Lillian Hellman’s paradoxical, powerful personality set against the backdrop of a turbulent century.
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was many things: a successful playwright, screenwriter and memoirist; a suspected Communist (maligned as an unrepentant Stalinist) who stood up against political intimidation in the 1950s; a labor organizer and civil rights activist; partner to Dashiell Hammett for more than 30 years; a woman criticized for being manlike and grasping, but simultaneously overly feminine and stylish; a New Orleans-born resident of New York, Hollywood and Martha’s Vineyard who persisted in calling herself a Southerner. She was respected for her literary contributions, hailed as a hero by a feminist movement that she largely rejected, praised and excoriated for her politics and, ultimately, vilified for what came to be seen as the outrageous mendacity of her memoirs. It would be difficult to locate a biographical subject more contradictory or complex. In A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Harris makes an excellent case that Hellman represents the complexities and changing mores of the 20th century.
The contradictions in her personality and politics are brought into relief by her written work–including plays still popular in repertory theater today–which always included strong moral statements. The concepts of truth and deception, or betrayal and loyalty, play large roles in her work and this insightful biography, rich with context, shows how they were also themes that defined her life. Not an apologia, but an exploration of nuances, A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her.
This review originally ran in the May 1, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!