Stalin’s Trollop: The Envy of Lillian Hellman

In analyzing Envy, we must look beyond the obvious. It’s true that this sin is specially tempting to life’s apparent “losers” — to those with fewer natural gifts of talent and treasure, of looks or smarts. But Greed isn’t limited to the rich, nor is Envy owned by the folks enumerated in Marty Haugen’s catchy, godless Communion hymn, “Gather Us In“:
 
Gather us in, the ugly and stupid
Gather us in, the drunk and insane
Those whose brains by Meth are polluted
We are the ciphers who blather in vain.
 
Envy is a suppurating spiritual sore equally common among the elite, at least those afflicted by what Catholic critic Rene Girard called “mimetic desire.” We see what others have and crave it — but a slightly higher-end model. And if we can’t get it, we’ll settle for dragging our rivals down through gossip, office politics, or frivolous litigation. From the courts of Renaissance Europe to the soirees of Hollywood, the “insiders” of society have displayed this capital sin as vividly as the habitués of any Ozarks trailer park, and often with deeper malice.
 

C. S. Lewis warned of a genus of Envy caused by the hunger we feel in a given social group to join the ranks of those who make up its “Inner Ring“:
 
I believe that in all men’s lives . . . one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. . . . I have no right to make assumptions about the degree to which any of you may already be compromised. I must not assume that you have ever first neglected, and finally shaken off, friends whom you really loved and who might have lasted you a lifetime, in order to court the friendship of those who appeared to you more important, more esoteric. I must not ask whether you have ever derived actual pleasure from the loneliness and humiliation of the outsiders after you yourself were in: whether you have talked to fellow members of the Ring in the presence of outsiders simply in order that the outsiders might envy; whether the means whereby, in your days of probation, you propitiated the Inner Ring, were always wholly admirable. I will ask only one question — and it is, of course, a rhetorical question which expects no answer. In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction? If so, your case is more fortunate than most (“The Inner Ring,” Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, 1944).
 
With his typical psychological insight into evil, culled from a lifetime spent among academics, Lewis here points to what we might call the Envy of influence, a trait that links the socialite lounging by poolside with the ambitious chimpanzee keen on toppling a higher status male, or the meerkat mother who commandeers the “mansion” by eating another’s young.
 
 
Which brings us to Lillian Hellman. A playwright of modest talents, she first made her name in 1934 with the drama The Children’s Hour, which depicted a boarding school girl who covers for her misdeeds by falsely charging her headmistresses with lesbianism. Hellman’s depiction of self-serving viciousness and callous lying might seem like the keen insight of a literary moralist — until we sat down next to Lillian on the divan and got to know her a little better.
 
Born to wealth in New Orleans, Hellman attended and dropped out of both NYU and Columbia University before moving to Hollywood, where she attached herself to the successful dipsomaniac, Marxist detective novelist, and screenwriter Dashell Hammett. Their affair continued for more than 30 years, and while Hellman was rarely faithful, she gained an iron control over Hammett’s career. Hammett paid tribute to Hellman in the figure of Nora Charles — an elegant, glamorous amateur detective who’d be played in the movies by Myrna Loy.
 
He was clearly besotted. As Rhoda Koenig of the Independent wrote of Hellman:
 
She was no beauty, even when young (when old, it was said she looked like George Washington, or Casey Stengel, the manager of the Mets baseball team), but never let that stop her from having plenty of men — rich men, successful men, men several decades younger. Well into her seventies she was the talk of Manhattan for not only purring huskily to young men at parties but flashing her silk knickers.
 
The next time you have a problem with Lust, there’s a visual that should help you.
 
