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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.


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.