The Party’s Over

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman BY Alice Kessler-Harris. Bloomsbury Press. Hardcover, 448 pages. $30.

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

Lillian Hellman was once a star. She was one of the most successful playwrights of her time, with her first produced work, The Children’s Hour, running for two years on Broadway. As a screenwriter in the 1930s, she earned the top rate of $2,500 a week to write two films of her choice per year. The three volumes of her memoirs—An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)—were best sellers.

Her personal life was equally glamorous. After a brief early marriage, she flitted from romance to romance, courted by everyone from theater producers to diplomats to writers. The last category included Dashiell Hammett, who was the love of her life despite the fact that for most of their thirty-year affair he was married to someone else. She played elegant hostess to literary luminaries at her Upper East Side town house, her upstate New York farm, and her Martha’s Vineyard beach house. In 1976, at age seventy-one, she joined the likes of Raquel Welch and Diana Ross as a model for the Blackglama furs advertising campaign, with the famous tagline “What becomes a legend most?”

Hellman’s star rose and fell several times during her life, but since her death, in 1984, it has been in steady decline. Now she has become a legend of quite a different sort, as unfashionable as the mink she posed in. Nothing she wrote has reverberated as loud and long as Mary McCarthy’s devastating quip about her on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” McCarthy’s remark alluded to Hellman’s once-celebrated memoirs, which have been challenged by many sources, including a woman who was likely the real-life model for the most famous chapter of Pentimento. It told the story of an American Resistance fighter in Vienna— identified by Hellman as a childhood friend of hers, whom she supposedly risked her own life to help. (The story was made into the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.) But, of course, McCarthy was alluding also to communism, the “big lie” of the twentieth century, and Hellman’s notorious support for it.

“How had it happened . . . that Lillian Hellman, once so honored and famous, admired for her blunt and plainspoken style, had become the archetype of hypocrisy, the quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness?” Alice Kessler-Harris uses this question as the launching point for A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, her reconsideration of the writer’s life and career. Her book is at least the fourth biography of Hellman (the fifth, if you include Joan Mellen’s joint biography of her and Hammett), and Kessler-Harris knows she will not break new ground. Rather, she seeks to reevaluate Hellman from a contemporary perspective, exploring “not only . . . how the world in which Hellman lived shaped the choices she made, but . . . how the life she lived illuminates the world she confronted.” This is no hagiography, but it is an apologia of sorts.

Hellman, Kessler-Harris argues, was an idealistic figure trapped in an ideological age. She believed unbendingly in a “moral politics” of economic and civil equality; her enemies distorted her steadfastness into hard-line Stalinism. As Hellman argued in Scoundrel Time, she and others who supported the Communist Party were acting “in the best traditions of American dissent,” defending the right to freedom of speech. Kessler-Harris believes that Hellman was particularly vilified for being an unbeautiful woman (an early boyfriend told her she looked like a “prow head on a whaling ship”) who behaved flamboyantly and unconventionally; her “quick and angry style” and “sexual energy” would have been unremarkable in a man. (This is a woman who wrote in her diary at age seventeen that sex was “like eating a meal.”) “Hellman’s actions alone . . . cannot account for the transformation in her reputation,” Kessler-Harris concludes. “Rather, over time, critics, reviewers, political friends and enemies collectively formulated a life that reshaped Lillian Hellman, turning her into something of a Rorschach test.”

Perhaps. But the question that remains unanswered is why, at this late date, does Hellman remain a polarizing figure, at once exasperating and transfixing? If the curtain has not yet gone down on this woman whose life, as critic Robert Brustein once remarked, “will eventually be considered her greatest theater,” it is partially because she died with the spotlight still on her, leaving unresolved her role in one of the twentieth century’s most vexing debates. But her ongoing status as a “Rorschach test” for the twentieth century says less about Hellman herself than about the particular difficulties that century posed—and her knack for exploiting them.

The climax of Hellman’s drama was surely her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Her communism was no secret: She had been blacklisted in 1949 after refusing to sign the Hollywood producers’ loyalty oath. Kessler-Harris speculates that Hellman, “like all her friends,” had become interested in communism as early as 1934—in the midst of the so-called Red Decade, when party membership in the United States increased dramatically. Though in her memoirs she denied having ever joined the party, Hellman admitted to her attorney Joseph Rauh that she was a member for two years starting in 1938—a period when Hammett and Dorothy Parker (another of Hellman’s lifelong friends) were also associated with the party. “The question was not why did she join . . . but how could she not have joined?” Kessler-Harris writes. But communism was hardly the only choice for left-wing intellectuals in the 1930s; many, including Mary McCarthy, identified as socialists or Trotskyists. So the issue seems to be why Hellman continues to be condemned for her communism, while most of the other leftist intellectuals of her age managed to write such affiliations off as a youthful dalliance.

