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A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman Hardcover – April 24, 2012


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; First Edition edition (April 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596913630
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596913639
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #908,387 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Hellman was one of the most successful American female playwrights, and her own life was exceptionally dramatic. She is remembered as a caustic woman, a tough broad who made excuses for Stalin’s brutality and made her own personal mythology. Renowned historian Kessler-Harris takes a penetrating look at the life and subsequent images of Hellman, a woman who defied the conventions of her time and has come to defy easy judgment. Despite her efforts to illuminate moral issues in her plays Little Foxes and Toys in the Attic, Hellman was accused of being overemotional. Politically, she angered anticommunists and communists alike during the Red Scare, and she pushed boundaries for women but eschewed the label of feminist. Married and divorced, she maintained a lifelong relationship with her ex-husband and his wife, along with a turbulent long-term romance with writer Dashiell Hammett and liaisons with a string of other men. Well into old age, she maintained a sexual vibrancy that belied her lack of conventional beauty. Kessler-Harris portrays a complex woman, full of contradictions and insecurities, volatile, generous, nurturing, sharp tongued, and quick witted. Though much has been written about Hellman, readers will enjoy this reexamination of what Kessler-Harris calls a “juicy character” in the rarefied New York literary set, one who led a life filled with sex, scandals, art, and ideas. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: This biography of one of the most controversial women of the twentieth century, written by an award-winning, renowned historian, is sure to receive plenty of critical attention. --Vanessa Bush

Review

"A brave and fair-minded job of traversing the thicket of -isms surrounding Hellman (Stalinism and Trotskyism, Zionism and anti-Semitism, communism, McCarthyism, cold war liberalism)…For the reasons made clear in this valuable book, when the dust settles, this difficult woman’s reputation will fare better than it did when Kessler-Harris began her Hellman journey."—Victor Navasky, The Nation

"Instead of probing inside Hellman’s character for answers, Kessler-Harris searches outside…the tension between author and subject makes for some interesting reading."—New York Times Book Review
 
"Kessler-Harris meticulously recreates the atmosphere and opinions of the left-leaning intelligentsia in the late ‘30s… Kessler-Harris's tone is consistently even-handed and nonjudgmental; Hellman is never excused for her conduct, for ‘clinging to a false god,’ or her inability to ‘get her facts straight’ but her actions are always painstakingly contextualized…Hellman's life provides Kessler-Harris with a fascinating, idiosyncratic viewpoint from which to dissect the intellectual currents of the 20th century. Kessler-Harris's previous books have been broad studies of women in the industrial age, and here she demonstrates the historian's skill with scope, but also compellingly threads in the minutiae of one woman's attempts to negotiate the ‘sharp turns’ of U.S. culture and politics."—Daily Beast

"Substantive … here’s one good reason why young women especially should care about the lessons offered by Hellman’s life: Hellman, Kessler-Harris emphasizes, continued to be a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver. She paid dearly for that ‘disorderly conduct.’ Kessler-Harris does a superb job of showing how gendered — even misogynist— the criticisms of Hellman's art and politics were."—Maureen Corrigan on "Fresh Air" and NPR.org

"A Difficult Woman (…) would be worth reading just for its portrait of the mid-20th century politico-cultural cauldron. It would be worth reading for its presentation of Hellman, ‘a juicy character’ and ‘a difficult woman, impassioned, tempestuous, transgressive with regard to gender roles." It would be worth reading, too, for the historical light it sheds on the divisive ferocity of today’s political discussion. That this book combines so many elements reflects its breadth and strength as history, biography, and cultural criticism.—Boston Globe

 
"[A] thoughtful book assuring readers that ‘it would be folly to try to capture the ‘real’ Lillian, whoever that is’. Hellman is too slippery a subject and too uncooperative a source for that. Rather, this biography works to answer the question of why Hellman remains such a divisive figure, ‘a lightning rod for the anger, fear and passion’ that divided Americans during an especially fraught ideological time."—The Economist

"The author does an admirable job."—Jewish Book World

 
"Alice Kessler-Harris’s nuanced biography (…) acknowledges the elusiveness of her subject while arguing that Hellman’s complexity gets straight to the heart of many of the twentieth century’s ideological battles… Wisely, Kessler-Harris, a Columbia historian, emphasizes Hellman’s social and political contexts, rather than speculating overly much about her personal motivations—contexts that are crucial to understanding Hellman’s seemingly contradictory character, and the point of view of a woman who was simultaneously sidelined and center stage. A historical perspective is the very thing that may redeem Hellman from charges of naïveté, self-aggrandizement (perhaps least forgivable in a woman), and hypocrisy."—Vogue.com

