New York Times
November 3, 1996

Why Lillian Hellman Remains Fascinating

[T] here is still so much of Lillian Hellman around, it's beginning to appear that she beat death just as she beat so many other career setbacks. In the 12 years since she died, she has been the subject of five books, two of which, mine and another, were full biographies. Her plays continue to be performed, and they are performed more frequently than the works of male playwrights like Maxwell Anderson, Robert Sherwood and Clifford Odets -- all of whom, in their day, were considered her betters. Her work will be back in New York this spring with a new Lincoln Center Theater production of "The Little Foxes" starring Stockard Channing as Regina.

Each of Hellman's three volumes of memoir were acclaimed best sellers. Although the last of these came out 20 years ago, they all can still be found in bookstores. PBS is planning a 90-minute biography. Zoe Caldwell portrayed Hellman in a one-woman play, and now there is another play, "Cakewalk," by her longtime friend and companion, Peter Feibleman. Based on their relationship, and starring Linda Lavin as Hellman, with Michael Knight as Mr. Feibleman, it opens on Wednesday at the Variety Arts Theater.

So not only has Hellman still got "life," it's beginning to appear that, for winning public attention, the woman herself is pulling ahead of her plays. What gives Lillian Hellman such a lingering claim to our attention?

Although her career as a dramatist was certainly distinguished, it is now fashionable to dismiss her plays as melodramas. Whatever they were, two or three were unarguably landmarks in the history of New York theater, if perhaps not the history of drama.

When in 1934 the success of her first play, "The Children's Hour," brought celebrity at the age of 28, she immediately put her fame to work for leftist causes and remained, throughout her life, a bellicose figure in the nation's political arena. This commitment culminated in her courageous defiance of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. As a dramatist, author, screenwriter and activist, Hellman was a commanding presence in America's cultural life for half a century.

Even her failures were carried off with attention-getting panache. When her plays began losing their appeal for both critics and audiences, Hellman quit writing dramas, also stung by an article that named Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as America's three greatest living playwrights.

In interviews, she snorted that she no longer enjoyed working in the theater because "there was too much talk about money."

Close to 60 when she stopped writing plays, Hellman could have followed many other prominent Broadway dramatists into retirement, written a single memoir that no one but theater buffs would read, and accepted occasional awards from arts organizations in need of a prestigious name. But instead of gracefully accepting a venerated emeritus status, she pounded her way into a new career, book writing, and did so with a success matched by no other playwrights -- or by few other writers, for that matter.

Her confrontation with the House committee, now seen by her admirers as just another Hellman triumph, was for her a considerable crisis. Her refusal to cooperate risked a jail sentence, which was a prospect she did not view with Ghandi-like serenity. Yet she emerged from this star chamber not only a free woman but as a memorable symbol: noble defiance of government run amok. She was awarded laurels for valor, in spite of others' quietly going to jail for the same, but less well-worded, bravery. Once again, Hellman converted calamity into glory.

Miraculously, she brought off this same reversal with her physical appearance. Most women as plain as Hellman would have slunk off into a comfortable marriage or sublimated their amorous side altogether. But she defied her facial bad luck as resolutely as she defied the House committee. She had a celebrated and glamorous affair with Dashiell Hammett -- and affairs as well with other handsome and distinguished men like the publisher Ralph Ingersoll and the diplomat John Melby. And this was a field from which she never retired. According to people present, she discreetly propositioned a male guest at a dinner the night before she died of cardiac arrest at age 79.

[T] he suggestion has been made, by Hellman and others, that she was the model for Nora in Hammett's "Thin Man," which may strike some as positing Alan Dershowitz as the model for Forrest Gump. The apparent mismatch may stem from Hellman's care to turn an un-Nora-like face toward the world: the incisive, let's-skip-the-pleasantries tough guy concerned only with the serious denominators of life. Her close friends saw other faces -- silly, gossipy, bawdy, scatty, gleefully petty -- and she was a master of comic ploys like studied dizziness ("I can't find my privates") and lacing her putdowns with exaggerated gentility and irate longshoreman.

