Hey Big Spender!

‘So let me get right to the point
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey, big spender!
spend a little time with me’                                                                                                                     (from Sweet Charity, 1966: lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Shortly after it was released in 1977, I saw the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on a memoir by the American playwright Lillian Hellman, it tells the story of a close friendship between Hellman and the mysterious ‘Julia’, a rich American girl who had gone to Europe, studied at Oxford, and then moved to Vienna in the hope of being treated by Freud. Having involved herself in rescue operations of Jews and Communists from under the noses of the Fascists, Julia is severely crippled by the latter. Hellman, struggling with her writing in the summer of 1934, goes off to Europe to try to find her friend, and a few years later undertakes a dangerous mission of smuggling money into Berlin to help save more souls. Later, she learns that her friend had been attacked and was near to death in Frankfurt, but had been spirited out of the country to London, where she died. Hellman tries to discover what happened, and attempts to contact Julia’s grandparents, but finds instead a wall of silence.

I thought the film rather overwrought and unlikely at the time, but knew next to nothing about Hellman (or even Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, with whom she was living on Long Island), and had only a vague understanding about Austrian politics in the mid-1930s. So I put it to the back of my mind, thinking it was a harmless vehicle for Hanoi Jane and the ambassadress for the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Ms. Redgrave, and concluded that the luvvies at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have seen something I didn’t when it was nominated for eleven awards, and won three.

My interest in Julia was sparked a year or two ago as I was performing research for my thesis on communist subversion. The name of Muriel Gardiner came up, and I learned that she had been the model for Hellman’s Julia, who had featured in an eponymous chapter in Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, and had also appeared in embryonic form in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman. Muriel Gardiner was indeed a rich American who from 1922 to 1924 had spent time at Oxford performing graduate work in English Literature, had moved to Vienna to seek out Freud and be psychoanalysed by him, and had become involved with the communist movement there. But the coincidence ended at that point, as Muriel Gardiner was in fact very much alive when she brought out her own autobiography, Code Name ‘Mary’ in 1983. What is more, she wrote that she had never met Lillian Hellman.

Gardiner explains in her memoir that she had been prompted to write her account to set the record straight, several of her friends having pointed out to her the resemblance between her and Hellman’s Julia. She apparently read Hellman’s book soon after it came out: Sheila Isenberg (Gardiner’s biographer) says that she paid ‘little heed’ to it at first, as her time was consumed with looking after her husband, apparently stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and her interest was not stirred until the movie was released. But Isenberg then represents the chronology very awkwardly, suggesting that Gardiner had discussions with her friends about the movie, but ‘at first refused to say anything directly to Hellman’. Isenberg next reports, however, that ‘in 1976, she did finally write a letter to Hellman’. But since Julia was not released until 1977, the timetable does not make sense.

So what about the letter? It is an extraordinary compilation, a mixture of deference and polite puzzlement. Gardiner starts by describing Pentimento as ‘a beautiful book’  – a somewhat unfortunate choice of words, as later paragraphs will show. She wonders whether the character Julia could be a composite of several persons: “I do not at all think so, but cannot help wondering that I never – as far as I know – met Julia. Nor have I met you, though I heard of you often from our good friend, Wolf Schwabacher  . . .”  (Schwabacher was a lawyer, with whom Muriel and her husband, Joe Buttinger, shared a large house in Pennington, New Jersey, when she returned to the USA in 1940.)   Why would Gardiner bother to point out to Hellman that they had never met, and, even more to the point, why would she not have tried to arrange a meeting to discuss the topic first? An introduction would surely have been easy.

Gardiner’s biographer adds that Hellman had ‘first borrowed Muriel’s life’ late in 1940, when she created ‘the wealthy American Sara Muller, the wife of a European resistance leader’, in The Watch on the Rhine.  But Gardiner had missed the play and the film. Now her tactful approach gave Hellman an opportunity to explain all. Yet she signed off her letter by saying even that there was no need for Hellman to answer it. Why? If she was genuinely interested in what had happened, why give Hellman the out? Instead, Gardiner studiously avoided pinning Hellman down, and when she came to research her own memoir a few years later, she even made contact with the head of the Documentary Archives of the Austrian Resistance, in Vienna (a Dr. Herbert Steiner), to confirm that no other resistance fighter with the same profile had existed. Instead of pursuing Hellman a little more energetically, behavior that would have been much more conventional and acceptable, she went chasing hares.

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/29/books/publishing-new-memoir-stirs-julia-controversy.html. What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

This February, I at last read Pentimento, and also rented the movie Julia from the University Library. The memoir is pure hokum. For example, Hellman describes Hammett and herself spending the summer of 1934 on Long Island, until Hammett agrees to pay her fare to go to Europe for two-and-half months, so that she can finish her play The Children’s Hour, and see Julia. She arrives in Paris, where she calls Julia in Vienna, and tells her she will join her. As Hellman tells it: “Then, two weeks after my phone call, the newspaper headlines said that Austrian government troops, aided by local Nazis, had bombarded the Karl Marx Hof in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna.” Hellman arrives there to find Julia in hospital, having been severely wounded in the fracas surrounding Floridsdorf. Yet the storming of the Karl Marx Hof (the worker community constructed by the Viennese socialist administration) had occurred in February 1934! And the first night of The Children’s Hour was on November 20, 1934, which made the whole construction a nonsense. It was hardly worth my reading on. (Hellman’s biographer Wright notes the first anomaly, but how come nobody else did at the time?)

The movie was even worse, second time around. True, the producers did try to fix some of the obvious problems in the original story  ̶  such as correcting the oversight that, when she returned to Europe in 1937 on a mission to go to a conference in the Soviet Union, Hellman was able to change, while in Paris, her itinerary to Moscow to go via Berlin without gaining permission from the Soviet consulate, and the plugging of some other obvious gaps. But the character ‘Julia’ drew such attention to herself with her nervous mannerisms, and flamboyant outfits, that it defied credibility. As Gardiner herself said to friends (Isenberg, p 378): “How absurd to think that the likes of Jane Fonda could have sat unobserved, wearing that ridiculous hat, waiting for Vanessa Redgrave in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight in Nazi Berlin!” And why select a Jew for the dangerous job? Wright lists other anomalies, such as the fact that the whole premise of having to smuggle in dollars to Berlin was false. Why some researcher did not investigate all this before the film was made is astonishing. (One irony, to me, was that it would have made better casting sense to have had Julia, i.e. Muriel Gardiner, who was a very attractive woman, played by Fonda, while Redgrave’s – ahem  ̶  more austere beauty would have suited better the less than stellar features of Hellman. But the producers no doubt had to have an American playing Hellman.) As for Redgrave’s Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, it was a joke. She doesn’t appear much, and is swathed in bandages for half the time. Otherwise, she just sits there, looking saintly, peering devotedly into Fonda’s eyes.

The main focus of this piece, however, is on Gardiner, who has always been presented as a very honest person compared to the monster Hellman. Yet a careful examination of her memoir, and of other accounts of her adventures, indicates that she could be parsimonious with the truth as well. This pattern is reflected in three key incidents in her life: her first marriage, her voyage to Moscow in 1932, and her romantic encounter with an English poet, which events together suggest that her account of her dealings with Lillian Hellman may also be unreliable.

In her memoir, Gardiner completely overlooks what one would think would have been an important episode in her life  ̶  her first marriage. While in England, she had met, at the British Museum, an American, Harold Abramson, whom she had known from Ithaca, New York. A passionate affair led to an apparently reluctant marriage in London on November 25, 1925, and it was the failure of that marriage that led her to psychoanalysis. Abramson accompanied her to Vienna, where she failed to see Freud, but underwent analysis with one of his pupils, Dr. Mack. She then had a tempestuous affair with a Welsh artist named Richard Hughes during a trip to England, and divorced Abramson in the spring of 1929. By then she had met an English musician, Jonathan Gardiner, in Vienna, and married him on May 20, 1930. Gardiner glides over this period of her life, which must have been very painful. Yet in the Introduction to her memoir, she writes, while explaining her decision to write the autobiography in the first person: “I decided I would rather risk a lack of modesty than questionable honesty.” Admittedly, the lie was more one of omission than commission, but it was still an extraordinary failing by someone purportedly aiming to set the record straight.

The Gardiners had a child, Constance Mary, born on March 24, 1931, when Muriel was already falling out of love with her husband. And in the next few years, she embedded herself deeply in the leftist/communist movement in Vienna. She met the journalist G. E. R. Gedye, who put her in touch with people in the underground, and she became friendly with various English socialists there, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Frederick Elwyn Jones. Muriel even recalls meeting Kim Philby at this time, although she claims she didn’t realize it was Philby until much later, when she saw his photograph in a bookshop in Connecticut. Philby asked her to deliver a package to a comrade: she claims in her autobiography that she opened the package after he left, and was annoyed to find a large amount of money, and Communist literature. Surprisingly, Gardiner never mentions Philby’s wife, Litzi Friedmann, although there were few women active in the groups working to help the socialists and Jews. In The Third Man E. H. Cookridge says that Philby claimed that he himself had recruited Gardiner into the Revolutionary Socialists, but Cookridge says she was discovered by one Ilse Kulczar. As Isenberg tells the story: “Muriel’s first covert action was to establish her apartment (the one she would soon have to vacate) as a place to hide people. There she also held several meetings of Leopold and Ilse Kulczar’s Funke (Spark) group, named after Lenin’s underground newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). The Kulczars were intelligent and savvy left-wing socialists – a label that also identified her, Muriel now realized, bemused.”

Gardiner was in fact heavily involved in clandestine activities, with her several properties in Austria exploited for meetings and storage of illicit materials. The Communists were busy infiltrating the Socialist groups in Vienna, and managing their work from the comparative safety across the border, in Czechoslovakia. Philby’s British passport was a vital asset that allowed him easy transit between the two countries. As Cookridge (born Edward Spiro) relates of Gardiner, with convincing detail: “She had plenty of money, a villa in the Vienna Woods, a large apartment in the Rummelhardt-Gasse in one of the outer districts and a pied-à-terre in the Lammgasse near the university. She also had a four-year-old daughter, looked after by a nanny and a maidservant. . . . She made her flats available for illegal meetings; the garden sheds at her villa were soon filled with stacks of clandestine news-sheets and pamphlets.” Thus her claim that she was not aware that Philby was asking her to pass on money and Communist literature (how was such distinguishable from revolutionary-socialist pamphlets approved by a Leninist cell, one might ask?) appears a little naïve. Cookridge says that he broke with Philby when he realised that the latter’s money was coming straight from Moscow, but Gardiner did not appear to initiate any similar rift.

Just after the storming of the Karl Marx Hof, Gardiner decided to take a holiday. According to her account, in late April 1934, she chose to go to Mlini, in Yugoslavia, with her daughter and the governess, Gerda. (‘Governess’ sounds a bit advanced for a three-year old, but then all good socialists have governesses for their children.) As she wrote: “I had selected this spot from various circulars because it was the only one that advertized a sandy beach. The proprietor, replying to my various inquiries, told me that two distinguished English journalists who had been staying at the inn for several weeks were enchanted with it.” After that, she planned to leave her daughter and attendant while she travelled down the coast to Greece. What she didn’t say was that she was accompanied by her current lover of the time, Furth Ullman. In Mlini, she discovered who the ‘two distinguished English journalists’ were. One of them was the poet Stephen Spender, and she was smitten. Spender was ‘strikingly handsome, very tall and well built, with a slight stoop, probably because of his height’. This reaction is echoed by Isenberg: ‘Muriel’s impression of the tall, boyishly handsome young writer was of a “graceful animal”’. Now, an argument could be made that Muriel did in fact ‘pop her cork’ for many men she saw, but this time she was truly entranced. And so was Spender, who found Muriel ‘irresistible’.

