“Speech,” she said, “is but broken light upon the depth/Of the unspoken . .. —George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy
“There is nothing really lasting, nothing that will endure, except the sincere expression of the actual conditions of life” — Penelope Fitzgerald
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been meaning to write about a set of profound underrated slender books by Lillian Hellman: her autobiography in 4 parts: An Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, and Maybe. The characteristic of life-writing, that it is often partly imagined, dramatized even when there are long stretches of literal truth has been used to trash her as a “liar,” because the political vision of the four, unqualifiedly socialist was anathema to much of the US intelligensia of the 50s through 90s (and today still); what’s worse she continually criticizes those who, far more than merely complicit with the persecution of anyone left of center in the 1950s, volunteered lies, fingered others to improve their position, and until today in effect support the US gov’t effort to silence and destroy any opposition from the left (of whatever stripe). The continual trashing of her writing (most famously by Mary McCarthy) has badly damaged the dissemination of these texts: the continuing purpose is to make everyone dismiss her important account of the McCarthy era, simply not bother read it.
I loved all four and gathered a sense of deep strength from a communicated sense that there was no hype in the style (if she does make herself heroine, it’s what most life-writers do). The central presence of all four — gradual the emergence — is that of Dashiell Hammet. I admit I fell in love with him because he reminded me so of my beloved Jim. Thus I write about these four memoirs tonight.
Some central perspectives: evasiveness; Hellman’s identifies with outcasts, people who are different from most others, who don’t fit in; people more deeply and actively humane than others (who need not be politicians or powerful people; they can be an African-American servant): the main characters in each book are partly versions of herself. Hammett is the still center of her world providing what happiness and stability of outlook she can hold to. The books are l’ecriture-femme: they show all the characteristics of women’s life-writing (different from men’s): circular, inward, not seeking to find a single triumph, not linear; deeply concerned with others close to her; like much life-writing, the books are compensatory, seeking to assuage life’s disappointments, to find out she came to be what she was. And as the 20th century was one which saw the take-over of many peoples by ruthless fascists and dictators, by scoundrels (as she would have it), a central thread in them all is the attempt of the various characters (versions of Hellman mind) to come to terms actively with what public useful roles in the world they are allowed.
Her greatness and importance as a writer goes beyond her plays: she wrote many important screen-plays and now these memoirs. There is an important accurate absorbing biography: Alice Kessler-Harris: A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Times and Life of Lillian Hellman: it’s a sensible and eloquent defense and explanation of Hellman’s work in the context of its era. K-H places the memoirs in the years the events take place — bigotry in the south of the 1930s and 40s, the savage attack on not just socialisms, but liberalism of any kind in the 50s, extending into the 60s (and 70s too). It is a book as much about 20th century politics everywhere in life as it is about Hellman (and Hammett). K-H includes her personal outward life: one originally of privilege, Hellman’s aggressive nature moving into success by moving to NYC and getting into publishing and then finding herself with like-minded people. She had one marriage which broke up but she carried on being close to the man (Kohler) and the famed long-time relationship with Dashiell Hammett who was always sexually unfaithful. Hellman as a writer emerges as one of the great and powerful women writers dealing with issues of our times. I don’t deal with the more private of these (sexual) as those are in her plays which I don’t include as she herself in her memoirs does not discuss the content of these plays nor her screen-plays except insofar as they came up against political opposition.
An Unfinished Woman
Hellman has in mind what she is today, and she is telling her early life in terms of what she has become. And she does not idealize herself. So she accounts for her anger; how she came to want to follow her own will; her experiences of stark poverty — and just as important the pompous bourgeois lifestyle of her New York (mother’s family) relatives. It’s written in a simple style.
Hammett again and again emerges as this all wise sharp deep friend. He is stubborn and will not act for his self-interest as she sees it at one point. He tells her she must leave him be or walk in another direction and they will part. He walked on ahead, after a couple of minutes she runs after. She appears to have been his support: their happiest years on the farm. Hints of his infidelities. What an outsider reader might remember is that Hammett’s books while fine as mysteries are not masterpieces — I put it down to his deep scepticism; when you are made that way it does get in the way of making masterpieces (you can’t believe they’ll be appreciated or understood for a start).
