Dan's Reviews > A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

A Difficult Woman by Alice Kessler-Harris
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's review
Apr 23, 2012

really liked it

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? Socialist?

Alice Kessler-Harris sets out to find the answers. Kessler-Harris is a historian rather than a literary biographer and that’s what makes “A Difficult Woman” so immensely interesting and relevant. “A Difficult Woman,” as far as I’m concerned, supplants William Wright’s “Lillian Hellman, the Image, the Woman” as the definitive Hellman book.

At times the prose is less than soaring and occasionally annoying repetitions pop up. A reference to “American Soldiers who had been maimed and wounded in Spain” appears word-for-word a couple pages apart. Some of Hellman’s sexual conquests get the same descriptor time after time.

The author’s search of the record is exhaustive but it doesn’t appear from the text or a reading of the notes that she sought out people still alive who knew or worked with Hellman. However, all that doesn’t really diminish the power of the book to establish Hellman as one of the most remarkable and accomplished women in a fascinating and very politically fractious American century.

She was Jewish but an anti-Zionist. Judged by some of her remarks and from the way she treated people she could at times be described as almost anti-Semitic, Kessler-Harris reminds us. As a playwright she was a woman struggling to make herself heard in a man’s world. Yet, the label feminist doesn’t seem to fit. More apt perhaps was Elia Kazan’s description of Hellman as a “bitch with balls.”

William F. Buckley described her behavior toward “negroes” insulting, while Hellman saw herself as a defender of civil rights. She was an avowed Stalinist but it’s pretty evident she lied about being a card-carrying Communist. Almost everything about Hellman seems to represent a contradiction and that’s probably what makes her such a compelling figure. She was a playwright whose own life was the stuff of high drama.

Kessler-Harris says Hellman struggled her entire life to search for and sort out the meaning of truth. Yet when she died she was fiercely pursuing a lawsuit involving her veracity as a writer. Her worst fault, Dashell Hammett, her long-time lover, once told her was that “she was too honest.” In “The Children’s Hour,” one of her most-famous plays, a tormented 10-year-old tells a lie that destroys three people. “The Little Foxes” pivots on a lie told about investments. A truth withheld from the wife ruins her husband’s life in “Toys in the Attic.”

Later when she turned to prose with the memoir, “An Unfinished Woman” and more so with “Pentimento” and “Scoundrel Time,” she became a lightning rod for accusations of falsehood. Isn’t it ironic that someone who valued her integrity more than anything had to fight so hard to defend herself against fabrication and outright lying?

The great battle of her life was Hellman’s feud with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, who had said on “The Dick Cavett Show” that everything Hellman writes “is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Hellman hollered defamation and sued for $2.5 million. The 1980 lawsuit became a grudge match with two literary titans hurling accusations back and forth like thunderbolts. The literary world chose sides. CBS reporter Charles Collingwood called Hellman a “Bloody, vindictive old broad.” Actor Sam Jaffe, wrote to Hellman “I have been incensed since I heard about that ‘bitch’ Mary McCarthy’s attack on television. You have more in your ass than she does in her brain.”

Norman Mailer tried to be a peacemaker. When he wrote to one of Hellman’s defenders that the friend’s passionate defense may have succeeded only in doing damage, “Your righteous mind and sulphurous bottom produce much brimstone.” Hellman learned about the note and abruptly broke off a 30-year friendship with Mailer.

The sometimes outlandish barbs and stinging behavior of the two antagonists gets full treatment and makes for the book’s best reading. Certainly coverage of the legendary and cantankerous quarrel, which continued until Hellman’s death in 1984, offers the most entertainment.

Hellman never wanted her biography written, Kessler-Harris said. She feared a hanging jury. There’s enough evidence in “A Difficult Woman” to determine that without doubt Hellman molded reality to suit her own purpose. The book’s title accurately describes Hellman’s temperament but as controversial and combative as she was, Hellman deserves to be judged more on her contribution to the literature of the last century than on being famously cantankerous.

Kessler-Harris succeeds in assessing all sides of the woman she describes as “a juicy character.” But what’s more of an accomplishment, the author examines Hellman’s life through a new prism by assessing her within the context of her times, “by thinking through her relationship with the twentieth century.” In doing so, she not only shines a new light on Hellman’s life but enlightens the world Hellman encountered and dealt with head-on. Kessler-Harris has written a biography that informs and entertains, in equal measure. My guess is that as cantankerous as she was, even Hellman would not have disapproved.
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