A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris

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!

Rating: 9 ambiguities.

8 Responses

  1. she was an interesting person. I would love to learn more.

  2. [...] A Difficult Woman, a new (April 2012) biography of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. Hellman was a controversial and contradictory figure, multi-faceted and fascinating, and I love Kessler-Harris’s handling of her complicated life, which touched upon so many areas of politics and art; K-H presents H as a sort of representation of the United States in the twentieth century. This book made me want to do huge amounts of further reading! [...]

  3. [...] am: A Difficult Woman (Bike Snob would have been a good second [...]

  4. [...] studied. Before I was halfway through this book, I’d seen mention of Lillian Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course [...]

  5. [...] with Raymond Chandler, who I have read (just a little) and enjoyed; also, Hammett was partner to Lillian Hellman for some 30 years. “The Adventures of Sam Spade” was a radio series in the 1940′s [...]

  6. [...] A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Harris [...]

  7. […] since reading A Difficult Woman, I have recognized Lillian Hellman as a fascinatingly complex & ambiguous character, clearly a […]

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