A new biography of Lillian Hellman reconsiders the merits and contradictions of ‘A Difficult Woman’

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Lillian Hellman ()
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"When I started work on this book," Alice Kessler-Harris writes of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, her new biography of the writer, "my friends and colleagues told me that this was a subject that had no rewards. They attached adjectives such as evil, cruel, and vindictive to Hellman's name. She was, I was told, a Stalinist, a liar, a self-hating Jew, at best a second-rate playwright, already forgotten."

Kessler-Harris, a Columbia University historian acclaimed for her work on labor and gender, even briefly considered setting the project aside. But she felt compelled to settle the question of why, years later, Hellman was still provoking such visceral reactions, even from those who dismissed her as a relic of the past. All the people Hellman had arguably offended the most—the Partisan Review and Commentary editors who, she suggested, had stood by silently during the McCarthy hearings, or Mary McCarthy, who Hellman sued for libel after McCarthy called her a liar on the Dick Cavett show—were no longer alive, and yet the antipathy suggested Hellman's reputation was irretrievably tarnished. 

In A Difficult Woman, Kessler-Harris sets out to explore why Hellman became such a vilified figure. Her theory is that the name-calling transpired and persists because Hellman embodied the defining political and social tensions of her lifetime in a way that did not lay those tensions to rest but inflamed them. Hellman believed that men and women should be free from tyranny, but in refusing to qualify or explain her support of Stalin and the Soviet Union, positions she took up when she thought the Soviet Union seemed the best hope against fascism and Nazism, she made it look like she might not believe in freedom at all.

That was just the most infamous of her contradictions. She was briefly a member of the Communist party, but loved earning, spending, and investing the money she made from her plays and her screenwriting. She believed in ideas, and wrote passionately about them, but she was not a member of the intellectual in-crowd and her plays were not considered literary. She was born in New Orleans and came of age in New York City, and so her personality was a contradictory, unreconcilable combination of Southern propriety and urban audacity. She was Jewish, but she did not let her religious identity dictate her politics. She stumped loudly for truth as a civic ideal, but fabricated material for her best-selling memoirs. 

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Kessler-Harris theorizes that the vitriol might have developed in part because Hellman, the person who was daring to live messily and amid a swirl of contradictions, was a woman. There are other names, she suggests, we could call Hellman: successful and hard-working writer, civil-liberties defender, generous giver, loyal lover, gracious hostess. And perhaps most important of all: self-made woman. It is through illuminating this point, and showing where Hellman anticipated the second-wave feminism that she was both supportive and skeptical of, that the book is most compelling.

One may debate Hellman's merits as a playwright and prose writer, or question whether her refusal to name names when she was called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee served anything other than her own ego, but in reading Kessler-Harris's book one gets the sense that Hellman's most lasting and undebatable achievement might have been willing herself into a resolutely unconventional and full life that was not predicated on her being a wife or a mother.

Hellman's own mother came from a wealthy family but married someone who didn't, but Hellman, exiled from that wealth, was able to generate an income as a playwright, screenwriter, and eventually a best-selling author. She married only once, in her twenties, and then left her husband for the married Dashiell Hammett, who was her mentor and her greatest love. But this did not keep her from picking up lovers like souvenirs through work or travel—lovers who often remained close friends—and she somehow got away with describing her ex-husband to his new wife, who also became a good friend of hers, as "husband dear to us both," which is a feat that still stuns, since currently only Tilda Swinton can pull that kind of thing off with dignity. 

 It was this unapologetic freedom, says Kessler-Harris, that endeared her to the young women who would become feminism's second wave. Having devoured Hellman's memoirs, they viewed her as an inspirational icon of glamorously free sexuality and independence. Hellman, however, didn't think her unconventional personal life was an accomplishment worth venerating. During a 1976 interview, when Barbara Walters asked her why she thought young women looked up to her, she replied—half-jokingly asserts Kessler-Harris—that "It is probably due to the fact that I lived with a man so very long without marrying him." Though Hellman did believe in many of the goals of the movement, she scoffed at feminists' preoccupation with "who takes out the garbage and who takes care of the children." As she told another interviewer: "Wearing or not wearing a bra is terribly unimportant. It's being able to buy that bra yourself—that's important."

Kessler-Harris is both a scrupulous historian and a sympathetic interpreter, and her even-handed, clear-eyed approach helps make ceding respect to Hellman a possibility even as her subject threatens to wear out her welcome—high-handedly trumpeting political bromides here, obstreperously haggling with her literary agents there, repeatedly declaring herself affronted by whatever injustice she thought was being visited on her, whether by Warner Brothers or the college students she hired to be her assistants. A sample burst of outrage to her agent, over a $30 fee for typing a contract: "I cannot tell you how silly I think it is to send me such a bill. I find that I am totally shocked at this kind of minginess, which I can't believe is your idea. Is everybody out to annoy everybody else at any cost to themselves?" 

Kessler-Harris would never say that her subject was a self-aggrandizing blowhard who bulldozed her way through any obstacle that displeased her, but neither does she tamper with the copious evidence that such was often the case. Or shy away from rebuking Hellman for her silence on Stalin, or questioning her refusal to admit that the "Julia" of her memoir Pentimento was a fictional creation based on the life of a woman she had never met.

Parallels can be drawn to Courtney Love: a commitment to never shutting up, a lover whose creative contributions sparked suspicions that she wasn't the real talent, a fixation on celebrity, a megalomaniacal self-regard that worsened with age. As with Courtney Love, Hellman's fierce refusal to behave as women are expected to feels, despite her flaws, like a transgressive act that should be celebrated. Yet those flaws make it hard to enthusiastically enshrine such women as heroines of female iconoclasm.

Still, Kessler-Harris succeeds at exonerating her subject. The time may be right. Contemplating Hellman's uncompromised freedom in a moment when blogs written by college-educated mothers read like reruns of the fifties' retreat to domesticity, one is tempted to forgive this difficult woman just about everything.