Commentary Magazine


“Julia” & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman

In February 1980, Lillian Hellman brought a libel action against Mary McCarthy. Miss McCarthy, appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, had called Miss Hellman a bad and dishonest writer, and had then repeated on television a judgment she had made earlier in an interview: “Every word she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Whether this statement constitutes a libel is properly a concern for the courts. But quite apart from the libel action, which may anyway never come to trial, the incident raises a more general question, the question of the credibility of a very well-known and highly esteemed author. Lillian Hellman’s memoirs have received adulatory notices and are taken as authoritative sources on the life not only of their author but of such prominent literary figures as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and the man with whom Miss Hellman lived, Dashiell Hammett. Moreover, Miss Hellman is widely credited with having set a heroic example when she appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy period and announced, before taking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to answer a question, that she would not “cut [her] conscience to fit this year’s fashion.” It is, therefore, a question of some consequence whether Mary McCarthy is right about Miss Hellman’s honesty.

The answer to this question is to be found in Miss Hellman’s series of memoirs: An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), Scoundrel Time (1976), Three (an annotated compendium of the earlier memoirs, 1979), and Maybe (1980).

The best known of these is undoubtedly Pentimento, which contains a portrait, “Julia,” about a childhood friend. The heroine of this piece, a rich young American, attends Oxford and then the University of Vienna medical school; undergoes analysis at the hands of Sigmund Freud; becomes involved in anti-fascist underground work during the 30’s; and at one point enlists Miss Hellman’s aid in delivering money to the underground in Germany. According to Miss Hellman, Julia had a daughter by one of her fellow students; also, as a result of her work, she had lost a leg. In 1938, fatally wounded by Nazis in Frankfurt, she is smuggled, dying, to London. After her death Miss Hellman receives a telegram from London asking her to advise a funeral home there as to the disposition of the body. In the event, Miss Hellman herself goes to London where she takes charge of the body, brings it back to America, and has it cremated after Julia’s family refuses to accept it.

Miss Hellman fleshes out this outline with her customary taut prose, pungent detail, and barbed expressions of contempt for those actors in the story who fail to meet her moral standards. (I have greatly simplified the memoir here; Miss Hellman recounts in detail her lifelong acquaintance with Julia, and the complex interrelations between the life of Julia and that of another childhood friend.) In 1973, “Julia” was made into a film starring Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, Vanessa Redgrave as Julia, and Jason Robards, Jr. as Dashiell Hammett. All three were nominated for, and Miss Redgrave and Mr. Robards received, the Academy Award.

In 1981, Martha Gellhorn, the well-known reporter who was the second wife of Ernest Hemingway, published an article in the Paris Review severely critical of Miss Hellman’s veracity. Although she dealt largely not with Pentimento but with An Unfinished Woman (in which Miss Gellhorn and Hemingway figure prominently), and thus did not confront “Julia” directly, she raised en passant grave doubts about the internal consistency of Miss Hellman’s account of the travels which included the delivery of money to Julia. These I shall take up presently.

Then, in 1983, the psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner published a memoir, Code Name: “MARY,” which disclosed startling similarities to the life story of Miss Hellman’s Julia. Dr. Gardiner, like Julia, was born to wealth, enrolled at Oxford, and then traveled to Vienna in the 1920’s where she attended the University of Vienna medical school and underwent analysis; like Julia, too, she became involved in anti-fascist underground work during the 1930’s. The main differences between Dr. Gardiner and Miss Hellman’s Julia are that Dr. Gardiner failed to persuade Freud to undertake her analysis, did not lose a leg, and survived to tell the tale.

Dr. Gardiner reports that from the appearance of Pentimento in 1973, people began to make a connection between her and Julia. She says that she wrote Miss Hellman about the matter. Miss Hellman has stated that she does not remember getting the letter, and has flatly denied any connection between the two women. She also says she cannot, for legal reasons, announce the true identity of Julia.

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To accept the striking parallels between Muriel Gardiner and Julia as mere coincidence would require something like an act of faith. We must believe that all during the 1930’s, one of Muriel Gardiner’s fellow students in Vienna was, quite unknown to her, also at the center of the anti-Nazi resistance. Moreover, we must believe that this other freedom fighter escaped the notice of the documentation archives of the Austrian resistance—for Dr. Gardiner tells us that the director of those archives knows nothing of her presumed Doppelgänger. Indeed, he has taken pains to ask many survivors of the resistance whether they knew a second American woman, and the answer has always been “No. Only ‘Mary.’”

But did Miss Hellman have access to information about Dr. Gardiner? Nothing about Dr. Gardiner’s career was published until 1973, when her husband, the historian Joseph Buttinger, contributed a brief memoir to a professional journal. But as it happens, Wolf Schwabacher, a close friend of Dr. Gardiner and her husband, was for some years also Miss Hellman’s attorney. Dr. Gardiner recounts that Schwabacher frequently told stories about Miss Hellman, and that he had been much interested in Dr. Gardiner’s own work in the Austrian underground. Miss Hellman, for her part, denies that Schwabacher ever told her about Dr. Gardiner. Since he died in 1951, the issue cannot be finally resolved, but he must be considered a possible source through which Miss Hellman could have become aware of Dr. Gardiner’s activities.

Miss Hellman’s own account of Julia presents difficulties to an investigator. To begin with, she tells us she has changed “most” of the names.1 Her reason for changing Julia’s name in particular is that Julia’s mother is still alive. But Miss Hellman never mentions Julia’s last name, so presumably what she means is not that she has changed it but that she has suppressed it. It is not clear why, however, since her contempt for Julia’s family—“bastards all”—is close to uncompromised. We may in any event presume that Julia is a real name since we are told that Julia described Donne’s poem “To Julia” as a “tribute” to her.

Another suppressed name is that of a heavy woman with whom Miss Hellman rode on a train from Paris to Berlin. Miss Hellman is protective of her because she thinks the woman still lives in Cologne, and she is not sure whether even now the Germans like their premature anti-Nazis. This is rather an odd remark for two reasons: nothing in the account suggests that Miss Hellman ever had contact with this woman after leaving her in the train station in Berlin; and one would have thought, from the career of Willy Brandt alone, that the Germans are reasonably tolerant of their premature anti-Nazis.

Other names in Pentimento are equally elusive. Miss Hellman designates a “Moore’s funeral home in Whitechapel Road,” but the London telephone book for 1938 does not show a listing for such an establishment. Perhaps she means Smith’s funeral home in Gray’s Inn Road, or perhaps it does not matter, since she also tells us that in 1944 she visited the site of this establishment and found it flattened by enemy action. Likewise for the nonexistence of a “Dr. Chester Lowe,” said by Miss Hellman to have been in custody of Julia’s body at 30 Downshire Hill; or for any named person in “Julia” other than those who, like Miss Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, are elsewhere attested.

But verification of Miss Hellman’s account does not hang on names and streets. Much can be achieved by a close analysis of the text of “Julia” against the background in which it is set. Here the spadework has been done by Martha Gellhorn, who has demonstrated that there are very serious problems with the chronology of Miss Hellman’s comings and goings in the fall of 1937. The discussion that follows is deeply indebted to Miss Gellhorn.

The Normandie, carrying Miss Hellman, Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell, as well as Miss Gellhorn, reached France on August 27, 1937. Miss Hellman tells us in one memoir that she spent three weeks, in another a month, in Paris before going to Moscow, where she was to attend a world theater festival. This means that her trip to Moscow cannot have begun earlier than the last week of September. The date is further nailed down by Miss Hellman’s noting that she subsequently told Julia’s grandmother that she had seen Julia in Berlin “in October,” when she was on her way to Moscow. She tells us further that her trunk arrived in Moscow “two weeks” after leaving Berlin. October 1 is therefore a terminus a quo for Berlin, and she must have been in Moscow at least until October 15. She spent “several” weeks in Prague before returning to Paris. She was thus not back in Paris before the first of November; she spent “a few” days in Paris before proceeding to Spain.

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One problem with all this is that in An Unfinished Woman Miss Hellman gives a detailed chronology for her activities in Spain, starting with October 13, a date on which she was presumably still in Moscow. It does not seem likely that her memory is playing her false about the date of her arrival in Spain, since it is given in what is apparently a verbatim extract from her diary. Besides, Miss Gellhorn reports seeing Miss Hellman in Madrid on October 15.

There is a further difficulty with Miss Hellman’s chronology. The world theater festival in Moscow, as Martha Gellhorn notes, ran from September 1 to September 10, 1937. It is a little hard to understand how Miss Hellman could have attended this event if she did not get under way for Moscow before October 1. Even if her memory of having seen Julia “in October” is a slip for “in September,” she would not have been able to spend three weeks or a month in Paris and still have made the festival.

Moreover, Miss Hellman reports that the only play at the festival that impressed her was a production of Hamlet; according to Miss Gellhorn, there is no record of a production of this play in Moscow during 1937.

Miss Hellman could not, therefore, have carried out the entire program she describes in her memoirs in the time she said she had for it. Some of these events, if they happened at all, must have happened at times and in ways other than she says they did.

While Miss Hellman’s account of how she actually occupied herself in Paris during the three to four weeks she says she spent there is extremely vague, her account of her trip from Paris to Moscow is extremely circumstantial. Let us see what we can make of it.

While in Paris, Miss Hellman talks on the telephone with Julia, and tells her that she will make a detour on the way to Moscow to see her in Vienna. Julia proposes instead a rendezvous in Berlin, the purpose of which will be explained by an emissary she will send in a few days. In due time, a man who calls himself Johann approaches Miss Hellman at her Paris hotel and tells her that Julia wants her to smuggle $50,000 for the underground as she passes through Berlin on the way to Moscow. Johann is to meet Miss Hellman at the train station the next morning, and if she is willing to undertake the task she will say “hello” to him.

