided and deeply factionalized world, where choices mattered in ways not always visible at the time. The most obvious example of reprehensible behavior is her 1938 defense of Stalin and the Soviet Union in the face of

murderous purges that she either knew or should have known about. She also signed petitions that declared her support for the show trials and condemned the committees that sided with Leon Trotsky, who challenged Stalin’s commitment to building socialism first in the Soviet Union. Despite her hatred of anti-Semitic and warmongering fascism, Hellman even supported the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. She compounded her sins by never publicly apologizing for those mistakes.

But even reprehensible politics produce lessons. An unapologetic communism signals profound frustration with democracy gone astray, a loss of faith in a political system seemingly controlled by the wealthy it evokes the continuing hope for a “better life” that lies at the core of American radicalism. It pushes us to ask about the power of ideologies, left and right, to blind intelligent people to existing circumstances. If we suspend our own moral judgments—deny ourselves the satisfactions of the hanging judge—we might see in Hellman’s acts the political turmoil of the 30s, the desperate but unavailing search for alternatives that roiled the intelligentsia of her time. In Hellman’s mind, like those of many others, the good that the Soviet state might achieve, once its economy and social policies took shape, outweighed the condemnation of naysayers. She and the many others could not have found their choices easy, but those choices may well have been expressions of hope as much as indications of folly.

Hellman might have been wrong during that bleak period, but neither then nor later was she a tool of the Soviet Union. Nor was she a dupe in any respect. That, too, is a lesson that we might learn in the post-cold-war period. However misguided her actions, she took them on the basis of a series of complicated motives rooted in loyalty to friends (including her longtime companion and lover, Dashiell Hammett, who remained a believer in communism all his life) and an abiding commitment to democracy and civil liberties. Even as she seemed to “follow the party line” in some respects, she remained her own woman. She joined the CPUSA in the late 30s and, unaccountably, stayed in it after Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Perversely, she chose that moment to write Watch on the Rhine, a powerful antifascist play. She quit the party just after the Soviet Union became a wartime ally of the United States, when it would have been easier to remain in the fold. She wrote later that she had no taste for party discipline, but that she couldn’t hit a man (or a cause) when it was down.

I puzzled for a long time over Hellman’s penchant for left-wing social organizations (many with ties to the CP) now known colloquially as the Popular Front. She continued with them well into the late 1940s. I came to believe that it simply didn’t matter to her whether communists were involved in causes she cared about. The two that moved her most deeply during the war years were antifascism and racial equality, both of which she participated in with abandon. Her engagement serves as evidence that we cannot dismiss the Popular Front as merely a communist ploy. Rather, Hellman’s experience points to the desire of millions of Americans for a more inclusive democracy committed to social justice. She encourages us to view the Popular Front as a radical insurgency emanating from a widespread and deeply felt loss of faith in unregulated capitalism.

Hellman maintained her insistence on the freedom of belief to the end of her days. She would not reveal the names of alleged Communists to HUAC in 1952 because she thought everyone had the right to believe whatever they wanted. Of the House committee’s targets, she wrote in Scoundrel Time, “They never did any harm.” Her consistency (some would call it rigidity) may have been naïve. Yet her claim that the cry of communism was merely a red herring echoes now in the age of terrorism. Hellman argued forcefully that those who played the anticommunist game were as responsible for the emergence of the 20th-century surveillance state as the conservatives who constructed it. In the last decade of her life, and in the face of President Richard Nixon’s efforts to curtail the protest movements of the late 60s, she drew on her celebrity to organize friends of every political persuasion into a group called the Committee for Public Justice. Through the 70s, it led the country in resisting abuses of secrecy and the spread of surveillance.

Third, Hellman’s life urges us to rethink the attribution of Stalinism as a “meta-category” within which other definitions are contained, a label that trumps all others. Playing the Stalinist card has for too long permitted historians to overlook multiple and changing perceptions of self and others, to oversimplify the complex realities of American identity. Hellman, like most Americans, had several identities that shaped her worldview, each of them layered and complex. She thought of herself as a racially egalitarian Southerner, an American Jew, a serious playwright, and a self-made woman. Her politics consistently represented that complicated sense of self.

Born of secular, Southern, Jewish parents, Hellman never practiced any religion. And though she attributed her long opposition to fascism to an early experience of watching the humiliation of Jews in pre-Hitler Germany, she consistently understood fascism as an attack against not only Jews but all non-Aryans. For her, antifascism and antiracism were of a piece. Before and during the Second World War, she created, joined, and supported antifascist committees to aid Spanish Civil War refugees as well as European Jewry. During World War II, she campaigned with the black singer and activist Paul Robeson against Jim Crow rules in the Army and raised money for Jewish refugees with equal vigor. After the war, when racial egalitarianism and a refusal to support a Jewish state took on the aura of communism, Hellman’s positions branded her as a fellow traveler. Perhaps. But to see them as that alone obscures the eclecticism that marked the efforts of many American Jews to achieve a more egalitarian society.