Between the childhood which is presented to explain how her temperament and culture were intermixed and some roots for her real sympathy for the dispossessed, outsiders, and those who are bohemian in the older 1940 use of the word, she begins to have intense arguments with her father. She will not yield and one day runs away. A stalwart time of her actually managing to live on the streets for a time, using the tiny sum she had to rent a room in a lodging house. Such cheap places no longer exist. The whole incident anticipates how she will deal with what she perceives as injustice later. Finally when she grows so ill, her landlady finds out who her father is. At least that’s what she supposed when she waked to find her father at the top of her bed. In this section we see how central whether a person is black or white is in the culture of the era.
Hellman’s description of what publishing was like in the early to mid-20th century is just mouth-watering. There is nothing like this today: nurturing of talent, editing to help the writer bring him or herself out, the kind of connections that worked, the camaraderie is the central thing. How real political views came in frankly.
What also emerges is how being a woman makes a central difference. She defines two kinds of literary parties given by these publishing firms as differing from one another on the basis of whether the woman there are on offer to sleep with the men or “bluestocking” writing types. When she gets pregnant, she wants to have an abortion and not tell anyone who the father is. The men in her office find out about this and note this: they demand she tell who the father is. They find it unacceptable that she should do what she wants about it. This threatens her job and position and were she less forceful would make real trouble for her — could cost her her position. For writing and literary people as well as women (I think) for just this part of her book a must-read — as a truthful depiction of the milieues literary people came from too.
As the memoir moves on, Hellman skips about and does not tell you how she met so-and-so, but strides forward to places she’s at that matters, things she did that mattered. It gives the book a feel of strength. Hammet seems to enter at a back door, and from the start is quoted in a way that makes all his utterances intelligent, significant. She does let you know she knew everyone who counted in the literary world. She says she was incapable of holding an ordinary job down; we see she’s capable of inventing positions for herself as she gets this or that place. I found her account of her time in Hollywood illuminating — again what’s important according to a group of humane values — of creativity. She much admires Fitzgerald, especially Great Gatsby; she’s not sure about Hemingway.
I can alas find no account of women writers — they do not seem important to her as such. Women are there as wives and people working in offices.
She begins to make big money when she goes into the stage – she says she was no theater person, and could not cooperate, could not collaborate, the centre of what’s wanted, but she loved to write the scripts. Another kind of writing by which she made a lot of money were film screenplays.
She travels to Europe and freely says that when she went to the Soviet Union she never saw the slave labor camps or heard of the wreckage of lives not obedient to Stalin’s party in power. So she does not hide this, nor does she talk up communism. She was much involved in the Spanish war — as were many concerned earnest people are the time. This is the middle section of her book. She goes to Spain first – then comes Moscow I see. It’s not set up chronologically but thematically.
The comments she makes about those she meets, their different levels of sophistication and naivete (for example they want her there on the hilarious expectation she can speak to Roosevelt to get him to help the Republicans) are convincing. I get a kick of out her witty utterances and she (like Orwell’s Road to Catalonia) suddenly says resonant truths:
“The filthy indignity of destruction is the real immorality.” I agree. Orwell remarks as soon as a place is declared a war zone suddenly people will throw anything anywhere and use things for wholly different purposes. My view is many of the people who fix fine homes do it for prestige, for social networking, for show, the last thing they care about really is order or peace.
She presents herself as the brave heroine: it’s intended to function to bring out the heroism of others, the scrambling nature of the life — and especially how many of the idealistic people who came to fight for the Republic of Spain died — many horribly later on killed by fascist regimes. She shows people hungry, desperate, and brings out that Roosevelt and his gov’t really did nothing, sent no money. Bombing started there and she brings out the terror of living under bombs — houses, streets become holes, people haven’t a chance. (Think about the drones.) Finally she makes the point that had the western powers wanted to stop HItler early, they could have but he was a “bulwark” against socialism; had they fought for real in Spain, they could have limited the damage of WW2, but at each step there were plenty of people high in gov’t who would not step in.
She was made an offer to do a movie in Moscow as propaganda for the war: by Harry Roosevelt’s right man, William Wyler the director, and Goldwyn to make it. They got permission and funds from the Russians, but wrenches were thrown – it was to be really empathetic with the Russians (then dying by hundreds of thousands) so Goldwyn hated it (as he hated anyone not for oodles of profit), Wyler dropped out and she made a crummy film of it in Hollywood.
