Few American cultural figures have suffered as steep a decline in reputation as Lillian Hellman.
Lionized in the media, Hollywood, and popular culture during the 1970s as a woman of valor and rare courage who had lived an independent, sexually liberated life long before American taboos on sexual freedom had been broken down, she was also lauded for bravely standing up for intellectual freedom and constitutional rights during the darkest days of McCarthyism. By the end of the decade, however, in the words of her newest biographer, Alice Kessler-Harris, she had been reduced to “the archetype of hypocrisy, the quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness.”
Kessler-Harris, a distinguished professor at Columbia and well-known feminist historian, justifies her decision to write yet another biography of Hellman (she identifies two others as offering excellent accounts of Hellman’s everyday life and unfairly stigmatizes another for relying too heavily on her enemies) on the grounds that her fall from grace illuminates the world in which Hellman lived and how its changing ideological landscape led to widely varying assessments of her life. She was a “Rorschach test for a generation.” Kessler-Harris also chafes at how Hellman’s principled moral choices have been discredited or derided not only by her ideological enemies, but by her political allies.
Born to an assimilated German-Jewish family in New Orleans, Lillian Hellman emerged in the early 1930s as a playwright with several Broadway successes. Her decades-long liaison with Dashiell Hammett, the bestselling author of hard-boiled detective stories, was tempestuous, marked by hard drinking, frequent fights, and numerous infidelities on both sides. Stints as a Hollywood screenwriter brought in hefty paychecks. Attracted to the Communist party by its opposition to fascism and devoted to the cause of the Spanish Republic, she, along with Hammett, joined numerous front groups after 1935, thus aligning herself (in Kessler-Harris’s odd characterization) “with the Stalinist wing of the Communist party.” Although Hellman frequently denied ever joining the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), she signed up in 1938 after returning from a trip to Russia and Spain.
According to Kessler-Harris, Hellman and Hammett were aware “of the thousands of people who had starved” [actually millions] as a result of Stalin’s policies and the “thousands more [actually hundreds of thousands] subject to arrest and murder,” but concluded that solidarity with the Soviet Union in the interests of antifascism was more important. Despite signing statements supporting the purge trials, defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and refusing to permit a benefit performance of her hit play The Little Foxes for Finland (then under attack by the Soviets), Kessler-Harris insists that she never “allowed herself to turn into a mindless follower” of the party line.
To buttress her claim that Hellman was “never a party liner” or a true Stalinist, Kessler-Harris points to Watch on the Rhine, her anti-Nazi play that opened on Broadway shortly before the German invasion of the Soviet Union and was criticized in the party press because its antifascism was out of Communist fashion. Oddly, she never mentions the aftermath: an infamous article Albert Maltz wrote in New Masses in 1946. Maltz took his fellow Communists to task for judging works of art and literature on purely political grounds. One of his prize exhibits was Hellman’s play, denounced when it appeared because of conflicts with the party line—and praised when it appeared as a movie during World War II. The CPUSA launched an assault on Maltz. His friends rushed to denounce him and he ultimately recanted. Tellingly, Lillian Hellman remained silent.
In 1948, Hellman interviewed Tito in Yugoslavia. Kessler-Harris triumphantly notes that she “took Tito’s side” in his dispute with the Soviet Union. But in fact, while she admired Tito’s independence, she took no position on the political issues involved, and refrained from criticizing Stalin, comparing the quarrel to a spat between “a proud son” and “strong father.”
When she finally got around to criticizing Soviet treatment of writers in the 1960s, Hellman still managed to eviscerate dissidents like Alexander Solzhenitsyn—she called him insane—and nastily denounced one exile for waiting until he left the country to attack the hacks and commissars to whom he had been forced to kowtow. Even when she wrote a foreword to a memoir by the dissident husband of her onetime Moscow translator, she tossed in an aside that she hadn’t bothered to read his book.
Kessler-Harris is dismayed that Hellman’s critics have not acknowledged that she did, in fact, admit to having made “mistakes” in her judgments about Stalin and the Soviet Union. But such admissions were pro forma, lacked specifics, and provided scant evidence of any serious reflection about the poisonous and vile language and behavior through which she had supported one of the worst tyrannies in history. She reserved her venom for those who had long pointed out the evils of communism.
At times, Kessler-Harris suggests that Hellman was not very ideological at all, adopting political positions as a form of moral posturing. After examining her diary entries about her trip to Moscow in 1944, for example, Kessler-Harris speculates that Hellman judged Russia “in terms of how well it observed her comfort and how tenderly she was cared for.” Hellman’s obsession with creature comforts belied her socialist values and hostility to “free-market democracy.” A notorious penny-pincher, she owned expensive homes and estates even during the days when she insisted that her politics had so impaired her ability to make ends meet that she had been forced to work briefly as a saleslady at Macy’s—another one of her lies. She maneuvered to obtain the rights to all of Dashiell Hammett’s literary properties, turned them into a money machine, and ignored the wishes in his will that Hammett’s daughters receive half the proceeds, doling out small amounts to them and keeping the lion’s share for herself during her lifetime. Kessler-Harris admits that Hellman filed so many insurance claims, many for small amounts and others for questionable losses, that she had difficulty getting coverage. Her greed “did not produce the best of behavior.”
It was Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, during which she issued her famous statement that she could not “cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” that made her a heroine of the left. Recounting the experience in her 1976 memoir, Scoundrel Time, she characteristically distorted the facts and denounced as cowards the liberals who she claimed had not raised a finger to oppose Joseph McCarthy. Kessler-Harris glides over just how dishonest Hellman’s later account was: Unlike others who did defy HUAC and risked jail for contempt, Hellman wound up pleading the Fifth Amendment. Moreover, the questions that she did answer strongly suggest that her private claim to have left the Communist party at the end of 1940 was also a lie. She may well have still been a member as late as 1949.
The final and most audacious of Hellman’s lies was her claim in Pentimento that she had served as a courier taking money to an anti-Nazi activist friend working in the Austrian underground in the late 1930s. The movie based on this incident, Julia, won three Academy Awards in 1978, including one for Vanessa Redgrave in the title role. Jane Fonda portrayed Lillian, and Hellman herself was the star of the Oscars ceremony, receiving a prolonged standing ovation for her heroism, from Nazi Germany to the hearing rooms of Washington. Except that she made it all up. She had appropriated the life of the real Julia, a woman named Muriel Gardiner, whom she had never met. Kessler-
Harris strains to excuse her identity theft, lamely insisting that Hellman’s memoir was not a memoir but another one of her plays that was intended to illustrate a larger truth not based on mere facts.
Kessler-Harris does not entirely excuse Hellman. She castigates her for her willingness to overlook or apologize for Soviet tyranny. She harshly notes that, “to her everlasting shame,” Hellman ignored Soviet anti-Semitism. She catalogues her temper tantrums, personal nastiness, and self-righteousness. Despite all that, Kessler-Harris cannot bring herself to acknowledge that she was more than “a difficult woman.” The conundrum for Kessler-Harris is that she cannot abide anticommunism but is unwilling to defend communism: The positions Hellman took in support of the Soviet Union are not defensible in the light of history, but “by the dim light of the 1930s,” her actions are “understandable.”
The simplest way to explain what happened to Hellman’s reputation is to admit that she was a hypocrite and liar. And Kessler-Harris is forced to do so over and over: “She brought her troubles on herself. . . . [She was] overbearing, arrogant, and just plain rude.” She was vain about herself, but despised vanity in other women. And one “cannot take at face value anything she says about herself.”
Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory, is the coauthor, most recently, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.