It was the talk of the literary and legal worlds in the early 1980s. Noted playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes,” “Another Part of the Forest” and numerous others), sued literary critic and author Mary McCarthy (her novel “The Group” had a long run on the New York Times best-seller list and was adapted for a film in 1966) over remarks McCarthy made during a PBS TV show hosted by Dick Cavett, widely considered at the time to be the most serious and erudite figure on the talk-show circuit. When Cavett asked McCarthy if she felt there were any overrated writers, she cited Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck and Hellman, saying of the latter, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”
Thinking back to the immediate fallout from McCarthy’s incendiary remarks, Cavett said in a recent interview, “I can still hear the voice in my right ear on the telephone the next morning saying, ‘Why the hell didn’t you defend me?’ That was darling Lillian.
“She had a couple of defenders, but not very many back then, particularly over the fact that she always held herself as such a great advocate of free speech — no censorship — and the First Amendment. And yet she sued another writer.”
The events surrounding the lawsuit are dramatized in Brian Richard Mori’s play “Hellman v. McCarthy,” which had its premiere off-Broadway last year, was broadcast on PBS and is now being staged in Beverly Hills by Theatre 40, with Cavett appearing as himself to re-create some of the seminal scenes and also to serve as narrator. He is joined by Marcia Rodd as McCarthy and Flora Plumb as Hellman.
McCarthy was not the only person to call Hellman’s veracity into question. Several writers and biographers said she lied in her memoirs, which included the books “An Unfinished Woman,” “Scoundrel Time” and “Pentimento,” one chapter of which was about a woman named Julia, supposedly Hellman’s lifelong friend, who was working underground in Europe against the Nazis. In the story, Hellman claimed she had smuggled money through Nazi Germany for Julia. That segment formed the basis for the film “Julia,” which stars Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner charged that the Julia story was stolen from her own life and that she never knew Hellman, although they had the same lawyer.
“So much of Hellman’s writing was bogus,” Cavett maintained, “and she lied in her teeth about it, assuming they were her teeth, and pretended things that were not true throughout her life. She was, however, a very, very wonderful storyteller. I loved reading her book. I didn’t know that there was no Julia, and that she invented the thing out of whole or partial cloth. And so, I liked her skills as a storyteller and as a playwright. I had dinner at her apartment a few times. She was very entertaining to be around, and witty.”
Hellman was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans but had little connection to her Jewish heritage. In her book “Lillian Hellman: A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels,” Deborah Martinson writes, “In New York [Lillian] found an atmosphere where Jewish culture resonated, although she was not a practicing Jew. Judaic ribbons of connection lay slack on both sides of the family. Too Jewish in New Orleans … and not Jewish enough in New York … She fit, uneasily, the most ‘un-Jewish of Jews,’ a ‘breed apart’ from New York’s distinct and active Jewish communities. Hellman never understood what being a Jew actually meant exactly. But she always insisted vaguely, ‘I know I would rather be a Jew than not be.’ ”
Of McCarthy, Martinson writes, “Her grandmother was one-quarter Jewish, but [McCarthy was] raised Catholic. It was years before she acknowledged her Jewish ties — something she later regretted.”
Playwright Mori said Hellman’s being Jewish didn’t really inform the character as he has drawn her. Mori remembered that he had moved from Southern California to New York right around the time the whole story broke and read every New York Times article on the controversy.
“It was absorbing,” Mori said. “I didn’t really consider doing anything with it dramatically until four or five years ago, and then I just read everything I could find about the women, their books and their interviews. I was able to get a lot of material from their archives, and I was able to review the court documents as well.
“I admired both women. I love writers, and they’re both extraordinary. And there’s the built-in conflict, even though one would think, as I mention in the play, that they would be allies rather than the reverse.”
But they were adversaries on many levels, especially with respect to politics. Although both leaned to the left, Hellman was a staunch Stalinist, to the point of refusing to repudiate Stalin’s purges, while McCarthy was a Trotskyite.
Cavett characterized the feeling between the two as “intense hatred, which did not contain itself.”
He continued: “Hellman was — and this is ironic — better-known, you might say. In the weakest, weakest part of her defense of herself, she claimed she wasn’t a public figure.” There is a higher burden of proof required in libel suits filed by public figures.
“Shockingly, she won that argument,” Mori said. “Mary’s side, of course, thought it was going to be a slam dunk [against] that argument. And the judge sided with Lillian Hellman, saying that what Mary said isn’t protected opinions of free speech, which was very strange.”
Mori’s play doesn’t take either woman’s side, and he was unwilling to give his personal opinion as to which of the two was the more sympathetic.
The lawsuit, which dragged on for four years, evaporated with Hellman’s death in 1984. McCarthy died five years later.