Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life. By Dorothy Gallagher. Yale University Press, 162 pages. $25.
Since her death on the Island in 1984, playwright, author and longtime seasonal Vineyard Haven resident Lillian Hellman has been the subject of four full-scale biographies. A fifth is a double biography of her and her 30-year companion and sometime lover, the detective book author, Dashiell Hammett. This latest biography by Dorothy Gallagher is part of a Jewish Lives series of Yale University Press books. The author points out that it differs from the others in that it pays more attention to Ms. Hellman’s Jewish immigrant forebears — what she knew of them, and how as a writer, she made use of them.
Lillian’s great-grandparents on her mother’s side came from Bavaria. Her great-grandfather, Isaac Marx, was 15 when he arrived in Alabama in 1840 and began his new life in America as a peddler in Demopolis, Ala., a town 140 miles north of Mobile. Clearly, his was a success story. By 1870, when he had moved to Mobile, the value of his real estate was $100,000 and his personal worth $30,000. He and his wife and their seven children had an elegant house with a veranda and a formal garden. That family was the inspiration for Lillian’s two plays, The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest.
Although she was born in New Orleans, Lillian grew up in New York city. At age 19, after she had dropped out of New York University and gone to work for a publisher, she married Arthur Kober, a Polish-born Jewish-American writer. He had good connections in both the publishing and theatrical worlds. Encouraged by him, Lillian began writing book reviews and stories. Later after the couple had moved to Hollywood, she worked as a theatrical publicist and script reader.
The marriage did not last long. The couple were sexually incompatible and Kober was writing largely about lower middle class Jews — a group that was of little interest to Lillian. Then in Hollywood, Lillian met and fell in love with Hammett, the handsome, dashing, but frequently inebriated writer who would have an enormous influence on her life. It was from him that she got the plot for her play The Children’s Hour, and he guided her through writing it. The play opened on Broadway in 1934 when Lillian was only 29. It became a great hit.
In addition to her interest in Lillian’s Jewish roots and the use she made of them as a playwright, Dorothy Gallagher’s concerns are with her enthusiasm for communism and Stalin; her brave stance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and the questionable “truths” and “distorted events” in her memoirs with which fellow writer Mary McCarthy took public issue.
This latest biography will be of particular interest to Vineyarders because there are so many on the Island who still remember Lillian Hellman and her house above Vineyard Haven harbor. The book is also filled with the names of other literary and musical summer Islanders who were the playwright’s friends and neighbors — William Styron, Frances and Albert Hackett, Peter Feibleman, Budd Schulberg, Joseph P. Lash, Leonard Bernstein, Jacqueline Kennedy and of course Hammett (with whom she long shared the house). Nearly all of these seasonal Islanders of her generation are gone now, but their names and their cultural contributions — like those of Lillian Hellman — are well remembered.