Lillian Hellman (1905-84) remains a fixture in the American theater owing to her plays, "The Children's Hour," "Little Foxes" and "Toys in the Attic," all of which enjoy frequent revivals. No other female playwright has so dominated the American stage for so long. No woman -- indeed, few men -- have enjoyed a Hollywood career that resulted in remarkable screenplays such as those Hellman wrote. An outspoken leftist, she campaigned successfully for unions in Hollywood, a quintessential company town. And in the 1960s and 1970s, she re-invented herself as a memoirist, whose books, "An Unfinished Woman" and "Pentimento," hit the bestseller lists and became totemic texts for a generation of feminists.
And yet Hellman's reputation came to grief when a generation of critics assailed her third memoir, "Scoundrel Time," beginning a concerted campaign to denigrate the woman and the writer, charging her with lying about her Stalinist politics and inventing scenes to show off her courage and probity even as she attacked conservatives and weak-minded liberals. All this has already been told in several previous biographies, as Alice Kessler-Harris generously acknowledges. So what can she possibly add?
Kessler-Harris has plenty to add. While her work does not supersede what has gone before, it deeply enriches the work of others and brings our understanding of Hellman to a much higher level. As Kessler-Harris puts it, she has not tried to reassess her subject's character, but rather to think through Hellman's relationship to the 20th century. What options were open to an ambitious woman who did not fit "popular images of beauty" and did not adhere to the "models of traditional family relationships"? And how did a woman of conviction survive in a "politically splintered America"? As a Southerner, a Jew and a woman, Hellman had to finesse obstacles and sometimes break through barriers, all the while denying that her regional identity, gender or ethnicity hobbled her in any way.
In effect, Kessler-Harris says: "Look what Hellman had to put up with!" And her implied question for the reader is: "Do you think you, or anyone else, could have done better?" At the same time, this biography is not an apology for Hellman. Instead it is just what Kessler-Harris says it is: an effort to get beyond the "negative mythology" that has encapsulated Hellman, to demonstrate an awesome "story of mounting achievement," using the tactics of the historical biographer to "ask how the character related to the world around her -- how she faced the world."
Written with grace and impeccable scholarship, this is a stirring and enriching performance. Bravo!
Carl Rollyson is the author of "Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy" (1988).