`Scoundrel Time' is a harrowing, highly personal account of the events surrounding Lillian Hellman's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, in 1952. It was, to put it mildly, a tricky situation. Although Hellman did not `cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions,' the damage to her life and career were extensive. Even though she was not a friendly witness the Committee didn't cite her for contempt. That did nothing to save her from being blacklisted, however. Beyond a revealing look at a life disrupted by a government that felt, as Garry Wills puts it in his extended introduction, `Hollywood must be censored politically if nation was to be protected ideologically,' Hellman details the post-hearing shake-out. Without a chance to work at home, and with work abroad hindered by an ever-suspicious government, Hellman would eventually lose her home, a number of fair-weather friends, while we all lost a decade's worth of plays and screenplays.
It's helpful to read Wills' introduction prior to Hellman's book. Wills writes that Hellman's scheduled appearance before the Committee `was especially dangerous because Miss Hellman was as little qualified to understand the Committee as it was to grasp her code of honor.' Wills supplies the context while Hellman concentrates on the emotions of someone undergoing a witch hunters' scrutiny. Wills rightly discerns an inability on Hellman's part to understand that Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and others of their ilk were sincere Cold Warriors. All things considered Hellman displays a rather surprising dearth of rancor towards her persecutors, but she doesn't hide the fact that she considers them unscrupulous opportunists.
`Scoundrel Time' was published in 1976, shortly after the resignation of one of Hellman's persecutors, Richard Nixon. To paraphrase Jimmy Breslin, the good guys finally won and it must have given an odd sense of satisfaction to those who lives were disrupted by his rise to power. Hellman is a flawed and vulnerable character in this memoir, and all the more human for it.