CRB: What becomes a liar most?

We conclude our preview of the new (Winter) issue of the Claremont Review of Books this morning. Subscribe here for $19.95 and get immediate online access. It is an invaluable magazine. Better yet, support the Claremont Institute and its mission with a tax-deductible contribution here that, among other things, will help defray the cost of publishing the magazine.

I have a morbid fascination with the life and lies of Lillian Hellman (and Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs). Today we look at Ronald Radosh’s review of not one, but two new biographies of the playwright, screenwriter, memoirist, Stalinist and liar. Ron’s review is appropriately headed “What becomes a liar most?”

Emeritus professor of history at the City University of New York and adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute, Ron is the co-author of The Rosenberg File, the definitive history of the famous atom spy case. The book was updated and published in a second edition which remains in print. Ron has written many fine books, all of which are worth reading, but this one is special.

Ron brings deep learning to bear on his roasting of Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. A work amounting to little more than “propaganda on behalf of a propagandist,” Kessler-Harris—a historian at Columbia University—attempts to turn Hellman’s lack of moral compass into some sort of postmodern virtue. Even Hellman’s lies and plagiarism get excused: “Trying to repair her subject’s reputation,” Ron writes, “Kessler-Harris justifies Hellman with what amounts to George Costanza’s line on Seinfeld: ‘It’s not a lie…if you believe it.'”

“Well,” Ron comments, “since I always believed that I played five-string banjo with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys so ably as to win the annual International Bluegrass Association of America’s award for best banjo picker three years in a row…I guess I did.”

By contrast, Ron admires Dorothy Gallagher’s Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life, published by Yale University Press in its Jewish Lives series. Ron finds Gallagher’s book a “sharp, insightful assessment” providing a “serious, critical examination” of Hellman’s life. A memoirist who has also written a book about the anarchist Carlo Tresca, Gallagher carefully details just how much Hellman knew about Stalin’s horrors and when she knew it.

Ron judges that “Gallagher cuts through the verbiage to catch Hellman in lies about herself, while detailing Hellman’s unforgivable commitment to Stalin’s Soviet Union, and her lifelong and shameful anti-anti-Communism.” The evidence presented by Gallagher confirms the view that, as Mary McCarthy put it, every word Hellman wrote “is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”

UPDATE: I think the link to Ron’s review is fixed.

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