"I don’t know that I have ever read this good a rescue job. Columbia historian Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman made me feel like a stupid cliché: just another American who knows little of Hellman’s life, and even less of her work, but feels totally comfortably judging her as an unrepentant Stalinist and a compulsive liar… Kessler-Harris has persuaded me that Hellman, for all her lies, was brilliant, courageous and, above all, interesting…a biographer’s job is to understand, not bury, her subject. Alice Kessler-Harris has succeeded."—Mark Oppenheimer, The Forward

"Superb … Kessler-Harris provides in-depth analyses and objective commentary in a seamless, comprehensive biographical portrait … this thoughtfully crafted work of scholarship, supported by extensive research and interviews, illuminates the life and output of a major literary figure as well as the times in which she lived. It will appeal to a wide readership."Library Journal (starred)

"Kessler-Harris offers a nuanced, fair-minded, and engrossing portrait of a controversial but indelible 20th-century personality."—Publishers Weekly

"Kessler-Harris does not present, as she notes in the brilliant introduction, a ‘cradle to grave’ biography. Rather, A Difficult Woman is a series of essays on each part of Hellman’s life—as a playwright ... as a woman ... as a woman considered both ugly and sexy ... as a Jew ... as a sometimes naïve and overly idealistic political firebrand ... and on her generosity and her fabled penny-pinching. And Kessler-Harris places all of her qualities, both fine and infuriating, in the context of the century in which she lived — the momentous changes wrought in an astonishingly short amount of time. This book is not a defense, an apologia. Rather, it is an un-retouched, balanced look at cause and effect…Written by a woman, about a woman, this book is required reading for women…Along with better understanding Miss Hellman, perhaps this new book will revive interest in her great plays, often dismissed as "melodramas," or seen only as politically-themedClearly, I recommend A Difficult Woman."—Liz Smith

"Alice Kessler-Harris makes an excellent case that Hellman represents the complexities and changing mores of the 20th century … The concepts of truth and deception, or betrayal and loyalty, play large roles in her work and this insightful biography, rich with context, shows how they were also themes that defined her life. Not an apologia, but an exploration of nuances, A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her."—Shelf Awareness

"Lillian's Hellman's body may have been in her grave,’ writes biographer Alice Kessler-Harris of her subject's funeral in 1984, long after Hellman's rise to fame—and then infamy –as, among other things, a playwright, a would-be patriot who refused to name names during the fever of McCarthyism, a defender of the USSR, a bestselling memoirist, a mink coat model, and Dashiell Hammett's longtime lover. ‘But quickly it became apparent that she would find no rest there.’ Of the many, many words written about Hellman both during and after her lifetime, truer ones may never have been printed. Truth, as A Difficult Woman (...) demonstrates, is a tricky business where Hellman is concerned."—Barnes & Noble Review

"Kessler-Harris is both a scrupulous historian and a sympathetic interpreter, and her even-handed, clear-eyed approach helps make ceding respect to Hellman a possibility even as her subject threatens to wear out her welcome—high-handedly trumpeting political bromides here, obstreperously haggling with her literary agents there, repeatedly declaring herself affronted by whatever injustice she thought was being visited on her … Kessler-Harris would never say that her subject was a self-aggrandizing blowhard who bulldozed her way through any obstacle that displeased her, but neither does she tamper with the copious evidence that such was often the case. Or shy away from rebuking Hellman for her silence on Stalin, or questioning her refusal to admit that the ‘Julia’ of her memoir Pentimento was a fictional creation based on the life of a woman she had never met … Still, Kessler-Harris succeeds at exonerating her subject. The time may be right. Contemplating Hellman's uncompromised freedom in a moment when blogs written by college-educated mothers read like reruns of the fifties' retreat to domesticity, one is tempted to forgive this difficult woman just about everything."—Capital New York

“An outstanding historical biography… [Hellman’s story] has already been told in several previous biographies, as Alice Kessler-Harris generously acknowledges. So what can she possibly add? Kessler-Harris has plenty to add. While her work does not supersede what has gone before, it deeply enriches the work of others and brings our understanding of Hellman to a much higher level…Written with grace and impeccable scholarship, this is a stirring and enriching performance. Bravo!”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“A deft and vivid new biography of Hellman… Alice Kessler-Harris is an excellent guide to this fascinating life.”—Charleston Post and Courier
 
"The reader doesn’t read this book, but experiences it. Ms. Kessler-Harris could hav...

