Friday, October 17, 2014

Quote of the Day (S.J. Perelman, on ‘Imperious’ Lillian Hellman)

[Lillian Hellman is] “a curious mixture, part imperious yenta who throws her weight around and part amusing old friend when she and I and the Hacketts talk about old times in the movie biz and Broadway. She has a sense of her importance that frequently burns your ass….We all get on together…though every so often I’m tempted to order Lillian to knock it off. (Should have said that I got here right in the middle of her being filmed by Bill Moyers.)”—S.J. Perelman, letter to a friend quoted in David L. Goodrich, The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Writers of Stage and Screen Classics (2001)

S.J. Perelman—who over the course of 75 years amused millions, whether through his short humorous pieces for The New Yorker or his screenplays for the Marx Brothers—died on this date in New York in 1979. The great humorist could be wildly funny in a way that even elicited the admiration of his targets (such as Raymond Chandler, who is said to have deeply appreciated the parody “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer”).

For all his brilliance, however, little of his writing cuts as sharply as his late-life comments on playwright Lillian Hellman (pictured), whom he had known from the late 1920s. In the winter of 1974, the two shared a rented house for several weeks in Sarasota, Fla., with two other old friends, husband-and-wife screenwriting team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

Already, in this letter, as the above quote indicates, Perelman’s patience was being tried. Four days later, he had had enough. Hellman, he wrote, “deserves to have her ass kicked roundly” for exhibiting “all the grandeur of Queen Isabella, Empress of Spain, and the Indies, Mexico and the Iberian Air Line.”

I came across Perelman’s account of his vacation from hell after I watched Brian Richard Mori's Hellman v. McCarthy last week on PBS. I had missed this play about the legal fallout from novelist Mary McCarthy’s negative comments concerning Hellman in a 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show when the drama had been staged Off-Broadway by the Abingdon Theatre, so I was delighted to see it aired on public television’s new Theater Close-Up series. I already knew that its climax—a meeting between the two women to see if a settlement of the lawsuit could be arranged—never actually transpired. I began to research to see how much else in the play was accurate.

As it turned out, a good deal. The name of Hellman’s lawyer was changed, but the real-life version, like the one in the show, was a good friend of the playwright-memoirist (good enough to pursue her libel suit against McCarthy without charging fees). And, as in the show, Hellman had been restlessly roving from channel to channel with her nurse beside her at home when she caught McCarthy’s obviously hyperbolic statement that “every word she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

(It is ironic, given the lawsuit that Hellman threw at Cavett and PBS for allowing McCarthy’s statement to go unchallenged, that when Perelman met Hellman on his visit, she was busy being lionized by Moyers, a fixture of public television for decades.)

In the play, Hellman (played by Roberta Maxwell) was endlessly patronizing and abusive toward her nurse. In real life, Hellman was hardly better, and may, if possible, have been worse with, as they say, "the help." She would threaten to scream if her nurse didn't furnish her with a cigarette.

Similar testimony was offered in A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman, by Rosemary Mahoney, a 17-year-old who had been hired by the playwright in the late 1970s as a part-time live-in housekeeper-cook in her Martha's Vineyard home. When Hellman wasn’t haggling with Mahoney over pay and time, she was scolding the teen for trivial or imagined mistakes.

To an extent, the abusiveness to her nurse and Mahoney might be chalked up to Hellman’s admittedly fragile physical and mental condition of the time: alone, regarded as a has-been for more than a decade by the theater community, visually impaired, unable to give up cigarettes, and constantly drinking. But more shocking, for a playwright who, in works such as The Little Foxes, had demonstrated sympathy with minority groups and labor, was how condescending she could be—to Mahoney’s large Irish-American family, and even  to African-Americans, whom she privately slurred.

The family of Hellman’s mother had made a small fortune in the banking industry. Whether as a result of this family environment, the fame she achieved in adulthood, or both, Hellman had, by her seventies, exhibited an unbecoming sense of entitlement. If even longtime friends such as Perelman felt annoyed by her, you can imagine what it must have been like for those whose employment depended on her caprices.

Even two decades after Nikita Khrushchev had denounced predecessor Josef Stalin for his purges of the late 1930s, Hellman—who had been visiting Moscow at the time and should have known better—was reluctant to admit she had been wrong, claiming that U.S. Communists and fellow travelers had not caused the same kind of damage as Joseph McCarthy. But in how she treated others, she might as well have been the haughtiest of capitalists, even worse than the cunning brothers of The Little Foxes for being so hypocritical.

In Hellman v. McCarthy, Cavett wonders if either of the two aging literary lionesses really came out the better for Hellman's protracted and expensive libel lawsuit. But I would argue that Hellman lost more than McCarthy. Partly as a result of the litigation, the playwright's considerable gilding of her life in her memoirs had been mercilessly exposed.

Subsequent biographers have inevitably had to deal with the fallout from this. Yet, even aside from her supposed nonfiction, Hellman had created, through her plays, a public persona wildly at odds with the way she lived her life. Time and again, she carried on with all the haughtiness of the one percent. 

What was Hellman in the end? An “Unfinished Woman,” as one of her memoirs proclaimed her? I don’t know. 

A "Difficult Woman," as a 2012 biography by Alice Kessler-Harris termed her? Better, but still not quite there.

An impossible woman? Now you're talking.

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