The late Susan Sontag flew into Sarajevo to direct a production of Waiting for Godot to lend moral support to Bosnians besieged by Milosevic's bombs. Eve Ensler created a mini-political movement around her play, The Vagina Monologues. Streams of actors and actresses go to Washington to promote their favorite causes.
All tread in the footsteps of the play and screen writer Lillian Hellman (1905-1984).
Hellman, the most glamorous of Broadway and Hollywood radical left intellectuals, was a literary communist-turned-fellow traveler during a time when there were many literary Reds. She stood out from the crowd, though, being the first to truly master what Leon Wieseltier has witheringly called "the machinery of celebrity righteousness." No one racked up as many successes as Hellman in mounting "serious" works on stage and screen. No one walked out of the hearing room of the House Un-American Activities Committee -- especially no "Fifth Amendment communist," as Hellman was -- with quite the aura of sainthood that she did. And no one took as effective action as she to elevate her historical profile.
Discovering in her sixties that critical opinion placed her oeuvre well below the first rank of American theatrical achievement, she decided to write memoirs that would put her, as she said, "back on top." They did. An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976) were best-sellers, and they enshrined her as a heroine of resistance to McCarthyism. They spawned a glowing portrayal of her by Jane Fonda, in the 1977 movie Julia, which followed every apocryphal turn of events in the "Julia" chapter of Pentimento.
Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood moguls in the late forties and so were many of her friends in artistic circles on both coasts. In her own case, she hadn't seen it coming. This obliviousness made sense if you understood her attitude toward her political activities. The literary critic Irving Howe once told author Joan Mellen that Lillian Hellman's relation to the Communist Party was "a kind of platonic affiliation." She never imagined that her vocal protests of capitalism, which she saw as the root of society's ills, would draw the attention of the authorities when American capitalism and Soviet communism became locked in a Cold War. She wanted "to bring about the end of money civilization and set up something new, healthy and strong," as Sherwood Anderson would express it during his own dalliance with communism at the height of the Depression.
At times a veritable Red fury in proclaiming the Stalinist line in the newspapers of the 1940s, Hellman on the other hand did not sign each and every radical petition. She believed she was her own woman in the political sense. The American Communist Party helped her in this. According to the ex-communist movie director Elia Kazan, party officials paid Hellman and other glitterati, such as Hellman's fellow playwright Clifford Odets, the special honor of being designated "members at large," with their party records erased so they would have plausible deniability when a government crackdown arrived.
Much has been written and said about the blacklist, and those who would take Hellman's -- not Kazan's -- side have had the greater influence in shaping the public's understanding of it. The fabled movie critic Pauline Kael once called the communist controversy in the post-World War II period a "tragicomedy." Yet she found that films about the blacklist such as The Front (1976) failed to capture this quality. Instead, they engaged in "mythologizing," portraying the Red and fellow-traveling screen writers and directors as if they had been apolitical innocents. "Turning them into simple victims," wrote Kael, "protects them from the recognition that their plight, horrible though it was, was also ludicrous. They'd gone to bat for Communist oppression; they'd blown their talents defending an illusion." This was not something most of them cared to acknowledge.
The ludicrousness of having defended Stalin's purges during the 1930s did dawn on Lillian Hellman later in her life. This is barely apparent from her memoirs, but a new biography by Deborah Martinson, associate professor and chair of English Writing at Occidental College, does make that point. Martinson reports that an elderly Hellman was once heard to wonder aloud how she ever could have been so foolish as to defend the kangaroo trials that sent Stalin's political rivals to their deaths. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels (Counterpoint, $27.95, 448 pages) also describes the interest that Hellman took in the Soviet dissident writers of the 1960s and 1970s, including Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
It seems that Hellman loyally kept up a friendship with a Russian she'd met during a visit to the Soviet Union (undertaken in 1944 at the behest of President Roosevelt). As that woman, a literary apparatchik named Raisa Orlova, gradually lost her belief in the justice and goodness of the Soviet system, her transatlantic correspondence with her American friend affected the latter's views over time. On a return visit to the USSR years later, Hellman was introduced by Orlova to Solzhenitsyn. She tried to help him find a publisher in the West for his novel The First Circle.
If that does not comport with our usual image of Hellman, it's because she was much louder in defending Russian communism and attacking its critics than she was later on when voicing second thoughts. Martinson writes that her subject "never uttered forcefully enough her recognition of Stalin's horrible oppression. She kept her deepening mistrust of the Soviet system quiet; she hated admitting she was wrong."
