Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

5.0 1
by Dorothy Gallagher

See All Formats & Editions

Glamorous, talented, audacious—Lillian Hellman knew everyone, did everything, had been everywhere. By the age of twenty-nine she had written The Children’s Hour, the first of four hit Broadway plays, and soon she was considered a member of America’s first rank of dramatists, a position she maintained for more than twenty-five years. Apart


Glamorous, talented, audacious—Lillian Hellman knew everyone, did everything, had been everywhere. By the age of twenty-nine she had written The Children’s Hour, the first of four hit Broadway plays, and soon she was considered a member of America’s first rank of dramatists, a position she maintained for more than twenty-five years. Apart from her literary accomplishments—eight original plays and three volumes of memoirs—Hellman lived a rich life filled with notable friendships, controversial political activity, travel, and love affairs, most importantly with Dashiell Hammett. But by the time she died, the truth about her life and works had been called into question. Scandals attached to her name, having to do with sex, with money, and with her own veracity.
Dorothy Gallagher confronts the conundrum that was Lillian Hellman—a woman with a capacity to inspire outrage as often as admiration. Exploring Hellman’s leftist politics, her Jewish and Southern background, and her famous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Gallagher also undertakes a new reading of Hellman’s carefully crafted memoirs and plays, in which she is both revealed and hidden. Gallagher sorts through the facts and the myths, arriving at a sharply drawn portrait of a woman who lived large to the end of her remarkable life and never backed down from a fight.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Unafraid to question Hellman’s idealized memoirs, Gallagher (Hannah’s Daughters) meets the “unflaggingly famous” dramatist head on in this pithy biography. Gallagher scrutinizes the “only woman playwright of her generation” from multiple angles, but only converges on the sharp projections and recesses in Hellman’s haughty character that interest her most: Hellman’s Bavarian great-grandfather Isaac Marx, who immigrated to antebellum Alabama; her analyst Dr. Gregory Zilboorg; the writer’s defiance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; and her spiteful lawsuit against Mary McCarthy. The portrait that develops, from Hellman’s failed early marriage, endless sexual escapades, and longtime love affair with writer Dashiell Hammett is not altogether surprising: her poor relatives embarrassed her; money attracted her but she expressed contempt for the rich; she based the Hubbards in Little Foxes overtly on her family; she lied in her memoirs. If Gallagher places an undue focus on Hellman’s “lack of beauty” but “very active sexual life,” she also struggles to maintain a line of critical distance from Hellman that reveals the author’s investment in the “dogmatic, irritable, mean, jealous, self-righteous, angry” subject, a dance that mirrors Hellman’s own two-step with fact and truth. (Jan.)
The Spectator - Molly Guinness
‘This snappy biography is full of piquant details and entertaining quotations.’—Molly Guinness, The Spectator
"An illuminating and convincing portrait of Lillian Hellman, the real one and the heroically fanciful one."—Playbill
Booklist - Donna Seaman
“Gallagher pounces on and decisively dissects the choicest bits in Hellman’s colorful and contrary life of artistic excellence and blinkered radicalism, self-mythologizing and egregious lies, creating a fast-flowing, deeply provocative portrait of a seductive, truculent, and audacious literary powerhouse.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist
Kirkus Reviews
In her own memoirs, How I Came into My Inheritance (2001), Gallagher has shown herself to be an incisive, sharp-edged, darkly humorous writer, and these qualities help engage readers in a study of Lillian Hellman (1905–1984) that might otherwise seem mean-spirited. The author has no personal ax to grind against her subject, as do many of the sources she quotes, but her portrait is all the more devastating since it seems so matter-of-fact. The best she can say about Hellman is that she was "a conundrum--a person whose determination to prevail in all aspects of her life was often at odds with the persona of moral rectitude she presented to the world." Her longest success, as a playwright, started with her relationship with Dashiell Hammett and ended with him, leading Gallagher to suggest that on her own, Hellman would not have amounted to nearly as much. Her memoirs, which gave her a literary resurgence, are dissected for untruths and half-truths, usually self-serving. She was an unapologetic Stalinist (as was her lover Hammett) who was either ignorant or uncaring about the realities of the brutal dictator's rule. "What seems most peculiar in Hellman's casual misuse of factual truth is her comfort with what might be easily shown to be untrue," writes Gallagher, using the memory Hellman spun into the highly acclaimed movie Julia (1977) as an example. Gallagher comes closest to admiration in her accounts of Hellman's promiscuity, which reportedly resulted in at least seven abortions. "She was never very pretty," writes the author, "and there is no doubt that all her life she suffered from a lack of beauty, although it never seemed to impede her very active sexual life." Or: "Few beautiful women could equal Hellman's sexual success; few had her boldness, her presence, her nerve." Less a conventional biography than a critical appraisal of the subject's character, career and contradictions--not likely to add any luster to Hellman's tarnished reputation.
Library Journal
Selectively culling from extensive secondary sources for details of personal, social, political, and literary elements in Lillian Hellman's life, Gallagher (Hannah's Daughters; All the Right Enemies) emphasizes less admirable aspects of her subject, shading this little biography on the dark side, as Hellman's excessive drinking, angry and duplicitous actions, and "frenetic sexual activity" end in mental and physical deterioration. The author seems to think that Hellman's family origins in the American South in the 1840s disadvantage her by making her unable to identify with the later immigrant Jewish experience. She finds Hellman's dramas The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest to be autobiographical revelations of her strong ambivalence about money: desiring it herself, despising its power in others. Hellman's testimony at the McCarthy hearings is presented as more self-preserving than principled. Her longtime significant other Dashiell Hammett gets credit for her crafting of The Children's Hour. Hellman's advice on the scripting of the play The Diary of Anne Frank is credited with creating its universality but changing its meaning, thereby spoiling its Jewishness. VERDICT For fuller, more balanced, and better organized information on this important subject, read instead Deborah Martinson's Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes.—Ann Fey, SUNY Rockland Community Coll., Suffern

