“Female murderers get sheaves of offers of marriage.”
In a recent issue of The Nation, John L. Hess complains about the current flow of books demythologizing the venerated martyrs of the American left. So what if new historical research suggests that the Rosenbergs (or at least one of them) were actually guilty? So what if the same is true of Alger Hiss—and even Sacco, of Saceo and Vanzetti? It was all so long ago. It’s time to move on now; new issues call—like Irangate and the delicts of the contras. Hess’s concern over obsession with the past was provoked by William Wright’s new biography of Lillian Hellman. In a way, he has a point. Since Hellman was at best “a good second-rate playwright,” it’s not immediately clear why a biography of her should rate (as this one did) the lead article in the New York Times Book Review as well as the front page of the Washington Post Book Review.
The answer has to do not with the intrinsic importance of any of these people, but rather with the cultural importance they have gradually achieved as they have been crafted, over time, into symbols of American political life. The Rosenbergs have become at worst merely minor-league atom-spies, but for the past 35 years their unkind fate has been used by the left as an indictment of the corruption, repression, and even racism of the American judicial system—most recently in the 1983 movie Daniel. As a result, it’s too late now, when uncomfortable evidence surfaces, for the Rosenbergs suddenly to be dismissed as forgettable. Similarly with Sacco and Vanzetti. It is of no historical importance per se if one (or both) of these ancient Italians were guilty or innocent of a robbery and murder in Massachusetts 70 years ago. What keeps the controversy going is that the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti has been used for decades by the left as a cultural weapon to lambaste American justice and society as repressive and hypocritical.
But if it turns out that the martyrs (the Rosenbergs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Hiss) might not have been so innocent, then the credibility, the good sense, and even the good faith of the left are called into question. No wonder that John Hess worries about ongoing historical research here, calling it “the new necrophilia”; no wonder he prefers that investigation of these topics—or at least discussion of them—be ended. But when historical incidents affect society and culture as much as this history has, then it is important to get things right.
And so to the new biography of Lillian Hellman, the original cause of Hess’s unhappiness. The facts of Hellman’s life, as they emerge from Wright’s book, appear to be these. Hellman was the spoiled, brilliant child of an upper-middle-class Jewish family; she had a good education and found easy access to New York literary society in the 20’s because of her vivacity and wit; she was the author of potboiling melodramas for the stage, which, despite their controversial worth, nevertheless have remained very popular with the public; she was subject, throughout her life, to violent tantrums if she did not get her way; she never, throughout her life, suffered from serious financial need; indeed, she seems to have lived her life in one long, continuous consumer-frenzy: Cadillacs and limousines, spiffy clothes, gourmet dining, tons of alcohol, and men, men, men.
An enviable life, all in all, and lived intensely (Hellman’s most endearing characteristic), but not necessarily a heroic one. The problem is that towards the end of it, in the 1970’s, Hellman did begin to portray her life as heroic, and this version of events was accepted as true by a very wide audience.
Two episodes were decisive in creating the Hellman legend of the 70’s. In Pentimento (1973), the second of her autobiographical memoirs, Hellman revealed that in 1937 she had undertaken the very dangerous job of running money to the anti-Nazi underground in Berlin and that she had provided crucial help to one of the anti-Nazi leaders, her old friend “Julia.” Then came Scoundrel Time (1976), a riveting account of the circumstances surrounding her appearance in 1952 before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Hellman depicted herself as a fierce defender of civil liberties and the First Amendment, defiantly standing up to the venal and moronic inquisitors of HUAC as they quizzed her about her left-wing past. She stakes out her moral position in a statement that later becomes famous: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” i.e., testify against her friends of the left. So impressive is her defiance of the Committee that a spectator is moved to exclaim: “Thank God somebody’s finally had the guts to do it!” But her bravery proves costly; she is blacklisted. Unable to find work, the great playwright is reduced to becoming a salesgirl at Macy’s.
