Customer Reviews: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (Back Bay Books)
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on July 5, 1999
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. In fact she preferred the seclusion of her farm to life in the city.
Far more noteworthy is Lillian's description of 6 months in the Soviet Union during World War II as a guest of the Soviet government. Lillian was envied by the regular press corps because she travelled to the front lines while they were restricted to their dreary hotel.
After reading her memoirs, I doubt I will reads her plays. Since Lillian says hardly anything about them I haven't an idea what they are about. Rather I will continue to plow through the Great Books of the Western Canon--a lifelong pursuit for Lillian as well.
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on August 27, 2001
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. As a globe-trotting cultural attache' to Russia, France, Germany, and other European lands, she lived and saw intrigue with those of her like mind. She was on the front lines (or very close to them) during World War II. She witnessed bombed out villages and destroyed lives, all the emotional and physical calamities that the horrors of war can funnel forth, broadcasting them for all to hear and imbibe. She participated (with some trepidation) in the PEN (Poets, Playwrites, Essayists and Editors and Novelists) Center Conference, conversing with intellectuals on the pressing issues of the time, but her reluctance was most unequivocal, for intellectual chitchat can, and for her, did quickly evolve into a bombastic mess on hyperbolic, pretentious proportions. She saw B.S., and she saw truth, not hesitating in the least to speak her mind or to write about it. From her reminiscences of her New Orleans girlhood with her beloved caretaker Sophronia, to her shuffling to New York, to her failed marriage and her father's infidelity, Hellman's life only crescendos. With corrosive verve, 'salty' wit and profound insight, Lillian Hellman lets the past truly come alive. In the end, she showed one and all that she was an 'empowered' woman before many thought that could ever be possible.
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VINE VOICEon April 12, 2006
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.) Hellman became a political activist early on and her heart went out to the left. She visited Spain during the Civil War and Russia several times. We get almost nothing of her political convictions; the book is apolitical. She finds the time, though, to show how she didn't have any interest in interviewing Stalin or in travelling with the Red Army. Did she have deep political commitments ? Was she a Communist sympathizer ? Other people say she was, but her beliefs play no role in this strange autobiography. What we get are very impressionistic, humorous, and self-centered portraits of Spain and Russia. Hellman defied the House Un-American Activities Committee but did not go to jail. Perhaps she was blacklisted afterwards, but the book does not tell us. On top of all this, she rarely introduces the people whose names she drops. There is no historical background to anyone and no information on how she knew many of the people either. I fear that this volume will, like O. Henry's stories, become so `period-specific' in future that the generations to come will not understand much due to lack of familiarity with the times, the people, and the issues. If little vignettes about famous people turn you on, you might like AN UNFINISHED WOMAN. To know Lillian Hellman, you'd better read something else.
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on September 9, 2014
In "Crazy Salad," Nora Ephron gives Lillian Hellman’s "An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir" a must-not-miss review. I love Nora. I trust Nora. But this is her second recommendation that has left me underwhelmed. Still, I can see why she related. Both ladies were feminist Jewish screenwriters. They both were upper-crust but also in touch, wide reaching and also reachable.

Lillian, however, did not begin life among the privileged. Her father was a shoe salesman, and during her childhood, she spent six months of every year in a New Orleans boarding house run by his sisters, and six months in New York with her mother’s family. She describes her early years just enough illustrate the innate independence which characterized her life. Rebellious little Lillian was primarily unconcerned with pleasing anyone besides herself, and she respected practically no one but Sophronia, her black caretaker, whom she loved.

As she moves into her adulthood, Lillian drops lots of celebrity-circle names, most of which were unfamiliar to me. (Ernest Hemingway, I knew.) As she tells of their profuse alcohol consumption, I had to wonder how much more extraordinary - or, perhaps, ordinary - they might have been if they’d made any effort to stay sober for ten minutes at a time. Lillian writes a little about her marriage to Arthur Kober, none of which seems remarkable after the reading. He is not among the prominent players in her life story.

Featured prominently, however, are Lillian’s European travels during World War II. The intimate diary vignettes are my favorite feature of the book. In them, she describes the ravaged landscapes, the kindness of war-weary locals, and the rationing of her own canned foods (which she brought upon Hemingway’s advice). She details a harrowing flight to frigid winter-time Russia. On this journey, she suffers a disastrous medical mishap, and an unlikely character assumes tender responsibility for her care and recovery. She also tells heartwrenching war stories, such as her visit to a concentration camp just recently surrendered by the Germans, where smoke still puffed from the chimneys, and human bones still lay in trenches.

Lillian saves the last few chapters for her most important people, beginning with her friend, the poet and screenwriter Dorothy Parker. To me, Dorothy seems like a loopy, lushy woman, an opinion shared by Lillian’s partner, Dashiell, who flatly refuses to associate with her. But Lillian obviously adores Dorothy and pays her respectable homage with a nod to her nuttiness.

The second to last chapter is devoted to Helen, the black housekeeper of Lillian’s adulthood, with frequent references to her childhood nurse Sophronia as well. In these pages, Lillian attempts to demonstrate her liberal-mindedness, but the contemporary reader sees a first-hand relic of white liberal guilt. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the era’s black/white relations adds dimension to our understanding of the progress we have - and haven’t - made since then.

