She took tea with Sigmund Freud, had an affair with Stephen Spender, risked her life in the Austrian resistance – and inspired an Oscar-winning film. Can a new show about Muriel Gardiner capture her extraordinary life?

In 1978 the novelist Mary McCarthy ignited one of the fiercest feuds in literary history by claiming on a TV chatshow that every word of Lillian Hellman’s memoir was a lie, “including ‘and’ and ‘the’”. Hellman, a screenwriter and playwright, immediately launched a $2.5m defamation suit. McCarthy’s charge centred on Hellman’s claim to have been close friends with a heroic American member of the resistance in 1930s Vienna. So captivating was the story of their relationship that it had been made into an Oscar-winning film, starring Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Julia.

At her home in the US, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner had become aware of the memoir, Pentimento, when it was published in 1973, after friends began to call, suggesting that Julia must be her. “I have never met Lillian Hellman,” she later wrote, “but I read the story and was indeed struck by the many similarities between my life and her heroine’s.” When the film came out, the calls became more regular. A consultation with the director of Austria’s resistance archives confirmed that there had only ever been one American heiress in the country’s anti-Nazi underground: Muriel Gardiner, whose code name was Mary.

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