Ron Briley: Review of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman" (Bloomsbury, 2012)


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Those who complain of the vitriolic rhetoric employed in contemporary politics would do well to consult Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of Lillian Hellman, which places the playwright and memoirist within the historical and cultural context of the ideological debate over communism that dominated American political discourse for much of the twentieth century. The intensity of this struggle ruined lives and careers, and Lillian Hellman was called a liar and a Stalinist. Even though Kessler-Harris is a distinguished scholar, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University and a past president of the Organization of American Historians, she displays great courage in producing a sympathetic portrait of Hellman that will likely receive some of the condemnation and righteous indignation once leveled at the playwright.

As the title of this volume suggests, Kessler-Harris acknowledges that Hellman was a difficult woman who could be quick-tempered and demanding, but she was also gracious, witty, humorous, and a good friend. Kessler-Harris argues that the complex Hellman must be examined within historical context through the lens of class, region, ethnicity, and perhaps of greatest significance, gender. According to Kessler-Harris, Hellman was a “self-made” woman who defied gender conventions, while her insistence that the anticommunist crusade and McCarthyism represented a greater threat to American liberty and democracy than the Soviet Union provoked a hostile response from most conservatives and even liberals. Rather than another detailed biography of Hellman retracing the ground already covered by such Hellman biographers as Carl Rollyson and Deborah Martinson, Kessler-Harris uses a chronological framework around essential themes to offer an interpretation of how one ambitious, compassionate, and intelligent woman responded to the political and cultural challenges of the twentieth century.

Born to a Southern Jewish family in 1905, Lillian Hellman was always an outsider. Southern Jews were more assimilated into the white mainstream than their Eastern European immigrant brethren in New York City, but they retained enough of an “alien” presence to encourage sympathy for the plight of Southern blacks. Although as a child Hellman may have spent more time in New York City than New Orleans, she always perceived of herself as a Southerner. Hellman also grew up concerned with money as her father was a salesman and failed entrepreneur who could not provide the financial security to which her mother was accustomed. Although she was well-read and harbored intellectual aspirations, Hellman did not complete her college degree at New York University. Instead, she entered the New York City publishing world and married writer and press agent Arthur Kober in 1925. The Hellman and Kober relationship failed to survive the more open approach to marriage embraced by many in the flapper generation. While retaining a friendship with Kober after their divorce, Hellman pursued a tumultuous thirty-year relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. While never considering herself to be a conventional beauty, she enjoyed the company of men and engaged in an active sex life. Hellman, however, maintained her independence, never again marrying and aborting two pregnancies.

Hellman also achieved economic independence as a successful playwright and Hollywood scriptwriter. Among her most notable Broadway plays were The Children’s Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), Watch on the Rhine (1941), The Searching Wind (1944), Another Part of the Forest (1946), The Autumn Garden (1951), and Toys in the Attic (1960). While Hellman assumed an active role in left-wing political circles, Kessler-Harris asserts that her plays focused upon broader moral issues rather than on specific political issues. Although her plays raised serious questions regarding justice and the corrupting influence of wealth, she was criticized by some intellectuals for being melodramatic and commercial. Kessler-Harris believes that while in plays such as The Little Foxes Hellman overly romanticized the Old South, much of the criticism leveled against Hellman’s work in the theater was unfair and reflective of a double standard regarding her gender.

This double standard was also evident, argues Kessler-Harris, in attitudes toward Hellman’s success as a business woman. While the self-made man is admired as an entrepreneur, Hellman’s focus upon property and investment was often dismissed as greedy. Kessler-Harris begs to differ, noting Hellman’s desire to retain independence and security, observing, “But in light of her status as an economically independent woman, the fear evoked by her blacklisting in the fifties, and the new possibilities that her celebrity status suddenly made available to her, Hellman’s behavior deserves a more charitable assessment.”

Hellman became politically involved through her activities in organizing the Screen Writers Guild in opposition to Hollywood producers’ control over the product and credits of writers. A 1937 trip to Spain also helped to convince Hellman of the threat posed by international fascism as she observed first- hand the destruction wrought by Franco’s rebellion against the Spanish Republic. Although Hellman was often less than forthright about her membership in the Communist Party, Kessler-Harris believes that she joined the party at some point in the late 1930s and left the organization in the early 1940s. Kessler-Harris notes that Hellman was never a major figure in the party, and within the context of the Depression era, the Communist Party appeared to be leading the fight against fascism, racism, and economic inequality. During the Second World War and the American alliance with the Soviets, such an association did not suffer from public rebuke, but the situation changed with the emergence of the Cold War and McCarthyism.

Those who had espoused communist principles were now suspect and subject to congressional investigation and loyalty review boards. Many former Communists publicly denounced friends and associates, leading to a blacklist in Hollywood which terminated Hellman’s film career. However, when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hellman refused to discuss the political activities of her friends and avoided a contempt citation. Many perceived her a hero for defending civil liberties. In a series of acclaimed memoirs, An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976), Hellman continued to condemn liberals for giving into fear and retreating from the support of civil liberties when confronted by the specter of McCarthyism.

In response, anticommunists denounced Hellman as an unrepentant Stalinist and self-hating Jew who followed the party line in support of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact and refused to condemn Stalin’s purge trials, betrayal of the Spanish Republic, suppression of Soviet Jewry, gulags, and imperialism. Kessler-Harris concedes that Hellman was naïve with her faith in the Soviet regime, but she challenges the assertion that Hellman blindly followed the Soviet line. For example, Watch on the Rhine, advocating resistance to fascism, was written when the Soviets were still pursuing a policy of accommodation with Hitler. Hellman was convinced that liberal attacks on communism threatened the right of dissent so essential to American democracy. She was called a “fellow traveler.” Kessler-Harris, however, asserts, “But if the term were penned on her and many others as a derogatory label, she did not receive it as such. Rather, her consistent defense of the right to dissent conveyed her refusal to falsify a worthy American radical past.” (250)

Critics of Hellman, such as writer Mary McCarthy, also accused the playwright of being a liar as demonstrated by factual errors in her memoirs. Kessler-Harris defends Hellman by observing that rather than to be read literally, the memoirs must be understood as stories that often contain larger truths and reveal the type of courageous person to which Hellman aspired. Instead of autobiography, the memoirs reflect the past through faulty memory and yearning, stories that attempt to ascertain the meaning of her life within the tumultuous twentieth century. Hellman was roundly criticized for the story of American-born Austrian freedom fighter Julia in the Pentimento memoir and made into the acclaimed film Julia with Jane Fonda as Hellman. Kessler-Harris concludes that Hellman’s place in history would be better served if she had honestly conceded that the story of Julia and her friendship with Hellman were largely a fictional account. And when Hellman sued Mary McCarthy for calling her a liar, Hellman appeared to many as the Stalinist attempting to censure free speech.

Kessler-Harris laments that the McCarthy law suit and accusations of dishonesty have obscured the positive qualities of Hellman and the contributions she made to American arts and letters while championing the right of dissent and envisioning a world with economic and social justice for all. It is not fashionable today to defend Lillian Hellman, but in this insightful book, based upon extensive archival research as well as interviews with Hellman’s associates, Kessler-Harris makes a strong case for remembering Lillian Hellman as a difficult, albeit independent, woman who grappled with the most important issues of her time. Despite the charges of Stalinism, intolerance, and intellectual dishonesty which are still leveled at Hellman, Kessler-Harris concludes of Hellman, “All her life she fought for decency, self-respect, and dignity that could be achieved only by self-support and political engagement in the struggle for a better world.” (285)

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