Few literary celebrities have lived with more abandon and under a brighter spotlight than Lillian Hellman. Even fewer have been doubted as absolutely as Hellman, famously denounced by rival Mary McCarthy. Attacked by critics and idealized by admirers, Hellman’s determination to control and manipulate her image helped make her a figure of unknowable half-truths and rumors. Until now.
Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels is the first biography of the iconoclastic playwright written with the full cooperation of her family, friends, and inner circle. Deborah Martinson moves beyond the myths around Hellman and finds the sassy, outrageous woman committed to writing, to politics, and to having her say. Martinson’s researchthrough interviews, archives, recently declassified CIA files, and her unprecedented access to Hellman’s confidantspaints the most complete, and surprisingly admiring, portrait of this remarkable writer that we’ve ever had.
Distinctly Americana New Orleans Jew with one foot in Manhattan and one in Hollywood, a writer whose experience spanned the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Nixon yearsHellman lives again in this riveting biography, facing the world with wit, truth, lies, and chutzpah.
Out of the feuds, plays, movies and affairs of a complex life comes a sweeping, focused biography. It's reassuring to have Martinson (English and Writing/Occidental Coll.) write at the start of a biography authorized by her subject's estate that "I don't always like Lillian Hellman." Sharp insight into Hellman's often contradictory, controversial life is what Martinson goes after, not hagiography. Indeed, Hellman herself could be a little fox. Settling the estate of writer Dashiell Hammett, her longtime lover, she outmaneuvered his daughters to win the royalties from his work, though his will directed her to share them with his family. It was a grab that could have been made by one of the characters in Hellman's thundering melodrama, The Little Foxes. Hammett, according to Martinson, pulled Hellman's life and writing career together as he pointed her to playwriting by critiquing, editing and even contributing to her texts. Major success on Broadway and in Hollywood as a screenwriter followed. But Hellman did not get cozy on Shubert Alley or at the Brown Derby. A vocal, active liberal, she covered revolution in Spain and life in Russia, ending up the subject of extensive FBI files and, eventually, a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the red scares of the '50s. Throughout her life, she suffered fools with cutting words, though her razor-sharp opinions could be contradictory and hypocritical. As intense as her anger were the affairs she enjoyed well into late middle age. She once feared Leonard Bernstein, in a hotel room next to hers, might hear the noise she'd made while making love. Then she realized she could hear Bernstein, similarly engaged. A rich, literate, compelling account with the spark of a Hellman play. (Kirkus Reviews)