Her time in Spain during and after the Spanish civil war is followed by her time in Russia. I know I’m writing this as a defense, a corrective, but since the book is framed so hostilely, it seems right to correct. She does notice the pogroms and terrors of the 1930s; she sees them as nightmares but she does put them in perspective — against a world of nazism, in terms of the White army counter-revolution. There is no idealization of the Soviet Union – nor is there demonization. Since she was writing in the later 1960s and this came out in 1970 she had to have known how brave it is simply to ignore the relentless anti-socialist propaganda. She persists in pointing out how those who knuckle under and name names enable the likes of McCarthy and his modern variants.
Her time in Moscow is during the war, but it’s told from a present tense point of view. She is badly frightened more than once when she comes near a battle or fighting. She again shows the terror of bombing. She is invited to go places she doesn’t want to go and ends up going lest she insult people. She never does see Stalin — someone not far from him in power. I find it interesting that when she quotes an apt phrase of Stalin’s, she will follow it by a oh we’re not supposed to quote him now.
It’s fascinating how Hammett is used. She invites an unworthy person (we are let to see this) to dinner and after a first bout of the person, Hammett goes upstairs and will not come down until the person has left the farm … There is a continual interweaving of different time periods and places but one can see where one is more or less.
She moves back and forth too and there are deep memories of Hammett and the farm – as part of talking about the perspective people put on these years as a result of fierce anti-socialism of the US. It seems to me clear that Hammett is not the partner she would have liked – she would have liked to be with a permanent partner but she accepted him. I’m not a reader of mysteries and have never read a novel by Hammett – though I have in my house The Maltese Falcon one of a series of 10 “great” mystery novels. Maybe I’ll try it.
She does admit flatly that the McCarthy hearings might be said to have destroyed her life and much of her happiness ever after. So the intense desire of the US gov’t to get after leftists did work in her case too. Hammett went to jail; she was forced to give up the farm. Kessler-Harris says ever after she was regarded with suspicion and as soon as her enemies which now included those she blamed for colluding could they attacked her.
As for Hammett, the time in jail and behavior towards himself destroyed his spirit and then his body. He died of lung cancer – the smoking the instrumental cause. From wikipedia:
During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.
A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett’s tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman “jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker . . . I knew he would now always be sick.” He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was “just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights.”
As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hellman says Hammett became “a hermit”, his decline evident in the clutter of his rented “ugly little country cottage” where “[t]he signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” Hammett no longer could live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. “Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad”, she wrote but, “guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards.” January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The last phase of the book is subtitled: Dorothy Parker. The book continues moves thematically: I don’t see the circular structure of man women’s memoirs but it’s not structured as most men’s: following a trajectory to the great success – or failure and then denouement (the rest of his life).
In this last phase she say show remarkable that she and Dottie got along. She is against the modern mode she says of relationships based on pleasantness; you must be who you are to some extent first. Parker presented herself as gushing over Hammett and Lilian learned eventually such a gushing scene was usually followed by Dottie saying to whoever was her confidante some caustic mockery. Hellman said Hammett therefore couldn’t stand her: saw this as sheer sycophancy while it showed someone frightened of others (this tells us more about Hellman).
A substory happens in this book: her love for, their happy years and then the loss of Hammett. She mentions at one moment she preferred him to be let out of prison and then retreat and die in peace than any vindication – would not realistically happen nor would it much matter to him as its social manipulative behavior of people in public. The Parker story includes a vignette where he again threatens to leave or hit (hard) Hellman if Hellman ever invites Dottie over again. She presents this kind of thing without comment. She assures the reader Parker admired Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. She also seems to excuse him by saying how she couldn’t stand Alan Campbell, Parker’s husband (twice – the Parrtisan crowd had a habit it seems of divorcing and the re-marrying the same person).
