The title of playwright Lillian Hellman’s second book of memoirs is a painterly one, which Hellman defines in a brief prologue:Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.
This elegant definition, along with the book’s subtitle—A Book of Portraits—goes far toward explaining Hellman’s method, style, and focus in Pentimento. The book is indeed a series of portraits, most of them devoted to people and places important only to the narrator. One might extend the painterly metaphor to describe the seven essays in the book as finely wrought miniatures, each of them more reliant on detail than on scope. In Pentimento, the United States’ most important twentieth century woman dramatist casts herself as the repenting painter defined above, and it is her voice, her special vision, that unifies the many disparate parts of the book. In its emphases on memory, on time, and on taking responsibility for one’s own actions, Pentimento is as much as anything else a self-portrait.
Far from being the sort of name-dropping celebrity memoir that one might expect of someone who had, by the time of the book’s publication, lived in the public eye for some forty years, Pentimento is intensely private;...
Written after her autobiography An Unfinished Woman (1969) and before her castigation of the McCarthy era entitled Scoundrel Time (1976), Pentimento lives up to its title. Hellman explains this artistic term at the beginning of the book thus:Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.
This is a memoir, organized by devoting a chapter to Hellman’s cousin Berthe Bruno Koshland, her Uncle Willy, her childhood friend Julia, and her friend Arthur W. A. Cowan; her longtime companion Dashiell Hammett appears throughout, and the one nonhuman “character” is a turtle. There is also a chapter entitled “Theatre,” which deals with Hellman’s memories of many people involved with her during her years as a playwright. There is also a last, very brief chapter called “Pentimento” in which the author speaks of an experience that she had while teaching a writing seminar at Harvard University just after Hammett’s death.
True to her explanation of the book’s title, Hellman looks at both the original “paintings” and the same incidents and people years later. This technique lends credence to the criticism that some of the stories may have been altered to the point that they approach fiction. Yet her interaction with these compelling characters (including the turtle) results in a fascinating and readable book. It also gives a complete picture of a woman who saw herself clearly, faults and all, and who remained true to her feminist ideas throughout her life.
As Doris Falk makes clear in her 1978 biography of Hellman, however, she herself never felt the need of being “liberated from the male put-down,” although she resented being called “a woman playwright—even America’s greatest.” Rather, she believed that the goal of the feminist movement should be economic equality for women. This viewpoint is entirely compatible with Hellman’s general stance regarding the connection between money and power, delineated so forcefully in all of her work.
Some of the people appearing in Pentimento were sketched in An Unfinished Women, and Hellman has modeled many of the characters in her plays on friends and members of her family mentioned in both books. This is a common practice of writers in all genres, but some have wondered whether a character such as Julia, represented by Hellman as a “real” person in Pentimento, actually lived or was a complete fabrication, as the author Mary McCarthy charged publicly on The Dick Cavett Show. This accusation and other derogatory remarks by McCarthy resulted in a libel suit brought by Hellman. She and her attorney, Ephraim London, felt confident of success, but the suit never came to trial because of Hellman’s death.
One of Hellman’s themes throughout her work is love in its many forms. When she first discusses some of the personages as she remembers them from her own adolescence, she does not recognize the sexual undertones that she sees quite clearly as a mature adult. For example, Berthe, a distant cousin who is brought to the United States for an arranged marriage and then deserted, seems at first only an occasional visitor to the boarding house run by Hellman’s aunts, Hannah...
As Hellman would probably have admitted, her impact on women’s literature was not dependent on Pentimento, or even on its autobiographical companion pieces, but on her plays. As an important dramatist, she made her foremost contribution in that area. Yet Pentimento did assure her place in a second genre—as a literary figure—and this no doubt pleased her. Her candor about her life, even if it is sometimes viewed through a veil of memory (and embellished, her detractors claim), paints a picture of a strong, somewhat angry personality, but one capable of great love. She was undoubtedly opinionated and seemed somewhat egotistical to those who did not like her, but above all, she had a keen desire to sample all that life offered. It is therefore no surprise to read in all the books written about Hellman that even when she was almost blind and very ill during the last months of her life, she insisted passionately on continuing her activities. She was indeed, like the turtle, a survivor.
Falk, Doris V. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. A well-written biography of Hellman covering her life and her work, with many references to Pentimento. A bibliography is included.
Feibleman, Peter. Lilly: Reminiscences of Lillian Hellman. New York: William Morrow, 1988. An affectionate portrait which defends the way in which Hellman wrote Pentimento, particularly the chapter “Julia.” Hellman carefully researched details that would later, in Feibleman’s view, be “examined thread by thread, picked bare by all those nimble writers whose finest tools are a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers.”
Gould, Jean. Modern American Palywrights. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. Published years before any of Hellman’s memoirs, the chapter entitled “Lillian Hellman” illuminates the playwright’s position on social issues and feminism.
Harriman, Margaret Case. Take Them Up Tenderly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944. In her chapter “Miss Lilly of New Orleans,” Harriman focuses on Hellman’s life from childhood through the first plays and makes clear the playwright’s feelings about “the little people” in society.
Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Devoting only one short chapter to “Life and Times,” Lederer concentrates instead on a critical view of Hellman as an ironic voice in both her plays and her memoirs. Offers a section devoted to Pentimento and a selected bibliography.
Riordan, Mary Marguerite. Lillian Hellman: A Bibliography, 1926-1978. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980. An extraordinary book listing in easy-to-find form everything that Hellman wrote, all the speeches she made, and all the books and articles written about her and about her work through 1978.
Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. With copious notes, a bibliography, and a carefully done index, Rolly-son’s picture of Hellman (and Pentimento) seeks a well-balanced analysis of the woman and her work.
Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A well-written, unauthorized biography which makes claim to an inordinate amount of research in the attempt to show “a more human portrait of Hellman” than she painted of herself. Contains notes to each chapter and an index, but no bibliography.