The next morning Miss Hellman arrives at the station in the unwanted company of Dorothy Parker and her husband, and after a contretemps in which Johann is nearly driven off, she conveys her willingness to carry the money. Once on the train, she meets a young man who says he is Johann’s nephew. He presents her with a hatbox and a box of candy, saying that they are from “Miss Julia.” There is a note from Julia attached to the hatbox, advising her that at the border crossing she should leave the candy box on the seat and wear the hat when she leaves the train to go through immigration control. Once the train is on its way, Miss Hellman realizes that she has no idea whether the border will come in a few minutes or a few hours.

In her compartment, Miss Hellman has found two German women, one thin and one heavy. At lunch time, the heavy woman invites her to go to the restaurant car for lunch, and Miss Hellman demurs, saying that she doesn’t know when they will be crossing the border. Assured that they will not reach the border until late afternoon, she goes off to lunch, where she learns that the heavy woman is a graduate student returning to her home in Cologne. When the border crossing is reached, the thin woman insists that Miss Hellman wear the hat. Once Miss Hellman has returned to the car, during which time there is a customs examination, the thin woman, over her protests, opens the box of candy, removes a piece, and eats it.

At the station in Berlin, where all three women leave the train, Miss Hellman is met by a man and woman; the woman greets her effusively, regretting that she cannot stay longer, but consoling herself that they will have a visit of a few hours. The woman then disappears and the man tells Miss Hellman to get a restaurant recommendation from the official at the gate, to go to the recommended restaurant but, should it not be Albert’s, to proceed from the recommended restaurant to Albert’s. At Albert’s, Miss Hellman encounters Julia on crutches, minus a leg. She transfers the hat to Julia. After appropriate thanks, they talk, and Julia tells Miss Hellman—whose visa will not allow her to stay in Berlin overnight—to get her train at Bahnhof 200 (presumably a typographical error for Bahnhof Zoo). She will be shadowed by the underground to the station and then on the train to Warsaw; her unseen escort will be in the car to her left.

Miss Hellman boards the train, and in the morning, as the train pulls into Warsaw, she sees a figure gesturing at her from the platform; she recognizes the young man who had sat with her at dinner the night before. Shortly thereafter a voice—presumably that of the young man—speaking English from the corridor informs her that all is well but that the Germans have taken her trunk off the train; she should wait a few hours before inquiring about it, advice which Miss Hellman follows.

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This narrative is shot through with improbabilities. The first of these is the mission itself. As Muriel Gardiner’s memoir shows, it would have been perfectly easy for Julia to have money brought to her in Vienna by an open courier; Miss Hellman herself says that the Morgan Bank had been sending Julia large sums of money all over Europe. Why then the need to smuggle? And even if we grant that need, why could Julia not accept the money from Miss Hellman in Vienna rather than taking a trip north to Berlin? An underground operative on crutches, with a badly fitting false leg, is a sight easily marked. Why should Julia have involved herself so visibly in the exchange? Muriel Gardiner herself has said of this part of the story that it is so violative of good underground practice as to be unbelievable.

Why is Miss Hellman sent as a courier on the same train with the thin woman and the heavy woman? Either of these two could have carried the money without involving Miss Hellman, about whose abilities as an operative Julia expresses open skepticism and whose destination of Moscow attracts attention to herself, restricting her to a transit visa in Berlin. And if the two women, as members of a resistance group, are subject to surveillance, why are they on the mission? Especially, why are two of them on the train, both exposing themselves to arrest when one would have served to nursemaid Miss Hellman? For the operation is certainly overstaffed: in addition to Julia herself, there are two people in Paris, two on the train, two waiting for Miss Hellman in Berlin, an unspecified number trailing Miss Hellman in Berlin, and the man on the train to Warsaw. Most of these could have been replaced with a single operative in Paris, bringing her the candy and the hatbox. Miss Hellman says that her instructions for the border crossing were conveyed to her in a note from Julia; this note could also have contained instructions for the Berlin rendezvous.

Other questions present themselves. Miss Hellman’s uncertainty about when the train from Paris will reach the border is surprising in one who had lived for extended periods in Germany and France; could she have thought Berlin might be a suburb of Paris? If the heavier of the two women is on her way to Cologne, why does she stay on the train to Berlin, 250 miles beyond her stop? What is the significance of the box of candy, which makes repeated appearances but for no apparent reasons? When Miss Hellman is met in Berlin, why should her welcomers loudly announce that she will spend a few hours with them and then leave immediately after telling her to go straight to Julia? Why is the money transferred in public? Why does Julia tell Miss Hellman to take the train for Moscow at Bahnhof Zoo, requiring her to double back several miles to the west and use a small station, where she would be more conspicuous than at a large one? When Julia tells Miss Hellman that her escort will be in a car to the left, how can she know not only the order in which various carriages would be cut into the long train but also whether Miss Hellman’s own carriage would be positioned with the corridor on the left or right?

To all these questions, one might answer that truth is stranger than fiction. But besides these internal inconsistencies and puzzlements there are a great many more involving Miss Hellman’s other published work and the world of reality.

