Published: 12 July, 2012
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
The Quaker founders of Barclays Bank’s mission statement was: Honesty, plain dealing and integrity.
It was July 4 2012. But for Bob Diamond there were no fireworks, marching bands, cheerful renderings of God Bless America. Not even a drink in the Regent’s Park home of the American ambassador.
Here we found the CEO of 21st-century Barclays Bank, appearing contrite before the disapproving gaze of a parliamentary committee. He seemed to be on intimate terms with his interrogators: Mr Norman and Mr Rafferty were “Jesse” and “David”.
In sanctimonious tones he sounded distressed rather than dismayed.
To him, those people on the floor below were “reprehensible” – a good word from the pulpit if ever there was one.
As the afternoon fizzled out, he played with them like a cat with a dying mouse. He said that he expects a key job if the Republicans oust Obama in the presidential elections.
As they used to say in my Army days, he came out smelling of roses. He was more Bassey singing Diamonds Are Forever, when it might have been Jailhouse Rock.
Almost 60 years ago, in September 1952, someone else was summoned before a parliamentary committee in Washington DC – Lillian Hellman, one of the great American authors, who was born in New Orleans in 1905.
Hellman, a one-time member of the American Communist party, was an ardent supporter of the Spanish Republican Government.
An early-day friend of Israel who became anti-Zionist, she was in the front rank of those who opposed Nixon’s war in Vietnam.
Without doubt she was the most courageous upholder of the First Amendement – the right to free speech and free assembly. And she did not always shut her eyes to the Stalinist trials.
Hellman was sharp and unforgiving in her condemnation of those former Left liberals who stood aside when the witchhunt against Communists and fellow travellers was unleashed.
Some of Hollywood’s best writers were her equals, as they were denounced and left jobless. If your name was on the blacklist the only way was towards the exit.
Dalton Trumbo was forced to write under an assumed name until Kirk Douglas insisted that he be credited for writing the award-winning Spartacus.
Hellman called this a “scoundrel time”.
As former friends disappeared, she clung to a long-time friendship with her lover Dashiell Hammett.
He wrote the Thin Man series and the much-acclaimed Maltese Falcon.
The stars of that movie, Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, protested at his victimisation to Congress.
Hellman gave no quarter to those who sank into the background. As the times became tougher, many became apolitical or indifferent or treacherous – particularly Elia Kazan, who she hated.
She was the equivalent of an Oscar Wilde hostess but very firmly on the Left. Mr and Mrs Roosevelt admired her and she was often a guest at the White House. The right wing even tried to pillory Eleanor Roosevelt as a Communist.
Hellman was never blown off course. She saw before many others the new voices that were coming out of the universities.
The aftermath of Vietnam and the Berlin Wall had not made everybody anti-Left.
She invited and received her harshest criticism.
This was a woman who people like Jack Kennedy sought evenings with – believe it or not, for intellectual discussion.
No beauty, she had a nose as big as a doorknocker and an array of young men were conjured up to prove her promiscuity and irresponsibility.
But there was something about this exciting, volatile woman which challenged those who never gave up harassing her.
There was a lot of contradiction in her character. She speculated in property and was relentless in her intellectual demands.
She died in 1984 in her house in Martha’s Vineyard. Her will was as precise as a city accountant and left no doubt as to where she stood.
She left her share of the exclusive beach to local children.
And in an extraordinary clause, she left money to further the aims and unshakeable beliefs of Dashiell Hammett, so that people could learn and profit from the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
She had stayed red and she can be excused limitless imperfections.
She defied and won against the modernists. She was an unrepentant Stalinist but her statement against the Committee of UnAmerican activities will stand as a monument of defiance. They had unleashed a reign of terror and she stood up to them as they hounded her to name names.
“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonourable,” she told them.
“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”
• A Difficult Woman: the Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. By Alice Kessler Harris. Bloomsbury Publishing £25