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Lillian Hellman

An Imperious Life



Copyright © 2014 Dorothy Gallagher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16497-8


The Hubbards of Bowden

By the time Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905, her once-burgeoning family in Demopolis, Alabama, had dwindled to a great-aunt or two, and a few cousins of the once-removed degree. Hellman seldom visited the town where her maternal great-grandfather, Isaac Marx, had settled in 1840, but Demopolis held the power of myth for her.

Hellman wrote two plays based on the Marx family. The first was The Little Foxes, produced in 1939. Seven years later she wrote a prequel, Another Part of the Forest. From time to time both plays are revived, and not long ago I went to see an off-Broadway production of Another Part of the Forest.

The time is 1880. Marcus Hubbard, a vigorous man in his sixties, is the tyrannical patriarch of his family. He has an unhappy wife, Lavinia, two grasping, resentful sons, Ben and Oscar, whom he keeps on a very short leash; and there is Regina, a beautiful, intelligent, manipulative girl, Marcus's best-loved child. The family lives in Bowden, a small town somewhere in Alabama. The Civil War is only fifteen years in the past, and it is the pervasive background to the action of the play.

Marcus's neighbors have been ruined by the war, their stately plantation houses are crumbling, the fields once worked by their slaves are filled with weeds. But the Hubbards are rich. They live in a grand house. Marcus, a remarkably cultivated man, is able to indulge his passions for books, for music, for ancient Greek history. It seems that Marcus has somehow profited from the Civil War. And, although Marcus has lived in Bowden for forty years, he and his family are pariahs; no one of any social importance will visit his house. And we learn that the Hubbards are in danger from the Klan:

"You have good reason to know," the aristocratic Colonel Isham says to Marcus, "there's not a man in this county wouldn't like to swing up anybody called Hubbard." So Marcus has a secret; the action of the play will revolve around its revelation.

Marcus's children are also plotting against him. They want his money. Regina, who is having a secret love affair with John Bagtry, a penniless ex-Confederate soldier, wants money to run away with Bagtry. Oscar, the middle child, a feckless dimwit, works for Marcus in the family store where he is paid a paltry wage. Oscar is desperate for money so that he can marry Laurette, a prostitute, and live with her in New Orleans. Ben, the eldest of the Hubbard children at thirty-five, is, like Regina, very intelligent. He also works for Marcus, and is badly paid. He wants money to make himself independently wealthy by investing in the industries that are coming to the new South. And Ben wants more than Marcus's money; he wants to humiliate and defeat his all-powerful father. Even Lavinia, Marcus's wife, who had been loyal to her husband until now, wants money to get away from her husband. She wants to start a school for colored children in the "piney woods."

