First published in American Repertory Theatre News (May 1993).
The reputation of writers usually declines right after their death, and–thanks to controversies over her politics and the truthfulness of her memoirs–this has been especially true for Lillian Hellman. But Hellman’s life also left a strong afterglow, and it’s difficult for me to be objective about her.
Lillian was twice our age, close to 70, when my wife and I met her in 1974, not long after two books of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, had transformed her from a faded Broadway playwright into the reigning heroine of American letters. These were the last years of sixties radicalism and the first years of a new feminism. Nixon had just been evicted from office and Americans were becoming cynical about their leaders and fond of mavericks who stood up to them. The hard-boiled writers of the thirties were coming back into fashion, thanks in part to Lillian’s vivid portrait of her friend Dashiell Hammett, whose laconic voice and strict moral code she had recast into a remarkable style of her own.
Lillian’s recollections made a fetish of plain speaking and truth-telling, though the last of them, Maybe (1980), a book about the pitfalls of memory, insisted (perhaps defensively) on just how elusive the truth could be. When I told a friend of mine I’d be writing about her, he suggested she could be summed up in four simple words: “She was a liar.” Yet even critics who dispute her account of the blacklist era in Scoundrel Time (1976) accept her eloquent challenge to HUAC in 1952 as a rare moment of public courage in a dismal period. Today it seems obvious that the eccentric, elliptical chapters of Pentimento are shaped like short stories, that several of them seem highly fictionalized. Even then I had an intuition that the best of them, “Julia,” had been conceived as a work of fiction before being assimilated somehow into her personal history. Unlike many other figures in the memoirs, Julia was never part of the amazing stock company that enlivened Lillian’s table talk.
Good storytelling was but one of the things that made Lillian so much fun to be with. She loved to cook, loved going out and eating well, loved bringing unlikely people together. What rang truest about Scoundrel Time and even “Julia” was not her portrayal of herself as an improbable heroine–this was her old taste for melodrama–but her faith in friendship and personal loyalty over politics. She could remain close to mandarin conservatives like Joseph Alsop and was deeply pained when old friends like Norman Podhoretz attacked her with personal venom over mere political differences. “I don’t understand,” she once said. “We never quarreled.” She was puzzled by the kind of temperament that placed ideology over personal ties.
To spend time with Lillian meant being swept up into the orbit of a unique and powerful personality, surrounded by an unusual circle of friends and admirers–the contemporary equivalent of a 19th-century salon. Though Lillian played brilliantly at the role she had created, her guests were not simply invited to worship at the shrine. Dinner with Lillian meant an evening of effervescent wit, malicious gossip, and anecdotes that stretched from the 1920s to the day before yesterday. Like the older friends she revered–Hammett, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Edmund Wilson–she was still a figure out of the twenties: fun-loving, hard-drinking, iconoclastic.
Her fuss over the food, the wine, the social chemistry, her mixture of exquisite courtesy and wild profanity, her stormy displays of anger and affection, were legendary. It was like dining with the duchess, though she cursed like a sailor and raised gossip to an art form. Whether you saw her alone or with forty other people, she had a way of focusing on her guests, seducing them with her charm and attention. She seemed to have known everyone, and she told stories about them that no doubt improved with age. Her Park Avenue apartment was like the graphic version of her memoirs, filled with the books and memorabilia of another world. She made you feel delighted to be there.
Lillian hated being bored, hated being alone. She seemed inexhaustibly interested in people but easily exasperated by them. Shirley Hazzard once told of receiving rude treatment at lunch with Lillian in a crowded restaurant. Fuming, Hazzard was astonished at Lillian’s unwonted equanimity. “We’re writers,” she said. “People are our best material. They’ll never let you down.”
Part of the deal was that she never let them down, though she could also be harsh and demanding, especially in her insistence on total loyalty. Peter Feibleman’s play Cakewalk portrays her as a monstre sacré, alternately impossible and inescapable, a grande dame who could outrageously manipulate people’s lives while remaining immensely vulnerable and human. In an uncanny way, he captures the very sound of her voice: the quick comeback, the razor-sharp wit that brings back the Vanity Fair era, the volatile mixture of bitchiness, tenderness, and animal cunning.