There was a slight problem, however. For a highly attractive and lusty young woman in the 1930s, Stephen Spender was perhaps not the best candidate for a long-term relationship. For Spender’s sexual adventures had been solely with men up till then: not only that, he was accompanied in Mlini by his current boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. Yet Muriel and Stephen exchanged confidences, and spoke intimately of their pasts, before Muriel moved on to Greece. Muriel claimed she had never heard of Spender, which was somewhat surprising, given that her post-graduate research in English Literature, and that by 1932 Spender was already a hero of the Oxford literary scene, alongside Auden and Isherwood. She writes that Spender was ‘eager to learn all he could about the events of February and the underground movement’, and adds: “We had both been at Oxford, although not at the same time, and we shared similar reservations about it”, but, oddly, she does not remark as to whether they had shared acquaintances there.  In any case, after two weeks with Ullman touring the Greek coastline, Muriel picked up Connie and Gerda, and returned to Vienna by early May. Later that month, Spender and Hyndman joined them there, as Hyndman needed treatment for an inflamed appendix, and Muriel was soon able to seduce Stephen. Yet Stephen could not choose between her and Tony, although he wrote lyrically to Christopher Isherwood about his affair. Gardiner soon started to become interested in another man, a Socialist colleague Joe Buttinger, whom she would marry, and remain with all her life.

Can we trust the accounts of this affair? To begin with, the dates of the encounter do not ring true. Gardiner said she picked Mlini after looking at several brochures, but also indicates that she had decided to go on holiday at the end of April, had then had an exchange of letters with the proprietor of the hotel, who promoted the hotel’s attractiveness by saying that two English gentleman had been there for several weeks. According to John Sutherland, in his biography of Spender (Stephen Spender, A Literary Life), Gardiner picked Mlini because of the sandy beach, and that she continued her journey to Greece ‘after a day or two’. As Gardiner recounts it, she left Connie and Gerda in Mlini, and took a leisurely trip down the coast, exploring each town at every port of call, and then spending ‘a few days in Athens’. She then returned to Dubrovnik, where she picked up Connie and Gerda, and they were all back in Vienna ‘in early May’. That is quite a speedy accomplishment, especially if Gardiner truly made her decision to leave for Mlini only ‘in late April’. Even with an efficient postal system, how could she have had such a productive exchange with the proprietor in such a short time? And was the line about the ‘sandy beach’ an inadvertent gaffe in trying to add verisimilitude? Sunderland observes laconically: ‘Stephen recalls it having a stony beach: brochures fib.’ Perhaps leftist subversives fib, too. (Current tourist material states: “But the main assets of Mlini are its beautiful, natural beaches with clear blue sea, surrounded by rich and fragrant Mediterranean vegetation. There is even [sic] one sandy beach and a beach for nudists reachable by boat”. So perhaps they are both right.) Sutherland also seems to get it wrong about the Englishmen. He says that the proprietor told her of them when she checked in: Gardiner gives the impression she had received the news in a letter.

Irrespective of how sabulous was the beachfront at Mlini, what was Spender’s version of the timetable? Spender and Hyndman had in fact left London by train in the first week of April with Isaiah Berlin, who split from them in Milan. They continued on in leisurely fashion via Venice and Trieste. But Sutherland reports that Spender and Hyndman arrived in Mlini only in the second week of April, which makes nonsense of the proprietor’s claim to Gardiner. And the choice of Mlini was somewhat problematical. Earlier, Stephen had indicated that he planned to go to Dubrovnik for the winter of 1933, but had been talked out of it by Gerald Heard. Then Geoffrey Grigson apparently recommended Mlini (which is about six miles down the coast from Dubrovnik), and the recommendation was taken up. (Grigson had founded Poetry Review, and in 1936 was the messenger who informed Isaiah Berlin that Spender had joined the Communist Party, a fact that Spender then awkwardly denied, calling Grigson ‘a donkey’.) Was Grigson complicit in the meeting, perhaps?

And what about the decision to meet in Vienna? Isenberg writes that ‘Muriel made plans to see Stephen in Vienna where he and Tony planned to seek medical help for Tony’s inflamed and possibly infected appendix.’ Sutherland indicates that the appendix flared up after Muriel had left: “In May, medical opinion hardened around the appendix diagnosis. The Dubrovnik doctors recommended an operation – in Vienna preferably.” (Doctors? How many? One might imagine that in 1934 experienced gastroenterologists were as sparse in Dubrovnik as Huntingdonshire Cabmen, although it is touching to visualise a group of them around Hyndman’s bed, stroking their beards, and discussing the optimum treatment, while milord Spender sits pensively in the background, composing an ode for the occasion.) Thus the medicos conveniently anticipated the plans that Stephen had already communicated to Muriel. So Stephen then wrote to Muriel, and she arranged for Tony to be accepted at a hospital. Thus a further conflicted story appears: moreover, appendicitis was not an ailment that could be addressed leisurely – especially in 1934, when it was frequently fatal. Yet Spender and Hyndman took their time, and did not arrive in Vienna until May 22.

Moreover, Spender later tried to mask the identity of his beloved. After his arrival in the Austrian capital, he wrote a very mediocre poem (‘Vienna’) that attempts to mingle his ambiguous sexual impulses with the stumblings of the revolution. He openly dedicated it to ‘Muriel’, as my Random House 1935 first edition informs me. Yet, by the time he published his autobiography, World Within World, in 1951, Spender disguised Muriel as ‘Elizabeth’, indicating also that she (with daughter and nurse, but no mention of the lover) all stayed for ‘a few days’. It was not until he was interviewed with Muriel by a TV station in Chicago in 1984 that he admitted to the presence of Ullmann  ̶  ‘a rather steely fawn-eyed young man who passed as her cousin (actually he was her lover)’. So why the deception: did he think no-one would pick up his poetic dedication?   He also wrote that he did not learn about Muriel’s two failed marriages until later, in Vienna: Isenberg, using Gardiner’s unpublished reminiscences, suggests he learned of them while in Mlini. Thus no clear lead on the chronology appears.

One spectacularly unusual item in Spender’s account from this time, which must cast doubt on his overall reliability, is a claim that he climbed one day up a path from Mlini beach to the coastal road, and saw a cavalcade of six-wheeled cars passing, in the first vehicle of which a man turned his head to Stephen and stared at him. It was Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag. But has anybody verified that Goering was in fact in Croatia at this time? (Leonard Mosley’s biography of Goering does not help here.) Was this event an elaborate hoax by Spender, or a dream, where the form of Goering haunted him? Stephen had recently completed a poem about Goering, who had indicted and humiliated the mentally-deficient Dutchman, van der Lubbe, for burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was then falsely convicted at the show trial, and beheaded in January 1934. The timing of this coincidence is extraordinary.

All in all, it sounds very much as if Gardiner and Spender arrived in Mlini at about the same time, in mid-April. The perspicacious reader (if he or she has lasted this far) may well have noticed the writer’s implicit suspicion that the encounter was perhaps not accidental. As a matter of social etiquette, it should surely have been very difficult for two strangers to develop so quickly such an intimate relationship (especially given Spender’s inexperience with women), when they were each accompanied by their sexual partners. What did Ullmann and Hyndman do while Muriel and Stephen were getting to know each other? Yet, despite the disconcerting details about the sandy beach, the time the two Englishmen had been there, the by no mean galloping appendicitis and its aftermath, and how Muriel’s itinerary worked, the evidence that the surprise encounter was bogus is admittedly still flimsy. Except for one very significant last point.

In 1932, Muriel had made a visit to the Soviet Union. She is very lapidary about this expedition in her autobiography, just indicating that she spent a few weeks in Moscow, and ‘became familiar with the views of a large number of foreign students in Moscow’, but she says nothing about her companions on the trip, or how it was organised. Later, however, describing her time in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss (March 1938), Muriel provides a hint, mentioning that she found someone called Shiela Grant Duff in her apartment. “Shiela, a young English friend whom I had first met in Vienna and who had been with me in Russia in 1932, was now a reporter in Prague. She had come to Vienna to witness the Anschluss first hand.” So how well did she know Grant Duff, and what happened concerning Moscow?

