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An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir

3.91  ·  Rating Details  ·  562 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
Caustic, brilliant, uncompromising, accomplished, Lillian Hellman, one writer noted, can "take the tops off bottles with her teeth". Her career as a playwright began in 1938 with The Children's Hour, the first of seven plays that would bring her international attention and praise. Thirty years later, Hellman unleashed her peerless wit and candor on the subject she knew bes ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 7th 1999 by Back Bay Books (first published June 1st 1969)
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Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweThe Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian AndersenUglies by Scott WesterfeldUnearthly by Cynthia HandUlysses by James Joyce
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31st out of 186 books — 33 voters
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4th out of 24 books — 1 voter

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Community Reviews

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Christian Engler
Sep 19, 2013 Christian Engler rated it it was amazing
A life where no living is done is a life not worth living. Like O'Neil, Shaw, Williams and Isben, Lillian Hellman (1905-1984, scriptwriter, playwrite, social and political activist and critic) wrote some of the most enduring and thought-provoking drama for the theatre in the 20th century, and the above 'proverb' could very easily have been her epitaph. An Unfinished Woman (Winner of the 1969 National Book Award for biography/Autobiography), the first memoir in her autobiographical trilogy (the t ...more
Jan 12, 2009 Sarah rated it really liked it
"Thirty years is a long time, I guess, and yet as I come now to write about them the memories skip about and make no pattern and I know only certain of them are to be trusted. I know about that first meeting and the next, and there are many pictures and sounds, but they are out of order and out of time, and I don't seem to want to put them into place." This is a great passage about looking back back on a relationship (in her case, a long-standing affair with Dashiell Hammett).I love how Hellman' ...more
Mar 17, 2014 Sketchbook rated it did not like it
All you have to know abt Hellman is that she was a belligerent, lying Communist who wrote crummy plays. Her most famous (unactable today) - "The Little Foxes" - succeeded solely because of Tallulah Bankhead.
Gregory Knapp
Sep 29, 2014 Gregory Knapp rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, memoir
Looking back on the Mary McCarthy/Hellman feud one is left to say, (1) Hellman was a playwright for decades before she wrote her "Memoirs." Why would anyone look to a brilliant literary artist for factual truth??? And, 2) WHO CARES if the Memoirs are factually correct? They are BRILLIANT stories!!!
Feb 17, 2008 Charlaralotte rated it really liked it
Recommended to Charlaralotte by: Brother Ben
Shelves: read-in-2008
Thank you, Brother Ben, for giving me this book at Xmas. Incredibly incisive autobiography. Reminds me of when I read her "Pentimento" while at Nana's house in Denver during one arduous summer vacation. I was maybe 11, and I thought, "Good God! Adults really are as passively vicious as I think they are. I'm not crazy after all!" Hellman has a way of explaining very complex relationships in about two sentences, where most authors never get a handle on the causes of the complexity for entire novel ...more
Oct 19, 2013 Tristy rated it it was amazing
It's no secret that Dashiell Hammett based the character Nora Charles (from "The Thin Man" series) on Lillian Hellman, and reading her memoir is like getting to see a deeper, more complicated side to the witty, tough-talking lady of Hammett's stories. Reading about Hellman's life in her own words is a delicious treat that I want to taste over and over. I so wish she had written more stories about her life, because her authentic, fearless re-telling of the past is consuming and fascinating. She c ...more
Sep 11, 2014 Danny rated it really liked it
Former playwright and public intellectual Lillian Hellman discovers she is an unfinished woman on the last page of her elegant memoir. She spent too much of her life looking for truth, she says.

The woman may have wanted to be in the mystery more, but it's nice to spend time with an author who knows what they like and want. Lillian traveled in Russia during the Stalin years. She had a close affair / relationship with mystery author Dashiel Hammett that was in part the basis for the boozy comedy/
Jun 05, 2008 Maureen rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: biography
Lillian Hellman did not mince words. Not in her plays, and certainly not when it came to writing about herself. Her candor is probably what makes this book a bit of an uneven read, because topics she chooses to immerse herself in may not always be of as much interest to the reader. Hellman is a very fine writer, and this is a compelling biography.
Oct 09, 2014 Donna rated it really liked it
First read 2/7/13 - 2/10/13

Fascinating and tough lady...

