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People of the Book 101: Lillian Hellman in Scoundrel Time

Mike Kuhlenbeck
November 29, 2016
by Mike Kuhlenbeck WRITER LILLIAN HELLMAN (1905-1984), one of the greatest dramatists of her time and a major figure in the cultural transition from The Great Gatsby to the Great Depression, is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other literary lions of her time such as Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller and other members of the progressive “old boys club.” Hellman’s thunderous roar has been drowned out by accusations of her being a self-serving Stalinist, making her one of the most misunderstood figures to emerge from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Dark Age of McCarthyism. Years before Hollywood became the film capital of the world, Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans on June 20, 1905 to German immigrants. After high school, she went to New York, enrolling at New York University and then Columbia University. In the tradition of many radical artists, she skipped classes to explore Greenwich Village, a turf inhabited by revolutionary artists and other blossoming vagabonds. In 1925, she married Arthur Kober, a Jewish writer born in Austria-Hungary, whose own star began to rise at the New Yorker magazine. In the 1930s, following a popular exodus among writers and other artists, the couple traveled west to start a new life in Hollywoodland. Hellman landed a job as a reader for Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), where she later organized fellow readers into a union. By 1932, she and Kober divorced, although they would work with each other again in a professional capacity. By then she had met author and ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel “Dashiell’ Hammett, world-famous for his crime-thriller The Maltese Falcon, who was working as a screenwriter. According to Hellman, she met him in a bar when he was coming down from a drinking binge said to have lasted for days. She was 24; he was 36. They shared a passion for literature and leftwing politics (not to mention liquor and tobacco), and for thirty-one years she was romantically involved with the man she affectionately called “Dash” -- to whom she would dedicate her first play, The Children’s Hour. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR opened on Broadway in the fall of 1934 to widespread acclaim and helped establish Hellman as a major new playwright. The story, which would be adapted into a 1961 film, centers on a privileged schoolgirl in a New England town who falsely accuses two of her boarding school teachers of lesbianism. Given the subject matter’s taboo status during the 1930s, The Children’s Hour was banned by officials in Boston, Chicago and in London, England. In fact, any mention of homosexuality on the New York stage at the time was prohibited by law, but the play was allowed to continue there thanks to the critics’ defense of its artistic merit. Following this success came Days to Come, a drama first produced at the Vanderbilt Theater in New York on December 15, 1936. Although not a commercial success, this powerful drama about strike-breaking in a small Ohio town retains its emotional power today. Making a roaring commercial comeback, Hellman’s next play was her most famous work, The Little Foxes (1939), an emotionally-complex account of the Hubbard siblings and the Southern aristocracy they represent. According to MGM press materials for the film version of The Little Foxes (starring Bette Davis), Hellman wrote the story based on her “own family’s biannual dinner at which people drew lots for the diamond that had been left in her great-grandmother’s estate.” The play’s title was suggested by Hellman’s friend and fellow writer Dorothy Parker, based on the biblical Song of Solomon (2:15): “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes.” Parker would assist with the screen adaption with her then-husband Alan Campbell and Hellman’s ex-husband Arthur Kober. Hellman would delve again into the dark world of the Hubbards with Another Part of the Forest, which she directed on Broadway in 1946. A prequel to The Little Foxes, this play also examines the destruction that lays in the wake of greed and exploitation. Hellman was a member of the Communist Party (CPUSA) from 1938 until 1940, according to a 1952 memoir, and drifted away because “my own maverick nature was no more suitable to the political left than it had been to the conservative background from which I came.” Her political stances rarely shifted, however, from the Communist Party line. Despite her strong anti-fascist commitment, for example, she and Hammett were prominent within the Keep America Out of War Committee, formed in 1940 during the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when the CPUSA abruptly began to soft-pedal its anti-fascism. The FBI certainly considered her a communist. According to writer Herbert Witang, FBI “surveillance of Miss Hellman began by [unnamed] informants before World War II -- independently and also because of her relationship with Dashiell Hammett. Surveillance was maintained by FBI informants and also by a mail watch of her correspondence and what she read.” THE THEMES of Hellman’s plays reflect her leftwing political commitments. During World War II, while Hammett, although in a state of physical deterioration, reenlisted in the U.S. army and was stationed in Alaska, Hellman was writing plays and pamphlets denouncing fascism and signing her name to public petitions and letters. According to her biographer Deborah Martinson, in her book Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels, “Hellman never doubted that the enemy to American democracy was Nazi Germany.” As noted, for example, in her declassified FBI file: “On November 17, 1938, prominent authors issued a statement calling upon progressive, labor, peace, religious, and other groups to petition President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt to close American doors to Nazi-made goods.” In a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, Hellman said that she did not have a religious upbringing and that New Orleans