What becomes a legend most? That was the tagline of the famous Blackglama mink campaign for which Lillian Hellman posed in 1976. The ad captured the writer with her ubiquitous cigarette and ravaged face, looking both imperial and imperious in a luxurious, undeniably becoming shawl-collared dark mink coat. If you want to know how this controversial woman became legendary, Alice Kessler-Harris's new biography, "A Difficult Woman," offers the most evenhanded, searching account to date.
Twenty-seven years after Hellman's death, Kessler-Harris, a professor of American history at Columbia University who specializes in gender and labor issues, strives to rehabilitate the discredited writer by placing her firmly in the context of 20th century history. Some may fault Kessler-Harris for offering an overly sympathetic view of her subject - who was vilified as a Stalinist, anti-Semitic Jew and self-aggrandizer. But, as its title implies, "A Difficult Woman" is no hagiography.
In fact, Kessler-Harris has written a biography that balances Hellman's achievements against her shortcomings. Hellman, more than most, was a person of contradictions and extremes: homely yet sexy, independent yet needy, "by turns generous and judgmental." She was a fervent champion of civil liberties who refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, famously declaring, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
But she was also woefully slow to recognize the evils of Stalinism. Her ferocious libel suit against Mary McCarthy, who called her a liar on the Dick Cavett show in 1980, raised questions about her commitment to free speech.
Kessler-Harris charts Hellman's life from her 1905 birth in New Orleans to her 1984 death on Martha's Vineyard. But she stresses that this is a historical biography as opposed to a literary one, with an emphasis on "how the character related to the world around her," using "the individual as a window into a moment." For a more intimate (but no less critical) portrait, "Lilly" (1988), by Peter Feibleman, Hellman's heir, sometime lover and longtime friend, is still your best bet.
"A Difficult Woman" methodically works its way through Hellman's early marriage, long relationship with Dashiell Hammett, many affairs, plays, screenplays, memoirs and canny financial success in what was still a male-dominated world. But we're ever aware that Kessler-Harris is building toward her real focus: Hellman's two battles for her reputation, 30 years apart, with two very different McCarthys - Joseph and Mary.
About the plays, Kessler-Harris writes, "She wanted to be a great playwright. And she almost made it." Despite the commercial success of "The Children's Hour," "The Little Foxes" and "The Autumn Garden," Hellman was criticized for crafting overly contrived, middlebrow melodramas. Kessler-Harris reminds us repeatedly that Hellman's models were Ibsen and Chekhov and her concerns were moral and ethical issues, including "the endless rapacity of capitalism." Modern themes of alienation and love did not interest her.
Kessler-Harris returns again and again to the political stance that got Hellman into the most trouble: While she adamantly defended "freedom of thought, belief, and speech," Hellman refused to renounce either communism or the Soviet Union because "she did not believe that communism endangered the United States internally, nor that the Soviet Union threatened it from outside."
Defining a good society as one "without poverty or racism, one built on principles of social justice," Hellman decried the bullying of the McCarthy years and its "campaign of intimidation that trampled cherished rights." But her failure to recognize and repudiate the desecration of rights under Stalin infuriated her critics. Instead, through much of the Cold War, she tenaciously held fast to the revolutionary ideal of a utopian communist state and "remained a staunch believer in peaceful coexistence" with the Soviet Union.
With the publication in 1976 of her third memoir, "Scoundrel Time," Hellman opened herself up to a torrent of attacks. In it, she exalted herself as an exemplary fighter for freedom while naming as scoundrels the anticommunists she felt failed to defend free speech. When Mary McCarthy, an outspoken Trotskyite and anti-Stalinist, declared about Hellman that "every word she writes is a lie, including and and the," it was the culmination of 40 years of hostility between the two writers.
Hellman's lawsuit unleashed a counterattack that uncovered fabrications behind her story "Julia," in which she cast herself as a wartime heroine. Although the suit ended with Hellman's death, the attacks on her character did not. Kessler-Harris' clear-eyed study of this irascible, self-dramatizing, impassioned woman provides a sharply focused lens into many of the key issues of the 20th century.