Herbert Mitgang
Dangerous dossiers : exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors

New York : D.I. Fine, 1988.
Lillian Hellman's FBI file

The plays and memoirs of Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) may well outlast the continuing criticism of her by old and newright professional Red baiters. They have judged her, above all else, by her strong liberal views and not by her writings. In this writer's opinion, some of her critics envied her long romantic association with Dashiell Hammett, the idealized author of The Maltese Falcon and other pioneering works in the field of detective fiction. Hellman haters fell in step behind J. Edgar Hoover and witch hunting congressional committees who despised what she had to say, the organizations she belonged to, her admittedly abrasive style and her financial rewards from writing.

Miss Hellman's FBI file contained 307 censored pages; 37 of these pages were denied to me altogether. In addition, there were several army, State Department and CIA documents. In an effort to obtain more information I wrote to Louis J. Dube, the CIA appeal officer:

"While a play has been put on at the Kennedy Center in Washington about Lillian Hellman, called Lillian, the CIA is saying that a document about her is not allowed to be read after her death. During her lifetime she was never put on trial and no violation of the law was ever noted, not even a misdemeanor. How can you withhold a document about her on grounds that it is in 'the interest of national defense or foreign policy - your official printed reason? Miss Hellman never threatened her country; she merely irritated officials in Washington who did not like her politics or her plays. To withhold a document now is a mockery of the Freedom of Information Act, not some high level intelligence matter. I notice in the newspapers that the CIA had moles working within your organization, passing information on to other countries. Did Lillian Hellman?"

My appeal was accepted by the CIA, but I did not expect anything to result from it. Nothing did. After a year of waiting there was only a negative response. William F. Donnelly, chairman of the CIA's Information Review Committee, cited Exemption (b) (1) of the Freedom of Information Act for denying the document "in the interest of national defense or foreign policy." Generally, I found, the CIA has stonewalled requests while, comparatively, the FBI has been more forthcoming. However, in the final years of the Reagan administration all the federal surveillance agencies set up bureaucratic roadblocks to information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The FBI files reveal that surveillance of Miss Hellman began by [unnamed] informants before World War II - independently and also because of her relationship with Dashiell Hammett. Surveillance was maintained by FBI informants and also by a mail watch of her correspondents and what she read.

In 1938 she was one of the speakers at a rally to support the Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. The same year she joined thirty six other authors in a petition to President Roosevelt to bar German made goods from entering the United States. Her file also noted that she was a sponsor of a suspect (in the clouded vision of the FBI) group: the League of Women Shoppers! In 1941 she attended a testimonial dinner for Theodore Dreiser. The FBI was there. A phrase appears in her file: "extremely close to the Communist party in recent years." In addition to Miss Hellman, the "close" list includes Dashiell Hammett, Marc Blitzstein, Clifford Odets and Richard Wright.

On a wartime plane flight to see Hammett, then serving as editor of an army newspaper in the Aleutians, her baggage was searched. An agent dutifully reported that she carried such books as The Little Oxford Dictionary and H. W. Fowler's The King's English.

Miss Hellman's plays - including The Little Foxes (1939), Watch on the Rhine (1941), The Searching Wind (1944)- also came under official scrutiny. Later her memoirs - Un Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973) and Scoundrel Time (1976), the latter an account t of her experiences and those of her friends during the McCarthy era - infuriated the neoconservatives and small bore literary warriors.

An unnamed FBI theatrical "critic" noted that her play, Watch on the Rhine, appeared to have "great social significance." (Everyone understood what that meant.) Also, that it had received an "extremely favorable" review in the Daily Worker, the Communist party newspaper.

The documents reveal, surprisingly, that the FBI somehow had access to the presumably exclusive New York Times morgue. Commenting on Watch on the Rhine, Hellman's dossier reads: "The morgue files of the New York Times reflected that Watch on the Rhine was awarded the New York Drama Critics award in 1941." Again, a reference appears to an "undated article in the morgue files of the New York Times" listing her as a sponsor of a theater group in Greenwich Village that had turned the stage into "a social weapon."

In 1940 a "reliable source" informed the FBI that Hellman had been assigned by the Communist party to "smearing the FBI in connection with her work on the newspaper PM. " No documentation supports this wild claim. In 1941 an FBI agent reported that he had not yet checked the bank accounts of Hellman and (name censored) but would do so.

J. Edgar Hoover himself took a personal interest in Miss Hellman's activities. In a letter written to the FBI special agent in New York in 1943 - in the middle of World War II, when Nazi agents and the German American Bund were operating in the United States— Hoover called for a comprehensive report on her. In a surprisingly uncensored letter in her file, dated October 20, 1943, Hoover wrote: "You are reminded that this subject has a national reputation through her writings in which she has opposed nazism and fascism. Under no circumstances should it be known that this bureau is conducting an investigation of her. It should be handled in a most discreet manner and under no circumstances should it be assigned to the local police or some other agency."

Thereafter, she was branded a "key figure" in the FBI's New York Field Division. Her writings were interpreted in a "confidential" biography. For example, she was identified as the author of the wartime screenplay, "North Star." The FBI summarized the film in these words: "A movie which depicts the outrage committed upon the peaceful people of Russia by the invading armies of Nazi Germany and those who have sacrificed their homes and themselves in resisting the Fascist hordes." Inclusion suggests an Alice-in-Wonderland set of values - Hellman a suspect because the Russians are victims and the Germans bad guys.