Hellman the heroine, Hellman the martyr. Pentimento and Scoundrel Time received wonderful reviews (they are certainly well-written), and they were admirably suited for the mood of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America. Both books became massive bestsellers (especially Scoundrel Time). They reestablished Hellman as a major figure in American letters, after about a decade of quiescence. They won her honorary doctorates from Smith, Columbia, and Yale. They won her a very sympathetic interview from Dan Rather on 60 Minutes (no probing “investigatory journalism” here!). They won her a triumphant appearance at the Academy Awards of 1977, where Jane Fonda introduced her to a standing ovation, stressing to the national audience Hellman’s history of opposition to political oppression. Most of all, the chapter on “Julia” in Pentimento was made into a hit movie. It starred Jane Fonda as Hellman (exquisitely appropriate), and Vanessa Redgrave as “Julia” (exquisitely inappropriate). Redgrave won an Academy Award (1978)—this was the speech where she denounced “Zionist thugs.” But the crucial thing is that the movie’s depiction of Hellman’s bravery and self-sacrifice was imprinted on the popular imagination. Movies are very powerful stuff. Fonda-Hellman’s heroism is what the American people will remember about the real Lillian, no matter how many articles and books are subsequently published. Hellman took it all in stride, of course. This was the period that saw national magazines running full-page ads of Hellman wrapped in a Blackglamma mink coat (she always loved mink), with no identifying caption except the slogan “What becomes a legend most?”
But doubts about Hellman’s legend have grown stronger and stronger—among those who actually care about such things. For those who do care, Wright’s biography is worthwhile good reading, and disturbing indeed. The real debate over Hellman’s veracity was kicked off by another media event: on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, Mary McCarthy claimed that “every word Lillian Hellman writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” Despite Hellman’s alleged previous stands in favor of the First Amendment, she sued McCarthy, hoping to ruin her financially with lawyers’ fees (unlike Hellman, McCarthy wasn’t rich) before the case even came to court. Hellman came very near to succeeding in this. But the lawsuit forced McCarthy and others to examine Pentimento and Scoundrel Time carefully for the first time. That was a disaster for Hellman. Neither book could take serious scholarly inspection: There was too much that was implausible, impossible, self-contradictory.
The death blow was struck, however, by the publication in 1983 of Muriel Gardiner’s memoirs of the prewar anti-Nazi underground. For one thing, it was obvious that Gardiner was “Julia”: an American student of psychiatry in Vienna who later became a leader of the resistance. There was no one else like her in the movement; no other candidate was possible. And Gardiner said that she had never been helped by Hellman, had never even met Hellman—nor had anyone else in the resistance network. But, as it turned out, Hellman could have heard of Gardiner: When Gardiner escaped to the U.S. in 1939, her landlord was a friend of Hellman’s. In fact, it’s very likely that Gardiner had already made one appearance in Hellman’s work before Pentimento; her history is strikingly like that of the heroine in Hellman’s 1941 play, Watch on the Rhine. Just as damning was Gardiner’s other revelation that the rationale for Hellman’s secret mission to Berlin was absurd, because into 1939 it had been perfectly legal for foreigners to shift money from outside the Reich into banks in Germany. That was how Gardiner herself had financed the activities of her group, through her Chase Bank branch: a perfectly mundane operation. Gardiner was not very friendly towards Hellman. Hellman, after all, had commandeered her life in order to enhance her own reputation for bravery.
Thus the only thing that seems true about “Julia” is that Hellman did indeed pass briefly through Berlin in 1937. She passed through on her way to Moscow, then in the throes of the Great Purge (which she endorsed), in order to express her support for Stalin and the People’s Revolution.
Apparently there is just as little truth to Hellman’s dramatic depiction of her defiant appearance before HUAC in 1952 and the devastating impact it had on her life. Here the facts can be very accurately checked. In 1952, she never denounced the Committee to its face (though others did). Her famous declaration of conscience was a small part of a polite letter sent to the Committee beforehand; it was never spoken out loud by Hellman to them. At the hearings Hellman, the beneficiary of excellent legal advice, simply took the Fifth Amendment over and over, but also very politely. This stratagem placed her in absolute legal safety—which is why so many witnesses before her had done precisely the same thing. So it’s hardly surprising that no one (except for Hellman) remembers any spectator blurting out “Thank God somebody’s finally had the guts to do it!”
Nor is it the case that she suffered dreadfully as a result of failing to cooperate with HUAC. She had been blacklisted (more or less) in Hollywood since 1948; she was never blacklisted on Broadway. On the contrary: Within a few months of her HUAC appearance she was directing a revival of her early play The Children’s Hour, with an all-star cast and to rave reviews; it was a substantial hit. Indeed, the immediate post-HUAC years saw Hellman productions on Broadway at her usual rate: The Children’s Hour (1952-53), The Lark (1955-56), Candide (1956-57), Toys in the Attic (early 1960). It was not in the McCarthyite 50’s that Hellman disappeared from the New York theater. It was in the liberal 1960’s—when she simply ran out of theatrical ideas.