Grant Duff was one of the many female leftist/communist acolytes of Isaiah Berlin. What is more, she had been the girl-friend (but almost certainly not the lover) of Berlin’s friend, and sometime Soviet agent, Goronwy Rees.  (I have written about the 1933 exploits of her, Rees and Berlin in Central Europe before: see Homage to Ruthenia.) In 1982, Grant Duff published a memoir, A Parting of the Ways, subtitled A Personal Account of the Thirties, which is a useful description of the rise of Fascism in that decade, and the reactions of committed socialists like herself. In the summer of 1932, she was in Germany with Rees, and they witnessed the Nazi brutality against Jews and socialists, followed by the vigorous acceptance of Hitler at the polls at the end of July. They decided to leave Germany for Vienna, since ‘many Oxford friends were in Vienna’. Her words describing her time there are worthy quoting in full.

“The smiling, familiar faces of our Oxford friends and acquaintances were infinitely reassuring. William Hayter was there at the Embassy and Duff Dunbar. Martin Cooper was studying music there. Stephen Spender was around and had made a wonderful American friend, Muriel Gardiner, who befriended us all. She was studying psychoanalysis under Freud and living with her little daughter in a flat near the Opera.” Grant Duff goes on: “One night  . . . I fell asleep, only to awake to a most startling proposition – that Neill [her brother], Goronwy and I accompany Muriel on a visit to the Soviet Union, entirely at her expense.” After Muriel returned to London ‘on urgent business’ they reunited in Warsaw, and made their voyage to Moscow. Just like that. Wasn’t it in practice much more difficult to get visas for the Soviet Union?

If Grant Duff’s account is true, it is an astonishing revelation. (Isenberg cites Grant Duff’s memoir, but does not appear to have noticed the early reference to Spender.). Is it possible that she had got the dates wrong? That she had erroneously imagined Spender was there in Vienna in 1932, even though she clearly associates the encounter with the Gardiner-Spender friendship? But it hardly seems likely that she would have made a mistake of that magnitude, just before making a trip to Moscow funded by Gardiner herself. Moreover, she does recall the daughter, and the location of Muriel’s flat. As for Spender, according to Sutherland, his movements that year were as follows: he was in Berlin on July 12, and five days later, travelled to Salzburg, where he remained until the middle of August, reportedly in the company of Isaiah Berlin. Before returning to England on August 18, he spent a few more days in Berlin. Isaiah’s only two published letters from Salzburg that August are to Goronwy Rees and John Hilton: in the letter to Rees, he mentions (vaguely) Spender’s name, but says nothing about his presence there. [Since this original posting, I have discovered, on the Isaiah Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy, a newly  published letter from  Berlin to Julia Pakenham, dated August 1934, which gratuitously introduces the fact that a Mr. Coughlan had met Berlin with Stephen Spender in Salzburg in 1932.] He writes to Grant Duff on October 13, so she is clearly back in the United Kingdom by then (she had to be back for the beginning of the Oxford term), though nothing is said of the visit to Moscow. Is that not strange? Was it deliberately avoided?

Michael Ignatieff, Berlin’s biographer, offers no details on the summer of 1932: Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, states in his notes to the Letters of that time that Berlin was in Salzburg with Frank Hardie in July, with no mention of Spender. Did Spender thus use Salzburg and Berlin as an alibi for a visit to Vienna to see Muriel? It is entirely possible. Spender’s son, Matthew, has told me that he believes Stephen was in Vienna twice ‘before he met Muriel’: he is seemingly unimpressed by the Grant Duff anecdote. And, even if the presence of Spender in Vienna was an illusion, surely, if Gardiner had accompanied Grant Duff, her brother, and Rees to Moscow, they would have discussed possible acquaintances at Oxford? And, if Muriel and Stephen had met before, what was the purpose of Mlini? Was Spender acting as some kind of courier?

At first glance, that notion does not make sense. After all, Spender’s and Hyndman’s next port of call would be Vienna – though admittedly an unscheduled one, if one believes what Spender said. So why would Gardiner travel to Croatia to deliver a message to Spender? No clearcut reason – unless Philby had perhaps been involved. Again, Gardiner is misleading about the chronology. She suggests that her meeting with Philby took place after she had met Spender in Mlini, and Isenberg echoes this theme, stating that ‘Philby had arrived in Vienna that spring of 1934’, and adding that it was ’his mission to work with leftists, such as Stephen and Muriel, in the Socialist struggle’. But Philby actually left Vienna in April 1934 (i.e. just before Gardiner decided to get away), having married Litzi Friedman in a hurry. Cookridge says that he had to leave quickly, warned by his Comintern friends that he had been compromised. Philby had arrived the previous autumn, and some historians, such as David Clay Large, make the reasonable assertion that Philby was recruited by the Comintern while in Vienna, not when he returned to London, as Philby claimed in his own memoir, and in conversations with various journalists. And, if Philby’s mission had been to work with leftists like Muriel and Stephen, it would imply that Stephen had associated with Muriel well before the Mlini encounter. Isenberg does not explain this anomaly. Perhaps Philby needed to pass a message about his recruitment, hasty marriage, imminent exposure, and escape to London to his cohort, Spender, and encourage his friend to take over some role in Vienna. Indeed, Spender did act as a courier helping Muriel, and the two of them went to Brno in January 1935, taking messages from the Kulczars. Hence the story about the appendicitis. If so, this would be a link between Spender and the ‘Cambridge Spies’ that has not been explored hitherto.

In his recent memoir A House in St. John’s Wood, Matthew Spender recounts the circumstances in which, after Guy Burgess absconded with Donald Maclean in 1951, his father was questioned by MI5, in the person of William Skardon, the interrogator of Klaus Fuchs, as to whether he knew his friend Burgess was a Communist agent. Spender immediately responded that Burgess continually told people he was exactly that, every time that he got drunk, which was ‘almost every night’. Skardon immediately dropped the subject and slunk away: Burgess socialised regularly with Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5.  That was not news that the government would want revealed. But Philby was a different matter: he had boldly denied his possible role as the ‘third man’. Hugh Gaitskell had ignored Philby’s dubious activities in Vienna when he (Gaitskell) helped recruit him to the Special Operations Executive in the summer of 1940. Maybe Spender was another who knew Philby’s true colours? And one might conclude that Gardiner’s story about not knowing who Philby was at the time was all a pretence.

What is absolutely clear to me is that you can’t really trust the record of any of these people. It looks as if Gardiner and Spender had met some time earlier, and went to some lengths to conceal their association, agreeing to meet in Mlini, but both bringing cover in the form of their respective lovers to divert distraction. Maybe it isn’t so, but it doesn’t smell right, as the published facts stand.

After his break-up with Muriel, Spender had his own adventures. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and in January 1937, was summoned by its secretary, Harry Pollitt, and charged with going on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the Comintern to discover what had happened to the crew of the Soviet ship, the Komsomol, which had been sunk by Franco’s Nationalist navy. (“It will be a difficult task, comrade. But Moscow Centre has decided that only you can carry it off.”) Yet a less likely intelligence agent than Spender is hard to imagine (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda and her elegant hatbox). MI5 looked on in amazement as the man whom Cyril Connolly called ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’ started making his inquiries, and, after getting sent back by Franco’s immigration officers at the Cádiz checkpoint, eventually engaged Lord Marley to investigate on his behalf, via the Italian consulate in Cádiz, what had happened to the missing crew. That was not how Comintern agents did things.

Spender’s failure to be entirely honest about the duration of his love-affair with the Communist Party would lead him into difficulties later, every time he wanted to enter the United States. In 1947, by which time his Communism had been watered down to a wishy-washy United Nations liberalism (The God That Failed came out in 1949), he was offered a visiting professorship for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville – not part of the Bronx, it should be made clear  ̶  in New York State. Travelling alone, and in first class (his wife Natasha and son Matthew were to join him in the autumn), Spender left on the Queen Mary on August 20, and found congenial company. As Sutherland tells us, ‘on the boat were Lillian Hellman and John dos Passos’. History does not relate whether the man-eating Stalinist popped her cork at the gangly English man of letters, but the two comrades became friends, and Spender later invited Hellman to join him and a faculty colleague, the aforementioned Mary McCarthy, at an end-of-term party for his class. It was a disaster: McCarthy and Hellman were already sworn enemies, and Hellman for ever afterwards thought she had been set up to be ‘red-baited’.

