"Few literary celebrities have lived with more abandon and under a brighter spotlight than Lillian Hellman. Yet even fewer have been doubted as absolutely as Hellman, famously denounced by rival Mary McCarthy as a writer for whom every word was "a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Attacked by critics and idealized by admirers, Hellman's own determination to control and manipulate her image helped make her a figure of unknowable half-truths and rumors." Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels is the first biography of the iconoclastic playwright written with full cooperation of her family, friends, and inner circle. Deborah Martinson moves beyond the myths that drift around Hellman like the smoke from her ever-present cigarette and finds the sassy, outrageous woman committed to writing, to politics, and to having her say. Martinson's exhaustive research - through interviews, archives, and recently declassified CIA files - and her unprecedented access to Hellman's confidants paint the most complete, and surprisingly admiring, portrait of this remarkable writer that we've ever had.
Martinson, an associate professor of English and writing at Occidental College, aims to capture a "more complex" and "human" Hellman than other biographers have. Her portrait of the famed playwright and memoirist (1905-1984) is more admiring than those of William Wright or Carl Rollyson. Martinson excels in evoking Hellman's forceful presence: the cigarette-husky voice, the galvanic sexuality of a woman who refused to be defined by her plain face or tiny stature. She also grasps the crux of Hellman's romance with Dashiell Hammett, which was his invaluable editing and guidance in shaping her plays, from The Little Foxes through Toys in the Attic. Martinson conscientiously covers the basics, from Hellman's childhood bouncing between New Orleans and New York through her feisty old age. But Martinson is more interested in Hellman the woman than in her controversial political stances. Taking her subject at face value as a courageous opponent of McCarthyism, she goes similarly easy on the nonfiction, praising Hellman for inventing "a new form of the memoir," without examining her carelessness with facts and frequently self-serving political statements. This vivid evocation of a tumultuous life is a good starting place for those unfamiliar with Hellman's achievements (and misdeeds), but the definitive biography remains to be written. 16 pages of b&w photos. Agent, Nat Sobel. (Dec. 5) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Although there are other works about American playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman (1905-84), Martinson (English & writing, Occidental Coll.) is the first writer to have received the full cooperation of the author's estate, ensuring her open access to critical biographical information-something that Hellman all but prohibited during her life. A heady mix of acclaimed literary output for Broadway and Hollywood (e.g., The Children's Hour); notable personal liaisons, including a long-term relationship with the turbulent Dashiell Hammett; political complications that arose during the McCarthy era; and consistent notoriety as an outspoken, high-profile, and often difficult woman, Hellman's life is certainly worth telling. Martinson's impressive research delves deeply into these varied components for the key to Hellman's essence and impact on the creative community and beyond. Drawing on numerous interviews, public records, archival and published materials, private papers, and Hellman's own autobiographical writings, she presents a richly thorough, sometimes somber, and fairly objective portrait of an enigmatic individual. This will be a definite asset to academic and arts collections as well as circulating libraries.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Out of the feuds, plays, movies and affairs of a complex life comes a sweeping, focused biography. It's reassuring to have Martinson (English and Writing/Occidental Coll.) write at the start of a biography authorized by her subject's estate that "I don't always like Lillian Hellman." Sharp insight into Hellman's often contradictory, controversial life is what Martinson goes after, not hagiography. Indeed, Hellman herself could be a little fox. Settling the estate of writer Dashiell Hammett, her longtime lover, she outmaneuvered his daughters to win the royalties from his work, though his will directed her to share them with his family. It was a grab that could have been made by one of the characters in Hellman's thundering melodrama, The Little Foxes. Hammett, according to Martinson, pulled Hellman's life and writing career together as he pointed her to playwriting by critiquing, editing and even contributing to her texts. Major success on Broadway and in Hollywood as a screenwriter followed. But Hellman did not get cozy on Shubert Alley or at the Brown Derby. A vocal, active liberal, she covered revolution in Spain and life in Russia, ending up the subject of extensive FBI files and, eventually, a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the red scares of the '50s. Throughout her life, she suffered fools with cutting words, though her razor-sharp opinions could be contradictory and hypocritical. As intense as her anger were the affairs she enjoyed well into late middle age. She once feared Leonard Bernstein, in a hotel room next to hers, might hear the noise she'd made while making love. Then she realized she could hear Bernstein, similarly engaged. A rich,literate, compelling account with the spark of a Hellman play.
Deborah Martinson is associate professor and chair of English Writing at Occidental College. In 1999 she was researcher for the PBS biography, “The Lives of Lillian Hellman.” She lives in Burbank, California.