A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

By Ryan, Maureen | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman


Ryan, Maureen, Southern Quarterly


A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. By Alice Kessler-Harris. (NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012. 448 pp. Cloth: $30.00, ISBN: 978-1596913630.)

In her cultural biography of American playwright and memoirist - and famously obstreperous icon - Lillian Hellman, historian Alice Kessler-Harris explores the myriad elements of Hellman's life and personality that contributed to her "difficult" persona: her radical politics, her transgression of traditional gender roles, her Jewish heritage, her prickly and litigious personality. Hellman herself acknowledged - in her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman, and over and over in interviews - that she "lived within a question mark." Kessler-Harris examines as well another salient synecdoche for the complexities and contradictions of Hellman's life and work: her identity as a Southern writer.

Lillian Hellman was born in New Orleans, in 1905; after her Jewish businessman father and genteel Alabama-born mother moved to New York when Hellman, an only child, was six years old. But throughout adolescence she spent half of each year with her father's sisters who ran a boardinghouse on Prytania Street near the Garden District in New Orleans. Years later, she asserted that although she had no "right" to claim to be a Southerner, "I suppose most Southerners, people who grew up in the South, still consider themselves Southern.... I came from a family of Southerners.... I came from a family, on both sides, who had been Southerners for a great many generations." The South, Hellman wrote in Pentimento in 1973, is "home to me still."

And, indeed, her Southern childhood and her family's Southern heritage reverberate throughout Hellman's plays and autobiographical writing. The venal, rapacious Hubbard family of Alabama in her bestknown play, The Little Foxes ( 1 939), and its prequel, Another Part of the Forest (1946), are based on Hellman's mother's entrepreneurial family. Her 1951 play The Autumn Garden (her own favorite among her eight plays) is about sad, middle-aged friends reuniting in a Gulf Coast summer house. Her final play, Toys in the Attic (1960), returns a literary version of her father to his doting sisters' New Orleans boarding house and an unrelenting family drama.

In the late 1960s, Hellman stopped writing plays and movie screenplays and turned to the memoirs - An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), Scoundrel Time (1976), Three (1979), Maybe ( 1 980) - for which, today, she is best remembered. Here, too - and indeed, increasingly, as she aged - Hellman revisits her childhood in the South. She writes about the fig tree in her aunts' New Orleans yard, where a bright, lonely child created a secret place to read, and about Sophronia, the African American woman who was, Hellman notes, "the first and most certain love of my life"; she writes about learning to cook Southern food and about learning the domestic arts that made her a hospitable hostess throughout her life. As Kessler-Harris notes, Hellman "clung to an image of herself as a child of the South."

And yet, for all her traditionally female, Southern charm, her sympathy for the downtrodden, and her commitment to racial equality (which Kessler-Harris attributes to those formative experiences in the "rich culture" of New Orleans), Hellman was famously vituperative, often imperious, mean-spirited, and ungracious. (A Difficult Woman is Kessler-Harris 's attempt to understand Hellman; her reputation in her lifetime and today, nearly thirty years after her death; and the society that created her and about which she wrote, sometimes trenchantly.) "How had it happened," Kessler-Harris asks, "that Lillian Hellman, once so honored and famous, admired for her blunt and plainspoken style, had become the archetype of hypocrisy, the quintessential liar, the embodiment of ugliness?" For Kessler-Harris, the key to understanding Hellman (and to recuperating her ravaged reputation) is Hellman 's era - the "short twentieth century" in which she lived and worked, "the multifaceted and politically splintered America in which she spent her days. …

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