A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
By Alice Kessler-Harris
Bloomsbury Press, 448 pages, $30
I don’t know that I have ever read this good a rescue job. Columbia historian Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman made me feel like a stupid cliché: just another American who knows little of Hellman’s life, and even less of her work, but feels totally comfortably judging her as an unrepentant Stalinist and a compulsive liar. After all, we all know (don’t we?) that Hellman’s plays were middlebrow and unforgettable, whereas Mary McCarthy’s 1979 slander of Hellman, uttered on “The Dick Cavett Show,” was pithy and devastating: “I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
What more did one need to know about Hellman, especially since the old bag died in 1984, having produced not one heir or protégé to defend her name? And yet Kessler-Harris has persuaded me that Hellman, for all her lies, was brilliant, courageous and, above all, interesting. Hate her if you must, but don’t reduce her.
It’s this simplification of Hellman, who was born in 1905, that troubles Kessler-Harris. Hellman wrote some of the most beloved plays of the century (most especially “The Little Foxes”) and a classic memoir, “Pentimento,” and also refused to name names before Congress in the 1950s — last time I checked, still considered an honorable act — yet in death she was remembered mainly as a Stalinist and a liar. When Zoe Caldwell played Hellman in a one-woman show, critic Frank Rich complained that the portrayal was too positive for a woman whom we all knew to be so loathsome.
Kessler-Harris has not written a traditional biography. The chapters are thematic, not chronological. “A Serious Playwright” is the chapter about Hellman’s work; “An American Jew” about Hellman’s religious identity; “A Self-Made Woman” about her relationship to money, and so forth. This structure can be repetitive and disconcerting. It can be jarring to read about a particular lover of Hellman’s (she had many) in one chapter, then to really read about him in another chapter, where he fits better. The plot of a play might get summarized for its relevance to Hellman’s literary style, then re-summarized later for its relevance to her politics or her Judaism.
The book can also be worryingly vague: At one point, Arthur Cowan, a lawyer, is a lover of Hellman’s, and at another point he is mentioned in a list of “intimate friendships” that includes columnist Joseph Alsop and CBS news executive Blair Clark — but were these men Hellman’s lovers, too? It is unclear, and one suspects that Kessler-Harris does not really care. She hurries past the gossipy, the pleasingly quotidian and the enticing (I’d like to have known more about those fishing trips with John Hersey — did they talk boys?) — on her way to the politics.
But when Kessler-Harris riffs on the politics, she plays a nifty tune, and I for one finished the book feeling glad she had organized so many glimpses at the period from 1950 to 1984. In that time, Hellman, a middle-class German Jew of homely looks but aristocratic tastes, born in New Orleans but raised mostly in New York, drifted away from her half-hearted prewar communism yet became identified as a pre-eminent woman of the unreconstructed left. Rather than taking this stereotyped Hellman as a given, Kessler-Harris asks how the caricature came to be. She finds it neither accurate nor inevitable, rather the product of a striking confluence of events.