Under the heading "Communist Activities" she was condemned in her "confidential" biography for participating in the film, "The Spanish Earth," that helped to raise money for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War. Condemned with her for the same cause were Archibald MacLeish (spelled "Mac Leach" by the FBI), John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1941, she participated in the Fourth Writers Congress, branded "definitely a Communist gathering" by (censored) informant "whose name is known to the bureau." It was also noted that she, as author of Watch on the Rhine, the composer Marc Blitzein, and Richard Wright, author of Native Son, all received prizes for their work.

During the war, in 1944, the FBI sought two pictures of her from the New York Field Division and also "if possible to do so in a discreet manner, attempt to obtain handwriting specimens of the subject." The effort to get a handwriting sample failed and continued for at least another year - until someone woke up and realized that her passport application included her signature.

The FBI also found it a matter of suspicion - and watched her - when she supported President Roosevelt for a fourth term: Her file includes an "Open Letter from Lillian Hellman to the Voters of Westchester County" that appeared in the New York Times on October 2, 1944. The advertisement called upon her Westchester neighbors to support the President: "I agreed to serve on the Roosevelt Committee of Westchester. I want to urge you to do the same. This election is the most crucial of our lifetime. Let us not return to the days of closed banks, business failures, home foreclosures and mass unemployment."

After the war, when her file grew thicker, she continued to be tracked whenever she moved. In 1948 Headquarters Second Army, Security Group, in the Northeast, kept a file on her, according to a document in her dossier. The military document labeled her as a "Communist adherent." In 1949 Hoover told his New York office that a new report was needed on her because of "the tense international situation." A watch was then maintained on her at 63 East 82nd Street, her Manhattan home, and also at her country place in Pleasantville north of Manhattan.

Her FBI file was embellished in 1950 when all the previous material was repeated. This time, what was "alleged" or simply reported by an unnamed "informant" became accepted as fact without qualification. The mere existence of such raw data in the file gave the material acceptability.

During the Eisenhower era, Miss Hellman was called before the House UnAmerican Activities. Availing herself of her rights under the Fifth Amendment, she declined to say if she had been a member of the Communist party and denied that she had been a communist in 1952 or the previous two years.

By 1955 the FBI's New York office recommended that Miss Hellman's name be removed from the Security Index— a high priority in the bureau's records. No evidence of any Communist affiliation or disloyalty were uncovered, disproving the accusations against her in the file. The New York office reported: "She is not known to belong to a basic revolutionary organization or to have been engaged in a leadership capacity in front groups during the past three years." The response by Washington to this recommendation is blacked out or omitted for several pages. Apparently Hoover would not let her case drop. When she went abroad in 1963, she was still being tracked by the State Department, which kept the FBI informed of her whereabouts. Again, in 1966, State sent copies to London and Paris as part of a confidential report on her stamped Subversive Control. When she spent her summers on Martha's Vineyard the FBI enlisted the help of her local post office to see what she read and to whom she wrote that could be determined by watching the mails. Postmaster Walter Stone, Vineyard Haven, advised the FBI of her forwarding address when she moved back to New York.

When the Committee for Public Justice was formed in New York in 1970 a secret FBI memorandum said that Lillian Hellman was the main organizer of the organization and that she supported New Left and anti Vietnam war groups. The FBI then listed the names o f other distinguished members of the Committee for Public Justice, which was designed to provide legal assistance to those accused of political protest and other activities that displeased the government. All appeared, with derogatory biographical information, in the Hellman file.

Among them was Burke Marshall, a former assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division in the Johnson administration. He was judged by this peculiar standard: "We had frequent contact with him and he was not considered a friend of the FBI." Telford Taylor, former chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and a professor of law at Columbia University, was also condemned: "Member of National Lawyers Guild . . . member of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace which cooperated with the Soviet government . . . has represented many Communist party members in court and before congressional committees." Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, special assistant to President Kennedy on science and technology and former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was accused in these words: "He admitted past membership in the American Association of Scientific Workers, a Communist front organization and allegedly indicated sympathy for Communists in the 1940s . . . several of his associates at MIT were publicly identified as having been affiliated with the CP . . . attended the Second Pugwash Conference in Quebec, Canada, in 1968, sponsored by Cyrus Eaton, and more recently has been outspoken in opposition to an antiballistic missile system for the US." The list also included Robert B. Silvers, formerly with Harper's magazine, later coeditor of the New York Review of Books, who was described in this fashion: "In 1964 [the New York Review of Books] reportedly used individuals with 'leftist tendencies' to review books dealing with security matters and the US Government.... Allegations that this publication was directed or controlled by the CP were not substantiated.... Silvers, who visited Cuba in late 1968, was one of the board of directors of 'Center for Cuban Studies,' New York City, the subject of a current Registration Act Cuba investigation."

Beyond any professional or political associations, being considered "a friend of the FBI" was regarded as a significant measure of devotion to God, country - and J. Edgar Hoover. In this respect, Miss Hellman was "disloyal"; she was clearly no friend of the FBI or the congressional investigating committees. She had her literary and political enemies and was engaged in all the public wars—some very small, indeed, and, in retrospect, unimportant outside the family of intellectuals. But she was consistent in her boldness, speaking up and dramatizing her beliefs in the theater and in print. She would not, in her memorable phrase to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities in 1952, "cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."


50s HOME | READING LIST | NEWS | FILREIS HOME

Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/hellman-per-fbi.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:23 EDT