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Review | A Difficult Woman By Alice Kessler-Harris

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on February 10, 2012

A Difficult Woman by Alice Kessler-Harris

ISBN-13: 9781596913639
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
Publication date: 4/24/2012
Pages: 448

I don’t understand personal salvation. It seems to me a vain idea. Conscience includes the fate of other people.
—Lillian Hellman

You are a 20th century woman, a Jew, a Southerner, a playwright and you find yourself accused of lies, greed, anger, moralism. How would you seek to manage your image and enhance your prospects?

Columbia University professor and historian Alice Kessler-Harris argues that Lillian Hellman did quite fabulously.

“Her words are still quoted, her plays regularly revived and her example still inspires,” Kessler-Harris writes in a new biography A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman.

Born in 1905 to a prosperous New Orleans family, Hellman grew up precocious and rebellious. She cut her political teeth in 1930s New York City and became a celebrated playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter during World War II. She admirably resisted 1950s McCarthyism and became an outspoken and popular academic amid student unrest of the Vietnam era.

Kessler-Harris writes of Hellman’s career and life:

She wrote, she took positions, she acted on her beliefs as her conscience moved her. All of this contributed to the legend of a resilient woman with a strong moral spine.

Her first stage play The Children’s Hour (1934) would be well-received by Broadway critics and audiences.  Her third play Little Foxes (1939) would make her financially independent. Her fourth play Watch on the Rhine (1941) would earn her the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Hellman would write eight original stage plays and four adaptations by 1964. She penned her bestselling memoirs An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time between 1969 and 1976.

Plain yet flirtatious, direct yet affable, Hellman maintained a thirty-year relationship with novelist Dashiell Hammett and cultivated loyal friendships with literary greats like Dorothy Parker.

J. Edgar Hoover took an interest in her political activities and associates through the 1970s.

Kessler-Harris proposes in the biography that Hellman was a lightning rod because of her gender, her politics, her looks and her independence.

Harangued for callously changing the facts to fit the tempo of her own narrative and unreliable memory, Hellman stood her ground and would not flinch against the saltiest of critics.

Her most ferocious detractor was novelist and literary critic Mary McCarthy. In a 1979 interview with talk show host Dick Cavett, McCarthy questioned the veracity of Hellman’s writing.

Cavett asked what she found dishonest about Hellman. McCarthy’s respun response from another interview:

Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.

An ailing Hellman watched the interview as McCarthy accused her of being a liar. Speaking with a lawyer the next day, she sought grounds for a lawsuit.

McCarthy actively searched for evidence to defend herself from libel.

Kessler-Harris writes that Hellman included the story of Julia in her memoir Pentimento to embellish her efforts to aid antifascist resistance fighters in 1937 Austria. The acclaimed film was released in 1977 with Vanessa Redgrave as Julia and Jane Fonda as Lillian.

McCarthy turned up evidence that hinted the story of Julia might not have been Lillian Hellman’s.

Hellman would begin contentiously elaborating, but would never have the opportunity to face McCarthy in court. She died in her home on Martha’s Vineyard in June 1984 shortly after her 79th birthday.

Her popularity would survive the controversy. An ability to attract audiences would confound enemies and prompt William Luce to produce a one-woman play based on her memoirs.

A Difficult Woman by Alice Kessler-Harris is a highly worthwhile read that might draw readers to seek out copies of this storied playwright’s memoirs.

Category: Nonfiction, Biography

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