Unraveling the lies

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Lillian Hellman

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.

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Muriel Gardiner

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:

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Samuel McCracken

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.)

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Hellman with Dashiell Hammett

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. 

Inventing Julia

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Mary McCarthy on the Dick Cavett Show

“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.

Writer and correspondent Martha Gellhorn is shown in this undated photo. (AP Photo)
Martha Gellhorn

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.

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Carl Rollyson

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. 

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Julia (1977): Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia

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.

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Hellman in a 1979 ad for Blackglama furs

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. 

More tomorrow.