Commentary Magazine


Lillian Hellman

To the Editor:

Thank you for Samuel McCracken’s “‘Julia’ & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman” [June]. The late Miss Hellman’s mendacity is, as Mr. McCracken suggests in his final paragraph, far less important than the fact that “she . . . manipulated millions of readers and moviegoers into admiring her as an ethical exemplar.”

For all that, the real issue is that there truly are millions of people out there eager to be gulled, or at least to be gulled along certain specific lines. I know some of them personally, and to tweak them overmuch on certain subjects (e.g., the line that the West is proto-fascist and the East simply has a few technical problems to iron out in its march to the terrestrial paradise) is tantamount to attacking their religion—you lose friends that way; or you discover, sadly, that friendship is not of great importance to those eager to be gulled. . . .

John R. Dunlap
University of Santa Clara
Santa Clara, California

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To the Editor:

I write to express my admiration for Samuel McCracken’s article and to correct a minor point.

Mr. McCracken writes: “Nor were they [the apologists for the Moscow trials, including Lillian Hellman] bothered by the oddity that the defendants who had pled guilty were then tried. This alone ought to have alerted them. . . .” The guilty plea which replaces a trial is known in Anglo-American courts but not in continental European or, I suspect, in Russian courts. Confessions in these courts do not make a trial legally unnecessary and are not equivalent to guilty pleas.

For any unbiased person there were many indications that the Moscow show trials were based on false accusations and that the confessions too were false, as Khrushchev implied and even Lillian Hellman belatedly admitted.

Ernest van den Haag
New York City

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To the Editor:

In her book, An Unfinished Woman, Lillian Hellman relates that while visiting Moscow in 1944, she had been given permission to visit the Russian front in Poland, to cover the fighting there. In “I Meet the Front-Line Russians,” an article published in Collier’s magazine, on March 31, 1945, she reported her experiences with the gallant Soviets—describing their restraint, their wisdom, their hospitality, and their courtesy.

I too met the front-line Russians. I met them, like Miss Hellman, at almost the same place and time, in Poland in January 1945. And, surprise!, my experiences with the Soviet soldiers were just the opposite of Miss Hellman’s.

I had escaped from a subcamp of Auschwitz. I was hiding in a hayloft awaiting the departure of the Germans and the arrival of the Red Army. After the Germans left, I came out of hiding and moved into the farmhouse. There we were: the farmer’s wife, her daughter, and one young Polish farm worker, awaiting the “liberators.”

They came, about four days after the last German had left. After both women had been raped, one Soviet soldier started to give us a lecture. With his submachine gun swinging from his right shoulder, reeking of alcohol, he stepped up to the little kitchen window, ripped out the shabby curtains, and threw them on the dirt floor of the kitchen, spitting out the word “bourgeois” in contempt. . . .

This first experience with the Great Red Army was followed by many others I had over a period of one year, none of them supporting Lillian Hellman’s glowing description. . . .

Herbert Loebel
Sherman, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

Thanks to Samuel McCracken for his impressively documented—and sorely needed—critique of Lillian Hellman’s vaunted literary “integrity.” At the beginning of the article, however, Mr. McCracken makes two points on the key issue of Julia’s true identity which seem, if I read his words correctly, to cancel each other out.

If we are to accept the strongly persuasive evidence (as both Mr. McCracken and Muriel Gardiner herself apparently do) that Julia and Dr. Gardiner are in reality one and the same, then where does that leave us if, on the other hand, “We may in any event presume that Julia is a real name . . .,” since Dr. Gardiner’s name (including her code name, Mary) is clearly not Julia?

Oscar M. Ostlund, Jr.
Williamsport, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

As the authorized biographer of Lillian Hellman, I have read with interest Samuel McCracken’s piece about her in the June issue of COMMENTARY. The biography will contain a documented, objective account of the writing, publication, and reception of her memoir books, among them Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. There, I believe, will be the place to deal as they deserve with the questions raised by Mr. McCracken and his research assistants.

William Abrahams
Hillsborough, California

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Samuel Mccracken writes:

John R. Dunlap’s summary judgment is one to which I too can subscribe. I am grateful to Ernest van den Haag, both for his praise and for his correction, typical of the fair-mindedness which informs his work.

Herbert Loebel, out of experience as authentic (at least) as Miss Hellman’s, rightly reminds us that with the exception of the defendants at the purge trials and the late L. Beria—after his fall—she appears never to have met a Communist she didn’t like.

I probably misled Oscar M. Ostlund, Jr. by being less clear than I should have been. I ought to have said, “We may in any event presume that Miss Hellman wishes us to believe that Julia is a real name. . . .”

While regretting William Abrahams’s inability or unwillingness to provide answers in a forum that prints rejoinders, I can only look forward to his authorized biography. The question of Miss Hell-man’s memoirs is indeed a vexed one and for reasons of space I did not present all of the problems I encountered. I am of course at Mr. Abrahams’s disposal as he works to disentangle the interwoven strands of fact and fiction in these works.

It will have escaped few readers that between the publication of my essay and the publication of these letters, Miss Hellman has died. Were we to heed the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, perhaps this whole discussion would not be taking place. But that principle did not, in her life, seem to have concerned Miss Hellman much. While she did not actually dance upon graves, none of her portraits, acid or otherwise, dealt with a subject who was alive and able to answer her. So we are perhaps honoring her memory by holding it to the standard of honesty she so famously claimed for herself.

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