THE BOOK SHELF: Moss Hart's "Act One" and Dorothy Gallagher's "Lillian Hellman"

By Steven Suskin
02 Feb 2014

cover art

"Hellman was a woman of enormous energy," she writes in her prologue, "talented, ambitious, restless, audacious, highly sexual, funny, generous, avaricious, mendacious, demanding, greedy, contemptuous, dogmatic, irritable, mean, jealous, self-righteous, angry." The author then sifts through Hellman's writings — countered by contradictory evidence from various sources — to prove her hypothesis. What we get is the best of Hellman and the worst of Hellman, presented in what seems to be a fair and balanced manner.

What does Gallagher mean by making up facts? Take Julia, whose story — originally told in Hellman's 1973 memoir "Pentimento" — formed the basis of the popular 1977 film which won Oscars for Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards. Julia, a childhood friend of Lillian, becomes a Socialist and convinces Hellman to smuggle money into Germany to fight the Nazis. This is all well and good, and makes Hellman look altogether heroic. The problem, Gallagher concludes, is that Julia seems not to have existed. Rather, there was a real-life counterpart — who had, indeed, studied with Freud in Vienna just like "Julia" did — but she didn't die in Germany in 1937; she outlived the playwright. Hellman apparently got biographical details from her lawyer, who was a housemate of the real-life Julia. But she never met Hellman, which suggests that Lillian's whole chronicle of smuggling money into Germany to fight the Nazis is baloney.

Hellman the memoirist tells us that when her long-time lover Dashiell Hammett was imprisoned, she sent a message to him from his lawyers that it would be better for her not to visit him and to quickly leave the country. She did so — although the lawyers didn't recall any such note, and Hammett was "surprised and hurt" by Hellman's desertion. (Goodman also explains how Hellman, as Hammett's executor, auctioned off his valuable copyrights — and bought them herself for a pittance, cutting out Hammett's daughter.)

There is also the matter of Hellman's vehement disavowal of ever having been a member of the Communist Party — which Gallagher counters with a letter from Hellman to her lawyer conclusively admitting that she had been a member. This denial is, of course, understandable, given the circumstances. But it indicates how Hellman's method was to create her own truth, write it up, and later cite is as proof of her veracity.

"An Imperious Life" is not a comprehensive biography; the author selects 15 subjects for discussion, and offers her findings in a straightforward manner. Even so, Gallagher in roughly 140 pages gives us an illuminating and convincing portrait of Lillian Hellman, the real one and the heroically fanciful one.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at