The unrelenting fury of the Stalinist label descended on Hellman after the publication of Scoundrel Time. It lasted to the end of her life and continues well beyond it. What purpose, we might now ask, did that designation serve? Whom did it unify? To whom did the language of Stalinism give comfort and perhaps even a modicum of power? Those questions take on added significance in light of the recently reclaimed reputation of a cultural icon as large as Woody Guthrie. His communist past now acknowledged, his Oklahoma birthplace willingly accords him the tribute it long withheld.

In the 1980s, in and around the time of Hellman’s death, the label acted as a political cudgel. It could foster a common purpose, bringing together former antagonists of the left and right and creating among them a thread of political identity and unity. Deploying the word suggested (and continues to suggest) the comparative rationality of those who wielded it. Historians who fail to distance themselves from those old debates continue to encourage a political dispute that belongs in the archives of history.

How, then, do we get it right? We can continue to flog Lillian Hellman for her sins, for she does, after all, emerge from the archives as a self-aggrandizing and often frightened individual who compensated for her fear with an abrasive moralism that many found offensive. She was briefly a Communist, and like many others, she lied about her membership in the party.

Or we can begin to explore the meaning of Hellman’s politics in her generation, to ask questions about the goals of those who saw their American world in unconventional ways, to explain the cultural and political tensions that drove a democratic society to marginalize some of its most critical members. If we do that, we might learn something from Lillian Hellman: We might begin to understand the deeper meaning of the politics and society in which she was engaged.


Maybe: A Story

In my early teens, I was a voracious reader of plays focusing on the works of major American dramatists, O&aposNeill, Williams, Miller & Albee. The only woman on that list was was Lillian Hellman. My 13 year old self couldn&apost figure out why Hellman wasn&apost held in as high esteem as the men. That 13 year old loved the cutting lines of her melodramas. My middle aged self realizes now that Hellman is not in the league of O&aposNe But maybe half a lie is worse than a real lie.
MAYBE: A STORY

In my early teens, I was a voracious reader of plays focusing on the works of major American dramatists, O'Neill, Williams, Miller & Albee. The only woman on that list was was Lillian Hellman. My 13 year old self couldn't figure out why Hellman wasn't held in as high esteem as the men. That 13 year old loved the cutting lines of her melodramas. My middle aged self realizes now that Hellman is not in the league of O'Neill, Williams, Miller & Albee.

Hellman has written two outstanding plays, The Little Foxes & the little known The Autumn Garden, but she was never able to elevate her melodramas in the way that Tennessee Williams was able to. I often suspected that her lover, the writer, Dashiell Hammett, served as editor, and often rewrote her plays. Upon Hammett's passing, Hellman abandoned playwriting for good, eight years later, she emerged as a memoirist with the publication of An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir. In the span of 11 years, Hellman published four memoirs, with MAYBE: A STORY being the last in 1980. The truthfulness of all four has been called into question. This is not surprising since Hellman herself was not known for her honesty.

In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth
. . . but here I don't know much of what really happened and never tried to find out.
And thus begins MAYBE: A STORY.

MAYBE: A STORY is presented as a story as if to fend off the accusations of lying that had dogged Hellman the past 11 years.

The theme here is how hard it is to know about people and remember them, but in all honesty, it’s another one of these indirect portraits of Hellman through the appearances of Sarah Cameron

whose intermittent appearances over forty years have provided Hellman with a tantalizing, inconsistent mosaic of fantasy, deliberate falsehoods, and touches of unalloyed evil. The give-away that the unnamed narrator is Hellman is all the details of her family and the sudden appearance of Hammett with these brilliant, offkey, perfect dialogues.

MAYBE: A STORY is more about sex than Hellman's other remembrances, and her fear

set off perhaps by the malice of a friend and male partners

that she smells. Perhaps this is Hellman's most honest writing after all .

MAYBE: A STORY has some of Hellman's most beautiful prose. She is justifying her autobiographical art, answering critics indirectly. Hellman speaks of how each of us have our own reasons for denying, affirming, pretending and sometimes have really forgotten

I believe she is talking about how others responded to her memoirs in these sections

and how people are hurt by forgetfulness of others.

In the end, Hellman reminds us of what matters most and makes you alter your life lost deep in the summer grass.

. more


Alice Kessler-Harris: Lillian Hellman's Convictions

Alice Kessler-Harris is a professor of history at Columbia University and departing president of the Organization of American Historians. Her book A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman is being published this month by Bloomsbury Press.

The distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to what has come to be known as the short 20th century, from 1914 to 1991, as the history of the relationship of the West with communism. As it took power in the Soviet Union and then spun out to influence all aspects of personal and political life, the idea of communism and the reality of Soviet influence penetrated every corner of the world. The way we write history, particularly in the United States, ranks among the least visible and yet most unfortunate consequences of the conflict. I discovered that as I struggled to write about the American playwright, activist, and, yes, one-time Communist, Lillian Hellman.

