Lillian Hellman (1905-84) has not lacked for biographers. In "Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman" (1986), William Wright produced a credible first effort, concentrating on Hellman's fraught politics and her memoirs. My own "Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy" (1988) drew on extensive interviews and archival material while providing extensive coverage of her plays, films, teaching career, and her Stalinist skewing of history. Then in "Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett" (1996), Joan Mellen, with the cooperation of Hellman's estate, produced a penetrating character study.
Now we have Deborah Martinson's "Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels" (Counterpoint, 448 pages, $27.95), which I would term a biography of moral equivalence. Ms. Martinson belongs to the two-sides-to-every-story school. She is right to point out that Hellman's biographers - myself included - have been highly critical of her, but extends this to claim that all of us failed to present the whole woman because we were obsessed with proving Hellman a liar. But Hellman forces such an obsession on her biographers, who are obliged to sort out her misstatements of fact and distortions of history. Her account of Whittaker Chambers in "Scoundrel Time," for example, is a travesty of the true story.
Ms. Martinson begins well, providing much new material on Hellman's early life in New Orleans gleaned from local records and from Hellman's own papers, especially her diaries, which Ms. Mellen did not have access to. Martinson does not call herself authorized, but there is no need since Hellman's estate could not have hoped for a more positive biography than Ms. Martinson's whitewash. She deepens our knowledge of that half of Hellman's family that was rich and rapacious - and formed the originals of the Hubbards in Hellman's masterpiece, "The Little Foxes." She admired their fortitude and power even as she decried their exploitative personalities. Other figures in Hellman's life, like her first and only husband, Arthur Kober, are also drawn in greater depth than in previous biographies.
The writer is less well-served. Ms. Martinson is right to claim attention for Hellman's four volumes of memoirs - though she overpraises their innovations. Less satisfactory is her perfunctory treatment of the plays, some of which, like the estimable "Autumn Garden" and "Toys in the Attic," are barely mentioned. Most of the others get the cursory attention of a biographer who only knows how to quote from reviews.
Hellman the "whole woman" is not any more apparent in Ms. Martinson's work than in the earlier biographies. If we were too negative from Ms. Martinson's point of view, she's gone to the opposite extreme by completely failing to confront her subject's shadier side. Every biographer of Hellman must sooner or later come to terms with the the fabrications in Hellman's memoirs. Ms. Martinson would like to wish away this problem, but it simply will not do to say that of course writers fictionalize their memoirs, exaggerating and even inventing scenes and characters in service of a good story.
In the case of "Julia," Hellman did much more than gussy up her life; she appropriated someone else's. In "Pentimento" (1973), Hellman told the story of a friend named Julia, an anti-fascist activist in Vienna, and of Hellman's efforts to smuggle money to the Austrian resistance. Hellman then collaborated with the making of a film version - starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave - of the story, which glamorized Hellman's anti-fascism and left out her deep-seated Stalinism.
There is no question that Julia was Muriel Gardiner, who was very much alive when Hellman wrote "Pentimento." She had never met Hellman but they had once shared a lawyer, and it seems likely that he told Hellman the story of Gardiner's life. It is revealing that the one time Hellman proposed a meeting with Gardiner, Hellman said she would be bringing a lawyer along - a sure way to fend off Gardiner,a decent woman who had no stomach for the kind of controversy Hellman thrived on. Ms. Martinson mentions all this, but reports that many people wrote to Hellman believing she had described events in their lives. So? Does Ms. Martinson make a case for Hellman? Hardly. Instead she concludes with this lame comment: "Hints of this woman's [Julia's] identity come through in the Hellman archive." Well, tell me more.
How Ms. Martinson could write of Julia as she does after reading Ms. Mellen's devastating chapter, "The McCarthy Suit and Julia," is beyond me. When Mary McCarthy called Hellman a liar on national television, saying that even Hellman's use of the words "and" and "the" could not be trusted - obvious hyperbole - Hellman filed a lawsuit, engaging as her counsel a close friend, Ephraim London, who charged her no fee. Hellman wanted to ruin McCarthy by driving up her legal fees, and she made no secret of the fact that she was out for blood. Ms. Martinson concedes Hellman's motivations, but acts as though her subject's behavior could be attributed to failing health. What Ms. Martinson does not divulge is that Hellman lied to Ephraim London at every turn. (He knew his client was lying but stood by her anyway.) When I interviewed him a few years after Hellman's death, he was still deeply worried about what would have happened if the suit against McCarthy had gone to trial and Hellman had been forced to divulge her falsehoods.
Her behavior, of course, is the mark of high Stalinism: not merely punishing your enemies but trying to annihilate them as you claim the high moral ground. Hellman ever stood by the Soviet Union, even backing its invasion of Finland (a fact Ms. Martinson does not mention). Only once, when for a few months her anti-fascist play, "Watch on the Rhine," was out of step with the Hitler-Stalin pact, did Hellman deviate from the party line, and even that act of dissent ought to be viewed as more of a lover's quarrel - a desire to compel her beloved to return to the anti-fascist fold.
Hellman's critics come off in Ms. Martinson's book as rather mean spirited. We just want to reduce Hellman's stature. Well, of course, we do - her accounts of her politics, especially in "Scoundrel Time," were mendacious. Hellman did stand up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, but like so many other unfriendly witnesses she essentially wanted to avoid discussing her Stalinist allegiances. She presented herself as an independent woman, but what independence is there in a political position that amounts to fealty to the party of a foreign power?
If Hellman's biographers have been hard on her, it is because of her refusal to report the truth. When she came back from the Soviet Union during World War II, Harold Ross at the New Yorker declined to print her articles. "What about the Russians?" he asked after reading her opinionated pieces. Ms. Martinson notes Ross's reaction, but she does not seem to realize how damning it is. That Hellman was able to place her puffery with Collier's is telling.The same magazine suppressed a piece by Martha Gellhorn in which Polish soldiers told her how they feared for the fate of postwar Poland.
Gellhorn appears in Ms. Martinson's book only as one of Hellman's carping critics. And the same is the case for Rebecca West, who is absurdly identified as "a socialist turned anti-communist turned FBI informer" Arguments that Hellman was just one of a generation who sank their hopes in the Soviet Union will not wash. She had ample opportunity to learn about the disaster of Soviet Communism from West, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and any number of others who wrote against the Stalinist tide. She had friends, like the Trillings, who had a nuanced view of the Cold War (Lionel had been a friend of Whittaker Chambers and based a novel on his friend's spying career for the Soviet Union). Even more importantly, her lover John Melby, a career diplomat, patiently and lovingly tried to disabuse her of her simplistic Stalinism.
Hellman's politics - like most of her plays - were melodramatic. She could think only in terms of villains and heroes, and she chose the wrong side. The plays are often brilliant - deserving of their place in the canon of the American theater - but Hellman's autobiographical writings are scandalous; she quite explicitly lied about her life. If Ms. Martinson had more passion for Hellman's plays, she might see how they fit with her memoirs. Julia arose out of the anti-fascist "Watch on the Rhine," not out of the actuality of Hellman's life. Julia is the projection of a woman who was a legend in her own mind - a Dickensian tale of wish fulfillment. Hellman always wanted to appear on stage; as memoirist, she had it all to herself.
During the interviews I conducted for my own biography, Richard de Combray told me something remarkable. He watched Hellman die and concluded, "She wanted to bring the scenery down with her."