Scoundrel Time is the third volume of Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, having been preceded by An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Both of the previous books were popular and critical successes; however, her aims have shifted here, and the scope of the present book is much narrower than that of the earlier volumes. In some ways, it is also less successful.
Hellman states her intention in the first paragraph:I have tried twice before to write about what has come to be known as the McCarthy period but I didn’t much like what I wrote. My reasons for not being able to write about my part in this sad, comic, miserable time of our history were simple to me, although some people thought I had avoided it for mysterious reasons. There was no mystery. I had strange hangups and they are always hard to explain. Now I tell myself that if I face them, maybe I can manage.
And later:But I don’t want to write about any historical conclusions—it isn’t my game. I tell myself that this third time out, if I stick to what I know, what happened to me, and a few others, I have a chance to write my own history of the time.
Hellman’s declared aim, then, is to set down her part in the McCarthy investigations—and since she was the first witness to defy the House Un-American Activities Committee, her role was of some importance. In addition, she is at pains to point out the parallels with Watergate. Richard Nixon came to power with Senator McCarthy in the Cold War period of Red-baiting; at the same time the FBI and CIA perfected their techniques for invading the lives of American dissidents. Nixon’s role is pointed up; for example, there are two pictures of him and only one of McCarthy in the book. In other words, Hellman believes that Nixon’s corrupt rule and the horrors of Watergate are a direct and inevitable result of the McCarthy witch-hunting of the 1950’s.
When Hellman received her subpoena on February 21, 1952, she was the most important literary figure to be summoned before the HUAC, the author of half a dozen Broadway successes, including The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour and The Autumn Garden. Although she had been identified as a Communist by the screenwriter Martin Berkeley (she had never met him), she had never joined the party. However, she had long been associated with Dashiell Hammett, who became a Communist in the late 1930’s. She had attended meetings with him and her name had appeared on various petitions and lists of sponsors. After Hammett went to jail in 1951, it was only a matter of time before the author’s inevitable subpoena.
With her attorney, Joseph Rauh, she worked out a strategy that proved successful. She was reluctant to take the Fifth Amendment and was quite willing to reveal fully her political activities—so long as she was not asked to name others. In her famous letter to Chairman John Wood, she set the limits of what she was willing to discuss:I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you anything you wish to know about my views or actions if your Committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the Committee is unwilling to give this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the Fifth Amendment at the hearing.
When Hellman appeared before the HUAC on May 21, the Committee refused to grant her request and she was forced to take the Fifth. During her argument with Chairman Wood, he made the mistake of ordering her letter put into the record for clarification. At this point, her lawyer distributed mimeographed copies of the letter to the press. Shortly thereafter a voice from the press section rang out: “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it.” Lillian Hellman had not won, but at least she had achieved a moral victory. She was praised in the press and the HUAC was embarrassed. She was the first person of importance to defy the Committee, and thereafter others adopted her strategy of what came...
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