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

Thanks to Katy at A Few More Pages for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Alice Kessler-Harris is a well-respected author and historian, and here she tackles the formidable subject of Lillian Hellman. I am not terribly familiar with Hellman, so this book is my introduction, and so far it looks like it will be a fine one. I love biographies of ambiguous, contradictory, not-entirely-loveable characters; they’re so much more interesting than altogether sympathetic or entirely monstrous ones!

For this Happy Friday today I will be sharing several snippets, because I feel like it. First of all, Kessler-Harris opens her introduction with a quotation I loved:

If a man could say nothing against a character but what he can prove, history could not be written; for a great deal is known of men of which proof cannot be brought.
–John Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

I love this idea, and the implication that history involves the unproveable, unavoidably. Beware! This quotation is followed by Kessler-Harris’s first sentences:

In 1976, aged seventy-one, playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman posed in a mink coat for a resonant advertisement. Cigarette in hand, gazing insouciantly at the camera, Hellman claimed the legendary status she craved.

Indeed. Beginning her introduction with a description of that remarkable photograph (below) really evokes her subject right at the beginning. The photo in question:

The first chapter, however, returns to a standard biography’s beginning:

Beautiful Julia Newhouse, daughter of a wealthy southern family, married Max Hellman–who had nothing to recommend him but charm–in 1904. A year later, Julia gave birth to a child they called Lillian Florence Hellman.

These unadorned sentences tell us a little something about Julia & Max, which I appreciate. Hellman’s story is fascinating, and so far I really enjoy the way Kessler-Harris is portraying it, with the context of her time & place fully involved.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

8 Responses

  1. I’m really interested in what you think of this one. I love Dorothy Parker and she and Hellman were good friends and then had a falling out. Can’t wait to hear about it.

  2. I have heard of Hellman but, to be perfectly honest, know nothing about her. This sounds like a very interesting read. I’m looking forward to your review.

  3. That looks like an interesting book.

  4. […] else? Well, I’m still reading A Difficult Woman, Alice Kessler-Williams’s upcoming biography of Lillian Hellman, and that is still […]

  5. The fact that the author gets the name of the greatest of all biographers, James Boswell, wrong at the beginning of her book does not inspire confidence in her.

    • Most interesting, Robert. I was going to draw your attention to the final line of this post – This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change – but I have put my hands on a published, finished copy, and the quotation is still attributed to John Boswell. I also took the liberty of double-checking you 🙂 and you’re right; The Life of Samuel Johnson was written by James, not John. That’s a shame, and I understand your reaction. I still loved the book, though. Hopefully she got her mistakes out of the way early?

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