An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman (1999)

An Unfinished Woman by Hellman cover

Adapted from the 1999 Little, Brown edition of An Unfinished Woman by Lillian Hellman: The plays of Lillian HellmanThe Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, The Autumn Garden, Toys in the Attic, and all the others — speak eloquently for themselves and for Miss Hellman’s life in the theatre. An Unfinished Woman speaks for her life in the world outside.

It is in no sense a predictable theatrical memoir. Instead, she offers a detailed, unsparing self-scrutiny and a passionate, sometimes comic, always candid account of her experience, whether in New York, New Orleans and Hollywood, in Spain during the Civil War, or in Moscow and Leningrad during the Second World War and twenty years later.


Aimless and discontented in her twenties

Writing of herself as she was in her mid-twenties, aimless, discontented, and in want of occupation, Miss Hellman remarked, “I needed a teacher, a cool teacher, who would not be impressed or disturbed by a strange and difficult girl. I was to meet him, but not for another four or five years.” 

That man was to be Dashiell Hammett; and their extraordinary relationship, which continued for almost thirty years until his death in 1961 was central in her life.

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Lillian Hellman at her desk in a London Hotel, 1945

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Portraits of Dashiel Hammett and Dorothy Parker

In this memoir, Hellman includes a warm but unsentimental portrait of her friend Dorothy Parker; a revealing chapter on her childhood nurse and her housekeeper — two black women who profoundly influenced her life.

There’s also a moving description of Hammett in his later years and how their lives evolved as he wasted away from emphysema and cancer.


A witness to history

Hellman’s life has led her through many of the great events of our times and involved her intimately with countless persons, some famous, others unknown, caught up like herself in history.

The alternation of public and private concerns forms the basis of a book that calls upon all of her formidable powers of intellect, imagination, and style. Only incidentally a memoir of the playwright, it is chiefly and unforgettably a memoir of the woman who wrote the plays.


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