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A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

3.55  ·  Rating Details ·  118 Ratings  ·  37 Reviews
Lillian Hellman was a giant of twentieth-century letters and a groundbreaking figure as one of the most successful female playwrights on Broadway. Yet the author of "The Little Foxes" and "Toys in the Attic" is today remembered more as a toxic, bitter survivor and literary fabulist, the woman of whom Mary McCarthy said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and ...more
Published April 1st 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
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Aug 07, 2013 Tracy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In her acknowledgements, Alice Kessler-Harris expresses her desire not to write a biography of Lillian Hellman, but instead examine the historical implications of “A Difficult Woman”. Well, mission, more than, accomplished. The book is not only an examination of Hellman’s life experiences, but also a historical documentation of what was happening in America (as well as abroad) during her lifetime. Kessler-Harris does an amazing job in presenting a scholarly piece of work, but make no bones about ...more
Nicola Pierce
May 23, 2016 Nicola Pierce rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is as much a biography of the America of the 1930s/40s/50s as well as a biography of playwright Lillian Hellman. She was a difficult woman living in difficult times and this was, in turn, for me a somewhat difficult read but that is down to my own inadequacy as a reader. It is, I felt, quite academic in tone - there is a lot of politics and social discourse - and I did struggle at times to keep up with every little bit of it but through no fault of the biographer.

A tremendous amount of work
Apr 23, 2012 Dan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hellman, heroine in her own historical drama
Honored, famous, admired are some of the tags history has pinned on Lillian Hellman. But then again she also suffered from being labeled the “archetype of hypocrisy, a quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness.” She’s the celebrity modeling the mink coat.

How did Hellman, best-selling author, acclaimed playwright, political activist, become such a polarizing individual, someone so reviled? Perhaps because she was a woman? Because she was a Jew? So
Jul 13, 2012 Shana rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I almost gave up on this book. Kessler-Harris look at Lillian Hellman from several different perspectives, however, the overall thesis of the book is unclear. Kessler-Harris seems to get lost in the details of the historical context and fails to bring its meaning to light for Hellman. While she succeeds in an astonishing amount of research about various persons that enter the political scene, it is surprisingly lacking in hard evidence about the personality of Hellman. Often she alludes to a con ...more
Jenny McPhee
Jun 04, 2012 Jenny McPhee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Filmmaker Elia Kazan, venting his fury against Lillian Hellman's memoir Scoundrel Time in which she skewers him and other liberal artists and intellectuals for their lily-livered performances during the McCarthy Era, raged against "this bitch with balls" who "went after what she wanted the way a man does." What Kazan once considered a vitriolic attack might now in our post-third-wave-feminist age be perceived rather as a compliment.

Feb 20, 2012 Jaylia3 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Why has provocative author Lillian Hellman, who was admired during her lifetime for being blunt and outspoken, now become the archetype for lying hypocrisy? That’s one of the questions historian Alice Kessler-Harris pursues in A Difficult Woman, a detailed and fascinating examination of Hellman’s life with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the quirks and conundrums of the artistic, political and intellectual spheres of America in the twentieth century. Rather than a strictly chronolog ...more
Aug 12, 2014 Bill rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought this was an excellent biography seamlessly weaving the personal and political into a coherent tale of our times. Especially interesting were Hellman's relationships with other luminaries of those days; in particular her conflict with Martha Gellhorn--two women who may have been more similar than different. The author is a highly credentialed scholar and the work is fully referenced and sourced. Yet the read is great for those like me who are happy not to have to footnotes interfere wit ...more
Judith Colson
Jan 27, 2017 Judith Colson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An Interesting Exploration of a Woman

Lillian Hellman was as complex a human being as could be. So many sides to this person were explored that in the end of her life there remained as many controversies as in the beginning. A real question mark, she was never a straight forward person. It is important to follow up this story with her own Three Tales to try to grasp an understanding of this individual.
Mar 21, 2017 Ruth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sometimes difficult to follow her life, thinking, interaction with others. She seemed to be a complex, complicated women who struggled to define herself.
Carl Rollyson
May 01, 2012 Carl Rollyson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Lillian Hellman (1905-84) remains a fixture in the American theater owing to her plays, "The Children's Hour," "Little Foxes" and "Toys in the Attic," all of which enjoy frequent revivals. No other female playwright has so dominated the American stage for so long. No woman -- indeed, few men -- have enjoyed a Hollywood career that resulted in remarkable screenplays such as those Hellman wrote. An outspoken leftist, she campaigned successfully for unions in Hollywood, a quintessential company to
Jan 11, 2014 Fred rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I came at this book knowing practically nothing of Lillian Hellman other than her famous visage (mostly from the Blackglama Mink campaign in my childhood) and that she had written a number of famous plays/screenplays, notably "The Little Foxes," which I'd enjoyed in the Bette Davis film version. As such, I had no horse in the race over whether she was an unrepentant Stalinist or not, and, in the end, I find myself thorougly admiring her and her constancy/refusal to recant whatever she had said, ...more
Jun 06, 2013 Al rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Reading Alice Kessler-Harris' "A Difficult Woman," I was struck by what a minefield the author had to maneuver in this biography. Lillian Hellman was as much a prominent figure in the arts as she was in U.S. politics. She was a polarizing figure, beloved and hated; Keller-Harris excels at exploring how Hellman became a lightning rod for critics. Though a heroine to many as a public figure, especially feminists and civil libertarians, Hellman was frankly an often unpleasant individual in her priv ...more
Rick Rapp
Jul 27, 2015 Rick Rapp rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Cut from the same cloth as Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead, Lillian Hellman was a complex and maddening individual, alternately devoted and passionate as well as vindictive and stubborn. Her story is also a complex one, and Kessler-Harris does an admirable job of presenting the various sides of this multi-faceted individual without judgment or apology. Hellman's contributions to the theatre alone are noteworthy, but her political involvement is far more impressive (as well as suspicious.) L ...more
May 04, 2012 Esther rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I slogged through the first two-thirds of this book, getting to the part most interesting just as my library loan reached its end. Might I haved jumped to her testimony before the House on Un-American Activities without the first 240 pages? I would have liked to have done that, but then I would not have known her as well. Having finally borrowed it again from the library... Does it say anything that the borrower in the interim kept the book for only two days? ...I like this unlikeable woman! The ...more
Jun 22, 2012 Mary rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An intriguing historical biography that incorporates the social and political as well as personal events of Hellman's life. It's long and detailed, but every day I had to read more. Hellman fought admirably for causes that seemed to promise "freedom to live by one's own lights" but I hadn't realized how intriguingly difficult a personality she was. Apparently, those who knew her were either with her or against her, with no in-between. Many hated her and pronounced her a liar. Without repent, "sh ...more
Dec 15, 2013 Goldeoos rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating read for anyone interested in mid-twentieth century history. I picked this up thinking it was a biography on Lillian Hellman - I was wrong...but in the best possible way. Rather than a chronological biography, Alice Kessler-Harris places Lillian Hellman at the center of her socio-political-economic context. It demonstrates how this iconoclastic and "difficult" character and her numerous identities related to her times. Chapters are thematically broken down into her relationship to ...more
May 30, 2012 Sara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been interested in Lillian Hellman since I watched The Little Foxes---an amazing movie starring Bette Davis. This book thoroughly fleshes out Hellman, including her testimony before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, where she refused to name names and admitted to being a Communist for only a very short time. This was one of the most interesting parts of the book and surprising to remember how very important this once was in American history and what a non-issue it now is. I also wa ...more
Geoffrey Rose
May 03, 2012 Geoffrey Rose rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I didn't like Lillian Hellman before I read this book and I still don't like Lillian Hellman.

But Alice Kessler-Harris's work here is sensitively written, analytically brilliant and it was nearly impossible to put down.

Just an incredibly provocative and interesting book. One of the best biographical monographs I've ever read and certainly one of the most rewarding.

While I don't agree with many of Kessler-Harris's insights, I can't help but recommend this wonderful, intellectually sophisticated wo
Feb 04, 2014 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Kessler-Harris' attempt to look at the twentieth century through the lens of its likely most famous American playwright comes to many conclusions about how women worked, and how they had to protect themselves. Her conclusions are a bit hurried in the latter chapters on Hellman's life, and her financial concerns read a bit dryly to me. But there's much here that's fascinating, including Hellman's views on her work in relationship to others' productions of it, as well as an examination of how an i ...more
May 03, 2012 Bayneeta rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, biography
A challenging and more academic read than I usually take on. Extensive notes section and index. The book details the various political and cultural events Herman lived through and participated in her lifetime. An acclaimed playwright, a communist for a time, lover and long-time companion of Dashiell Hammett, an advocate of human rights, a defender of the first amendment, a defier of HUAC and Joseph McCarthy, and a writer of three very fine memoirs. They may not be completely factual, but in her ...more
Jun 28, 2012 Genie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I really enjoyed this book. I am one of those people the author referred to who had always looked up to Lillian Hellman for her stand during thr McCarthy hearings but she did have a lot of contradictions. This biography fairly explores those in a very interesting way. I have read other biographies of her but like this one. It is not organized chronologically, however, so if you are new to Hellman you might start elsewhere.
Jun 13, 2016 Caryatid rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I put my boredom with Hellman down to an excessively wordy manuscript which bounces back and forth with the authors opinions, analyses and lack of chronology. Presaging the future and pastmorteming the past can get tedious awfully quickly, the title was A Difficult Woman, I’d call it A Difficult Book.
Well, I was really excited for this one, but I couldn't finish it. I'm willing to do some work when I read, but this was all work. I wanted more day-to-day details of Hellman's life and personality and less historical and political context.
World Literature Today
"I highly recommend this book." - Daniel P. King, Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin

This book was reviewed in the November 2012 issue of World Literature Today. Read the full review by visiting our website:
Sep 21, 2012 Deborah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I always like a book which tells an interesting story about a strong woman . This book fits the bill, plus the story is told in a way that helps you understand the connection between the person's development and the historical times they live in.
Nov 12, 2012 Paulette marked it as stopped-reading  ·  review of another edition
It was interesting to kind of skim this book. I didn't know much about her. Now I do and that's enough.
May 02, 2012 Robyn marked it as to-read
Actually Kindle, not hardcover, but I'm not in the mood to add the Kindle version to GR right now.
Jan 08, 2013 Casey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
Very thought provoking. I particularly enjoyed her scholarly approach. She studies the different parts of this woman's life and assesses the notion of "Lillian Hellman difficult woman".
Nancy Stringer
Playwright, communist, fabulist, sexual predator; Lillian Hellman was an American legend who courted controversy her whole life.
Sue Kaplan
A fascinating woman, a dynamic enigma. Book was much too repetitious with much too name dropping of 'almost' famous people. The glimpse into the moral codes of the 20's was illuminating.
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Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, in New York City and former president of the Organization of American Historians. She specializes in the history of American labor and the comparative and interdisciplinary exploration of women and gender.

Kessler-Harris received her B.A. from Goucher College in 1961 and her Ph.D. from Rutgers Universi
More about Alice Kessler-Harris...

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