“You have a talent for lying,” a relative once told the child Lillian Hellman. Many decades later, a non-relative got her number as well when Mary McCarthy said that “every word Lillian Hellman writes is a lie, including and and the.”
Sandwiched in between these two comments was the lifelong practice of Lillian Hellman’s gift. Whether playwriting (or not playwriting—more on that later), defending Stalin, or reminiscing, Hellman reported what should have been, rather than what was.
Her greatest propaganda effort for the Left wasn’t her knee-jerk defenses of Stalin, but her invention of a relationship between her and Dashiell Hammett that allowed them the image of the Harry and Bess Truman (bickering, but always together) of the limousine Stalinist set.
In reality, Hammett cheated on her numerous times, beat her, and forced her into threesomes. In retaliation, she aborted his child and put her name on his works. “He gave the Little Foxes to me,” she once confided to a friend, and probably the Children’s Hour and Watch on the Rhine as well. The effect of his blue-penciling undoubtedly lies in how her writing suffered after his death. Even when he was busily occupied with serving in World War II, her screen effort, “The North Star,” suffered by his absence. Gone was the realistic dialogue and in its place was speechifying and “Our Town” depictions of Kulaks (this was the film, studio head Harry Cohn later said, “Stalin watched when he was depressed”) that even the Stalinist Hammett wouldn’t have tried to put over.
Hellman’s reminisces mirror the style of her plays too much to have happened, even without the effort of verification. Hammett never encountered Roy Cohn in an elevator, but he should have. Ditto with Hemingway, who he told off as a hyper-masculine lunk. She never broadcast during an aerial bombardment in Loyalist Spain, but in her mind, her fundraising and politics should have allowed her the opportunity.
Hellman constructed a post-Stalinist image of herself that had her abandoning the cause, but again reality intruded. “I can’t help thinking Stalin was right,” she told a friend as late as the early 1980s. Asked about Khrushchev’s secret speech, she denounced him as a “fink.”
Hellman ran her Cape Cod abode like a satellite country, with friends becoming enemies if they socialized with the “other side,” which didn’t necessarily include conservatives, but the Stalinists’ bete noir, the liberal anticommunist. Like the Soviet Union, she must have thought she would live forever or erased enough of reality so that the truth would not reappear after her death.
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