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An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (Back Bay Books) Paperback – June 7, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Hellman didn't pull any punches in this 1969 autobiography in which she reminisces about her unhappy upbringing in New Orleans and her literary relationships, especially that most famous one with master whodunit writer Dashiell Hammett. Though many critics and biographers claim that Hellman invented half of her life stories, these tales do make for interesting reading, so who cares. (LJ 6/15/69)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Back Bay Books
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; 1st Back Bay pbk. ed edition (June 7, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316352853
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316352857
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #823,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

46 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Walker E. Rowe III on July 5, 1999
Format: Paperback
I bought this book after seeing a documentary on Lillian Hellman on PBS. PBS said that Lillian Hellman is the foremost female American playright and movie script writer. She was also sympathetic to or at least a devoted student of the communism of Marx and Engels. During the McArthy era she and her boyfriend, novelist Dashiell Hammett, were forced to testify before the Committee on Un-American Activities.
But to focus on her communist sympathies would be a distraction from the rest of her remarkable life. Lillian does not. This memoir is a fascinating mix of travel essay, character portraits, and a biography of her unorthodox youth split between Louisianna and New York.
The best written chapters are character portraits of her friends Dorothy Parker and Dashiel Hammett. It is here that you can understand her skills as a playright for she probes the actions of each person and seeks to explain why they behaved as they did. Let interesting a chapters where she just inserts portions of her diary in chronological order.
As a Southernor I can understand the relation she had with Sophronia, the black woman who acted as her governess and parent's housekeeper. For in the South the lives of blacks and whites intertwine in a manner that non-Southerners would not understand. Sophronia untangled the problems in Lilians life long after she left the Hellman's employ.
Parts of this memoir reads like Getrude Stein's "The Biography of Alice B. Toklas". There is much name dropping of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like Hemingway, Lillian joined the fight against facism in Spain. But the Paris-based passages are not so memorable as those of Getrude Stein in part since these literary are art circles were not such a large part of Lillian's life.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Christian Engler on August 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
A life where no living is done is a life not worth living. Like O'Neil, Shaw, Williams and Isben, Lillian Hellman (1905-1984, scriptwriter, playwrite, social and political activist and critic) wrote some of the most enduring and thought-provoking drama for the theatre in the 20th century, and the above 'proverb' could very easily have been her epitaph. An Unfinished Woman (Winner of the 1969 National Book Award for biography/Autobiography), the first memoir in her autobiographical trilogy (the two others being Pentimento: A Book of Portraits and Scoundrel Time), showcases a woman who had a 'steel rod' for a spine, a woman of stark liberty who would not compromise her beliefs nor truckle in the presence of those political, military and literary higher-uppers (Hemmingway is a case-in-point) whom she encountered who expected a cowering reaction due to their 'clout.' But that was something she never offered, for as Lillian Hellman said of herself when asked the question, "What are you made of, Lily?" Her cool response was, "Pickling spice and nothing nice." This 'confession' of glued-together memories and eloquent journal entries shimmers with quiet, concentrated reflection and introspection. Each chapter gleams and flashes like a beacon, slowly proffering insights into not simply a remarkable life but a frozen portrait of a bygone era - a period of class, dignity, wisdom, self-learning, an endless stream of wonderful things that are presently no more. She hobnobbed with the best and brightest, luminaries like: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, John Hersey, Averell Harriman, and of course, above them all, her truelove and literary confidant, Dashiell Hammett.Read more ›
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Bob Newman VINE VOICE on April 12, 2006
Format: Paperback
Suppose you get sick as a dog for a few days. Nobody knows what's ailing you. So, you buy 25 bananas and scarf them all down. When asked, you say, "Oh, bananas are creamy delicious and they go down smooth as velvet." Kind of poetic, but why did you eat them ? Did you get cured ? Yeah, well, the first book of Lillian Hellman's three volume autobiography, AN UNFINISHED WOMAN, bears a close resemblance to this little scenario. It was on the best seller list for months, we are told. It's certainly well-written, I won't deny that. But does it really tell you much about Lillian Hellman ? That's another story.

Lillian Hellman came from a German-American background, growing up in both New Orleans and New York. Did she have any Jewish connection ? The book does not tell you. After dropping out of colleges, she got married. She stayed with the guy for seven years, but we learn zilch about him, nor about why she chose him then dropped him. Later, she became famous for writing a number of plays that were highly successful on Broadway. She became a nationally known author. Is there even a single word about how, why, where and when she wrote any of these plays ? No, nothing. In fact, if I hadn't heard of Lillian Hellman over many years, I would have no clue as to why reading this autobiography would be interesting. We learn of her close relationship to two black women, both servants in her home. This reflects the civil rights movement and political trends of the 1960s when she wrote the memoir. I am not sure they played such a central role in her life. She also talks a lot about Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, with the latter of whom she had a 30-year affair. (She had affairs with a number of other people, but they are not mentioned.
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