It is no secret that Hellman, like many intellectuals and artists of her generation, briefly lent her name and her good offices to American communism. Affiliation with the Communist Party USA and allegiance to the idea of communism constituted meaningful, and perhaps for a short time even central, parts of her life. But for historians of the 20th century, questions of communist affiliation in thought or deed have become much more than a brief encounter. Rather, such questions, and the mirror issue of anticommunism, have become ways of seeing, indispensable lenses.

Particularly in 20th-century American biography, they are often the canvas on which a life plays out, no matter how inconsequential the association. Like hidden incest, or a concealed lie, communism often became the shadow player (the secret sharer) in the story, the scab that had to be scratched. Considerations of affiliation and loyalty (within the CPUSA, to one faction or another, or to none at all) anchored the life. Assessments of timing and contrition measured the worth and value of the human being, inevitably coloring him or her pink or red or an innocent white.


The life of Lillian Hellman Profile in courage

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. By Alice Kessler-Harris. Bloomsbury 439 pages $30. To be published in Britain in June £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

LILLIAN HELLMAN knew how to tell a good story, and she liked to spin her own. So she destroyed old letters, suppressed records and hushed friends. She replaced hard documentation with soulful reminiscences of a Jewish childhood in New Orleans, of coming of age during the Depression and of defending her leftist ideals amid the hysteria of the cold war. Flinty yet glamorous, she was blacklisted in the 1950s because she would not confess to a crime of disloyalty she felt she never committed. In memoirs and anecdotes, Hellman presented herself as she wished to be remembered—the courageous and upright heroine of her own play—and tried to destroy or quash everything else.

Hellman is an irresistible subject, but time has not been good to her reputation. Her effort to control her legacy appears to have backfired. Once celebrated for her taut writing and devotion to social justice, her image since her death in 1984, aged 79, has curdled into something villainous. Her plays are still performed—particularly “The Little Foxes”, which secured her fame in 1939—but they are often dismissed as moralising melodramas. Her name now tends to invite vitriol about her being a Stalinist and a liar, a woman who preached economic equality while swaddled in mink. She was a hypocritical “bitch with balls”, in the words of Elia Kazan, a film director, who seethed at Hellman's self-righteous take on the McCarthy era.

This is the backdrop of “A Difficult Woman”. Alice Kessler-Harris, an American historian at Columbia University, begins her thoughtful book assuring readers that “it would be folly to try to capture the ‘real' Lillian, whoever that is”. Hellman is too slippery a subject and too unco-operative a source for that. Rather, this biography works to answer the question of why Hellman remains such a divisive figure, “a lightning rod for the anger, fear and passion” that divided Americans during an especially fraught ideological time.

Ambitious, acerbic and direct to the point of rudeness, Hellman was a woman of voracious appetites, the kind of “tough broad” who “can take the tops off bottles with her teeth”, according to a 1941 New Yorker profile. She knew she wasn't a beauty (her first boyfriend said she looked like “a prow head on a whaling ship”), but she bristled with a sexual charisma designed to distract husbands from their wives. Lonely and insecure about her desirability, she found affirmation in affairs and friendships with men.

The most significant of these was with Dashiell Hammett, a famous and flamboyantly alcoholic writer of detective novels, with whom she enjoyed an unconventional romance for 30 years until he died in 1961. Hellman always credited him with teaching her how to write, showing her how to craft distinctive characters with just a few lines of raffish dialogue. In turn Hellman bailed Hammett out of the occasional fix, and tended to his reputation and estate for the rest of her life.

Vehemently anti-fascist, Hellman fought for civil rights and civil liberties, always believing a better future was within reach. She became a labour organiser during the Depression, and travelled to Spain to witness the horrors of its civil war. She flirted with communism in the 1930s, seeing the party as an essential check on fascism in Europe. Problematically, she joined the party after the worst of Moscow's purges and show trials, and even signed a letter declaring her faith in the guilt of the defendants. But her membership was brief, and she later expressed regret for not having understood just how blood-soaked Stalin was.

Amid growing fears about the Soviet menace in the 1950s, Hellman still loudly supported “peaceful coexistence” rather than aggressive containment. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, she elegantly declared that it was “indecent and dishonourable” to name names in order to save herself, particularly when she did not feel she had done anything wrong. America's repression of communism, she argued, was more insidious than the threat of it. Despite decades of involvement in progressive politics and her public criticism of Stalin's regime, Hellman is still regarded as an “unrepentant Stalinist”.

Ms Kessler-Harris largely defends Hellman against her harshest critics by placing her and her choices—such as her defence of communism and her refusal to embrace feminism—in the context of her times. Hellman's politics were often naive, but she was hardly alone. She had the “sense of justice of a very small child”, according to a friend, and she conveyed this moral certainty in her plays. But she was a bit player in intellectual circles, a celebrity whose outspokenness earned her disproportionate attention. So why has Hellman become a symbol for all that went wrong in the ideological battles of the 20th century? Ms Kessler-Harris argues that it may have something to do with the fact that she was a brassy, unattractive and sexually voracious woman who reaped commercial success from “middlebrow” work.