In the account of the Paris-Moscow trip given in An Unfinished Woman, Miss Hellman says that she had a five-hour layover in Berlin and that the Soviets sent a young consular officer to look after her during that period. This functionary simply disappears from the tale as told in Pentimento. In An Unfinished Woman, Miss Hellman tells us that her trunk disappeared from the Berlin-Moscow train after the train left Germany. She records that the Polish conductor told her “I would receive it in Moscow, the Nazis were not barbarians, a mistake had been made, my name was German.” The trunk did arrive in Moscow two weeks later, “the insides slashed to pieces, every book . . . torn apart, every bottle emptied.”

There is an alternative version to all this in Pentimento. The Polish conductor’s sang-froid is much less marked: “He was upset when he told me the German customs people had removed the trunk, that often happened, but he was sure it would be sent on to me in Moscow after a few days, nothing unusual, the German swine [non-barbarian swine, to be sure] often did it now.” The damage list in Moscow is also different: “The lining was in shreds, the drawers broken, but only a camera was missing and four or five books.”

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These conflicts with Miss Hellman’s other works, however, are as nothing compared with the problems Miss Hellman’s account raises with external reality. Miss Hellman says that she took an “early morning” train from Paris. It is possible to be very precise about the facts of train service in Europe in the 30’s, thanks to the monthly Continental Railway Timetables issued by Thomas Cook & Sons. In September and October of 1937, the only early morning train from Paris to Berlin left the Gare du Nord at eight. It was a comparatively slow train, and its Berlin carriages finally reached Berlin at 11:44 at night. There would actually have been no reason for Miss Hellman to take the eight o’clock train, because a later train, leaving at 10:10 A.M., also included Berlin carriages arriving at 11:44 P.M.

Miss Hellman says that the train crossed the German border in late afternoon; in reality the eight o’clock train arrived at Aachen at 2:34. Even the later train crossed the border in mid-afternoon, at 3:24. Nor was this the first border crossing of the journey. The only practical route between Berlin and Paris runs through Belgium (as General von Schlieffen and his successors on the Prussian general staff were acutely aware). Yet about crossing the Belgian frontier Miss Hellman is entirely silent. Indeed, she seems unaware that she has passed through Belgium, for at the crossing into Germany she is reassured to think that she is still near France.

Then there are the even greater difficulties with the trip from Berlin to Moscow. Miss Hellman tells us that she took the train at the Zoo station. But the trains from Berlin to Moscow did not stop at the Zoo station, calling rather at the Friedrichstrasse and Schlesien stations. Furthermore, the only evening train from Berlin to Moscow left Berlin at 5:43 from the Friedrichstrasse station and at 6:13 from the Schlesien station: Miss Hellman could not have taken this train on a day when she left Paris at eight and did not arrive in Berlin until 11:44 P.M. Yet she tells us plainly not merely that she left Berlin at night, but that she was obliged to do so because her visa would not allow her to stay overnight, a point she mentions twice.

The only way Miss Hellman could have traveled from Paris to Moscow without stopping overnight in Berlin would have been by taking the Nord Express from Paris at 7:15 the preceding evening. But such a trip would have been entirely inconsistent with Miss Hellman’s account of a daytime journey from Paris to Berlin. Moreover, the Nord Express spent a total of thirty-one minutes in Berlin, hardly enough time for Miss Hellman’s purposes. Nor, after leaving Berlin, could she have awakened, as she says she did, in Warsaw the next morning, since the Nord Express reached Warsaw at 4:32 in the afternoon.

These minutiae, taken in sum, are not trivial. They cannot be explained away by a failing memory. What is more important, they are not mere corroborative detail, they are facts upon which Miss Hellman insists. Yet, when disproved, they shatter the credibility of her entire account. To the basic improbability that Miss Hellman knew a Doppelgänger of Muriel Gardiner is thus added the difficulty that her account of this trip rings false wherever it is struck. Almost every detail is either improbable to a degree that would disgrace a third-rate thriller, or plainly contradicted by the historical record.

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The narrative of her trip to Moscow is one key passage in Miss Hellman’s story of Julia; the other key passage recounts Julia’s death in May 1938 and Miss Hellman’s journey to London to claim her body.

On May 23 she receives in New York a telegram from London:

Julia has been killed stop please advise Moore’s funeral home Whitechapel Road London what disposition stop my sorrow for you for all of us.

The cable, signed John Watson, bears no address.

Miss Hellman’s reaction to this is to get drunk for two days. On the third morning, she goes around to the home of Julia’s grandparents, finds them out of the country, and engages the butler in an argument. That evening, Dashiell Hammett, who ordinarily does not like her to travel, persuades her to go to London to look into matters. Miss Hellman makes her way thither and proceeds to the funeral home, where Mr. Moore apologizes to her for his inability to cover the wounds on Julia’s face, but remarks that the scars on the body are worse. She leaves for a brief time and when she returns the undertaker gives her a note:

Dear Miss Hellman,

We have counted on your coming but perhaps it is not possible for you, so I will send a carbon of this to your New York address. No one of us knows what disposition her family wishes to make, where they might want what should be a hero’s funeral. It is your right to know that the Nazis found her in Frankfurt, in the apartment of a colleague. We got her to London in the hope of saving her. Sorry that I cannot be here to help you. It is better that I take my sorrow for this wonderful woman into action and perhaps revenge. Yours, John Watson, who speaks here for many others. Salud.

