A LIKELY STORY: One Summer with Lillian Hellman by Rosemary Mahoney

A LIKELY STORY: One Summer with Lillian Hellman

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Bitter humor and painful honesty permeate this look back in anger 20 years to a summer spent by Mahoney (Whoredom in Kimmage: Irish Women Coming of Age, 1993, etc.) as domestic aide to Lillian Hellman, pictured here as conniving, hypocritical, abusive, and querulous in coping with age. Troubled by her father's early death and her mother's alcoholism, and insecure at boarding school, 17-year-old Mahoney began working as Hellman's part-time live-in housekeeper-cook in her Martha's Vineyard home, after the playwright replied positively to a fan letter/employment inquiry. However, Mahoney swiftly lost all illusions of receiving wisdom from a literary lion and surrogate mother as Hellman turned out to be more menace than mentor. While evoking compassion for Hellman's struggles with blindness and physical frailty and candidly admitting her own inadequacies in the job, Mahoney more often catches her old boss in a glaring, pitiless light. Here, Hellman haggles with Mahoney over pay and time, scolds her for trivial or imagined mistakes, and speaks condescendingly of her large Irish-American family; she tries to impress guests James Taylor and Carly Simon by saying she smokes pot; and she gossips about or quarrels with friends Joe Alsop, Leonard Bernstein, and William and Rose Styron. Most shocking, Hellman, so publicly sympathetic to minority groups and labor, is depicted here as privately venting racial slurs and treating employees like indentured servants. A couple of times, Mahoney unexpectedly discovers Hellman naked--symbolic of how unadorned the author of An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time appears here without her own self-aggrandizing recollections. By devoting more space than necessary to her own family's struggles, Mahoney lets her difficult but compelling antagonist shift out of focus at times. But even at these points, her graceful prose and pungent dialogue overcome this narrative ungainliness. In some ways, an unusually sharp magazine piece padded out to book length--but, nevertheless, a stylish memoir that recalls a legendary crusader caught with her armor down.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 038547931X
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Doubleday