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The Antagonist: On Lillian Hellman | The Nation

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The Antagonist: On Lillian Hellman

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Alice Kessler-Harris, a prominent feminist historian and author of the pioneering study Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (1982), has written a difficult book about a difficult subject. A Difficult Woman is difficult because, rather than being a conventional biography of Lillian Hellman, the celebrated and despised playwright and screenwriter, it explains her life by attempting to answer a question: How was it that Hellman, whom Kessler-Harris and others admired for her three autobiographical works (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time) and her “blunt and plainspoken style,” had become, by the time she died in 1984, the “archetype of hypocrisy,” the “embodiment of ugliness,” and the public image of “the quintessential liar” (as well as the “angry woman,” the “rigid Stalinist” and the “greedy, self-aggrandizing individual”)—even in a “world where so many others had committed many of the same sins?” Kessler-Harris has tried to answer this question not by reassessing Hellman’s character but “by thinking through her relationship to the twentieth century.” That is no easy task.

A Difficult Woman
The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman.
By Alice Kessler-Harris.
Buy this book.

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Lillian Hellman was difficult in part because of her many apparent contradictions. Born in 1905 in New Orleans, she was a white Southerner who worked for civil rights. She was perhaps the most famous woman playwright in the world, yet one who thought it demeaning to be known as “a woman playwright”; a Jew who was accused of denying her Jewishness (“self-hating” was the term her Jewish neoconservative critics preferred); a truth-seeker who was said to be a congenital liar; a “tough broad” who had no particular use for feminists; a civil libertarian who was repeatedly denounced as a Stalinist; a woman whose face once led William F. Buckley’s conservative National Review to run a cover story showing her looking in the mirror and asking, “Who is the ugliest of them all?” Yet she had an allure, as evidenced by her numerous attractive male bedmates, whose names Kessler-Harris has no compunction about naming.

Hellman was also a difficult woman because she liked being—not to put too fine a point on it—difficult. Sometimes she was difficult on principle: for example, she would not allow her plays to be performed in apartheid South Africa. Sometimes she was difficult professionally: she once struck a deal with Ladies’ Home Journal for three lucrative articles but specified that not a word of hers could be changed. Sometimes she was difficult temperamentally: as Kessler-Harris reports, “She expected accountants and agents alike not only to understand and respect her principles but to honor all her unspoken as well as spoken wishes.” And sometimes she was difficult, period. Stephen Gillers, who worked with Hellman as co-chair of the Committee for Public Justice, an activist organization that she helped found in the 1970s to protect constitutional rights and liberties, told me that a better title for Kessler-Harris’s book would have been An Impossible Woman.

Although Kessler-Harris does a brave and fair-minded job of traversing the thicket of -isms surrounding Hellman (Stalinism and Trotskyism, Zionism and anti-Semitism, communism, McCarthyism, cold war liberalism), a principal value of her book is the way it shows how labels like “Stalinist” obfuscate rather than capture the character of this complicated woman, not to mention the century through which she passed. Consider the striking contrast between her interactions with the two McCarthys, Joseph and Mary. Kessler-Harris makes clear why Hellman’s reaction to the McCarthyite charges that she was a subversive and a possible communist propagandist won her kudos and glory, whereas her lawsuit for defamation against Mary McCarthy (who said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’”) earned her obloquy and ridicule.

* * *

In 1952, Hellman was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). It was the height (or should I say “nadir”?) of the red hunt. Senator Joseph McCarthy, with the intimidating attorney Roy Cohn at his side, seemed to be making daily headlines with his irresponsible charges that however many communists were undermining virtually every aspect of American life. Senator Pat McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, meanwhile, was blaming security risks in the State Department for the “loss” of China. (Many state legislatures had their own mini–investigating committees.) The Smith Act prohibited the teaching and advocacy of subversive ideas. Harry Truman’s Loyalty Program required all federal employees to sign an oath of fealty to the United States. The Hiss and Rosenberg cases dominated the news. Over President Truman’s veto, the restrictive McCarran-Walter immigration act was passed, along with the Taft-Hartley Act, which required all trade union officials to take a similar oath. The US attorney general had compiled and disseminated a list of subversive organizations. Police departments in every major city had their own red squads, and behind the scenes J. Edgar Hoover presided over an FBI that saw reds under every bed.

In Hollywood the blacklist became the principal drama, with investigators (Congressional and freelance) using guilt by association to destroy the careers of hundreds of people in the industry. After the so-called Hollywood Ten had been sent to prison for refusing to answer HUAC’s most notorious question (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”), attorneys advised their subpoenaed clients that their choice was either to cooperate with the investigators (which meant naming names) or risk imprisonment for contempt of Congress (by refusing to do so); alternatively, they could invoke the Fifth Amendment with its protection against self-incrimination, but they would still end up on the blacklist. Naming names became the order of the day. The actor Sterling Hayden named his mistress; the director Richard Collins named one of his creditors. The left-wing playwright Clifford Odets, who had given the eulogy at Group Theater actor J. Edward Bromberg’s funeral, named J. Edward Bromberg. And Elia Kazan, Hollywood’s most prestigious and successful director, not only named names but took out full-page ads in Variety and the New York Times urging others in the industry to follow his example. Although there were some notable exceptions, most who took the Fifth kept their silence.

Such was the poisonous political climate surrounding Hellman when she appeared before HUAC. Yet, as Kessler-Harris observes, by the end of her testimony “she had given no names and would serve no jail time.” Indeed, in her letter to the committee, she asked that it respect the “simple rules of human decency and Christian honor” by not forcing her “to betray people who had never done any harm.” She famously and eloquently insisted that “To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable,” adding: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.”

