Friday, 10 August 2012

A DIFFICULT WOMAN: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by ALICE KESSLER-HARRIS

A DIFFICULT WOMAN: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 439 pages, $39.99 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The writer, and one-time Trotskyist, Mary McCarthy, said in a 1979 television interview that the celebrated playwright and one-time Communist, Lillian Hellman, was not only over-rated but that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including and and the’.  Hellman spent the last five years of her life suing McCarthy for libel.

As Kessler-Harris says in her biography of Hellman, this famous literary feud was the culmination of a lifetime of attempts to discredit Hellman by ranting conservatives and ‘respectable’ liberals whose illiberal support for, or inaction in the face of, government attacks on freedom of speech in 1950s America Hellman had held up to public reproach.  The very name, ‘Lillian Hellman’, continues to act as Pavlovian stimulus to a seething right-wing response of charges of left-wing hypocrisy and totalitarian evil.  Hellman does not deserve this.

Hellman, galvanised by the Spanish Civil War, adopted left-wing politics in the thirties, was a union organiser for the Screen Writers’ Guild, was briefly a member of the US Communist Party (1939-41), opposed the anti-communist government witch-hunts in the 1950s, was blacklisted by Hollywood producers from the movie industry, bounced back to theatre and movie success in the 1960s, was a strong but not uncritical supporter of the New Left, Black rights and women’s liberation, before character assassination brought her to a messy, litigious end.

The lies told about Hellman dwarf her own.  A rigid Stalinist would not have, unlike Hellman, condemned Soviet repression of writers, or opposed the party line during the Nazi-Soviet pact by writing an overtly anti-fascist play (Watch on the Rhine).  Although Hellman was late to see through some Stalinist crimes, she did admit she had been wrong about Stalin, an awakening delayed by her overriding concern about the march of fascism which saw her adopt a stance of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

Like many other thirties’ communists, Hellman’s acceptance of the Soviet Union as a model for a socialist society was motivated by her commitment to a world free from the class, economic and racial injustice caused by the power of money.  When Senator McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was persecuting leftists, Hellman refused to turn on her party comrades, whose intentions had been good, by courageously refusing to name names at her HUAC hearing in 1952.

Soviet and domestic communism was no threat to the US, said Hellman, but McCarthyist attacks on freedom of thought and speech were.  This stance infuriated the ‘cowardly liberals’ who had junked their fine words on liberty for fear of being tarred with the communist brush.  Hellman’s 1976 memoir, Scoundrel Time,  which revisited the political and personal failure of America’s liberal intellectuals under McCarthyism reignited a storm of anger from those she accused of moral failure who were now Cold War political conformists bravely fighting repression in Russia, safely distant from the struggle against political surveillance and the silencing of dissent in their own backyard.

In smearing Hellman as a liar, her critics were aided by one episode from Hellman’s memoirs.  Her 1973 story, Julia, was an account of Hellman’s purported effort to smuggle, in Berlin in 1939, a fur hat containing $50,000 to a friend, Julia, who was active in the Austrian resistance.  A 1977 film  (starring Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia) widely publicised this daring act of anti-fascist heroics but it is “most likely”, says Kessler-Harris, that Hellman had based her story on what she had heard from a common friend about a Muriel Gardiner, a US psychiatrist, appropriating this woman’s life for Hellman’s own ends.

In this, Hellman “overstepped the bounds of memoir”, letting her life as a dramatist take over.  This was Hellman’s one ‘big lie’ which has been used ever since to opportunistically tarnish Hellman’s lifelong moral and political integrity.  Many of Hellman’s friends and admirers retreated in the face of the onslaught and Hellman’s lawsuit against Mary McCarthy in response was far from her finest hour.

The liberals who folded before HUAC could now absolve their far greater sins before this one, far less significant, fictional fantasy by Hellman.   They had a field day but Hellman loved a stoush and used her quick wit and biting sense of humour to continue to show up the false friends of freedom who abandon history’s victims as soon as the going gets personal.

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