Deception & Misdirection

What heroes are made of

[Continuing our series on deception in politics and public policy.]

When the writer Lillian Hellman was buried, America’s elite turned out for her funeral.

Katherine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post, was there, as was MIT president-emeritus Jerome Wiesner, who had been President Kennedy’s science advisor. Also present were Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, journalist Carl Bernstein, movie directors Warren Beatty and Mike Nichols, playwright/cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and novelists William Styron and Norman Mailer. And the executors of the $4 million Hellman estate–Kingman Brewster, the former president of Yale and former ambassador to Britain, and novelist John Hersey.

It was a star-studded sendoff that summer day 31 years ago. “Lillian Hellman was remembered as a courageous woman who stuck to her principles,” reported United Press International. Said MIT’s Wiesner*, “I have been able to see young people’s faces light up when they hear her name. To them, she is one of the heroine of our time.”

The Reuters news service eulogized Hellman as “a heroine to United States liberals.” The New Republic called her “a model for independent women everywhere,” while the Washington Post said she was “a woman of wit and charm, a gracious hostess and a great fisherman.” An Omni magazine survey released shortly after her death named her as one of the 13 best role models for young girls, right after leftist feminist Gloria Steinem.

And she was a Communist.

One of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood during the late ’30s and the ’40s, her income reached $150,000 a year ($2.6 million in today’s money). She hosted dinner parties attended by the likes of William Faulkner, Nathaniel West, Dorothy Parker, and the Gershwins. Dashiell Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and the dues-collector for the local Communist Party organization, was her lover, and they were part of the inner circle of Hollywood leftists. Writer Martin Berkeley testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Hammett and Hellman were present at a Communist Party meeting at his home in June 1937. (Fifteen years later, when asked whether Berkeley was telling the truth, Hellman testified: “I must refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”)

She helped Hollywood Communists build a powerful network that enabled many of them to get jobs (and salaries) far beyond their abilities. As producer Roy Huggins, who joined the party but dropped out, said, “There were left-wing writers who wouldn’t have worked without their politics–awful writers, but they were politically smart.”

Meanwhile, Hellman campaigned for aid to the Communist forces in Spain. She opposed American involvement in World War II because she didn’t want the U.S. to aid (in Hammett’s phrase) Britain’s “imperialist expansion”… although she changed her mind on June 22, 1941, when the Nazis double-crossed their Soviet allies and attacked Russia. “The motherland has been attacked,” she told a friend.

Hellman praised Stalin, the murderer of tens of millions of people. She defended the purge “trials” and mass executions that even the Soviets criticized later, after Stalin was safely cremated. She wrote the 1943 propaganda movie The North Star, which depicted the joyful lives of people on collective farms in the Soviet Union (in Ukraine, no less, where, in reality, the Soviets had recently murdered five million people). She travelled to Russia and returned to talk about all the happy faces she had seen there. She denounced the organizers of relief for the Finnish victims of the Soviets.

“. . . and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed,” she wrote later.

All the while, she worked to keep Hollywood safe for people who hated democracy.

In 1952, when called before the HUAC for questioning about her Communist activities, she at first said she would testify only about herself, not about others. Then she took the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify even about her own past. The committee declined to prosecute her. She refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States, and movie producers were reluctant to give screenwriting jobs to a supporter of America’s principal enemy. Jobless, she was required for six or seven years to live off her accumulated wealth—wealth that, according to Ronald Radosh, afforded her “a house in Martha’s Vineyard, a farm in New York, many residential investment properties in New York City, stocks, bonds, jewelry, and a household staff.”

Hellman denied her Communist connections, claiming that she never knew–never even asked!–whether Hammett, her mentor and roommate of three decades, was a Communist. In best-selling memoirs, she painted herself as an innocent victim of “McCarthyite witchhunts” for communists. (She claimed that, to survive during this difficult time, she had to work as a sales clerk at Bloomingdale’s. No wonder. It’s quite expensive, one supposes, to maintain a house and a farm and those investment properties.)

Hellman was, she said, a martyr to the cause of Free Speech. As more and more people accepted the myth of her martyrdom, her stature increased. She appeared in the Gallup Poll list of the nation’s 10 most admired women, and traveled with Jimmy Carter’s wife Rosalynn during the 1976 presidential campaign.

In last winter’s Claremont Review of Books, Radosh reviewed A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, a biography by Columbia University historian Alice Kessler-Harris, former president of the Organization of American Historians. In the book, Kessler-Harris laments that post-Cold War revelations about Soviet spying in the U.S. confirmed the accusations made by those awful anti-Communists. Radosh noted (at ):

Kessler-Harris writes, “each new revelation of espionage [from the once closed Soviet and East European archives], every document that revealed a close relationship between the Comintern [the Soviets’ agency controlling the world’s various Communist Parties] and the CPUSA [Communist Party of the USA], strengthened the hand of anticommunists.” That is, the really important thing about new evidence of Soviet espionage and subversion is not what it tells us about the Cold War, but the deplorable way it bolsters anti-Communists who continue to justify waging the Cold War.

Kessler-Harris is dismayed that Hellman is “forever viewed through the lens of a persistent communist threat,” which, Kessler-Harris obviously believes, never existed. . . .

