An Unfinished Woman?

Lillian-Hellman

(Lillian Hellman: CPL Archive/Everett/Rex Features via The Guardian)

Cynthia Nixon recently won the 2017 Tony Award for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play’ for The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, whose birthday it is today (20 June 1905 – 30 June 1984).

Hellman’s reputation has taken a ferocious hammering since her death (it was fairly ferocious before), focusing mainly on her veracity, questions which were brought starkly into view by her feud with Mary McCarthy and the multi-million dollar lawsuit she brought against McCarthy: it was dropped by her heirs after Hellman died a month before the case came to court.

‘Everyone’s memory is tricky,’ Hellman commented once, ‘and mine’s a little trickier than most.’[1]

See Sarah Churchwell’s piece (about the revival of The Children’s Hour and about Hellman’s ‘legendarily unreliable’ memoirs) here:
http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jan/22/lillian-hellman-childrens-hour-sarah-churchwell

There’s been a good deal of discussion about where memoir ends and autobiography begins, about lies and fabrications, about selecting, concealing or exaggerating facts. For instance, Hellman claimed that she didn’t join the Communist Party but she did (that was an easy one to check, as it turned out). Her spat with McCarthy was as much about their respective political histories—and personalities—as anything else.

Fiction, history, memory, truth: who could ever get tired of this stuff? Raphael Samuel wrote that ‘Like history, memory is inherently revisionist and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same.’[2] Lawrence Durrell wrote in Prospero’s Cell of a past seen through ‘the transforming lens of memory’.[3] John Fowles’ biographer wrote that his ‘factual memory was poor as an adult, while his associative memory was abundantly fertile and plastic’ and, in her preface, comments: ‘Although I suspect that Fowles sometimes does lie to interviewers, particularly when he is bored or the interviewer is especially irritating, I learned to regard his interview narratives as different from deliberate lying. They were the product of what I call fertile forgetting. The personal past is forgotten or suppressed but returns through imagination in the writer’s fiction, often in a different shape.’[4] And Julian Barnes observed that ‘Memory is identity.’[5] Two such solid and stable things conjoined there, to be sure. And after all, Hellmann’s memoirs are so entertaining and often so very funny, that I can’t work up the apparently required volume of indignation.

Dorothy Parker

One of my favourite Hellman stories (quite a popular choice, I suspect) is one that she retells of Dorothy Parker in An Unfinished Woman. The story was related to her by Peter Feibleman, who was with Dorothy at the funeral of her husband, Alan Campbell (they married each other twice).

‘Among the friends who stood with Dottie on those California steps was Mrs Jones, a woman who had liked Alan, had pretended to like Dottie, and who had always loved all forms of meddling in other people’s troubles. Mrs. Jones said, “Dottie, tell me, dear, what I can do for you.”
Dottie said, “Get me a new husband,”
There was a silence, but before those who would have laughed could laugh, Mrs. Jones said, “I think that is the most callous and disgusting remark I ever heard in my life.”
Dottie turned to look at her, sighed, and said gently, “So sorry. Then run down to the corner and get me a ham and cheese on rye and tell them to hold the mayo.”’[6]

 

References
[1] Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson & London: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), 195.
[2] Samuel, Theatres of Memory (London: Verso, 1996), x.
[3] Durrell, Prospero’s Cell (1945; Faber 1962), 133. Cf. ‘A Landmark Gone’, in Orientations, I, 1, Forces Quarterly edited by G. S. Fraser, Cairo (n.d. but war years), reprinted in Alan G. Thomas, editor, Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 189.
[4] Eileen Warburton, John Fowles : A Life in Two Worlds (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 17, xii.
[5] Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008), 140.
[6]  Lillian Hellman, Three: An Unfinished Woman; Pentimento; Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), 248.

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