Martinson's is a sympathetic study, fulsome at times, and irritatingly unclear and euphemistic about some of the political controversies fomented by the playwright. But in the personal, if not the political, sense, the biographer seems to have Hellman's number. As is always the case when taking on the perennially popular subject of Lillian Hellman, the task is to find new ways to describe the act of lying. Martinson uses phrases like: "distorted recall," and "chosen facts," and "often subordinated factual history and truth to another kind of knowing." She also says Hellman "did not listen well" and calls her "prone to rage and dramatics," liable at times to "give way to the extremes in her character" and to treat others with a "woeful lack of fair play and integrity." She was "talented and reckless, procrastinating and driven, political and flagrant."
She was also, by many accounts, a lot of fun at parties. A wit and a big drinker, she knew how to find the center of the action, whether rallying the masses at Madison Square Garden along with the fellow-traveling New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio and Dashiell Hammett (the mystery writer was her sometime lover and longtime artistic collaborator); or palling around with Hammett, Dorothy Parker, and the Gershwin brothers; or planning political fundraisers with Ernest Hemingway; or having affairs with assorted literary men, theatrical directors, U.S. diplomats, and bigwigs from Eastern bloc nations; or engaging in blustery arguments on the set with Samuel Goldwyn (and winning a number of them).
Based on her works alone -- they include The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Another Part of the Forest, and Toys in the Attic, and adaptations of Sidney Kingsley's Dead End and Jean Anouilh's The Lark -- she would no doubt be remembered with the same relative infrequency as, say, a Richard Harding Davis, an Edna Ferber, a Robert Sherwood, or an Alfred Uhry. "The melodramatic label dogged her just as surely as the political playwright label," admits Martinson, giving ample evidence that both tags were deserved. Running through Hellman's dramas were the same Freudian and Marxist tropes relied upon by most 20th century creative types who thought of themselves as not just entertainers but serious thinkers.
Her name resounds more than the rest, as I said, because of the memoirs; and there are other factors, as well. Hellman was particularly resourceful compared to her peers. Whereas a commitment to radical politics sapped the productivity of the likes of Dorothy Parker, the Hollywood Ten member Albert Malz, and Dashiell Hammett, this was not true in Hellman's case. "She made both political and creative use of her political commitments," writes Martinson. The biographer also shows her to have been a formidable deal-maker in the tough theatrical and movie worlds and an energetic task master who rode herd on publicity departments charged with getting attention for her projects.
The story is sometimes told of the Red playwright who had his play rejected by Broadway and said: "Well, you don't expect them to pay for their own liquidation." Perhaps the nearest American audiences ever came to doing just that was when Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes opened on the Great White Way in 1939. It was a hit; within two years it was made into a successful film starring Bette Davis.
Dashiell Hammett edited the play heavily. According to him, it depicted class conflict: namely, the conflict of the aristocracy against the middle class. He must have been referring to Birdie, the aristocratic character in the story, who has, to her shame and regret, married into a family of nouveau riche who exploit her connections in her small Alabama town to grab land, money, and power. The family, called the Hubbards, are based on Hellman's relatives, Jewish businesspeople in Alabama and New Orleans (where Hellman was born). According to Joan Mellen's 1996 dual biography of Hammett and Hellman, this was the first Broadway play ever to have explicitly Jewish characters.
Anti-capitalist agitprop creeps into the dialogue of the 1941 movie version in a number of spots; nonetheless, The Little Foxes is a riveting piece of work. Its co-villain, the unscrupulous Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle), speaks cynically of the carelessness of the distinguished southern families whom his sort is replacing. His business partner, his brother Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), is as rotten as he is, and their scheming sister, Regina (Bette Davis) is rottener still. When Regina gets hers in the end, we cheer.
One of the fascinating things about The Little Foxes is that it is so bent on trashing the bourgeoisie that the aristocracy emerges pretty much unscathed -- even admired. You wouldn't think "progressives" would have such a soft spot for a hereditary elite, particularly for the southern American kind whose ancestors ran plantations. Yet Hellman and Hammett -- self-proclaimed champions of equality for African Americans -- lavish sympathy on the slaveocrats' representative in the play, Birdie (Patricia Collinge). She drinks to numb the pain of her victimization by the Hubbards but she's classy and restrained while downing mint juleps and complaining about her plight. She gets along swimmingly with her black maid (Jessie Grayson) and with side characters like the crusading newspaper editor (Richard Carlson) who is the son of a seamstress. Birdie, giving her version of antebellum history, declares that her slave-owning family was "always good to our people" -- and there is no sign we are supposed to disbelieve her.
