Lillian Hellman must be a maddening subject for a biographer. The author Mary McCarthy’s remark that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”’ wasn’t far off. Navigating through the hall of mirrors that Hellman left behind, trying to sort fact from self-aggrandising fiction, seems to have worked Dorothy Gallagher into a fury. Perhaps this book is her revenge.
One of America’s most successful playwrights, Hellman had her first Broadway hit before she was 30. She was a close friend of Dorothy Parker and her long-term lover was Dashiell Hammett. Ardently left-wing, she was summoned before Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about her links with the Communist party. By Gallagher’s reckoning, she was a disloyal friend, a co-dependent writer and an out-and-out Stalinist.
This whistle-stop biography focuses on the controversies of Hellman’s life, and she does not come out well from any of them. In her four volumes of memoirs, she presented herself as a principled, compassionate heroine, but it seems they were only very loosely based on the truth. The most shameless departure from the facts was a chapter of her 1973 autobiography that became the film Julia. It describes a daring mission smuggling money through Nazi Germany for a childhood friend. Gallagher points out that the dates don’t stack up, and what’s more, it seems she picked up the story from someone else. When the real Julia became curious and wrote to Hellman, she pretended she’d never received the letter. Gallagher is bracingly indignant:
Hellman might have called her stories fiction and been judged on literary merit alone. Instead, she promised that she had not fooled with the facts of her life, all the while crossing and re-crossing the frontier without a by-your-leave. Like the man who comes courting without mentioning the wife and children at home, she wanted something for nothing.
Hellman was always a bit shifty about her own politics and Gallagher systematically goes about uncovering a trail of intellectual dishonesty.