Monday, February 23, 2015

I do not think that word means what they think it means

Readers of this blog would have noted that I have been procrastinating. Not only I have not completed my response to Edward Lucas's challenge, I have not written about two events that discussed alternatives to Britain's membership of the EU. Indeed so. Here is another piece of procrastination caused by annoyance at people using some word or another without bothering to find out its meaning.

To start with, here is the short excerpt from The Princess Bride that gives the line I changed a little for the title:

I am sure readers of this blog have their own favourites and they are welcome to add them to a discussion, preferably affixing some kind of a moniker to to their comments but my own bĂȘte noire is the word nemesis. Readers of this blog will know that the word comes from the Greek goddess of divine retribution, who may or may not have been the daughter of Zeus or Oceanus or Erebus and Nyx. Mostly it means either the inescapable agent of someone's downfall or the downfall itself, often preceded by hubris, that is unthinking arrogance.

However, for some people who ought to know better the word has come to mean an enemy or just someone not much liked. I spent a good deal of time trying not to grit my teeth too loudly in bookshops as I went past a book by Bertrand Patanaude entitled Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. Precisely: Stalin outwitted Trotsky, destroyed him, exiled him, hounded him from country to country and finally had him murdered. In what way was Trotsky the inescapable agent of Stalin's downfall? Judging by this review in History Today the author made no mistakes in his account in the book so who thought of the title?

Yesterday I came across an even more egregious use of the word. I went to see one of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films at the National Film Theatre, State of the Union. It's the one in which Tracy is talked into running for President and finds that in order to do so he has to abandon all his (rather mushy and illogical) ideals and become a machine politician. Just in time and with the help of his wife, Hepburn, he wakes up to reality, abandons his quest and decides to become a different and not very well specified kind of politician. The film mostly moves along at a fair clip, slowing down occasionally for long political speeches and is a little clunky in the way it shows the Tracy character's sudden corruption. But its picture of political wheeler-dealering is wonderful and the two main stars are supported brilliantly by three others: a very young Angela Lansbury as the ruthless media mogul, Adolphe Menjou as the political fixer and Van Johnson as the cynical columnist who becomes a campaign manager and reluctantly begins to acquire some honesty in a very jolly sort of way.

The film was made in 1948, a year in which many people in Hollywood found that they had to make some difficult political decisions but also the year in which Harry S Truman was elected as President, having taken over on Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. The film, though it is about the Republican party, takes no real political sides only the side of the United States, as one would expect from its director and producer, Frank Capra.

In the background, however, there were ructions with the HUAC Hollywood hearings going on and the CPUSA playing its own games, usually on orders from Moscow. It was the CPUSA's decision  (well, probably Stalin's) to abandon the first line of defence for Hollywood's Communists, and that is the First Amendment and to order them all to deny their membership of the party thus turning the whole exercise into an attack on the Truman Administration who, they said, was persecuting the Left in general. At the time, this disgusted quite a lot of people; since then the CPUSA line seems to have been swallowed hook, line and sinker by film makers, journalists and assorted commentators.

Katharine Hepburn in real life seems to have been a good deal less smart and more naive than the parts she played, especially opposite Spencer Tracy. This is what we can read in the notes provided by the NFT, which, in this case, is an extended quotation from William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn with, I think, some explanation from someone in the NFT in the square brackets:
Months before Kate's speech [Hepburn attacked the House Un-American Activities committee in a controversial speech at a rally by potential Democratic Presidential candidate Henry Wallace - the speech was written by Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo, and for the occasion Hepburn wore a red dress], Spencer had been negotiating with Frank Capra to make a film called State of the Union, based on Howard Lindsay's play about a crooked politician running for president who gets a lesson in values and morality from his estranged wife.
I suspect Mr Mann would have known that with Truman in the White House the potential of any other Democratic Presidential candidate in 1948 was zero and, in any case, Henry Wallace, widely and with some justification believed to be a Communist stooge, ran as the Progressive Party's candidate. Hepburn's behaviour cannot be called anything but rather silly. Reading out a speech by Dalton Trumbo is not the sign of political intelligence or independent thinking.

Both Capra and Tracy wanted Hepburn in the film, despite this rather awkward behaviour and the fact that she was once again regarded by Hollywood as box office poison. So they got her in and there she was up against the Adolphe Menjou character and against the man himself. Menjou was on the other side of the political divide and was much hated by the Left and, undoubtedly, the CPUSA for being a HUAC friendly witness. However, filming was done on a "reasonable and professional" basis according to others involved.

Now we come to an interesting part of the story and the original point of this posting. There is some evidence that HUAC intended to subpoena Hepburn but did not do so.
But at some point during the making of State of the Union, the right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr announced on the air that Kate wished to recant her actions. According to Lewis, Hepburn said she didn't know what she was signing when she joined the Committee for the First Amendment, and that she'd had 'no idea of the type of speech' she was reading at Gilmore Stadium. Meanwhile, according to Kate's FBI files, Adolphe Menjou told a government official (from either the FBI or HUAC - the name has been blotted out) that Spencer Tracy insisted 'Hepburn wanted to make a statement in order to clear herself with the American public'. Menjou claimed the force behind this was Frank Capra, whose reputation for American values was unassailable.

This mea culpa, despite being secondhand, seems to have satisfied the investigators. Kate was never called by HUAC. What the records suggest is that her nemesis Adolphe Menjou, in association with Tracy and Capra, got the committee to back off.
In a round-about and I hope not uninteresting way we have arrived at the point I started with. How on earth could Menjou, who went out of his way to help save Hepburn from HUAC and, thus, her career be called her nemesis. She may not have liked him and she may not have liked being saved in that way, behind her back and without her knowledge (though the author is not certain about that) but nemesis does not mean what William J. Mann thinks it means.


  1. Oh dear God Angela Lansbury was great - not just in this. (Her rather later performance in The Manchurian Candidate is truly something else).

    1. Angela Lansbury is great - she is still acting though mostly on stage. Completely agree about The Manchurian Candidate. An excellent film, anyway, and she is brilliant in it.