Monday, October 6, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“LILLIAN HELLMAN – THE IMAGE, THE WOMAN” by William Wright (first published 1986)
When I was a young film reviewer in 1977, I remember seeing and reviewing Fred Zinnemann’s film Julia, which later won a clutch of Academy Awards. It told the story of the American playwright Lillian Hellman (played by Jane Fonda) and her relationship with an Englishwoman called “Julia” (played by Vanessa Redgrave), and how the two of them were involved in the anti-Nazi resistance in Europe in the late 1930s. Hellman, as a young and already famous writer, was depicted acting as a courier smuggling into Nazi-occupied Austria funds needed by a resistance circle that “Julia” was running. Frankly, I remember finding the film talky and rather dull, even if earnest and well-filmed; but I reviewed it positively as a piece of grown-up entertainment. Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave were, at the time, respectively America’s and England’s representatives of fashionable celebrity left-wing radicalism – quite loopy radicalism in Redgrave’s case – and this apparently enhanced the film’s appeal for some people. For myself, I found the best thing in the film to be the grumpy supporting performance of Jason Robards as Lillian Hellman’s long-time lover and companion, the sceptical alcoholic writer of hard-boiled detective fiction Dashiell Hammett.
At the time the film came out, I was vaguely aware that there had been some controversy over the truthfulness of the story it told, and I knew that some film reviewers found it necessary to defend it as a piece of history. These issues were not important to me at the time, however, so I made no comment on them.
It was only about twenty years later that I picked up in a second-hand bookshop acopy of William Wright’s detailed biography of the playwright Lillian Hellman – The Image, The Woman, first published in 1986 only two years after Lillian Hellman (1905-84) had died. Clearly the book was written in the aftermath of controversies about Hellman’s truthfulness in her memoirs, and especially in her volumes Pentimento (published in 1973 and supposedly dealing with Hellman’s life in the 1930s) and Scoundrel Time (published in 1976 and supposedly dealing with Hellman’s life in the 1940s and 1950s, including the “McCarthy era”). The film Julia was based on a chapter in Pentimento, while in Scoundrel Time Hellman depicted herself as the only person brave enough to stand up to the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) by making a ringing public declaration deploring the committee and being loudly applauded for so doing.
As William Wright’s subtitle – The Image, The Woman – immediately tells us, this is a book that sees a huge disparity between the image that Hellman promoted of herself – and that was promoted by some of her friends – and the reality of who she was. Drawing on close and detailed research – archival material, contemporary reports, letters and many, many interviews with both friends and foes of Hellman - Wright is able to show fairly conclusively that Hellman simply did not tell the truth about herself in her various memoirs.
Pentimento first became a subject of controversy because the novelist Mary McCarthy, and then the journalist (and former wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, called Hellman out for her untruths. In response Hellman threatened Mary McCarthy with a multi-million dollar libel suit, knowing that McCarthy was in straitened financial circumstances and that even to hire lawyers to defend herself would be to ruin her. (Hellman herself was a very wealthy woman on the strength of both her and Dashiell Hammett’s royalties and the large sums made from the many Hollywood adaptations of her plays).
Hellman died before the case came to court – much to Mary McCarthy’s chagrin as she was confident that she could prove her criticisms of Hellman’s veracity. By the time the matter was made public, many other reliable witnesses had already come forward with documentation to show that Hellman’s story of her relationship with “Julia” in Pentimento was, quite simply, a work of fiction. Post-war, surviving members of anti-Nazi resistance movements had kept careful documentation of who was, and who was not, involved in resistance activities, specifically to prevent impostors from claiming a heroism they had not earned. There was, and is, no record whatsoever of Lillian Hellman ever being involved in any resistance activity, and certainly none of her acting as some sort of courier to Nazi-occupied Austria. Added to this, there is the huge improbability factor – by the late 1930s Hellman, who was Jewish, was already a well-known and often-photographed author of popular Broadway hits. How probable is it that any resistance network would imagine that the movements of a well-known Jewish-American public figure would not be closely tracked by the Gestapo? Such a person would have been entirely useless as a courier for the resistance.
As for “Julia”, her activities, as depicted by Hellman, were clearly based on those of a real resistance figure, Muriel Gardiner Buttinger. Buttinger, who had become a distinguished psychiatrist, stated clearly that she had never met Hellman. However a close friend of Buttinger’s was Hellman’s lawyer. The lawyer in question was well known for boasting about the public lives of his more illustrious friends. There has been the implication that, knowing a left-winger like Hellman would be impressed, the lawyer had told her a version of Buttinger’s activities which Hellman appropriated for her fictitious character “Julia” and to which she attached herself in an heroic role.
In Lillian Hellman – The Image, The Woman, William Wright speculates at some length about whether Hellman did not actually come to believe that her fictitious story was true. After all, she was a playwright. It was her metier to make up situations and credible-sounding dialogue. She was also a screenwriter and tended to see the world in terms of clear-cut heroes and villains. And she loved to be the centre of attention. Even in trivial matters, she liked to be the heroine of her own stories, and having persuaded many other people that such stories were true, she may have come to believe that they really were.
Wright is a lot less polite, however, about Hellman’s blatant untruths in Scoundrel Time, where she presents herself as the only brave person to stand up to the HUAC, and in the process condemns the anti-Communist Left for their pusillanimity. As Wright points out, the records – and all reliable witnesses from all political perspectives – show that Hellman took no risks whatsoever when she appeared before the HUAC, consistently pleaded the Fifth and made no ringing statement of defiance such as she concocted for her later memoir. Yes, she did in 1952 write a letter declaring “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” – a phrase later much quoted by her uncritical admirers – but the letter was not read out to any senate committee in the neat sort of dramatic way Hellman implied. The reality is that Hellman took no risks that dozens of other people then under political suspicion did not also take. As for her story that she was publicly congratulated at the time for “at last” standing up to McCarthyism, it is as much fiction as the “Julia” story is. Indeed, it sounds suspiciously like the type of neat dramatic denouement that appeared in the Hollywood films Hellman scripted – the way a celluloid hero is supposed to be applauded.
