Scoundrel Time

by Lillian Hellman
Little, Brown, 155 pp., $7.95

This is the third of the meditations of Miss Hellman’s memory. Its single theme is her summons by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, her decision to refuse to yield up the names of Communists she had known, the worse trouble with the Hollywood blacklist that followed that trouble, and the dignity and the shrewdness that carried her through both.

Miss Hellman has developed a style for these discourses very close to the ideal style for letters, say, from an aunt who is envied for her experience of the world and enjoyed for her candor and her comic sense whenever they are directed at persons other than oneself—always a comfortable majority of the cases—amusing, affecting, persuasive, entirely charming, if you don’t too much mind being hectored now and then.

Her nieces seem somehow luckier than her nephews. Nieces, I suspect, read her letters for that feminine wisdom condemned to be misunderstood as womanly folly: the sensibility that armors itself with a Balmain dress for the ordeal by the Committee on Un-American Activities, the taste that notices the habit awkward social occasions have of being accompanied by bad food, the gaiety that conquers dread with shopping sprees. It is hard for nephews to find that much unforced pleasure in Miss Hellman; they have to be wary of possible disapproval.

I have never quite understood upon what altar Miss Hellman’s moral authority was consecrated; but that authority is there, was there even before the apotheosis of her risky yet grand appearance before the Committee on Un-American Activities. To measure how far and for how long a time her writ has run we need only to consider the case of Elia Kazan, who had decided that it was necessary for him, as they used to say in those days, to “come clean” with the Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan is one of those persons who would have especially profited from the injunction, “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” As it was, in his ignorance, he spread apologies for his small sins and explanations of his vast redemption all over the advertising pages of The New York Times, and lifted them like prayers to heaven to Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox.

That was an acceptance of humiliation for the sake of survival in a confiscatory tax bracket, an impulse for which, if we cannot often find enough excuse, we can at least locate an identifiable source. But then, in the midst of his flagellations, Kazan sought out Miss Hellman, who had not yet appeared before the committee, to explain himself to her. It was an overture to humiliation for humiliation’s own sake that does not now lend itself to reasonable understanding. The scene can only be guessed at among the clouds that surround Miss Hellman’s reincarnation in the memoir, but we can glimpse in it the Confederate lady who uplifted the soldier in the heat of his youth and waited in the twilight to receive but in no measure to entertain the veteran’s apology for having joined the board of directors of the carpetbagger’s railroad.

Miss Hellman’s strength of character is great, but of a kind that is hard to comprehend apart from its candid snobbishness. When she searches for the core of the self that enabled her to resist and left Clifford Odets naked to surrender to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, she can return with no discovery more useful than:

It is impossible to think that a grown man, intelligent, doesn’t have some sense of how he will act under pressure. It’s all been decided so long ago, when you are very young, all mixed up with your childhood’s definition of pride or dignity.

Or elsewhere:

Many [American intellectuals] found in the sins of Stalin Communism—and there were plenty of sins and plenty that for a long time I mistakenly denied—the excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies. Perhaps that, in part, was the penalty of nineteenth-century immigration. The children of timid immigrants are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hardworking; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost.

Observations of that tenor somehow suggest that for strong spirits like Miss Hellman’s, the Sunday family dinner is material for rebellion in childhood, comedy in middle age, and attitudes in final maturity. What is here intimated is some doctrine of predestination by growing up with servants in the kitchen, but it is not easy to think such a notion prepossessing and impossible to find it serviceable as a measurement for moral development. We are left to wonder why Senator Harry Flood Byrd, whose mother was in every way a Virginia lady, should have arrived at his fullest spiritual bloom ringing changes on the word “nigger” on public platforms, or why John Foster Dulles, grandson of an American secretary of state, should have managed a career whose most striking achievement was the avoidance of any suspicion that the impulse of a gentleman might ever intrude upon his conduct. Let us settle for saying that Commentary’s tone was lamentable in the early Fifties, when its editor was Eliot Cohen; for what worse epithet must we thereupon reach to describe Time, the Weekly Newsmagazine, in the days when its managing editor was Thomas S. Matthews, son of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey?

