Taking a Second Look at Lillian Hellman

Much More to Playwright Than 'Stalinist Liar' Smear

By Mark Oppenheimer

Published May 16, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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It is true that Hellman never really acknowledged Stalin’s atrocities: the famines, the show trials, the purges. Kessler-Harris makes a persuasive case that in the 1950s, Hellman was too worried about the excesses of McCarthyite anti-communism to think clearly about the Soviet Union; civil liberties here in America were her primary concern. And Kessler-Harris makes the reader see how bad Hellman’s choices were: By the mid-1950s, to join the ranks of chest-beating ex-Communists meant that one had to snuggle with some really smelly bedfellows. Hellman was stubborn, to be sure, and willfully naive about Soviet oppression. But she may have been guilty of vanity more than of callousness. After a certain point, digging in her heels preserved more self-respect, or so it must have seemed, than being seen as another disillusioned ex-commie.

Put another way, Hellman refused the blandishments of neoconservatism. She didn’t want to eat at that dinner party. Naming names was, in her mind, worse than starving millions to death; she did not endorse the latter, but she could not fathom the former. “[H]er greatest offense,” Kessler-Harris writes, “and the one that called for the most scathing denunciation, was her insistence on holding to account those who had failed to defend the victims of McCarthyism.” And in an intellectual world filled with people who had, in turning on communism, in some sense turned on their friends — some of them, like Elia Kazan or Ronald Reagan, literally, in front of Congress — she was a reminder for these people of their cowardice.

But still, it took a special talent for controversy to provoke such enmity in the 1980s, after most of the old battlefields were grassed over. Her three memoirs, “An Unfinished Woman” (1969), “Pentimento” (1973) and “Scoundrel Time” (1976), made her a hero to many in the women’s movement: Here was a matriarch who was frank about her three abortions, who had earned and kept her own money, who had slept around, who had scythed her own way through life. But she was poor with the details, unconcerned about accuracy and self-serving with her anecdotes.

One story from “Pentimento,” in which she invented a role for herself in the Austrian resistance during World War II, was particularly egregious. Before non-fiction fabulists like James Frey and Mike Daisey there was Lillian Hellman, and the many, easily found discrepancies made it seem that the Stalinist tendency for dissembling was Hellman’s primary trait. Kessler-Harris argues that the memoirs were the work of a flamboyant dramatist, one who thought in grand narratives, not of a single-minded ideologue. But the image stuck.

And then there was the feud with McCarthy. Slander defended is, as we know, slander repeated, and it probably was unwise for Hellman to sue McCarthy for the 1979 attack. The lawsuit made the question of Hellman’s truthfulness a juicy news story, one with legs. It turned many in the civil liberties community, wary of any lawsuit that would dampen free speech, against Hellman, who had been one of their own. And it forced McCarthy to seek out, in her own defense, every last exaggeration or invention in Hellman’s memoirs — and she found many.

Hellman died before the lawsuit could be resolved, and in death her critics had the last word. But Kessler-Harris is right, I think, that Hellman was always more a skeptic of the United States than an enthusiast for the Soviet Union, and that her life and plays “proclaimed the benefits of a certain kind of moral society, one that would care for its poor and excluded members, protect democracy against bullies in uniform or not, and provide the freedom to live by one’s own lights.” It would have been better had she worried more about the Russians’ freedom under Stalin, or about factual accuracy in her own self-fashioning. But a biographer’s job is to understand, not bury, her subject. Alice Kessler-Harris has succeeded.

Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times.

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