During an appearance on a US talk show in 1980, the novelist Mary McCarthy was asked to name the writers she considered most overrated. At the top of her list was Lillian Hellman, the playwright, screenwriter and memoirist. "Every word she writes is a lie," McCarthy said, "including and and the."
The barb proved fatal for Hellman's reputation. She filed suit for libel but the tactic backfired. It undermined her standing as a free-speech champion, first established by her refusal to identify one-time Communists when called to testify before Congress in 1952. ("I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she had said.)
More damning were the revelations of Hellman's mendacity. Her reputation had enjoyed a revival in the 1970s as her memoirs became best-sellers, but by her death in 1984, aged 79, it lay in ruins. First, Ernest Hemingway's third wife Martha Gellhorn denied that Hellman was tight with him in Paris and Spain, as she had claimed in recounting her 1936 and 1937 travels in Europe. Then "Julia", a chapter in Hellman's 1973 memoir Pentimento that was made into a 1977 film starring Jane Fonda as a foxy young Hellman, was shown to be fictional, and had in fact been lifted from the true story of Muriel Gardiner, the sole American woman in the Austrian anti-fascist resistance.
Finally, Hellman's decades-long denial that she had ever belonged to the Communist Party was disproved shortly after her death, when a scholar unearthed an early version of her 1952 statement in which she admitted to having been a party member from 1938 to 1940 in Hollywood and New York.
It is, therefore, a very difficult task that Alice Kessler-Harris has set herself here: to show that Hellman warrants our admiration. More a meditation than a biography, and lavishly illustrated with photographs, the book is a series of thematic essays on aspects of Hellman's life: her status as a southern Jewish transplant from New Orleans to New York; her plays, including The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes; her sexuality and relationships, most famously with the detective-fiction writer Dashiell Hammett; her financial acumen; and, inevitably, her politics.
Starting with its titular adjective, A Difficult Woman seeks to defuse prejudice against Hellman by conceding virtually every critical word ever said of her. She was often irascible, impatient, stubborn, wrathful, quarrelsome, rude, vin- dictive, vengeful, contentious and prickly, Kessler-Harris concedes. Even so, the work is suffused with admiration for Hellman and her indomitability, sensuality, independence, toughness and chutzpah.
One adjective, however, is resisted: "Stalinist". Kessler-Harris is far too good a historian not to admit the evidence of Hellman's pro-Soviet disposition during Stalin's reign. She faulted the philosopher John Dewey's inquiry into the false charges against Leon Trotsky in 1937, praised the ghastly Moscow show trials of 1938, witnessed the Spanish Civil War without acknowledging the Communist suppression of anarchists and socialists, accepted the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, depicted the Ukrainian peasantry as joyous in her 1943 film The North Star and fronted the notorious Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace of 1949, held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, that provided a platform for Soviet speakers. Any criticism of these activities, however, is characterised by Kessler-Harris as sheer "Red baiting" - even sexist - despite the fact that Hellman's greatest critics were liberals or radicals who sought a socialist democracy, including women such as McCarthy.
Hellman managed to idealise both the Old South and Stalin's Soviet Union, to combine a boundless love of money with egalitarian economic radicalism, and to write morality plays while behaving execrably. A Difficult Woman portrays a woman of undeniable force and ambition whose reputation lies beyond the capability of even our best historians, motivated by the best of intentions, to redeem.
A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
By Alice Kessler-Harris Bloomsbury, 448pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781596913639. Published 21 June 2012