We move, I think, closer to the truth about those years when Miss Hellman swam against the current and Odets sank beneath it if we think of the Fifties as a time not much different from this one and a majority of others—when most people acted badly, and public faces passed by as a succession of gray embarrassments infrequently illuminated by displays of dignity like Miss Hellman’s. Banality is the only sort of chic that always has its fashion; and we need not be surprised that Miss Hellman, thanks to her superb hour of resistance to banal chic, should now be punished with the comfortable indignity of being enshrined by it.

…An intense, moving moral,” Time says of her story now. “She was brave because her private code would not allow her to be anything else. She dabbled in radical politics and befriended Communists because she thought it was her right as an American to associate with whomever she damn well pleased….Scoundrel Time is a memorable portrait of…a polished stylist and an invaluable American.”

The tone of Time’s original report on Miss Hellman’s encounter with the House Committee on Un-American Activities had, of course, been faithfully cast into the cadences of what Edmund Wilson once called its “peculiar kind of jeering rancor.”

Her sympathies [had] led her to attend countless Red-inspired rallies and lend her name to various Communist-front crusades,…as the record shows, a skilled playwright and a great meeting goer.

Caption on Miss Hellman’s photograph, Time, May 10, 1976:

AUTHOR HELLMAN: “I cannot cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Caption on Miss Hellman’s photograph, Time, June 2, 1952:

PLAYWRIGHT HELLMAN: “An expert at smooth dialogue.”

But after all, as Burke said, “We are very uncorrupt and tolerably enlightened judges of the transactions of past ages…. Few are the partisans of departed tyrannies.”

So, when Mr. Nixon was in his terminal throes, we were treated to the spectacle of White House Counsel Dean Burch, who had come first to our notice as manager of Senator Goldwater’s presidential campaign, complaining to the journalists about the “McCarthyite tactics” of the House Judiciary Committee. A year or so ago, New York Magazine published an interview with Ted Ashley, the talent agent. Its most inspiring passages recited Ashley’s brave, lonely, and, so far as his own memory seemed to suggest, successful struggle to defend Philip Loeb, the actor, against the blacklist. It seems to have been of no consequence to the glory of this Iliad that, if not by Ashley’s will certainly with his ultimate compliance, Loeb had been so effectively blacklisted that throughout the year before his suicide he had been able to find no employment above the $87.50 a week Off-Broadway scale. Those who can forget their own history are rewarded by having it forgotten by pretty much everyone else.

When we consider the general practice of using memory so earnestly as an instrument for mendacity, it is a sufficient miracle for Miss Hellman to be so honest a witness; and our admiration for her integrity cannot grow smaller for a final impression that Scoundrel Time is not quite true. Honesty and truth are not just the same thing, since the first has to do with character and the second with self-understanding of a cruder kind than hers.

Miss Hellman cannot be blamed for Time’s having spoken of her political history as a business of having “dabbled in radical politics.” But, even so, the very light brush she brings to her treatment of what must have been a commitment of high self-discipline could well contribute to such a misapprehension. She was, by every evidence, what she most puzzlingly denies she was—one of “those serious, dedicated people”—and she would not have needed to rely so entirely upon herself in her troubles if she hadn’t been. It is therefore rather unsettling to come upon musings like:

the mishmash of those years, beginning before my congressional debut and for years after, took a heavy penalty. My belief in liberalism was mostly gone…. There was nothing strange about my problem, it is native to our time; but it is painful for a nature that can no longer accept liberalism not to be able to accept radicalism.

Now except for the lonely period when she could have used their good will most, the run of liberals have shown great respect and no little affection for Miss Hellman, and for more substantial reasons than the reverence liberals render to success and the odd pleasure so many of them draw from being scolded. But all the same it would be surprising if Miss Hellman could have been left with many illusions about liberals by the time, long before McCarthyism, when she had completed her apprenticeship with Horace Liveright. By the late Forties, the most prominent liberals were busy antagonists of her two most heartfelt causes, Henry Wallace’s campaign for president as a Progressive in 1948, and the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949.

