For those who think that making it in a man's world is something this generation thought up, meet playwright Lillian Hellman, one of the most successful Broadway playwrights of either gender, a woman once described as a "tough broad ... the kind of girl who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth."
Coming of age in the Roaring Twenties, Hellman was a hard living woman — chain smoking cigarettes, out drinking many on the men in her life (and there were a lot of heavy drinking men in Hellman's orbit) and more importantly, writing hit plays like "The Little Foxes," "The Children's Hour" and "Toys in the Attic." Her success started early — in the mid 1930s — and lasted for more than 50 years until her death. A chapter of "Pentimento," her autobiography was made into the 1977 movie Julia starring Jane Fonda as Hellman, Jason Robards as her longtime lover mystery writer Dashiell Hammett (think "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Thin Man"). The movie also featured a young Meryl Streep.
But now, 28 years after she died, Hellman is mostly unknown.
"When I started work on this book," writes Alice Kessler–Harris, author of the recently released "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman" (Bloomsbury Press 2012; $30). "My friends and colleagues told me that this was a subject that had no rewards. They attached adjectives such as evil, cruel, and vindictive to Hellman's name. She was, I was told, a Stalinist, a liar, a self–hating Jew, at best a second–rate playwright, already forgotten."
The tenacity that propelled Hellman to become a wealthy writer in an age where few women even worked, stayed with her until the end.
At age 71, she was photographer holding a cigarette and wearing a mink coat with nothing else on underneath.
When her arch rival author Mary McCarthy vilified her by saying "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the,'" Hellman, nearly blind and very ill, sued her. When she died four years later, the suit was just going to court.
"It never helped her with her critics that she was abrasive, self–important, sexually liberated, Jewish and a woman," says Kessler–Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University in New York City. "She was a good target."