Miss Hellman leaves the funeral home again, and when she later calls to get John Watson’s address, she is told that the funeral man has never heard of Watson. He had received the body from one Dr. Chester Lowe at 30 Downshire Hill. Miss Hellman goes there and finds a large house converted to flats; Dr. Lowe’s name is not on the nameplate. She then returns with the body to New York, sailing on “the old De Grasse.”

In America, she goes to the house of Julia’s grandmother, where the family shows no interest in receiving the body. She has it cremated and the ashes deposited in an unspecified location. In later years, she makes unsuccessful attempts to locate Julia’s daughter, whom Julia had told her in Berlin was living with foster parents in Mulhouse, in Alsace. The family is notably uncooperative in her efforts. The tale ends years later with Miss Hellman meeting a distant cousin of Julia who denies any knowledge of the child’s existence.

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This account, like that of the trip to Berlin, is troubled with improbabilities. Why did Watson and his associates inform Miss Hellman rather than Julia’s family? Why did he “count on” Miss Hellman’s coming to London when he did not ask her to do so? Why did Julia’s colleagues, once having gotten her out of Germany, bring her, gravely wounded, all the way to London rather than stopping in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, or France? Going to London would have at least doubled the distance of the journey, and, given the sea crossing, would have increased the time by even more. Would they have taken a badly wounded, indeed, dying, woman aboard a Channel or North Sea steamer? Or, more improbably still in 1938, an airliner? And why did Miss Hellman return home on a ship that, as one can verify from a check of the records, sailed from Le Havre and called at no British port?

Diane Johnson, in a new biography of Dashiell Hammett, written with Miss Hellman’s full cooperation, reports that in the spring of 1938 Hammett, while working in Hollywood, suffered a serious physical and mental breakdown. His friends put him on a plane to New York, where he was received by what Miss Johnson describes as a “terrified Lillian.” On May 23, when Miss Hellman received Watson’s telegram, Hammett was in Lenox Hill Hospital in serious condition, and did not leave there until the middle of June. Miss Hellman mentions none of this; but it seems on the face of it improbable that she would have left Hammett’s bedside, and even more improbable that she would not have mentioned the fact in her account.

It is also inconceivable that Julia’s death would not have come to the attention of the English authorities. There would have been some explaining to do to the immigration authorities about Julia’s condition when she arrived in England. The undertaker would have insisted on a death certificate for the body, which no doctor would have given, for under English law, any doctor who cannot certify a natural cause for a death must notify the police, who then set an inquest in motion. And there would have been complicated legal formalities attendant on exporting the corpse. Yet two separate searches by Scotland Yard (made at my request in August and September 1983) failed to find any record of Julia’s presence in London: no report to the police of her violent death, no record of the inevitable coroner’s inquest. Nor are there any records of the corpse leaving the United Kingdom, in or out of Miss Hellman’s company.

Finally, Miss Hellman tells us that she returned home on “the old De Grasse.” As I have said, this is a rather odd choice for a lady traveling with a corpse, necessitating as it would have done a Channel crossing to Le Havre and additional customs formalities. The De Grasse sailed from Le Havre on June 9, reaching New York on the 17th. The passenger list of the De Grasse for this crossing has survived, and Miss Hellman does not appear on it. Nor does she appear on the passenger lists of the Normandie or the Aquitania or any of the two dozen ships that arrived in New York from Channel and North Sea ports during the first through the third weeks of June. Was she traveling incognito? To have done so would have required a false passport, something useful in underground work but which she nowhere mentions as being among her effects.

In short, the account of the 1938 London trip is no more satisfactory than that of the 1937 Berlin one: it is improbable on its face, and its details are at sharp variance with the public record.

But the Pentimento account is not the end of the matter. Miss Hellman continues the tale in her 1979 commentary on “Julia” in Three. There she relates that many people had been trying to guess the true identity of Julia, but only one, a distant cousin, had succeeded. Miss Hellman tells us further that she cannot identify Julia for legal reasons: her publishers fear a lawsuit for invasion of privacy. As any author knows, publishers’ lawyers do tend toward caution in these matters, but considering that the subject of this memoir had already been dead for thirty-five years when it was published, this caution seems excessive.

Still more interestingly, Miss Hellman writes that after the English edition of Pentimento appeared, a London physician to whom she assigns the pseudonym “Smith” contacted her claiming to have been raised in the house—30 Downshire Hill—from which the undertaker had obtained Julia’s body. He objected, she says, to her having accused his father, also a doctor, of having issued a false death certificate for Julia. (But no death certificate is mentioned anywhere in Pentimento.) Miss Hellman says that she knew she had changed the name of the physician from his real one to “Lowe,” and that she thought she had changed the address as well. There are thus presumably four names involved here: the two pseudonyms “Smith” and “Lowe,” and the real names of “Lowe” in 1938 and “Smith” today. Miss Hellman must know the real name of “Lowe” in order to know that she had changed it; if it was not the same as the real name of “Smith,” then “Smith’s” entire claim to knowledge of the affair is demolished. But if it is the same, Miss Hellman does not say so.