She seemed determined to conceal from the world how funny she was, perhaps feeling that this side undercut her stature: too much like Joan of Arc doing stand-up. Now, however, the funny side permeates the new play, along with other Lillian Hellmans she wanted to keep private -- vulnerable, obsessive, irrational and pathetically lovesick.

Being Hellman's friend did not mean, however, nonstop giggles. Leonard Bernstein and his family had a large present-opening event each Christmas that included close friends. According to two of them, Bernstein's biggest anxiety each year was what to get Lillian. So much thought went into the problem, with many phone consultations, that a picture emerges of the festive gathering gripped with fear of Hellman unwrapping her gift and growling, "What the hell is this?"

If the Hellman spectacle remains with us, a puzzling cloud lingers as well: the sullying of her tremendous accomplishments with childish fibs and exaggerations. Sometimes these were dramatist's touch-ups to already good stories; other times they were whole-cloth fabrications. Researching my book was a three-year struggle to distinguish the real turtle soup from the mock. I emerged certain that many of her stories were untrue, but certain, too, that more than enough were true to justify the outsized legend.

As for the made-up bits, I was never sure whether they were delusions or lies. There was evidence both ways. I suspect that the fables started as exercises of the author's right to run plot twists up the flagpole; when the crowds cheered, she left them there flapping proudly over Fort Hellman. On sober reflection -- and liquor may have played a part -- she may have recognized the tales as untrue but found herself stuck with them, so took them along as potentially troublesome companions on the Hellman voyage.

As a playwright, she had spent much of her life making up good stories. It was perhaps asking too much of her to abandon those skills in writing about her life and to switch abruptly to the tiresome confinements of truth. The result was an important dramatist accessorized into a chain-smoking superwoman. However the falsehoods came about, they made her, for me and for others, even more interesting, if less admirable. Still, they have left a fog of mystery over her reputation that keeps us from letting her rest in peace, which of course is the last thing she would have wanted.

A final calamity to befall Lillian Hellman and she came close to beating that too. Nearly blind, in a wheelchair and with a catalog of other infirmities that made her little more than a sack of angry bones, she still led as active a life as the most energetic 30-year-old. She founded and headed a political organization (the Committee for Public Justice), lectured at universities, interfered in productions of her plays, was the co-author of a cookbook, traveled, fought with the phone company, feuded with a few friends, entertained many others.

During these final years, her celebrity had risen to a near mythic level -- renowned dramatist, top screenwriter in Hollywood's great period, political heroine, best-selling author, friends to many of her day's most interesting figures, lover to a few. Yet others with chests full of similar medals are eventually edged into obscurity by limo-loads of arriving stars. Not Hellman. She relished being famous and, in spite of her chest's also having a pacemaker, managed to keep her fame alive.

One way was to hobnob with others equally well known, to remain a player on Mount Olympus -- in her case Martha's Vineyard in summers and Manhattan in winters. In both places she socialized energetically with friends, most of whom had recognizable, and more current, names. As one of them, Carly Simon, said to me, "Lillian was a celebrity hound."

But Hellman did not have to dine with Elizabeth Taylor, Mike Nichols or Warren Beatty to keep herself in the public eye. Her combative reflexes insured that she would not remain long ignored by a press that loves celebrated rowdies. Her most conspicuous battle, and her last, was her slander suit against Mary McCarthy for having said on the Dick Cavett show that "every word" Hellman wrote "was a lie, including the 'ands' and the 'thes.' " The McCarthy litigation was not the only public donnybrook.

Diana Trilling publicly accused Hellman of pressuring Little Brown, which was also Hellman's publisher, to refuse to publish Trilling's memoir, "We Must March, My Darlings," unless she removed some negative remarks about Hellman. (Trilling declined and went to another publisher.)

Muriel Gardiner, a real woman portrayed as Hellman's closest friend, Julia, in one of the most memorable portraits in "Pentimento," responded with dignity when the book came out. She couldn't be Julia, Ms. Gardiner said in the preface to her own book, because she had never met Hellman. As time went by, however, Ms. Gardiner came to regret her ladylike posture and was close to suing when Hellman died.

What a fitting end to this amazing career: in her upper 70's, crippled, blind, wasted to 80 pounds -- yet slugging it out in a national arena with three other over-70-year-olds. Now there's a play . . .


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