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Getting a read on Lillian Hellman: playwright, screenwriter -- and liar

The adjective "difficult" in the title of Alice Kessler-Harris' biography of Lillian Hellman is apt but too kind. Implicitly at least, Kessler-Harris is attempting a partial rehabilitation of Hellman's reputation. She's trying to tell us the ways Hellman still matters. But the raw, poignant fact is that Hellman, if she's remembered at all now, is seen as a has-been, a marginal figure in the years of furious controversies swirling around what should be called the old left and its love affair with communism.

Hellman withstood the savage onslaughts of the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee with a certain amount of honor. Unlike others (Adolphe Menjou and Ronald Reagan, as president of the Screen Actors Guild) who behaved reprehensibly, providing names for the blacklists. Others either sang like canaries (Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg) or went to jail (Hellman's lover Dashiell Hammett spent four months in the clink). Although she got away with lying about the extent of her communism, she did not name names. Honors to her for that.

Kessler-Harris (R. Gordon Hoxie professor of American history at Columbia University) writes as a historian and she hesitates to call her careful, voluminously documented study merely a literary or social biography in the traditional sense. Instead she ties Hellman's life story to the rapidly changing crosscurrents through what has been called "the short 20th century" (roughly 1914-1991) a time obsessed nationally and internationally with the matter of communism in one form or another. Some chapters in the book are riveting in their meticulous detail. Others, especially the early ones devoted to covering Hellman's early life, are a slog, heavy on cliche and echoes of Carson McCullers or Harper Lee. Here we have the neglected, lonely child, the devoted black maid, the fierce love for truth and justice, all rather distant and abstract.

Kessler-Harris can't make up her mind about Hellman, because Hellman was a figure of such maddening, seemingly perverse self-contradictions. Her biography is complicated not only by the fact of the challenging times, but by the fact that about matters large and small, Hellman lied all the time. Many of these lies were trivial shavings of the truth. She was probably born in 1905, but we can't be sure. Hellman suppressed her birth records, shaving off a couple of years out of vanity.

Hellman was celebrated in her time as a daringly forthright and independent woman, when female independence, especially economic independence, was a rare curiosity. Hellman became very rich and very famous as a playwright and as the author of three best-selling memoirs. She had half a dozen Broadway blockbusters to her name, starting with "The Children's Hour" written while she was still in her 20s, although with her lover Hammett's support and possible collaboration in the actual writing. Before "The Children's Hour," she was simply a nobody, an unknown New Orleans American-Jewish woman of German-Jewish extraction knocking around New York working clerical jobs in the publishing industry. After "The Children's Hour," she was famous.

Much depended on the notoriety generated by the play's theme: the child's "big lie" about witnessing a lesbian affection between two teachers. Seventy-eight years ago this was hot stuff, with efforts at censorship and of course being "banned in Boston."

After a string of hits and a couple of serious failures, she segued to Hollywood writing screenplays. At her height she was paid $2,500 a week under contract to MGM, an enormous amount of money during the Depression, a salary that put her on a par with the big boys; Faulkner, Fitzgerald, et al. She traveled widely, entertained lavishly, cultivated useful friendships. She cultivated her own celebrity most of all. At the same time Hellman was a neurotic mess: insecure, needy and demanding.

Her plays were enormously appealing because they proffered right thinking, morally uplifting opinions on the evils of greed, on the deleterious effects of capitalism on the solidarity of families, and the ultimate importance (usually revealed by the final act) of speaking the truth and seeking justice.

Melodrama, in short.

Her plays now seem dated and are mostly forgotten, hardly ever seen in revival, quite in contrast to, say, "The Death of a Salesman." There's an interesting irony in the fate of two of the 1942 Hellman films, "Watch on the Rhine" and "North Star." Both were melodramatic and patriotic in the style of the time, both had box-office success, both were nominated for Academy Awards. Both lost to another melodramatic film about which the studio bosses had little confidence. That film was "Casablanca."

There's a good deal of "juicy" gossip about Hellman's personal life in this book. But Kessler-Harris sometimes dilutes the juice in tying personal behavior to larger cultural trends. So, in the 1920s Hellman was promiscuous, because women were flexing their newfound liberation from Victorian constraints. Kessler-Harris tells us to notice that this was the era of the "flapper."

True enough, but it may be that Hellman just really liked sex a lot, for lots of different reasons. Kessler-Harris' strength nevertheless is in reporting data from meticulously documented sources, the basic job of biographical writing.

On the basis of oral interviews and of letters to and from Hellman, often partially suppressed or simply lost, we learn of the many men who slept with her (some few of whom loved her). We learn she was plain of face and mean of spirit, a collector of grudges. We learn most of all how many men and how many, many women despised her for being a serial exaggerator, a prevaricator, a liar and a compulsive twister of facts about her life.

Martha Gellhorn, a journalist of distinction and a war correspondent of real bravery in a career of almost 60 years covering conflicts around the world and incidentally Ernest Hemingway's third wife, despised her because Hellman lied about her bravery in the bombing of Valencia during the Spanish civil war. Also, Hellman lied about being with Hemingway at a time when he was in another city. She lied about reading the manuscript of "To Have and Have Not" all in one night in Paris. In fact, the book was at the printer in galleys at the time, ready to be bound and published.

Mary McCarthy's loathing was of much longer duration and the outcome damaged Hellman permanently. Reaching all the way back to the '30s, McCarthy hated Hellman as an unreconstructed Stalinist and she resented Hellman's skill at dispensing a lifetime's worth of "egomaniacal malarkey." In this she was joined by Gellhorn, adding kerosene to the fire with her stories of Hellman's fabrications about Hemingway and Hellman's self-aggrandizing accounts of her bravery in Spain as well as in Moscow toward the end of World War II.

It all culminated with McCarthy's smack-talking Hellman on the Dick Cavett show on Oct. 18, 1979. In what may be the best one-line literary put-down ever, McCarthy noted that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' "

As was her wont, Hellman sued. But she died sick and totally enfeebled on June 30, 1984, before the suit for defamation reached the trial stage.

Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston, Texas.


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

By Alice Kessler-Harris

Bloomsbury Press

439 pages, $30