It is true that after her HUAC appearance the IRS began to press Hellman for back taxes. This smacks of a political act; if so, it was abominable behavior on the part of the government. But her problems with the IRS were never bad enough to seriously impede Hellman’s ritzy life-style. Throughout this period she not only maintained her beautiful New York townhouse and her famous dinner parties, but from 1954 she also took a summerhouse every year on Martha’s Vineyard, where she hobnobbed with the literati on vacation. (In 1956 she bought an estate there.) Not a single witness attests that she ever had to work at Macy’s—the very idea is laughable.
Hellman did know someone who suffered for his beliefs during the 50’s—namely, her longtime friend, lover, and political mentor, Dashiell Hammett. Hammett went to jail in 1951 rather than testify before a grand jury investigating the Communist Party. He was a party member, and one senses that he went to jail (for six months) almost with relish: There is something Orwell-like in Hammett’s obsession with integrity, machismo, and masochism. In some ways, in fact, Hammett is the hero of Wright’s book. It’s clear why Hellman was attracted to him, why for 30 years he was her closest companion (though they both had numerous lovers on the side). Certainly she stuck by him in his last years, especially when he became increasingly sick and difficult to live with. It makes a pretty picture (spoiled by Wright’s subsequent revelation that Hellman cheated Hammett’s children out of their literary rights under his will, by this means eventually earning herself some $250,000). In any case, perhaps Hellman’s deep admiration for Hammett led her to wish that she had really done and suffered more in the 50’s. The result was the distortions in ø.
Hammett was an open and fervent Communist, and the biggest influence on Hellman’s life. What, then, were her politics? Here we arrive at one of the deepest Hellman mysteries.
Though Wright displays a great deal of sympathy for Hellman, he suggests (with due hesitation) that she was a secret member of the Communist Party until the day she died. That idea has serious consequences. It would mean that while Hellman pretended to be a firmly unaligned and fiercely independent figure of the left, in reality when she spoke on national issues her positions were dictated to her by the party apparat. In other words, she was used by the party as a sort of “Judas goat,” leading naive and trusting people to the intellectual slaughterhouse. And so useful was this tactic that the party decided her membership must never be revealed.
This is positively sinister. It is also not very likely.
Hellman was certainly no mere liberal, and she was certainly no civil libertarian (despite her self-portrait in Scoundrel Time). As Wright says, her anxiety was mainly for the civil liberties of Communists. Moreover, Hellman often did follow the current party line, no matter how nonsensical it was. Hence we find her in 1939-40 fiercely arguing to her friends that mighty, aggressive Finland had attacked the weak and peaceable Soviet Union. A nice touch this, from the person who later claimed to be unable to cut her conscience to fit this year’s fashions! Obviously, it depended on who was asking her to do the custom-tailoring. There is also no question that despite all the bourgeois perks she always enjoyed, Hellman saw American society as basically evil, while Soviet society could do no wrong. Thus when Budd Schulberg complained to her of Soviet oppression of writers, Hellman screamed at him “Prove it! Prove it!”; this happened sometime around 1968.
But Hellman also wrote her anti-Nazi play, Watch on the Rhine, during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact —not something a person under party discipline would do. And if she was a Stalinist (and she was), the weird fact is that she remained a Stalinist long after the Communist Party, under Khrushchev’s lead, had denounced Stalin. In fact, Hellman blamed Khrushchev for “stabbing Stalin in the back”(!), and it was only in 1976 (in Scoundrel Time) that she made even the briefest, most grudging admission that Stalin might have “sinned.” This was the person Jane Fonda introduced in 1977 as a “fighter against political oppression”! Nevertheless, it was a deadly deviation from the party line for Hellman to continue to support Stalin after the party had proclaimed him a criminal with the blood of millions on his hands. A loyal member of the party wouldn’t (and couldn’t) do it. Moreover, the actual witnesses to her presence in the party are few, and not very impressive (even, it seems, to the FBI). And some of their testimony has been contradicted just since the publication of Wright’s book.
So: ethically unbalanced, yes; a fellow traveler, often; but a conscience totally controlled by the party, probably not. (Too bad: Maybe the party would have done a better job.) If she was “somebody’s girl” (Wright’s phrase), it’s more likely that she was Hammett’s (that old charming Stalinist), not the party’s. But the most likely explanation, I think, is that she was her own weird girl all along: She always insisted that she was not a deep political thinker. As a close friend said about her politics, “With Lillian, don’t rule out idiocy.”
Whatever she was, though, Hellman established herself in the 1970’s as a unique American heroine. By means of powerful publicity in the press, she was held up to be admired not just by the left but also by the entire country. It is particularly disturbing that the basis for admiration was supposed to be, precisely, her politics. But Wright’s book appears to confirm what has long been suspected: that Hellman’s famous memoirs are a tissue of lies. And her cultural importance is now so great, thanks to her apotheosis in the 70’s, that the true story must not be brushed under the rug—despite the wishes of John Hess of The Nation.
Why did she lie? In the current state of our information, we can only guess. Wright sympathetically suggests that in her old age she became persistently delusional. That is, Hellman didn’t “lie” in the real sense of “consciously deceive,” because she herself could no longer tell the facts of her life from her fantasies of it. This amounts to saying that in her last years, when she was most honored, Hellman was actually crazy. It’s an amusing image. In favor of the idea is that she did sue Mary McCarthy for slander, a dangerous procedure if she knew McCarthy was mostly right. (But she may have thought she could destroy McCarthy before the case ever came to court.) Against the idea are Hellman’s frantic attempts to prevent Wright, or any “unauthorized person,” from seriously researching her life. Why did she seek such total control of information if she thought she had nothing to be afraid of? Anyway, her attempts to talk to Muriel Gardiner about the Mary McCarthy case (which fell through) certainly indicate that she knew a hard reality when she saw it.
Moreover, Hellman’s behavior needs to be put in a wider context. This is a failing of Wright’s book throughout; but here, the point is that in the I970’s Hellman was not the only old Stalinoid intellectual to be purveying false information about the past, especially past personal conduct. Malcolm Cowley did the same, to cheering college audiences. Did he, too, suffer from delusions? Or was it that he simply thought he could get away with it? Lillian Hellman did get away with it, for almost 10 years.
So: We just don’t know the real story of Hellman’s inner life yet. Wright utterly demolishes Hellman’s public persona, but the private Hellman, the real Hellman, remains to be discovered. The mystery can only be solved by complete access to her private papers, and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
But there is a far more important (and final) question: not “Why did Lillian lie?” but “Why were we so ready to believe her?”
There is a sense in which Hellman was victimized by her radical past both in the 50’s and in the 70’s. In the McCarthyite 50’s, it resulted in some mild persecution; in the revisionist 70’s, it resulted in her virtual deification. Neither process had much to do with the real Lillian (a fierce little person of clearly minor importance); she was caught up both times in broader social and cultural movements. For if the New Left of the 1960’s was overtly contemptuous of the rigid old Stalinists, the leftist intellectual consensus of the 1970’s had a weakness for them, seeing them as a flawed but parental generation, and perhaps even as heroes. That process is still at work: Witness the whitewash of party history in the current movie Seeing Red (protested now even by the radical historian Jesse Lemisch). The deification of Lillian Hellman was part of that process. But Orwell wrote that the great sin of leftist intellectuals in the 30’s was their desire to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian, and the description fits Lillian Hellman like a glove. We should not have been so eager to accept her at face value. By “we,” I mean all of us who were not out-and-out conservatives. But it’s the left’s special responsibility: They pushed her. Until the left comes to grips with the totalitarian part of its past and firmly rejects it instead of glorifying it, there is little chance of its becoming a viable political movement in this country. Moreover, the left’s unwillingness to totally reject the totalitarian past is part of a far more serious problem: its continued violent apologetics for any totalitarianism of the present (Vietnamese, Cuban, Nicaraguan) that calls itself by the “correct” name of “Marxist.” In any case, the apotheosis of Lillian Hellman is now one of the innumerable skeletons in the left’s closet. John Hess’s desire to push the issue aside, which was the starting point of this essay, only compounds the moral problem faced by the left—a moral problem we might well call “Hellmanism.”
[Lillian Hellman: The Woman Who Made the Legend by William Wright, New York: Simon & Schuster; $18.95]