In her own memoirs, How I Came into My Inheritance (2001), Gallagher has shown herself to be an incisive, sharp-edged, darkly humorous writer, and these qualities help engage readers in a study of Lillian Hellman (1905–1984) that might otherwise seem mean-spirited.
The author has no personal ax to grind against her subject, as do many of the sources she quotes, but her portrait is all the more devastating since it seems so matter-of-fact. The best she can say about Hellman is that she was “a conundrum—a person whose determination to prevail in all aspects of her life was often at odds with the persona of moral rectitude she presented to the world.” Her longest success, as a playwright, started with her relationship with Dashiell Hammett and ended with him, leading Gallagher to suggest that on her own, Hellman would not have amounted to nearly as much. Her memoirs, which gave her a literary resurgence, are dissected for untruths and half-truths, usually self-serving. She was an unapologetic Stalinist (as was her lover Hammett) who was either ignorant or uncaring about the realities of the brutal dictator’s rule. “What seems most peculiar in Hellman’s casual misuse of factual truth is her comfort with what might be easily shown to be untrue,” writes Gallagher, using the memory Hellman spun into the highly acclaimed movie Julia (1977) as an example. Gallagher comes closest to admiration in her accounts of Hellman’s promiscuity, which reportedly resulted in at least seven abortions. “She was never very pretty,” writes the author, “and there is no doubt that all her life she suffered from a lack of beauty, although it never seemed to impede her very active sexual life.” Or: “Few beautiful women could equal Hellman’s sexual success; few had her boldness, her presence, her nerve.”
Less a conventional biography than a critical appraisal of the subject’s character, career and contradictions—not likely to add any luster to Hellman’s tarnished reputation.