An Obsession with Anne Frank:  Meyer Levin and the Diary

Lawrence Graver. University of California Press, 1995. 254 pp.

By P.H.I.Berroll

In his novel The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth observed that if the Jewish religion had saints, Anne Frank would have been canonized.  More than fifty years after she perished in the Bergen-Belsen death camp, the teenaged girl has taken on a symbolism beyond the facts of her short life and the diary of her two years in hiding.           

But has Anne’s basic humanity become distorted in the process?  Some critics found the recent Academy Award-winning documentary Anne Frank Remembered “revelatory” because it depicted many mundane details of her life, both before and during the Holocaust.  This was confirmation of an indisputable fact: for many people, Anne has become – for better or worse – more of an icon than a flesh-and-blood human being.           

This phenomenon is at the heart of Lawrence Graver’s An Obsession with Anne Frank:  Meyer Levin and the Diary. Graver, the author of critical studies of Beckett, Conrad and Carson McCullers and a faculty member at Williams College, here recounts the bitter dispute between a Jewish-American writer, who saw Anne as one kind of symbol, and his opponents, who saw her as quite another kind. On one level, it is a graphic, chilling account of one man’s descent into conspiracy-mongering paranoia. But it also raises issues about anti-Semitism, Jewish identity and the conflict between art and politics that persist to the present day.

At the center of the book is Meyer Levin (1902-1981) – novelist, journalist and essayist, a man who at the height of his career enjoyed both popular success and respect, if not adoration, from many serious critics. The fact that he is widely forgotten today is not simply due to changing literary tastes.

Graver begins his story in Paris in 1950, when Levin was given a copy of the French edition of the Diary by his wife. By then a writer of some repute, Levin had been profoundly affected by his experiences as a war correspondent in Europe, where he had witnessed the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald and other camps. Already insecure and conflicted about his place in the world (and America) as a Jew, Levin was provoked by these new horrors into a sense of mission: he was determined to bring the full story of the Holocaust to the widest possible audience, Jews and gentiles alike.

When Levin read the Diary, he knew he had found his instrument.  The book had been a critical and financial success in Holland and France, but Otto Frank, Anne’s father, had been unable to find an English-language publisher.  Levin offered his services to Frank, who accepted.           

Over the next two years, Levin tirelessly promoted the Diary in the U.S., acting as an informal agent for Frank. When the book was finally published by Doubleday in 1952, Levin praised it on the front page of The New York Times Book Review (without mentioning his personal involvement). Both Doubleday executives and other observers gave Levin much of the credit for the Diary‘s becoming a best seller in this country.

Meanwhile, Levin was also corresponding with several theatrical producers about adapting the Diary for the stage. The most prominent of these, Cheryl Crawford, agreed to give him the inside track on an adaptation, as did Otto Frank – despite Levin’s lack of playwriting experience.

It was at this point, as Graver recounts in painstaking detail, that things began to go badly. Levin gave the first draft of his adaptation to Crawford, who did not like it; she showed it to her colleague Kermit Bloomgarden, who was even more negative. Frank began to think about using another writer, though he still felt he had an obligation to at least consider Levin. At the same time, Levin insisted that he had “a right” to adapt the book – despite the fact that he and Frank had never signed a formal agreement.

Finally, Frank gave Bloomgarden the go-ahead to produce the play, and Bloomgarden hired a veteran husband-and-wife team of Hollywood scriptwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, to write it. For Levin, this was the ultimate insult.  Not only was he being deprived of an important creative (and financial) opportunity; even worse, that opportunity was being given to gentiles, whom he felt could not possibly convey the book’s essential message – that Anne and her family were persecuted, and eventually slaughtered, solely because they were Jews.           

When the play opened in October 1955, it confirmed Levin’s worst fears. “Most people,” Graver writes, “adored the Goodrich and Hackett Diary because they felt it transformed horror into something consolatory, inspirational, and even purgatorial… People came out of the theater thinking not of all the eradicated lives and the monstrous implications of the German attempt at genocide, but rather of a smiling young girl who affirmed that ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.'”

Levin sued Frank, Crawford, and Bloomgarden for fraud and breach of contract, and Goodrich and Hackett for plagiarism. He also mounted a campaign in the press in which he asserted that his play had been “suppressed” by the Broadway establishment for being “too Jewish.”  Increasingly paranoid, he claimed that Lillian Hellman, who had recommended the Hacketts to Bloomgarden, was a key figure in the conspiracy. He was convinced that Hellman – who as Graver notes was “an assimilated German-Jew [and] an anti-Zionist” – had determined that only a play reflecting her views would be produced.

The case became a cause célébre in both the Jewish and entertainment communities; at one point, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked by Levin to intervene (she begged off). The ugliest aspect was Levin’s treatment of Otto Frank, a decent man who only wanted to create something positive out of his life-shattering tragedy.  By any standard, Levin’s actions toward him were reprehensible – besides tying him up with litigation, Levin attacked Frank in the press, and wrote him insulting letters that accused him of betraying his daughter’s memory.

Levin’s behavior would normally preclude the reader from having any sympathy for him, and Graver hardly condones it. But the author repeatedly shows that Levin ultimately did more damage to himself than to Frank, or anyone else.  His marriage nearly collapsed; he became alienated from many of his friends (Martha Gellhorn told him bluntly that his adaptation “simply isn’t a very good play… not that the one shown on stage was very good either”); he wasted incalculable amounts of time, money, and energy. And while Levin wrote several best-selling books in the years that followed, his critical reputation was forever damaged by his conduct. (Indeed, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if this book inspired some readers to take a second look at Levin’s major works, such as Compulsion and The Old Bunch.)           

The court case was settled in 1959, with Levin being paid $15,000 by Frank in exchange for giving up any claim of “rights” to the Diary.But Levin could not let it go. For the rest of his life, he continued lambasting his enemies in print and pushing for a production of his “suppressed” play (which was finally produced in Israel in 1966, to generally good reviews). In his 1974 memoir The Obsession, Levin acknowledged, like a mental patient with periods of lucidity, the irrational nature of his decades-old battle and the crippling effect it had had on his life. Yet he was still unable or unwilling to give it up.

But did Levin in fact have a case?  As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies; and Graver makes it clear that for all the craziness of Levin’s behavior, his claims were not without merit. It seems likely that Bloomgarden et al. did indeed want a sanitized, de-Judified version of Anne’s story, because they believed such a treatment would appeal to the widest possible audience.  It makes one cringe to read of the play’s director, Garson Kanin, himself Jewish, telling the Hacketts, “The fact that in this play the symbols of persecution and oppression are Jews is incidental.”

Yet in purely commercial terms, one can understand their thinking. Levin’s real problem was that he was battling more than a few individuals. As Graver points out, he was up against the mindset of American popular culture in the Fifties – moderately liberal, optimistic, looking to nudge rather than provoke its audience, preferring Rodgers and Hammerstein to Brecht and Weill.  By refusing to take the “majority” view of Anne’s suffering, he put himself outside the mainstream in that era. It is quite possible that even if his play had been staged on Broadway, it would have gotten bad reviews and a very short run. And then who would Levin have blamed?           

The larger issue remains:  since the Hacketts’ play has been translated into countless languages and performed around the world, has it not fulfilled Levin’s dream, even in a truncated fashion?  And could it have been realized in any other fashion?  Graver does not attempt to answer these questions; perhaps it is still too soon after the original events for anyone to do so.  But he has made an important contribution to the discussion, which makes his book well worth reading.

Originally written for Tikkun magazine, 1996.

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