I REMEMBER THAT when I used to tell people that the German playwright Bertolt Brecht spent most of World War II working in Hollywood, they would laugh. I was never quite sure why. Perhaps it was the picture it presented of Brecht, the Marxist who was once called "the poet laureate of the GPU," going off each morning to the studios to pitch his stories to producers, dressed in flashy checks, hoofed in suede, addressing secretaries as "sweety," and saying stuff like " and the bottom line, Darryl, is he rides off together with her into the sunset." Or maybe it was the idea of Brecht, for whom physical nature had virtually no appeal, being trapped for six years in what he described as "Tahiti in the shape of a big city." Brecht in Hollywood -- there's something sort of surrealistic about it, I guess.

Nevertheless, that's where he was from 1941 to 1947, more or less continually, except for trips to New York to further his fortunes in the theater. There in Hollywood he wrote The Visions of Simone Machard, Schweyk in the Second World War, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. And while he never pitched any western Darryl F. Zanuck -- or to anybody else -- he did manage, remarkably enough, to make a living out of American films.

Although he never quite achieved his ambition of seeing a play of his own on Broadway while he was here in America, that was more or less by choice: if he had delayed his return to Europe by five weeks, he would have been present for the New York opening of the Charles Laughton production of his Galileo. Others of his plays were done off-Broadway and in college productions. His poems were published in American literary magazines. Two full-lengths works by Brecht -- a play and a collection of poetry -- were translated and published during his six-year stay here.

In fact, if there is one myth that this excellent amount of those six years in the playwright's life should lay to rest, it is the notion he languished neglected here. As James K. Lyon amply demonstrates in Bertolt Brecht in America, that simply was not so. If we think of Ernst Toller, so discouraged by his reception in New York that he committed suicide; of Carl Zuckmayer, eking out of a living on a chicken ranch near Woodstock; or of Hermann Broch, an anonymous instructor of German at Yale, laboring away at his masterpiece. The Death of Vigil, with no hope of seeing it published; if we think only of these three, then Brecht's achievement in getting himself translated, published and performed in a nation that knew him dimly, if at all, onlyl as the author of The Threepenny Opera, stands as a monument to the playwright's own indefatigable efforts at self-promotion.

Bertolt Brecht arrived in Los Angeles in June, 1941, with his wife, son and daughter, and a mistress in tow. The party had made it out of Finland and all the way across Russia and Siberia, only days before the Germans invaded, which would certainly have made their departure from Vladivostok impossible. Less than a year later, Brecht was at work with the great German director Fritz Lang on Hangmen Also Die, his only movie "credit" during the six years he worked in and around the movie industry. The play on which he collaborated with Lion Feuchtwanger, The Visions of Simone Machard, was sold to Sam Goldwy, though never produced as a film. From that time on, he was set financially and was able to concentrate on the theater work that was so important to him.

He came very close to making a reputation for himself on the American stage during his stay here -- remarkable when you consider he could read, but was unable to speak, English when he landed. At one time or another he was involved with production projects to bring before American audiences The Caucasian Chalk Circle with Luise Rainer as Grusha; The Good Woman of Setzuan done as a Brecth-Weill musical; and Schweyk in the Second World War starring Peter Lorre. He was actually involved with W. h. Auden in the adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi for a New York production that starred the Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner. And all of this professional activity (and I have barely skimmed the surface) culminated in the translation and adaptation, with Charles Laughton, of Brecht's Galileo -- and the Hollywood production of it that eventually found its way to New York.

His personal life in America? As Professor lyon, who goes to some lengths to defnd Brecht, admits, "It was almost as if his private life did not interest him." He had none, really. Except for his family and the string of mistresses that hung around him (more than one observer has made bewildered reference to Brecht's "harem"), he had no friends at all. For him there were only professional associates, political comrades, and those in positions of power whose favor he courted.

This is an admirably researched book, the result of years of exhausting interviewing and a careful accumulation of facts, in which Lyon attempts to deal fairly with Brecht's character. I might mention here that I too have done extensive work on Brecht, that Mr. Lyon and I have met and exchanged information and that he has fully credited me with what I gave him in the notes to Brecht in America. That Brecht was a persoally unappealing man, both of us recognize, although Lyon is much more tolerant of him than am I.

He cites those who knew him and had dealings with him as having had abundant reason to complain of their treatment by him. He gives some weight to one writer who saw Brecht's as a "sleazy, nasty, opportunistic life." He mentions instance after instance in which the playwright took unfair advantage of those who had extended him help and hospitality. brecht sucked up shamefully to whoever might be of help to him, then regularly returned ill for good. Given a position of advantage, he would abuse it, throwing tantrums to get his way, behaving in a manner so dictatorial that more than one of his American collaborators compared him to Hitler. He was, in short, an awful man -- a sort of Sammy-Glick-with-talent.

More than talent, of course -- perhaps genius. And to Lyon, as to virtually all other Brechtians today, that presumed genius justifies all. Of course in a way it does. Since all, finally, that is left of an artist is his art, it is on that he must be judged. But with a book such as this one, which is a literary biography but not a critical biography, an act of faith is demanded of the reader. We are told the worst about Brecht but requested to remember who he was, what he had written and was then writing, then urged to agree that his work justified even his worst behavior. Professor Lyon has pushed this premise so far that he has clearly persuaded himself that in spite of the evidence and testimony to the contrary, Brecht was really at heart a rather decent sort of chap. I myself am not so easily convinced.