Joe McCarthy and Lillian Hellman: The Hated Patriot vs. the Beloved Commie

Over half a century after the "Red Scare," playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, whose name is often coupled with her adversary Senator Joe McCarthy, seems to have emerged relatively unscathed in the court of elite progressivist opinion despite the exposure of her manifold fabrications and deceptions.  The liar, it appears, is the incarnation of a higher truth.  Such is the power of the press and the cultural salience of left-wing attitudes in America.

Hellman, a passionate supporter of the Soviet Union even when Stalin's crimes had been widely publicized, was subpoenaed before the House Un-American Activities Committee by McCarthy [see comments –ed.] and was subsequently lionized by the media, the commentariat, and the entertainment industry from the 1950s to the present for refusing to name names.  She was elevated to the plinth of truth and courage while McCarthy was effectively consigned to the Eighth Circle of the Inferno as an evil counselor and a sower of discord.

We can agree that McCarthy cast too wide a net, and many will argue that he was responsible for a climate of national hysteria, but we cannot deny, after the release of the Venona transcripts, that he was mainly right.  There was indeed a concerted and largely successful attempt to infiltrate the White House by Soviet agents during the 1940s and 1950s.  This was McCarthy's truth.  Hellman, however, was a notorious liar, of whom novelist Mary McCarthy (no relation to Joseph) said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"  Historian Alice Kessler-Harris in her hagiographic 2012 volume A Difficult Woman attempted to justify Hellman as a literary fabulist with a poor memory who believed that truth is larger than fact.  Dorothy Gallagher in her 2014 biography Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life is having none of it, turning a postmodern extenuation into a historical indictment.  "She dissembles ... hedges, misleads," Gallagher writes, and proves it.  Even the pro-socialist Joan Mellen in Hellman and Hammett concurs. 

In her acclaimed memoir Pentimento, Hellman told of her revolutionary generosity and grave personal risk in smuggling money to a certain Julia, a member of the anti-fascist underground in Austria just prior to the war – a blatant lie, perpetuated by Jane Fonda playing Hellman in the film Julia.  There was no Julia.  Hellman's reported adventures in to Berlin and her cloak-and-dagger activities were the stuff of pure fiction, like something out of The Maltese Falcon.  (Ironically, the word "pentimento" refers to a scumbling technique in visual art – i.e., something painted over.)  The real-life risk-taker, Muriel Gardiner, stated that she had never met Hellman, and when Gardiner wrote a letter to Hellman about her anti-fascist exploits, Hellman affected never to have received it.  Gardiner's book Code Name "Mary" (1983) and her subsequent television documentary The "Real" Julia (1987)are as definitive as you can get, the latter suggesting that Hellman may have learned about the specific details of Gardiner's activities from their mutual friend and lawyer, Wolf Schwawbacher.

According to Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway's wife at the time and a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, Hellman grossly misrepresented the details in her account of her visit to Spain, sending after-the-fact reports from the safety of distance from the front.  Hellman implausibly claimed she was unaware of the Stalinist purge when she was in Moscow.  She asserted she was never a member of the Communist Party – a flat-out lie.  She said that during the blacklist, she was forced to earn her living as a store clerk, papering over her investment wealth and her extensive property holdings in New York and Martha's Vineyard.  The photo of Hellman posing in a mink coat in a Blackglama ad with the caption "What Becomes a Legend Most" does not consort with the legend of hardship she promoted.  According to historian Samuel McCracken in Commentary, in which he listed a veritable skein of lies and contradictions, "The real issue posed by Miss Hellman is that she has manipulated millions of readers and moviegoers into admiring her as an ethical exemplar and a ruthlessly honest writer." 

Facts have little bearing on the cultural afterlife of Hellman and McCarthy.  The mendacious communist sympathizer is still extravagantly eulogized in some quarters – the Huffington Post attributes creative licence to Hellman, "when it's less than a lie and more than the truth."  Meanwhile, the persistent anti-communist is routinely denounced.  Arthur Miller's celebrated "The Crucible" draws parallels between the Salem witch trials and the "Red Scare," dividing McCarthy between two characters, the Reverend Parris and his niece, Abigail Williams, accusers of innocent people.  One recalls, too, the auto da fé scene in the Leonard Bernstein operetta Candide, to which Hellman contributed some of the lyrics, suggesting McCarthy at his incendiary trade.  Eric Bentley's stagey piece of theatrical bathos, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?," with the lovely Liza Minnelli briefly playing the role of Hellman – who, to put it gently, was not renowned for her beauty – similarly burnished Hellman's reputation.  Parroting Hellman's famous May 19, 1952 letter to HUAC, Minnelli proclaimed with stilted and contrived dignity that she was taught "to tell the truth, not to bear false witness" – an episode that, knowing Hellman, comes across like unintentional farce.  (One thinks of Lincoln's likely apocryphal remark regarding John Booth's acting as being so wooden he could have built a second cabin from it.)

For the leftist intelligentsia and Star Machine, Hellman could do no wrong.  It was no surprise that Little, Brown canceled the publication of Diana Trilling's essay collection owing to several passages critical of Hellman.  "Hate her if you must but don't reduce her," writes Mark Oppenheimer in Forward of the woman who "refused the blandishments of neo-conservatism."

It is now almost impossible to dislodge McCarthy from the almanac of American villainy or evict Hellman, at least among the left, from the pantheon of American celebrity.  As anthropologist Dan Sperber writes in Explaining Culture, "the epidemiology of mental representations" – images and ideas which, subject to a species of inertia, persist in the collective psychology of a people or a nation – bind with cultural memory and become difficult to uproot.

The upshot is this: McCarthy, whatever his flaws, was an American patriot.  Hellman, whatever her virtues, was a communist loyalist.  If McCarthy was guilty of exaggeration, Hellman was guilty of outright lying.  In her 1977 address to the Academy Awards, in which she received a prolonged standing ovation, Hellman spoke of McCarthy's "poisoned ax," but the instrument that did the most long-term harm was her poison pen, running ink to blot out truth.  The left's literary revenge against McCarthy triggered the across-the-culture political assassination of the senator from Wisconsin, thanks to people like Hellman and her ilk.  Even conservative thinkers regard McCarthy as the third rail of American politics.

The larger story is that left always lies, as the current campaign by the media, progressivists, and Tinseltown brigades against Donald Trump and for Hillary Clinton abundantly confirms.  Indeed, Trump figures as the Inquisitor in a recent performance of Candide.  MAGA Trump is regarded by the liberal left as a McCarthy figure who cuts a broad destructive swath and lying Hillary as a courageous and much sinned against Hellman redevivus.  The attempt to defend a constitutional republic is anathema in the eyes of the left.  The attempt to replace it with a socialist oligarchy is the embodiment of the highest necessity.  Literary and celebrity glamor is the golden cloth that decorates the Marxist project.

The anti-anti-communists relentlessly pushing their doctrines, as Diana West writes in American Betrayal, of "political correctness ... sensitivity training" and the "top-down transformation of the human condition" have turned the past into a strategy against the future and social and political history into a kind of fumetti caricature of actual events.  Ultimately, the left needs its McCarthy as much as it needs its Hellman – the one to vilify for seeking to defend his country, the other to rehabilitate for seeking to subvert it.

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