STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: More on Anne Frank

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: More on Anne Frank David Goodrich wonders if it will ever end.
The New Rochelle house as represented in the Ragtime tour.
The New Rochelle house as represented in the Ragtime tour. (Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg)

David Goodrich wonders if it will ever end.

"Look at this," he says, pointing to an article about Lillian Hellman's waning reputation that Richard Bernstein wrote for the Nov. 12, 1998 New York Times. Goodrich begins reading: "`One of the most complex and sustained criticisms of Hellman is contained in a recent book, "The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank" by Ralph Melnick (Yale University Press). The "stolen legacy" is Anne's in Mr. Melnick's view, specifically in the way in which Hellman and a group of others in theatrical and movie circles, all of them close to the Communist party, conspired to remove the specifically Jewish character of Anne's tragedy.'" Goodrich slams down the paper. "'All of them close to the Communist party?' Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the play The Diary of Anne Frank, were not close to the Communist party. Otto Frank? That's the last thing he was. Its director, Garson Kanin? Its producer, Kermit Bloomgarden? And they conspired together? Bernstein is one more person who has made the mistake of taking Melnick's book seriously. He doesn't realize that it contains misrepresentations, factual errors, unproved conclusions, and character assassination."

And so, we encounter the latest notoriety involving The Diary of Anne Frank, which has been causing controversy for close to a half-century. In 1950, writer Meyer Levin, who had been a war correspondent, was given a French translation of Anne's diary. He was soon writing her father Otto Frank, asking if he could help get the work published, and then adapt it into a play. In fact, Levin was to do more than that. When the book appeared, he was the one who gave it a rave review in the Sunday Times. Mr. Frank, grateful that the piece catapulted sales, gave Levin his blessing -- but not for long. Cheryl Crawford expressed interest in the script Levin gave her -- but not for long. For Crawford showed Levin's adaptation to her friend Hellman, who discouraged her from producing it. Not only because it was "too Jewish," but also because Anne's book was becoming so popular, a first-rate dramatist would undoubtedly be interested. A Gentile writer, she reasoned, would give the play a more universal thrust.

Crawford eventually dropped the project, and Hellman's producer, Kermit Bloomgarden, took over. He hired writers Frances Goodrich and her husband Albert Hackett ("It's a Wonderful Life;" "Easter Parade"), and Garson Kanin to direct -- to Levin's dismay. David Goodrich has felt dismay, too, since September 1997, when he read Melnick's book that asserts Hellman's anti Semitism made her sympathetic to Stalin's purges and unfeeling to Levin's decidedly Jewish point-of-view. The Library Journal commented, "Melnick gives every detail of the affair," and that he did so "convincingly." Kirkus Review called it "an impressively documented work," and Cynthia Ozick in The New Yorker said that it was "an accomplished work of scholarship."

"Not true," says David Goodrich. "Take a look at page 90. In only eight lines, Melnick makes four misstatement about the Hacketts." He begins to read the offending paragraph. "'They had adapted the highly successful "Thin Man" series.' Actually, they did three of the six films. "'While three of the Hacketts' comedic efforts had found their way to the stage, the best of these had failed to win the critics' praise.' No, four of their comedies were produced, and the best, Up Pops the Devil, got many good reviews.

"'Hellman herself suspected that the last of these, 'The Big Doorstep,' had been something of a struggle for them to write.' Actually, the play was called 'The Great Big Doorstep."

"'Successful on the screen, but not in the theater.' No."

Now David Goodrich, who's authored three books, is the first to admit that he has an agenda here, for he is the nephew of The Diary of Anne Frank's playwrights. He recently completed a biography of the pair, tentatively titled Frances and Albert -- "though someone said I should change it, because that sounds like a book on Frank Sinatra."

In his research, Goodrich learned that when the Hacketts were first hired by Bloomgarden, he'd said that he'd settled with Levin. "But they wrote him, anyway," Goodrich says, while offering me a letter from December, 1953, two weeks after they took the job.