Hellman hardly helped matters by claiming her own moral superiority. In her 1976 memoir, “Scoundrel Time”, she lambasts fellow leftists for not speaking up when innocent Americans were being jailed or ruined by the HUAC witch hunt. Her anger was not directed at the government, but at “the people of my world”, the intellectuals who did nothing to defend America's civil liberties. By placing herself on this righteous pedestal, touting her own bravery in a time of fear, she left herself open to criticism, particularly for her blindness to Stalin's sins. She was also more vulnerable to claims that she twisted the facts to promote her story of personal courage.

But the final nail in the coffin of Hellman's reputation was hammered in 1980, when she decided to go after Mary McCarthy, a novelist and literary critic, for defaming her in a late-night TV interview. Younger, more attractive and intellectually fierce, McCarthy accused Hellman of being a bad and dishonest writer “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and' and ‘the'.” Hellman sued. The lawsuit lasted for the rest of her life. After years of defending civil liberties and criticising rapacious wealth-seeking, Hellman ended her days seeming like a greedy and vengeful censor.

This is a shame. Hellman may not have been the hero of her reminiscences, but she spent a lifetime believing it was the duty of engaged citizens to fight racism, alleviate poverty and protect civil liberties. She was a role model to feminists in the 1970s, but she despaired that they talked too much about bras and too little about economic opportunity and human rights. She made some foolish choices, but Lillian Hellman was often on the right side of history. Too bad so many of her good ideas have been tossed out with the bad ones.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Profile in courage"


Woman history

Everyone’s memory is tricky and mine’s a little trickier than most --- Lillian Hellman

“A foremost literary fabulator of her generation, Lillian Hellman invented her life, so that by the end even she was uncertain about what had been true,” Joan Mellen.

In January 1980, a seemingly off the cuff remark by Mary McCarthy regarding Lillian Hellman sparked off a literary feud and a debate about truth, particularly in memoirs, that has raged on till this day.

McCarthy was a guest on the Dick Cavett show on PBS. The interview was begging to flag when Cavett asked McCarthy what writers she thought were overrated. Among the writers that she mentioned were Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck and Hellman who McCarthy said, "who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past." Cavett, of course, asked McCarthy what was overrated about Hellman. McCarthy replied that "Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

It was the literary equivalent of the shot heard around the world. Hellman was watching that night and was incensed. She immediately called her friend, the writer John Hersey and told him of her intention of suing, inviting him to join her in the lawsuit (McCarthy had said a few derogatory words about Hersey's prose.) Hersey declined and tried to convince Hellman not to sue. Instead, Hellman slapped a $2.25MM lawsuit against not only McCarthy, but also the Educational Broadcasting System and Dick Cavett. The lawsuit claimed that McCarthy's statement was "false, made with ill-will, with malice, with knowledge of its falsity, with careless disregard of its truth, and with the intent to injure the plaintiff personally and professionally."

McCarthy, at first thought the lawsuit, was a joke. When she realized the seriousness of the issue, and that Hellman intended to pursue it, she began to worry about her finances. McCarthy had only about $63,000 in savings, while Hellman was a wealthy woman (she owned the copyrights to Hammett's work as well as the royalties from her memoirs and plays) who someone had convinced her lawyer to take her case pro bono. It was clear that Hellman's intention was to bankrupt McCarthy.

McCarthy's lawyer argued that McCarthy's comments were literary criticism, which was protected by the First Amendment. "The fact is Mary's a critic with a right to make judgements, and Lillian Hellman's a public figure," Dwight MacDonald, a friend and fellow writer claimed (Writing Dangerously, Brightman, page 601). Her lawyers claimed that her quip was "rhetorical hyperbole." However on television, it sounded defamatory.

The minute the news hit, the literary world immediately weighed in on either side. Diana Trilling, William F. Buckley, Irving Howe, and Dwight MacDonald weighed in. No stranger to literary feuds himself, Norman Mailer took it upon himself to play peacekeeper, with his article in The New York Times entitled an "Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy." Needless to say his efforts were not rewarded, especially by Lillian Hellman, who was known to hold grudges and could be spiteful. According to one of her biographers, Carl Rollyson, she was one of four people who sued Nixon to get the Watergate tapes released. When she called Dick Cavett to ask him why he hadn't defended her against Mary McCarthy, Cavett suggested that Hellman come on the show to defend herself. Hellman refused. The idea of having to defend herself against a charge of dishonesty was anathema to her. To the public at large it must have looked like two cranky old ladies bitching at each other.

Mailer even used the defense that McCarthy was attacking a frail bird who was half-blind. This was despite the fact that Hellman was still feisty enough to threaten to scream if her nurse didn't give her a cigarette. At the time of the lawsuit, Hellman was 72 and looked older and McCarthy was a still good-looking woman of 65. By the time, Hellman died 5 years later, McCarthy had aged considerably. While the lawsuit probably invigorated Hellman and kept her alive, the stress took its toll on McCarthy.

