But Are Stalinist Lillian Hellman's Plays and Writings Any Good?


Over at the Wall Street Journal, former staffer and current Reason contributing editor Michael Moynihan has a sharp review of the new Lillian Hellman bio, A Difficult Woman, by Alice Kessler Harris.

A snippet of the review:

Hellman zealously supported the Moscow line on Trotsky, offering no criticism when he was murdered by Kremlin agents; she defended Stalin's mass executions of party cadres in 1937-38, signing a petition that accused the victims of being "spies and wreckers" of socialism; she supported Stalin's alliance with Nazi Germany, despite her supposed devotion to "anti-fascism," and defended Moscow's indefensible invasion of Finland in 1939-40, claiming that the country supported Nazism and deserved no pity, a scurrilous lie that Ms. Kessler-Harris leaves unchallenged.

Moynihan notes acidly:

Ms. Kessler-Harris marvels that Hellman "dedicated much of her life to the cause of civil liberties; in return, she earned the Stalinist label." This is giving Hellman short shrift: she worked rather hard to earn the Stalinist label.

Whole piece here.

Despite the claims of various defenders over the years, Hellman always comes off as a pretty horrible human being and it always stuns me when people try to minimize the stupidity and wilful blindness of pro-Stalin intellectuals in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Uncle Joe wasn't exactly hiding the ball on what he was up to, after all, and there's simply no convincing way to say that folks who are supposed to be smart and insightful and all that shouldn't have realized the guy was evil with a capital E.

However, the widely discussed Kessler-Harris book, which I haven't read, raises a slightly different question that isn't really addressed in Moynihan's review or in any of the other four or five I've checked out: How well does Hellman's work hold up?

She was a major playwright and a popular screenplay writer back in the day. Her later work was mostly memoir such as Scoundrel Time and Pentimento. That latter volume includes a vignette that became the movie Julia and is based, as Moynihan points out, on a brazen lie. Hellman boosted an acquaintance's story about helping anti-fascists in Nazi-era Germany and rewrote it with herself in a starring role. I read Pentimento about 30 years ago, before Hellman's fraud was common knowledge, and remember it as an exceptionally well-written book filled with annoying politics. I recall fondly the movie Dead End, the 1937 social realist classic with Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart which introduced Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the Bowery Boys to the movie-going public. It's definitely of its time and place, but is all the better for that. I have no memories of her plays such as The Children's Hour and Watch on the Rhine, but she was a big deal.

My question, I guess, is this: How does an author's almost-invariably-idiotic politics figure into a reader's evaluation? Blogger extraordinaire Alan Vanneman recently hipped me to a dispiriting piece about Gertrude Stein's Vichy and fascist sympathies. It's dispiriting to me because I like Stein as a cultural figure and a writer and I hate fascism; what the hell was a gay, Jewish, experimental writer doing in siding with Nazi allies?

But I can't say the story is surprising. To paraphrase Stein, there's a good chance that the politics of your favorite creative artist are not only more idiotic than you imagine, but more idiotic than you can imagine.

Perhaps the discomfort is nothing more than a variation on the discomfort of Elaine on Seinfeld when she finds out her new boyfriend is anti-abortion. How could someone so good looking disagree with her on something she cares about?

As it happens, I'm rereading the oeuvre of Hellman's longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett. A great stylist and sharp novelist. And a total commie in all the worst ways possible. It's not enough to make me not want to take another look at the underappreciated novel version of The Thin Man, but the disjuncture sets a mind to thinking. Which isn't a bad thing, I suppose. Subtext—and it's subtext all the way down—makes text more interesting.

NEXT: (Rand) Paul '16!

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  1. Couldn’t get past it myself.

  2. Wow, that PhD in Lit just reared up hard today, didn’t it?

    Anyhow, you can either make everything in your life about politics or you can realize the art transcends the artist. If we (as libertarians) boycotted every statist fucker out there, we’d be left with nothing to read or watch.

    But we can still be good little capitalists and not give commies money. Secondary market FTW!

  3. Here’s a rule of thumb: enjoy your entertainment for what it is, and don’t drag the artist(s)’ predilections into it. You will only ruin your entertainment for yourself. People who only read/watch/listen to/whatever people who have the same views as them, or actually care about that, end up unhappy and obnoxious.

    1. With somebody so virulently anti-everything I believe in, I would be rather paranoid the first time through – looking for agendas and hidden messages.

