From the New York Times review of Alice Kessler-Harris's biography: "Always the challenger, Hellman did her best to thwart all unsanctioned accounts of her life. She forbade her friends to talk to inquiring writers and destroyed many of her personal letters. Nonetheless, a half-dozen biographies have been published since her death. The best of them is Carl Rollyson’s “Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy” (1988), a critical but astute portrait. Nearly as good are William Wright’s “Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman” — a stouthearted book that did its best with limited sources, having been the first to appear, in 1986 — and Joan Mellen’s “Hellman and Hammett” (1996), an unsparing psychoanalytical examination of Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, her longtime lover and mentor. For day-to-day glimpses of Hellman in her later years, nobody has captured the anger and the humor, the caprice and the stubbornness, the flattery and the bullying, as vividly as her friend Peter Feibleman in “Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman” (1988). Weighing in on the controversies, Hellman’s biographers are divided between antipathy and admiration for her; yet all defer to the force of her personality and the power of her celebrity."

Short Takes



Estate Approval

When a trade house editor suggested to Katherine Anne Porter’s literary executor that I was the one to write a new biography of Porter, the executor asked what I had written. The editor mentioned the Hellman biography, only to have the executor exclaim, “I HATE LILLIAN HELLMAN! I WON’T ALLOW HIM TO WRITE ABOUT KATHERINE ANNE.” Her reaction would not have stopped someone like me, who belongs to the lower criminal classes, but I had to desist because the editor would not go ahead without the estate’s approval.

Not All Biographers Work This Way

I send out chapters for comment Not all biographers work this way, fearing that what was said in a warm and responsive oral interview may be retracted when seen in cold print. I’ve usually been willing to take that risk, especially since I have never given anyone the right to change what I write, only the opportunity to try to do so. When I gave a chapter of my Hellman biography to critic Diana Trilling, she not only made some changes in her remarks, but went on to edit the rest of the chapter! She asked me to forgive her. She just felt compelled not only to have her say about Hellman but also about my say. In fact, virtually all of Trilling's corrections made the chapter read better, without altering the truth of what she and I had to say. And I told her I was grateful.

Bi-polar Reviewers
Often the polar extremes of reviews have more to do with the subject of the biography than with the biographer. My biography of Lillian Hellman, for example, was lauded and attacked, often depending on the politics of the reviewer. A leftie historian in The Washington Post trounced my take on Hellman, saying my book was not fit for much more than to hold down a blanket on a windy day at the beach. His review concerned only the politics of my biography, as though Lillian Hellman the playwright and screenwriter did not exist. Another reviewer was upset because I described Hellman’s physical appearance, quoting one of my interviewee’s comparison of Helman’s visage with George Washington’s. That reviewer thought because I reported such impressions, I had a standard of beauty related to my Marilyn Monroe biography. Some reviewers have a priori assumptions about biography that skew their reception of books—books that must be flawed because they do not meet the reviewer’s preconceptions.

Reviewers who do acknowledge a biographer’s body of work usually do so in a superficial, uncomprehending way. When my second biography appeared, one reviewer chastised me for dwelling on Lillian Hellman’s looks, assuming that because I had published a biography of Marilyn Monroe my standard was movie star beauty, and I was somehow disparaging Hellman’s corrugated visage. But so many of Hellman’s friends commented on her wrinkled face that I did not see how I could ignore it. Then the PBS American Masters program about her began with what looked like shots of a mountainside, only to pull back to reveal the rocky face of its subject. Panning across that rugged terrain was the perfect way to evoke the life of a really tough personage, one I had thoroughly enjoyed scaling in my biography.

I have always been attracted to figures with powerful iconic images. Marilyn Monroe, my first subject, is obvious. Next came granite-like Lillian Hellman, who, I now realize, was a rather therapeutic choice after dealing with the lush and sometimes lugubrious Monroe. Hellman’s visage would be on the Mount Rushmore of playwrights, if such a monument existed. For fun, I put Monroe on Rushmore when I published my collection of reviews, titled American Biography..

Lillian Hellman: Her Life and Legend

Through diaries, letters, government files, and interviews Carl Rollyson draws a vital and vibrant portrait of the life, the work, and the legend of Lillian Hellman, America's most controversial radical playwright. Rollyson explores the sources and backgrounds of her best-selling memoirs, the development of her politics, her successful screenwriting career, and her famous appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He provides entertaining and informative accounts of her feud with Mary McCarthy, her many love affairs and surprising friendships. He also provides a provocative and compelling portrayal of this complex and brilliant woman, who was called everything from a "viper", "a goddam liar" to "an empathetic genius with a highly original and penetrating mind." Near death, Hellman spoke of being blocked; this biography will show what got in her way.