Though exact details about this time are hazy—either because of Hellman’s notoriously poor memory or because she deliberately covered things up—it is clear that she was unusually consistent in her support not only of communism in the abstract, but also of the Soviet Union. A trip to Spain during 1937 sealed her fury against the Fascists, blinding her to evidence of Soviet intervention in the Spanish Civil War. Even as other American Communists criticized Stalin’s efforts to control Franco’s opposition, Hellman continued to “support the Republican cause as though it were still unified,” Kessler-Harris writes. And while others, including McCarthy, were already speaking out against Stalin, Hellman treated the rumors of Stalinist brutality with skepticism. In April 1938, the New Masses ran a statement of support for “the efforts of the Soviet Union to free itself from insidious internal dangers”—in other words, a defense of the purges and show trials. Hellman signed it, as did Parker, Malcolm Cowley, and Langston Hughes, among others. But unlike many of the other signatories, she never repudiated it.

Even after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact the following year, when many American sympathizers abandoned communism, Hellman continued to side with the Soviets. In 1943, she played host to Itzik Feffer and Solomon Mikhoels, Yiddish writers sent to the United States to generate support for the Soviet Union. Mikhoels was assassinated by Stalin in 1948; Feffer died in the gulag in 1952. Hellman said nothing publicly to condemn their deaths. Not until the mid-1960s did she speak up against Soviet suppression of dissent.

It could be that Hellman simply hated to admit that she was wrong. (She was similarly stubborn about her writing, once telling a director that “no one ever changes a word that Lillian Hellman writes.”) But it seems equally possible that she truly did not think she was wrong. She remained convinced that the witch hunt for American Communists, and the trampling of civil liberties that it involved, was more pernicious than the threat of communism. Yet she did not want to go to jail—as Hammett did for four months in 1951—for refusing to “name names.” On the advice of her lawyer, she stated that she would testify about herself but not incriminate anyone else: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” she famously said. This ingenious compromise was largely viewed as a moral triumph for Hellman, a way to preserve herself without compromising her principles. Writing in the New York Post, Murray Kempton called it a “courageous act of conscience . . . worthy of a lady.”

But when Hellman, who seems to have been constitutionally incapable of letting anything rest, brought up the matter again in Scoundrel Time, she turned public opinion against her. Here she not only asserted her own heroism under fire, but also wrote with naive indignation about the “American intellectuals” who refused to “fight for anything if doing so would injure them.” The anticommunists responded with fury. Hellman was distorting her own record, they claimed (correctly, as we now know), by saying that she had never been a member of the Communist Party. But worse, she was distorting history. “For a decade,” Hilton Kramer wrote trenchantly, writers “have been laboring to persuade us that the Cold War was somehow a malevolent conspiracy of the Western democracies to undermine the benign intentions of the Soviet Union.” Some have argued that the worst that can be said for the supporters of communism was that they turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Irving Howe wrote that their greatest crime was to “befoul the cultural atmosphere.” But others, including Mary McCarthy, believed that they were complicit in Stalin’s mass murder.

McCarthy’s antipathy to Hellman dated back to 1944, when she panned Hellman’s film The North Star, a melodrama about members of a Soviet collective farm who resist their German occupiers. McCarthy objected to Hellman’s portrayal of the Soviet Union as “idyllic” and peace loving: “The picture is a tissue of falsehoods woven of every variety of untruth,” she wrote. They argued publicly about the Spanish Civil War at a dinner party in 1948, where Hellman also supposedly claimed that Solzhenitsyn had exaggerated the number of gulag victims.

When McCarthy called Hellman a liar on The Dick Cavett Show, then, she was condemning not only Hellman’s writing, but her version of history. This must be why Hellman labored so strenuously in her own defense, persisting in her libel suit against McCarthy long after nearly everyone had advised her to give it up. Had they had their day in court, the matter would almost certainly have been decided for McCarthy. Not only had the tide of history turned in her favor, she also had marshaled significant documentation of Hellman’s falsehoods. But Hellman died a month before the trial, leaving her reputation in limbo and her life full of unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the ultimately unquantifiable debate over who finally did more harm—the Communists or those who persecuted them—remains as much a political flash point as a historical quandary.

