She was born to privilege and a degree of wealth, at the turn of the last century – Muriel Morris, an heiress of the Swift meatpacking fortune, and by most accounts conflicted over that circumstance. Like a scattering of her peers in the debutant world, she had an interest in social justice, as it was generally understood at the time. She is reported to have read Upton Sinclair’s polemic The Jungle as a teenager and been horrified – doubly so as both sides of her family had made their fortunes in the industry which Sinclair portrayed as especially brutal and gruesome. Muriel Morris was also of an unexpectedly intellectual bent and determined enough to pursue her intellectual interests – first with studies at Oxford, England in the 1920s, and then in – of all places, Vienna, Austria, where she hoped to study psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud. She briefly married a British artist, Julian Gardiner, by whom she had a single child, a daughter, before deciding to pursue a medical degree at the University of Vienna in 1926. She had a trust fund sufficiently generous to support herself and her small daughter.
There as the prosperous 1920s turned into the sullen violence-wracked 1930s, Muriel Morris became steadily drawn into anti-Fascist activities in Vienna following the German “Anschluss”, or annexation of Austria. Essentially, she put her money, her energies, and her own personal safety where her mouth was — into the cause of securing safety for those at risk, especially as Hitler’s Germany leaned more and more heavily on Austria’s Jewish population. Muriel Morris sheltered political refugees and Jews in her residences, smuggled passports and paperwork allowing them to exit Austria. She generously and fearlessly provided shelter, funds, references and employment for Jews and other anti-Nazi activists … all of it dangerous work, even for a wealthy and well-connected American expatriate. In between her resistance activities, she found the time and energy to fall in love and marry political activist Joe Buttinger – and to secure his exit from the country. She stayed behind in in Vienna, finally gaining her medical degree in 1939. When the war began, she and Joe Buttinger fled Europe and came home with her daughter to the United States. There, Muriel Morris Gardiner Buttinger continued her studies, working, and writing for many years as a psychiatrist, well respected in her field, a close lifelong friend with Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna. Eventually, she wrote an account of her activities in the Austrian resistance, but that wasn’t what made her famous in a larger circle.
No, that was another book, this one a memoir by the American playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman. Lillian wrote movingly in her second memoir, Pentimento, of a dear childhood friend, Julia, who had studied in Oxford in the 1920s, and then moved to Vienna … where she went to medical school there and became involved with the anti-Fascist underground – just like Muriel Morris. Lillian Hellman included a dramatic interlude of a smuggling mission to Berlin which she undertook for her friend, who had been crippled in Fascist violence, and eventually tortured and killed by the Nazis. Lillian wrote in detail of her somewhat improbably smuggling mission, of bringing her friends’ body back to the US, and the death of her friends’ small daughter – at the hands of the Nazis … it made a touching tale, and a spectacularly successful 1977 movie starring a pair of the most tediously leftist actresses of their generation.
The most astonishing thing? It never happened. There was no Julia, no dangerous mission across Europe for Lillian Hellman in the late 1930s; no murder of a wealthy American expatriate – a circumstance which would definitely have attracted the attention of the American press at the time. There was only one American heiress studying medicine in Vienna and active in the anti-fascist underground there; Muriel Morris, who lived to a ripe old age, as did her daughter – neither of them murdered by the Nazis in the 1930s. Lillian Hellman made the whole thing up, unconsciously or deliberately hijacking another woman’s life and activism to make a dramatic chapter of her own life. No wonder that Hellman exploded into fury when contemporary Mary McCarthy accused her of being a liar on national late-night television.
Discuss as you wish.