Apart from her delusions and self-aggrandisement, there is a much grubbier story involved in Scoundrel Time. It is clear that from the 1930s through to the period of McCarthyism, Hellman’s own politics were the most naïve of Stalinism. In itself, this is unexceptionable. During the Depression and in the Second World War (at least after mid-1941) many other people living in western democracies had a rosy view of the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise. But already by the late 1940s the true nature of the regime – a genocidal dictatorship – was becoming evident to many erstwhile admirers. Western intellectuals were drifting away from the Communist Party, many of them shamefaced to realise that the non-Communist left had been right after all when it had believed early negative accounts of Stalin’s regime. But Hellman refused to admit she had ever been wrong. Therefore in Scoundrel Time she takes the opportunity to slander non-Communist leftists and how they reacted to McCarthyism. As in Pentimento, much of her characterisation in Scoundrel Time is pure fiction, designed to make herself look heroic. The statement “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” really says “I cannot and will not admit that I have been wrong for years and that people whom I don’t like have been right.”
After I have recorded all this, you will be bemused if I declare that William Wright’s Lillian Hellman – The Image, The Woman is not a hatchet job. William Wright clearly admires Hellman’s muscular vigour as a dramatist in at least in four of her plays – The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine and (possibly) Another Part of the Forest. In fact he spends quite some time defending their old-fashioned virtues as well-made storytelling that constantly hold the audience’s attention. He is also at pains to record Hellman’s acts of kindness, especially in looking after Dashiell Hammett in his last ill years. He notes the large phalanx of loyal friends she built up around her, some of whom were very annoyed at probings of her truthfulness not because they had any evidence to refute her critics, but because they were loyal to her as a friend.
Nevertheless, the tone of this book is more often critical than not. Despite the image that she later attempted to promote, Hellman was by no means solely devoted to Hammett over the thirty years of their relationship. There were many lovers – some casual, some more serious – picked up and discarded over the years. There was also the fact that her ability as a playwright tapered off with a series of duds in the 1950s and 1960s when she did not have Hammett so capable of acting as her unpaid editor and advisor. And there is careful documentation of her frequent tantrums, vindictiveness and spite towards people whom she saw as potential rivals.
William Wright’s book is an excellent, and fully justified, example of the debunking biography, showing us what there is to admire in its subject, but also what is complete bullshit.
I have to note, however, that is has not been the last word. Since Lillian Hellman – The Image, The Woman was published, there have been other biographies of Hellman. Carl Rollyson’s Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (1988) basically endorses Wright’s conclusions, again carefully documents Hellman’s mendacity, but takes more time in analysing her politics and looking at the political implications of her plays. Joan Mellen’s Hellman and Hammett (1996) is a not unsympathetic account of Hellman’s private life, but also finds that her memoirs are not to be trusted. The inevitable counter-attack came in 2005 with what could be regarded as the “official” biography, Deborah Martinson’s Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels, written with the complete and approving cooperation of Hellman’s estate. Martinson condemns earlier biographers for being too concerned to show up Hellman as a liar and therefore not giving her a fair judgement. Yet – apart from some name-calling – she is not able to find any evidence to refute charges of Hellman’s life-long fantasising and the falsity of her memoirs. And, though she makes one very ambiguous statement on the matter, she can find no evidence that Hellman’s fictitious “Julia” ever existed or that Hellman ever took part in resistance activities. Remember, Hellman partisans would be shouting such evidence from the rooftops if it actually existed.
I hardly have the stomach to chronicle all the material I have read about Hellman on the internet. Let me state simply that, just as there are sites critical of Hellman, there are some sites which still present Hellman as a moral exemplar and take her at her own estimation. Frequently there are attempts to justify her memoirs along the lines that “everybody exaggerates or distorts things a bit in memoirs” - which seems to mean that blatant lying is acceptable. There are attempts to present her critics as grumpy right-wingers who attack her because she was left-wing and a spunky independent woman. Now of course right-wingers have greatly enjoyed themselves as Hellman’s lies have unravelled (be honest – wouldn’t you enjoy yourself if a celebrity political foe was caught out lying?). But this line of defence is rather spiked by the fact that the people who first called Hellman’s veracity into question were all themselves left-wing spunky independent women – Mary McCarthy, Martha Gellhorn, Muriel Gardiner Buttinger and Rebecca West.
I have bigger issues with all this. The problem is that memoirs often become part of the historical record and have an influence on more general history books. If the memoir is a fiction, this means that a fictitious account becomes accepted as historical truth. (Interesting sidenote – in my own researches, I have already found an article on New Zealand in the 1950s referring to anti-left activities in the National Film Unit as a “Scoundrel Time” – the author has obviously accepted Hellman’s fictions as if they are a reliable historical account of the era.) Also, of course, when people are told that films like Julia are “based on a true story”, they end up being the bases for a much wider popular conception of history than anything that appears in well-researched books.
Vindictive – but Bloody Amusing – Footnote: I began this review by commenting on the film Julia, so I will end it that way. If you go to the Source of All Truth and Knowledge – a.k.a. Wikipedia – and look up the film Julia, you will find that the article ends with the film’s director Fred Zinnemann quoted as saying of Hellman: “She would portray herself in situations that were not true. An extremely talented, brilliant writer, but she was a phony character, I'm sorry to say. My relations with her were very guarded and ended in pure hatred." Oh dear. And ha ha.