The final chapter is Lillian’s memorial to Dashiell Hammett, her friend and lover from her mid-twenties until his death. These are the most sentimental pages in the book. She does not glamorize Dashiell’s addictions and eccentricities, but instead she writes with sensitivity about his alcoholism, his reclusiveness, their disagreements, and later, his pathological hoarding and neglect. Some anecdotes indicate the old cultural standards, with the immovable, unemotional man, but Lillian clearly commands a fantastic degree of autonomy for her time.

Throughout the book, Lillian says surprisingly little about her political leanings, which were famously communist, or the implications of her cultural heritage, which was Jewish. It might have been interesting to read more of that. Instead, she writes mainly about her formative relationships and her encounters with intriguing people of all social classes, which was good. But I wanted to like Lillian, and her book, more than I did. While her influence was broad and her stories are important, her voice constantly teeters on pompousness. I couldn’t warm up to her the way I did to Nora Ephron in "I Remember Nothing" or to J.R. Moehringer in "The Tender Bar." If you know and love Lillian Hellman’s work, then you should enjoy "An Unfinished Woman" more than I did. I didn’t mind when it was finished.

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on April 22, 2006
Winner of the National Book Award for best autobiography, An Unfinished Woman candidly chronicles the life of playwright Lillian Hellman, America's leading female dramatist.

The majority of this memoir emphasizes Hellman's unique relationship with mystery writer, Dashiell Hammett. She also reflects on her housekeeper, Helen, who was a close friend, as well as her relationship with writer-humorist, Dorothy Parker. Hellman additionally tells us of her trials and tribulations with writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Nathaniel West, and many others. Add to the mix her travels to Russia (twice) and her involvement in the Spanish Civil War --along with her `Hollywood' stories centered around Samuel Goldwyn and William Wyler -- and we get a delightful, lively, hard-nosed look back to an era when writers seemed to be the embodiment of intellectualism, style, and good sense.

Throughout the memoir, Hellman comes across as having an iron-wit and a volatile temper. Her no-nonsense vitality and her passion for moral equity frequently conflicts with those around her. Hellman is most illuminating, though, when she allows us to see her vulnerability. Upon returning to Moscow after twenty-two years, she cries before she even gets off the plane. She writes, "I knew that I had taken a whole period of my life and thrown it somewhere, always intending to call for it again, but now that it came time to call, I couldn't remember where I had left it. Did other people do this, drop the past in a used car lot and leave for so long that one couldn't even remember the name of the road?"

Possibly the best piece in the entire memoir is the chapter devoted to Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Hammett over thirty years reveals a fascinating homage to her "closest, most beloved friend." We are presented with the portrait of a man who was both complex and simple, and a relationship that was both tumultuous and inspiring. Several college text books carry this particular chapter as an example of prime autobiographical writing, and it's easy to see why. Hellman's trademark craftsmanship sculpts mishmash-memories into a compact, flowing character study of a remarkably interesting man.

Although Hellman omits significant aspects of her life in An Unfinished Woman, her persecution during the McCarthy era can be found in Scoundrel Time, while details about her numerous plays can be found in Pentimento.

Controversy still surrounds the accuracy of Lillian Hellman's memoirs (did she really fabricate autobiographical stories such as 'Julia'? -- included in Pentimento), yet the passages contained in an An Unfinished Woman are nevertheless dynamic and poignant. Hellman writes about issues that seem to obscure mere fact, and the "truth" she offers has a human commonality which goes beyond the boundaries of simple invention. It's important for those who fervently criticize her to keep in mind Hellman repeatedly tells us that she doesn't trust her memory, and her comments about reviewing one's life -- about the twists and turns of remembrance -- remain the underlying theme in all of her memoirs.
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on September 14, 2003
Turns out much of what Lillian Hellman wrote in Pentimento was stolen from another person's life, but still, An Unfinished Woman, for which she won the National Book Award in 1969 (for autobiography) is quite a coup. Political activist, critic, and playwrite, Hellman cut a wide swath thru literary circles during her heyday in the 40s, 50s and 60s. This introspective collection of her journal entries and memories shines with her acerbic brilliance. Her circle of `friends' included just about all the famous people of her era: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Faulkner, and of course Dashiell Hammett, her lover, friend, and confidant. This is a personal account of a life lived as if there were no tomorrow, a nearly romantic rendering of the flavor of a special era in this country, and the documentation of feminine empowerment before the word had even been invented.
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on May 23, 2001
Lillian Hellman is one of the most important American women writers and this, her memoir, is a literary feast--witty, poignant, brash, and cynical; but as Hellman once wrote, "Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth." I love her plays and I loved this book!--Diana Dell, compiler, Memorable Quotations: American Women Writers of the Past.
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on February 8, 2012
a very candid, straightforward, refreshing memoir by this very strong, very human, very intelligent woman, artist about her art, relationships, opinions on culture, politics, and her convictions. It is refreshing because this person was very frequently in the center of politics and culture and was quite influential in many aspects, however, her writing is completly without the flare of self inflation or narcissism that I see in so many memoirs these days. (complare this with "Just Kids" by Patti Smith which is definitely not bad but clearly of different quality)
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on July 3, 2014
Interesting life. Writing seemed a bit self-centered but that's the nature of a memoir.
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on October 3, 2010
Read this 20 years ago, and read it recently again. Filled with insight, humor, irony, intelligence, piece of literary and social history without being heavy and laborious. A winner in every respect. As I matured,it matured!
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