Now the film fest follows..The Little Foxes, Watch on The Rhine, and I tracked down a made for tv movie Dash & Lilly.
Nicole Marble
Aug 25, 2007 Nicole Marble rated it it was ok
Lillian Hellman is probably more famous for her life than for what she wrote. This book is a dissapointment. But well written.
May 03, 2010 Alana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An Unfinished Woman is one of several autobiographical works penned by the American playwright, Lillian Hellman. It was published in 1969 and two others followed it: Pentimento in 1973 and Scoundrel Time in 1976. If you're wondering why there were multiple memoirs, I can't quite answer that (having not read the other two), but isn't it lovely to think that our lives require multiple volumes? It's not that they're first, second, and third acts, but rather, I imagine they each have a different foc ...more
Sep 07, 2008 fleegan rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This is one of Lillian Hellman’s autobiographies. She was a writer, a playwright actually, and she lived a hell of a life. She was a bit of a troublemaker, or maybe it was that she happened to be around trouble and had to act accordingly. She seemed to be very brave and ended up in Europe and Russia during WWII as part of the League of American Writers (I think that’s why she was over there. I mean, she wasn’t a war correspondent really, so look, she wasn’t very clear in the book why she was the ...more
John Curley
Jul 14, 2013 John Curley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Let me start by saying that I have been obsessed with Lillian Hellman since I first read An Unfinished Woman in college. I've read everything she ever wrote--every play, every memoir. I've watched the movie version of Pentimento about a hundred times. I've sought out every biography on her, authorized (Lily by Peter Fiebelman) and unauthorized. Mary McCarthy's famous remark about Lillian Hellman ("Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'") is maybe only a slight exaggeration. Sh ...more
Oct 09, 2014 Holly rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: penguin
Miss Hellman has certainly lived an interesting life in interesting times, but she is always the observer and never the participant in her own life-events. Or so it seems. Her description of loved ones borders on disinterest, her constant name dropping on vanity. An easy read that is not always easy to stomach.
Karen Prive
Dec 10, 2015 Karen Prive rated it liked it
Lillian Hellman is sometimes remembered as a larger than life personality, and I expected this to shine through in her memoir. I kept hanging on, waiting for the juicy parts, and while there were some reflections that showed she was an independent woman ahead of her time, the book was a little dry.
Apr 28, 2008 Karen rated it really liked it
I recently watched the 1977 film Julia with Jane Fonda. It looks at a snapshot of Lillian Hellman's life--the period when she's writing her first play, The Children's Hour. I picked this book up to learn more. I had read some of her plays in school but didn't know anything about her political leanings, her relationship with Dashel Hammett (the mystery writer) or that she had known Hemmingway, Faulkner and the like. Nor did I know she had visited Spain, Russia and Germany during wartime. No wonde ...more
Aug 31, 2012 Caty rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The chapters on Dorothy Parker and Hammett were very well worth it. The rest, that is, 80 % of the I could've done without the anachronistically racist chapter in which she can scarcely tell her childhood nurse and the woman she employed in adulthood apart while supposedly paying homage to them, and the cloistered, spotty, xenophobic recollections of being in Spain for the Civil War and being a pet American communist writer heavily shadowed by good PR ensuring bureaucrats in the young ...more
I ran into the movie of The Children's Hour on tv one night so watched it again. I thought, that's right, Lillian Hellman . . highly regarded writer of an earlier time. I should learn more about her and her writing. Hence, an Unfinished Woman was secured and eagerly fired up on the old tape player. In a tired and arrogant voice Hellman lets us know that she was a big deal in her day. Stultifyingly dull right up to the last tape when in brain-cramp agony it became the unfinished book.
May 27, 2007 Lucy rated it really liked it
An excellent book. An interesting woman takes an unvarnished look at her life and writes about what she finds in her past seemingly without bias or attempting to cover up the ugly parts. I was very touched by the way she was able to write about her 30 year up-and-down relationship with Dash honestly and without trying to cover up either her faults or his. That said, there are a few slower moving parts in the book that I could have done without but overall, an excellent read.
Mar 17, 2016 Laura rated it really liked it
A bit disjointed as it veers from recollection to diary and back, but interesting.
I have to say, Ive never been a particularly devoted fan of Hellman. Of course I admired a number of her plays, but fan? With that said I found this memoir particularly fascinating. Perhaps in large part as she rarely if ever dealt with her own work. But the stories of her meetings with Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the like-and of Dash and her close friend Dorothy Parker are extremely compelling. A good read.
Apr 06, 2009 Roseann rated it really liked it
This autobiography of the strong-willed and passionate writer of "The Little Foxes", "The Children's Hour", and many others was a very interesting read. Ms. Hellman was a woman who drank with Himingway and Fitzgerald, travelled to Spain and Russia during the war, and was even questioned by McCarthy for her alleged "Unamerican" views. She was a woman far ahead of her time who lived her life to the fullest.
Jan C
Apr 26, 2009 Jan C rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: writing, biography
When I read this, I really liked it. And I really liked it for a long time.

