The Magazine

Snake in Fur

The lies and loves of Lillian Hellman.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Few American cultural figures have suffered as steep a decline in reputation as Lillian Hellman. 

Lillian Hellman

Courtesy the Advertising Agency

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.