LILLIAN HELLMAN: The Image, The Woman by William Wright
Kirkus Star

LILLIAN HELLMAN: The Image, The Woman

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This first biography of the celebrated playwright, author, leftist and hostess is sure to shock those who hadn't known already of her characteristically dishonest and dishonorable behavior. Wright does a good job at getting everything in of this long and complicated life, despite Hellman's crusading attempt before she died to bar her friends from speaking to him. Beginning with her eccentric Southern Jewish ancestry, Wright works chronologically and draws from a large assortment of sources: friends and witnesses, literary and dramatic critics, ex-lovers, Communist Party members, and her and Dashiell Hammer's FBI dockets. He achieves a very balanced report. Presenting, for example, parts of her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities alongside her strikingly different and more flattering account in Scoundrel Time, Wright shows easily the myth Hellman created about herself as a heroine of the Left. The crescendo builds steadily as it becomes apparent that in every aspect of her life Hellman was a liar, in some way or another. That includes her lovelife (faithful to no one), her literary life (the memoirs are chronically false), and her politics. Although it seems she was a member of the Communist Party at some time in the 30's, and she was ever flamboyant about her love for Russia, she effectively denied ever being a communist. And only a squirmeyed toad would believe Julia was not based on the life of Muriel Gardiner, the only known American (and heiress) who studied medicine in Vienna in the 30's and who worked in the resistance. Hellman and Gardiner never met--but they had the same gossipy New York lawyer. Besides the revelatory disclosure (though not first) of Hellman's fraudulent maneuvers, this biography has substantial critical discussion of her plays. There are also gossipy accounts of the incestuous editors at Boni & Liveright in the 20's and the dissatisfied writers, well paid or not, in Hollywood in the 30's. Most consistently, Wright shows how fame and money gave Hellman unlimited license to be exactly who she was: angry, cantankerous, lacivious, dishonest, mercurial, and paranoid, though also sharply intelligent, a passionate speaker and a good writer. Pathological? In the end she remains an enigma, an unfinished woman indeed. A good biography, balanced and objective and splashing with gossip.

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1986
Publisher: Simon & Schuster