LIZ SMITH: "A Difficult Woman" Re-Examined ...

by Liz Smith
Friday, April 6, 2012

LILLIAN HELLMAN had never believed ... that communism constituted a threat to American freedom. To be sure, she had once thought that social justice would be best served by following the Soviet example, and into the 1960s she still hoped that the Soviet Union would reform itself.

“But she had long ago abandoned any commitment to Stalinist Communism. She was an American patriot, convinced that the route to a nonracist and more egalitarian America lay in defending freedom of thought, the capacity to dissent, and curbs on the power of money.”

Click to order A Difficult Woman.
That is author Alice Kessler-Harris, summing up one aspect of the tumultuous public life of playwright Lillian Hellman. This is in the new book, A Difficult Woman. (Hellman would not “name names” when called upon to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Although she emerged from the ordeal as a heroine, her ties to Communism would inevitably color reaction to her, and her work.)
  
Kessler-Harris does not present, as she notes in the brilliant introduction, a “cradle to grave” biography. Rather, A Difficult Woman is a series of essays on each part of Hellman’s life—as a playwright ... as a woman ... as a woman considered both ugly and sexy ... as a Jew ... as a sometimes naïve and overly idealistic political firebrand ... and on her generosity and her fabled penny-pinching. And Kessler-Harris places all of her qualities, both fine and infuriating, in the context of the century in which she lived — the momentous changes wrought in an astonishingly short amount of time. This book is not a defense, an apologia. Rather, it is an un-retouched, balanced look at cause and effect.

Hellman’s reputation suffered in her final years, when she propelled herself into a lawsuit against writer Mary McCarthy, who had infamously remarked on The Dick Cavett Show, “Every word she writes is a lie. Including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Mary McCarthy on The Dick Cavett Show.
Hellman had embellished her memoirs, for sure, but artistic license has its place, when used creatively, when it’s less than a lie but more than the truth. However, as McCarthy gathered evidence to fight Hellman in court, this license gave proof to those who disliked Hellman, that she was, simply, a liar. It was a shattering blow to a woman who considered herself honest, aboveboard and resistant to corruption.

Written by a woman, about a woman, this book is required reading for women. “She illuminates the tensions embedded in the 20th century transformation of women’s lives and gendered power relationships ... she simply did as she pleased without apparent attention to prevailing gender norms.”

Along with better understanding Miss Hellman, perhaps this new book will revive interest in her great plays, often dismissed as “melodramas,” or seen only as politically-themed. I do mean such fare as The Little Foxes ... The Children’s Hour ... Another Part of the Forest ... Toys In the Attic.
Tallulah Bankhead in the 1939 stage version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Elizabeth Taylor made her Broadway and West End debuts in 1982 with a revival of The Little Foxes.
Clearly, I recommend A Difficult Woman. Oh, and I happened to have liked that difficult woman! I saw her often toward the end of her life and she would always send for me to come and sit down by her. After giving me grief over various things I’d written, she’d always warm up and critique the event we were attending.

In another column I’ll elucidate on the last time I saw her, with Norman Mailer. This is a memory I cherish.
I DOUBT that Barbra Streisand is sitting around worrying over it, but Madonna has scored her eighth number one album, with “MDNA.” That puts Madonna just one #1 behind La Streisand.

Neck and neck: Madonna and Barbra.
Both the Big M and the Giant ... ah ... BS?—would likely say breaking records and how many times you reach number one doesn’t matter. It’s only about the art. And they probably believe what they say. They’re actresses, after all.

Barbra is busy with plans to bring “Gypsy” back to the screen, and put her indelible stamp on Mama Rose. Madonna is about to begin another one of those grueling worldwide concert tours that leave her exhausted, too thin and millions of dollars richer.

Madonna’s fans are hoping the third single from the album will be “I’m a Sinner.” The song has an incredible, throbbing hook and it’s classic Madonna—she’s sinning, she likes it, please Lord help me stop before I sin again!” (When she starts to chant about the saints—Christopher, Anthony, Augustine, etc.—it’s like the good old days of the 1980s.)
THE OTHER day as the wowOwow.com women’s group took the airwaves, live, for SiriusXM Radio – I had the privilege of being asked to call in, to speak as a surprise friend to my longtime friend, Barry Diller, the internet king of IAC.

Barry and I always celebrate our February 2 Groundhog Day birthdays together and I was able to chide him by pointing out that he had saved a lot of money over the years buying only one birthday cake.
Liz and Barry Diller. Dynamic duo: Lesley Stahl and Cynthia McFadden.
This was the “live” bow of our wOw women on Sirius and I was happy to be a part of it as our two hosts for the day were Cynthia McFadden of ABC’s Nightline and Lesley Stahl of CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Candice Bergen in The Best Man.
Lesley and Cynthia turned out to be a pro fit, amusing and amused as a duet. It just goes to show that competitors who like and respect each other can work together. And there is still, and all, no substitute for things that happen “live.”

I will never forget, back in the day, when pop news first introduced itself on WNBC’s “Live at Five” and we were touted as “the hottest TV show in New York.” How much terrific fun it was to be allowed to be real, make mistakes, fall on the desk in mortification and generally, behave like actual human beings.

I am so thrilled to be with the wOw women and able to participate once again in something happening as you hear it. There is no substitute for the real thing.

Listen to us every Wednesday at 11 a.m. (ET) on SiriusXM Stars Channel 107 for future programming. Our first guests, the aforesaid Mr. Diller and our wOw woman, Candice Bergen, now appearing on Broadway in The Best Man, were so great it will be difficult to top them. But we will.