But is it possible that Spender and Hellman could not have discussed their mutual friend, Muriel Gardiner, now Buttinger, during their shipboard encounter? Hellman would surely have been interested in Spender’s experiences near the barricades in Vienna, and, even if he was discreet about his affair with Muriel, Spender would probably have explained to Hellman that his family was looking forward to spending time with the Buttingers in New Jersey, whom Hellman had heard of via the Schwabachers. Sutherland writes that the three Spenders spent many weekends with the Buttingers in Pennington: Stephen’s son Matthew has indicated to me, interestingly, that it was Ethel Schwabacher, not Wolf, from whom Hellman learned Muriel’s history. And he was there (though very young). Isenberg indicates that Hellman, Wolf’s client, had been hearing tales ‘of the glamorous former member of the Austrian resistance’ for ten years already in 1950, when Muriel and Ethel had a falling-out.

Yet the relationship between Hellman and Gardiner is a puzzlement. As I have shown, Gardiner was a very reluctant inquisitor of the woman who had exploited her identity, and she displayed an uncharacteristic loyalty to the mendacious Stalinist. And, despite apparently serious attempts to meet, and an awkward telephone call shortly before their deaths, they reportedly never actually came face to face to discuss what had happened. Is it possible that they had agreed to some deal, whereby Hellman would use Gardiner’s story for propaganda purposes? Why would the Schwabachers not have suggested, from any time after 1940: “You two should meet! I have told both of you so much about each other, and, as sympathizers with Communists, you must have so much in common!” Why would Gardiner, of all people, on reading Pentimento, not have spotted the mangled chronology, realised where Hellman had picked up the story, and pointed out the glaring anomalies, instead of beating about the bush with Hellman, and then doggedly trying to establish whether there was an alternative ‘Julia’? Why did she almost encourage Hellman not to respond to her letter? Why is the chronology of the letter mangled? Is the letter perhaps part of a false trail? Why the business with Dr. Steiner – and what would he have said about the erroneous dates? Why would Hellman believe she could have got away with so blatant a lie, unless she had some form of approval from Gardiner? Should we really trust Muriel’s account of her meeting with the ‘stranger’, Philby? (And why did Gardiner write her memoir under the long-lapsed ‘Gardiner’ name, as opposed to the legal surname of ‘Buttinger’?) Gardiner’s story is just a bit too pat, too deliberate, and too innocent – yet psychologically unsound – and is thus hardly credible.

I believe this extended anecdote confirms several lessons that I have gained during my doctoral research: 1) memoirs are frequently unreliable accounts designed to enhance the legacy of the writer; 2) the creation of a precise chronology is essential for scholarly analysis; 3) biographers face the challenge of being too close to their subjects: if they want personal information, they need to be trusted, but if they press too hard on challenging accounts, they will get rebuffed: 4) tough questions should be asked of all these witnesses to vital matters of security and intelligence while they are alive; 5) fabulists who try to make a dubious story more convincing often introduce details that turn out to undermine the whole fabric of their deception; 6) these unverified stories, especially when they issue from the pens of the Great and the Good, all too easily fall into the realm of quasi-official historical lore, and get repeated and echoed. (For example, Jenny Rees, Goronwy’s daughter, reproduces Grant Duff’s version of the encounter without question in Looking for Mr Nobody, while the Spender-Gardiner version is accepted everywhere else. Martin Gilbert reproduces Spender’s encounter with Goering as fact in his esteemed History of the Twentieth-Century.)

The thirties were indeed a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden said, but the intellectuals of the time were often as dishonest as the politicians. An alternative screenplay of the whole Gardiner-Spender-Hellman melodrama probably exists, one in which Muriel and Stephen did meet before Mlini, in which Philby was involved, and in which Gardiner had an uneasy collusion with Hellman over her experiences. It is perhaps waiting for the evidence to leak out from obscure memoirs, letters and reminiscences. And as for you, Big Spender, what were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us the truth about Muriel, and what on earth possessed you to imagine that you could be a successful agent for the Comintern? What secrets you took with you to the grave!

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.                     (March 31, 2016)

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