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Making Up The Truth

June 2024
6min read

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: “ 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!”

All of this is suspect. Rauh says that he and his client were both confident before she wrote her letter that jail was not a real possibility; her expressed willingness to plead the Fifth Amendment once the congressmen denied her written request ensured that. Nor was Hellman by any means the first witness to offer partial cooperation with the committee. Nor did anyone else present in the crowded hearing room see or hear the enthusiastic civil libertarian in the press gallery—who begins to shout at a dramatically opportune point in Hellman’s chronicle, just as her interrogators are questioning her about her membership in the Party and she is giving answers that an uninterrupted reader might have found ambiguous. (Wright also argues persuasively that despite Hellman’s frequent denials, her exquisite conscience did not dissuade her from remaining a Stalinist virtually all her life—unforgiving, unrepentant, and clandestine.)

“Lying,” said Oscar Wilde, “the telling of beautiful, untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” It is one thing to recast facts to create fiction; that’s what playwrights do for a living after all. But surely it is another to invent and arrange facts so that they reflect especially well on their creator, as Hellman did, and then present them as history. In doing that, she betrayed both past and present, all in the interest of accomplishing what had evidently become by the end of her life the highest aim of her dramatic art—to keep herself, the Heroine, always at center stage.

Lillian Hellman would seem to have had very little in common with Richard Nixon; certainly, they were rarely, if ever, to be found on the same side of any political question. But they did share two things: an attitude toward the truth that can at best be called cavalier, and an air of fraudulent piety that made their deceit all the more difficult to endure for those who disapproved of them.

Nixon has always been the man a good many Americans love to hate, and there are few modern Presidents whose early careers remain so vi/id in our minds: the vicious California campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Alger Hiss case, the Checkers Speech, the Vice-Presidency under Elsenhower, successive defeats by JFK and Pat Brown, the apparently inexhaustible series of new Nixons that always turned out to be identical with the old.

At first glance, Richard Nixon and Lillian Hellman would seem to have little in common.

We know what Nixon did. What we want to know is why he did it: what elements went into the formation of that curiously divided personality, what caused his genuine strengths to be fatally undercut by rage and fear and an inability to tell the truth even when lying was not needed.

In her last book, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (1981), the late Fawn M. Brodie sought to follow the roots of the conflicts that divided Nixon all the way back to the place where common sense dictates such things are usually to be found: his childhood. Hers was a rich, provocative study, elegantly written and full of imaginative insights, but marred, I thought, by a hostility toward her subject so unrelenting that it made it hard for her to distinguish between great and inconsequential sins.

Stephen E. Ambrose’s new book, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913–1962, is the most thorough and objective account yet published of Nixon’s early years. Everything is here in crisp, chronological order. But Ambrose’s portrait of Nixon the human being is curiously blurred. The author’s reluctance to be caught in the psychobiographical trap that Brodie fell into is understandable, but in seeking to avoid it, he circles too far from our central concerns. The dispiriting facts of Nixon’s all-important boyhood are duly laid before us, but Ambrose seems uncomfortable with even the most uncontroversial musing about what those facts might mean. Nixon’s younger brother, Arthur, for example, died suddenly when Richard was twelve, a trauma that other biographers have suggested must have affected him profoundly. Ambrose announces confidently that it did not. The deaths of siblings were more common then than they are nowadays, he explains, and therefore Richard “could not have felt that God had singled out the Nixon family for special punishment.” This is simply nonsense (by the same logic, survivors of concentration camps “could not” feel guilt because death had been so common there), and Ambrose suggests no other factors that would help explain the unconscious self-loathing that seems always to have accompanied Nixon’s relentless drive to succeed. Largely because the family crucible from which Nixon emerged is allowed to simmer unexamined, Ambrose finally leaves us once again with the old Nixon.

In a passage quoted in the Brodie book, Nixon himself obliquely suggested something of the seductive danger inherent in building personal success upon prevarication: “So you are lean and mean and resourceful,” he mused to a close aide after he had been driven from the White House, “and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.” Both he and Lillian Hellman led their lives that way; the reputations of both finally fell victim to it.

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