The Magazine

Snake in Fur

The lies and loves of Lillian Hellman.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.