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27 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Rett01 VINE VOICE on April 24, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Honored, famous, admired are some of the tags history has pinned on Lillian Hellman. But then again she also suffered from being labeled the "archetype of hypocrisy, a quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness." She's the celebrity modeling the mink coat.

How did Hellman, best-selling author, acclaimed playwright, political activist, become such a polarizing individual, someone so reviled? Perhaps because she was a woman? Because she was a Jew? Socialist?

Alice Kessler-Harris sets out to find the answers. Kessler-Harris is a historian rather than a literary biographer and that's what makes "A Difficult Woman" so immensely interesting and relevant. "A Difficult Woman," as far as I'm concerned, supplants William Wright's "Lillian Hellman, the Image, the Woman" as the definitive Hellman book.

At times the prose is less than soaring and occasionally annoying repetitions pop up. A reference to "American Soldiers who had been maimed and wounded in Spain" appears word-for-word a couple pages apart. Some of Hellman's sexual conquests get the same descriptor time after time.

The author's search of the record is exhaustive but it doesn't appear from the text or a reading of the notes that she sought out people still alive who knew or worked with Hellman. However, all that doesn't really diminish the power of the book to establish Hellman as one of the most remarkable and accomplished women in a fascinating and very politically fractious American century.

She was Jewish but an anti-Zionist. Judged by some of her remarks and from the way she treated people she could at times be described as almost anti-Semitic, Kessler-Harris reminds us. As a playwright she was a woman struggling to make herself heard in a man's world.
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Format: Hardcover
Why has provocative author Lillian Hellman, who was admired during her lifetime for being blunt and outspoken, now become the archetype for lying hypocrisy? That's one of the questions historian Alice Kessler-Harris pursues in A Difficult Woman, a detailed and fascinating examination of Hellman's life with the aim of gaining a better understanding of the quirks and conundrums of the artistic, political and intellectual spheres of America in the twentieth century. Rather than a strictly chronological account, A Difficult Woman is organized by topics that range from Hellman's unconventional love life with Dashiell Hammett, the various stages of Hellman's writing career which are all united by the desire to shed light on moral issues, the ongoing allegations that Hellman was a communist including her celebrated appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Mary McCarthy's infamous accusation that every word Hellman wrote is untrue, even including "and" and "the."

Hellman was and is considered "difficult" because her public persona was determined, uncompromising, controlling and relentless, but when people met her they were often surprised by her lady-like softness. Her large heart drew friends to her, but her irascibility, especially after her first stroke in 1974, pushed them away. Though publically linked with many liberal political causes in her life, Hellman was not someone to blindly follow a party line. She often found herself in a no man's land between powerful competing ideologies and worldviews such that even today, more than a quarter century after her death, the mention of her name can unleash a surprising amount of caustic vitriol. Hellman was one of a group of people in the 1930s who thought communism could bring about a more perfect egalitarian democracy.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Fibonacci on May 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Some books are hard to put down. This one is hard to pick up. Not because it's heavy; for 440 pages, it's surprisingly light -- in weight. It's the writing that's overloaded, with clunky sentences and incessant repetition.

For example, on page 58 we learn that in 1958 Dashiell Hammett "moved somewhat reluctantly into Hellman's town house" and died there on January 10, 1961. Next, on page 60 we are told that "reluctantly he moved in to her New York City townhouse . . he died in January 1961." Three pages later we read of "Dash's death in early 1961." .

Another example: on page 141 we learn that "Muriel Rukeyser preferred 'more than anything else to be invisible'" and the source of the quotation is cited. Just ten lines later we are told of "Muriel Rukeyser's memorable phrase, 'more than anything else . . . to be invisible'"; and the same source is cited again.

Suffice it to say that this book is like a fractal: its many faults repeat on all scales. Not only are dates and quotes repeated, lists of acquaintances are repeated, political arguments are repeated, and so on to infinity.

I gave the author two stars though, one for her choice of a difficult subject, and the other for her many-sided effort to examine it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By mature reader on June 3, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a sympathetic historical biography of a woman who defied conventions and took big risks, sticking to her principles through hard times. Not always likeable, but definitely interesting, Lillian Hellman was a player at an important time in the politics and arts of America between and after the world wars. Well worth the read for a reminder of what is at stake in politics, and why it's important to take a stand.
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