Mark Twain once said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Such can be said about the perils of memoir-writing. Is the work a series of facts and events over a lifetime retold as they had actually occurred, or had they been diluted, polished, aggrandized in some way to allow the author to invent a better account of herself, which effectively turns it into a work of fiction?

Three“, a collection of memoirs by Lillian Hellman, comprises three volumes: “An Unfinished Woman” about her childhood and early years as playwright; “Pentimento”, a series of portraits of the people who made a significant impact in her personal and professional life; and “Scoundrel Time”, an account of her persecution during the McCarthy witch hunt of the 1950’s.

Much has been written about Hellman’s life and works that doesn’t bear repeating here. A playwright who came to fame in her mid-20’s, Hellman was a belligerent character in the American literary scene from the 1930’s until the time of her death in 1984. Hellman’s writing style is straigtforward, matter-of-fact — so much that her confident tone imposes a certain veracity on her stories. Yet when they were published in the 1970’s, along with the acclaims were sharp criticisms of some assertions she made, notably the “Julia” character in “Pentimento” that Hellman portrayed as a childhood friend and political activist who died in World War II, a personage who was probably in reality a living figure who had considered a lawsuit against her for this breach.

But perhaps the most telling memoir that Hellman wrote was not in this collection, but in a slim volume called “Maybe” which she wrote near the end of her life in 1980. In it, she recounts in a firm yet doubtful voice people and events that appeared and disappeared and then reappeared in her life in different forms and with different histories. Infirm and near blind at this time, Hellman disserts in an internal monologue, questioning her own memory about what had actually transpired. In it she said, “In the three memoir books I wrote, I tried very hard for the truth. I did try, but here I don’t know much of what really happened and never tried to find out. In addition to the ordinary deceptions that you and others make in your life, time itself makes time fuzzy and meshes truth with half truth.”

I’m not a particular fan of Hellman’s works but the period in which she lived, the individuals she frequented – Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dashell Hammett, and her other friends and enemies all made entertaining reading. So whether truth or fiction, Lillian Hellman is definitely a lively and intriguing figure to explore.

Three” 726 pages
Maybe” 102 pages
by Lillian Hellman