Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

Yale University Press  2014

 

Four full-length biographies, several shared biographies, and a series of memoirs have already been devoted to the life of Lillian Hellman (1905-1984); readers hardly need another full account of her life, as author Gallagher explains in her prologue. Instead, Gallagher focuses on the thornier aspects of Hellman’s story: How could Hellman have supported Stalin, knowing how many millions he was murdering? Did she really confront the House Committee on Un-American Activi­ties in a uniquely principled fashion, as she argued? If she was really so fond of Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker, why, after they died, did she try to pry their estates away from their intended heirs? Did she fabricate the character of “Julia,” the basis of the Oscar-win­ning film, and then lie about it? Indeed, were most of her accounts of her own principled stances...lies? In one slim volume, with a few carefully chosen examples, Gallagher manages to reduce an enormous cultural icon—a larger-than-life, scoundrel-fighting literary war­rior—to sadly mortal proportions, a talented woman driven by self-justification who ended in self-delusion. There’s nothing even-handed about Gallagher’s account, but it certainly bal­ances out Hellman’s own propaganda. Index, notes, photographs.

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