“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” said novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on a 1981 telecast of the Dick Cavett Show. She was talking about her old literary acquaintance and political adversary, Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright turned memoirist. After Hellman sued, Martha Gellhorn, who had been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, rode to McCarthy’s rescue, devoting sixteen pages in an issue of Paris Review to a detailed takedown of Hellman’s purported autobiographical account of her adventures with Hemingway in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. When Gellhorn read Hellman’s account, she saw at once that it was sheer fiction. Because Gellhorn had been there.
That wasn’t all. Comparing one of Hellman’s memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, with another, Pentimento, Gellhorn “discovered instances in which Hellman apparently had been able to be in three places at once: in the Moscow embassy, with Julia, her anti-fascist agent/friend in Vienna, and in Spain.”
There were also a number of details that Gellhorn, a sharp-eyed reporter, recognized as bogus – for example, “Hemingway and Hellman could not have stood on their balcony in Madrid watching the fireworks from bombing (as Hellman claimed) since the bombs in Spain did not give off light.” Gellhorn concluded that Hellman had spent three weeks in Spain, tops, and that if she’d witnessed any military action whatsoever, she hadn’t understood the first thing about it.
The most famous story in any of Hellman’s memoirs concerns her purported lifelong friendship with a woman she identified only as Julia. As Hellman told it in Pentimento, Julia joined the anti-Nazi underground while studying medicine at the University of Vienna; in 1937, she asked Hellman to smuggle a large sum of money into Germany to help save the lives of some of Hitler’s victims, and Hellman bravely agreed.
Then, in 1983, came a memoir, Code Name Mary, by another hand – Muriel Gardiner, an American psychiatrist. Her story was strikingly similar to Julia’s: while studying medicine at the University of Vienna in the late 1930s, she’d become active in the anti-Nazi underground.
This raised a problem. Gardiner was a real person with a real history in the anti-Nazi underground. If there’d been another female American med student in Vienna who was also in the underground, surely (a) it would have been (to say the least) a remarkable coincidence and (b) the two women would have known each other. But Gardiner had never crossed paths with anybody who might have been the real-life Julia. Nor had she ever met Hellman.
But one person she did know was Wolf Schwabacher, a friend of hers who also happened to be –guess what? – Hellman’s lawyer. Over the years, Schwabacher had told Gardiner a lot about Hellman; and after Gardiner’s book came out, it seemed painfully obvious that Schwabacher had also told Hellman a lot about Gardiner.
Despite widespread speculation to this effect in the media, however, Hellman insisted that she had never heard of Muriel Gardiner, and had absolutely not based Julia on her. Fiercely, Hellman stuck to her story: Julia had been a real person, a person whom she’d known and loved since they were girls together, and with whom she had collaborated in 1937 in a courageous anti-Nazi caper. And that was that.
But that wasn’t that. Whether Hellman liked it or not, the walls were beginning to crumble, the truth beginning to out. And people who understood Stalinism, and who were aware of the intimate relationship between Stalinist ideology and reflexive untruthfulness, were starting to get Hellman’s number.