Donna Rifkind: Review of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman"

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Donna Rifkind has written for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

During the great performance that was her life, Lillian Hellman always addressed the 20th century from center stage. While she defended many causes — justice, loyalty, American civil liberties, anti-fascism and Soviet-style Communism among them — what she represented most staunchly was herself, and what she believed in most fiercely was her own unassailability.

She was first and last a dramatist, with a genius for the concise phrase and the provocative gesture. Shrewd plotting and a talent for dialogue were hallmarks of the hugely successful plays, movies and memoirs she wrote. But two crystalline expressions of her own life’s high drama are more memorable than any story she ever spun: her pithy rebuke to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 (“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”) and the 1976 Blackglama advertisement for which she posed, enrobed in mink, her 71-year-old face alight with both amusement and confrontation. From her earliest days she sought the spotlight. Once it was on her, she basked in it until the end. Her friend Richard de Combray commented that when she died in 1984 at age 79, “she wanted to pull all the scenery down with her.”

“To read Hellman, even to read about her, is to start an argument,” one of her biographers has noted. Complex and wide-ranging, these arguments have their roots in the 1930s and continue in our time. They fall roughly into a couple of categories. First is the condemnation of Hellman’s insufficiently recanted devotion to Stalinism. Second are the accusations that she fabricated major parts of her best-selling memoirs, which ignited a debate about the ethics of fictionalizing the truth that continues, with les affaires Frey, D’Agata and Daisey, to smolder today. In every arena and on every count, Hellman vigorously defended herself, aided by her many friends and admirers. As that same biographer put it, “She had to be not only right but victorious.”...

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