As to the address, she says she was unsure of it because her notes on the London trip had been made some time after the event. A reading of Pentimento reveals that in 1973 Miss Hellman was claiming to have no notes whatever of the London trip.

There is more that Miss Hellman reports in Three. On her next visit to London following this first exchange, the younger Dr. Smith telephoned and proposed a rendezvous which he did not in the event attend. He then telephoned again, and there were confused background conversations with his infirm parent, who conveyed his approbation of Miss Hellman’s having done “some justice” to Julia. Finally, the younger Dr. Smith told Miss Hellman that his family had always known the whereabouts and fate of Julia’s daughter. The Germans, invading Alsace, had made straight for the house where she was living and had killed both her and her foster parents.

Miss Hellman, inexplicably, remarks that she was glad to hear the child was dead. She ends her 1979 commentary on “Julia” by justifying her reluctance to research the Smith/Lowe connection further on the grounds that no nation pays honor to its premature anti-Nazis. There is a classical fitness about this, for it is with a similar passage that she began her tale of Julia. It is no more intelligible here: the most distinguished British premature anti-Nazi was named Winston Churchill, and he and his fellows who opposed Hitler in the 1930’s derived great honor thereby as long as they lived. It is preposterous to imagine that anyone in England could suffer by being recognized today as having been anti-Nazi in 1937 or 1938. All the passage does is to smear British society with the charge of pro-fascism. This, indeed, was once a familiar charge of the “premature anti-Nazis” (as many later took to calling themselves) associated with the Daily Worker and other Communist and pro-Communist publications in the period up until the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.

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Before leaving the topic of Julia altogether, we should notice an earlier appearance by her in Miss Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman. The reference comes in Miss Hellman’s account of her early days as a manuscript reader for the publishing firm of Horace Liveright. One of Liveright’s prize authors, Samuel Hopkins Adams, is working on a sequel to his novel, Flaming Youth. In order to update his knowledge of the sexual mores of the young, he interviews Miss Hellman and two of her colleagues. They cannot resist the temptation to guy him: one of them, named Alice, tells him that only her confessor has the full details of her experience, but that she can make him write them down, her father being a papal count. At this point in the narrative, Miss Hellman inserts a characteristic aside about Alice’s later career: “Her father was a rich Jew from Detroit and she was already started on the road to Marxism that would lead her, as a student doctor, to be killed in the Vienna riots of 1934.”

Here at last, if not long before, we must reject the long arm of coincidence. It is simply beyond believing that in addition to the undoubted existence of Muriel Gardiner, there were two other rich young American Marxist women at the University of Vienna medical school during the 1930’s, and that both of them were personal friends of Miss Hellman. She mentions no such extraordinary coincidence in Pentimento. In Dr. Gardiner’s Code Name: “MARY,” Alice no more appears than does Julia, nor does she appear—under any name—in the New York Times account of the February 1934 fighting.

It is, however, suggestive that having inserted Alice/Julia into the narrative of her own life, Miss Hellman kills her off—in An Unfinished Woman in 1934, in Pentimento four years later (after first mutilating her by the loss of a leg). Readers of a Freudian bent may have something to ponder here.

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If the tale of Julia were the only example of untrustworthiness in Miss Hellman’s memoirs, one might conclude that it represents no more than a bizarre aberration in the career of a writer otherwise deserving of the reputation for fierce integrity that she has claimed for herself and that has brought her widespread esteem. But if Martha Gellhorn is to be believed, Miss Hellman’s account of her 1937 trip to Spain is as little to be trusted as her account of Julia. And other such problems in Miss Hellman’s work exist as well.

In one of the pieces in Pentimento Miss Hellman portrays a rich lawyer, Arthur W.A. Cowan, who imposes his company on her over the course of several decades, constantly trying to buy her friendship with lavish gifts of things she does not care for. Hammett does not like him much. At the end of their acquaintance, Cowan becomes involved with a mysterious government agency which may or not be the CIA, and in 1964 he dies in a no less mysterious automobile accident in Spain.

Throughout their acquaintance Cowan talks with Miss Hellman about money. At one point he demands to be allowed to handle all her financial affairs; it is not clear that she accedes to this request. At another point, a London bank informs Miss Hellman it is holding certain securities belonging to Cowan which will come to her in the event of his death. He frequently promises Miss Hellman that he will leave her something nice in his will, a promise, she tells us, he has made to others of his lady friends. According to Miss Hellman, however, his will, “a will that he certainly wrote and rewrote through the years,” disappeared and has never been found. She adds that two of Cowan’s other lady friends eventually made claims against the estate by producing letters, similar to ones she had received promising a legacy.

Now, Cowan’s will did not disappear. It reposes in the records of the Register of Wills in Philadelphia, where it has been since early 1965.2 It consists of three separate holograph documents written by Cowan in 1960 and 1961, making three separate bequests. One is a life income to a lady friend—not Miss Hellman; another is a gift of certain British and South African securities to another lady friend—not Miss Hellman; the third leaves all Cowan’s real estate to his sister. A number of Cowan’s relatives disputed this will on the technical ground that it was meant to be conditional (it had been written partially on hotel stationery), but in May 1966—seven years before Miss Hellman’s assertion in Pentimento that no will had ever been found—the Register of Wills concluded that it was meant to be absolute, and admitted it to probate.

