In this friendly if far from uncritical biography, Alice Kessler-Harris focuses on Lillian Hellman as a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. She was “a woman among men” who “became the economically successful playwright and celebrity she was by blurring gender boundaries.” Born in 1905 in New Orleans, she “reached beyond southern tradition and turned into a misfit, becoming in the eyes of all around her a difficult woman.” Her life tells us “how complicated it must have been for a woman in the deepest part of the twentieth century to stay true to her desires even as she juggled the pressures of the world around her.” Nearly seven decades after her birth, participating in a panel discussion about the “condition of woman today,” she “could not fully identify with the modern version of women’s liberation” but insisted on going her own way:
“By herself, through hard work and talent, she had achieved money, status, and fame in her lifetime and by her own hand. She was a self-made woman. Her capacity to live freely — her sexual liberation, her personal freedom — rested on the economic foundation she built for herself. Young women, she thought, could choose to emulate her unorthodox lifestyle — to emulate her capacity ‘to walk out if somebody insults me’ — only if they were economically independent. But the younger generation of women reserved their adulation for her style. They admired her brash and outspoken stance, her ability to smoke and to swear and above all her courage in living by her own rules of personal conduct. ‘I was so bored. I got so nasty,’ she told an interviewer about that famous panel. ‘Nobody seemed to be talking about economics.’ ”
What this suggests, to me at least, is that Hellman may ultimately prove more interesting and important as a figure than as a writer. Much celebrated from the 1930s until her death in 1984 for her plays, notably “The Little Foxes” and “The Children’s Hour,” and for her highly fictionalized volumes of autobiography, she seems now to be slowly fading from the literary scene. In part that is because, her writing skills to the contrary notwithstanding, she was more a middlebrow than a literary writer, and in larger part because her work has dated quickly. Among American playwrights of the 20th century she scarcely ranks with Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, or for that matter even with the resolutely middlebrow Arthur Miller. Her memoirs — “An Unfinished Woman,” “Pentimento,” “Scoundrel Time” — remain in print, but they long ago lost the immediacy that drew so many readers to them, women most especially.
It is also to the point that fairly or not, her reputation as a human being has suffered terribly in the three decades since her death. “How had it happened,” Kessler-Harris asks, “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? How was it that she was so widely remembered as a rigid Stalinist, an angry woman, a greedy, self-aggrandizing individual in a world where so many others had committed many of the same sins?” One obvious explanation is the fierce (and fiercely quotable) attack that Mary McCarthy launched against her in 1979. She said: “Lillian Hellman, I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer. Every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”