Except for the hapless Lavinia, who goes to colored churches all the time, the Hubbards, father and children, are venal, amoral, wicked. They will say and do anything to get what they want—Marcus to keep his wealth and power, his children to wrest it from him.

It becomes clear that Marcus has made his money by profiteering on the sale of salt to a defeated and starving South. This is enough for his neighbors to hate him, but there is something worse. In consequence of his avarice, Marcus has inadvertently led Union soldiers to the hiding place of a group of Confederate soldiers. The Southern boys were massacred. The citizens of Bowden suspect that Marcus was responsible for the massacre, but they cannot prove it. Only Lavinia has the proof. She has kept Marcus's secret for fifteen years. But now, desperate to leave her husband, she will betray him.

Another Part of the Forest opened at Broadway's Fulton Theatre, in November 1946. Hellman had a lot riding on the play. She had not only written it, but for the first time she had directed her own play, and she was not entirely happy about its reception. Some critics were enthusiastic. The New York Daily Mirror critic called the play "magnetic and lusty theatre." Brooks Atkinson disagreed in the New York Times; he thought the Hubbards were "horrible" and called the play "demonic ... a witch's brew of blackmail, insanity, cruelty, theft, torture, insult, drunkenness, with a trace of incest thrown in for good measure." Eric Bentley thought it was "a pretty good play" but hollow at its center: "At some of the most hideous moments in Miss Hellman's play the audience laughs and is not entirely wrong in doing so ... Another Part of the Forest is Grand Guignol in the guise of realism."

Another Part of the Forest displays Hellman's essential talent: Her dialogue is venomous and clever, there is not a dull or wasted moment in the play. At the end, every strand of the plot is tied up tightly. The action seems inevitable, no element of plot or character could be otherwise. It is only when the curtain comes down, and there is a moment to take a breath, that a viewer may find some room in the tightly constructed story to wonder what it was all about.

What does Hellman want us to understand about these venomous, rapacious Hubbards? Are they southerners? If so, they behave quite differently from the other southerners in the play, who are nothing if not genteel and honorable even in their poverty and defeat. And if the Hubbards are outsiders, where did they come from?

There is also something puzzling about the moral balance of Another Part of the Forest. The Civil War is little more than a plot device; the evil of slavery is barely mentioned. Hellman's sympathy lies with the characters who were the backbone of the antebellum South. With Colonel Isham, who no doubt once owned slaves himself; he is a gentleman of principle. He despises Marcus Hubbard, but he comes to warn him of danger. Hellman is remarkably tender to Regina's lover, John Bagtry, who fought with passionate idealism for the Old South's "way of life." Bagtry was happiest, he says, as a Confederate soldier; he is even planning to go to Brazil to join the slave owners there in their fight for the continuation of slavery. John's cousin Birdie, made destitute by the destruction of slavery, has fine manners, a sweet nature, and a concern for the welfare of the people whom she once owned. Only the Hubbards are without a saving grace.

Hellman made no claim that the Hubbards sprang to her imagination from thin air. She acknowledged that their origin lay with her own maternal relatives, the Marx-Newhouse family. As a girl she had listened intently to their dinner table conversations: intense, lively, competitive discussions about money and business deals. The family table talk provided her with the source material for the slashing, angry wit and rapaciousness of the Hubbards: Money—how it is made, how it is used, how the love of it is the root of social and personal evil is the idea that powered her play. It was surely no accident that when Hellman began work on Forest, she had recently returned from a ten-week stay in the Soviet Union, a country with which she and Hammett had long been in sympathy. And as Hellman, with Hammett's guidance, worked on Forest, it is not far-fetched to think that she experienced an epiphany, finding in her family the source of her politics. For relations between the Hubbard family, as Hellman has rendered them, can be read as an almost direct translation of a passage from the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

If she has dealt with the central theme of money in Another Part of the Forest, Hellman leaves some mystery around the matter of Marcus's origins. He has lived in Bowden for forty years, half of that time before the Civil War, before he had the opportunity to amass his fortune at the expense of the southern cause. Yet we have the distinct impression that the Hubbards have always been pariahs.

