Printer Friendly

Beat the devil.

On February 6, only a few months after the woman who denied having borrowed her life, Muriel Gardiner died at the age of 83 in Princeton, New Jersey. On reading her obituary in The New York Times I was once again struck by the oddity of the whole Julia saga and the behavior of Lillian Hellman. How to explain it? I think the life of yet another exceptional woman who died last year may help us through the labyrinth.

But first, Muriel Gardiner. She was heiress to an immense fortune. One of her grandfathers founded the Union Stock-yards in Chicago, and the other started the meatpacking firm of Swift and Company. She attended Wellesley College, studied literature at Oxford University and then went to Vienna and tried to enter analysis with Freud. Although she failed in this plan, she did stay in Vienna to study medicine and psychoanalysis. She married Joseph Buttinger, leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists. As the Nazi tide swelled, she joined the antifascist underground and, with money, false documents and a safe house, helped organize the escape of hundreds of fugitives from Nazism. She was a founder of the International Rescue Committee.

She came back to the United States in 1939. After the war she was a practicing psychoanalyst in 1939. After the war she was a practicing psychoanalyst and assembled the marvelous "Wolfman" papers. She helped establish the Freud Museum in London, in the house to which the Freuds moved from Vienna in 1938. The museum will open next year. One of her legacies is Children's Express, which she helped found and fund, and another is Dissent, for which she and her husband put up half the starting capital, in 1953, and whose deficits she helped pay off for many years.

Lillian Hellman published Pentimento, subtitled A Book of Portraits, in 1973, and in one of its stories, "Julia," she describes the eponymous heroine, her friend in childhood and adolescence. She was an heiress who had studied at Oxford before going to Vienna, there becoming a "patient-pupil of Freud?; becoming also a socialist, "sharing her great fortune with anyone who needed it" and getting involved in underground rescue work for fugitives from Nazism.

In 1983 Gardiner published her memoir, Code Name "Mary." Her publishers drew attention to the similarities between Hellman's Julia and her own life, most particularly her underground work in Vienna. Gardiner wrote that friends had pointed out these similarities but that she had never met Hellman, though they had shared the same lawyer. Hellman, in turn, asserted that Gardiner was "certainly not the model" for her Julia.

A week after Gardiner's death, a friend of Hellman's told me a story was going around to the effect that just before she died, Muriel Gardiner had confided to William Abrahams, Hellman's official biographer, that she did not, after all, feel she had been the basis for Julia and that her publisher, Yale University Press, had stressed the similarities to draw attention to Code Name "Mary." In the two days before I was able to contact Abrahams, I talked to a number of people who knew both Hellman and Gardiner, and after I sat down and reread "Julia," I felt there was a way of looking at the affair tha tpeople had so far missed. The Stolen Lives

Those who are sure in their own minds that Gardiner was the model for Julia and that Hellman, as some of them put it, "stole her life" say flatly that Julia simply could not have been anyone else and that as a historical account, "Julia" fails to hang together. Amid the furor at the time of the publication of Code Name "Mary," Herbert Steiner, head of the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance, said he had looked up the records of the University of Vienna and found Gardiner to be "the only American woman who studied medicine and psychology at the time." He added that friends in the Resistance all certified that events in "Julia" could "have been experienced only by Muriel Gardiner."

But if they never met, how did Hellman know of Gardiner's exploits? They were pretty well known in many circles in New York City, and, furthermore, when she came back to the United States in the fall of 1936, Gardiner shared some property in New Jersey with Wolf Schwabacher. Shwabacher, now dead, was a theatrical lawyer who knew Hellman well, and it was Gardiner's supposition that he had been the bearer of her tale.

William Wright, who is well along in his unofficial life of Hellman--there is yet a third being written by Hilary Mills--says he talked to Gardiner a few months ago: far from feeling that she had been the pawn of publicity-hungry publishers, she told Wright she thought she had let Hellman off too easy. She'd written a letter to Hellman after the publication of Pentimento, saying that a lot of friends had told her that she was Julia and asking if it was a composite portrait. Hellman had never replied.

I talked to Hellman's lawyer, Ephraim London, who said that she had once told him who Julia was (not Gardiner) but "I took good care to forget the name." Then I took another look at "Julia." It's a very odd piece of work. The material about smuggling the money to Berlin is labored. Much the strongest part is the evocation of Hellman's adolescent relationship with Julia and of Julia's emotional and physical allure:

I cannot say now that I knew or had ever used the word gentle or delicate or strong, but I did think that night that it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen. . . . I have had plenty of time to think of the love that I had for her, too strong and too complicated to be defined as only the sexual yearnings of one girl for another. And yet certainly that was there. Women in Love.

It was the association of Freud and an attraction between women that reminded me of Bryher and H.D.

