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A Difficult Woman

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris attempts an artistic, political, and moral portrait of a challenging subject: Lillian Hellman.

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A Difficult Woman:
The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman
By Alice Kessler-Harris
Bloomsbury USA
448 pp.

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At Hardscrabble, the farm in Pleasantville, N.Y. she’d bought after the success of "Little Foxes," Lillian Hellman slaughtered animals, made sausage and headcheese, hunted, trapped turtles, and fished.  She surrounded herself with famous guests of all sorts, and worked diligently on her plays. The place, aptly named, witnessed the flowering of her many-sided persona: as a best-selling playwright and memoirist, and as a celebrity with an outsized social and political life. 

It is a life that’s been both celebrated and reviled, and one that proves a doughty challenge for the biographer. In A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, historian Alice Kessler-Harris tries a new approach, attempting a kind of portrait, through Hellman, of 20th-century artistic, political, and moral life.  Hellman – Southern Jew, independent woman, and erstwhile communist – intersected with many flashpoints of her time. Kessler-Harris takes her as a historical lightning rod, her “identity woven into the fabric of political debate.”

History allows Kessler-Harris to forgive. She writes that the labels Helman received – unrepentant Stalinist, self-hating Jew, liar – as well as her reputation for being rude and vindictive, emerged less from her beliefs and practices than from the public mind-set at the time they were applied. Hence, while “in the sharp glare of history, neither the act of signing [a letter defending Stalin’s purge trials] nor her failure to repudiate the document thereafter is defensible. But by the dim light of the 1930s, both acts are understandable.”

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