Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
Publication date: 4/24/2012
Columbia University professor and historian Alice Kessler-Harris is author of A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman released on April 24 by Bloomsbury Press.
Kessler-Harris shares with Book Kvetch why she could not walk away from writing about the playwright’s dazzling yet complicated career and life.
The politically outspoken Hellman wrote the acclaimed plays The Children’s Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939) and Watch on the Rhine (1941) as well as the bestselling memoirs An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time.
You wrote that you were initially wary of tackling the subject of Lillian Hellman. Why were you inspired to continue writing A Difficult Woman?
Hellman touched so many subjects important in my own life, and central to the history of the twentieth century that I couldn’t walk away from her. She raised questions about how to achieve success as a woman in a man’s world while remaining a sensual and sexually attractive being. She flirted with socialism and communism, and became reviled for her politics. At the same time, she stalwartly defended freedom of speech, and especially the freedom to believe as one wished.
What kinds of challenges did you encounter in your research?
Ironically, the challenges came from opposite directions. On the one hand, much has been written about Hellman. As a celebrity, she was routinely the subject of newspaper articles and of gossip. She knew hundreds of people, each of whom had their own take on her. On the other hand, she wanted to shield as much of her life as she could and to control what was said about her. She would not cooperate with biographers while she lived, and she destroyed as much of her personal correspondence as she could persuade her friends to return to her.
What did you want your readers to know about Lillian Hellman?
I wanted readers to know that Lillian Hellman was a complicated woman: that she in the face of the extraordinary political and personal challenges of the twentieth century she made difficult decisions and lived by them. At every step of the way, she made choices—to reach for a Broadway audience with serious plays; to live with Dashiell Hammett in an open relationship without marrying; to become politically active; to remain loyal to her friends—that were not easy or self-evident. In doing so, she lived life to the fullest and took on its challenges whole-heartedly. I sometimes describe her as courageous or admirable—not likable, but admirable.
What do you think of the criticism leveled at Lillian Hellman? Her writing?
Hellman is often described as a “middlebrow” writer. She never quite made it into the ranks of the intellectuals she admired, and her plays now are sometimes dismissed as mere melodrama. There is some justice to these assessments, but as in other aspects of her life, I see these as part of the moment in which she was writing. She liked to say that she was a ‘moral” writer, not a “political” writer. In fact she was some of both. In the 1930s, when she started out she aimed to make large statements about truth and honesty and justice, and human nature in a way that would appeal to audiences eager to come to terms with the economic depression. And she succeeded. With only one exception, she wrote successful Broadway plays that reached large audiences, and were then turned into movies that still play on late night television. There is surely something there that is worth acknowledging.
The narrative nonfiction form of memoir gives authors a vehicle for telling their own story in their own way. Why might this have drawn Lillian Hellman to write three notable memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time?
It is exactly right, I think, to say that Hellman turned to memoir because she wanted to tell her story in her own way. It would also be accurate to say that as a dramatist, she often elaborated her stories and placed herself in the center of them. She was her own heroine. My guess is that any of us, given the opportunity, would write about our own lives in the same way—using our stories, as she did, to recall the best, not the worst of what we did, and enhancing our own roles. All three of these books became best-sellers; the first two especially hit the mark with young women at the beginning of the women’s movement of the late sixties and seventies. The third book, Scoundrel Time raises a different set of questions. She wrote it, she tells us, because she wanted to tell the story of the McCarthy period from her own perspective. At the time, in the mid 1970s, many of those who had named names and cooperated with the investigatory committees were casting themselves as patriots. This rankled with Hellman who had been badly damaged by the witch-hunts of the early fifties. She wrote that book to make her case as plainly as she could. Of course, she was widely attacked for doing so, and in some ways her effort backfired because it opened the door to attacks on her from all fronts.
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. Please read the Book Kvetch review here.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography