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Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 184
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    Lillian Hellman
    Book Description:

    Glamorous, talented, audacious-Lillian Hellman knew everyone, did everything, had been everywhere. By the age of twenty-nine she had writtenThe Children's Hour,the first of four hit Broadway plays, and soon she was considered a member of America's first rank of dramatists, a position she maintained for more than twenty-five years. Apart from her literary accomplishments-eight original plays and three volumes of memoirs-Hellman lived a rich life filled with notable friendships, controversial political activity, travel, and love affairs, most importantly with Dashiell Hammett. But by the time she died, the truth about her life and works had been called into question. Scandals attached to her name, having to do with sex, with money, and with her own veracity.

    Dorothy Gallagher confronts the conundrum that was Lillian Hellman-a woman with a capacity to inspire outrage as often as admiration. Exploring Hellman's leftist politics, her Jewish and Southern background, and her famous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Gallagher also undertakes a new reading of Hellman's carefully crafted memoirs and plays, in which she is both revealed and hidden. Gallagher sorts through the facts and the myths, arriving at a sharply drawn portrait of a woman who lived large to the end of her remarkable life and never backed down from a fight.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16639-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    At the height of her celebrity—and it is difficult to say exactly when that would have been, since she was almost un-flaggingly famous over a period of five decades—Lillian Hellman was as glamorous and visible a public presence as any movie star. But let’s say that one peak moment came in 1939, with the opening ofThe Little Foxes,which was her second hit play. Hellman was thirty-four years old. The play opened in February, which would have given her the opportunity to wear the furs she loved, a new mink in this case. She was seldom in...

  4. 1 The Hubbards of Bowden
    (pp. 9-15)

    By the time Lillian Florence Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905, her once-burgeoning family in Demopolis, Alabama, had dwindled to a great-aunt or two, and a few cousins of the once-removed degree. Hellman seldom visited the town where her maternal great-grandfather, Isaac Marx, had settled in 1840, but Demopolis held the power of myth for her.

    Hellman wrote two plays based on the Marx family. The first wasThe Little Foxes,produced in 1939. Seven years later she wrote a prequel,Another Part of the Forest.From time to time both plays are revived, and not long ago...

  5. 2 The Marxes of Demopolis
    (pp. 16-27)

    Demopolis is a pretty river town deep in Alabama, about 140 miles north of Mobile, and not very far from the Mississippi border. Tourists come to these parts to admire three local plantation houses—Gaineswood, Lyon Hall, and Bluff Hall—which have been beautifully preserved and restored. Visitors are charmed, also, by the nineteenth-century downtown buildings, which have also been preserved and are in commercial use, and by the setting of Demopolis, itself, built on a chalk cliff high above the junction of two rivers, the Tombigbee and the Black Warrior, which meet to flow down to the Gulf of...

  6. 3 Two Jewish Girls
    (pp. 28-36)

    One evening in Hollywood, in 1935, a dinner party was given to honor Gertrude Stein. Among the invited guests were Charlie Chaplin and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom Stein had asked to meet. Dashiell Hammett brought Lillian Hellman along as his date.

    It is a little difficult to picture Lillian Hellman and Gertrude Stein in the same room at the same time. Something like trying to hold two opposing thoughts. These women do not belong together. Surely, they must be of different eras and different worlds. But, in fact, they were both American girls, Jewish girls, only a generation apart,...

  7. 4 Marriage
    (pp. 37-46)

    It is always interesting to ask about any couple: Why this particular man and woman? Why, to begin with, did Lillian Hellman marry Arthur Kober?

    When Hellman met Kober, she was nineteen, still living with her parents in the walk-up apartment on West 95th Street, near Riverside Drive, where the family lived for most of the fifteen years since their arrival in New York. After her sophomore year Hellman had dropped out of New York University where she had been an indifferent student. She was restless and uncertain as young, inexperienced people are, but she was a bold girl. And...

  8. 5 The Writing Life: 1933–1984
    (pp. 47-55)

    “My ambition now is to collect enough money to be able to finish ‘The Thin Man,’ which God willing, will be my last detective novel . . .” So Hammett wrote to Hellman in 1931.¹

    The Thin Manwas published in 1934. Hammett was forty, prime time for a writer, butThe Thin Manwould be his last novel in any genre, and his literary silence persisted for the twenty-odd years of life left to him. He had not lost the ambition to write; on the contrary. Through the years he would refer, optimistically or despairingly, to a book he...

  9. 6 Along Came a Spider
    (pp. 56-63)

    When Hellman took off for Europe in August 1937, she was in the company of her good friend Dorothy Parker, and Parker’s husband, Alan Campbell. By chance, Martha Gellhorn was also on board. Gellhorn was then at the beginning of her affair with Ernest Hemingway, and was on her way to spend several days with him in Paris before traveling with him to the war in Spain.

    After several weeks of a purely social time with Parker and Campbell in Paris, Hellman entrained for Moscow, where she had been invited to attend a theater festival. Whether she did, or did...