"It is hard to think of Regina and her brothers as Southern," Elizabeth Hardwick, herself a southerner, wrote after seeing a production of the earlier Hubbard play, The Little Foxes, in 1967. "There is little of the rural in their nature or in their cunning."

Hellman leaves it to Laurette, the prostitute whom Oscar wants to marry, to reveal Marcus's origin:

"Pretend?" says Laurette to Oscar, "Pretend I'm as good as anybody called Hubbard.... I'm as good as piney wood crooks."

There is no town called Bowden, of course, but Demopolis is at the edge of a large area of the country, which stretches from southeast Texas to Florida, and is called the Piney Woods. On October 31, 1865, when the Civil War had just ended, a Special Correspondent to the New York Times filed a story about his visit to the Piney Woods. He describes a benighted place, grimly destitute, where the people are illiterate, where they have never heard of, much less seen, a newspaper or a book:

Throughout the Southern portion of Alabama, upon both sides of the river, is what is known as the "piney-woods" country. It is one of the most barren sections I have ever seen. Neither corn nor cotton will grow to any extent. Sweet potatoes are the chief product, and this vegetable, and bacon, with a little corn bread, form the bill of fare morning, noon, night, all the year round. These people are scattered all through these "piney-woods," and live in log huts which in a way protect them from the ... violent storms of wind and rain which howl through this barren waste during certain periods of the year. Oh, how I pity these poor beings who have been the recipients of untold woes and unheard of sufferings during the long, long years of African slavery ... let us not in our endeavors to elevate the black man, forget these poor whites who have suffered more and enjoyed less, than their colored brethren in bondage.

So Marcus is poor white trash from the backwoods. Hellman gives him one speech to make a bid for the sympathy of the audience:

At nine years old I was carrying water for two bits a week. I took the first dollar I ever had and went to the paying library to buy a card. When I was twelve I was working out in the fields, and that same year I taught myself Latin and French. At fourteen I was driving mules all day and most of the night, but that was the year I learned my Greek, read my classics, taught myself.

The world is full of autodidacts, and no doubt some have emerged from the Piney Woods. But how often does it happen that an illiterate boy, a boy from an environment where hunger and ignorance are the constant conditions of life, where there are no books or talk of books, or of ancient civilizations; how often does it happen that such a young boy steps out of the piney woods, and uses his first saved dollar to buy a library card? Wherever did he get the idea that books and music and ancient languages were valuable things?

Marcus's speech might come more believably from someone of another origin. Someone who, for instance, comes from people with a centuries-long history of being outsiders wherever they happen to settle. Those who have learned, from lack of other opportunities, to live by buying, selling, and lending, the methods by which Marcus has, even if pitilessly, amassed his fortune. These are people who prize literacy even when they are barely literate, who know quite a lot about the long arc of history even as they have been confined to ghettos, been oppressed, exiled, and persecuted. These people, when social restrictions loosen, are known to strive for education for themselves, but especially for their children.

Isaac Marx, who died five years before Hellman's birth, was a Jew who had emigrated from Bavaria in 1840 and had settled in small-town Demopolis, Alabama. Among his many children born in Demopolis were Hellman's grandmother, Sophie, and her daughter, Julia, who became Hellman's mother.

It was not in Hellman's gift to create a Shylock of the South. Nor was she inclined, as Clifford Odets was, to write empathetically about New York Jews in their poverty and striving. Hellman preferred to write for a wide Broadway audience. And unlike Odets, she felt neither empathy nor sympathy for her Hubbards. Quite the opposite. It was her antagonism to her characters that gives her play its power. And, then, of course, if you have written a play about people who are manipulative money-grubbers, whose gains are ill-gotten, it was not possible, certainly not in 1946, to identify them as Jews.