What was the source of the enmity between Hellman and McCarthy. Was it political or personal? Was it out and out jealousy of one well regarded but lesser known writer against a more popular and rich author? Some say the feud started because Hellman either slept with or attempted to seduce McCarthy's lover at the time, Philip Rahv, the editor of The Partisan Review. Hellman's lawyer Ephraim London believed that it was simple jealousy, while McCarthy was revered, she wasn't nearly as successful as Hellman whose memoirs had each spent weeks on the best-seller lists. McCarthy's friends felt that Hellman was jealous that McCarthy was an intellectual, accepted by the New York literati, and Hellman was seen as the author of several well-made but melodramatic plays.

Others saw it as a continuation of the feud of the anti-Stalinists of which McCarthy was an early member vs. the Stalinists which included Hellman, Hammett, and other left-wing liberals who continued to defend Stalin long after his crimes had been made public. Hellman once chastized Kruschev for turning against Stalin, she felt he was disloyal. Although she claimed not to know anything about the Moscow purge trials, Hellman had signed petitions applauding the guilty verdicts and encouraged others not to cooperate with a committee that sought to establish the truth behind the trials. McCarthy, herself, said that the enmity was personal. She hated what she saw as Hellman's attempts to make herself look more like a heroine at the expense of others. Her ire was particularly incensed by Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time. "I mean you'd read this goddamn Scoundrel Time and you'd think she went to jail almost!" (Writing Dangerously, Brightman, page 604).

For those of us born after the McCarthy era, it can be hard to understand how the wounds from that time continued to fester even thirty years after the fact. Witness the outpouring of vitriol when Elia Kazan was given an honorary Oscar several years ago (the closest I can come up with is the anti-war hippies vs. the men who actually served in Vietnam). The feud between McCarthy and Hellman dredged up memories of a time that people had long tried to forget. The anger of those who saw Hellman taking credit for doing something (talking about herself, but not naming names before HUAC) that others had done before her.

On the surface, both women seemed to have a lot in common. Both came from troubled childhoods. McCarthy, who was seven years younger than Hellman, lost both her parents in the influenza epidemic in 1918 when she was 5 years old. She and her brothers were left in the care of their paternal grandparents who found it difficult to all of a sudden have three children to take care of. Instead McCarthy and her brothers were under the direct care of an aunt and uncle who were abusive. McCarthy eventually ended up living in Seattle with maternal grandparents. Hellman spend her childhood shuttling between the boarding house in New Orleans owned by her father's unmarried sisters, and an apartment in New York. A Daddy's girl, she had no use for her mother, who she considered weak. While McCarthy went to Vassar, where she felt out of place amongst the rich girls, Hellman dropped out of NYU after two years. Both married and divorced young, both started their careers in the early thirties, McCarthy writing theater reviews and Hellman as a playwright. Both early in their careers were known more for being the girlfriend of prominent men, Hellman with Dashiell Hammett, her companion for the next thirty years, and McCarthy first with Philip Rahv, and then with her second marriage to Edmund Wilson.

While Hellman had initially wanted to become a novelist, McCarthy had ambitions to acting and playwrighting. Her first husband Harald Johnsrud had been an actor and playwright. Hellman had dabbled in writing short stories, succeeding in getting two of them published. She had also worked as a reader at MGM, when her husband Arthur Kober had been hired as a screenwriter. It was in Hollywood that Hellman met Dashiell Hammett, then the celebrated author of The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse. It was Hammett who steered Hellman towards the case that became the basis of The Children's Hour and encouraged her to try playwrighting.

Hellman and McCarthy had only met a few times in their lives, the most notable being at Sarah Lawrence College in 1947, at a dinner party thrown by the college president, Harold Taylor, to discuss a writer's conference. McCarthy attended as did Stephen Spender who was also teaching at the college. Hellman was an invited guest. Just before dinner, McCarthy overheard Hellman flippantly telling a group of students that the writer and painter John Dos Passos had sold out the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War because "he didn't like the food in Madrid." Incensed, McCarthy stormed in and proceeded to tell the students that if they wanted to know the truth about Dos Passos's change of heart, they should read his book, Adventures of a Young Man. Hellman, in turn, was not pleased at being dressed down in front of a group of students. The next year, McCarthy and Dwight McDonald were a handful of anti-Stalinists who infiltrated the Waldorf Conference in 1948.

McCarthy's case was struck a blow in early 1984, when Justice Harold Baer Jr. denied her motion to dismiss the suit. The judge stated that "to call someone dishonest, to say to a national television audience that every word she writes is a lie, seems to fall on the actionable side fo the ine - outside what has become known as the 'marketplace of ideas.'" He also agreed with Hellman's lawyer Ephraim London's contention that Hellman was not a public figure. This despite her years as a well known playwright whose works had been performed as far away as Moscow, whose books had regularly hit the best seller lists, and who had appeared in one of Blackglama mink's famous "What Becomes A Legend Most" ads.

