Tempestuous But Fun
Ann J. Loftin on a prickly playwright
A Life With Foxes and Scoundrels.
By Deborah Martinson.
448 pp. $27.95
Uh-oh. The jacket cover advertises this biography, the third to appear since Hellman’s death in 1984, as the first to be “written with the full cooperation of her family, friends, and inner circle.” Hagiography, here we come?
No, not really. While Deborah Martinson, an English professor at Occidental College in California, clearly admires her subject, she doesn’t stint on the scheming and husband snatching and fact fudging and badmouthing that went along with Hellman’s brilliance, her unorthodox brand of loyalty, and her unstoppable high spirits. As a friend is said to have remarked at Hellman’s graveside, “She was awful, but she was worth it.”
Hellman was born in New Orleans in 1905 to a family of eccentrics, grew up on the bayou and then in New York City, attended—indifferently—New York University, dropped out, and, at age 19, married Arthur Kober, a man both decent and talented, who later wrote 30 films and produced many Broadway plays. She tried to do the expected things, but wifely subordination just wasn’t in her. By the time she met Dashiell Hammett (also married), she’d flown the coop. Though she and Hammett lived together on and off for the next 30 years, first as lovers and later as friends, she never remarried; she simply bedded married men as she pleased.
Hellman went on to write several very successful plays, among them The Children’s Hour (1934), The Little Foxes (1939), and the antifascist Watch on the Rhine (1941). She also wrote movie adaptations of her plays, along with other screenplays, and engaged in world-class brawls with producer Sam Goldwyn. She tried her hand at other genres, too, collaborating (if Hellman the dictator could ever be said to have collaborated) with her friends Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur on a musical production of Candide.
Though adept at self-promotion, she took writing very seriously, as both a teacher and a reader. Chekhov, she wrote in the introduction to a 1955 collection of his a man of deep social ideals and an uncommon sense of social responsibility”—her highest praise—as well as a “workman” playwright for whom “the smallest stage movement has an end in view and is not being used to trick or deceive or pull fashionable wool over our eyes.”
In 1939, using the profits from her plays and screenplays, she bought a 130-acre farm in Pleasantville, New York, now a suburb but then deep country. There, she cooked, entertained constantly, farmed, gardened, hunted and fished, and raised chickens and other livestock, seeming to master her new environment instinctively. Later she would hold court on Martha’s Vineyard for everyone from Norman Mailer to James Taylor. Mary Mahoney, a young woman who kept house for Hellman on the Vineyard one summer, wrote a cruel but no doubt largely accurate portrayal of her as litigious, insanely demanding, paranoid, monstrous; but then, no man is a hero to his valet.
Nearly every other aspect of Hellman’s life has been disputed, including how much Hammett helped with The Children’s Hour (Martinson convincingly shows his editorial guidance to have been critical), her overlong defense of Stalin and the Soviet regime (she finally recanted, but without much vigor), and the truthfulness of her three autobiographical memoirs, An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976). Of the last, Mary McCarthy famously told Dick Cavett, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
What no one can deny is that Hellman drank more, laughed more, smoked more, fought more, and had a whole lot more sex than anyone does today. The pace and ferocity remained truly staggering until her dying days, when she asked a friend at her bedside, “I was fun, wasn’t I?” So even if Martinson isn’t really telling Hellmanites anything they don’t already know, readers encountering the fiend for the first time are guaranteed a fast ride as well as a realistically complex portrait. The worst thing about this book is Martinson’s writing, which belabors certain themes ad nauseam (e.g., Hellman’s “eroticism”) and serves up such doozies as “success separated herself from herself and others.” Were Hellman around to read it, one can imagine her imperious scorn.
—Ann J. Loftin