In 1927 a woman of enormous wealth flew across the Alps to Vienna to visit Freud, who was excited to hear that she had come to him on an airplane and who accepted with pleasure her gift of a book by Norman Douglas. In the early 1930s she successfully recommended her lover to enter analysis with Freud. In the late 1930s she helped rescue fugitives from Nazism and visited Vienna to that end.

The heiress was an Englishwoman, Winifred Ellerman. She was the daughter of the shipping tycoon Sir John Ellerman, and she later took the name "Bryher," from an island in the Scillys, to escape the association of her family name. In 1918, at the age of 24, she met H.D., the imagist poet Hilda doolittle, who was then 32. At that time H.D., an American who had gone to Bryn Mawr College and, in 1911, followed Ezra Pound to London, was living in Cornwall. She was looking after her daughter, fathered by Richard Aldington, and getting very near the end of her tether. Bryher took up H.D. and they became lovers. H.D. was known around the Ellerman family house in London as "that woman." Between 1927 and 1933 H.D. helped Bryher edit the film magazine Close Up, and in 1933, on Bryher's prompting, began to see Freud. H.D.'s extraordinary evocation of her analysis, Tribute to Freud, was published in 1956.

Bryher published two volumes of autobiography. The first, A Heart to Artemis, published in 1962, had a passage describing her work in helping refugees from Nazism:

I was the receiving station in Switzerland. It was considered too dangerous for me to enter Germany but I went several times to Vienna and Prague to interview applicats and bring out documents they needed for visas. . . . I used to smuggle them out in copies of the Times. This newspaper was considered so pro-Nazi at the time that its readers were usually unmolested at the frontier.

(One of the people Bryher helped was Walter Benjamin, who later committed suicide on the Spanish frontier, fearing he was about to be captured.)

I'm not suggesting something so straightforward as that Bryher was Julia and that Gardiner was not, or even that Hellman knew Bryher personally, any more than she knew Gardiner. It seems to me that much of Pentimento is fantasy, in the respectable creative sense of an imaginative working of biographical material. "Julia" is an amalgam of both sexual and heroic fantasies in which Hellman assumes the role of H.D. (her beautiful polar opposite) and renders Gardiner/Bryher as Julia but appropriates some of Julia's heroism for herself. The Julia figure crops up in An Unfinished Woman under another name, this time killed in the Vienna riots of 1934, which were described in a long poem by Stephen Spender, quondam lover of Muriel Gardiner. Death Did Them Part

One of the stranger aspects of Hellman's account of Julia is the savage way the author physically destroys her subject. First,

Julia's leg is amputated (neither Gardiner nor Bryher suffered this), and then Hellman describes the body, hacked by Nazi knives, and the slashed and battered face which, in the mortuary, Hellman declines to kiss. This works neither as biography nor as art, and seems to me explicable only as the abrupt rejection and destruction of a fantasy. In the story, Hellman furiously slaps the face of a man who suggests that she and Julia had had a sexual relationship. It is, by the way, worth remebering that The Children's Hour, Hellman's first, very successful play, was all about lying and lesbianism. In January 1940 Hellman began seven years of Freudian analysis with Gregory Zilborg and retained, with intermittent consultations, a deep interest in Freud and psychoanalysis to the end of her life.

There's one more aspect to the Pentimento fantasy. Julia tells Hellman she's had a child ("'Freud told me not to' . . . . the baby seemed to like being called Lilly"), and the story ends with a relative of Julia telling Hellman that he had never heard of such a child. In interviews with Hellman on PBS in 1981, Marilyn Berger pressed Hellman about the fate of this child. Hellman said she had followed the trail to a village in Alsace, only to find that the child had been murdered by the Nazis. Amid tears, she told Berger she was glad, in a way, to have learned that the child had died, since this knowledge diminished her sense of guilt about not having tried to find the child earlier. Hellman herself was childless. Incidentally, H.D.'s daughter, Perdita, was adopted by Bryher and now lives in New York City. Like Hellman, Bryher died last year.

I finally got hold of William Abrahams, the official biographer. It turned out that the story about his meeting with Gardiner was nonsense. He'd never known her--though he once met Stephen Spender in her New York apartment. He didn't want to talk about Pentimento "because I was Lillian's editor at the time and I want to preserve my own material zealously until I publish in four or five years. I know a great many things are true. I'm firmly convinced she took money to Berlin and was very brave. Why is she put on the witness stand? The zeal on the part of her detractors is interesting." Finally I asked Abrahams if he knew who Julia was, and after a long pause, he said, "I can't tell you."

I think Hellman told us, in her definition of the word "pentimento." It is a "repenting" by the artist, she wrote, a change of mind: "Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now."
COPYRIGHT 1985 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Who was Lillian Hellman's Julia
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Feb 23, 1985
Previous Article:Sovieticus.
Next Article:Uncivil liberties.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters