LILLIAN HELLMAN: Her Legend and Her Legacy by Carl Rollyson
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LILLIAN HELLMAN: Her Legend and Her Legacy

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A major critical biography of Lillian Hellman, rendered at monumental 600-page length, by the author of the excellent analysis of Marilyn Monroe's acting style in Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress (1986). Hellman always saw herself as a radical playwright and, later, as a caustic woman of letters. Her high place among 20th-century American playwrights is established, with revivals of her plays ever in the works, and the long lives of her volumes of memoirs seem assured. Here, Rollyson squarely faces many questions about Hellman: Were her plays ""merely"" melodramas? What about her sharklike sex life? And who was ""Julia""? Was Hellman hiding behind her suit against Mary McCarthy, who said Hellman had lied about absolutely everything in her memoirs? What about her Communist sympathies? How did her recital of her life with Dashiell Hammett square with the facts? It does seem that Hellman's hard-bitten facade and demanding public mask veiled a writer who would not let the truth block a good story. Her compulsion to invent a new life for herself in her often autobiographical works was not just a dramatic need as a playwright or memoirist; it went deeper. ""Julia,"" for example, though based in part on a real person whose passionate idealism Hellman revered, was absorbed by Hellman and reworked into the tragic figure that Hellman wished she herself had been--although ""Julia"" is presented in Pentimento, and earlier (as ""Alice"") in An Unfinished Woman, as the unvarnished, plain comrade of Hellman's youth. This secreting of pearl around a grain of sand is central to Hellman's life and works. She was a jealous, homely woman who dressed and spent to the hilt, drank and smoked too much, and asked any man she felt like to go to bed with her (almost on the spot) while carrying on other affairs at the same time. Her ties with Hammett were richly romanticized into what they should have been. She was a tough talker whose heart turned ""what should have been"" into ""what was."" Deep-delving and entertaining, quite the equal of William Wright's Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman (1986).

Pub Date: May 16th, 1988
Publisher: St. Martin's