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Radical Sneak Escapes Again : LILLIAN HELLMAN Her Legend and Her Legacy by Carl Rollyson (St. Martin's Press: $25.95; 597 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Jessica Teich | Teich is literary manager of the Mark Taper Forum .

When Lillian Hellman was young, she threw herself from a tree in anger and smashed her nose. Sophronia, the black maid she later called her "most certain love," warned her not to "go through life making trouble for people." It was advice she never heeded; or did she heed Sophronia's caution "to try to tell the truth"? In her life and in her memoirs, Hellman played fast and loose with facts; she didn't hide the truth as much as dress it up, according to the role she was playing. Seductress, bully, aesthete, proletarian, she carried her jewelry case to the front during the Spanish Civil War, sympathized with the Soviets but denounced socialism because the plumbing didn't work. When she posed for a Blackglama ad late in life, the image of the "dyed-in-the-mink" radical embodied all her contradiction. "What becomes a legend most?" was a question she'd been asking herself for years.

Carl Rollyson's "Lillian Hellman: The Legend and the Legacy" takes its cue from Hellman's self-generated myth: Hellman as cultural monument. She even looked like Mt. Rushmore. Hellman shored up the image with four books of recollection: "An Unfinished Woman" (which won the National Book Award), "Pentimento," the highly controversial "Scoundrel Time" and "Maybe." In her memoirs, she appears tentative, even vulnerable, but her apparent candor was yet another pose; an effort, however unconscious, to reserve the truth only for herself. One critic suggests that Hellman was "hiding inside her own creation." If so, for all his diligence, Rollyson has not managed to scare her out.

Rollyson is at his best writing about the young Lillian, an only child whose profligate father and pliant mother provided the axes around which her characters converged. Hellman's gifts as playwright emerged early: Cast as the villain in a school play, she had few lines, but when a blocked door prevented her exit, she settled herself on a couch and delivered a dazzling extemporaneous speech.

Hellman's most famous--and highly reviewed--performance was as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. This time, her appearance was carefully scripted. Her well-known line, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," had gone through several drafts. The letter in which these words appeared was read as part of Hellman's testimony; characteristically, she was willing to talk about herself, but only up to a point. Hellman, who hated actors, had cast herself as the heroine of a morality play. She even reports applause from the press gallery (she says a man cried out, "Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it"). No one else recalls hearing the voice.

Critics attacked "Scoundrel Time," Hellman's 1976 account of the events, as myopic; one reviewer called it "one of the most poisonous and dishonest testaments ever written by an American author." But no charge stung as deeply as Mary McCarthy's claim, in an appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show," that every word Hellman ever wrote was a lie, including "and" and "the." Hellman responded with a $2.25-million lawsuit, refusing to drop the case despite the exhortations of her closest friends.

Hellman's best-loved battles were always personal. Even as a writer, she understood the flash of temperament better than the slow burn of ideology. She was a moralist, not a theorist, and so mistrusted relativity or ambiguity. For Hellman, life existed only at the extremes; hence her attraction to Dashiell Hammett, the celebrated but dissolute writer who husbanded her talents. The biography's chief disappointment is that it does little to reveal their relationship. Perhaps no account could rival Hellman's portrait of "Dash" in "An Unfinished Woman," but Rollyson's Hammett remains in shadow, the enigmatic figure one contemporary called "the most silent man I ever knew." "In the end, who knows what the whole story is or how to tell it?" Rollyson shrugs, a question most readers would expect a biographer to answer, not ask.

A meticulous researcher, Hellman would have admired Rollyson's thoroughness, but his facts aren't always marshaled in the service of insight. A chapter on Hellman's teaching days at Harvard seems to exist primarily because the biographer gained access to a student's copious notes. More regrettably, Rollyson makes little attempt to assess Hellman's writing. He synopsizes rather than analyzes her work, documenting various drafts of a play without fully exploring the genesis or effect of the revisions. As a result, he offers little sense of Hellman's skills or lapses, or of her ever-fluctuating stock in the American literary market.

As Rollyson notes, Hellman's life became its own literature, yet he hasn't managed to read between the lines. He cites Hellman's apologia, "Each of us has our own reasons for pretending, denying and affirming what was there and never there," but doesn't grapple with those reasons, and so lets her off the hook. Although he interviewed scores of her friends, colleagues and detractors, Rollyson uses their testimony to create a composite sketch rather than a coherent theory of personality. In writing her memoirs, Hellman refused to become the "bookkeeper" of her life, but that's precisely Rollyson's achievement, and his undoing. Dutiful and slightly awed, he's no match for his subject. Four years after her death, Lillian Hellman is still giving somebody the slip.

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