      With more benign morons like Springsteen, I can just roll my eyes as a man worth $200 million whines about the factory closing down (even though he also sings about how much working in a factory sucks).

  4. and the Fins also whooped their asses.

    70,000 casualties to 323,000 casualties per wiki.

      1. I love how the USSR had them out-tanked by 218:1 and still lost. That’s almost the equivalent of the Poles taking their lance cavalry to the Blitzkrieg and coming out ahead. GG, comrades.

        1. *lost in the field.

    1. The Winter and Continuation War actually ended with a Soviet victory despite the casualties suffered. Finland gave up Karelia, Salla, and Petsamo as part of the peace treaty.

      1. Yes, but the Winter War gave us one of the ultimate badasses of the 20th century: Simo H?yh

      2. Exactly–despite the huge difference in casualties inflicted, Finland really didn’t have a prayer short of immediate and massive foreign intervention (and maybe not even then). The Russians have never really been too concerned about wars of attrition and have tolerated huge casualty numbers for centuries.

      3. They had to give it up or fight the entire Soviet Army alone. Nobody in the West was going to lift a finger for them either.

        1. Actually, there was an allied plan to intervene in Norway before the Germans invaded and move on to link up with the Finns and give them aid against the Russians. Also they planned to occupy the Swedish iron ore region to cut off supplies of steel to Germany.

          The plan was ended by the peace treaty. As we all know the Finns went on to become allies by default of the Germans when their enemies the Russians were invaded by Hitler.

          I’m not sure exactly how the timeline was to have played out but it’s kind of interesting to contemplate and alternative history in which we were allied with the Finns and Stalin was best pals with Hitler. There is something to this. At least one historian has question why Britain and France did not declare war on bothe Germany and Russian since both had violated Poland’s sovereignty.

          While the sacrifices made by the Soviets were immense, I remain unconvinced that their participation on our side was essential to defeating Hitler.

  5. If an artist is successful, then their work transcends them.

    1. Define successful.

      1. I thought he just did.

        1. If an artist is truly successful, then their work transcends them.

          Much better.

  6. Perhaps the discomfort is nothing more than a variation on the discomfort of Elaine on Seinfeld when she finds out her new boyfriend is anti-abortion.

    curiously, as the above Seinfeld example points out, politics is only problematic when a traditionally conservative position is held. In the arts, rarely is there a character who sees a liberal shibboleth as anything but normal.

  7. Steven King is a political douche.

  8. Dashiell Hammett was a communist? No kidding.

    1. I was absolutely astonished to find out that the author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon was a communist.

      To the extent that Dashiell Hammett’s reputation has suffered at all, it’s because he was a lush and junkie not because he was a communist.

      1. I thought alcohol and cigarettes were his thing. Are you sure about “junkie”?

        1. I think you’re right. I seem to have been thinking of some other pinko.

  9. Whatever

  10. I absolutely hate when people diminish someone’s work because of their political views. Why does that matter? Art is about as pure a thing as you can have (yes, it is influenced by politics, but FAR more so by individuals and events). Why does someone’s politics have ANY bearing on the quality of their work? If you can’t look past someone’s politics to enjoy the art they have created, you have no business critiquing it or writing anything negative about it…

    1. Do you hate it when artists, having achieved fame and fortune, inflict their views on the rest of us?

      1. I only hate when people actually listen.

      2. ^^^this. X 100. Just sing, dammit. Or act or write or whatever.

    2. You are completely right. I only wish that more artists would take it to heart. For the most part I would be a lot happier if artists I like would not go out of their way to reveal their politics.

      1. I agree with you Zeb, I too wish Joss Whedon had put a more pro-government, anti-individualism position to Firefly.

    3. I absolutely hate when people diminish someone’s work because of their political views. Why does that matter?

      Because in many instances, the art is influenced by the politics. Look at Jacques-Louis David’s paintings, for example. They’re masterpieces, but they’re also examples of regime-endorsing propoganda.

      Art is about as pure a thing as you can have

      Pull that bus over to the side of the pretentiousness highway. “Art” isn’t any purer than any other discipline, and to expect that the artist’s politics or any other beliefs are going to be completely divorced from the work itself is a questionable assertion, at best.

      Why does someone’s politics have ANY bearing on the quality of their work? If you can’t look past someone’s politics to enjoy the art they have created, you have no business critiquing it or writing anything negative about it

      Really? So when Bill Watterson was satirizing modern artists with the Calvin snowman strips (“Bourgeois Buffoon” being the most notable one, as an example of faux-bohemian hypocrisy), it wasn’t a legitimate criticism?

  11. I thought she was adorable as Jane Fonda.

  12. I never really pay attention to the lyrics anyway.

  13. The only time an artist’s political views and behavior seem to raise problems is when they are on the “right” – Elia Kazan and Mel Gibson, for instance. A leftie artist is never controversial – even if (s)he sucks off Fidel Castro in Madison Square Garden.

    1. Did a biographer of Ezra Pound ever say that he “dedicated much of her life to the cause of true American values; in return, he earned the Fascist label”? I suppose some of his worshipful fans might say this, but they would at least get called on it.

    2. new Chloe Sevigny movie coming out?

  14. I think her fans are missing an opportunity here.

    “She was a great writer, and its even more amazing when you consider what she accomplished even though she was a complete fool who was a committed “useful idiot” for one of the great mass murderers of all time.”

  15. We need a snark heavy reason article on this:

    A pretty disgusting piece of propaganda.

    1. Apparently, the twittersphere is on fire with mockery and abuse already.

    2. All I get out of it is that Obama expects to be president for 67 more years.

    3. Just read the #julia posts on twitter

      1. I’d rather cut my dingdong off than browse twitter.

      2. Ha ha ha – “It’s pretty sad when one candidate’s policies only benefit fictitious people”

    4. Gag me with a fucking spoon.

    5. I saw that.
      Reminded me that it is National Prayer Day.
      I’m praying for the sweet relief of the grave.

  16. Many (most?) of the best artists are extremely talented at conveying feelings. Thinking, not so much.

  17. That latter volume includes a vignette that became the movie Julia and is based, as Moynihan points out, on a brazen lie.

    Or, as Mary McCarthy (sister of Kevin McCarthy from the 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) said, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

    As for Hellman’s plays, you can see the first movie version of The Children’s Hour, called These Three overnight between the 16th and 17th on TCM. (Star of the Month Joel McCrea plays the male lead.) Obviously, this version couldn’t reference lesbianism the way the 1960s version did, although Audrey Hepburn is miscast in the later film.

    I can to a large extent overlook an artist’s political views if he or she isn’t trying to use the work to advance those views in a club-you-over-the-head-with-it way. Dead End‘s take on the slums is well told, as opposed to, say One Third of a Nation, which is one of those films that’s so awful you’ll be howling in laughter. (Wait for the scene when the tenement building starts talking to Sidney Lumet.)

    1. The Mary McCarthy quote is one of the all-time great put-downs. Did not know that she and Kevin McCarthy were siblings.

  18. The best thing to come out of Lillian’s loins was the Harvey Korman/Carol Burnett parody of “The Little Foxes,” a play about wealthy, evil southerners. Harv and Carol are waiting for this old geezer to die. Carol is bedside, while Harvey keeps sticking his head in the door and asking “Is he dead yet?” After about the third negative he ad-libs the expletive “Chitterlings!” Carol starts to break, then pulls herself together and murmurs “That man! Sometimes he makes me laugh!”

    1. Was TIm Conway the old man?

  19. what the hell was a gay, Jewish, experimental writer doing in siding with Nazi allies?

    I think the disconnect for us looking at this comes from our automatic association of fascism with anti-semitism.

    But that is largely a result of the eventual assimilation of fascism by Naziism.

    German Jews never had any illusions as to Hitler’s intentions. He was after all pretty blatant in stating them. But Mussoilini’s rise in Italy was in fact aided by Jewish business leaders who saw him as an antidate to disorder and communism. He didn’t turn on them until he was forced to as a condition of Hitler’s continued support when his fortunes were reversed.

    Likewise for the Vichy French. For at least part of that cohort the treaty with Germany was a painful neccessity rather than an expression of any great love for Nazism.

    I didn’t really know anything about Gertrude Stein with respect to this until I read the linked article. But I can easily see that if she saw the “lost generation” interwars years as a time of decadence she could easily have been lead to fascist sympathies, only to repent of them too late as the slide into Nazi antisemitism progressed.

    Frankly, Stein was lucky to have survived the war, living as she did in occupied France. Having Vichy friends may have been the best survival strategy there was.

    1. Also, as we learned from the Swedes during WWII, who though neutral, continued to supply Germany with weapons and steel and were predominantly pro-German, while being opposed to the worst actions of Hitler’s government once they became widely known.

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