Writing in The New York Review of Books, the columnist Murray Kempton said of Hellman: “The most important thing is never to forget that here is someone who knew how to act when there was nothing harder on earth than knowing how to act.” This is precisely what all those others who would dismiss this difficult woman as “Stalinist” forgot. In my view, Hellman’s stance before HUAC was consistent with the best of her proclaimed democratic and humanistic values. In addition to what it says about her character (which was Kempton’s point), it served the larger political purpose of resisting unjust authority and also had an educational function for the citizenry at large. It took courage and literary elegance to pull off, yes, but more important, it was inspirational to a mostly cowed generation.

* * *

If Hellman’s response to McCarthyism was the high point of her existence as a public figure, Kessler-Harris makes it clear that decades later, toward the end of her life, when Hellman was losing her eyesight and was frail, angry and embittered (not least at the attacks on her for proclaiming her moral superiority at the expense of the truth), her response to what I will call Mary McCarthyism was less than admirable. Kessler-Harris explains that for more than forty years, Hellman and McCarthy “had shared a climate of hostility, their trajectories running along parallel paths, their opinions conflicting and confronting.” McCarthy, seven years younger than Hellman, had been gunning for a fight with her nemesis for years. As a drama critic, she had attacked Hellman’s plays—when she deigned to review them at all—as offering more melodrama than drama; as a film critic, she had viperously denounced Hellman’s film The North Star (1943), a prize-winning feature about the brutal German invasion of a peaceful Ukrainian village, as “political indoctrination” for showing the Soviet Union as “an idyllic hamlet.” (McCarthy was presumably unaware that Hellman herself hated what Hollywood had done to her script, turning the film into what she called “an extended opera bouffe,” though she kept her name on it because it “said some true things about fascism.”)

But underlying their antagonism was the fact that they were on opposite sides of a political and cultural divide. McCarthy was a Trotskyist and thereby inclined to loathe Stalinists. Hellman was vulnerable to the charge of Stalinism because in 1938, shortly after she’d joined the Communist Party in full awareness of the show trials (she’d been in Moscow while they were going on), she had signed a letter—along with 350 other writers, artists and scientists—declaring her belief in the guilt of the defendants and accepting the trials as necessary to preserve progressive democracy in the USSR. Nor did she ever repudiate the act. Kessler-Harris’s judicious observation seems apropos: “In the sharp glare of history, neither the act of signing that letter nor her failure to repudiate the document thereafter is defensible. But by the dim light of the 1930s, both acts are understandable.” Kessler-Harris reports that years later, Hellman confessed to her goddaughter that she simply had not seen or understood the full spectrum of Stalin’s sins.

Nevertheless, given their respective conflicting worldviews, McCarthy and Hellman were on a collision course. McCarthy wrote for Encounter, which was sponsored by the CIA-funded Committee for Cultural Freedom. Its regular contributors included people like Irving Kristol (later to be dubbed the “godfather of neoconservatism”), Sidney Hook (the Marxist who veered further and further to the right) and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (who in those years, as Nation editor Carey McWilliams put it, “spoke the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent”). As a group, the contributors to Encounter focused on Soviet espionage and subversion, which Hellman considered a “red herring.” Her worldview on these matters may be gathered from a statement that Hellman wrote but never released, in which she asserts that “In all the organizations in which I have participated over the past 15 years,” she had never “heard one word concerning espionage, sabotage, force, or violence, or the overthrow of our government.” Like The Nation’s editor-publisher Freda Kirchwey (McWilliams’s predecessor), she thought the idea of the angelic United States versus the demonic USSR was simplistic and “too easy an out…for it excuses policies and behavior which bear no true relationship to the danger.” For Hellman, those anticommunists who saw communism as a monolithic worldwide conspiracy thereby fostered unwarranted repression at home and inhibited the capacity of ordinary people to dissent.

Hellman’s belief that our constitutional rights and liberties deserved protection from abuses by the US intelligence agencies was central to her involvement in the Committee for Public Justice. Its board consisted of staunch civil rights and civil liberties activists and supporters like Burke Marshall and Roger Wilkins, who had been assistant attorneys general for civil rights under Robert Kennedy and Ramsey Clark, respectively, as well as Norman Dorsen, later president of the American Civil Liberties Union. It ran a much publicized conference at Princeton University on investigating the FBI (for which I was the co-author of a paper on FBI wiretapping).

So was this difficult woman truly a “Stalinist”? Or, as Kessler-Harris argues, does that term obscure more than it clarifies? I would agree that it does—especially when applied to someone like Hellman, whose brief involvement with the party came at a time when the CPUSA was the most vociferous defender of racial equality, the most consistent supporter of her union, the Screen Writers Guild, and, for better or worse, her lover Dashiell Hammett’s home base. And she subsequently spent much of her life fighting fascism and racism and upholding civil liberties. At best, the term “Stalinist” would appear to ignore her First Amendment enthusiasms (albeit mixed with possible political naïveté), and at worst it constitutes a McCarthyite smear.

For myself, I believe that while Mary McCarthy was right about what was happening inside the USSR, Hellman was right about the invidious role that organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom played in the cold war. McCarthy’s attorney Floyd Abrams was correct that no free-speech absolutist (as Hellman thought herself to be) should pursue the kind of bullying defamation suit she brought against McCarthy—for, had she won, her victory could only have been used by others to repress public discourse. The suit was unwise, and I suspect that had she lived, she would have lost. The otherwise estimable lawyer Ephraim London did her no favors in agreeing to take the case. But for the reasons made clear in this valuable book, when the dust settles, this difficult woman’s reputation will fare better than it did when Kessler-Harris began her Hellman journey.

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