In Crazy Salad, Nora Ephron gives Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir a must-not-miss review. I love Nora. I trust Nora. But this is her second recommendation that has left me underwhelmed. Still, I can see why she related. Both ladies were feminist Jewish screenwriters. They both were upper-crust but also in touch, wide reaching and also reachable.
Lillian, however, did not begin life among the privileged. Her father was a shoe salesman, and during her childhood, she spent six months of every year in a New Orleans boarding house run by his sisters, and six months in New York with her mother’s family. She describes her early years just enough to illustrate the innate independence which characterized her life. Rebellious little Lillian was primarily unconcerned with pleasing anyone besides herself, and she respected practically no one but Sophronia, her black caretaker, whom she loved.
As she moves into her adulthood, Lillian drops lots of celebrity-circle names, most of which were unfamiliar to me. (Ernest Hemingway, I knew.) As she tells of their profuse alcohol consumption, I had to wonder how much more extraordinary - or, perhaps, ordinary - they might have been if they’d made any effort to stay sober for ten minutes at a time. Lillian writes a little about her marriage to Arthur Kober, none of which seems remarkable after the reading. He is not among the prominent players in her life story.
Featured prominently, however, are Lillian’s European travels during World War II. The intimate diary vignettes are my favorite feature of the book. In them, she describes the ravaged landscapes, the kindness of war-weary locals, and the rationing of her own canned foods (which she brought upon Hemingway’s advice). She details a harrowing flight to frigid winter-time Russia. On this journey, she suffers a disastrous medical mishap, and an unlikely character assumes tender responsibility for her care and recovery. She also tells heartwrenching war stories, such as her visit to a concentration camp just recently surrendered by the Germans, where smoke still puffed from the chimneys, and human bones still lay in trenches.
Lillian saves the last few chapters for her most important people, beginning with her friend, the poet and screenwriter Dorothy Parker. To me, Dorothy seems like a loopy, lushy woman, an opinion shared by Lillian’s partner, Dashiell, who flatly refuses to associate with her. But Lillian obviously adores Dorothy and pays her respectable homage with a nod to her nuttiness.
The second to last chapter is devoted to Helen, the black housekeeper of Lillian’s adulthood, with frequent references to her childhood nurse Sophronia as well. In these pages, Lillian attempts to demonstrate her liberal-mindedness, but the contemporary reader sees a first-hand relic of white liberal guilt. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the era’s black/white relations adds dimension to our understanding of the progress we have - and haven’t - made since then.
The final chapter is Lillian’s memorial to Dashiell Hammett, her friend and lover from her mid-twenties until his death. These are the most sentimental pages in the book. She does not glamorize Dashiell’s addictions and eccentricities, but instead she writes with sensitivity about his alcoholism, his reclusiveness, their disagreements, and later, his pathological hoarding and neglect. Some anecdotes indicate the old cultural standards, with the immovable, unemotional man, but Lillian clearly commands a fantastic degree of autonomy for her time.
Throughout the book, Lillian says surprisingly little about her political leanings, which were famously communist, or the implications of her cultural heritage, which was Jewish. It might have been interesting to read more of that. Instead, she writes mainly about her formative relationships and her encounters with intriguing people of all social classes, which was good. But I wanted to like Lillian, and her book, more than I did. While her influence was broad and her stories are important, her voice constantly teeters on pompousness. I couldn’t warm up to her the way I did to Nora Ephron in I Remember Nothing or to J.R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar. If you know and love Lillian Hellman’s work, then you should enjoy An Unfinished Woman more than I did. I didn’t mind when it was finished.