A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

  • Alice Kessler-Harris
  • Bloomsbury Press
  • 440 pp.
  • May 7, 2012

In a nontraditional biographical approach, the author dissects the multiple perspectives of the controversial playwright and screenwriter.

Reviewed by John Morogiello

Lillian Hellman is remembered today in many ways, but probably is best known as a playwright and screenwriter. The plays she penned for the stage in the 1930s, ’40’s and ’50’s continue to be revived in New York and throughout the world, and three – “The Little Foxes,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Watch on the Rhine” – live on as films.

In A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, historian Alice Kessler-Harris uses the playwright’s life as a lens through which to study America in the 20th century. Kessler-Harris presents a strong thesis, writing: “My task here has been to see how the life of a single woman can help us to understand some of the salient contradictions of a challenging century by highlighting the thorny situations that Hellman faced … I seek not only to explore how the world in which Hellman lived shaped the choices she made, but to ask how the life she lived illuminates the world she confronted ... Hellman’s life seems to me to so deeply encapsulate many of the 20th century’s challenges.”

As a woman, a Southerner, a Jew, an artist, a political activist, a sexual adventurer and a Communist, Hellman lived a life that does mirror many of the conflicts through which the country has journeyed over the past hundred years. For its part, the script of the 20th century in America brings up the rise of women’s rights, the life of the “new” South, World War II and the murder of Jews, the expansion of artistic media and access to it, the politics of war and neutrality, the sexual “revolution” and the rise of communism here and abroad. In the United States of the 1950s, Hellman was a victim of the blacklists that resulted from the anti-communist hearings of the Joe McCarthy era. Amid the civil unrest and identity crises of the late 1960s and ’70s, Hellman wrote a series of controversial and not wholly accurate memoirs,  which irreparably damaged but did not completely obscure her image before her death in 1984.  As Kessler-Harris points out that in 1976, at age 71, “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 … The advertisement did not reveal the name of its model. It did not have to.”

Eschewing a traditional biography based on chronology, Kessler-Harris recounts her subject’s story repeatedly, chapter by chapter, from the multiple perspectives of her life. Thus, after a chapter on her early years, we examine her sex life from beginning to end. Then we review much of the same period, only this time concentrating on her work as a playwright, then as a labor leader, then as a Jew, then as a self-made woman in a man’s world and so on until the end. While intriguing, Kessler-Harris’s structure never permits a full understanding of Hellman’s life and character. It is a hall of mirrors, reflecting Hellman from various angles, but never treating the reader to the corporeal whole. Rather than dealing with the contradictions of Hellman’s biography that arose as she lived her different lives simultaneously, Kessler-Harris handles each of them individually, showing us the different pieces of the puzzle but never putting them together into a full picture.

The book is at its best when describing the intricate details of sweeping, historic events: the rise of Franco in Spain, the Screen Writers Guild negotiating with the studio heads, Hitler and Stalin marching into Poland, the post-war schism of the American left between communists and anti-communists, the founding of the Committee for Public Justice, all are gripping. This is not surprising, as Kessler-Harris holds an endowed professorship in the history department at Columbia University. Strangely, though, each of these sections is followed by a qualifier relegating Hellman to a negligible, nonexistent or, at best, supporting role in each of these matters. The strength of the historical current diminishes Hellman’s place in it.

Given the book’s structural conceit, the early sections are occasionally repetitious, as each chapter begins with a summary of the previous one and an introduction to the new perspective that follows. In addition, Kessler-Harris at times confuses the reader by continually ordering her paragraphs in a point-counterpoint sequence, sometimes by sentences within paragraphs. It is difficult to discern whether these contradictions belong to Hellman or the author, but either way, they obscure the subject rather than elucidating it. A typical example is found in a discussion of the very public legal dispute between Lillian Hellman and another prominent writer of the day, Mary McCarthy: “Friends withdrew from [Hellman’s] withering tongue: embittered by her stubborn refusal to abandon the suit against Mary McCarthy, they stopped seeing her. But many remained loyal, forgiving her temper tantrums and reveling in her continuing ability to make fun of everything and everyone.”

A Difficult Woman benefits from the incorporation of archival material collected by William M. Abrahams, Hellman’s official biographer, and only newly released to researchers. The author also injects insights gleaned from her personal interviews with friends and acquaintances of Hellman, including Robert Brustein, former dean of the Yale Drama School; the actress Zoe Caldwell-Whitehead; and the director, actor and playwright Austin Pendleton.

By the author’s own admission, those who are looking for an introductory “cradle to grave” examination of Lillian Hellman’s life, work, influences and daily life should look to well known books by Deborah Martinson and Carl Rollyson. However, for those already familiar with Hellman and her work, loves and losses, the different perspectives Alice Kessler-Harris provides in this book may pique the intellect and satisfy the reader’s desire for new angles to explore.

John Morogiello is a playwright in residence with the Maryland State Arts Council. His play “Blame It On Beckett” was recently published by Samuel French.

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