Hellman never sought to help answer these questions during her lifetime, shunning all biographers. Kessler-Harris finds her “a most uncooperative source,” even after death. In appointment books and diaries, she altered the names of friends and lovers. She asked many of her correspondents to return her letters, which she then destroyed. Compounding the confusion, A Difficult Woman avoids the chronological approach, telling Hellman’s story in layers: her family life, her sexual history, her writing, her politics, her finances, her religion, and so on. As the reader struggles to match up these divergent strands, Hellman becomes even trickier to grasp. (A timeline would have been extremely helpful.) This strategy also results in some weird repetitions and even weirder omissions. We are told multiple times that The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, but not until late in the book does Kessler-Harris reveal why he went to jail.

The jury is still out on just about every judgment of Hellman, including her literary merits. Kessler-Harris writes that “no one could doubt that Hellman was a serious playwright,” and calls The Little Foxes (later made into a film starring Bette Davis) “one of the important plays of the American twentieth century.” The superlative is conspicuously absent. If Hellman had been indisputably a writer of the first rank, history would almost certainly have judged her politics more kindly. (As just one point of comparison, consider how little later critics have made of Hemingway’s politics.) But though she was respected as a social realist in the tradition of Ibsen and Shaw, Hellman had a moralistic streak that could shade into propaganda. Her best-known plays—The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes—take moments of intense psychological drama and drain them of much of their interpersonal resonance, leaving characters who are far more memorable for the positions they argue than for their own attributes.

Hellman emphasized ideas rather than style at a time when female playwrights were expected to stage light drawing-room farces—a choice that likely contributed to the perception of her writing as “unwomanly.” She insisted to a journalist in 1941 that, although she was a woman and a playwright, she was “not a woman playwright.” One can readily see why: Misogyny pervades her contemporaries’ reactions to her work. One critic wrote that the theater needed “a good stiff dose of pure hellishness,” and Hellman was “just the girl to give it to us.” Leonard Bernstein, who sparred with Hellman over their joint adaptation of Candide, spoke of her behind her back as “Uncle Lillian.” Hellman once told a group of college students that being “difficult” meant “refusing to alter a line, protecting your own work, arguing for salary”—in other words, typically male behavior.

If critical judgments of Hellman’s work were based as much on assumptions about women’s writing as on the work itself, as Kessler-Harris argues, so were contemporaneous judgments of Hellman’s personal behavior, which likewise would have generated far less astonishment had the offender been a man. After an early marriage to the playwright Arthur Kober, which apparently ended amicably after Hellman realized she was not cut out for monogamy, she never committed herself to any man. Throughout her thirty-year relationship with Hammett, himself a notorious womanizer, she conducted affairs with a sundry cohort of men, including the Broadway producer Herman Shumlin (who produced The Children’s Hour) and diplomat John Melby, whom she met on a visit to Moscow in 1944–45. Her sexual appetite continued unabated into old age: Legend has it that she propositioned a much younger guest at a dinner party the night she died. But while Hellman’s desire to maintain her personal freedom is sympathetic, in the end she seems less a role model than a cautionary figure.

The Hellman who emerges from these pages is dynamic and complex, fraught with contradictions. Indeed, many of those who knew her best testify to the warring forces in her personality. Her first agent, Robby Lantz, once told her, “You are above all entirely and impressively a lady; yet also a great gentleman.” Her friend Morris Dickstein described her to Kessler-Harris as “at once a perfect lady and at the same time . . . obscene.” She was a “tough broad . . . who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth,” the New Yorker reported in a profile in 1941, but also a nurturing companion who, when Hammett was serving in the army, sent cookies to his entire barracks. Beloved for her generous hospitality and her fine cooking, she could also be shockingly stingy, demanding steep compensation from those who sought to reprint even brief passages from her work. She lived richly (often in hotels) and dressed elegantly, but would file insurance claims for items as petty as a missing blanket. (For a staunch Communist, she certainly was fixated on the control of her own finances.) John Hersey said of her that he knew “no living human being whom so many people consider to be their one best friend,” but others told gruesome stories of her penchant for mean quips. Hellman herself was known to apologize for “the snake in my mouth.”

Hellman’s final and greatest contradiction might be her own legacy: at once hero and villain, patriot and traitor, valued playwright and scorned memoirist, beloved friend and despised enemy. If the purpose of all biography is to separate truth from myth, that task proves particularly challenging in the case of this “difficult woman”—not least because Hellman herself sought to preserve that myth at almost any cost. But it is challenging also because Hellman, in death, has come to symbolize far more than she did in life. If the questions that swirl around her are still unanswerable, it may be less because she was small than because the questions remain so big.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2010). She is at work on a biography of Shirley Jackson.