But, in the past couple of years, I have heard and read things that put the lie to this book. And I suppose now I kind of feel like I got took.

It's still a good book. A good story. It's just, kind of, why bother if it's going to be a pack of lies. It cheapens the experience, so to speak.
Apr 27, 2009 Alwa rated it really liked it
Five stars, because it confirms two things I have always believed to be true: 1) Dashiell Hammett is wonderful, 2) Ernest Hemingway is the biggest asshole in American letters. That whole middle section about the war is boring, though.

On second thought, four stars--that WWII part really drags, and I would have liked more about the Communist stuff.
Susan Baranoff
An inside look at one of the 20th century's foremost female writers and a glimpse into what makes the Southern Writers Club tick. I especially liked the view of her relationships with Dashiel Hammett and Dorothy Parker. SInce I love her plays and I love biograhies/autobiographies this was a natural choice for me.
Apr 19, 2010 Amanda rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, memoirs
Flashes of brilliance occasionally, but I found the book to be scattered and unorganized thoughts. I think this is a reflection of the author's personality, and I also think she wanted it this way. Still, I enjoyed it enough to read the entire thing, and liked the last few chapters the best.
Kyla Hunt
Feb 16, 2013 Kyla Hunt rated it really liked it
You know, I'm not a huge fan of biographies or autobiographies, in that I usually can't finish them - but memoirs are another story. This book is a perfect example of the difference, in that it is not so concerned with facts or chronology as it is with how she chooses to present her memories.
Apr 19, 2009 Diana rated it really liked it
Hellman's memoir is unconventional--it is not always in a linear timeline, and she assumes details and information that her audience is not always privy to...yet it is intriguing, b/c of her unique writing style, and the famous people in her life.
Jun 06, 2012 Judy rated it it was amazing
Hellman's talented, had an interesting, complicated life, is sometimes a hideous person - but always fascinating. I enjoyed her plays, and previous "memoirs", so recommend to those similarly interested in her work, for a take on her own experiences.
Aug 11, 2008 Mary rated it really liked it
Lillian Hellman is my 100% hero. Fearless, brilliant, witty, and an incredible author and playwright. She moves through war-torn Europe and in the company of expatriates and starlets with equal grace -- gritty, unapologetic and uncompromising.
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Lillian Florence "Lilly" Hellman (June 20, 1905 – June 30, 1984) was an American dramatist and screenwriter famously blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) at the height of the anti-communist campaigns of 1947–52.

Hellman was praised for sacrificing her career by refusing to answer questions by HUAC; but her denial that she had ever belonged to the Communist Party was e
More about Lillian Hellman...

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