June 20, 1905– I am a fan of the writing & life of Lillian Hellman. I find her great play The Little Foxes to have a top place in the cannon of the Best American Theatre Works. But mostly, I was crazy about her 3 volumes of memoirs: An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (1969), Pentimento (1973), & Scoundrel Time (1976). The Oscar-winning film Julia (1977) is based on a section of Pentimento, with Jane Fonda playing Hellman. Hellman had a 30 year romance with writer Dashiell Hammett (played by Jason Robards in Julia, he won an Oscar) & it is said that she was the inspiration for his character Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Hellman was a lifelong friend & the literary executor of writer Dorothy Parker.
Hellman was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC knew that Hammett had once been a member of the Communist Party. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman delivered a prepared statement, which read in part:
“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman & indecent & dishonorable. I cannot & will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person & could have no comfortable place in any political group.”
As a result, Hellman was blacklisted by the Hollywood film studios for many years.
She became a writer during an era when writers were big celebrities & audaciousness was considered enviable. She was an equal to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway & even her beloved Hammett. She was a tough cookie. She tossed off the swear words with ease & she slept around. She smoked cigarettes & marijuana. She was a boozer. Hellman lived a social & political life as out loud as her talent. Her plays are a constant challenge to prejudice, small-thinking & oppression. Her memoirs are personal accounts of the intriguing & turbulent life behind her plays.
Hellman didn’t need a man. She was self-supporting & felt no need to apologize for demanding being paid what she thought she was worth. She even haggled over the royalties of her plays for use by high school drama clubs. Hellman took on the the tough political battles of her time, actively supporting the Spanish Loyalists, working against the Nazis & standing up to Joe McCarthy & his thugs.
Hellman was the most famous American female playwright of the 20th century & a feminist icon. Not really pretty & rather butch, she had many lovers & lived a life filled with sex & scandal. Hellman had to constantly push back against sexism & antisemitism. She had many detractors. Writer Mary McCarthy, a former friend who had a decades-long feud with Hellman, appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979 & famously stated abut her:
“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ & ‘the’ .”
The 2 writers sued each other & the litigation went on for years, only ending when Hellman left this world in 1979. Their war of words is the basis of Nora Ephron‘s play Imaginary Friends (2002). Her story that became the basis for the film Julia is considered by many to be fiction, but she always defended the tale, making Hellman a perfect celebrity for our own age. I can just imagine her Tweets. She is portrayed by the great Judy Davis in the film Dash & Lilly (1999), directed by actor Kathy Bates.
At the 1977 Academy Awards Hellman presented the Oscar for Best Documentary. She was greeted by a standing ovation. She told the crowd of show biz types:
“I was once upon a time a respectable member of this community. Respectable didn’t necessarily mean more than I took a daily bath when I was sober, didn’t spit except when I meant to, and mispronounced a few words of fancy French. Then suddenly, even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I & many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry….They confronted the wild charges of Joe McCarthy with a force & courage of a bowl of mashed potatoes. I have no regrets for that period. Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history.”
I stood next to Hellman in line at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of the island of Manhattan on an autumn Sunday morning in 1976. She was in her 70s then. She was smoking a cigarette & was wrapped in a large mink coat. I had recently read & been absorbed by Pentimento. I excused myself for bothering her & explained how much I admired her work, especially the memoir & how gobsmacked I felt to be standing next to her.
“… so you see, Miss Hellman, you must understand how much your work & your life have impressed me.”
“Of course they have. Now, be my dear & pay for the Danish. That’s being a sweetie.”
Off she went. That scene could be perfectly reenacted by Nicole Kidman (also born on this day) with a prosthetic nose & wrapped in fake mink, as Hellman & a shirtless Zachary Quinto as me circa mid-1970s. Why a shirtless hero at Zabar’s? Because, that’s show biz, kids.
Hellman turns 110 years old today & looks much the same as she did when our paths crossed.