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

Alice Kessler-Har­ris
  • Review
By – April 17, 2012

The dif­fi­cul­ties referred to in the title of this new biog­ra­phy of Lil­lian Hell­man are man­i­fold: not only Ms. Hellman’s wide­ly admired dis­dain for estab­lished norms and expec­ta­tions, as well as her noto­ri­ous iras­ci­bil­i­ty, but also the biographer’s acknowl­edged strug­gle to see her sub­ject clear­ly in light of a wealth of con­tra­dic­to­ry evi­dence.

Kessler-Harris’s main con­cern is locat­ing the integri­ty of Hellman’s polit­i­cal activism on a spec­trum whose extremes may be defined by two notable quotes: Hellman’s own defi­ant I can­not and will not cut my con­science to fit this year’s fash­ions,” and Mary McCarthy’s mor­dant Every word she writes is a lie, includ­ing and’ and the.’” This, it turns out, is no easy task.

The author does an admirable job of map­ping the cross-cur­rents of left­ist thought in Amer­i­ca dur­ing Hellman’s life­time, even if those con­tro­ver­sies ulti­mate­ly seem sad­ly pet­ty and irrel­e­vant save for the dev­as­ta­tion they wrought on the rep­u­ta­tions and liveli­hoods of so many who par­tic­i­pat­ed in them. (Did any of those quar­rels among Amer­i­can Marx­ists, Stal­in­ists, Trot­skyites, and out­right anti-Com­mu­nists have the slight­est effect on the events and per­son­al­i­ties they so hot­ly debat­ed a hemi­sphere away?)

But she is less suc­cess­ful in defend­ing Hellman’s lit­er­ary adver­tise­ments for her­self such as Pen­ti­men­to, includ­ing the sto­ry that formed the basis for the film Julia. While Kessler-Har­ris duti­ful­ly defends the right of mem­oirists to embell­ish, change, and even invent facts in ser­vice of a high­er truth, the read­er ulti­mate­ly can­not escape the feel­ing that Hell­man was, as her crit­ics charged, main­ly con­cerned with con­struct­ing a more flat­ter­ing image of her­self than a more scrupu­lous recital of the facts could provide.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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