When the first volume of Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, appeared in 1969, it was an immediate success both with the public and with the critics. Certainly one reason that it won the National Book Award was the unquestioned assumption that in this volume Hellman was once again speaking with courageous honesty, as she had done in her plays. After An Unfinished Woman, which took her life from a New Orleans childhood to the death of her mentor and lover Dashiell Hammett, came the episodic Pentimento (1973), with its memorable story of intrigue inside Nazi Germany, and finally Scoundrel Time (1976), which detailed Hellman’s experiences with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the witch-hunting 1950’s. Like An Unfinished Woman, the later books were frank, even confessional in tone, and inevitably they became the basis for studies of Hellman’s life and works. In Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy, Carl Rollyson argues that Hellman’s memoirs were neither honest nor factual, but instead were as fictional as her plays, and that they were written as part of a deliberate attempt by Hellman to develop a legend about herself to last throughout her lifetime and to persist as her false legacy to history.
Rollyson’s monumental work could hardly have been written during Hellman’s lifetime, when friends and enemies alike were reluctant to become involved in public corrections of her factual errors. The reason for their reticence is made obvious in Rollyson’s study. From her friends, a number of whom were former lovers, Hellman demanded unquestioning loyalty; such was her charismatic charm that they willingly complied with her slightest whim, even if it meant agreeing with a patent falsehood. To her enemies, a term Hellman applied to those who refused to agree with her, she could be merciless and vindictive, as in the famous libel suit against the writer Mary McCarthy, described by Rollyson in a chapter which illustrates his own attitude toward Hellman (chapter 30, “Julia”).
Like Hellman, in the 1930’s McCarthy was a political leftist, but unlike Hellman, she detested communism, particularly the repressive Stalinist version which Hellman admired. McCarthy’s dislike of Hellman was based on far more, however, than a difference of opinion in political matters. With the publication of the three volumes of memoirs and with the subsequent flood of adulation for the “honest” writer who had produced them, some knowledgeable members of the literary community found their incredulity and, at last, their anger more than they could bear. It was McCarthy who erupted, and unfortunately, the explosion came on national television. On January 25, 1980, when she was being interviewed on the Dick Cavett show, McCarthy was asked by her host for examples of overrated writers. In her answer, McCarthy named Lillian Hellman and attacked her not only as a poor writer but also as a liar. As a result, Hellman sued McCarthy, Cavett, and the Public Broadcasting Corporation for $2.25 million in damages for libel.
At the time of Hellman’s death, the suit had not been tried. The incident was important, however, for a number of reasons. Clearly, it illustrated the real venom with which Hellman met any criticism. Rollyson points out that Hellman was exuberant about the fact that McCarthy would be hard pressed to finance an all-out legal war, while Hellman herself was wealthy, as she delighted in pointing out to her friends and acquaintances. Additionally, it demonstrates one of many inconsistencies in Hellman’s character which are noted in Rollyson’s biography. Although she thought of herself as a leader in the struggle for freedom, Rollyson points out, Hellman wished to deny that freedom to her critics, just as she regularly denied her friends the opportunity to disagree with her on matters of fact.
In an interview, Hellman’s attorney expressed his conviction that the case would have been decided in his client’s favor. Others disagree. What is more important is the fact that in preparing her defense, McCarthy was gathering evidence of errors in Hellman’s autobiographical writings. As the controversy developed, articles appeared attacking Hellman’s veracity—for example, Martha Gellhorn’s “On Apocryphism,” in Paris Review (Spring, 1981), and Samuel McCracken’s “’Julia’...