It says, "When we heard that you had done a dramatization, as writers ourselves, our first concern was for you. We asked Kermit Bloomgarden, and he told us that an understanding with you had already been reached."

Perhaps Bloomgarden understood, but Levin never did. In 1954, he went public with his demand to have his Anne Frank staged, and even wound up suing Otto Frank, which one of his friends called "the public relations blunder of the century."

Still, Levin would not stop. In 1964, he fictionalized his anguish in The Fanatic, and, nine years later, dropped the roman a clef approach and told his side of the story in The Obsession. His fixation became the basis not only of Melnick's work, but also Lawrence Graver's An Obsession with Anne Frank (University of California Press), which Goodrich and many others deem a far more accurate and reliable book. "My aunt and uncle told Bloomgarden that when they visited a Los Angeles rabbi to learn about Chanukah services, and then went to a Jewish bookstore for reference works, they were met with cool receptions. They wondered if it was because Levin, a staunch Jewish supporter, had gone public with his problems."

He displays another letter that his aunt sent Bloomgarden: "I am afraid for the play. Will this man be able to marshal the Jewish people against us?" Later in the letter: "And the worst thing is that we can understand their resentment against two goys."

David Goodrich says, "They pushed for a Jewish element. For example, in the first couple of drafts, instead of the joyous Chanukah song you now hear at the end of Act One, they wrote in 'Ma'oz Tzur,' the actual song that Anne mentioned in the diary. Bloomgarden, though, said it was too gloomy, and though they lobbied for it, they eventually went with the lighter one." Of the 1997 Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank, he says, "I think my aunt and uncle would have approved of Wendy Kesselman's more Jewish slant, and its getting into Anne's conflict with her mother, and her sexual issues, too. But in 1955, audiences weren't ready for that."

But they certainly were ready for the Hacketts' adaptation. They play received raves, then garnered a Tony, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Pulitzer. In 1959, it was filmed, and became an Academy Award-nominated movie that provided an Oscar-winning role for Shelley Winters as Mrs. Van Daan, and an Oscar-nominated one for Ed Wynn as Dussel, the dentist. Melnick's description of the casting of the movie's Dussel is, David Goodrich insists, one of his most insidious misrepresentations. Jack Gilford played the role on Broadway, after having been blacklisted during the McCarthy era. "On page 172," Goodrich points out, "Melnick writes that Frances and Albert had 'forsaken Jack Gilford ... when he sought to repeat his role in the film. Gilford's struggle to save his career from being destroyed in a HUAC-tainted Hollywood was apparently insufficient reasons for the Hacketts to risk financial loss. 'If he has been in trouble with pictures,' they had written (agent Leah) Salisbury, 'I am afraid he may still be.'"

David Goodrich staunchly says, "That's outrageous selective quoting. Here's a copy of the actual letter, which is at the Butler Library at Columbia University."
It actually reads, "About Jack Gilford. Of course we will do our best for him. But if he has been in trouble with pictures, I am afraid he may still be. The scene has not changed enough to be optimistic about it. Of course we would want him. He was so wonderful in the part. But as you know, writers haven't got a gd (sic) thing to say about casting a picture."
Says David Goodrich, "By quoting only one line of that letter, Melnick tried to portray the Hacketts as Judases -- people who committed betrayal for money. I called Madeline Gilford, who told me that the Hacketts did try to get her husband in the film. Did Melnick ever interview her? No."

When I called Mrs. Gilford, she corroborated that, "Mr. Melnick never contacted me. If he had, I would have told him the Hacketts were totally loyal during the blacklist and helpful to the Hollywood Ten. They were amazingly decent people."

