History Professor Uses Lillian Hellman as Lens to Study 20th Century

Lillian Hellman—playwright, memoirist, accused liar, communist, muse to mystery writer Dashiell Hammett—never wanted biographies written about her. “She destroyed personal papers,” says historian Alice Kessler-Harris. “She even wrote to her friends toward the end of her life asking them to send back any letters.” Many did, and Hellman destroyed them.

Alice Kessler-Harris ed people who knew the playwright and reviewed the papers of literary agents, friends and Hellman’s husband.

In writing about Hellman, Kessler-Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, looks beyond the boundaries of Hellman’s life. She presents Hellman as a fascinating and flawed woman who was also “a lens through which we can study a whole series of events and trends of the 20th century.”

Hellman’s legacy may have waned after her death in 1984, but the book, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (Bloomsbury Press), makes it clear how complicated she was. “She’s a memoirist who admits to having a poor memory, a feminist who never identified herself as a feminist, a Jew who is accused of being anti-Semitic,” says Kessler-Harris. “Her personality is, at once, nurturing, loving and funny, as well as rude, dismissive and self-aggrandizing.”

Hellman was a self-made woman when that was a rarity. She tackled serious issues, writing of corruption, fascism and the power of money in her most famous plays—The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine. Kessler-Harris’ research focuses on women’s history, the labor movement and radical politics—all of which her subject exemplified. In the absence of Hellman’s own documents, Kessler-Harris ed people who knew the playwright and reviewed the papers of literary agents, friends and Hellman’s husband, Arthur Kober. She also pored over insurance records and files from Hellman’s many lawsuits, read letters written to Hellman by her longtime companion Hammett and used oral history records, some from the Columbia Center for Oral History.

In 1952, Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Americans who supported communism. She responded by refusing to name names and writing to the committee, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

In the late 1960s and ’70s, Hellman used her celebrity to push her civil liberties agenda, says Kessler-Harris. She wrote three best-selling memoirs, An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time, in which she spoke out against the left for not being aggressive enough in fighting McCarthyism. At the 1977 Academy Awards, she used her presentation speech to criticize the film industry for responding to 1950s-era blacklisting “with a force and courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes.”

Kessler-Harris, who won the Bancroft Prize in 2002 for In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America, says she focused on Hellman in relation to the 20th century because the parallels were too great to ignore. “Her relationship to communism and the political response to her tells us something about the way in which that issue engulfed the century,” she says.

After the film Julia, based on a chapter in Pentimento, was released in 1977, Hellman was attacked for characterizing herself as someone who helped smuggle money to a friend in Nazi Germany to help Jews escape. She had done nothing of the sort, but had appropriated the story of someone else. “Hellman wants to present herself in the way we all should have acted during World War II,” says Kessler-Harris.

Then there was the famous 1980 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, in which writer and longtime rival Mary McCarthy said of Hellman, “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.” Hellman, 79, nearly blind and battling emphysema, filed a $2.5 million libel suit against McCarthy that continued until Hellman’s death four years later.

Kessler-Harris does not doubt that Hellman lied about many things. For example, Hellman attended New York University for a couple of years and later took three courses at the School of General Studies. “Never wanting to tell people that she didn’t graduate from college, she would say, ‘I went to NYU and then I went to Columbia,’” says Kessler-Harris.

Kessler-Harris believes that Hellman, a dramatist, was attacked for lying largely because of the political and social climate. “In the 1970s and ’80s, the politics of the time were shifting,” she says. “Against that backdrop, it never helped her with her critics that she was abrasive, self-important, sexually liberated, Jewish and a woman. She was a good target.”

—by Eric Sharfstein

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