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Scholar reads between the lines in new Lillian Hellman biography

Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."
Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.

Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.

As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?

My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.

The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.