Every since reading A Difficult Woman, I have recognized Lillian Hellman as a fascinatingly complex & ambiguous character, clearly a “difficult woman” and therefore a kindred on some level. A fellow traveler, you might say. I have read very little Dashiell Hammett (just a few short pieces), but I respect his contribution to a genre I love, and I hope to get around to more one day. Furthermore, Hellman is a counterpart to Dorothy Parker, another spunky female wit I have enjoyed reading and reading about. So then, it should be clear why I was interested in this novel about the Hellman and Hammett love affair, which lasted several decades (during which they remained married to other people) and bears on the literary and political events of their time.
This audio version is narrated by three different readers (Mark Bramhall, Lorna Raver, and Bernadette Dunne), an effect I very much liked. One reads Lillian’s (or more often, Lily’s) first-person parts, one reads Hammett’s, and the third is the third-person narrator of the story. It begins with the pair’s first meeting, and follows them through his novels and screenwriting successes, his radio shows, and his later difficulties working and prodigious drinking; her plays and movies, both wild successes and disappointments; her years as a farmer, and both their testimonies before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Both refused to cooperate with HUAC, and both paid dearly; Hammett went to prison at age 58, and tried to drink himself to death when he got out, while Hellman lost her farm, just for starters.
I can’t speak to how precisely this book follows the factual history of these two lives (I don’t know where my copy of A Difficult Woman is), but I don’t really care. This was a great story, heartfelt and heartbreaking, about two delightfully irreverent and vibrant personalities. Their voices felt very real and accurate to me, and HUAC pissed me off all over again. I promised myself once more that I would finally get around to reading one of Hellman’s plays. Hold me to it.
A love story with mysteries & politics mixed up in it, written in the impeccably wry and witty voices of Hellman and Hammett, in a beautifully performed audio edition – I couldn’t ask for more, although I will ask for another. What’s next, Sam Toperoff?