Trying to account for Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman, by William Wright. New York: Simon & Schuster. 507 pp. Illustrated. $18.95. William Wright's approach to his subject (to use a word he tends to misuse) seems genuinely disinterested and fair-minded. Lillian Hellman herself might well have considered Wright a literary lightweight, but he has done a creditable amount of research and is most adept at sorting out conflicting versions of events. He handles the details of Hellman's private life - her childhood, her brief marriage to author and playwright Arthur Kober, her long relationship with Dashiell Hammett, and her numerous love affairs - with an honesty that never degenerates into mere intrusiveness.

On the question of Hellman's links to the Communist Party, Wright withholds a final verdict. But, after conducting an exhaustive examination of the evidence, he makes an interesting point. In the course of considering what he describes as her stalwart support of Stalinism and the party line over the years, as well as her occasional deviations from it, he eventually - and ironically - comes to feel that the only way one can maintain any belief in Hellman's intelligence and integrity is by supposing she was a party member after all, one of the distinguished few permitted to deviate from the strict party line and considered more valuable by the party for her display of independence.

If that seems like stretching it, such is the problem presented in trying to account for Lillian Hellman.

Shortly before her death, Hellman asked her friend and editor William Abrahams to serve as her official biographer: We have not heard the last word on Lillian Hellman. William Wright's biography, a project Hellman did not approve, is an account of her life by an author who is uncommonly sensitive to the problem of mythmaking that surrounds so many celebrities and legends.

Wright is not a literary critic. Yet he offers an intriguing explanation of how her skills and instincts as a writer helped create both the realism of her dramas and the credibility of her memoirs. Under Hammett's tutelage, Wright speculates, she had developed a keen sense of when not to lay it on too thick. Style has a strong ascetic component, and Hellman, after all, had style.

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