Every word a lie

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Lillian Hellman

Yesterday we began looking at Lillian Hellman, the Stalinist playwright who was widely lionized for standing up in 1952 to the House Un-American Activities Committee and who, a couple of decades later, made herself even more of a heroine with a series of extraordinarily self-regarding memoirs. The third, Scoundrel Time (1976), was, as the critic Hilton Kramer later noted, “a malicious and mendacious book” that was “written to even old scores with her anti-Stalinist ‘friends.’” In it, Hellman charged members of the anti-Stalinist left with having done too little to defend their Stalinist colleagues who’d been summoned to testify before House and Senate committees.

hellmanbkAmong those at whom she aimed her wrath was Partisan Review editor William Phillips, who had a good answer to her accusations – or, rather, several good answers. First, he wasn’t interested in standing up for Communists’ “right to lie” about being Communists. Second, he didn’t believe that Communists had “a divine right to a job in the government or in Hollywood—any more than I felt I had a right to a high-salaried job in an institution I believed to be an instrument of capitalist power and exploitation.” Third, he “could not take seriously those Communists and fellow-traveling celebrities who were playing with revolution, for it did not seem to occur to them that being for a revolution might have consequences.” Fourth, Hellman and her fellow American Stalinists had been brutal in the 1930s to the non-Stalinist liberals from whom they now, a decade or two later, expected support. (As Phillips wrote, they’d “branded us as the enemy.”)

Finally, Hellman and her fellow Stalinists were “apologists for the arrest and torture of countless dissident writers in the Soviet Union and in other Communist countries….just as she asks how we could not come to the defense of McCarthy’s victims, one could ask her how she could not come to the defense of all those who had been killed or defamed by the Communists? How could she still be silent about the persecution of writers in Russia?”

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Dick Cavett

Phillips’s riposte was only the beginning – the beginning of the end, that is, of Hellman’s reputation as a heroine of truth and justice. The next big step came on an evening in January 1980 when writer Mary McCarthy, another one of the anti-Communist liberals whom Hellman had targeted, appeared on the Dick Cavett Show and was asked which modern writers she considered overrated. She mentioned several names, among them that of Hellman, whom she calledtremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer.” When asked by Cavett to elaborate, McCarthy said that every word Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

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Mary McCarthy

Hellman sued. People close to the matter said it was obvious she was out to ruin McCarthy, who was far less well-off than she was. Those familiar with the ways of Stalinism weren’t surprised. As one of her many biographers, Carl Rollyson, has observed, Hellman’s writing of Scoundrel Time and her lawsuit aginst McCarthy were typical of high Stalinism, which is all about “not merely punishing your enemies but trying to annihilate them as you claim the high moral ground.”

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Norman Mailer

The lawsuit dragged on for years, with the judge dismissing claims that McCarthy’s comments amounted to literary criticism protected by the First Amendment and that Hellman was a public figure and therefore a fair target. In a New York Times article, Norman Mailer tried to patch things up, like Sinatra reuniting Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Meanwhile McCarthy, seeking material to support her defense, went through Hellman’s memoirs looking for lies. One person who helped her was Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who’d been Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. In one of her memoirs, as it happened, Hellman had told a story about her sojourn in Spain with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War. Gellhorn, who’d been there at the time, was uniquely qualified to see just how far Hellman’s account strayed from the facts. More on that tomorrow.

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.