had a “live and let live” attitude toward the Jewish community, which was rare, she said, in the South. She became more conscious of her Jewish identity as time went on: “I just know that I would rather be a Jew than not be. I think Nazism had a great deal to do with that. It suddenly became very important to me.” At the height of its political influence, Communist Party front groups were springing up across the country. One was the League of American Writers, founded in 1935. In his book, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade, historian Harvey Klehr describes the league as a “large, broadly based cultural auxiliary” that aimed to advance progressive causes. Its membership during ITS seven-year existence boasted the likes of William Carlos Williams, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann -- and Hellman and Hammett. The couple also sponsored the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who fought to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascist battalions of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In 1938, Hellman helped director Joris Ivens with the documentary, The Spanish Earth, and spoke at fundraisers. To quote from her FBI dossier, she was one of the “prominent writers” to visit Spain during this time. Anti-fascist contemporaries Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Orson Welles, and composer Marc Blitzstein (The Cradle Will Rock) all worked on the film. Hellman’s 1941 play, Watch on the Rhine, described by publisher Vintage Books as “the story of how fascism affects an American family and the refugees they harbor,” was said to be inspired by a childhood friend who killed while fighting in the underground resistance against the Nazis. The screenplay for the 1946 film was an adaptation by Hammett. The film was directed by Hellman’s frequent stage collaborator and theatre producer Herman Shumlin, who was listed in Hellman’s FBI file as another associate who had become “extremely close” to the CPUSA. Watch on the Rhine was originally supposed to be the studio’s golden ticket to the 1943 Academy Awards in addition to serving the cause of the Allied Forces. Producer Hal Wallis initially considered hiring the brothers Julius and Philip Epstein to adapt Hellman’s play as a film, but he instead used them to adapt Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, retitled Casablanca for the film version, with Howard Koch and four other writers who were not credited. It would be this film, not the less glamorous Watch on the Rhine, that would win Warner Brothers its Oscar for Best Picture. SHORTLY AFTER America’s entry into World War II, movie studios (and especially the workers and artists in their employ) were eager to aid in the war effort. This brought to life several films with pro-Russian, pro-Soviet and even pro-Stalin themes. One of the most famous of these was Mission to Moscow (1942), based on the bestselling memoirs of former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Joseph Davies and produced by Warner Brothers. When studio head Jack L. Warner told screenwriter Howard Koch to adapt the memoir for the screen, Koch was hesitant about the project because the story outline portrayed Stalin in a positive light. “You’re doing the script and you’re keeping Stalin as a friend,” Warner told him. Koch asked why, Warner told him, “Because he’s against Hitler and we have to stand up against Hitler.” In 1944 came Song of Russia, based on Hellman’s original screenplay The North Star (1943). It portrayed the heroic struggle of Soviet villagers against the Nazi invaders and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The author’s true feelings about this crucial turning point in world history (if not the fate of humanity) can be inferred from monologue from the character Marina Pavlova: “Wars don’t leave people as they were. All people will learn this and come to see that wars do not have to be. We’ll make this the last war. We’ll make a free world for all men. The earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it. And we will fight for it!” The strange honeymoon between Hollywood and Moscow, however, was to be short-lived. By the time Harry Truman succeeded President Roosevelt in the Oval Office, a renewed Red Scare had begun to sweep through the U.S. like a violent plague. The Hollywood Blacklist was merely the best-known symptom of this period, which Hellman famously called “Scoundrel Time.” Many of those who worked in the film industry during World War II would be accused of “subversion” for their political activities. When Jack Warner testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1947, he defended making pro-Russian movies by observing, “If making Mission to Moscow in 1942 was a subversive activity, then the American Liberty Ships which carried food and guns to Russian allies and the American naval vessels which convoyed them were likewise engaged in subversive activities.” HUAC, however, not known for being swayed by evidence or reason, would usually dismiss this kind of defense -- yet the studio heads were generally excused, while those below them on the industry food chain were usually not so fortunate. Even those who worked on the now legendary Casablanca, heralded by film critic Leonard Maltin as “the best Hollywood movie of all time,” were not spared from the Committee’s wrath or extrajudicial influence. Aljean Harmetz, in Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca, recounts how writers like Hellman, Koch and the Epstein brothers were targeted by HUAC for being “prematurely anti-fascist,” meaning being aligned with anti-fascist causes before the U.S. decided to recognize the threat after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese empire. When one-time CPUSA member and famed On the Waterfront director Elia Kazan was summoned to Washington D.C. to cooperate with HUAC, he “named names” in order to save his film career. His willingness to cooperate left many of his close friends and associates baffled. In their eyes, Kazan could have continued to work for the stage (where there was no blacklist) and earned a handsome living. Sensing that Kazan was an opportunist who ratted for personal gain rather than fear of personal loss, Hellman attacked Kazan’s New York Times ad calling for others to follow his example (said to be written by Kazan’s wife Molly) as “hard to believe for its pious shit.” Inevitably, she was given an opportunity to show how she would handle the situation when she was summoned by HUAC. Aiding Hellman’s legal defense was civil liberties attorney Joseph Rauh, a co-founder of the liberal advocacy group Americans for Democratic Action and a noted “anti-Stalinist.” Rauh called Hellman “a difficult woman” because she would neither rat on her peers nor plead to the Fifth Amendment. Walking delicately along a legal tightrope, Rauh and his client mapped-out a curious defense strategy designed to protect her integrity and keep her out of jail. This was called the “Diminished Fifth,” as recounted by authors Michael Freedland and Barbra Paskin in Witch-Hunt in Hollywood. In a letter dated May 19, 1952, Hellman told the committee with her intentions, stating, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” When she appeared before HUAC three days later, the committee was not pleased with the publicity tactics being used by her or her attorney. She said she was willing to talk about herself but would not speak of anyone else: “to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and dishonorable.” The following day, the New York Times proclaimed in a front-page headline “Lillian Hellman Refuses to Name Names.” As Rauh said in an interview with author Griffin Fariello for his book, Red Scare: Memories of the American Inquisition, “We had won.” Despite this legal victory in the public eye, however, Hellman was blacklisted from Hollywood from 1948-1961. Her lifelong companion and comrade Hammett was also blacklisted, as well as imprisoned, for refusing to feed names the morally and intellectually-starved committee. In 1955, the FBI’s New York office concluded Hellman was “not known to belong to a basic revolutionary organization or to have been engaged in a leadership capacity in front groups during the past three years.” The year that Hellman could return to motion pictures, 1961, was also the year Hammett, her companion of nearly three decades, died at the age of 66. At a strange turning point in her life, she decided to document her turbulent past up to that point. In the ensuing years, Hellman wrote three controversial autobiographical works: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973) and Scoundrel Time (1976). At the 49th Academy Awards ceremony presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1977, Hellman was introduced to the stage by actress Jane Fonda. Hellman described the blacklist that had robbed others of their livelihood, and in some cases of their lives:
Suddenly, even before Senator Joseph McCarthy reached for that rusty and poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this [the motion picture] industry. Possibly they had been men too busy to find personal honor or national honor. Possibly, but certainly they confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with the force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes. . . . I have no regrets of that period. Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have the mischievous pleasure of being restored to respectability, understanding full well that a younger generation who asked me to be here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.
After her speech, Hellman presented the award for Best Documentary Feature to Harlan County, U.S.A., a raw but stirring glimpse into the 1973 strike in which coal miners and their families battled the bosses of the Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in southeast Kentucky. It was fitting for the fiery, pro-labor warrior Hellman to announce the victor in this category. Twenty-two years later, Hellman’s one-time nemesis Elia Kazan was also invited to the Oscars ceremony to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award for film direction. Unlike Hellman, Kazan was not warmly greeted by many in the audience. Many younger members in the crowd refused to stand or applaud when he took the stage, for they did not forget the hard lessons learned from Hellman and other victims of the Red Scare. As she herself had written about the Hollywood Ten:
[W]hy this particular industry, these particular people? Has it anything to do with Communism? Of course not. There has never been a single line or word of Communism in any American picture at any time. There has never or seldom been ideas of any kind. Naturally, men scared to make pictures about the American Negro, men who only in the last year have allowed the word Jew to be spoken in a picture, men who took more than ten years to make an anti-fascist picture, those are frightened men and you pick frightened men to frighten first. Judas goats; they’ll lead the others, maybe, to the slaughter for you....They frighten mighty easy, and they talk mighty bad....I suggest the rest of us don’t frighten so easy. It’s still not un-American to fight the enemies of one’s country. Let’s fight.
HELLMAN was widely known as a difficult and unforgiving person. There were occasions on which she refused to work with someone due to political disagreements. Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names, WROTE in a 2012 article for The Nation: “Sometimes she was difficult on principle: for example, she would not allow her plays to be performed in apartheid South Africa.” Hellman was also accused (notably by novelist Mary McCarthy) of fudging the truth in her memoirs, accusations that led to a much-publicized libel suit that was never resolved. It seems, however, that her major sin, according to her critics, was not renouncing or even rethinking her leftwing beliefs as she grew older -- unlike other left-leaning writers of her era, such as John Dos Passos, who would shift drastically rightwards as the years went on. Spending her later years teaching and lecturing at college campuses across the country, Lillian Hellman died on Martha’s Vineyard in Tisbury on June 30, 1984 at age 79. Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist and National Writers Union member based in Des Moines, Iowa.