Celebrity biographies that balance truthfulness and tact

William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, by John B. Judis. New York: Simon & Schuster. 528 pp. Illustrated. $22.95. Mary McCarthy: A Life, by Carol Gelderman. New York: St. Martin's Press. 430 pp. Illustrated. $24.95.

Lillian Hellman: Her Legacy and Her Legend, by Carl Rollyson. New York: St. Martin's Press. 613 pp. $24.95.

If William F. Buckley Jr. has become ``patron saint of the conservatives,'' Mary McCarthy could conceivably be called a patron saint of independent, free-thinking liberals, and Lillian Hellman a patron saint of the hard left. In Hellman's case, one might also say that thanks to her powerfully written, mythopoeic memoirs, in which she emerged as the feisty heroine of her own life, she became an inspiration and role model to the more unsophisticated variety of feminists.

What sort of biography ``becomes a legend most''? It's not always easy to chart precisely the right course between hero (or heroine) worship and harsh debunking.

The authors of these three books faced a number of interesting, closely related problems. add here Judis and Rollyson were dealing with the curious phenomenon of intellectuals who became celebrities. Gelderman and Judis were both writing about people still living. Both McCarthy and Buckley were cooperative subjects, answering questions and making their papers largely available, while refraining from interfering with their biographers' judgments and interpretations.

Still, it cannot have been easy for the biographers to balance the competing demands of truthfulness and tact - a problem that any biographer of Hellman also faces, since those who are drawn to her by her image may discover in the course of their research disturbing evidence of character traits at odds with the qualities that make her seem so admirable in the first place.

Hellman biographer Carl Rollyson has tackled the issue of celebrity before, in a biography of no less a star than Marilyn Monroe. His biography of Hellman, close on the heels of William Wright's ``Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman'' (Simon & Schuster, 1986), lacks the bite and panache of the earlier book but provides a still more detailed account of her life. Like Wright, Rollyson keeps his critical distance from Hellman, although he tries a little harder to find excuses for her worst excesses by presenting her as a stubborn ``child-woman'' so adept at forming fantasies that she may almost have believed her own lies.

Noting that before her death Hellman designated an ``official biographer'' (her old friend and editor William Abrahams) and asked her friends not to help the unauthorized Wright, Rollyson remarks, ``The myth of Lillian Hellman depended on censorship.'' Persisting in the wake of hard evidence to the contrary, the Hellman myth also depends on the power of imagery. The image of blunt-spoken honesty Hellman fashioned for herself has proved so attractive that many people still prefer it to the truth.

Mary McCarthy attained celebrity of a sort when she was sued for libel by Lillian Hellman for calling Hellman a liar. Years before, McCarthy's best-selling novel ``The Group'' also won her an unexpected measure of popular fame somewhat at odds with her image as a defender of high culture and one of the most acerbic, tough-minded critics among the New York intellectuals. McCarthy has written searchingly of herself - and of her own tendency to mythologize - in ``Memories of a Catholic Girlhood'' (1957). Thirty years later, her second memoir, ``How I Grew,'' disappointed readers who hoped she would take up her story from where ``Memories'' left off. Instead, McCarthy returned yet again to her early years, trying to provide a still more truthful version of virtually the same period.

Gelderman's well-researched biography should satisfy readers who've been eager for the rest of the story. Gelderman is objective and fair-minded, allowing the story to speak for itself. Sometimes, she seems a little slower than her quick-witted subject, following Mary from several steps behind. Yet, although she is clearly an admirer, she is no mere acolyte, and her careful approach allows readers to form their own conclusions, free from narrative intrusiveness.

William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were both considered ``box office draws'' when they traded insults while serving as television commentators at the 1968 political conventions. But, as John Judis points out in his account of this incident, Buckley took the insults more seriously than a seasoned celebrity might have been expected to do.

Judis's account of Buckley's life and career does justice both to the figure and the man. Although he refrains from endorsing or decrying Buckley's ideology, Judis writes sympathetically of Buckley's efforts to achieve his vision.

While other thinkers may have made more substantial contributions to conservative ideology, Buckley's unique blend of style and substance was crucial in transforming the general perception of conservatism from an affliction of a lunatic fringe to an intellectually respectable position.

As this book amply demonstrates, Buckley accomplished this by casting off some of the more extremist elements - at the risk of diminishing his own base of support. A devout Roman Catholic, he could of course have no truck with anti-Catholic extremists, but he also engaged in an ongoing battle against right-wing anti-Semitism. He broke with the John Birch Society's Robert Welch over the latter's allegation that Eisenhower was not just a ``hapless dupe'' of the communists but a willing agent of theirs. And he alienated many more conservatives by endorsing Allard Lowenstein, a liberal Democrat, for Congress. Since Congress would probably go Democratic in any case that year, Buckley reasoned, why not have a man of Lowenstein's caliber and integrity among them?

Judis's portrait of the ``patron saint of the conservatives'' is not hagiographic, but it does convey an understandable admiration for Buckley's iconoclastic spirit.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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