Making Up The Truth

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A decade ago Vanessa Redgrave gave one of her most memorable performances in the title role of Julia, the film based upon the most memorable chapter in Lillian Hellman’s best-selling memoir, Pentimento: her portrayal of the doomed heroine—cool, intelligent, courageous—symbolized antifascism at its most selfless. Jane Fonda was good, too, as Hellman herself: bright, earnest, spunky enough to undertake a risky secret mission into Hitler’s Germany on her friend’s behalf, later anguished at her powerlessness to save Julia from the Nazis, or to find and care for her baby, left behind in occupied Europe after her murder.

Both performances paled compared with that given by Lillian Hellman one evening as she talked about her dead friend on television. Hellman looked like a ship’s figurehead by then, her long, pouchy face proudly bearing the chisel marks of a full life lived. The tragedy of her tale was underscored by her flat, tough, survivor’s voice and the apparent modesty with which she described her fruitless postwar search for Julia’s missing child. At the bitter memory, tears glistened in her eyes. The interviewer choked back tears of her own. So did I.

We now know that the whole story was a lie: Hellman never undertook a mission into Germany. Nor did she seek to find Julia’s baby; there never had been one. Nor had she even known the “real” Julia—the late Dr. Muriel Gardiner, a genuinely heroic veteran of the Resistance, who escaped to America in 1939.

William Wright’s biography Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman is nearly as clumsy as its title, I’m afraid: the writing is often redundant and digressive. But the author has managed to set forth the facts of her life in sufficient detail to prove that whatever else Hellman was—playwright, prose stylist, political radical—she clearly was a colossal liar, chronic and perhaps pathological.

 

“What a word is truth,” Lillian Hellman wrote in the preface to a one-volume version of her three memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, Scoundrel Time, and Pentimento). “Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth, I did not fool with facts.” Not only did she fool with them, Wright demonstrates, she invented them wholesale.

None of this is altogether new. Suspicions about Hellman’s looseness with the truth surfaced well before her death three years ago. But Wright is the first to have put the whole story together, and its cumulative effect is devastating.

Hellman commandeered Dr. Gardiner’s life, he writes, in order “to enhance her own,” and she seems to have done the same with many of the people she encountered. How did she get away with it for so long? She wrote beautifully, for one thing: John Leonard spoke for many when he said of her first volume of memoirs that it shone “with a moral intelligence, a toughness of character, that inspires even as it entertains.”

And as she went about reinventing her own past and settling old scores with ancient enemies, she was shrewd enough always to seem unsparing of herself. All sorts of personal flaws and frailties are confessed—shyness, lack of tact, naivete about politics and money—but she somehow manages simultaneously to transform them into moral strengths.

In the spring of 1952, having exhausted the movie business as a source of dangerous enemies of the Republic, the House Committee on Un-American Activities moved back east to make more headlines among the writers and directors of Broadway plays. Hellman, already denied work by nervous Hollywood producers for her politics, was called to testify. (She and her lover, Dashiell Hammett, undeniably suffered from the antiCommunist frenzy of the time; he was then serving six months in prison for contempt of a federal court, and she had recently been forced to sell her home in part to pay his legal bills.) She did not wish to go to jail; nor did she want either to plead the Fifth Amendment or to name the names of others. She hired as her attorney the young Joseph Rauh—just the sort of anti-Communist liberal she liked to denounce in other contexts—and together they agreed on an offer of partial cooperation: she would answer any and all questions about herself and her beliefs, she said, provided the committee would not demand that she answer any questions about others. If they could not give her those assurances, she would reluctantly take the Fifth Amendment.

Her justly celebrated letter in response to the committee’s subpoena is one of the few inspiring documents to have emerged from that dark time: “...to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself,” she wrote, “is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions....” In retelling even this familiar story, which already reflected well upon her, Hellman could not resist polishing up the truth. In Scoundrel Time she implied that she knowingly risked jail by taking her stand, that no witness had ever taken such a position before, that her testimony had been interrupted by an onlooker who shouted from the press gallery, “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it!”