Why would the author and her writing coach, Hammett, do this? Well, it has the (to them) satisfactory effect of setting the upper crust and the lower orders to forming a kind of Popular Front against the rapacious carpetbaggers of the middle class. Hellman and Hammett home in on their target at the outset with a didactic text scroll about the "little foxes" that devour the tender vines, from the Bible's Song of Solomon. Throughout the picture, the seamstress's son keeps jawing about the need to help the poor and oppressed while the maid makes up quotes from the Bible that could have come from Das Kapital. In Russia, Stalin was going after the allegedly parasitical kulak "little foxes" -- the peasants who owned land and were entrepreneurs -- with a vengeance. Here was a Goldwyn production that, even as it worked in its own terms, as entertainment, complemented that campaign.
Martinson retails the movie historian Jan Herman's piquant anecdote to the effect that Sam Goldwyn, a hoverer over every production he backed, sensed that something was up with this script. Dorothy Parker, one of a team of Hellman friends enlisted to help adapt the play for the big screen, reportedly stepped in when the movie mogul expressed a worry that he was putting out a Red film. "Oh, Mr. Goldwyn," breathed Parker, "the play takes place in 1900 and The Communist Manifesto was written in 1848. That makes no sense at all." "Wonderful," he is said to have replied, "I'll tell everybody that." Such were the in-jokes that radical artistes put over on highly strung but not overly sophisticated movie men like Goldwyn, a nouveau riche if ever there was one.
Despite its exotic title, the 1943 movie Watch on the Rhine is surprisingly similar to The Little Foxes. A domestic drama, it has no soldiers on watch and no proximity to the German river -- the action takes place in Washington, D.C. and Virginia. Hellman draws upon models from her bourgeois southern family again, this time to show America's insularity and blindness to the Nazi threat during the 1930s. A distinguished-looking European fighter against fascism (Paul Lukas) comes into the family circle and wakes up the fat and happy Americans to the threat facing the world. The movie is tedious and stilted (the much more memorable antifascist crusader is actor Paul Henreid playing Victor Laszlo in Casablanca) but audiences of the time loved it. President Roosevelt requested a command performance of the stage production in 1942.
FDR was especially interested in asking the playwright just when she wrote the work, according to Hellman in her memoirs. He was curious to know if its antifascist message was one Hellman had pursued during the 1939-41 period, when the Hitler-Stalin Pact had produced a Communist Party line that abandoned antifascism for pacifism. The President was pleased, as were many others, to give this well-known supporter of revolutionary Russia credit for persisting with Watch on the Rhine despite the Communist Party's official (and Dashiell Hammett's personal, if muted) disapproval.
Once Hitler broke the pact by invading Russia, pushing it over to the U.S. and British side, Der Fuhrer not only committed one of the great acts of betrayal of the 20th century -- he also made Lillian Hellman look good. The party and Hammett did an about-face, embracing the Allied military cause and also embracing a play that they had previously frowned upon. Hammett was now willing to write the movie adaptation. Biographer Joan Mellen compared the stage play and screen play of Watch on the Rhine: Among other changes, Hammett removed a Hellman reference to Karl Marx. Going in the other direction, though, he larded the characters' speeches with Popular Front rhetoric that she, in turn, trimmed out because it bogged down the action.
So how much credit did Lillian Hellman deserve for bucking the party line during 1939-1941? Martinson gives her a lot. She fails to let us know what previous accounts, including Mellen's, do: that apart from Watch on the Rhine, Hellman was still a pretty good Stalinist most days of the week. She produced pacifist writings with Clifford Odets during this period that argued for staying out of an "imperialist war." She opposed Lend-Lease.
