"I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions..."The greatest female American playwright of the twentieth century, Lillian Hellman, said it on May 19, 1952, as she was called before the United State House of Representatives. The House Un-American Activities Committee, with its witch hunting hearings intent on driving so-called Communists and fellow travelers from entertainment, and any other influential positions in American life. Creating various abominable blacklists that prevented its victims' employment, and hounded them into suicide and self-imposed exile. Hellman's words resounded around America and the world back then, and still do. They are contained in her well-known and greatly admired memoir of the time, SCOUNDREL TIME.
The New Orleans-born Hellman did, indeed, testify before the committee, as she was required to do on May 21, 1952. She was accused of having attended Communist Party meetings in 1937. In her letter of the 19th, she explained that she was willing to testify only about herself, but was unwilling to claim her rights under the Fifth Amendment unless forced to, and would not 'name names' of other supposed communists and fellow travelers, which is what the committee wanted its victims to do. In her testimony, she denied that she ever had belonged to the Communist party, but was eventually forced to take the Fifth; she named no names. After her testimony, she released to the press her stirring letter of the 19th, which was immediately heard round the world. Her career was severely damaged by HUAC - she had to work as a saleswoman at Macys for some time -- but she never was imprisoned. Her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett, the American author credited with developing the hard-boiled noir detective story, was.
Hellman authored two additional volumes of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, and Pentimento . "The Little Foxes," "Toys in the Attic," and "The Watch on the Rhine" are among her best-known plays; she also authored many screenplays. Her last years were marred by a feud with American author Mary McCarthy, who had accused Hellman, on the televised Dick Cavett show, of lying with every word, "including `and' and `the'." Hellman chose to sue McCarthy for libel; the suit was closed with her death.
Many years ago, well before the McCarthy business, I interviewed Hellman for an American newspaper. It was a strong interview, with a couple of reverberant lines in it, and was picked up at the time by several major newspapers. Quotes of it, to my knowledge, have since been picked up by at least six books. The New York Public Library, Lincoln Center branch, has been given a copy of the original taped interview and its transcript; I believe they are available on the Internet. SCOUNDREL TIME is a quick and dramatic read, as befits its author, and still an important one.