Two memoirs by playwrights worth reading

Lillian Hellman — Scoundrel Time

House Committee on Un-American Activities

What was it like to experience and survive the McCarthy era ?

Neither Lillian Hellman nor Dashiell Hammett suffered fools gladly. It takes guts to be a writer; Lillian Hellman had guts.

The title Scoundrel Time refers to the time when scoundrels in the United States deprived fellow Americans of the right to dissent, to due process under the law and the ability to make a living. If I had been subpoenaed by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and backed into a corner and had no savings, I don’t know what I would choose between my livelihood and my friends and my beliefs.

Lillian Hellman wrote this memoir in 1976. The events took place in 1952. Hammett died in 1961. In 1974 Watergate intervened and Richard Nixon said good-bye to the Presidency. In this memoir, Hellman excerpts her diary from the days just before she testified in May of 1952.Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Pleasantville NY, the late 1940s She and Hammett had had to sell their beloved farm at Pleasantville, NY, to pay their legal debts, and the IRS had put a lien on all their future earnings. She knew that years of poverty were just around the corner, but like Scarlet O’Hara, she vowed not to think about that and bought a Pierre Balmain dress, “a very expensive hat and a pair of fine white kid gloves” to wear to her hearing.

"I was and am unable to feel much against the leading figures of the period, the men who punished me. Senators McCarthy and McCarran, Representatives Nixon, Walter and Wood, all of them, were what they were: men who invented when necessary, maligned even when it wasn't necessary. I do not think they believed much, if anything, of what they said: the time was ripe for a new wave in America, and they seized their political chance to lead it along each day's opportunity, spit-balling whatever and with whoever came into view.

"It was not the first time in history that the confusions of honest people were picked up in space by cheap baddies who, hearing a few bars of popular notes, made them into an opera of public disorder, staged and sung, as much of the congressional testimony shows, in the wards of an insane asylum."

The Troubles come to Hammett and Hellman

Some background on Hammett— As an operative for Pinkerton’s Detective Agency around the time of WWI, he worked in a team of several ops engaged by the Anaconda Copper Company to break the strike of the local union. Anaconda offered Hammett $5000 to kill Frank Little, the labor union organizer. This colored forever Hammett’s fiction and his views. He portrayed with irony a corrupt side of capitalism and local government and law enforcement.

In time, he came to the conclusion that nothing less than a revolution could wipe out the corruption. In June of 1951 Dashiell Hammett refused to name contributors to a Civil Rights Congress bail fund and was sent to jail for contempt.

For Lillian, her trouble started February 21, 1952, when she was served a subpoena in her house on East 82nd Street. By 1952 the HUAC had reached its most extreme level of witch-hunting and personal destruction. She chose attorney Abe Fortas to represent her. Abe Fortas had a hunch that the time had come for somebody to take a moral position before these disgraceful congressional committees and not depend on the legalities of the Fifth Amendment.

Taking a Stand

"To Fortas the moral position would be to say, in essence, I will testify about myself, answer all your questions about my own life, but I will not tell you about anybody else, stranger or friend. Fortas thought that I might be in a good position to say just that because, in truth, I didn't know much about anybody's Communist affiliations. The Committee would never, of course, believe that, and so my legal rights would be in danger because I would be giving up the protection of the Fifth Amendment. I agreed with Mr. Fortas and thought his idea was right for me.

"I wanted to tell him that the moral position for my taste would be to say, "You are a bunch of headline seekers, using other people's lives for your own benefits. You know damn well that the people you've been calling before you never did much of anything, but you've browbeaten and bullied many of them into telling lies about sins they never committed. . .

"For years after my appearance before the Committee, I would get up at odd hours of the night and write versions of the statement I never made."

Fortas arranged for Lillian Hellman to see a Washington lawyer named Joseph Rauh. “I liked Rauh. Shrewdness seldom goes with an open nature, but in his case it does and the nice, unbeautiful, rugged, crinkly face gives one confidence about the mind above it.”

Many men found themselves unable to stand up to the Committee. Playwright Clifford Odets had dinner with Hellman that spring and told her "Well, I can tell you what I am going to do before those bastards on the committee. I am going to show them the face of a radical man and tell them to go fuck themselves."