Goodrich moves on to another issue. "Melnick asserts that my aunt and uncle were part of a conspiracy, masterminded by Stalin-sympathizer Hellman, to victimize [Meyer] Levin, and distort Anne's story by making it 'less Jewish.' So, on page 208, he wrote, '(A) month after The Diary opened on Broadway, Hellman received a $10,000 check from the Soviet government for an unspecified reason.'"

Goodrich was intrigued by Robert Leiter's Oct. 26, 1997 Times review of Melnick's book that said, "The question of the $10,000 check smacks of gossip." Then Melnick himself rebutted that charge in a letter to the Times that was published two weeks later: "(T)he suggestion that she may have received a substantial payment from the Soviets is, contrary to Leiter, not 'gossip,' but fully documented in Joan Mellen's Hellman and Hammet."
No, says Goodrich. "Joan Mellen's book says briefly that Hellman received $10,000 from the Soviets, and hints that the payment was for royalties but isn't specific. I called Melnick, and asked if he'd seen any documents covering the payment, and he said no."

Goodrich then brandishes several letters. "I've since secured copies of the documents from the University of Texas, and they make it plain that the $10,000 was for royalties, and had nothing to do with The Diary."

Under the letterhead of the Embassy of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Washington, 6, D.C., dated May 28, 1956, one letter says, "Dear Miss Hellman: Hereby I enclosed a review of your play, Autumn Garden, which is being stage by the Moscow Art Theatre. I would like also to get the exact address and the number of your bank account so that the Ministry of Culture could send you the royalties in the sum of $10,000." Goodrich then showed me a letter that Hellman sent on June 2, 1956, and a subsequent reply that said that $10,000 was credited to her account on June 14, 1956.

If $10,000 seems high for a '50s production of The Autumn Garden, a later letter from Soviet Minister of Culture V. Bonie to Hellman makes clear that "you were paid royalties for using, in the U.S.S.R., your plays Little Foxes, Autumn Garden, and Ladies and Gentlemen (the alternate title for Another Part of the Forest)."

"Melnick didn't bother to find out what the payment was actually for," Goodrich asserts. "He just threw it in, hoping his readers would raw the most damaging possible conclusions."

Goodrich also feels Melnick's claim that the Hacketts were "malleable and willing to follow Hellman's direction" is another falsehood. "He's calling them puppets, but they were anything but that. They did accept Hellman's help in shaping the play, but she was a very smart dramatist, a master, and who wouldn't have listened to her advice? But to be used for Stalinist purposes? No way. My aunt and uncle were seldom active politically. They had friends who were Communists, and they had a crisis when the American Legion demanded they name names, or else they'd picket their films. MGM demanded they write a letter to the head of Loews, Inc., their parent company, but they refused. They felt they had to live with themselves for the rest of their lives and were better patriots than their accusers.

The studio backed down. In no way were Frances and Albert part of a conspiracy to do in Meyer Levin." He shifts in his chair. "This play is going to go on forever, whether it's the Hacketts' version or Kesselman's. As long as it's discussed, Melnick's book is going to come up again and again - which is why I want to set the record straight."

So do I. I called Melnick. "No, I never contacted Mrs. Gilford," he admitted. And the $10,000? "I just went with the source, with Mellen's biography. That was just thrown in at the last minute when the book was in proofs." But now that David Goodrich has produced the actual letters? "I'm still not sure that that's the real reason for the payment," he said warily. "There are thousands of pages of unexamined KGB files, and I'll be surprised if we don't learn that Lillian Hellman is in there, or was in contact with the folks there. The parallels and thoughts of Hellman and official word out of Moscow and Stalin are far too striking for me to think it was coincidental. She went along with the anti-Semitic programs of the Stalinists, so to me, the evidence was just there. Whenever I question my reading of the evidence over and over again, I decide the wrongs done against Levin were not just a case of everyone in the entertainment business gets screwed. It goes beyond that."

Funny; one Internet used book service lists Meyer Levin's "The Obsession" not as a non-fiction work, but as a "mystery." While that's a mistake, it's not wildly off the mark.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.