As part of her defence, McCarthy began to go comb through Hellman's memoirs looking for inconsistencies, and places where she might have out and out lied. She was helped in this endeavor by the journalist Martha Gellhorn, who devoted 16 pages to Hellman in forty page article in The Paris Review denouncing what she called Apocryphiars. While McCarthy concentrated her defense on the memoirs An Unfinished Woman and Scoundrel Time, others were quick to question the section called simply 'Julia' of Hellman's second memoir Pentimento.

Enter Muriel Gardiner Buttinger.

Ever since Pentimento came out, Gardiner's friends had questioned whether or not she was the inspiration for Julia. Their stories were similar. Like Julia, Gardiner was an American from a wealthy background. Her father was Edward Morris, the president of Morris & Company, a meat-packing business, but her mother was a member of the Swift family. From her early childhood, she was aware of the differences between her station in life and the poor around her. She developed a life-long commitment to social and political reform.

Gardiner graduated from Wellesley College in 1922, and traveled to Europe to continue her studies. Like Hellman's Julia, she studied at Oxford. Initially she went to Vienna hoping to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud (Hellman's Julia was analyzed by Freud). Instead she received a degree in medicine from the University of Vienna. After marrying Joseph Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialist movement, she became involved in anti-fascist activities. Used the code name: Mary as she smuggled passports, money, and offered her home to anti-fascists, before finally leaving Austria in 1939 with her husband and child. Gardiner became a noted psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who edited The Wolf-man by the Wolf-Man, a case history of a wealthy young Russian who went to Vienna in 1910 to be psychoanalyzed by Freud.

The main difference between Gardiner's story and Hellman's Julia was that Gardiner and her child lived while Julia was beaten severely by the Nazi's and died, and her child was also eventually killed by the Nazi's in an improbable circumstances.

While Hellman claimed never to have met Gardiner, Hellman’s lawyer Wolf Schwabacher was also a friend of Gardiner, and had knew Gardiner’s story. Gardiner stated that Schwabacher often talked about his famous client, so it is hard to believe that Schwabacher didn’t mention to Hellman that he had a friend who had been part of the underground in Vienna. At the time of the publication of Pentimento, Gardiner claimed that she had written to Hellman who said that she never received the letter. Gardiner later wrote an account of her story, although she never claimed that she was Julia. Eventually she had planned on suing Hellman for appropriating her story but Hellman died before the suit could be filed. Hellman never revealed who the real ‘Julia’ was, she claimed at the time that there reasons why her true name could not be revealed, among them the idea that she might have been sued, although Julia was dead. Another excuse that she gave was that the Germans were still persecuting early Anti-Nazi's.

In 1983, Gardiner's own memoirs, Code Name: Mary was published by Yale University Press. An article by Edwin McDowell entitled "New Memoir Stirs 'Julia' controversy' was published in The New York Times. Both the Yale University press release and the book's dust jacket declared that many people believed that Dr. Gardiner's story was the model for Hellman's Julia. However, Hellman responded, "she may have been the basis for someone else's Julia but not certainly not mine."

Still the matter would not rest. Journalists began to examine the story closely and inconsistencies began to pop up. While Hellman insisted that 'Julia' was not the woman's real name, in the story Julia says that the 17th Century poet John Donne must have written his poem entitled Julia with her in mind. In an earlier story in An Unfinished Woman, Hellman had described a woman named Alice that she had worked with who had the same exact story as Julia's. Ephraim London begged Hellman to release the name of the real 'Julia' but Hellman refused. Gardiner, however, questioned others who had been part of the resistance with her, if they knew of any other American woman who was studying in Vienna who had been part of the resistance. The answer was always 'only Mary,' Gardiner's own code name. Even the archives of the Austrian resistance, contain no information of another American woman with a similar background to Gardiner's. No other friends of either Hellman's or Julia's came forward to confirm her story. They couldn't have all have been dead. Apparently none of Hellman's friends had ever heard the story of Julia until Pentimento came out.

The crux of the Julia story in Pentimento was Julia asking Hellman to smuggle $50,000 in a fur hat for use of the Resistance. Hellman and Julia agreed to meet in Berlin. This is were the inconsistencies come in, everything from the timetable of Hellman's trip to Moscow via Berlin, the need for at least 8 operatives to help Hellman on her journey to deliver the money for Julia, to the reasons why Julia needed Hellman to smuggle the money all. Even the ship that Hellman supposedly took to bring Julia's ashes back to New York came into question.

In June of 1984, Hellman passed away at the age of 79, leaving the fate of the lawsuit hanging in the air. Her executors decided not to continue with the case, which incensed McCarthy who was eager to have her day in court. When she heard about Hellman’s death, McCarthy said ''If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on. I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.'' McCarthy herself passed away in 1989 at the age of 77.

