By Nancy Isenberg
Special to Magazine
January 07, 2013
A DIFFICULT WOMAN:
THE CHALLENGING LIFE AND TIMES
OF LILLIAN HELLMAN
By Alice Kessler-Harris
It is always hard to contend with the hate-filled smears that surround celebrity biography, when the celebrity is thought ill-tempered, arrogant or obnoxious. Let’s be candid about this genre: the identity of a historical subject is controlled (if not entirely manufactured) by forces larger than the individual. And it is altogether too easy to echo conventional wisdom: a one-word putdown can effectively reduce a complicated life to a simple sound bite.
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) has come to symbolize scandal and deceit. She has been called a lifelong, secret Stalinist, a congenital liar, a plagiarist, “a vindictive, self-serving celebrity,” “a vile person,” a “butch” lesbian and an ugly duckling who seduced a “mini-harem” of men. But does she deserve these epithets? As a left-leaning social critic, Hellman lived through controversial times: the Great Depression, the rise of the “popular front” (when liberals and communists joined forces against fascism); the Cold War witch hunts led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and the movements for civil rights and social justice in the ’60s and ’70s.
She first made her mark as a playwright, penning eight plays between 1934 and 1964, and adapting the works of other writers for the theatre. The Children’s Hour, which opened in 1934, made her famous. It created a sensation, earning praise for its brave style and incisive writing. Hellman entertained audiences, but she was also morally demanding of them. The Children’s Hour concerned a lie told by a child, a lie about lesbianism that ruined the lives of two female teachers. Other Hellman plays focused on family secrets and southern life, such as The Little Foxes (1939) and Another Part of the Forrest (1946). Her success in drama brought contracts from Hollywood; as her plays were made into films, Hellman joined the circle of talented writers who wrote for tinseltown in the 1930s and 1940s.
Her personal life and that of Dashiell Hammett were closely intertwined. He had become a minor celebrity in Hollywood, best known today for The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart. The Hellman-Hammett relationship is not easily categorized: yes, they were passionate lovers, but more importantly, he was her mentor and close critic. Hammett routinely indulged in drinking and went on sex binges. Yet the bond the two forged never weakened. When he was broke and dying, she cared for him, later guarding his legacy and estate.
The author of this winning biography, a Columbia University History professor, does not follow a traditional biographical narrative. Instead, she brings the outsized personality of Lillian Hellman to the reader, and then examines her from several angles: as a southern Jewish woman, born in New Orleans; as a serious playwright; and as a political activist across several decades. Hellman was a single woman bent on financial independence; she was controversial because of her connection to communism. She angered many with her fictionalized memoirs. Not long before her death, Hellman found herself damned on charges of hypocrisy and deception.
With her deft handling of the narrative structure, Kessler-Harris allows her subject to unfold in a most meaningful way. She peels away the different layers of this contentious life so the reader can see the historical context in which Hellman’s reputation was fashioned. Yet the author does not coddle her subject. She captures both the highs and lows of Hellman’s conflict-ridden life — the high coming when Hellman refused to “name names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Kessler-Harris reveals that Hellman was less of an ideologue than a passionate critic of bullies and cowards. As a playwright, she fought to protect her words when she disagreed with directors or Hollywood studio moguls in their adaptation of her work; she fought Hitler and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who aimed to crush the innocents in wartime Europe.
But a rigid moralistic streak often got her into trouble. In the third volume of her personal memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), she elevated her own heroism in standing up to McCarthyism while she ridiculed the ones who did name names. Her unyielding anger provoked a host of enemies. Some mocked her as homely. As one critic put it: “She had a face that looked as if a mouse died on it.” Married and divorced, Hellman remained close to her first husband and his second wife. Beyond her relationship with Hammett, she had numerous affairs; as she aged, she was taunted over her pursuit of younger men.
The battle that most tarnished Hellman’s posthumous reputation was waged in the 1980s with the equally famous, equally sharp-tongued writer Mary McCarthy, who uttered the cleverest of barbs on The Dick Cavett Show. Said McCarthy: “I once said in some interview that every word she says is a lie, including and and the.” In this way, Kessler-Harris exposes the dark underside of aging public intellectuals, their pettiness and ruthlessness.
Her gracefully written biography says much about the malleability of memory as it challenges the “nonfiction” label of memoir. She explains how difficult it was for writers with a conscience to navigate the politically heated middle decades of the 20th century. Hellman’s life exposes much about the dangerous game of political recrimination.
Nancy Isenberg is Professor of History at LSU, and author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (2007).