Sam Leith

A tough broad

Lillian Hellman may have been a petulant, blinkered fabulist, but her championship of civil liberties during the McCarthy era was admirable

A tough broad
Playwriter Lillian Hellman leaning on her chair. (Photo by Eileen Darby//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)|Playwriter Lillian Hellman leaning on her chair. (Photo by Eileen Darby//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Alice Kessler-Harris

Bloomsbury, pp. 439, £

When the modern reader thinks of Lillian Hellman, if he or she thinks of her at all, the image that presents itself is likely to be of a wizened old doll marooned in a gigantic mink coat, a still bigger hairdo — and wreathed in the smoke emanating not only from a cigarette but from her smouldering pants.

Her enemy Mary McCarthy said in a 1979 television interview that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the” ’. That memorable zinger — and the lawsuit that followed, still ongoing at the time of Hellman’s death — all but did for her reputation. Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about the golden age of Hollywood, Tell All, has as a running joke the eye-stretching lies told by Hellman. 

Her reputation as a liar has almost eclipsed her reputation as a playwright. Among the most stinging things McCarthy said in that interview, because true, was that as a writer she ‘belongs to the past’. The ‘well-made play’ of the sort Hellman specialised in — neatly plotted, naturalistic in idiom, somewhat melodramatic, heavily didactic — looks quaint in the age of Beckett, Pinter and Ionesco. The writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick described Hellman’s as a ‘craftsmanship of climaxes and curtain-lines and discoveries’. Yet the fine recent West End revival of The Children’s Hour affirmed just how satisfying such craftsmanship can be.

So Alice Kessler-Harris’s book is a fair-minded attempt to dust Hellman down and see her in a less hysterical light. Why is it, she wonders, that where other former communists and fellow travellers were allowed to repent of their positions, Hellman continues to be regarded as ‘an unregenerate Stalinist’? Why, when countless writers have embroidered or confused the details of their lives, is Hellman singled out as a wicked fantasist? Kessler-Harris suggests misogyny might have played a part. Certainly, Hellman’s appearance was the subject of sneering — even a friend said that she had a face ‘that looked as if a mouse had died on it’. 

She did have a talent for making enemies, though. Difficult, Hellman certainly was. She was a control freak, an epic bossyboots, finger-waggingly self-righteous, and tighter than Mick Jagger the day after he’s paid a tax bill. She once refused to let a rabbi hold a reading of one of her plays gratis, even though he was a friend of her father’s, her two aunts were to be in the audience, and he pleaded that every cent of the proposed admission fee would be going to buy textbooks for poor children. 

A very funny series of digressions concerns her incessant, possibly fraudulent claims on her household insurance (eventually she struggled to find a company willing to insure her). Plus, for a champion of social justice, she did like the high life, once declaring: ‘Anybody’s a fool who doesn’t live in a hotel.’

She was also ballsy and self-willed. She had to be. She was on her own. Hellman was a Southerner, a woman and a Jew — though her relationship to none of those identities was straightforward. She laid claim to sexual, political and professional freedoms that set her against the grain of her time. And she was never quite settled in love. Her soul-mate, inasmuch as she had one, was Dashiell Hammett — but he never loved her quite as much as she loved him. She wrote herself, a little poignantly, more thoroughly into his story after his death. She was a tough broad, and in the final analysis a lonely one.

The more serious blot on her memory isn’t that she fictionalised her past to make herself look good: it’s that she actively defended Stalin even after knowledge of his purges had reached the West. That one, unfortunately, sticks. She joined the party after the Moscow trials, and in full knowledge of them, and she was one of the signatories to an open letter in support of them. She never publicly repudiated it. 

Hellman’s long failure to condemn Stalinism even after she left the Communist party — and failure even then, as her enemies saw it, to condemn it sufficiently — is, in Kessler-Harris’s account, essentially a by-product of her unshakeable anti-fascism. Hellman grew up in an age when for intellectuals of the left, the great enemy was fascism and the likeliest bulwark against it looked like communism. She was just slower than most to come round.

Kessler-Harris portrays Hellman as having a child’s elementary sense of justice — and with it, perhaps, a child’s egocentricity and petulance. She saw McCarthyism harming America, and did not see communism — whatever the shortcomings of the Soviet experiment — as a threat to the nation’s security. Accordingly — and heroically — she refused to plead the Fifth at her hearing in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, refused to name names, and published a letter fiercely rebuking the procedures of the committee. 

As to the lying, Kessler-Harris points out that Hellman herself repeatedly insisted on the fallibility of her own memory and the fugitive nature of truth. She was clear that she didn’t want her second volume of reminiscence, Pentimento, presented as a memoir at all. Even so, she did go a bit beyond the bounds of fuzzy recollection, appropriating in ‘Julia’, most notoriously, the story of a woman she’d never met as an anecdote from her own life. 

So, it’s great to see a version of Hellman’s story that, without ignoring her faults, celebrates the extraordinary courage and doggedness she showed in championing civil liberties under Joe McCarthy. The story’s appeal, though, barely survives its telling. The prose is terribly stodgy. Kessler-Harris inflates her sentences with syntheton 

and deadens their sense with second-order cliché. Ten pages apart we get a ‘passionate affair’ and a ‘passionate romance’. On a single page, New York is described as being home to ‘intellectual ferment’ and ‘cultural ferment’. In a single paragraph we get a ‘maelstrom of ideas’ and a ‘political maelstrom’. The same arguments, and the same quotations even, pop up again and again. 

The sense of Hellman as a writer, too, which should surely be front and centre, is barely there: play after play, for instance, is dispatched with a dutiful précis of the plot followed by a two- or three-page pile-up of quotations from reviews. This is a shame: where we are allowed to hear Hellman’s own voice it is alive and affecting.

Here she is, following a miscarriage, to her husband Arthur Kober: 

But please console me a little — I’m ashamed really — I always thought I was a super-creator of babies ... please write more often and please love me. I miss you an awful lot.

Or here, reporting a bombardment in the Spanish civil war: 

In a kitchen back of my hotel, a blind woman was holding the bowl of soup that she came to get each night. She was killed eating the bowl of soup. Finding the range on a blind woman eating a bowl of soup is a fine job for a man.

Did that blind woman exist? We will never know.