Her hair is white and her hearing is nearly gone. The once tall figure is stooped with age, and a recent bout with pneumonia has left a lingering cough.
But her memory, Muriel Gardiner says, is still strong, and scenes from her extraordinary life flash before her on a well-preserved strip of mental celluloid.
Half a century ago, she was a wealthy young American student who left Oxford University for Vienna to study medicine and wound up smuggling Jews and dissidents out of Austria, one step ahead of the Nazis. She hid socialist leaders in her apartment, her wealthy family sending money from America. Her family knew nothing of her underground identity or the dangers of her work, strapping false passports to her corset, providing cash for exit visas and bundling off her small daughter to friends for safekeeping.
If her story sounds familiar, it's not surprising.
Lillian Hellman, in her 1973 best-selling book of memoirs, "Pentimento: A Book of Portraits," wrote about a childhood friend she called "Julia," who--like Muriel Gardiner--was a wealthy young American with a habit of giving away money and gifts, who attended Oxford, went to Vienna to study medicine, hoping to be analyzed by Freud, and became deeply involved with the socialist underground. (The story was later turned into a highly successful film, starring Jane Fonda as Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as "Julia"; Redgrave won an Oscar for best supporting actress in the role.)
Hellman's "Julia," which the author made clear was not her real name, died at the hands of Nazis in 1938. Gardiner--at the age of 82--is very much alive, married to former leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists Joseph Buttinger and is the author of the recently published "Code Name 'Mary': Memoirs of an American Woman in the Austrian Underground."
For years, she has lived in relative seclusion in this small town outside Trenton, her background familiar to a few friends and acquaintances. But now she has become the object of growing attention, a role she does not particularly relish, over speculation that she may be the real "Julia."
In the introduction to her book, Gardiner writes, "Soon after Lillian Hellman's book 'Pentimento' appeared in 1973, friends and acquaintances of mine began telephoning me, saying, 'Muriel, you must be 'Julia. ' I was indeed struck by the many similarities between my life and her heroine's. On my next visit to Vienna, I asked Dr. Herbert Steiner, director of the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance, what other American women he knew of who had been deeply involved in the Austrian anti-Fascist or anti-Nazi underground. He knew of none."
Does Muriel Gardiner believe she is "Julia"?
"I don't know," she says, sitting in the sunny living room of her 23-acre farm. "I cannot prove that I am or that I am not."
She speaks slowly, choosing her words with precision. "Only since speaking with Dr. Herbert Steiner, who said he couldn't locate any other American woman, even through the memories of many resistance workers who are still alive, did it make me think that maybe I am 'Julia.' "
She pauses. "I would never claim to be, unless some other completely new evidence comes up."
Others are less uncertain. Lillian Hellman has repeatedly said that Gardiner is not "Julia." In a 1979 edition of "Pentimento," she wrote that she could not reveal the dead woman's true identity for legal and personal reasons. In a telephone interview last week from her home on Martha's Vineyard, Hellman said she is "disturbed" by the suggestions that she may have borrowed her story from Gardiner's life. "She Gardiner is not 'Julia,' and I will not tell you any more than that. If I have to reveal 'Julia's' name, it won't be to a newspaper."
The friends who first brought Hellman's story to Gardiner's attention, among them British poet Stephen Spender and the widow of an Austrian socialist activist, Anna Frank, are convinced that Gardiner is the heroine on whom Hellman's character was based.
"I don't think there can be any doubt, really," says Stephen Spender, reached at his London home. "One can't prove these things, but the only person I know who corresponds to this character is Muriel Gardiner. There just isn't anyone else at all." Spender, who had a brief love affair with Gardiner in the 1930s and has remained a close friend since, adds that he speaks from personal experience, having spent a good part of 1934 and 1935 in Vienna, where he says he was familiar with members of the socialist underground. Spender has written a piece on "Code Name 'Mary' " for the London Review of Books.
Hellman, 76, and Gardiner have never met, although Hellman has recently telephoned Gardiner to arrange a meeting.
They had one close friend in common, a lawyer by the name of Wolf Schwabacher, who co-owned the farmhouse here with Gardiner and her husband for many years. He was also Lillian Hellman's lawyer. Schwabacher, according to Gardiner, often talked about the writers and artists he knew in New York, among them Lillian Hellman. "He knew a lot about her," Gardiner says. "He talked about her. He knew the whole theater crowd.
"I've tried to figure out if she Hellman used any bit of my life, how she knew it? I talked to my intimate friends somewhat about it, and Wolf Schwabacher was terribly interested and terribly concerned about me. When the war came, he kept cabling me in Paris, telling me that I should come home. He and his family wanted to know as much as they could about my life in Vienna. I told them as much as I could without any hesitation."
Schwabacher died in 1951, twenty-two years before "Pentimento" appeared.
Asked if Wolf Schwabacher had spoken to her about Gardiner's underground life in Vienna, Lillian Hellman said, "Certainly not."
His son, New York attorney Christopher Schwabacher, recalls reading Hellman's story and later seeing the film. "Certainly it rang a very familiar bell. Certainly it struck me as remarkably close."
Schwabacher pointed out that many people knew Muriel Gardiner's story. "She Gardiner had a broad circle of friends, and after the war, it was not so secretive. Certainly, this remarkable story was on the lips and minds of many."
Anna Frank, who met Gardiner in 1938 in Paris, was the first one to call Gardiner's attention to the chapter entitled "Julia" in "Pentimento."
Asked if there might have been another American woman doing the same work, Frank said, "It seems absolutely unlikely." Hellman's heroine was described as being analyzed by Freud. Gardiner's own analyst was a star pupil and colleague of Freud's. This connection, Frank says, is important because in the 1930s, the group of analysts and patients in Vienna was a very small, tightknit circle. It seems likely that someone would have known about "Julia," Frank and Spender say.
"That was a pretty narrow circle," Frank says. Spender agrees that this information was a "key factor" in persuading him that "Julia" must be Muriel Gardiner.
Literary critic Irving Howe, who first met Muriel Gardiner in the early 1950s, believes "the essential story" of "Julia" is based on Muriel Gardiner. "It's hard to believe there are two people to whom this could have happened," he said in a recent interview.
When "Pentimento" first appeared, Gardiner says she read the chapter "Julia" and concluded "it was mostly coincidence." She says she wrote Hellman a letter. In the interview last week, Hellman denied seeing a letter from Gardiner, saying, "I frequently do not read letters. They bore me."
In the letter, Gardiner says she wrote, "I've never met you but heard a great deal about you from my friend Wolf Schwabacher with whose family we shared a house for more than 10 years." "Then I said, 'What surprises me is that I never met "Julia." '
"I didn't believe at that time that I could be 'Julia,' in spite of all the telephone calls," Gardiner says, "but I did write to her pointing out the many similarities. Then I said, 'I hope you don't find this letter an intrusion and you may not answer if you prefer not to.' Also, I did say that some of my friends thought that 'Julia' was a composite character, perhaps of some friend of hers and certain facts from my life. I said, and this was true at the time, that I didn't believe it."
The question of credibility is a sensitive one for Lillian Hellman, celebrated author of a dozen plays, including "The Children's Hour" and "The Little Foxes," as well as three best-selling volumes of memoirs, "An Unfinished Woman," "Pentimento" and "Scoundrel Time." Three years ago, she filed a $2.25 million libel suit, which is still pending, against author Mary McCarthy, Dick Cavett and the Education Broadcasting System over remarks McCarthy made on the Dick Cavett television show in January 1980. In answer to a question of Cavett's on overrated writers, McCarthy called Hellman an "overrated" and "dishonest" writer, adding that "every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the.' "
The defendants have denied any wrongdoing and have filed for a summmary judgment in the case.
Interestingly enough, Hellman comments on the trustworthiness of her own memory in "Pentimento," and is certain about her recollections of "Julia."
"I think I have always known about my memory," she wrote. "I know when it is to be trusted and when some dream or fantasy entered on the life, and the dream, the need of dream, led to distortion of what happened. And so I knew early that the rampage angers of an only child were distorted nightmares of reality. But I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia."
Muriel Gardiner takes a bite of her grilled cheese on rye toast, brought by her housekeeper on a small tray. It is a sunny day, and she has just taken a swim in her indoor heated pool. She keeps the water at 94 degrees.
She is a striking woman, tall and thin, with short cropped hair and skin browned by the sun. A strong woman, with an intense gaze. In her younger days, friends say, she looked like Vanessa Redgrave.
"Not in that picture," she says, picking through a pile of old photographs, "but people tell me the resemblance is striking in this one." She is on a ski slope, squinting into the Austrian sun.
She spends the next hour talking about her life, and comparing it with "Julia's." The similarities are striking, but there are also differences.
She was born Helen Muriel Morris on Nov. 23, 1901, the youngest of five children. Her father was Edward Morris, eldest son of Nelson Morris, who founded Morris & Co., one of the largest meat-processing firms in Chicago. Her mother was Helen Swift, daughter of the founder of Swift & Co., another Chicago meatpacking firm. (Morris & Co. was sold to Armour in the 1920s.)
Gardiner remembers her childhood as filled with luxury and fawning servants, although as a child she was not particularly happy with her position in life.
"From the age of 8 or 9," she says, "I thought the world was full of injustices. I was somehow repelled by our luxury at home. All these dozens of servants waiting on two or three people."
She often took cold showers in the winter and slept on the floor as a way of depriving herself of material comfort.
When she sailed first class across the Atlantic, she was horrified by the conditions in steerage. To this day, she says, she is sickened by the word. When she was 10, she organized a suffragette parade at her school. Her father died when she was 11. The next year, World War I erupted. She was a pacifist, but became deeply interested in the Russian Revolution of 1917. As a teen-ager, she says, her best friend was Constance Morris, her cousin, and the two girls would stay up long into the night talking of ideas, art, literature--much as "Julia" and the young Hellman are described as doing in "Pentimento."
Gardiner entered Wellesley in the fall of 1918, where she organized a committee to send food and money to Vienna students after the war had ended. She says she gave away her fur coat and jewelry and sold her valuable book collection for money to send to the Austrian students.
(In "Julia," the wealthy young American student is always sending Hellman expensive gifts and is portrayed as uncomfortable with material possessions.)
During the remainder of her college days, Gardiner acquired a reputation as a "Red," especially after attending the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and voicing her support for them.
In 1922, she sailed for Europe and after a year in Italy, spent two years at Oxford University, doing graduate work in English literature. In the spring of 1926, she went to Vienna, hoping to be analyzed by Sigmund Freud. She wrote to him, and received a reply saying he was unable to take her as a patient but referred her to his pupil and colleague, Dr. Ruth Brunswick. There, she met a young Englishman, Julian Gardiner, and married him. She had a daughter, Connie, and several years later was divorced.
(In contrast, the heroine of "Julia" never married and her daughter is born out of wedlock. The daughter is sent to friends for safekeeping, and Hellman says she searched for the child but could not find her. Gardiner's daughter had a happy childhood and was sent to Switzerland briefly before leaving Europe for America, where she stayed with Gardiner's sister.)
Gardiner was something of a free spirit in the 1930s, voicing her belief in couples living together rather than marrying. During this time, she met Stephen Spender and, in her book, describes their affair, which she says was the first heterosexual encounter for the young British poet.
Hoping to train as an analyst, Gardiner enrolled in Vienna Medical School in 1932. It was about this time, she says, that she became more interested in Austrian politics. Naziism was spreading from Germany to Austria, and she witnessed violent raids on the Jewish and socialist sections of the university.
