A Difficult Woman

“Lillian’s Hellman’s body may have been in her grave,” writes biographer Alice Kessler-Harris of her subject’s funeral in 1984, long after Hellman’s rise to fame — and then infamy — as, among other things, a playwright, a would-be patriot who refused to name names during the fever of McCarthyism, a defender of the USSR, a bestselling memoirist, a mink coat model, and Dashiell Hammett’s longtime lover. “But quickly it became apparent that she would find no rest there.”

Of the many, many words written about Hellman both during and after her lifetime, truer ones may never have been printed. Truth, as A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman demonstrates, is a tricky business where Hellman is concerned. Her longtime literary and political nemesis Mary McCarthy put it most cleverly, if not best, with her legendary comment to Dick Cavett on the subject of Hellman’s trilogy of memoirs in 1980: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” That single, indelible sentence drove straight to the fragile heart of Hellman’s most dearly held and often challenged belief about herself: that whatever her sins, she had always acted honestly and with integrity. It has also clung to our collective perception of Hellman’s life as stubbornly as Hellman herself clung to her Stalinist political convictions long after her contemporaries argued she should have known better.

So here we are, decades after her death, still gossiping about what she did and didn’t do and who she did and didn’t do it with, and guessing at her true (there’s that word again) intentions. We ought to know better — Hellman once got a theater critic fired from his post for a bad review of her 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, not because he had disliked it but because he had accused her of choosing the title for its “smug sensationalism.” “It is not his privilege to interpret my motives or my character,” she wrote to his editor, and the poor sap was a goner. It’s no doubt to Kessler-Harris’s advantage that Hellman isn’t around to pounce on her book, which the author describes as a work “about a woman; about the idea of a woman; and about the world that formed and shaped her.” In other words, a book that tries to pin down what might have made Hellman act the way she did.

In a sense, though, A Difficult Woman is also a rehabilitation project, which brings us back to those sins. Kessler-Harris wants us to understand that while she’s not excusing Hellman’s less appealing, and often appalling, behavior — which ranged from the outrageously petty (making her assistants sleep in a tent on the lawn of her Martha’s Vineyard summer house rather than in an actual bedroom) to the truly incomprehensible (her support for the Soviet regime into the 1950s, long after Stalin’s purges were well known) — there were reasons for all of it. As for our inability to forgive Hellman for things also done by many other writers and intellectuals of her era (not to mention this one if we include the charge of writing semi-fictionalized memoirs), Kessler-Harris attributes that collective refusal to the fact that she was a woman.

Over and over (and, it must be said, over and over again a few times too many), Kessler-Harris reminds us that quite apart from whether or not she was a liar, the way Hellman lived her life — refusing to allow her writing to be changed under any circumstances, picking and choosing sexual partners as she pleased, attaining and maintaining financial independence early on, and losing her temper as often and as viciously as she felt like it — would never have been remarked upon were it not for her gender. (Even Hellman’s own agent once told her, by way of a compliment, “You are above all entirely and impressively a lady; yet also a great gentleman.”) Nor would her plays, which Hellman intended as “morality play[s] about good and evil,” have been so frequently dismissed as a series of melodramas, an opinion still expressed. “Please Miss Hellman,” wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times after seeing The Children’s Hour, “Conclude the play before the pistol shot and before the long arm of coincidence starts wobbling in its socket.”

Intentions and their misbegotten outcomes aside, though, one thing is abundantly clear in A Difficult Woman: while Hellman was far from honest, she knew the truth about certain things. “You have grown up in a country that has possibly come closest to its most dangerous hours,” she told Mount Holyoke’s graduating class in 1976, “if you believe that the corruption of liberty, the invasion of personal freedom, is the sin of sins, the final sin.”  It’s a reminder that wouldn’t be at all out of place in the graduation season of 2012. The truth isn’t always precise — except for when it is.