The sufferings in some war-torn European countries deserved amelioration (she raised funds for refugees of the civil war in Spain) but when it came to sufferings in other war-torn European countries, Americans needed to be waved off from helping. Meaning Finland. Hellman publicly denounced efforts to assist the Finns, whose small nation had been invaded by its huge neighbor, the Soviet Union, in 1939. There were rumors in left-wing circles of widespread arrests and killings in Soviet Karelia, a border area of the USSR that was ethnically Finnish, as Stalin's police swept through in the years leading up to the invasion. If Hellman heard the rumors of the Terror she did not let on. Instead, she defended Finland's subjugation. "I've been there," she proclaimed to the right-wing Hearst press, "and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me." According to Mellen, she had never been to Finland.
The Hollywood Reds' swagger -- the smarmy jokes at the expense of rubes like Sam Goldwyn, the taunting of the Finns -- receded as the Cold War heated up. Washington's erstwhile ally, Moscow, was striving mightily to become a nuclear power; communist rebels were taking over China; the Truman administration was deporting communists and administering loyalty oaths. And Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett were under FBI surveillance. Hammett, by then a World War II veteran, was sent to jail for six months in 1951 for protecting the identity of contributors of bail money in aid of communists who were in legal limbo with the U.S. government. As previous Hellman biographers have done, Martinson conveys the playwright's embarrassing behavior in her mentor's time of need: When Senator Joseph McCarthy's aide Roy Cohn pounced on Hammett for his shielding of fellow communists, the crime novelist was headed for the slammer and Hellman fled the scene, fabricating a story about having been instructed by him to do so.
Her 1952 appearance before HUAC had her making her famous claim that "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Actually, she did follow intellectual and political fashions with gusto, if not with 100 percent consistency. What was amazing was that, with expert legal advice from her attorney Joseph Rauh, she was able to achieve seemingly incompatible goals: signaling to her interrogators that she was not now a Communist Party member; doing so in a manner that would not look worm-like to her friends, lovers, and colleagues on the left; and threading this needle while escaping legal penalty.
Hellman's feat, executed with considerable aplomb, was to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination -- but to make it seem as if she were doing it to protect her friends and associates rather than herself. As Ronald Radosh and Allis Radosh have pointed out in their recent book Red Star Over Hollywood, the playwright Arthur Miller and the folk musician Pete Seeger, two fellow-travelers, acquitted themselves more honorably than Hellman when subpoenaed by congressional counter-subversives: Miller and Seeger outright refused to answer questions about other people, and the refusal put them at risk of imprisonment for contempt of court; meanwhile they did answer questions about their own political activities, making no use of the Fifth Amendment.
Perhaps less self-serving behavior on Hellman's part would have left her less inclined to vilify those -- like Kazan, Odets, the writer Bud Schulberg, and the newspaperman James Wechsler -- who "named names" before HUAC. She specialized in condemnation, whereas people who spent time behind bars on account of their political views -- such as Hammett, and the screen writer and Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo -- were more forgiving of the so-called "friendly witnesses." Playing up the naming of names, she was able to portray herself as a non-namer and therefore as more sinned against than sinning.
How much did Hellman suffer? Accounts of her life, including Martinson's, do not leave one with an impression of her as the suffering kind. It is true that she was under the cloud of the blacklist for over a decade. During that time, however, she retained influence as a behind-the-scenes advisor to powerful Broadway people, and as a script doctor. We mortals can usually be depended upon to be contradictory, and to try to have things both ways. In this woman we find a true master: Capitalism was all greed and exploitation yet Hellman, its critic, enjoyed wealth, luxury, and ordering lesser beings around. She believed herself to be original and independent-minded, but in finding capitalism itself fascist, she was not voicing an original thought but parroting the main plank of the Communist Party's ideological platform.
If Pauline Kael were here, she would have found Hellman's persecution by the FBI and HUAC horrible but also absurd. Hellman went to bat for communist oppression. She came to admit, at least glancingly, that some associations of hers were of a kind that counter-subversives would be expected to sit up and notice. The most notable case of the biographer's steering clear of matters that Hellman herself (eventually) hinted at is Martinson's omission of the fact that real life model for the Nazi-fighter of Watch on the Rhine -- Otto Katz, a Czech friend of Hellman's -- was a Comintern agent.
Lillian Hellman's presenting her life aslant to the world can be understood (not excused) as a chapter, and a distinctive and telling one, in the annals of human self-exculpation and self-aggrandizement. Prettying up the picture for her, at this distance in time, by whitewashing "antifascism" for a mainstream audience of American biography readers simply falsifies history.
Lauren Weiner is a TCS Contributing Writer. She lives in Baltimore.