In this meticulously researched, evenhanded and intuitive biography of America's arguably greatest female playwright, author William Wright ("Pavarotti: My Own Story"; "The Von Bulow Affair") has written three books in one. "Lillian Hellman" is a book about theater, a book about women and success and a book about the political forces shaping the American intellectual left since the 1930s. With a deft and witty style, Wright has woven these narrative threads together into a tapestry that depicts the beginnings of the Age of Disinformation.
The most pruriently fascinating aspect of the book is of course Hellman the Woman, who appears, at least in some aspects, as monstrous as her most memorable dramatic creation, Regina in "The Little Foxes." Wright delineates the Hellman who swindled the daughters of her lifelong love, Dashiell Hammett, out of their shares of their father's estate; who once threatened a reporter with evidence of his homosexuality if he published an unfavorable piece, as well as the better-known Joan of Arc of the McCarthy barricades. He presents a woman ahead of her time, a woman who was "sexually aggressive when no women were . . . She cleaned up!" Although he presents convincing evidence that Hammett crafted the plots for her most successful plays, Wright describes their 30-year love affair as Hellman's anchor despite their many flagrant infidelities to one another. He is particularly incisive in defining their mutual attraction: Hammett's "rigorous honesty served as a brake on her shoddier impulses . . . she was like a junk-food addict who had the bad luck to fall in love with a nutritionist," while Hellman's raw ambition seemed to fire the perhaps more talented Hammett with an energy he lacked.
It is to Wright's credit that he never raises the question of whether Hellman might have used her free-floating libido to advance her career. He focuses instead on the far more disturbing question of whether the author of the battle cry of the intellectual left during the McCarthy era, "I cannot cut my conscience to suit this year's fashion," did indeed tailor her politics out of a complicated desire to achieve mythic status in her own lifetime. His chain of evidence includes Hellman's flexibility in eliminating the lesbian subplot of "The Children's Hour" in order to make the Broadway play into a Hollywood movie in the moral climate of the 1930s; her shocking lack of real political sophistication and, most compelling, the scandalous hypothesis that Hellman "commandeered" the life-story of freedom-fighter Mary Gardiner Buttinger as the basis for "Julia," a supposedly nonfiction section of the autobiographical "Pentimento" that deals with Hellman's rescue of a cherished friend in the anti-Fascist underground.
It is in this last instance that the weakness of the book, if there is a weakness, emerges. In discussing the controversy that erupted in 1983 when publication of Buttinger's memoirs gave substance to Mary McCarthy's celebrated accusation that Hellman fantasized the whole relationship in order to enhance her own image, Wright raises the possibility that Hellman might have been psychotic. To posit that Hellman was mentally ill is to dismiss her as a writer by absolving her of moral responsibility, and is ultimately far more damaging than to dismiss her as a lightweight melodramatist, an oft-leveled critical charge Wright illuminates with considerable insight into the craft of the theater elsewhere in the book.
It is ironic that Wright finds it more comforting to speculate that Hellman was a secret member of the Communist Party who dissembled in order to protect her power as a propagandist. But, even here, he concludes, "In fighting 'unannounced battles,' Hellman was creating a warring and divisive atmosphere that distracted from the larger problems both she and her adversaries were completely concerned with: poverty, racial injustice, and the arms race."
If Hellman was not a Communist, and not psychotic, but simply a hungry, forceful, talented woman thoroughly in touch with the reality around her, the picture Wright has created is even more disturbing, for it means that our society, in its two-pronged quest for celebrity and for simple victories, has itself become psychotic. Although Wright makes some educated guesses about the effects of Hellman's childhood as a Jew in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and even on a possible inferiority complex about her looks, he wisely refrains from reducing her by psychology: He leaves her a resonant enigma, a tarnished madonna for a troubled age.