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.
Among 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?”
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 called “tremendously 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.’”
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.”
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.