As we’ve seen this week, the playwright Lillian Hellman was not just a Stalinist but a shameless fabricator, inventing out of whole cloth an account of her purported adventures during the Spanish Civil War and a thrilling tale of amateur spycraft under the very noses of the Nazis. In 1981, Martha Gellhorn called her out on her Spanish fairy tale; two years later, a new autobiography by one Muriel Gardiner made it clear to anyone with common sense that the narrative of Hellman’s supposed real-life friend Julia, as told in Hellman’s memoir Pentimento and then in the hit movie Julia, had been appropriated wholesale from Gardiner’s own life story. Hellman, however, continued to insist that everything she wrote about herself and Julia in Pentimento, notably their involvement in that espionage caper in 1937 Germany, had happened just as described.
Then, in 1984, came an epic piece in Commentary by Samuel McCracken, who – combining Gellhorn’s and Gardiner’s material with research of his own – proved in elaborate detail that the whole thing was, indeed, one big lie. He began with the obvious unlikelihood of there being another person with a story so similar to Gardiner’s:
To accept the striking parallels between Muriel Gardiner and Julia as mere coincidence would require something like an act of faith. We must believe that all during the 1930’s, one of Muriel Gardiner’s fellow students in Vienna was, quite unknown to her, also at the center of the anti-Nazi resistance. Moreover, we must believe that this other freedom fighter escaped the notice of the documentation archives of the Austrian resistance – for Dr. Gardiner tells us that the director of those archives knows nothing of her presumed Doppelgänger. Indeed, he has taken pains to ask many survivors of the resistance whether they knew a second American woman, and the answer has always been “No. Only ‘Mary.’”
(Mary was Muriel Gardner’s nom de guerre.)
Going line by line through Hellman’s Julia story, McCracken noted that he had tried without success to find any record of certain persons and establishments named therein. Examining Hellman’s own detailed chronology of her 1937 visit to Europe, moreover, he discovered that it conflicted at every turn with available records – train schedules, steamship passenger lists, the dates of a theater festival she supposedly attended, and so on. Hellman claimed to have seen a Moscow production of Hamlet of which (it turned out) there was no historical record.
With equal effectiveness, McCracken stepped back from these particulars to point out the absurdity of the entire cloak-and-dagger story. Why smuggle money at a time when “it would have been perfectly easy for Julia to have money brought to her in Vienna by an open courier”? During Hellman’s trip from Paris to Berlin, several of Julia’s confederates turn up to whisper instructions to her or to covertly hand her a note: why didn’t one of them just take the money to Berlin? Why bring an amateur like Hellman into the picture? And so on.
No sensible reader could study McCracken’s painstaking dissection of Hellman’s Julia story without recognizing that he had established, once and for all, that Hellman had put one over on everybody – that she hadn’t just exaggerated a bit here and there but tried to sell as autobiography a made-up story more melodramatic than all her Broadway plays put together.
Last act tomorrow.