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Another biography explores the conundrum of Lillian Hellman

“Hellman was … talented, ambitious, restless, audacious, highly sexual, funny, generous, avaricious, mendacious, demanding, greedy, contemptuous, dogmatic, irritable, mean, jealous, self-righteous, angry … a piece of work.” - Dorothy Gallagher

After that, is there anything else to say?

At least one isn’t in the dark about Dorothy Gallagher’s view of her subject. And she’s not alone.

By the time Lillian Hellman died in 1984, our author writes, “there were large questions about the truth of her life and work, scandals attached to her name, having to do with sex, with money, and with her own veracity.”

This remark, especially about Hellman’s truthfulness, is obviously reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s decades-long spat with Hellman – “the two literary lionesses”, as they were called. Their feud culminated on the PBS Dick Cavett Show, on Oct. 18, 1979. It was there that McCarthy said, “Every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’

“Hellman filed a libel suit against McCarthy, Cavett, and PBS. The suit ended with Hellman’s death, before reaching trial. McCarthy died five years later, in 1989.”

The question is, if Lillian Hellman was such a pain in the butt, why is she still being written about, including four full-scale biographies, not including this latest work, since her death?

Part of the answer is that she had talent, and more. Described as “Glamorous … audacious – Lillian Hellman knew everyone, did everything, had been everywhere. By the age of 29, she had written ‘The Children’s Hour,’ the first of four hit Broadway plays.” Hellman’s essential skill, according to our author, was her dialogue. It was “…venomous and clever.”

Gallagher does a fine job of analyzing all of Hellman’s writing. An example: her consideration of “Another Part of the Forest,” a play written in 1946, about Marcus Hubbard, a tyrannical head of a Southern family in 1880 Alabama. His children want his money. The play touches upon Hellman’s perception of Southerners. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times thought it “demonic”; Eric Bentley considered it was “a pretty good play” but “hollow at its center.” Gallagher herself wonders what Hellman wanted the playgoer to understand about this rapacious family, indicating that her effort is more a puzzle than a plot.

In all, Hellman wrote a total of eight original plays and three volumes of memoirs, as well as enjoying what Gallagher calls a rich life filled with notable friendships, controversial political activity and love affairs, the most important with Dashiell Hammett. So far as her writing went, she depended upon Hammett – perhaps more than many knew - for his review, correction and approval. (After Hammett’s early noir successes, his own capacity to create stalled.)

This devil-may-care life had consequences. Hammett, according to Gallagher, developed habits of smoking, drinking and sex with prostitutes that ended up in alcoholism, frequent bouts of gonorrhea, emphysema, lung cancer and tuberculosis. Hellman, with numerous lovers, had seven abortions, according to her friend Lee Gershwin.

Dorothy Gallagher is a well-known author, with “Hannah’s Daughters” and “How I Came Into My Inheritance,” among other titles, to her credit. She’s written for the New York Times Book Review and the New York Times Magazine. As a matter of affinity, Gallagher writes that her own family, like Hellman’s, is Jewish. And she makes a point of saying that Hellman was “…bohemian (although Park Avenue in her personal style), opinionated, and politically one of us.”

This may be so, but it doesn’t stop Gallagher from giving Hellman a careful, honest assessment as an artist and flawed human being.

There is something else to say about Hellman, an important part of her biography. Gallagher calls her a conundrum – a woman, she says, whose determination to prevail in all aspects of her life was often at odds with the persona of moral rectitude she presented to the world.

Hellman was Jewish, but she acknowledged that she had little sense of what that meant, according to Gallagher. Hellman often spoke contemptuously of Jews. “Get those Rappaports out of here,” she might say to a group of people not authorized to be in a theater where she was working. The power boats bobbing in the harbor in front of her Martha’s Vineyard property were “Jewish cocktail boats.”

The basic facts of Hellman’s life are not in question. Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905. She was an only child and well-loved. “By her own testimony she was headstrong and willful from an early age.” Her mother was Julia Newhouse, of Demopolis, Ala.; her father, Max Hellman, born in New Orleans. For the first six years of their marriage they lived with Max Hellman’s sisters, who ran a boardinghouse near New Orleans’ Garden District.

Julia had a dowry. It enabled Max to start a shoe manufacturing company which failed after a few years. The family moved to New York City. Max got a job as a traveling salesman. Lillian attended public school there. She graduated from high school in 1922 and attended New York University for two years.

After that, Lillian landed a job with Boni and Liveright, then a famous publishing house in New York City.

In 1925, Hellman married Arthur Kober, a theatrical press agent and writer. They moved to Hollywood. Kober wrote scripts and Hellman read scripts for prospective films. Five years into their marriage Hellman met Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), writer of detective novels. (Think Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles.) She divorced Kober and remained with Hammett, “in a complicated arrangement,” until he died.

Gallagher remarks that since Hellman lived so much of her life in public, she would seem to be a congenial subject for a biographer. But the opposite was true. Hellman told her friends to destroy her letters and not speak to inquiring strangers about her.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent Buffalo News book reviewer.

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

By Dorothy Gallagher

Yale University Press

171 pages, $25