I was a senior in college when the movie, Julia, was released. I became an instant fan of Lillian Hellman. I read her memoirs. I read her plays. And then I read any biography that was subsequently published. It has been a number of years since anything new was published, so I was excited when a friend gave me A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris. While scholarly and ambitious, I found that A Difficult Woman is good, rather than great. In the opening pages, Kessler-Harris admits that this book is not a cradle to grave biography. In fact, she gives good suggestions for more comprehensive biographies of Lillian Hellman. "My task 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."
Lillian Hellman lived a fascinating life. Born in New Orleans, she traveled between New Orleans and New York City for most of her childhood. But Kessler-Harris doesn't spend much time on Hellman's early years. Even her relationship with Dashiell Hammett is abbreviated in A Difficult Woman. Hellman had an uncanny ability to keep recreating herself, and over the course of her life, she wrote short stories, plays, screenplays and memoirs. Instead of recounting Hellman's life in a straight line, the author breaks this book into various topics such as Hellman as a playwright, a Jew, a Communist, a moralist, a liar, etc. As a result, she often repeats herself as many of these chapters cover the same territory.
Hellman was a woman of contradictions. Largely unattractive, she exhibited a very feminine allure. An unconventional woman, she made it in a man's world. Yet she was hesitant to lend her name to the women's movement. She drank, smoked, and slept around. She was a moralist in her writings, yet was caught in terrible lies in her memoirs. She was a Communist for many years, yet she was a material girl in her personal life. She could be rude, bombastic, angry and controlling. Yet she had a whole host of loyal friends who overlooked her temper and her shortcomings. But when it came to issues she strongly believed in, Hellman gave generously of her time and money. Such causes included social injustice, the Spanish Civil War, labor unions, civil rights, and the Committee for Public Justice.
As a young woman, I admired Hellman for her writing, her independence, her spunk, her outrageousness, and her willingness to stand up to those things in which she believed. In later years, her lies and fabrications caught up with her and tarnished her image. The story on which the movie, Julia, was based was a total lie. Her 30-year love affair with Dashiell Hammett was largely myth. Yet, that doesn't take away from Hellman's allure. "Lillian is a juicy character: her life is filled with sex and scandal, with spirited advocacy and victimhood. She might be the subject of one of the melodramas she wrote so well."
In addition to the author constantly repeating herself, I was disappointed that in the index, there is no listing for Hellman. This made it difficult to go back and find passages that I wanted to reread.