  10. 7 Eros
    (pp. 64-73)

    On April 24, 1967, Lillian Hellman made an entry in her diary. She was traveling in France with a man she calls “R” and she reflected on the nature of their relations: “The years we have known each other have made a pleasant summer fog of the strange, crippled relationship, often ripped, always mended, merging finally into comfort.” A moment later, as she and “R” are sipping liqueurs and chatting pleasantly in the garden of their hotel, “R” rips the relationship once again. He begins with an ominous sentence: “I must say something to you.” And what he says is...

  11. 8 Counterparts
    (pp. 74-80)

    Lillian Hellman must have loved her Julia. No other such entirely admirable character exists in her work, except, perhaps, for “Kurt Muller,” the hero ofWatch on the Rhine.Like Julia, Kurt is a heroic anti-Fascist.

    In her memoirPentimento,Julia is presented to the reader as Hellman’s cherished friend, her oldest and dearest friend. Hellman has loved Julia since girlhood. She loves Julia for her intelligence, her bravery, and her beauty, for her nobility of spirit, not for her riches, although it so happens that Julia is very rich.

    After an idyllic girlhood together, life has parted the friends....

  12. 9 The Incurious Tourist
    (pp. 81-89)

    In the spring of 1944, Hellman’s fifth play,The Searching Wind, opened on Broadway. In ten years as a playwright, Hellman had produced five plays, four of them successful. Hellman was not yet forty, audiences waited for her next play, she was a singular force in the American theater, and she had friends in high places. In January 1942, little more than a month after Pearl Harbor,Watch on the Rhinewas selected for a “command performance” at the White House. Hellman chatted at dinner with Franklin Roosevelt. Two years later, in the third year of the war, Hellman’s stature...

  13. 10 Lillian Hellman’s Analyst
    (pp. 90-93)

    In the 1930s psychoanalysis was in high vogue in New York’s artistic circles. Many of Hellman’s friends were being analyzed by the fashionable Dr. Gregory Zilboorg. George Gershwin was treated by Zilboorg, as was Gershwin’s mistress, Kay Swift; Ralph Ingersoll, Hellman’s one-time lover, was a patient of Zilboorg’s, and so were Herman Shumlin and Arthur Kober. Hellman, herself, began her analysis with Zilboorg in 1940, and continued to see him both as analyst and friend until the late 1950s.

    Zilboorg was a short, stocky man, Jewish, born in Kiev in 1890. A photograph of him taken in the 1940s shows...

  14. 11 “You Are What You Are to Me”
    (pp. 94-101)

    So much was at stake in the dark days of the Cold War—imprisonment, livelihood—that it was not unknown for friends to keep their distance from friends in trouble. When the writer, Jerome Weidman, heard that Dashiell Hammett was in jail for lack of $10,000 in bail money, Weidman called Arthur Kober and offered to put up the money himself.

    “Are you out of your mind?” Kober said. “You’re a married man. You have two children.”¹ Kober, who had his own family and career to think of, did not offer to put up bail money for Hammett. Nor, it...

  15. 12 Having Her Say
    (pp. 102-113)

    In February 1952, Lillian Hellman was handed a subpoena to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: HUAC, as the Committee was generally known. By then, the Hollywood Ten, many of them well-known to Hellman and Hammett, had served jail terms for refusing to answer the Committee’s questions about their affiliation with the Communist Party. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been tried, found guilty of espionage for the Soviet Union, and were in prison. Alger Hiss, who had denied giving State Department papers to the confessed Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers, was also in prison, convicted of perjury. Leaders of...

  16. 13 Jewish Lit
    (pp. 114-119)

    “Out of the immigrant milieu there came pouring a torrent of memoir, fiction and autobiography,” Irving Howe wrote of the explosion of Jewish writers into the mainstream of American literature. “Let us call this body of writing a regional literature—after all, the immigrant neighborhoods formed a kind of region.”¹

    Hellman was the same age as Henry Roth, only ten years older than Saul Bellow, eleven years older than Bernard Malamud, but she knew almost nothing about the experiences on which they, and younger Jewish writers, drew. She had no immigrant parents or grandparents; she had not lived in the...

  17. 14 An Honored Woman
    (pp. 120-128)

    All through her middle years, honors came to Lillian Hellman: a Theater Arts Medal from Brandeis University; honorary doctorates from Wheaton College, from Smith, from Yale, from Columbia; election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; two New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards.An Unfinished Womanwon Hellman the prestigious National Book Award in 1969;Julia,the movie made from her story inPentimento,won three Oscars in 1977.

    By 1963, Hellman had come to an end of her work in the theater. When asked why she no longer wrote plays, she would answer variously that she had never...

  18. 15 Mere Facts
    (pp. 129-144)

    “What a word is truth,” Lillian Hellman wrote in her introduction to her collected memoirs, “Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth. I did not fool with facts. But, of course, that is a shallow definition of the truth.” She told her students much the same sort of thing—that “truth is larger than the truth of fact.”¹

    Despite Hellman’s assurance that she did not fool with facts, she did seem to think them secondary matters,merefacts, rather than hard facts, cold facts, stubborn, naked, brutal, inescapable facts. No doubt, for example, itfelt...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 145-160)
    (pp. 161-162)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 163-171)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 172-174)