What is behind this flat contradiction? The answer is partially provided by an account given by Richard Layman in his biography of Dashiell Hammett, Shadow Man, and confirmed by documents in the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. A business partnership between Miss Hellman and Arthur W.A. Cowan began after Hammett’s death, when Miss Hellman, as executrix, was faced with the problem of settling an estate that contained almost nothing in liquid assets and nearly $200,000 in debts to the government. The principal assets in the estate were some of Hammett’s copyrights, and Miss Hellman and Cowan proposed to the court that together they should buy these for $2,000. In asking for this agreeable arrangement, they argued that Miss Hellman might write Hammett’s life, and would therefore need to control his copyrights. (In literary terms this is a non sequitur at best, and in any event Miss Hellman has stated her intention never to write a biography of Hammett.) The probate judge directed that the copyrights should be sold at auction with a reserve price of $5,000. Hellman and Cowan were the successful bidders at the minimum bid.

The Copyright Office contains the bill of sale, in which Miss Hellman as executrix transfers all of Hammett’s literary property to herself and Cowan as individuals. A schedule attached to the bill of sale lists all of Hammett’s novels and over thirty short stories. Since Hammett’s books largely remain in print, his copyrights produce a nice piece of change. It is surprising, to say the least, that Miss Hellman should not have mentioned Cowan’s role as the architect of this arrangement.

Richard Layman offers the additional piece of information that Cowan’s share of the copyright was left to Miss Hellman after his death. There is no evidence for this in the will on file in Philadelphia, but the Copyright Office contains two documents, one dated 1967, another 1974, by which Cowan’s sister, the executrix of his estate, warrants not only that the estate has no claim of ownership in any of three named stories, but that as far as the Cowan estate is concerned, “Miss Lillian Hellman has the full rights to deal with or dispose of the Dashiell Hammett literary properties.”

It is not obvious what lies behind this quitclaim—possibly Miss Hellman convinced Cowan’s sister that Cowan had intended his share in the copyrights to go to Miss Hellman, and as executrix Cowan’s sister treated this as a valid claim against the estate. But whatever the explanation, certainly nothing in Pentimento would prepare one for the view of Miss Hellman’s relationship with Cowan that is revealed by the fact. The account given by her depicts Cowan’s benefactions as unwanted or chimerical. The true history of his relation to the Hammett copyrights shows him to have been unaffectedly generous to Miss Hellman in his lifetime, and perhaps after.

In Three (1979), Miss Hellman reports that a lively correspondence grew up over her portrait of Cowan in Pentimento. There were, for example, denunciatory letters from pseudonymous correspondents in Philadelphia. She does not supply details of these, but suggests that they may have come from disgruntled relatives, concerned about her “intimation that he had written a will that was never found.”

She had, of course, done more than intimate: she had stated outright that the will had never been found, a falsehood that might well have caused concern among Cowan’s family. Her 1979 commentary does not, for some reason, mention the correspondence which she must have conducted, directly or through intermediaries, with Cowan’s sister, and which led to her possessing a full share in the copyrights. But it is hard to disagree with Miss Hellman’s own judgment in this commentary that Cowan deserved “something better from me if only I could have found it or said it.”

_____________

 

Another very large area in which Miss Hellman’s latter-day memory does not square with history is her treatment of her former political opinions. Since this is one realm in which others—particularly in reviews of Scoundrel Time—have pointed out misstatements and inconsistencies in her account, our discussion of it here can be brief.

Miss Hellman has been hesitant to put a name to her political stand in the 1930’s. She was, she says in one place, “nobody’s girl”; in “Julia,” she suggests that she was somewhere between a Jeffersonian Democrat and a simple agrarian reformer, full of “the strong feelings the early Roosevelt period brought to many people.” She does admit on two occasions that she was slow to see the faults in what she calls “Stalin Communism.” But she also says, “The truth is that I never thought about Stalin at all.”

This is a rather odd failing in someone who had visited Moscow during the Great Purge. Miss Hellman has an explanation for this, and she repeats it twice in the expanded version of An Unfinished Woman—once in the 1969 account of her 1937 trip to Moscow, and once in her 1979 reflection on her account of a later trip to Moscow. The explanation is that she did not know about the purge trials when she went to Moscow; the people at the U.S. embassy were full of dark stories about the Soviet regime, but their malice toward it was so apparent that she did not believe them.

If she did not know about the purge trials before she went to Moscow, presumably some time in September or October 1937, she was remarkably ill-informed. By this time, the 1935 trial of Kamenev and Zinoviev, as well as their 1936 retrial (the first of the great show trials), and the 1937 show trial of the alleged Trotskyists, had all been held and fully reported in the press. Additionally, in 1937 Marshal Tukhachevsky and other members of the general staff had been tried in camera and their executions announced. If Miss Hellman was in fact unaware of all this, she had to be living in a cave.

That she was not living in a cave is evident from two statements published in the Communist party newspaper, the Daily Worker. The first, on February 9, 1937, just after the defendants in the 1937 show trial had been shot, appeals to American liberals to reject the proposal of John Dewey and Sidney Hook for a thorough investigation of the second Moscow trial; the statement defends the trial as entirely justified. One of the signatories is Lillian Hellman, “dramatist and author.” The second, on April 28, 1938, states the belief of the signatories—Miss Hellman among them—that the third show trial was entirely fair, that the Soviet Union should be allowed to deal with its traitors in its own way, and that the United States is facing a fascist attempt to destroy democracy similar to that just nipped in the bud by the Soviet Union.

The fact is that the signatories had no independent evidence whatsoever as to the truth of the charges. They simply accepted, without a trace of skepticism, the monstrously false case of the prosecutor. Nor were they bothered by the oddity that defendants who had pled guilty were then tried. This alone ought to have alerted them that something other than the efficient and fair administration of criminal justice was afoot. Finally, it is inconceivable that someone who thus twice joined with others to defend Stalin’s crimes “never thought about Stalin at all.”

In her 1979 commentary on An Unfinished Woman, Miss Hellman relates that when “[she] knew about the purges,” she secured a history of them and read aloud from it with Hammett. Her conclusion was that lawyers are the same the world over, and that Vyshinsky, the state prosecutor, was a “tricky old bastard . . . and a disgusting cheap-jack.” Are we to conclude that she signed the two Daily Worker statements without reading the full coverage of the trials printed in the New York Times and the Daily Worker)

In a diary entry attributed to 1944, Miss Hellman reflects on the purges of 1937-38: “Great honor must and will be paid those who tossed about in silent doubt and despair, but it is even harder to believe that they did not understand what was happening.” What attitude should we adopt, then, toward one who, far from keeping an agonized silence, publicly apologized for the trials, and attacked those who “did protest”?

Finally, defending herself against the charge that she has been pro-Communist, Miss Hellman tells us:

I have always sent money to the early dissidents, who have sometimes used it to eat with or, more often, shared it with others who needed it even more. A number of people took it in for me, some bewildered, some knowing the risks. When the attacks on Scoundrel Time came I had a letter from one man who transmitted money for me many times. He offered to write a public letter and say that. It was brave of him, because he is a journalist and it would have cost him his job.

As is often the case in her pages, Miss Hellman’s claim is too vague to know what to make of it. Her apparent willingness to use people who did not know the risks they were taking requires no comment. But it is especially unclear what bearing a letter attesting to her charity would have had on the criticism of Scoundrel Time. The burden of her critics was not that she had been beastly to dissidents, but rather that she had fiddled with the facts about her political views and her role in testifying before Congress. Nor it is clear why this ghost would have lost his job for his actions.

Miss Hellman’s memoirs are studded with accounts of her philanthropies. Such acts of charity are all very fine, but the early dissidents, whoever they might have been, would have benefited as much—or more—from her public support. She was, after all, a person of immense prestige within the Soviet Union, to this day one of the two U.S. playwrights of the 1930’s mentioned by name—for her “progressive” work—in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

_____________

 

In 1980, Miss Hellman published a fourth memoir with the pregnant title of Maybe. Although Maybe is apposite to a study of Miss Hellman because it is about a woman who lies about her past, its substance need not concern us. Its theme should, however, for it is largely about memory, fallibility, and the need to be honest.

Miss Hellman interrupts her narrative at one point to interpose a reflection:

It goes without saying that in their memoirs people should try to tell the truth as they see it or else what’s the sense? Maybe time blurs or changes things for them. But you try, anyway. In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth.

This dogged proclamation echoes two earlier passages. One appears in the preface to Three: “I tried in these books to tell the truth. I did not fool with facts.” The other appears in “Julia,” and it is the most pointed of all:

I think I have always known about my memory: I know when it is to be trusted and when some dream or fantasy entered on the life, and the dream, the need of dream, led to the distortion of what happened. And so I knew early that the rampage angers of an only child were distorted nightmares of reality. But I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia.

This is a remarkable statement: that part of her past which, when placed against the template of reality, displays the most incongruities, is just the part of her past about which Miss Hellman feels the surest.

Many of the facts misrepresented by Miss Hellman are not in themselves terribly important. Nor is her inaccurate reporting on various people she has known unique among memoirists. In time, if literary historians learn to use her cautiously, her contaminating effect on our knowledge of our times may prove minor.

The real issue posed by Miss Hellman’s behavior is that she has manipulated millions of readers and moviegoers into admiring her as an ethical exemplar, and as a ruthlessly honest writer. Her eventual reputation in this regard—whatever might be the outcome of her suit against Mary McCarthy—will tell us a good deal about the health, intellectual no less than moral, of our literary establishment.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 In August 1983 I wrote Miss Hellman to ask which of the names were real and which pseudonymous. She has not answered.

2 For his assistance in extracting a copy of this will from the Philadelphia authorities, I am deeply indebted to Donald Gosnay.

About the Author




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