- A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler-Harris
Alice Kessler-Harris’ remarkable book is both a biography of Lillian Hellman, playwright, memoirist, and activist, and an analysis of the controversies that surrounded her life. The book reflects how the struggles from the 1930s over culture, politics, equality and women’s autonomy not only persisted but also shaped the 1970s and 1980s. Kessler-Harris thus illuminates eras marked by sharply contrasting ideologies and moralities. Hellman’s “in-between generation” is the perfect vehicle for one of the most distinguished historians of American women to expand our understanding of an “exceptional” woman’s life.
Kessler-Harris explains the consequences of that exceptionalism: “Such qualities, often forgiven in death, might have been judged differently had Hellman not been female, or a displaced Southerner, or come from a Jewish background, or appealed to highbrow rather than middlebrow audiences. But Hellman was all of these things, and in acting against the grain she distanced from communities of support, turning herself into the rebellious individual she always imagined herself to be” (352).
Lillian Hellman was born in 1905 in New Orleans to parents of German Jewish descent and died in 1984 in the midst of a lawsuit about truth. The social class distinctions in her family shaped her entire life, just as her close relationship with an African American caregiver informed her concerns about racial equality and justice. Hellman’s life was built on independence, opposition, imagination, and a keen interest in injustice that she described as the foundation of her childhood.
Hellman’s family moved to New York City when she was five, and she embarked on a life as a writer in college, entering the world of publishing and literature directly afterward. Her most famous plays, The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes, established her importance in the 1930s and continued to be produced and revived, in theater and film, for much of the twentieth century. Though hardly free from criticism, [End Page 451] they nevertheless established her as an important and financially successful playwright who was interested in moral issues.
Hellman’s fame extended beyond her plays. She was also a journalist, essayist, and a highly acclaimed memoirist. Similarly, Hellman’s importance as a revered and loathed cultural icon rested on more than her writing. As a woman her artistic, economic, political and sexual independence were compelling and controversial both to her peers and subsequently to baby boomers. She was an antifascist, antiracist, and briefly a member of the American Communist Party. As Kessler-Harris notes, “Throughout the war years, she retained a warm sympathy for those who struggled for democratic rights, a high regard for the people of the Soviet Union, and a growing commitment to issues of world peace … she was never a party liner, never an ideologue” (130). However, as the Soviet Union became an enemy of the United States following the war, the timing of when she “actually” left the party and her refusal to condemn Soviet purges and anti-Semitism became important to her legacy as well. Her testimony before HUAC took center stage in the bitter enmities that consumed her final years, challenging her versions of truth.
Kessler-Harris demonstrates Hellman’s deep consciousness of herself as a Jew throughout WWII and far earlier but describes an identity that defied easy categorization. She was a cosmopolitan who was conscious of anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, fought against fascism and racism throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and worked on behalf of many Jewish causes. She accepted honors from groups as diverse as the Jewish War Veterans and Women’s American ORT. However, after World War II, Hellman found herself routinely castigated for failing to condemn Stalin or embrace Israel. She became increasingly alienated from former refugee colleagues with whom she had common cause during the war, from young writers and intellectuals who embraced Zionism, and from older friends who were on the road to neoconservatism. Hellman’s...