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In 1952, Hellman joined the ranks of intellectuals and artists called before Congress to testify about political subversion. Terrified yet defiant, Hellman refused to incriminate herself or others, and managed to avoid trial. Nonetheless the experience brought devastating controversy and loss. First published in 1972, her retelling of the time features a remarkable cast of characters, including her lover, novelist Dashiell Hammett, a slew of famous friends and colleagues, and a pack of "scoundrels" — ruthless, ...
In 1952, Hellman joined the ranks of intellectuals and artists called before Congress to testify about political subversion. Terrified yet defiant, Hellman refused to incriminate herself or others, and managed to avoid trial. Nonetheless the experience brought devastating controversy and loss. First published in 1972, her retelling of the time features a remarkable cast of characters, including her lover, novelist Dashiell Hammett, a slew of famous friends and colleagues, and a pack of "scoundrels" — ruthless, ambitious politicians and the people who complied with their demands.
I sat with the subpoena for perhaps an hour, alone in the house, not wishing to talk to anybody. There it was, and for some reason there seemed to me nothing to hurry about. I took to looking at the last few days' mail, some of it already dictated for a secretary who came twice a week, some of it yet to be answered. One of the forms I had filled out a few days before, ready for mailing, was the usual questionnaire from Who's Who in America. I suppose I found some amusement in reading it again: I ha' by that day written
The Children's Hour, Days t' Come, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, The Searching Wind, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden. I had collected and introduced volume of Chekhov letters, written movies and tinkered with others, belonged to organizations, unions-all the stuff I always have to look up from the previous Who's Who because I can't remember the dates.
Then I took a nap and woke up in a sweat of bewilderment about myself. I telephoned Hammett and he said he would take the next train from Katonah, so to sit still and do nothing until he got there. But the calm was gone now and I couldn't do that.
I went immediately to Stanley Isaacs, who had been borough president of Manhattan and who had suffered under an attack, led by Robert Moses, because one of his minor assistants was a member of the Communist Party. Stanley had stood up well under the attack, although, of course, the episode hurt his very Republican career. (I had gone to him as an admiring stranger as soon as he returned to his own law practice and had brought along with me, in the following years, quite a few people who liked and admired him.) Isaacs was an admirable man, but I think by the time of my subpoena he was more worried than he wanted to admit, and knew that his way back to politics-he was, in fact, never to have a way back-could be mended only with care. Isaacs and I were fond of each other and his face looked pained as he told me that he didn't believe he should handle the case, he didn't know enough about the field, but together we would find the right man.
Together we didn't. Stanley had a number of suggestions during the next few days, but I didn't like any of them, and while I remember that clearly, it is strange that I don't remember how I came, on my own, to phone Abe Fortas. I had never met Fortas, although I had, of course, heard of him and his law firm of Arnold, Fortas and Porter. Mr. Fortas said he was coming to New York the next day and would come by and see me.
But if I don't remember how I came to phone Fortas, I do remember everything about our meeting: the nasty weather outside the tall windows; the thin, intelligent face opposite me in an Empire chair that seemed wrong for him; most of all, the eyes that were taking my measure, a business that has always made me nervous and was making me more nervous on this nervous day. I told him about the subpoena, he asked a few questions about my past, none of any real importance, he admired the china birds on the fireplace, he tried out a few notes on the piano, frowned at the tone, and turned to say that he had a hunch he'd tell me about, but I was not to take a hunch as legal advice.
His hunch was that the time had come, the perfect time, for somebody to take a moral position before these disgraceful congressional committees and not depend on the legalities of the Fifth Amendment. 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 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. So go to hell and do what you want with me." I didn't say any of that to Fortas because I knew I would never be able to say it at all.
(But for five or six years after my appearance before the Committee, when other troubles came, and I would be sleepless, I would get up at odd hours of the night and write versions of the statement I never made. I was certain that whatever would have been the injuries of jail they could not have been as bad as I had thought in those first days. Then, of course, when I had climbed back into bed to read a new and fancier version of what I hadn't said, I would think it's fine to do all this after the fears are over, you'd better cut it out and start worrying about how you will act when trouble comes again. )
What I did that afternoon of Mr. Fortas's visit was to say that I agreed with him and thought his idea was right for me. But he wouldn't have it that way; he said that I must take a few days and think it out carefully and then call him. I said I didn't need the few days and he said maybe, but he did need them, he wanted to think over what he had suggested. Before Fortas left he said that neither he nor his firm could take my case because they were representing Owen Lattimore and Lattimore could hurt me or I could hurt Lattimore. But he knew a fine young lawyer and we'd talk about him the next time we met.
Mine is often an irritable nature. If the groceries haven't arrived on time, or the corn grows stunted, or the phone rings too much, even with good news, I am, as I have said, sometimes out of control. But when there is real trouble, the nervousness gets pushed down so far that calm takes its place, and although I pay high for disaster when it is long past, I am not sure that real trouble registers on me when it first appears. I don't know why that happens, but I think I have the sense to understand that there is nothing to do but to face trouble with a roped control, and that any suspicion of high jinks will break me. That was where I was for the next few months-more important, for the next bad week.
The day after the visit from Fortas, I told Hammett what I was going to do. Dash rarely showed anger, but when he did, it came out in the form of staring at me. The staring would often go on for a long time, as if he were thinking over how you dealt with a crazy lady, what was the best way out. I had been through the stare periods many times in the past, but now it went longer than I could stand and I grew uneasy enough to go for a walk. When I came back we spoke of nothing more than what we would cook for dinner and I made the mistake of thinking that he had decided to say nothing, to mind his own business, which was what he usually did after the anger had passed. But I was wrong: halfway through dinner he pushed his plate away and said, "It's shit. Plain liberal shit. They are going to send you to a jail cell and for longer than usual. I don't give a damn what Mr. Fortas thinks, I do give a damn that you are ass enough to believe that those stinkers are going to pay any attention to your high-class morals. It's tough for me to believe that you haven't recovered from that crap."
"What stinkers? The Committee?"
"Not only," he said. "You know very well what I am talking about. The Committee, the press, what you think are your friends, everybody. But to hell with convincing you of anything sensible. Just remember there are rats in jail, and tough dikes, and people who will push you hard just because they like it, and guards who won't admire you, and food you can't eat and unless you do eat it they'll put you in solitary. You're headed for a good breakdown, if not worse."
Excerpted from Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman Copyright © 1976 by Lillian Hellman. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 30, 2009