The Waldorf conference was beset with more obloquy than it deserved; but I cannot think that Garry Wills has come quite up to the lofty mark for historical objectivity that he has maintained almost everywhere else when he speaks, in his introduction, of Miss Hellman’s having, in her wartime trips to the Soviet Union, “formed friendships there not subject to any government line, so she helped arrange for artists and scholars to meet and discuss what would later (when a new line came in) be called ‘detente.”’ What had been arranged might less enthusiastically be described as a discussion between Americans who spoke critically of their government and Russians who could hardly have offered theirs any such treatment and safely gone home. It is doubtful that the Waldorf conference provided any historical lesson more significant than that Lillian Hellman got in trouble because she attended it and Dmitri Shostakovich risked worse trouble if he hadn’t. But, all the same, there is, I suppose, a case to be made for encounters of this sort, and it seems a loss that Miss Hellman takes note of the affair in terms so cursory as to afford us no reflections upon it at all.1

Miss Hellman does tarry longer with the Wallace campaign, but her pause there is not productive of one of her better effects. Very little about Wallace himself seems to have endured in her memory except for “certain embarrassing scenes” in restaurants arising from his inadequacies as a tipper and “the stingy, discourteous supper” (poached eggs on shredded wheat) that he served her when last they parted. Granted that Miss Hellman’s generosity of spirit is not one of her more remarkable qualities, she is in no way a trivial woman; and it is some trial to the patience to see her reducing what, for someone like her, must have been convictions intensely and even fiercely felt to stuff so trivial as this.

She remembers that she quarreled with the Communists over the conduct of the Progressive Party’s campaign because she would not abate her “constant pleas that we turn attention and money away from the presidential campaign and put them into building small chapters around the country in hope of a solid, modest future.” Again there is that uneasy sense of diversion to the marginal. Are we really to imagine that Miss Hellman found the influence of the Communist caucus on the Progressive Party more objectionable when it was merely blundering about tactics than when it was upholding its stern principles by persuading the 1948 convention to reject a motion that the party platform include the statement that “it is not our intention to give blanket endorsement to the foreign policy of any nation”? For the Old Left had principles, good ones and bad ones, or for that matter bad good and good bad ones, and they must have held a substantial place in Miss Hellman’s consciousness a long while before the day she embodied the simple and pure principle that she served so well in her troubles. It is an annoyance to have her leave so many mists around them.

We do not diminish the final admiration we feel owed to Dashiell Hammett when we wonder what he might have said to Miss Hellman on the night he came home from the meeting of the board of the Civil Rights Congress which voted to refuse its support to the cause of James Kutcher, a paraplegic veteran who had been discharged as a government clerical worker because he belonged to the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party. But then Hammett was a Communist and it was an article of the Party faith that Leon Trotsky, having worked for the Emperor of Japan since 1904, had then improved his social standing by taking employment with the Nazis in 1934. Thus any member of the Socialist Workers Party could be considered by extension to be no more than an agent of Hitler’s ghost. Given that interpretation of history, Paul Robeson spoke from principle when a proposal to assist the Trotskyite Kutcher was raised at a public meeting of the Civil Rights Congress. Robeson drove it from the floor with a declaration to the effect that you don’t ask Jews to help a Nazi or Negroes to help the KKK.

Such recollections, of course, by no means tell all or even much about either Robeson or Hammett. But they do suggest that the matter is not entirely simple; and to appreciate its complexity is to recognize that what was imperishable in the hour of Miss Hellman’s witness was that she managed to extract and make incarnate its one important and authentic element of simplicity. Hammett had served a prison term the year before for refusing to surrender to the police the names of contributors to the Civil Rights Congress bail fund. Political considerations had hardly entered into his choice at all; he endured his punishment not for the advancement of Marxism-Leninism but because he felt that to keep inviolate the privacy of those who had contributed to a bail fund for Communists had “something to do with keeping my word.”

It would be unjust to Miss Hellman’s independence of will to suggest that she was brought to her position by the force of Hammett’s example. But all the same, if you presumptuously imagine her offering her objections to his course, if only from tenderness, her words hanging there as though unheard, and being left to argue the dilemma through by herself—then you have to suspect that this was one of those experiences that, however otherwise painful, serve to bring its victim to the confrontation of an essential point, which like most good points was a domestic and not a political one.

The enduring eloquence of her statement to the Committee on Un-American Activities belongs not to rhetoric but to conversation:

I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive…. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable.

That is not just a fine way of putting the question but the only way, and it seems sufficient to itself. It was enough for Miss Hellman to have done the single great thing of having once and for all defined the issue.

