With chapters on the theater and on key events in her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, Julia, and others, Hellman perfects the form of the short memoir. An Unfinished Woman had made sporadic references to the unreliability of memory and to how, over time, the imagination works over the past, transforming it into emblems of the self. By choosing the painter’s term “pentimento” as a title, Hellman stresses how important it is for her readers to see that she is writing from the point of view of the present and is “repenting”—that is, changing in words the scenes she remembers, finding a deeper meaning in them, and setting them in a new context—much as a painter may paint over a scene or a figure on a canvas, having changed his or her mind about how it should be depicted.
Two of Hellman’s character portraits, “Bethe” and “Willy,” are about relatives whose stories help Hellman focus on her own development. Bethe has come to the United States from Germany, destined to be the bride in an arranged marriage, but she leaves her feckless husband for a passionate affair with another man, an Italian with underworld connections. Although Bethe’s behavior is condemned by Hellman’s family, Hellman’s two aunts never quite abandon Bethe, and Hellman depicts herself as an adolescent who is fascinated by Bethe’s sexuality and her willingness to sacrifice everything for the man she loves. Not so much a celebration of romantic love as it is confirmation of a woman’s right to live as she likes, “Bethe” is clearly emblematic of Hellman’s own life—of her leaving her husband for Hammett and her willingness to cope with her family’s disapproval.
Similarly, Willy, Hellman’s extravagant and sexually attractive uncle, represents the type of man she would often be drawn toward in later life. Willy is a venture capitalist, an independent operator who never quite fits in with his wife’s wealthy family. He is a man who makes and loses his fortune several times, a man with mistresses and hearty appetites, who almost persuades a grown-up Hellman to accompany him on one of his expeditions abroad. His generosity and flair make him an enviable alternative to the gross competitiveness of her mother’s family, who have made Hellman feel small—especially after her father’s failure in business.
Undoubtedly, the most riveting story in Pentimento is “Julia.” She is Hellman’s darling childhood friend, the political activist from a wealthy family who spurns an easy life, earns a medical degree at the University of Oxford, and (studying with Sigmund Freud in Vienna) becomes involved in the anti-Fascist movement. Julia is beautiful, courageous, and...
(The entire section is 686 words.)