What to make of Hellman, remembered as a commie playwright who enjoyed a sexual liberation from the 1920s onward? She earned her own fortune writing a few of the best American plays of the 20th century (The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes), she pushed the boundaries of dissent by defying the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 and wrote a trio of bestselling memoirs that caused a scandal. Is it any wonder she became a lightning rod for misogyny, red-baiting and character assassination? This book is not a biography, but a thoughtful examination of why Hellman’s reputation has gone through highs and lows in both literary circles and public opinion.
Kessler-Harris has no trouble proving Hellman was a difficult woman—tempestuous, demanding, parsimonious and vengeful. “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,” says the author, who is not so much an apologist for Hellman as a referee when the accusations start flying. Why did Hellman never renounce (loudly enough) Stalin’s purges? Didn’t that make her a self-hating Jew? How could this plain-looking woman demand so much sexual freedom?
The book keeps us moving toward Hellman’s redemption as a (reluctant) feminist icon of the 1960s and 1970s. “Wearing or not wearing a bra is terribly unimportant. It’s being able to buy that bra yourself—that’s important,” said Hellman, who had reframed herself as a patriotic champion of dissent. But public opinion swung away from her one last time in the 1980s: the writer Mary McCarthy accused Hellman of being a liar on The Dick Cavett Show and there was a libel trial. Hellman’s reputation never fully recovered.
There is no lack of drama covered in this book, yet it reads a little dull. Kessler-Harris never resorts to Hellman’s style of melodrama, but this reader sometimes wished she had.
Here’s where you find the current Maclean’s best sellers list, plus all of our books reviews.