Meyer Levin's obsession with Anne Frank
He was less interested in the diarist herself than in controlling her message.
What I’m writing
As I mentioned in my last letter, I’ve kept myself on a tight writing schedule as I race to the finish line of my Anne Frank book. Alas, like just about everybody else by now, I got Covid, which knocked me off my feet for a few days and generally destabilized my life. Though I had a mild case, it’s been surprisingly tricky to get my momentum back. I’m fortunate enough to have a very special residency coming up, which will allow me two weeks of uninterrupted writing time. But in the meantime, I had to be flexible with my research and writing, which is difficult for a planner like me. Instead of the chapter I’d intended to work on, which I couldn’t focus well enough to do, I decided to pivot to another part of the book: the story of the fiction writer Meyer Levin’s obsession with adapting Anne Frank’s Diary for the stage, and his wrath when that didn’t go as he planned.
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In the 1930s and early 1940s, Levin was a documentary filmmaker and a moderately successful author of middlebrow fiction, mostly on Jewish themes. Then he traveled to Europe as a correspondent with the U.S. Army and became one of the first to report on the liberated concentration camps. In an article datelined “Buchenwald, May 2, 1945,” he described what he was seeing as “the greatest mass murder in the history of mankind.” Interviewing survivors had led him to believe that “no one who has not been through their experience can ever understand them.” At the same time, he also felt, after a week of close contact with survivors, that “my mind has become in the faintest way like their minds; I am beginning to understand how they feel.”
Levin believed that the story of the Holocaust was of singular, unprecedented significance. At the same time, despite his identification with the survivors, he didn't really think the story was his to tell. “From amongst themselves, a teller must arise,” he declared. A few years later, he and his wife were living in France when she came upon the French edition of the Diary. “Here was the voice I had been waiting for … the voice from the mass grave,” Levin wrote in The Obsession, his memoir of his struggle to get his version of the Diary onstage, which would dominate the rest of his life, ruin his reputation, and nearly provoke his wife to suicide.
Levin immediately contacted Otto Frank, offering to help him find an American publisher for the Diary as well as producers who might be interested in adapting it for theater or film. Exactly what happened between them is a matter of intense dispute. The Diary had been rejected by over a dozen English and American publishers, but by the time Levin came on the scene, two had shown interest (Little, Brown and Doubleday, the latter of which he decided on). Still, Otto was pleased by Levin’s interest in the book and willing to let him act as a kind of unofficial stage and film agent. In exchange, Levin maintained, Otto promised him the right to adapt the Diary for the stage—or, at the very least, to collaborate with another playwright. Of his own accord, and without mentioning his personal stake in the book, Levin published a front-page rave of the Diary in the New York Times Book Review that made it an instant best-seller.
The producer Cheryl Crawford signed on to the project, and Levin submitted his play script to her. Here, again, things get murky. Crawford initially complimented Levin’s work, but quickly did an about-face, saying it left her cold. She offered Levin only a weekend to revise it before deciding to find another writer. Levin, who believed he had been promised a hand in the project, was shut out. Infuriated, he deluged Crawford, Frank, and others with angry letters that deeply alienated everyone involved. Eventually, he would go so far as to compare the mistreatment of his play to Anne’s persecution and murder by the Nazis.
Soon the stage rights to the Diary passed to Kermit Bloomgarden, who hired the married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett—Hollywood screenwriters best known for their work on It’s a Wonderful Life—to adapt it. Levin, using language that would later be echoed by the “own voices” movement, was incensed at the idea of a non-Jewish writer taking over, certain that Anne’s message would be distorted. “No stranger can as well express the soul of a people as someone from that people,” he wrote to Otto. And he was right about Anne’s message: As many critics, including Cynthia Ozick, have complained in the decades since, the Broadway play strips Anne’s diary of virtually all its Jewish content, famously replacing her lines about the persecution of the Jews—“Through the ages Jews have had to suffer, but through the ages they’ve gone on living, and the centuries of suffering have only made them stronger”—with a scene in which Anne tells Peter, “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer. They’re’ve always been people that’ve had to … sometimes one race … sometimes another.”