She was by no means the only one who acted well. Arthur Miller acted as well as she—if he could not be said to have performed as superbly—and he took a larger risk of going to prison. If what we call the serious theater otherwise ran short of representatives anxious to enlist as embodiments of its will to resist, comedians like Lionel Stander and Zero Mostel took their places handsomely.

The open Communists absorbed the beatings inflicted upon them by an indifferent official malignity with barely a whimper, not just Robeson and Hammett but scores of others more ordinary. It is ridiculous to give grades in matters like this; but if I had to select just one man who ennobled that age, I think it might be Steve Nelson, Communist Party chairman of western Pennsylvania, to the press then only a piece of boilerplate (“Atom Spy Clams Up”), to prosecuting attorneys only a basic natural resource for the process of conspiracy trials.

Standing on his crutches, he acted as his own defense counsel, questioning with some good humor the newest of the prosecution’s witnesses (“Tell me, Mr. Stoolpigeon…”). It is unlikely that Steve Nelson had ever known many conscious moments when he had not been a Communist, and by then he may no longer have been entirely certain of the wisdom and kindness of Stalin, but he was dead sure that the one inexcusable act was to be a fink. Miss Hellman did not act better than people like those; but what she alone did had its special grandeur; without mentioning any of them, she drew them about herself and, as none of them had ever been quite able to do, spoke their real reasons for acting as they had.

I am not willing to bring bad trouble to people….” Rather that I endure my own. That is all that seems finally important about the way she did what she did, and it is a great deal. It would be too much to credit it with any more tangible historical result. The Committee went on just as it had; the blacklist grew if anything more savage and its depredations wider. Miss Hellman’s words are memorable not for what they did but for what they said.

It is hard to believe that she ran her course with much risk of going to jail. These doubts have nothing to do with her courage; she would have done her time and been no doubt an excellent con. She might have run serious danger all the same (dignity is always risky) if she had not, quite by accident, come as close as it was ever possible to get to an iron-clad promise of immunity when she retained Joseph L. Rauh as her counsel. She had no way of knowing how seldom an unfriendly witness represented by Joseph L. Rauh ended up convicted of contempt. Rauh’s professional skills and high personal honor were the major factors in this record; but it could also be suspected that a less measurable element in his success may have been the general knowledge that Rauh was not inclined to take a client he thought to be a Communist Party member, not because of any want of fervor for the rights of such people but rather because he felt that their difference of temperament might make mutual confidence difficult.

Justice Felix Frankfurter’s was the crucial vote on a Supreme Court whose rulings on Un-American Activities Committee prosecutions were by then gyrating so wildly that there seemed to be no way of explaining them except by Justice Frankfurter’s solicitude for the liberties of any American so long as it was reasonably certain that he was not a Communist. If Miss Hellman had been indicted, Rauh’s name would have been on the brief for her appeal to the Supreme Court, and Rauh’s name by then may well have carried for Justice Frankfurter enough assurance that the appellant was not a Communist to permit him to consider the issues in those abstract realms where freedom debates order. There Justice Frankfurter could often be a libertarian.

But if Miss Hellman had been to any degree calculating in her choice of Rauh, she would hardly have treated his advice as starchily as she did. Watch on the Rhine, her anti-Nazi drama, had opened in New York, most tactlessly in the Communist Party’s view, a few months before Hitler’s tanks announced the demise of his friendship treaty with the Soviets. The Daily Worker had criticized Miss Hellman for war-mongering and Rauh suggested that this evidence of her independence of the Communist line be submitted to the Un-American Activities Committee as a defense exhibit. (These were days, as Stefan Kanfer has observed, when “the artist was pitiably grateful for bad reviews.”) Miss Hellman refused to avail herself of any such umbrella because,

…my use of their attacks on me would amount to my attacking them at a time when they were being persecuted and I would, therefore, be playing the enemy’s game…. In my thin morality book it is plain not cricket to clear yourself by jumping on people who are themselves in trouble.

