Out of the feuds, plays, movies and affairs of a complex life comes a sweeping, focused biography.
It’s reassuring to have Martinson (English and Writing/Occidental Coll.) write at the start of a biography authorized by her subject’s estate that “I don’t always like Lillian Hellman.” Sharp insight into Hellman’s often contradictory, controversial life is what Martinson goes after, not hagiography. Indeed, Hellman herself could be a little fox. Settling the estate of writer Dashiell Hammett, her longtime lover, she outmaneuvered his daughters to win the royalties from his work, though his will directed her to share them with his family. It was a grab that could have been made by one of the characters in Hellman’s thundering melodrama, The Little Foxes. Hammett, according to Martinson, pulled Hellman’s life and writing career together as he pointed her to playwriting by critiquing, editing and even contributing to her texts. Major success on Broadway and in Hollywood as a screenwriter followed. But Hellman did not get cozy on Shubert Alley or at the Brown Derby. A vocal, active liberal, she covered revolution in Spain and life in Russia, ending up the subject of extensive FBI files and, eventually, a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the red scares of the ’50s. Throughout her life, she suffered fools with cutting words, though her razor-sharp opinions could be contradictory and hypocritical. As intense as her anger were the affairs she enjoyed well into late middle age. She once feared Leonard Bernstein, in a hotel room next to hers, might hear the noise she’d made while making love. Then she realized she could hear Bernstein, similarly engaged.
A rich, literate, compelling account with the spark of a Hellman play.