Last dame standing

BIOGRAPHY: DECLAN HUGHES reviews A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman By Alice Kessler-Harris…

BIOGRAPHY:DECLAN HUGHES reviews A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman By Alice Kessler-Harris Bloomsbury, 440pp. £25

IN 1976 you didn’t need to see the 71-year-old playwright staring out of the famous Blackglama mink-clothing advertisement, complete with fur coat, cigarette and the strapline “What becomes a legend most?” to understand this woman was some kind of literary phenomenon. A simple glance along the shelves of the cooler sort of bookshop was sufficient to spot her volumes of memoirs. Skirting Aleister Crowley and Anaïs Nin, navigating Richard Brautigan and Hunter S Thompson, there she was, snug between Knut Hamsun and Hermann Hesse: Lillian Hellman, the last dame standing.

How had a writer whose first play had been a Broadway hit in 1934, whose contemporaries were all in the grave or in their anecdotage, managed to enjoy this vital second, nay, third act in an extraordinary American life?

The long answer is: by working hard and living well in public for 40 years. Even after her death the decline in visibility that other writers invariably experience simply never happened to Hellman. Of the plays, The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes have entered the repertoire and are regularly revived. Flawed they may be, often schematic and overemphatic, but in the language of the theatre they work, giving actors parts to chew on and an audience a satisfying night out.


The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, with their more subtle, Chekhovian manner, still have their outings. An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento hold up well, despite what we know about their often not even tenuous relationship with reality. Scoundrel Time’s pungent mixture of political finger-pointing and self-aggrandising fantasy probably did more at one stroke to undermine her reputation than anything else, but it certainly kept her name alive.

And, of course, her relationship with the great hardboiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett (burnished into overcooked myth by Hellman herself to such an extent that Gore Vidal was driven to ask if anyone had actually ever seen them together) seemed to stand with the partnership of Sartre and De Beauvoir as a model for a new kind of sexual freedom and egalitarianism between the sexes. Joan Mellen, whose 1996 joint biography Hellman and Hammett remains the definitive work on both writers, took as her epigraph an entry from Isaac Babel’s diary of 1920: “We are the vanguard, but of what?”

The short answer to the mystery of Hellman’s longevity is, of course: by lying. “Every word [Hellman] says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” said Mary McCarthy on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, and, had Hellman not died before the suit she brought came to court, it is difficult not to believe she would have been humiliated.

Not that her reputation has survived in any great health; indeed, the avowed intention of Alice Kessler-Harris’s book, which she describes as a historical rather than a literary biography, is to rescue her from critics and friends alike, using Hellman as a Rorschach test, “a lightning rod for the anger, fear and passion that divided American intellectuals and activists from each other”.

But Kessler-Harris’s approach seems to me too broad. The attempt to understand “the relationship between the flesh-and-blood Lillian and the templates made of her” involves us in pages of dry social and political history; too often this is what might be called an “issues around” biography. Kessler-Harris, a gender historian, seems more interested in the templates than the woman, yet when any contentious issue arises she almost always gives Hellman the benefit of the doubt, as if any criticism of the actual woman would bring the enterprise to its knees.

Take the Hammett estate. Hellman, as Hammett’s literary executor, was charged with dividing the copyrights in his work in keeping with the terms of his will: half to his daughter Jo, a quarter to Mary, his other daughter, and a quarter to Lillian. The already wealthy Hellman simply deprived the daughters of their rights for as long as she lived. While Hammett’s work came back into vogue and earned huge sums (due in part to Hellman’s advocacy), the Hammett sisters received occasional cheques, as if from the goodness of Hellman’s heart. Kessler-Harris soft-pedals the full detail of what amounts to the theft of much of the legacy of her lifetime partner’s children, and the says: “She must, after Hammett’s death in 1961, have felt herself truly alone.”

The truth is that Hellman was a monster of vanity, greed, self-regard, jealousy, enmity and rage, and she lied about almost everything. She was also a funny, generous, sexy, captivating woman, a brilliant host and a loyal friend. She was all these things at the same time – templates be damned.

Most writers are difficult. Some women are. Hellman was both. Many of us are still more than a little in love with her, despite, or perhaps because of, her flaws. (Of the film Julia, which was a complete fantasy based on someone else’s experience, and which improbably cast Jane Fonda as Hellman, she allowed brazenly that it was all right but “up to its ass in good taste”.)

This book might be suitable for a student with no knowledge of any of the principals or the period. Anyone else should go to Hellman and Hammett, which illuminates the Faustian bargain the two writers unwittingly made, provides a persuasive psychological rationale for much of Hellman’s behaviour and, crucially, conveys an authentic sense of the complicated life this difficult woman lived, its gritty texture, its relentless rhythm, its bitter taste. We are the vanguard, indeed.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright. His first play, I Can’t Get Started, explored the love affair between Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. His new play, The Last Summer, will open at the Gate Theatre during Dublin Theatre Festival

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic