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Fashioning a conscience.

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

By Alice Kessler-Harris

New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012, 429 pp., $30.00, hardcover


Before I read A Difficult Woman, I knew that Lillian Hellman was a significant player in the Communist/anticommunist drama of the mid-twentieth century, the author of several plays and memoirs, the lover of the writer Dashiell Hammett, and a terrible liar. I learned much, much more from this book, and not only about Hellman: Alice Kessler-Harris

makes this "difficult woman" a lens through which to examine culture and politics in the United States in the twentieth century. The book begins with Hellman's family and childhood and ends with her old age, death, and posthumous reputation, but it is not organized primarily by chronology. Kessler-Harris addresses in turn the issues that formed her subject's life and work, and became grounds for the hatred and accusations that swirled around her in old age. Lillian Hellman was a writer, a Jew, a southerner, a Communist and fellow-traveler, and an economically self-sufficient and sexually liberated woman. In each of these aspects, gender played a crucial part in the ways that the woman and her work were received and remembered.

Coming of age in the 1920s, Hellman "joined a cohort of young women who sought to achieve personal freedom ... [and] carved out permanent places for themselves outside the home," writes Kessler-Harris. She married Arthur Kober in 1925, but marriage did not make her a "wife" in any traditional sense. The couple spent much time apart, had numerous relationships with other people, and stayed close friends after their divorce. After 1930, Hellman's primary connection was with Dashiell Hammett, who "not only gave Lillian the space to develop her sexual persona but, in his sometimes brutal way, insisted on it." The Hellman-Hammett relationship endured until his death in 1961; in early days he encouraged and helped her with her writing, even suggesting subjects and plots, and later she took care of him through a long, painful, alcoholic decline. Hellman and Hammett were a prominent, glamorous couple, and the gritty details of their drunken fights are as nasty as they were notorious. Hellman was a free spirit, but the price of freedom was high, and Kessler-Harris makes the reader aware of both sides of that equation.

One of Hellman's most attractive characteristics was a lifelong hatred of social and economic injustice. She was politically naive, self-righteous, and bad-tempered, but also genuinely concerned about poverty and racism. As a young writer in the early 1930s, she was involved in the struggle of the Screen Writers' Guild to gain a degree of artistic control and a share of the profits from MGM and other big studios. During that decade, most of her friends and associates in the New York literary world were involved in left-wing organizations and activities. The Popular Front, an international movement that included a "soft," accommodating Soviet line toward non-Communist organizations and positions, drew progressives of all stripes close or closer to the party. Fascism, especially in its vicious Spanish form, was identified as the primary enemy of all who cared about justice. Many of the New York City artists and intellectuals of the late thirties sympathized with the Spanish Republicans and managed not to see or to ignore Soviet manipulation of the anti-Franco forces.

Hellman joined the party during the period of the Popular Front and remained a member for two or three years. Many of her friends, including Hammett, were party members, and some stayed in even after 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev exposed the brutality of Stalinism. Hellman left the party in the early forties, but she never broke with left-wing causes and people, whatever their relation to Communism or the Soviet Union, nor did she speak out against the Russian regime. Kessler-Harris's discussion of what happened to the left in the late forties and fifties clarifies a complicated and murky story, as does her explanation of how and why Stalinism became a common enemy of both the political left and the right.

The amicable mood of the Popular Front and of the US-Soviet alliance of World War II did not survive the peace. Left-wingers, including Hellman and Hammett, landed abruptly on the firing line of the Cold War. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the Smith Act (which made Communism illegal) were weapons in the new conflict. Fellow-travelers such as Hellman, who believed in trying to work with the Soviets toward world peace, were castigated as dupes, liars, and spies; they were subjected to FBI surveillance, silencing, and worse. Kessler-Harris defines the "essence of anticommunism [as] the conviction that the Soviet Union posed a large enough threat to American freedom to justify curtailing the civil liberties of Americans," and by the early fifties, anticommunists were in charge in Congress and much of the country.


As the noose closed around Hellman and her friends, she became, as she later wrote, "a very frightened woman." She did not always behave well, but she did stand by her friends and her basic values. Called before HUAC in 1952, Hellman wrote to the committee, stating that she was willing to answer questions about herself if they would refrain from asking her about other people. That letter was entered into the record, making public the resounding words: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Hellman was showered with praise and congratulations for her fine words and courageous stand, but she stayed on the Hollywood blacklist, and in the minds of her enemies on the right she remained, if not a Communist, certainly a sympathizer. The issue and the struggle, in many forms, haunted the rest of her life.

Throughout frequent personal and political crises, Hellman kept writing. She was first a playwright, with eight plays and several stage and screen adaptations to her credit. Her work was serious and ambitious; she was a moralist, whose works were built around such large themes as justice, freedom, and truth. Her first play, The Children's Hour, opened in 1934 to excellent reviews and ran on Broadway for two years; her last, My Mother, My Father and Me, opened in 1963 and ran for only seventeen days. After that failure, feeling at odds with the theatrical culture of the 1960s, Hellman quit playwriting and turned to memoir. She identified with the young people who opposed racism in the United States and the war in Southeast Asia, and her three memoirs--An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)made her a darling of the young left, especially of young feminists. In the late sixties and seventies, Hellman was rich, famous, and successful. Her books were popular and enthusiastically reviewed, she was awarded honorary degrees and taught at Harvard, and the successful movie Julia was made from a story in Pentimento.

Each of Hellman's memoirs includes stories presented as memories, fiction presented as fact, and lies presented as truth (including the story of Julia). Kessler-Harris describes this very well: "When she wrote Pentimento ... Hellman gambled that she could construct her vivid, beautifully written, sharply characterized stories about her past with the license of the fiction writer." Hellman's characters in her first two memoirs, Kessler-Harris explains, are "portraits of the woman Hellman wished she had been." In Scoundrel Time, which is about the McCarthy years, Hellman moved in another direction, painting furious portraits of people she did not admire--her enemies, including members of the cultural and literary elite who failed to meet her standards of honor and decency. She made factual mistakes, and her self-righteous, moralistic tone infuriated the once leftist, now "neocon" intellectuals of the late 1970s, as well as some of her own old friends. The angriest of all was not a friend but a long-time rival--the literary icon Mary McCarthy, who attacked Hellman publicly with the famous phrase: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Against advice, Hellman brought a suit against McCarthy for defamation, and the matter ended only with Hellman's death in 1984. Her final years were spent in a torture chamber of illness, relentless public exposure of her various mistakes and falsehoods, accusation and counteraccusation--a sad ending to a complicated life.

When Alice Kessler-Harris told friends and colleagues that she intended to take on this project, they warned her away, calling Hellman "a Stalinist, a liar, a self-hating Jew, at best a second-rate playwright ... a polarizing and dishonest person." Kessler-Harris persisted against their advice, she says, because she is "one of that generation of 1970s historians who have taken it upon themselves to examine gender as an ideological force." She argues persuasively for the critical role of gender in every aspect of Hellman's work, relationships, and reputation. But she was also intrigued by the very difficulty of her topic: she wanted to understand how "the female, southern, Jewish, heterosexual playwright--the communist celebrity who modeled mink coats--lived in one body." Kessler-Harris says of Hellman, "Her capacity to contain (and to reveal) so many contradictory elements turned her into the perfect lightning rod, and thus the perfect subject for the historian." No matter how difficult the woman, she certainly was the perfect subject for this historian.

Clarissa Atkinson thinks and writes about Communists and anticommunists in the United States in the twentieth century.
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Title Annotation:Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
Author:Atkinson, Clarissa
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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