Hellman: An Unrepentant Stalinist to Bitter End

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A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

By Alice Kessler-Harris

Bloomsbury, $30 (448 pages)


Today, the academic left is in a cultural lag. For them, it is forever the 1970s, when Nixon was the clarifying enemy and the Old Left benefited from a cultural rehabilitation. Never one to sit on the unfashionable sidelines, Lillian Hellman in this period tried to outrun the truth by promoting herself as a repentant Stalinist with courage and principles still intact. As a result, she became the flavor of the month, garnering standing ovations at the Academy Awards.

But the truth caught up. Julia, deemed factual enough by Hollywood to warrant a major production starring Jane Fonda, was unmasked as fiction. Hellman’s "courageous" stand before HUAC was compromised by research showing ferocious maneuvering to keep herself out of jail. Her recollection that Dashiell Hammett, on the eve of his imprisonment, demanded that she go to Europe was a figment of her self-serving imagination.   

In "A Difficult Woman," Dr. Alice Kessler-Harris has never left the 1970s, when she reports she read and re-read Hellman. But she is not unaware of the evidence that bolsters the portrait of Hellman as rigid Stalinist. With the invalidation of this image her stated goal, she has to adopt the methods of Hellman in rationalizing or editing away any evidence of Stalinism. She fails in recapturing Hellman the anti-Stalinist, but does recreate Hellman's dishonesy.   

"A Difficult Woman" is Exhibit A in making the facts fit the thesis, rather than vice versa; a howler once bleached out of graduate students by stubbornly empirical professors, but, in our current academic climate, encouraged by Marxist professors.  

Nowhere in this biography is there evidence of Hellman's continued support of Stalin in the Scoundrel Time period. And this evidence has been available since Joan Mellen's biography in 1997. Far from regretting it, Hellman clung to Stalinism. To lover Blair Clark, she confessed that she “could not get it out of her head that Stalin was right.” Criticizing Roger Strauss, a “malefactor” who dared to publish Solzhenitsyn, she said that “if you had seen American prisons the way I had you’d be a good Stalinist too.” 

Harris reports Hellman’s moral outrage exclusively at American liberals who refused to stand up to McCarthyism, but she neglects this same moral outrage at those who, like that “fink” Krushchev,  informed on Stalin. Hellman was, in the words of Harris, “stubbornly committed to her principles,” but they were those of Stalinism, not civil liberties.

Harris does contest the Scoundrel Time image at times but she is contesting that Hellman was a Stalinist without misgivings in the 1940s. The result is embarrassing. Attempting to show independence beneath Hellman's uncritical admiration of Stalin (after a wartime trip to Russia, Hellman crowed about the "deep reverence intellectuals had for Stalin"), she records Hellman's criticism of Russian toilets as some type of samizdat moment.

Harris does pause in her salvage operation to honor her métier of feminist history. She argues that Hellman’s “long-standing relationship with Hammett, the several abortions of which she made no secret,” and “the sexual liaisons in which she continued to indulge” made her “a model to feminists.” But again, competing information is edited out, for Hellman had a traditionalist dependency on Hammett. She could not write without him in the room. She took sole credit for the Little Foxes, a play she admitted to friends that Hammett wrote. Far from Hammett giving Hellman “the space to develop her sexual persona,” he (for a time) ruled her. He beat her on a number of occasions for infidelity and for daring to argue. She bowed to his demands to participate with him in threesomes.    

When not retreating toward the safe havens of dramatic license, or postmodernist dismissals of “facts” regarding Hellman’s “memoirs,” Harris attributes the continuing venom toward her to misogyny. That she attracted numerous lovers despite her plainness, “clearly galled some men.” But Budd Schulberg’s hostility toward her wasn’t based on her sexual success but her Stalinism (her Watergate-era reply to his stating that Jews suffered under Stalin was “prove it"). And Harris' claim that it was catty women who disliked her doesn’t hold up. Mary McCarthy, who was as much a bed hopper as Hellman, was repelled her professional success but by her continued parroting of the Stalinist Party line regarding the Spanish Civil War. (Hellman dismissed George Orwell’s historically validated Homage to Catalonia, which reported Stalinist behind-the-lines repressions in Loyalist Spain, as a “bunch of crap.”)   

Hellman’s continuing image as a rigid Stalinist also included a class element. Hellman typified the limousine communist, one who, like Schulberg said, parroted the Party line and then hopped on a ferry back to Martha’s Vineyard. Harris unwisely includes in her photo section, Hellman at the notorious Waldorf Conference, a collection of useful idiots supporting Stalin, dressed to the nines. No amount of careful editing can take away the fact that Hellman loved the fruits of capitalism (she had quite the collection of fur coats) while wanting the rest of America in the grey-overall misery of Stalinism.

For a book celebrating political courage, Harris can find none in anyone but Hellman. No one who opposed her did so for reasons other than the cowardice Hellman attributed to liberals. Sidney Hook and Irving Kristol “opted to seek shelter by moving increasingly toward a right-wing stance.” Opposition from Mary McCarthy was in itself a form of political courage since she acted during the high tide of cultural rehabilitation for American Stalinists.No credit for this is forthcoming from Harris. No allowance is given that like Hellman, her critics were sincere in their political commitments.

"A Difficult Woman" brings nothing new to the table. It is Scoundrel Time Part Two with  more context. Harris is so focused on clearing Hellman that she misses opportunities to justify a new book. She could have tried to settle the controversy about why Hammett stopped writing upon meeting Hellman. She could have provided more analysis on the plays and determined who really wrote all of them. She could have explored how gender figured into Hellman's "alleged" victory over HUAC (committee members moved on from her testimony out of fears they would look bad going after "a lady").

But such a book requires leaving the 1970s behind.

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