A hefty examination of one of the 20th century’s most socially scrutinized, politically controversial and creatively frustrated writers.
Lillian Hellman (1905–1984) would likely have attained celebrity status through her distinctive renown in any one area of her life—for her literary accomplishments as a fearless playwright, for a series of love affairs with notable men or through her affiliations with highly charged political groups and movements. Kessler-Harris (American History/Columbia Univ.; Gendering Labor History, 2006, etc.), the president of the Organization of American Historians, wisely gets the Dashiell Hammett affair out of the way early on and organizes Hellman’s life thereafter not chronologically but around emotional, cultural, intellectual and professional themes. The chapters—e.g., “The Writer as Moralist,” “An American Jew” and “A Known Communist”—are deftly interconnected, allowing Hellman’s story to evolve organically: her experiences as a young woman falling into one doomed relationship after another, reluctant admissions decades later on a psychoanalyst’s couch, pithy testimony in the HUAC hearings and blunt outbursts at her own dinner parties. The portrait that emerges is at once riveting and distasteful, with the intelligence of her literary achievements, including The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes, standing in stark contrast to her affairs with married men and pointed declarations during the Spanish War. As with so many artists, it is in the context of Hellman's work that her innermost convictions, fears, foibles and mettle play out, and Kessler-Harris investigates every play opening, ill-advised sexual dalliance and heated debate with equal bite and nuance. Of particular interest is the author’s deconstruction of the complex story surrounding Hellman’s title character for the 1977 film Julia.
A richly layered portrait of a woman whose literary might and sociopolitical daring continue to demand attention.