We would pay Miss Hellman much less than the due such a sense of honor deserves if we credited it solely to a primal innocence. You feel here the operations of a genuine nobility and no small part of a shrewd instinct about the future, an awareness—and such senses have much to do with honor—of how the thing would look in due course. I hardly know Miss Hellman; our only real conversation happened a few days after her testimony. I had read the New York Times summary of her statement, and had been moved to express my admiration for it in print, haltingly but with very little competition. Miss Hellman was grateful; but then I was no less grateful to her as I was becoming more and more grateful when members of the Old Left entered my consciousness, reminding me not just of their general humanity but of their personal dignity, and throwing sand into what had for a long time been the mechanical workings of my anti-Communism.

She told me then about her discussion with Elia Kazan, which had preceded his acceptance, and her rejection, of HUAC’s demands. She had observed to Kazan at that time, as I remember her account, that they did not, after all, have to make as much money as they had over the years and that, if Hollywood was closed to them, there would still remain the theater and the smaller but by no means uncomfortable living it could afford.

It was her recollection at that time that Kazan had replied that it was all very well for her to say that, because she had spent everything she had ever earned, but that he had savings. And then she told me that her first thought was of how her aunt used to say that you don’t go into capital. In her book she remembers a quite different interior response to Kazan’s observations—something her grandmother said. Although her memory is clearly the authoritative one, the years have given me too much affection for my own version to give it up: because it seems to me that one of her most important lessons is that there come times when you have to go into capital, and be ready to face up to the loss of a lot, because you are wise enough to sense that the alternative is to lose everything. You will get through, and there will be a time to come when all that will be remembered about you is whether or not you gave the names.

I have to confess, although it is never gracious to say such things, that Miss Hellman’s voice in these discourses does not fall upon my ear as coming from someone I should want overmuch as a comrade. She is too vain about judgmental qualities that seem to me by no means her best ones; she is a bit of a bully; and she is inclined to be a hanging judge of the motives of persons whose opinions differ from her own.2

But such feelings, even if they were just, would not finally matter when set against that one great moment of hers. It is her summit. We can ask from her nothing more; I do not suppose that, in the only critical sense, we really need to. The most important thing is never to forget that here is someone who knew how to act when there was nothing harder on earth than knowing how to act.


At the Waldorf June 24, 1976

  1. 1

    Cedric Belfrage’s American Inquisition, 1945-1960 (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), the best perhaps because it is the most radical account that I know of those days, contains a tidy summary of the Waldorf conference, and makes it sound much more interesting than most of us permitted ourselves to imagine. The remarks of Harlow Shapley, Norman Mailer, and I.F. Stone sound especially notable for critical independence; for the flavor of the Russians we can be satisfied with this: “Shostakovich described Russia’s mushroom growth of music activity, especially in Soviet Asia, which had neither an orchestra, a chorus nor an opera house 30 years ago.”

  2. 2

    It is a matter of limited moment except to me perhaps, but I cannot contain a desire to express the liveliest resentment of Miss Hellman’s statement that James Wechsler “not only was a friendly witness” before the House Un-American Activities Committee “but had high-class pious reasons for what he did.” The least offensive thing about this assertion is that it is factually in error. What is far less forgivable is a rancor that Miss Hellman’s very eminence and authority ought to instruct her most carefully to ration. Wechsler was never called by the House Un-American Activities Committee; he was subpoenaed by Joe McCarthy after he was made editor of the New York Post, and, far from being a friendly witness, he was a manifestly hostile one. (“I may say,” he told McCarthy’s committee, “…that we have repeatedly taken the position that the New York Post is as bitterly opposed to Joe Stalin as it is to Joe McCarthy and we believe that a free society can combat both.”)

    He did decide that the fight against McCarthy would be damaged if he as a conspicuous opponent did not demonstrate his good faith as an anti-Communist by submitting to the committee a list of persons he had known when he was a member of the Young Communist League. I considered his reasons idiotic and told him so; I thought this action lacking, among other things, in proper concern for his personal welfare, because it is seldom possible to explain the giving of names, no matter how high your motive. But if there have been many occasions when I have wondered about Wechsler’s good sense, I have never known a time when I felt the smallest doubt about his honor. Perhaps I have a right to say this because, as it happens, I was one of the former Communists that Wechsler named in public while he was wrestling with McCarthy. I also think it a duty of fairness to Miss Hellman to say that my strictures on her disposition are inspired in part by personal feelings in this matter.