In the transformation of Anne from a persecuted Jewish girl into a kind of universal victim, Levin saw a communist conspiracy masterminded by playwright and “unrepentant Stalinist” Lillian Hellman, who was brought into the mix to help Goodrich and Hackett with their adaptation. In his book about the whole sordid affair, The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the “Diary,” Ralph Melnick finds some evidence to support that conclusion, but the “smoking gun” he seizes upon—a payment of $10,000 Hellman received from the Soviets not long after the Diary debuted on Broadway—may not mean what he thinks it does. (Lawrence Graver, the author of An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary, a more even-handed but less thorough treatment, downplays Hellman’s involvement.) Whether Hellman was acting at the behest of the Soviets or of her own accord, the result was the same: numerous changes were made to the Goodrich/Hackett script to emphasize the universal appeal of the story.
This happens to have been precisely what Otto Frank wanted. Anne’s book was “not a Jewish book,” he told Levin, astoundingly. “So do not make a Jewish play out of it!” Otto, who was brought up as an assimilated German Jew, had relatively little sympathy with his daughter’s deepening identification with her Jewishness while in hiding. He would later tell his second wife how astounded he was, when reading the Diary, to learn of the depth of Anne’s religious feeling. In her own edit of the Diary, Anne removed some of her references to Judaism, including a note about celebrating Yom Kippur. But Otto took out many more.
It’s understandable that Otto—a survivor of Auschwitz returning to an unstable and somewhat hostile Holland—would have been reluctant to overemphasize Anne’s Jewishness. But he also, as he said on numerous occasions, wanted the Diary to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Doubleday, too, supported this approach, prefacing the book with an introduction signed by Eleanor Roosevelt (it was actually written by the book’s editor, Barbara Zimmerman) in which the words “Jew” and “Jewish” never appear. This was hardly unique: both Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi acceded to pressure from publishers and others to emphasize the universal aspects of their memoirs. The fact that such impulses were likely motivated by considerations more literary than anti-Semitic does not necessarily make them easier to accept.
Even Levin was seduced by Anne’s potential to become an “everygirl.” His Times review seesawed between his understanding of Anne as a target of antisemitism and his desire to present her as a teenager in many ways like any other. Her book is “no lugubrious ghetto tale, no compilation of horrors,” he wrote. Rather, “it is so wondrously alive, so near, that one feels overwhelmingly the universalities of human nature. These people might be living next door; their within-the-family emotions, their tensions and satisfactions are those of human character and growth, anywhere.” In her crush on Peter, her squabbles with her sister, and her ultimate disillusionment with the romance, Anne is an ordinary teenager whose feelings are “of the purest universality.” In his desire to emphasize the diary’s relevance to Americans, Levin went even further in his universalism than the Broadway adapters later would:
Just as the Franks lived in momentary fear of the Gestapo’s knock on their hidden door, so every family today lives in fear of the knock of war. Anne’s diary is a great affirmative answer to the life-question of today, for she shows how ordinary people, within this ordeal, consistently hold to the greater human values.
Here, perhaps, is the root of Levin’s fury: his awareness of his own role in creating a vision of Anne Frank that would ultimately work against him as her dramatist. As Lawrence Graver writes, Levin’s preoccupation with Anne “reveals what many people (American, German, Dutch, English, Israeli; Jewish and gentile; famous and obscure) wanted, needed, or hoped to make of the afterlife of the girl and her book, an afterlife that has taken on the shape and implication of myth.” With so many readers using her as a mirror of their own preoccupations, the actual person who wrote the Diary is harder than ever to discern.
What I’m reading (and watching)
I loved this essay in Outside magazine that starts by examining the author’s sudden development of “cold urticaria”—an allergy to the cold, meaning she breaks out in hives while swimming or eating ice cream—and takes a dark, existential turn into fear of death and the vulnerability of the body before ending up in a truly beautiful place.
After we binged “Only Murders in the Building,” I made my eighteen-year-old watch Manhattan Murder Mystery, one of the Woody Allen movies that still holds up, maybe because it’s (mostly) not about sex. It might be my favorite.
Elsewhere on Substack
I’m enjoying Joni Mitchell biographer David Yaffe’s Trouble Man, a combo of jazz/rock criticism and memoir (which happens to be the root of some of the best criticism).
“No live organism can continue for long to exist solely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
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