(In "Julia," Hellman's heroine is hurt in one of those raids, losing a leg. Gardiner herself was never physically hurt.)
On Feb. 12, 1934, the fascists began to attack workers' apartments in an effort to destroy the socialist resistance. What Gardiner saw that day, riding home from her analysis session in a chauffeur-driven car, convinced her to enter the fight. She made contact with the underground, was given the code name "Mary," lent her apartment to hide refugees and offered her cottage in the Vienna woods as another hiding place. For the next four years, she took train trips, delivering false passports, arranged for children to be "adopted," and waited in fear as the Gestapo came closer and closer to arresting her.
She never thought she was doing anything extraordinary.
"It was the most natural thing in the world," she now says. "Look, if you saw a couple of children on the street who had been run over, you'd run to help them. I saw what was going on, as well as having known for years that it was a time of great unrest."
She gazes out the window. "I suppose I was courageous. I was also naive in some respects. I don't know. I was physically rather brave." She chuckles. "I feel that people are making a heroine of me. Then I begin to wonder, maybe I did do something unusual."
In 1938, about to graduate from medical school, Gardiner was asked to fill out a form asking for her father's religion. Although she had been raised as a Protestant, she wrote, "Jewish."
"I was a silly fool, of course, for putting that. I didn't know anything about the Jewish religion. I think it was because all the other American medical students were Jewish except for me. I knew they would not be allowed to graduate. There was a chance that if they remained, they might be able to later in the summer, but I think most of them were leaving, or had left. The only thing I can think of was if I didn't put Jewish I'd be taking advantage of them. I'd be sort of cheating."
She smiles. "I don't know. I didn't mind cheating the Nazis in other respects."
Her family, she says, "never asked me where the money was going. They weren't very curious. I wasn't very close to them. They thought I was terribly stingy because I lived comparatively simply compared to all the rest of them." In her lifetime, she says, she has given away "a great deal more than I used on myself. But my perception of money is very different from the rest of my family. Although I like the way I live much more than the way they live."
(In "Julia," the heroine's family disavows any knowledge of her. Gardiner, on the other hand, was close to her oldest brother, Nelson, and in 1937, spent a week with him and their mother in Paris.)
When Gardiner read "Pentimento" she was struck by one scene where Hellman and "Julia" meet near the Berlin train station to exchange money. "Look, some conspirators did some very stupid things," she says. "But to do something like that in Nazi Germany in 1937 with a conspicuous woman with only one leg and a conspicuous American woman with this enormous hat . . . I can't think of anyone who would work out a thing like that.."
Gardiner left Vienna in 1938 and fled to Paris, where she married Joseph Buttinger. She had fallen in love with the underground leader while he was hiding in her cottage. "I loved him in every way there was to love. Passionately, sexually. I admired him, found him compatible. An easy person to be with."
(Buttinger, who eventually wrote one volume of his autobiography as well as several books on Vietnam, has been ill and is now confined to a Long Island nursing home.)
In 1940, they came to America and lived on the farm in Pennington. Her daughter, Connie--who crossed the Atlantic on the Andrea Doria and barely escaped death when the ship sank--eventually married a close friend of theirs from Vienna, and lives in Aspen, Colo., with her six children.
Gardiner became a psychoanalyst, edited a book on Freud's famous Wolf-Man, wrote a book on children who kill, "The Deadly Innocents," and was awarded the Austrian government's Cross of Honor in 1980 for her work with refugees.
She is a millionaire, "many times over," she says, from family money and investments. She owns a condo in Aspen, and keeps an apartment in New York so friends won't have to stay in hotels.
She began work on her autobiography in the late 1960s. It was published in Germany in 1978, and then in France. But initially it was turned down by two American publishers because, she was told, "it wasn't dramatic enough."