Administering the will of the playwright Lillian Hellman was not easy. For example, she bequeathed a one-room shack she owned on the Gay Head beach in Martha’s Vineyard rather vaguely “to the children of Gay Head… who are year-round residents.” Her executor, the novelist John Hersey, agreed with Robert Bernstein, the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch, to use part of her estate on a grants program for writers in trouble – for rebellious writers, Hellman might have said. The program was named for Hellman and her longtime partner, the writer Dashiell Hammett.
“Rebelliousness was at the center of her vitality – that creative sort of dissatisfaction that shouts out, ‘Life ought to be better than this!’” wrote Hersey when she died in 1984. “Every artist worth the salt is a rebel. The maker’s search for new forms – for ways of testing the givens – was in her a fierce rebellion against what had been accepted and acclaimed and taken for granted… This rebelliousness, this anger, Lillian Hellman had in unusually great measure.”
Miss Hellman Has Her Say
As Transcribed by Jules Feiffer
Tribute to Lillian Hellman
John Hersey at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, December 7, 1984
Lillian Hellman wrote twelve plays and three books of reminiscence. It will be up to the supreme court of time to decide where she finally stands in American letters. But I think we can already say that at least three of her plays have earned a permanent place in our theater: Toys in the Attic, The Autumn Garden, and, of course, The Little Foxes. Her early model was Ibsen: her late model, Chekhov. Her theme was money; so her deeper theme was power – the greed for power, that is, among persons in their relationships with each other.
Her vitality had an extraordinary reach. I will take the liberty of quoting a few lines from an encomium I wrote to her some years ago, when she was at the top of her spin. (I will change only the tenses, since she is no longer alive.) I thought she was not just the moral force many thought her to be, but rather some kind of life force.
“Energy, gifts put to work, anger, wit, potent sexuality, generosity, a laugh that could split your eardrums, fire in every action, drama in every anecdote, a ferocious sense of justice, personal loyalty raised to the power of passion, fantastic legs and easily turned ankles, smart clothes, a strong stomach, an affinity with the mothering sea, vanity but scorn of all conceit, love of money and gladness in parting with it, a hidden religious streak but an open hatred of piety, a yearning for compliments but a loathing for flattery, fine cookery, a smashing style in speech and manners, unflagging curiosity, fully liberated female aggressiveness when it was needed yet a whiff, now and then, of old-fashioned feminine masochism, fear however of nothing but being afraid, prankishness, a libertine spirit, Puritanism, rebelliousness…
“Rebelliousness above all. Rebelliousness was at the center of her vitality – that creative sort of dissatisfaction that shouts out, ‘Life ought to be better than this!’ Every artist worth the salt is a rebel. The maker’s search for new forms – for ways of testing the givens – was in her a fierce rebellion against what had been accepted and acclaimed and taken for granted. And a deep, deep rebellious anger against the great cheat of human existence, which is death, fed her love of life and gave bite to her enjoyment of every minute of it. This rebelliousness, this anger, Lillian Hellman had in unusually great measure.”
A collector of experiences, she threw herself at life. She had an abortion. She was analyzed. She drank her whiskey neat, and she was an ambulatory chimney. She was married and divorced. She knew the safe way to decapitate a snapping turtle. During a long black period of American history she imposed celibacy on herself, like a nun. She would admit, if pressed, that she had been the sweetest smelling baby in New Orleans. As a child she knew gangsters and whores. She was a liberated woman ever after she played hookey from grade school and perched with her fantasies in the hidden fig tree in the yard of her aunts’ boarding house. She could pluck and cook a goose, and her spaghetti with clam sauce begged belief. She could use an embroidery hoop. She knew how to use a gun. She cared with a passion whether bedsheets were clean. She grew the most amazing roses which were widely thought to be homosexual. She spoke very loud to foreigners, believing the language barrier could be pierced with decibels. She scarfed her food with splendid animal relish, and I can report that after December 15, 1936, she never once vomited. She must have caught several thousand fish, but even in her late seventies she still squealed like a child when she boated a strong blue.
Above all others, two people influenced her. The first was Sophronia, her wet nurse and the companion of her childhood, and, her father would say, the only control she ever recognized. “Oh, Sophronia, it’s you I want back always,” Miss Hellman cried in one of her books. There is a photograph of this remarkable figure of pride in An Unfinished Woman, and looking at it one sees the force of what Miss Hellman wrote: “She was an angry woman, and she gave me anger, an uncomfortable, dangerous, and often useful gift.” Once, when the child Lillian saw her father get into a cab with a pretty woman not her mother, Sophronia counselled keeping her mouth shut, saying, “Don’t go through life making trouble for people.” We all know the memorable resonance of that advice in Miss Hellman’s appearance before the Internal Security Committee in Joe McCarthy’s time.
The other person was Dashiell Hammett. With that handsome, sharp-minded, and radical man she had a relationship, off and on, for over thirty years, one which, as she once said, had a “ragging argumentative tone,” but which had “the deep pleasure of continuing interest,” and grew into a “passionate affection.” Hammett was, and he remained until the day of her death, her conscience. He was her artistic conscience, for ten of her twelve plays; he was also her temperamental and political model.
I never knew Hammett, but I came to know Lillian Hellman very well in her later years, and I never thought her politics went very deep. Her notorious so-called Stalinism was, I believe, seven parts loyalty to Dashiell Hammett and three parts a fierce idealism mixed with a measure of perversity. She was far more interested in personality, in character, than in theory. The anger did go deep, and it expressed itself in protest against injustice, greed, hypocrisy, cruelty, and everything shabby and second-rate and dangerous in those who might have power over her – and, incidentally, over the rest of us. The sandpaper in her psyche – her touchiness, her hatred of being physically pushed even by accident, her irrational anger whenever she felt she had been dealt with unjustly – all contributed to her being radically political while knowing that there was no political party that could contain her rebelliousness.
Radically, I mean, in the sense of “at the root.” She cut through all ideologies to their taproot: to the human decency the adherents of ideologies universally profess but never deliver. In the end, her closest Russian friend, a woman, was a dissident, in exile from the Soviet Union. In her activities in the late decades, she fought, and with some success, for the fundamental decencies encoded in the United States Constitution. To give an example of such success: Richard Nixon testified under oath that at one point the Committee for Public Justice, which she founded and guided, intimidated J. Edgar Hoover into discontinuing illegal wiretaps.
Toward the end, alas – as death, which had become her enemy when it took Hammett, beckoned to her – the anger became rage, and the prickliness flew out of control, and at times she harmed others – and harmed herself. I trust that time and distance will restore proportions, and that what will be remembered and judged will be the marvelous spirit, the laugher she threw up around her like spray, the useful and creative part of her anger, and, of course, finally, the words put down on paper.