Lillian Hellman: The mother of invention

Lillian Hellman's accounts of her life became as much a part of her art as her melodramatic plays
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The Independent Culture

In the 1970s the notable Blackglama ads – which showed famous women in mink over the line "What becomes a legend most?" – amused quite a few people when it featured Lillian Hellman. For it was well known by then that Hellman, the author of The Little Foxes (which opens next week in London), was more of a piece of work than any of her plays. Hellman's account of her life, published in three best-selling memoirs (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time), was indeed legendary, not only in the sense of "famous" but "fictional". What was particularly amusing was that her invented life was not one of romance but of rectitude; with one major exception, her stories of fighting for the helpless and defending the truth were fairy tales.

Since Hellman's death in 1984, a former housekeeper, a lover, and others have written books saying so. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, however, unwisely said so while Hellman was still alive. After McCarthy cheekily cracked on a television chat show that every word Hellman wrote was a lie, except for "and" and "the", she heard from Hellman's lawyers; the suit for slander, which ended only with Hellman's death, nearly bankrupted McCarthy. Hellman, who had often bitterly said there was no monument to premature anti-fascists, did all she could to destroy someone who was right too soon.

Born in New Orleans in 1905, Hellman was the daughter of a handsome, charming German Jew and a fey, sentimental woman whose family had become wealthy by squeezing poor, black tenant farmers. The baroque financial-emotional transactions among her mother's relatives (whom Hellman hated for their social exploitation and their contempt for her father, a business failure) provided rich raw material for the grasping Giddens family of The Little Foxes (1939). Indeed, Hellman wrote, she had toned down her family history. "In the first three versions of the play, because it had been true in life, Horace Giddens had syphilis. When Regina, his wife, who had long refused him her bed, found out about it, she put fresh paint on a miserable building that had once been used as slave quarters and kept him there for the rest of his life because, she said, he might infect his children... She... went... riding during his funeral."

Hellman's first play was The Children's Hour (1934). The Broadway theatre owner thought that he, she, and the cast would end up in jail because of the story – a nasty little girl spreads a rumour that one of her schoolmistresses is having a lesbian affair with another. But the show was a hit, and led to offers from Hollywood, where Hellman wrote the script for, among others, the movie of her play (the affair was changed to a heterosexual one, and the notorious title became These Three) and for Sidney Kingsley's Dead End, both beautifully acted and filmed.

In the spring of 1941, eight months before Pearl Harbor, Hellman had a third hit with Watch on the Rhine, a plea for the US to become involved in the war. Her fourth and last was Toys in the Attic (1960), another study of financial and sexual politics in a rich, corrupt Southern family. But the success of Hellman's plays (she wrote four other original dramas, three adaptations, and the libretto for Leonard Bernstein's Candide) paled beside the wealth and acclaim she derived from her autobiographies.

Published between 1969 and 1976, they established Hellman as the heroine of the fight against fascism, abroad and at home (she defied the House Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthy years) and of a great love story. For 30 years, off and on, she lived with the detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett, who during that time drank a great deal and wrote not at all. "I tried in these books to tell the truth," she wrote. "I did not fool with facts."

Respected reviewers took her at her word, saying that she was an inspiring example of "moral intelligence", and "She is merely great. She says no. We know better." Much of the praise was justified – her prose profited from the more relaxed tone encouraged by a later generation and her own advanced age – but, as the latter comment suggests, she knew how to put herself across.

Reading those books now, one is struck by how much Hellman leaves out, how much she blurs, by her frequent, tactical admissions of her rudeness and Hammett's infidelities, and her theatrically terse, understated revelations of struggle and suffering. In Pentimento she wrote of her own part in the pre-war fight against fascism. She had, she said, smuggled money into Nazi Germany to save the lives of hundreds of people, not only of Jews, but socialists and Catholics. This broad-based mercy mission was made into the film Julia (1977), with Hellman played by Jane Fonda.

But when Hellman died in 1984, a stampede of witnesses came forth with stories of their own. Most damaging was the discovery that her friend Julia – and therefore her own anti-Nazi exploits – never existed. If Hellman had not been as virtuous as she claimed, neither had she experienced as much hardship. Though she claimed in her memoirs that, fallen on hard times, she had to work behind a counter in a department store, a posthumous biography proved this was nonsense.

Worse than the mythmaking there were also many revelations of malice. When Hellman was not invited to a party on Frank Sinatra's yacht, she made an anonymous telephone call to the police, saying there was a bomb on board. After Hammett's death, she cheated his two daughters, to whom he had left his estate, out of more than a quarter of a million dollars' worth of royalties.

When the truth about Hellman's relationship with Hammett was also disclosed, one could understand such displaced revenge. His infidelity was much more frequent than she reported and he was not only a drunk, but nasty and violent. Hellman, though, didn't suffer in celibacy. She was no beauty, even when young (when old, it was said she looked like George Washington, or Casey Stengel, the manager of the Mets baseball team), but never let that stop her from having plenty of men – rich men, successful men, men several decades younger. Well into her seventies she was the talk of Manhattan for not only purring huskily to young men at parties but flashing her silk knickers.

Why did none of this get into print before she died? One example may suffice to explain. When a journalist wrote a piece she disliked, she told him that if he didn't print a retraction she would tell his employer (this was when such things mattered) that he frequented gay bars. It was no coincidence that the plot of all Hellman's hit plays turned on blackmail.

One episode that Hellman did not make up was her refusal in 1952 to tell HUAC the names of people who were, or may have been, communists 20 years before. Hellman was hardly the only witness to defy the committee, and she was not punished for doing so (Hammett, old and ill, did so less dramatically and was sent to prison for a year). But the showmanship she brought to her defiance and its exploitation (when she declared, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions," she was wearing a brand-new Balmain) does not detract from her courage at a time when many others destroyed their friends rather than damage their own careers.

How ironic, though, that this self-made monument to truth is now remembered as a mythomane, her last act the persecution of a fellow writer. Then living in New York, I never much cared for Mary McCarthy, but was outraged that no one was helping her. "Why don't we all say that Hellman is a liar?" I asked the editor of a literary magazine. "If everyone wrote the same thing, she couldn't sue us all, and what we said could be used by the defence." He patted my hand and smiled.

"It's very simple," he said. "Everybody's afraid of Lillian, and nobody really likes Mary."

'The Little Foxes' opens 10 Oct, Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, 020-7369 1732

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