The case began a debate that has continued to this day with the James Frey/JT Ellroy/Augustin Burroughs memoirs. When is it okay in a memoir for an author to a) invent events out of whole cloth b) exaggerate events for dramatic purposes or c) appropriate other's experiences as their own? There are authors and critics who come down on both sides of the fence. The problem comes when the distortions make the reader question whether anything they have read is true. There is an unwritten contract between the reader and the author while reading a memoir or a work of fiction. When that is violated, it can leave the reader feeling like a chump, sold a bag of goods, a hollow feeling. While one expects that some liberties might be taken (no one's memory is infallible), one doesn't expect out and out lies presented as truth.

McCarthy was known throughout her life for seeking out the truth in her memoirs, she would go back again and again to the same events, even at the expense of her friends and family, in her need to seek out the truth. She was noted for her sharp tongue, for her ability in her criticism to take on writers that she considered overrated. Hellman, on the other hand, while polite on the surface was full of anger. She used her memoirs to get back at those people who she felt had slighted her.

But did Hellman lie in her memoirs? Or was she convinced that she was telling the truth? That Julia did exist? That events happened in An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time the way she wrote them? In William Wright's Biography of Hellman, Lillian Hellman, The Image, The Woman, he relates an anecdote from Diana Trilling, where Hellman was convinced that Trilling was two years older than her, even though they were the same age. Hellman was also almost pathologically protective of Hammett's legacy and her role in it. She fired one biographer after reading three chapters. "Where am I in all this?" she asked him. She finally hired noted novelist Diane Johnson to write Hammett's biography and then browbeat the woman into not including any material she found in her research that contradicted anything that Hellman had written in her three memoirs. That included Hellman's contention that she had tried to raise money for Hammett's bail after he had been sentenced to prison for contempt, when the reality was that she had nothing to do with it. Hellman's stories about had been so convincing that they were repeated in other biographies that were written about him as fact.

But there was an even bigger issue at stake than just what is truth in memoirs and that is the First Amendment issue. In his "An Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy" which appeared in The New York Times, Mailer argued that for Hellman to win the case would mean that it would become difficult for other writer's to criticize each other's work, although he took exception to McCarthy's assertion that Hellman's writing was dishonest.

When the Founding Fathers drafted the constitution, they had no crystal ball nor was Nostradamus around to predict the role of radio, television and the internet on free speech. The issue was considered so serious that Floyd Abrams, a constitutional lawyer who defended The New York Time's right to print The Pentagon Papers, joined McCarthy's legal team, after McCarthy's motion to dismiss the lawsuit was denied. Hellman's lawyer urged her to settle, he was afraid that she would lose the case, with all the evidence that McCarthy's legal team had amassed but McCarthy would have none of it.

But in the end both women lost in the court of public opinion. One wonders today how Hellman would have fared on Oprah. Would she have been given the James Frey treatment or would Oprah have put on the Hermes gloves? In the years since her death, Hellman has seen the systematic dismantling of her reputation as a writer in regards to her memoirs as biographer after biographer tabulates the factual errors and downright lies. It’s almost become a cottage industry. Five new biographies have been published she’s been the subject of a fawning TV movie starring Judy Davis, and several plays have been written about her, the most recent being The Julia Wars by William Wright (one of her biographers). Of her plays, only The Children’s Hour, and The Little Foxes are revived frequently.

Mary McCarthy, as in life, has had to settle for a little less, two recent biographies since her death in 1989. Her brother, the actor Kevin McCarthy, is probably better known than she is to the public at large. Her biggest success, The Group, seems quaint now compared compared to the sexual candor of recent fiction. Her memoirs, especially Memories of a Catholic Schoolgirl, and How I Grew, however, are held up as some of the finest examples of the genre. When people think of the two women now, invariably the lawsuit comes up, it has now become in a way their epitaph.

Lillian Hellman, The Image, The Woman: William Wright
Telling Lies in Modern American Biography – Timothy Dow Adams
Seeing Mary Plain – Frances Kiernan
Writing Dangerously - Carol Brightman
Imaginary Friends – Nora Ephron
Hellman & Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett – Joan Mellen
Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels – Deborah Martinson
Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy – Carl Rollyson

Periodicals:

“Julia” & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman – Samuel McCracken (Commentary Magazine, June 1984)
Lillian, Mary and Me – Dick Cavett (The New Yorker, December 16, 2002)
“Who Was Julia?” – Alexander Cockburn (The Nation, February 23, 1985)
“Lillian Hellman Wins Round in Suit,” Marcia Chambers (The New York Times, May 11, 1984)
“Reading and Writing Literary Invective,” Walter Goodman (The New York Times, June 19, 1983)
“An Appeal to Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy,” Norman Mailer (The New York Times, May 11, 1980)


PUBLISHING: NEW MEMOIR STIRS 'JULIA' CONTROVERSY

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS is about to publish the memoirs of an American woman who was active in the Austrian underground in World War II, memoirs that raise questions about Lillian Hellman's similar account of anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi activities.