A youthful convert to orthodox Communism, Hellman never wavered in her loyalty to the Moscow Party Line. She whitewashed the artificial famine in Ukraine, praised the grotesque Purge Trials, and backed Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. She called on the U.S. government to deny asylum to Stalin’s rival, Trotsky — who fled instead to Mexico, where Soviet agents assassinated him. Honoring the Hitler/Stalin pact, she joined the Communist-sponsored Keep America Out of War Committee (which promptly dissolved when Hitler invaded Russia), and lauded Stalin’s invasion of neutral Finland. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities, founded in 1938 to hunt down elusive Hollywood fascists, turned its gaze in 1947 on the abundant Communists serving the “workers’ cause” at the Polo Lounge, Hellman took the grandstand. In a later memoir she’d claim that she told the Committee: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
 
And that much was true. She ordered her conscience straight from Moscow. As she stood up for the inalienable right of cosseted screenwriters to get rich writing scripts they’d vetted with Soviet spies, Hellman oozed approval of Communist puppet regimes from Eastern Europe to China. She denounced Roger Straus (of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) for publishing Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In fact, she created her own little KGB in the publishing world, keeping hostile books out of print and hounding her enemies. As Koenig recalls: “When a journalist wrote a piece she disliked, she told him that if he didn’t print a retraction she would tell his employer (this was when such things mattered) that he frequented gay bars. It was no coincidence that the plot of all Hellman’s hit plays turned on blackmail.”
 
 
In 1967, Hellman served as executor for the estate of her old friend Dorothy Parker. According to the Dorothy Parker Society:
 
Her will was plain and simple. With no heirs, she left her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She’d never met the civil rights activist, but always felt strongly for social justice. She named the acerbic author Lillian Hellman as her executor. . . .
 
Within a year of her death, Dr. King was assassinated, and the Parker estate rolled over to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. To this day, the NAACP benefits from the royalty of all Parker publications and productions.
 
Hellman went to court to fight the NAACP over Parker’s literary estate. Hellman lost in 1972 when a judge ruled that she should be removed from executorship. Hellman was adamant that she get Parker’s money, and came out of the mess painted as a racist. She was sure the will was supposed to give her a huge sum. Hellman said, “She must have been drunk when she did it.”
 
Nor was Hellman much more faithful in disposing of Parker herself:
 
Parker didn’t want a funeral, but Hellman held one anyway, and made herself the star attraction. . . . Parker was cremated June 9, 1967, at Ferncliff Crematory in Hartsdale, New York. Hellman, who made all the funeral arrangements, never told the crematory what to do with the ashes. So they sat on a shelf in Hartsdale. Six years later, on July 16, 1973, the ashes were mailed to Mrs. Parker’s lawyer’s offices, O’Dwyer and Bernstein, 99 Wall Street. Paul O’Dwyer, her attorney, didn’t know what to do with the little box of ashes. It sat on a shelf, on a desk, and for 15 years, in a filing cabinet.
 
Hellman restored her fortunes with a series of gossipy, name-dropping memoirs that centered on her heroic struggle for social justice and her glamorous Hollywood romances. The memoirs were riddled with half-truths, smears of anti-Communist liberals, and outright fabrications. Hellman’s boldest lie came in the second volume, Pentimento, where she claimed that she’d spent the 1930s smuggling money into Europe via an underground agent named “Julia” to rescue Jews and dissidents from the Nazis.
 
With Hellman’s help, a film was made of the story, starring Vanessa Redgrave — which raised one little problem: The real “Julia,” a New York psychiatrist named Muriel Gardiner, saw the movie and went to the press. She’d never gotten any help from Lillian Hellman — although they’d shared the same attorney, who’d probably passed her story on to Hellman. Hellman’s torrent of tall tales irked the novelist Mary McCarthy, whose carefully crafted works that admitted to being fiction barely paid her rent, so on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979, McCarthy said of Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”
 

Hellman answered this wisecrack with a libel case. As Carl Rollyson of the New York Sun writes: “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.” Hellman pursued the case for five long years, until she finally died in 1984. Koenig comments:
 
How ironic . . . her last act the persecution of a fellow writer. Then living in New York, I never much cared for Mary McCarthy, but was outraged that no one was helping her. “Why don’t we all say that Hellman is a liar?” I asked the editor of a literary magazine. “If everyone wrote the same thing, she couldn’t sue us all, and what we said could be used by the defence.” He patted my hand and smiled.
 
“It’s very simple,” he said. “Everybody’s afraid of Lillian, and nobody really likes Mary.”

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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