Filmmaker Elia Kazan, venting his fury against Lillian Hellman’s memoir Scoundrel Time
in which she skewers him and other liberal artists and intellectuals for their lily-livered performances during the McCarthy Era, raged against “this bitch with balls” who “went after what she wanted the way a man does.” What Kazan once considered a vitriolic attack might now in our post-third-wave-feminist age be perceived rather as a compliment.
Historian Alice Kessler-Harris's intriguing new biography A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman offers a reassessment of Hellman through the lens of “gender as an ideological force.” Hellman’s life is not examined chronologically but by theme, and Kessler-Harris’s spiral structure produces a richly layered approach, despite suffering from repetition.
Hellman’s literary, cultural, and political significance remains disputed, elusive, and of keen interest nearly thirty years after her death. Was she hero or traitor, artist or sell-out, truth-teller or liar? Unrepentant Stalinist, misogynist, and self-hating Jew? Or champion of civil liberties, feminist icon, and advocate of redemptive self-assertion?
Her long, highly successful career as a playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist brought her considerable fame and fortune. She spoke up for her beliefs: individual freedom and active commitment to upholding that right. For Hellman, asserts Kessler-Harris, “silence in the face of evil, the cowardly refusal to act when inaction will promote injustice, is the real sin.”
Hellman is renowned for being demanding, greedy, ambitious, loud, bad tempered, ugly, and a sexual predator. Fiercely protective of her writing, she often refused to alter a word in her plays and rarely allowed her work to be excerpted. She insisted on being well paid for anything she wrote, and scrupulously monitored her royalty receipts, including those for reprints, permissions, performances, and readings. She developed, writes Kessler-Harris, “a range of qualities generally considered in the early and mid-twentieth century to be the province of men. These included a robust vocational commitment, the capacity to identify as a worker who made a living by the pen, and the self-confidence that she had something to say to the larger world.”
For many Hellman’s behavior seemed “a travesty of womanhood.” She was often masculinized, lesbianized, or hyper-sexualized by her critics, supporters, and friends. Leonard Bernstein called her “Uncle Lillian.” Referring to her unconventional, sexually non-exclusive liaison with the writer Dashiell Hammett, the press dubbed her “She Hammett.” A 1941 New Yorker profile described her as a “tough broad… who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth.” Morris Dickstein saw her as “at once a perfect lady and at the same time… obscene.” Jane Fonda, who played Hellman in the film Julia (based on her memoir Pentimento), told an interviewer, “Lillian is a homely woman and yet she moves as if she were Marilyn Monroe. She sits with her legs apart, with her satin underwear partly showing.”