One woman’s conscience

She’s been called “the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century” and “the first woman to be admitted into the previously all-male club of American ‘dramatic literature.’” She was also a diehard Stalinist.

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Lillian Hellman

Born in New Orleans in 1905 and raised there and in New York, Lillian Hellman attended Columbia and NYU, then worked briefly at a Manhattan publishing house before marrying a young PR guy and heading out to Hollywood with him. Finding a job as a reader at MGM, she lost no time in organizing her colleagues into a union. When she met the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, a fellow Stalinist, she left her husband for him. It was Hammett who urged her to start writing plays, and who helped her to write them.

During the 1930s and 40s she wrote a series of plays, among them The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941). At the time most of them were Broadway hits – and several of them were made into successful movies – but their mixture of over-the-top family melodrama and heavyhanded political moralizing hasn’t worn well. They were masterpieces, however, alongside The North Star (1943), a crude piece of work that is described on its Wikipedia page as “an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film.” 

Meanwhile Hellman was an active member of the Communist Party. As The Economist has noted, “she joined the party after the worst of Moscow’s purges and show trials.” She later claimed not to have been aware of the trials, in which political rivals of Stalin were falsely convicted of treason (most of them were ultimately executed); but in fact she signed two statements, published in the Party newspaper The Daily Worker in 1937 and 1938, that defended the second and third Moscow show trials as having been entirely fair.

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Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour

Indeed, her defense of Stalin’s reign was absolute and unwavering: she called Stalinist Russia “the ideal democratic state”; visiting Moscow in 1944, according to The Spectator, she “seems wilfully to have ignored evidence that artists and writers were being killed off. Years later she stood by the Russian government’s cover stories and even made up some of her own. She was given rare access to the front lines when the Russian army was camped outside Warsaw, and never described what she saw there.”

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Paul Johnson

As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his 1988 book Intellectuals, “she did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP’s penetration of American intellectul life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy.” She was active in CP front groups, attended at least one CP national conventional, helped fund a “pro-CP propaganda film,” berated a New York Times correspondent who refused to toe the Moscow line about Spain, and supported the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, saying, “I don’t believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I’ve been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me.” (In fact, Hellman almost certainly never went to Finland.) After Stalin died and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave his famous speech condemning Stalin’s brutality, Hellman actually upbraided Khrushchev for his disloyalty.

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Bette Davis in the 1941 film version of Hellman’s play The Little Foxes

Called in 1952 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she published a letter in the New York Times saying she was willing to discuss her own political views and activities but refusing to turn in other Stalinists.I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously wrote. Other high-profile American Communists had taken the Fifth, too, and become anathematized; by spinning her own silence in this way, Hellman managed to turn herself into an international symbol of conscience.

unfinishedwomanShe liked that. And in later years, when the victims of the Hollywood blacklist became heroes, Hellman wrote a series of memoirs – An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) – from which she emerged as the most toweringly courageous of them all, a stirring moral heroine who, it turned out, had not only written anti-fascist plays but also put her life on the line in the life-or-death struggle against Hitler. Even if you deplored her Stalinism, you had to admire her valor. John Hersey, reviewing Scoundrel Time in the New Republic, called her “a moral force, almost an institution of conscience.”

There was only one little problem: virtually everything of consequence that she wrote in her memoirs was a lie.

More tomorrow.

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