The Marxes of Demopolis

Demopolis is a pretty river town deep in Alabama, about 140 miles north of Mobile, and not very far from the Mississippi border. Tourists come to these parts to admire three local plantation houses—Gaineswood, Lyon Hall, and Bluff Hall—which have been beautifully preserved and restored. Visitors are charmed, also, by the nineteenth-century downtown buildings, which have also been preserved and are in commercial use, and by the setting of Demopolis, itself, built on a chalk cliff high above the junction of two rivers, the Tombigbee and the Black Warrior, which meet to flow down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Should you ever visit Demopolis and express an interest in Lillian Hellman, you will be introduced to a woman who will show you an old white linen tablecloth. After more than a century of use the cloth is threadbare and torn in places; in angled bright light you can barely make out the central design of an eagle's head. The owner of the cloth will tell you that it has been in her family since the 1840s, when it was given to her great-grandmother, Dorothy Stewart, by Lillian Hellman's great-grandfather, the peddler boy, Isaac Marx; it was a trade for a meal and a night's lodging in Mrs. Stewart's house several miles out on the Jefferson Road. This little story, and the decrepit cloth, is the only tangible evidence of Isaac Marx's peddling days. The cloth should have seen the rag bin years ago, but this is the South, and antebellum artifacts carry a lot of weight.

Isaac Marx, Lillian Hellman's great-grandfather, was born in Bavaria. The year of his birth was 1825, or 1824, depending on which census you look at. He gave the name of his small town in the Rhine Pfalz region of Bavaria that first records the presence of Jews in 906. The records of subsequent centuries are filled with the long, often dark, history of the Jews of central Europe, but Isaac was born in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, a relatively benign time, when, in many parts of Germany, Jewish children were allowed to attend general schools, and when Jews were granted citizenship, if a special class of citizenship, distinguished by a "Jew tax." In many towns authorities controlled their Jewish demographics by allowing only the eldest son of a Jewish family to marry, and then only if the family could pay a large marriage tax. In some regions, a boy grown to manhood in a particular town was allowed to remain in his hometown only if he replaced a Jew who had recently died.

We know almost nothing about Isaac Marx's family. We don't know how long the Marxes had lived in this part of the world, not how they made a living, not how many siblings Isaac had, although they seem to have been numerous. We can assume that the family was poor, as most Jews living in the German countryside were in the nineteenth century. But by the early and mid-1800s Jews could more readily leave Europe, and especially once steamship technology shrunk the Atlantic. Those families who could raise the fare began to send their sons away. Between 1820 and 1880, a quarter of a million young Jews, most of them from Germany, made the voyage to America. In some un recorded month in 1840, fifteen-year-old Isaac Marx stepped off a ship in a port city on the Gulf of Mexico. He had relatives in Mobile, and Mobile would be a constant reference point in his life, the city where he would marry, where he would live for a time, and where, in 1900, he was buried.

Not long after his arrival in Mobile, Isaac bought a peddler's pack. He would have had no experience in farming; Jews in Europe had not been allowed to own land. They might be skilled as tailors, or as tanners; more likely the immigrants knew trading, buying, and selling, the basic tools of capitalism. In Europe, the Jewish economy "rode on the backs of peddlers," as one historian has put it. In parts of Europe, in the nineteenth century, Jews were allowed to sell no more merchandise than they could carry. The skills required for peddling—buy cheap, sell at a small profit—were transferable to any part of the world. If Jewish merchants had once traveled the Silk Road in caravans of camels, they could manage on the roads of the rural South.

Peddling offered the poor immigrant an entry into the economic life of the new country. When Isaac arrived in Mobile in 1840, a community of Jewish merchants was already established, many of whom would supply a peddler on credit. In the pre-industrial antebellum South, with farms, plantations, and settlements set far apart, with few stores, primitive roads, and railroads that extended to few places, and river systems where steam boats took you just so far, a woman who longed to curtain her windows against the dark might travel a half day to reach a store that sold cloth. But along comes Isaac Marx, walking through the sparsely settled nineteenth-century country side, with notions and curtains and tablecloths in his pack.

Excerpted from Lillian Hellman by DOROTHY GALLAGHER. Copyright © 2014 Dorothy Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dorothy Gallagher is the author of Hannah’s Daughters and All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca, and two volumes of memoirs. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and Grand Street. She lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life 0 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 0 reviews.