The Hellman memoirs, ''Pentimento,'' published in 1973, portray a pseudonymous childhood friend of the author called Julia. This part of the book became the basis for ''Julia,'' the 1977 motion picture, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. The character of Julia has long been a subject of literary controversy. In Miss Hellman's memoir, she describes Julia as a real person, with whom she was briefly involved in the anti-Fascist underground just before World War II. Critics have long suggested that Julia is a composite figure or even an invention.

The Yale book, 'ɼode Name 'Mary,' '' is by Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst, who joined the anti-Fascist resistance during her student days in Vienna. Both the Yale publicity release and the book's dust jacket declare that many people believe Dr. Gardiner's life was the model for the Hellman story. One of those people is Joseph P. Lash, the biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt. On the jacket he writes: ''No self-styled thriller can match this book's story. There are no fantasies. Names are named. There are real Socialists and Communists as well as Nazis and Fascists. They are recognizable and verifiable.'' Need for an Explanation

Asked if he was thinking of ''Julia'' when he wrote the blurb, Mr. Lash replied, ''I don't want to get into a controversy with Lillian Hellman, but I was.'' He added: ''The thing that appalled me, 'Julia' ends up with Lillian Hellman bringing Julia's body back to this country. Well, if Julia is, in effect, Muriel Gardiner, then I think readers are entitled to some explanation.''

Miss Hellman said that she had never heard of Dr. Gardiner until this week. ''She may have been the model for somebody else's Julia, but she was certainly not the model for my Julia,'' she said. In a commentary for a new edition of ''Pentimento,'' in 1979, Miss Hellman said she refused to reveal Julia's name for personal and legal reasons.

''I don't make any claims of being Julia because I couldn't possibly prove it,'' said Dr. Gardiner, who is 81 years old and lives in Pennington, N.J. But she added that the resemblances are ''remarkable.''

Miss Hellman portrayed Julia as a wealthy American who attended Oxford University and then went to a medical school in Vienna, became a patient-pupil of Freud and a Socialist, gave birth to a daughter and died in May 1938, apparently after having been tortured by the Nazis, who found her in an underground colleague's apartment. Somehow Julia got to London before she died, and Miss Hellman wrote that she flew to London and brought the body home but was unable to find Julia's mother. ''I had the body cremated,'' she wrote, 'ɺnd the ashes are still where they were that day so long ago.''

In Dr. Gardiner's book, to be published on May 18, she says she was a wealthy young graduate of Wellesley College who attended Oxford, went to Vienna, hoping to be analyzed by Freud, received a degree in medicine at the University of Vienna, married Joseph Buttinger, leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists, and in 1934 became involved in anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi activities. Using the code name ''Mary,'' she smuggled passports and money and offered her home as a safe house for anti-Fascist dissidents. In the fall of 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, the couple and their daughter sailed for the United States.

Dr. Gardiner edited ''The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man,'' documents in the case history of a wealthy young Russian who went to Vienna in 1910 to be analyzed by Freud and who became the subject of Freud's ''History of an Infantile Neurosis.'' Dr. Gardiner met Freud only once, but she knew the ''Wolf-Man'' in Vienna, and 'ɼode Name 'Mary' '' carries a foreword by Freud's late daughter Anna.

In her 1979 commentary for ''Pentimento,'' Miss Hellman wrote that Julia's baby, as well as the man and woman with whom she was boarding, ''were among the first to be wiped out by the Germans when they entered Alsace.'' The Buttingers' daughter, Connie, lives with her husband and six children in Aspen, Colo.

''Think about it,'' said Gladys Topkis, Dr. Gardiner's editor at Yale University Press. ''How many American millionaire medical students were there in Vienna in the late 1930's who married the head of the resistance and were active in that resistance?''

Dr. Gardiner said that on Oct. 26, 1976, she wrote Miss Hellman in care of Miss Hellman's publisher, pointing out that many friends and acquaintances had noticed the similarity between Julia and her, and wondered if Julia might be a composite. She said she did not receive a reply, and Miss Hellman said if she received such a letter she doesn't remember it. Search for a 'Julia'

In the introduction to her book, Dr. Gardiner says that she never met Lillian Hellman, but that she had often heard about her from a friend with whose family she shared a house for more than 10 years and who had visited her once in Vienna. That friend, Wolf Schwabacher, once Dr. Gardiner's lawyer, is now dead. Dr. Gardiner adds that on a visit to Vienna she asked Dr. Herbert Steiner, director of the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance, what other American women he knew of who had been deeply involved in the Austrian underground.

''He knew of none,'' she writes. ''Some months later, Dr. Steiner wrote me that since our talks he had renewed contact with many former resistance workers to ask them about American women they had known or heard of who were deeply involved in the resistance. Their answer was always: 'Only Mary.' ''

Miss Hellman said she was not surprised that Julia remains a mystery figure. ''Who would keep archives of an underground movement?'' she asked. ''That's comedy stuff. A real underground movement would have been in hiding and would have had almost no records.''


Watch the video: Vulpile de Lillian Hellman Teatru radiofonic 1985