Reviews


A major critical biography of Lillian Hellman, rendered at monumental 600-page length, by the author of the excellent analysis of Marilyn Monroe's acting style in Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress (1986). Hellman always saw herself as a radical playwright and, later, as a caustic woman of letters. Her high place among 20th-century American playwrights is established, with revivals of her plays ever in the works, and the long lives of her volumes of memoirs seem assured. Here, Rollyson squarely faces many questions about Hellman: Were her plays ""merely"" melodramas? What about her sharklike sex life? And who was ""Julia""? Was Hellman hiding behind her suit against Mary McCarthy, who said Hellman had lied about absolutely everything in her memoirs? What about her Communist sympathies? How did her recital of her life with Dashiell Hammett square with the facts? It does seem that Hellman's hard-bitten facade and demanding public mask veiled a writer who would not let the truth block a good story. Her compulsion to invent a new life for herself in her often autobiographical works was not just a dramatic need as a playwright or memoirist; it went deeper. ""Julia,"" for example, though based in part on a real person whose passionate idealism Hellman revered, was absorbed by Hellman and reworked into the tragic figure that Hellman wished she herself had been--although ""Julia"" is presented in Pentimento, and earlier (as ""Alice"") in An Unfinished Woman, as the unvarnished, plain comrade of Hellman's youth. This secreting of pearl around a grain of sand is central to Hellman's life and works. She was a jealous, homely woman who dressed and spent to the hilt, drank and smoked too much, and asked any man she felt like to go to bed with her (almost on the spot) while carrying on other affairs at the same time. Her ties with Hammett were richly romanticized into what they should have been. She was a tough talker whose heart turned ""what should have been"" into ""what was."" Deep-delving and entertaining, quite the equal of William Wright's Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman (1986).--Kirkus Reviews

Always the challenger, Hellman did her best to thwart all unsanctioned accounts of her life. She forbade her friends to talk to inquiring writers and destroyed many of her personal letters. Nonetheless, a half-dozen biographies have been published since her death. The best of them is Carl Rollyson’s “Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy” (1988), a critical but astute portrait.--Donna Rifking, "Becoming a Legend," The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Picking Lillian Hellman


How do you pick your subjects? It’s the question I’m most frequently asked. Usually the subject I end up writing about has played a role in the life of someone else I’ve been investigating. I didn’t set out to write my first biography, Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress. She meant nothing in particular to me. I rather stumbled across her when I was working on Norman Mailer, the first author I chose to study after completing my dissertation on William Faulkner’s uses of the past in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses. I compared Faulkner’s characters’ re-creation of history with what historians and historiographers have written about the hermeneutics of historical interpretation. Mailer interested me because he was reinterpreting his past in book after book. Then I discovered his biography of Marilyn Monroe, and in the process of understanding why he was attracted to her, I became intrigued with her—and with aspects of her I felt Mailer did not understand. It was then that I realized I was not really concerned with epistemology per se, but with how individuals “construct” themselves over time, and how over time the culture constructs them. Hermeneutics I would consign to philosophers of history while I pursued my concern with historicism. Monroe became the quintessential subject for me, because she was all about self-construction and conflicting interpretations of her so-called “true self,” which, I realized, resembled what fascinated me in Faulkner’s work. How did Thomas Sutpen construct himself so as to create a figure that haunted subsequent generations? That question was not so different, actually, from Mailer’s preoccupation with Marilyn Monroe.

How I came to write about Lillian Hellman, the subject of my second biography, is a somewhat different story. I came to the realization that one biography was going to beget another because I was hooked on biography, the latent subject of my dissertation. My dissertation became my first book, Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner, and remains my touchstone, so to speak. I first became intrigued with Hellman by reading about her in Joseph Blotner’s biography of Faulkner. Faulkner liked Hellman, and he liked her companion, Dashiell Hammett. Hellman, unlike most New Yorkers, understood the Deep South. After all, she had been partly brought up there—to be precise, in New Orleans, site of Faulkner’s marvelous foray into the shaping of America’s multicultural identity before the word multicultural had any currency. Indeed, if you truly want to understand the significance of Barack Obama, you have to read Absalom, Absalom!

For Faulkner, by the way, Hammett was truly Hellman’s other half. Faulkner adored detective and mystery stories and read them by the ream. He also tried to write them—not too successfully when he followed the formula of pulp fiction, but spectacularly well when he messed with the popular conventions in Absalom, Absalom! That novel is an object lesson for biographers because it is about the obsession with knowing what really happened in the past, as well as about the utter futility of ever coming to a final, definitive, determination as to what can be known.

So Hellman lay dormant in my mind from about 1975 to 1985, when I was nearing completion of my Marilyn Monroe biography and preparing my dissertation for book publication. Hellman was “hot” in the late 1980s because of revelations about the “Julia” story she concocted. Searching for a subject that my new agent could peddle, I suggested Hellman. “I can sell that,” she immediately responded, and she told me to get started on a book proposal.

To me, Hellman had it all. I grew up in the theater, and she was theater to me. I had always been interested in politics, and she was politics to me. I was obsessed with Hollywood and its history, and she was Hollywood to me. She spent half her childhood in the South, and I was then still steeped in all things Southern. And then there were bonuses: She had a great sex life, and she loved to cook. She traveled to places I wanted to visit. She was endlessly entertaining. When my biography appeared, the  New York Times reviewer called my book “dishy”; it was the first time I had seen that word in print. True, my book did contain gossip. People loved to talk about Lillian (she pronounced it Lil-yan), and the endless speculation about this entertaining but fearsome woman brought me back to, yes, Absalom, Absalom! and the endless discussions about Thomas Sutpen.

Selected Works: Click on titles for reviews and photographs

e.g. Fiction, History, Magazine Articles, etc. goes here
Carl Rollyson not only provides an introduction to her essays, novels, plays, films, diaries, and uncollected work published in various periodicals, he now has a lens through which to reevaluate classic texts such as Against Interpretation and On Photography, providing both students and advanced scholars a renewed sense of her importance and impact.
This first biography of Susan Sontag (1933–2004) is now fully revised and updated, providing an even more intimate portrayal of the influential writer’s life and career. The authors base this revision on Sontag’s newly released private correspondence, including emails, and the letters and memoirs of those who knew her best.
Chapters on Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Sylvia Plath, Amy Lowell, Michael Foot, Jill Craigie, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, and Willam Faulkner.
A Private Life of Michael Foot adopts a no holds barred approach to biography, leaving a political figure stripped bare, and revealing a deeply complex, introverted man for all to see.

The first biography of the prodigiously hard-working actor who embodied the Western ideal
A documentary approach to the life and legend. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies.
A riveting examination of Amy Lowell’s private life and lover, Ada Russell, who did so much to make Lowell’s career possible The startling discovery of a new Amy Lowell lover who perished on the Lusitania. A compelling window into Lowell’s gregarious character. Concise readings of Lowell’s most important poems reveal the depth and range of her erotic imagination. An astute analysis of the way biographers and critics have maligned Lowell as a person and poet.
A revisionist view of the poet, her fellow writers, and their biographers. In this series of essays, beginning with a look at how her own biographers have behaved, I have tried to re-conceive the familiar anecdotes and episodes, circling back again and again to certain incidents and contretemps, as the point of view shifts from one writer to another. As a kind of coda to my quarrel with biographers is an essay, “Remembering Amy Lowell,” in which I assess the varying degrees to which the memoirs of her present a credible person and poet. I have not paused to define in any great detail terms such as Imagism, although I’ve included an essay on the Imagists in an appendix as well as the full texts of the poems discussed in this book. These appendices provide a context for the discussion of Lowell and her contemporaries and serve, I hope, as an inviting introduction to her work.
A biography of the great film noir actor. Here at last is the complete story of a great actor, his difficult struggle to overcome alcoholism while enjoying the accolades of his contemporaries, a successful term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the love of family and friends that never deserted him. Based on diaries, letters, home movies, and other documents, this biography explores the mystery of a poor boy from Texas who made his Hollywood dream come true even as he sought a life apart from the limelight and the backbiting of contemporaries jockeying for prizes and prestige. Called “one of nature’s noblemen” by fellow actor Norman Lloyd, Dana Andrews emerges from Hollywood Enigma as an admirable American success story, fighting his inner demons and ultimately winning.
Here, at last, is the true story of Sylvia Plath's last days and her estate's efforts to shape her husband's role in her death and the world's understanding of Plath and her work. Here, too, is a new Sylvia Plath, immersed in popular culture and proto-feminism, presaging the way we live now.I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life. I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life.
The first biography that truly shows the actress at work.-- Ellen Burstyn A new edition, revised and updated, from University Press of Mississippi. In American popular culture Marilyn Monroe has evolved in stature from Hollywood sex symbol to tragic legend. Most books about Monroe stress the sensational events that surrounded her-this book is the first to deal honestly and critically with Monroe as an actress, evaluating her moves as crucial forces in the shaping of her identity. Through careful examination of her performances, from her small appearances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve to her memorable roles in Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and the The Misfits, the author traces her development from cover girl innocent to an actress devoted to her craft. Based on extensive interviews with many of Monroe's colleagues, close friends, and mentors, this comprehensive, critically balanced study describes her use of Method acting as well as her instruction with Michael Chekhov and, later, the Strasbergs. Carl Rollyson has written a refreshing analysis and appreciation of Marilyn Monroe's enduring and, until now, underestimated gifts as a creative artist.
America's most controversial radical playwright. Through diaries, letters, government files, and interviews Carl Rollyson draws a vital and vibrant portrait of the life, the work, and the legend of Lillian Hellman, America's most controversial radical playwright. Rollyson explores the sources and backgrounds of her best-selling memoirs, the development of her politics, her successful screenwriting career, and her famous appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He provides entertaining and informative accounts of her feud with Mary McCarthy, her many love affairs and surprising friendships. He also provides a provocative and compelling portrayal of this complex and brilliant woman, who was called everything from a "viper", "a goddam liar" to "an empathetic genius with a highly original and penetrating mind." Near death, Hellman spoke of being blocked; this biography will show what got in her way.
The first biography of Gellhorn, relying on key archival sources and interviews with her friends and associates. Martha Gellhorn died in February 1998, just shy of her 90th birthday. Well before her death, she had become a legend. She reported on wars from Spain in the 1930s to Panama in the 1980s, and her travel books have become classics. Her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and affairs with legendary lovers like H. G. Wells, and her relationship with two presidents, Roosevelt and Kennedy, reflect her campaigns against tyranny and deprivation, and her outrage at the corruption and cruelty of modern governments. This controversial and acclaimed biography portrays a vibrant and troubled woman who never tired of fighting for causes she considered just.
Delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Sontag an international icon, exploring her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves.
The first book to survey the broad range of Sontag's work. Includes a comprehensive glossary of Sontag's extensive allusions to literary figures and ideas.
Twenty-five years of writing about female icons and biography. Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag Bits and pieces that resulted not only in a biography of Marilyn Monroe but also in much of the work subsequently done on Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and on the nature of biography itself. This book includes New York Sun book reviews dealing with female icons such as Mary Stuart, Mary Wollstonecraft, The Brontës, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Plath.
The standard biography of one of the 20th century's greatest prose stylists.. What is new in this second edition of Carl Rollyson's standard biography? It begins with a portrait that attempts to evoke the living person in all her dimensions. It concludes with an interview with one of her favorite secretaries, Elizabeth Leyshon, who eluded him in the 1990s but provided new insights into her employer's character for this book. The biography's new title emphasizes that Rebecca West was a prophet-one not always appreciated in her own day. As early as 1917, she understood where the world was headed and realized that the revolution in Russia held out false hope. Because she took this view as a socialist, those on the left scorned her as an apostate, whereas she understood that Communism would result in a disaster for the British left. Readers wishing to gauge the range of West's fiction and nonfiction should read Woman as Artist and Thinker, published by iUniverse. Rollyson has read his words anew, sharpening sentences, omitting words and paragraphs-sometimes entire sections-in order to provide a refreshing, more engaging, and spirited account of one of the world's major writers.
The first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary career.
Religion, politics, and the writing of biographies.
Filmmaker, feminist,, wife--a twentieth century woman.
The first literary biography of Norman Mailer, updated and revised
Essays in Biography is a play on words conveying an attempt to explore the nature of biography in pieces about the history of the genre and in portrayals of biographers (Plutarch, Leon Edel, and W. A. Swanberg), literary figures (Lillian Hellman, Jack London), philosophers and critics (Leo Strauss and Hippolyte Taine), political figures (Winston Churchill and Napoleon), and artists (Rembrandt and Rubens).
For those addicted to reading biography, enhancing their pleasure by providing insight (or you might say, the inside word) on how biographies are put together.
Provocative reviews of American subjects, originally appearing in The New York Sun.
A candid and revealing account, by an expert in the minefield of the biographer’s contentious work
A terrific companion for biography writers and lovers.-- James McGrath Morris, editor of the monthly "The Biographer's Craft"