Asserting that Hellman was only briefly a CPUSA member who left in 1940 (years before she did in fact quit), Kessler-Harris goes out of her way to contend that Hellman independently embraced the many political positions that just happened to dovetail with the Communist Party’s. In 1949, Hellman played a leading part in a meeting of pro-Soviet figures from around the world, secretly organized by the Communist Party. Kessler-Harris describes the conference, which excluded any anti-Communists from participating and heralded Soviet initiatives, as consisting of “a range of people who insisted on talking about peace and challenging the Cold War.” She cites Arthur Miller’s participation as an example of the contributions made by non-aligned intellectuals. Evidence uncovered before Kessler-Harris finished writing A Difficult Woman proved, however, that Miller had been a secret CPUSA member who wrote for its press under a pseudonym.**

Julia, a movie based on a Hellman autobiography, came out in 1977, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Hellman was played by pro-Communist actress Jane Fonda, and her lifelong friend Julia, who fought the Nazis, was played by pro-Palestinian actress Vanessa Redgrave, who won one of the Oscars. Julia, it turned out, did not exist; she was a fabrication along the lines of the “New York girlfriend,” a pivotal character in Barack Obama’s autobiographical novel Dreams from My Father.***

The “Julia” character was apparently based on a real person, Muriel Gardiner, who had written of her anti-Nazi efforts. Gardiner and Hellman never met. Radosh:

Kessler-Harris justifies Hellman with what amounts to George Costanza’s line on Seinfeld: “It’s not a lie…if you believe it.” As if to show how the incoherent thinking of postmodernism abets shabby morals, Kessler-Harris contends, “Hellman did not think of her stories as lies,” and a dramatist has the right to use “the material at hand to invent tales.” Anyway, Hellman “made up stories” about everyone, and “drama was meant to make a point, not just to entertain.” Moreover, Hellman may not have consciously lied, since she “never claimed a good memory.” The literature of psychology, however, offers no other example of a memory so bad that it took the form of one writer appropriating another’s memoir to make herself look heroic.

Over time, even some leftists got fed up with Hellman. In 1979, left-wing novelist Mary McCarthy said of Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Nevertheless, in 1981 Hellman made the World Almanac list of the 25 most influential women in America. In obituaries, the New York Times assured its readers that “she was not a Communist” and Newsweek declared flatly that she “had never been a Communist.”

Hammett, who taught her many things, knew the value of a sustained lie: “[N]othing so impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact,” he wrote, “regardless of the fact’s inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.” Hellman’s closest friend at the time of her death, novelist Peter Feibleman, defended errors and omissions in her memoirs by saying, “All great writers have the right to fool around with the facts.” (Feibleman, by the way, was a writer on the 1964-65 TV show Profiles in Courage, inspired by a book that John F. Kennedy pretended to write and for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.)

One of the reasons that I read newspaper obituaries is that, in many cases, it’s at the end of life when we and our friends and heirs drop our pretenses. The actor Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironside) lied about many aspects of his life, including his military service and his sexual orientation, and it was only at his death that the truth began to come out. Until he died, the Manhattan Project scientist Philip Morrison was often presented as a victim of McCarthyism, but obituaries admitted that he had been a member of the Communist Party. Many lies, you see, are made for the living.

One day in 1984, I happened to be in Hollywood, working on a documentary that I had written, when I came across a little story in Variety on Lillian Hellman’s will. That led to this revelation:

When Hellman died, she left nearly $2 million for the creation of the Dashiell Hammett Fund, to make grants to Marxist writers. Her will instructed the fund’s trustees to be “guided by the political, social, and economic beliefs–which, of course, were radical–of the late Dashiell Hammett, who was a believer in the doctrines of Karl Marx.” It was more-or-less a deathbed confession, not that we needed one. And it was more evidence, not that we need it, of what kind of people the cultural elite admires and respects and makes into heroes.




* Wiesner, by the way, was on the team of government experts who, in 1957, projected that the Soviet economy would grow “half again” as fast as the U.S. economy. That absurd projection, by fantastically overstating Soviet strength and by tricking people into thinking that socialism was a workable system, may have helped extend the Cold War by decades.

** Miller was married to the famous actress Marilyn Monroe from 1956 to 1961. Later, while she was sexually involved with President Kennedy, Monroe was also involved with Frederick Vanderbilt Field, a Cornelius Vanderbilt descendant who lived in Mexico. During this period, Field presented himself as a victim of McCarthyism who exiled himself to Mexico to escape persecution, but admitted in his memoir to being a Communist Party member. As I noted three weeks ago ( ), President Kennedy also had a sexual relationship with Ellen Rometsch, an East German Communist spy. JFK’s brother and attorney general, Robert Kennedy, used the secret files of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to blackmail Republicans so that they acquiesced in a cover-up.

*** In 2012, when President Obama admitted that he had fabricated the life-changing girlfriend—and, thus, that his “autobiography,” which made him a rising star in politics, was fiction—the admission got little attention. Obamaites in the media excused the lie on the ground that Mr. Obama had admitted in the introduction to the book that it was partly fictional, although it appears that no major-media reporter ever mentioned this important caveat prior to the President’s 2012 fake-girlfriend admission. Interestingly, the few journalists who have investigated details of the Obama life story and found fabrications have been attacked as racists and “birthers” for doing so.


Dr. Steven J. Allen

A journalist with 45 years’ experience, Dr. Allen served as press secretary to U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton and as senior researcher for Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. He earned a master’s…
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