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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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Victor Navasky
Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was the magazine's editor from 1978 to 1995 and publisher and...

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For decades, first at Pantheon and then at the New Press, he was a lion of progressive publishing.

The Nation’s longest-running columnist was a witty, brilliant, coruscating presence in our pages for almost thirty years.

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.

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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.

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