For nearly a decade we saw her three or four times a year without ever bumping up against the ferocious figure we often heard about. Perhaps we weren’t close enough to ignite her fury; perhaps she simply liked us in an uncomplicated way. Mostly, her enemies seemed well chosen. As a former yeshiva student I was probably more Jewish than anyone she knew, and she could always get my goat by lambasting Israel or mocking the “kikes” in her building. At such times her face would take on the mischievous look of the well-bred girl eager to shock. She was obviously ambivalent about being Jewish. Once, before the holidays, when she was going in for a last-ditch eye operation and asked me to say a prayer for her, though she knew I didn’t really believe in God. She was terrified of losing what was left of her sight, but she could only say so indirectly.
As the decrepitude of age and illness descended, she seemed grimly determined to carry on as before. In restaurants, though she was nearly blind, her hands moved constantly across the table, memorizing the position of the wine glass, the knife and fork, the lighter and cigarettes. If someone came up to her she stared directly at them, keeping up the small talk until they gave some hint of who they were. I was on the verge of offering to read to her but was put off by her lifetime of theatre experience and her sarcastic comments on those who already had done so.
Warmed by her affection, I took vicarious pleasure in her fame: the runaway success of Scoundrel Time, which confirmed my own disgust with the blacklist years, the belated acclaim at the 1977 Oscar ceremony, when all the Hollywood phonies fell at her feet, the marathon television interviews in which she told and retold her story. When Fred Zinnemann’s film of Julia came out she made fun of its political timidity and the sheer mimickry of Jane Fonda’s impersonation of her. But I could tell she wanted us to like it, and somehow I found a few kind things to say. But when Elizabeth Taylor did The Little Foxes Lillian made no bones about liking anything but the money pouring in–$40,000 a week, I think she said–so she treated us to a really expensive meal, though we had invited her to dinner.
To her enemies the image of Lillian as a heroine grew ever more irritating since it threatened to validate her politics by wrapping them in an indelible American myth. It was galling that a woman who had style, money, class, and popular success could present herself as a feisty, truth-telling outsider. Chipping away at the veracity of her memoirs began in earnest with Mary McCarthy, whom she foolishly sued, and became a small cottage industry in the early Reagan years. It received an enormous boost when the real Julia, Muriel Gardiner, who had never met Lillian, published her own artless but revealing memoir in 1983.
The pace increased after her death with semi-debunking biographies by William Wright and Carl Rollyson. Both books focused heavily on her myth-making tendencies yet, by the sheer weight of attention, inevitably contributed to fleshing out the myth. Both in the end were surprisingly forgiving and sympathetic. As Wright says, summing up her achievement: “For all her prodigious impact on the world–plays, books, loves, friends, politics, social criticism–there seems little doubt that her greatest contribution was the character that she created in the memoirs. So much attention has been given to the truth or falsity of the portrait that the creative feat has been overlooked.”
If it was a creative feat, if it overstepped even the fictive nature of all autobiography, then she was also determined to live the character she created. To a remarkable degree, the voice of the memoirs–the cynicism and gaiety, the moral absolutes, the hatred of sentimentality, the tenderness behind the toughness–was also the conversational voice and social figure we knew. With their vague chronology, their leaps of association, their eccentric prose rhythms, their gaps and fissures and suppressions, her books are less about past events than about taking stock of one’s life; they’re the very sound of her remembering. Like so many Americans, Lillian gave the impression of inventing herself as she went along.
She made the most of her contradictions, portraying herself as an “unfinished” woman who remained alive and curious but whose parts would never quite add up. This process of self-fashioning helped make for a truly original venture in autobiography as well as a forceful, engaging personality. If her suppressions were partly defensive–a way of reshaping and mythologizing the intractable parts of her life–still, few memoirs have proved more engrossing or more rereadable, just as few people ever regretted the hours they spent in the author’s lively and unpredictable company.