"Odets, who appeared before the Committee one day before I did, apologized for his old beliefs and identified many of his old friends as Communists. . . It is possible that on that night he believed what he had told me. One can only guess that a few weeks later, faced with the ruin of a Hollywood career, he changed his mind. The old clichés were now increasingly true; the loss of a swimming pool, a tennis court, a picture collection, future deprivation, were powerful threats to many people."

From pg. 85:

"But radicalism or anti-radicalism should have had nothing to do with the sly, miserable methods of McCarthy, Nixon and colleagues, as they flailed at Communists, near-Communists, and nowhere-near Communists. Lives were being ruined and few hands were raised in help. Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice? Certainly nobody in their right mind could have believed that the China experts, charged and fired by the State Department, did any more than recognize that Chiang Kai-shek was losing. Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels. But there were very few who stood up to say so and there are almost none even now to remind us that one of the reasons we know so little and guess so badly about China is that we lost the only men who knew what they were talking about. Certainly the good magazines, the ones that published the most serious writers, should have come to the aid of those who were persecuted."

Memo from Rauh

While writing the memoirs in 1975, Lillian received from Joseph Rauh a memo of a meeting he had had in March of 1952 with Tavenner, chief counsel of the House Un-American Committee:

I was in a position to state that she was prepared to tell the Committee about her activities in all organizations. They seemed so delighted with this that I went right on to point out the legal dilemma involved. If Miss Hellman answered questions about herself she could legally be compelled to answer questions about others, and this she could not morally do. . . . They indicated sympathy but nothing more. . . . He (Tavenner) mentioned that Budd Schulberg had initially refused to name anybody, but subsequently had been persuaded to change his position. He seemed to feel that Miss Hellman, too, would be persuaded. . . [He] asked me whether I thought Miss Hellman would be more likely to name people in executive (private) session . . indicating a willingness to talk to Miss Hellman prior to the hearing. . . . Tavenner said this was more for Miss Hellman's benefit . . . as it would make it easier for her to get her dates straight. . The Committee's research director said they were doing the "entire entertainment field" and were particularly interested in the "literary field" to show how the Communist Party sought to control the thinking of its members. Tavenner asked me if Miss Hellman had any experience with efforts by the Communist Party to dictate her writings. I said Miss Hellman is an individualist . . [and] I would like to point out that Watch on the Rhine had been written in 1940 when Communists were supposed to be pro, not anti, Nazi.

Letter to the Committee

May 19, 1952

Honorable John S. Wood
House Committee on Un-American Activities
Room 226 OId House Office Building
Washington 25, D.C.

Dear Mr. Wood:

As you know, I am under subpoena to appear before your Committee on May 21, 1952.

I am most willing to answer all questions about myself. I have nothing to hide from your Committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed. I have been advised by counsel that under the Fifth Amendment I have a constitutional privilege to decline to answer any questions about my political opinions, activities and associations, on the grounds of self-incrimination. I do not wish to claim this privilege. I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself.

But I am advised by counsel that if I answer the Committee's questions about myself, I must also answer questions about other people and that if I refuse to do so, I can be cited for contempt. My counsel tells me that if I answer questions about myself, I will have waived my rights under the Fifth Amendment and could be forced legally to answer questions about others. This is very difficult for a layman to understand. But there is one principle that I do understand: 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. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.

A reply to this letter would be appreciated.

Sincerely yours,

Lillian Hellman

The hotel in Washington

My dress, my hat, my gloves, my gift will be the last extravagances for many years. They felt good. There were two New York Times in my room, one of today, one from yesterday. I hadn't wanted to read them and I was, instinctively, right: Clifford Odets had testified as a friendly witness, throwing in the names of old friends and associates. His old friend Elia Kazan had done the same thing a month before and followed it up with an advertisement in the New York Times that is hard to believe for its pious shit. I sat for a long time thinking about Clifford, the dinner at Barbetta's: had he meant what he told me that night or had it all been a put-on. Maybe worse—an attempt to find out what I would do or say. 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.

The letter Hellman sent to the Committee was refused by letter on May 20. She testified on May 21st. Her lawyer, , told her “Now this is more important so listen carefully: don’t make jokes.”

“Make jokes? Why would I make jokes?”

“Almost everybody, when they feel insulted by the committee, makes a joke or acts smart-aleck. It’s a kind of embarrassment. Don’t do it.”


Representative Wood began to pound his gavel. . . It didn’t take long to get to what really interested them. Had I met a writer named Martin Berkeley? I said I must refuse to answer that question. The "must" in that sentence annoyed Mr. Wood— it was to annoy him again and again— and he corrected me: "You might refuse to answer, the question is asked, do you refuse?"

But in the middle of one of the questions about my past, something so remarkable happened that I am to this day convinced that the unknown gentleman who spoke had a great deal to do with the rest of my life. A voice from the press gallery had been for at least three or four minutes louder than the other voices. (By this time, I think, the press had finished reading my letter to the Committee and were discussing it.) The loud voice had been answered by a less loud voice, but no words could be distinguished. Suddenly a clear voice said, 'Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it."

Wood rapped his gavel and said angrily, 'if that occurs again, I will clear the press from these chambers."

'You do that, sir," said the same voice.

In the Committee room I heard Mr. Wood say "Mr. Walter does not desire to ask the witness any further questions. Is there any reason why this witness should not be excused from further attendance before the Committee?"

Mr. Tavenner said, “No, sir.”

My hearing was over.


Rauh said he didn't know whether they had made a legal mistake in reading my letter into the record, but for the first time they had been put in a spot they didn't like, maybe didn't want to tangle with. They could call me again, but they'd have to find another reason, and so he hadn't sent me to jail after all, and everything had worked just fine.

Many people through the years have asked me why the Committee did not prosecute me. . . On the completion of this book, I phoned Rauh to ask if . . . there could be an explanation. He said, "There were three things they wanted. One, names which you wouldn't give. Two, a smear by accusing you of being a 'Fifth Amendment Communist.' They couldn't do that because in your letter you offered to testify about yourself. And three, a prosecution which they couldn't do because they forced us into taking the Fifth Amendment. They had sense enough to see that they were in a bad spot. We beat them, that's all."

The extraordinary impact of her appearance comes from her non-ideological appeal to pride and loyalty—the kind of loyalty that meant nothing to the Committee but made its tests ring silly and false. Joseph Rauh, who went on to defend other witnesses before the Committee, says that Lillian's stand made it much easier for those who followed her to defy that dread request for names. Eric Bentley calls her stance a "landmark" in his book on the Committee, and Walter Goodman notes that Arthur Miller repeated her arguments almost exactly when he appeared. Murray Kempton found her testimony a sign of hope in that darkest farthest reach of McCarthyism. Despite her literary stature, she seems an unlikely heroine for that grim time, a blend of sassy kid and Southern lady, scared but defiant in her Balmain "testifying dress".


Hammett and I rented a house that summer [1954] on Martha's Vineyard and the fine black lady, Helen, came back to work because now we could afford to pay her again. Nothing was as it had been, but because it had been bad, small things seemed better than ever—the occasional rental of a catboat for a day’s sail, a canoe for the pond, a secondhand car, grocery bills I didn't have to worry so much about. We had a good summer.

And it was the summer of the Army-McCarthy hearings. For us, of course, they came too late to make much difference and seemed a wild mess. The boozy, hospital-patched face of McCarthy, sometimes teasing and gay as in the good days, often caught in disbelief that he was where he was, and angry. He and his boys, Roy Cohn and David Schine—the brash but less assured older brothers of Haldeman and Ehrlichman—were, indeed, a threesome: Schine's little-boy college face, Cohn plump of body, pout of sensual mouth, and McCarthy, a group breaking up before our eyes after years of a wild ride. Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde, shooting at anything that came to hand on the King's horses that rode to battle in official bulletproof armor.

It is not true that when the bell tolls it tolls for thee: if it were true we could not have elected, so few years later, Richard Nixon, a man who had been closely allied with McCarthy. It was no accident that Mr. Nixon brought with him a group of high-powered operators who made Cohn and Schine look like cute little rascals from grammar school. The names and faces had been changed; the stakes were higher, because the prize was the White House. And one year after a presidential scandal of a magnitude still unknown, we have almost forgotten them, too. We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell upon them.

The step from such capers was straight into the Vietnam War and the days of Nixon. Many of the anti-Communists were, of course, honest men. But none of them, as far as I know, has stepped forward to admit a mistake.

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