Lil­lian Hell­man: An Impe­ri­ous Life

Dorothy Gal­lagher
  • Review
By – January 29, 2014

Four full-length biogra­phies, sev­er­al shared biogra­phies, and a series of mem­oirs have already been devot­ed to the life of Lil­lian Hell­man (19051984); read­ers hard­ly need anoth­er full account of her life, as author Gal­lagher explains in her pro­logue. Instead, Gal­lagher focus­es on the thornier aspects of Hellman’s sto­ry: How could Hell­man have sup­port­ed Stal­in, know­ing how many mil­lions he was mur­der­ing? Did she real­ly con­front the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activi­ties in a unique­ly prin­ci­pled fash­ion, as she argued? If she was real­ly so fond of Dashiell Ham­mett and Dorothy Park­er, why, after they died, did she try to pry their estates away from their intend­ed heirs? Did she fab­ri­cate the char­ac­ter of Julia,” the basis of the Oscar-win­n­ing film, and then lie about it? Indeed, were most of her accounts of her own prin­ci­pled stances…lies? In one slim vol­ume, with a few care­ful­ly cho­sen exam­ples, Gal­lagher man­ages to reduce an enor­mous cul­tur­al icon — a larg­er-than-life, scoundrel-fight­ing lit­er­ary war­rior — to sad­ly mor­tal pro­por­tions, a tal­ent­ed woman dri­ven by self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion who end­ed in self-delu­sion. There’s noth­ing even-hand­ed about Gallagher’s account, but it cer­tain­ly bal­ances out Hellman’s own pro­pa­gan­da. Index, notes, photographs.

Relat­ed Con­tent: Jew­ish Lives series

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions