Hellman’s charmed afterlife

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Lillian Hellman

If she had supported Hitler, she’d have had no career whatsoever once the war was over, and would have been remembered posthumously as a reprehensible aider and abetter of murderous totalitarianism. But since the murderous totalitarian favored by playwright Lillian Hellman was Josef Stalin, her death in 1984 occasioned rhapsodies throughout the major media.

And in the years that followed, the praise kept flowing. There were several biographies, a couple of which treated her poisonous politics and perpetual prevarication seriously but most of which sought to find excuses for her and even to demonize her critics. There were plays about her, and a TV movie – described by one critic as “fawning” – about her relationship with mystery writer and fellow Stalinist Dashiell Hammett.

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The TV movie, with Judy Davis as Hellman and Sam Shepard as Hammett

In 2001, the PBS series American Masters celebrated Hellman as “a woman who stood against an unjust government and was able to maintain her dignity and artistic vision.” How did PBS handle her lie-ridden memoirs? Like this (emphasis ours): “Though criticized for inaccuracies, these books were influential not only for their depiction of an exceptional and exciting artistic time, but for their tone, which many associated with the beginnings of the feminist movement.”

Not only was she a pioneering feminist, she was a serious political player: “her political involvement was integral in the fight against fascism at home and abroad.” Really?

In sum, PBS’s Lillian Hellman was “a woman who could overcome the hurdles of her time and succeed on her own terms.” Maureen Corrigan seconded the claim for Hellman as a feminist, calling her “an icon for women of my generation, coming to feminist consciousness in the 1970s,” and praising her for remaining “a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver.”

Better, apparently, to be a “bold” Stalinist than just another Fifties housewife.

pentimentoAnd so it went. Lesley McDowell, writing in The Independent in 2010, excused her lying with the argument that all writers “make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own.” In 2011, Sarah Churchwell spun Hellman’s chronic mendacity by saying that her memoirs “helped to usher in the era of postmodern autobiography that…reflects on memory, truth, authenticity and fact: instead of confident assertions of mastery over her own experience, Hellman’s autobiographies are unstable, shifting, questioning.”

In other words, to view her lies as lies is so old-fashioned; rather, we should see her as exploring “the tricks that memory and consciousness play.”

In a 2012 tribute entitled “Profile in Courage,” The Economist focused not on her Stalinism and prevarication but on her crucial function as “a role model to feminists in the 1970s” and her noble belief that “it was the duty of engaged citizens to fight racism, alleviate poverty and protect civil liberties.” Here’s how The Economist dealt with the Stalinism and lying: “She made some foolish choices [our emphasis], but Lillian Hellman was often on the right side of history.”

hellman9Balderdash. This is a woman who spent the first part of her adult life promoting one of the most bloodthirsty monsters in human history and who spent the second part of her adult life rewriting the story of the first part.

Let it never be forgotten, moreover, that the Stalinism and the deception were of a piece: elaborate misrepresentation (such as the establishment of fake “peace organizations” and the holding of fake “peace conferences”) and the systematic rewriting of history are fundamental elements of Stalinism. So is the habit of viewing one’s political opponents as enemies and of seeking not just to defeat them in elections but to bring about their utter ruin. To quote Carl Rollyson: “She presented herself as an independent woman, but what independence is there in a political position that amounts to fealty to the party of a foreign power?”

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