In the close of this section we see how close Hellman got to Parker. Hellman was Parker’s executive. This is a moving account of a checquered and difficult friendship since Parker had no interest in the political arrangements which controlled her life – not unusual in the US. They told each other women’s stories – stories of how women survived as a way of communicating their views of how the world worked and their place in it. Tough stories. We see that Hammett got in the way Big Time. She had to keep Dottie in another house at one point. She does not hold this against him – by this time he was a broken ill man. The McCarthy debacle destroyed him – Hellman telling held up (pun intended). But we can see a common conflict for women: the husband/partner who can’t stand the close girlfriend.
The book comes to a strong end: two more sections, one on Helen, a black woman who came to live with Lilian Hellman later in life and had ties back to Sophronia, the black woman who took care of Hellman as a girl. We are returning full circle so the memoir does have the circular repetitive structure of women’s memoirs. Women grow up to do for their daughters what their mothers did for them; life has repetitive patterns if you are considering the family and your life cycle, while male memoirs are about success in the objective marketplace and military worlds
Since Helene was black, this gives Hellman a chance to present her participation in the civil rights movement of the 60s, what she felt at that famous March on Washington when King gave his I have a Dream speech. As with her depiction of Dorothy Parker and her way of skirting and bringing in feminism by telling real stories of real people’s behavior, mostly dismaying desperate attempts by women to secure safety, a good partner (with money), revealing how the underbelly works, so in this memoir we get depictions of what the US does to black people, the kinds of characters that emerged in the 1940s through 60s by telling us of specific individuals related to Helen. She might be accused of being racist in some of this but this is to misunderstand.
And of course the last chapter is Hammett. If you didn’t expect that by this time you have not gotten the depths of this book, its understory. How they met, she 24 he 36 in a Hollywood restaurant, she says he didn’t want a biography from her (for it would be about her he said) and she doesn’t want to be a “bookkeeper of her life” (so we see why she resolutely avoids a chronological approach), so she quickly celebrates their 6 happy unhappy years when he helped her write Children’s Hour she says (what this help consisted of I don’t know) and his joining the army for WW2, his attack ending in hosptial to be told if he keeps his drinking up he’ll be dead in a few months, how he ceased drinking, the tragedy of his later years – again triggered by the McCarthy hearings and his jail sentence. What he said is not that often repeated since it was not memorable but: he simply refused to reveal the names of people who contributed to a fund called communist; he had never been part of it. He preferred Jail to supporting the farcical democracy the US showed itself to have. But it did not prefer him.
It ends with a moving account of Hammett’s death, his last days and her anger (again the candor is impeccable) she is angry at him still for his not trying to survive — that’s what’s she’s saying at the end. He would not like her writing about him this way; how do they rate as a couple, did they love more or less than others when it comes to their relationship, and we see how she still misses him.
Why does Hellman call this memoir “an unfinished woman”? because she feels she has wasted so much time. So do I I often feel. Lots of people who want to live seriously, use their talents to the full will feel that (Samuel Johnson comes to mind). Because you can’t live that way but in the high moments — and often when alone …
She opens the second book with material that comes from her childhood so like other women’s memoirs, the structure is circular, not that of seizing an opportunity, advancing and triumphing — or not — as is so common among men’s memoirs. She will progress forward, sort of. Only this time it’s going to be a set of portraits which she’s delve the palimpsest’s beneath to show us more about the world and herself.
The opening one is a stunner Bethe who seems a terribly dull ordinary woman married off to Styrie Bowman because he had money as a family arrangements, but slowly it flowers out to show her living an extraordinarily difficult life, with lovers and apparently a victim of a Mafia group, who lived with Lilian’s aunts, Jenny and Hannah, they too slowly revealed, the supposed intelligent one who did well in school, Hannah, becoming the dependent, while Jenny took over, whose death left Hannah lost. Hannah like so many people in Hellman’s books (rightly) avoid hospitals at all costs, but there one can be saved from dread diseases,. The whole account moves in and out of what’s seen, what not seen: it is an expose of women trying to survive. At one point Hellman as a child tells Bethe she lies because a man tells her to. To do justice to these would take long thought and rereading — it’s also concise and to the point while suggestive, these half-weird details of people’s speech and obsessions which ring so true of humanity.
The story of Bethe ends in a way that begins (to me) to shed light on a number of Hellman’s deeper attitudes. She is in effect betrayed by Hannah and Jenny: when her apparently brutal Mafia lover is found murdered, his hand cut off and Bethe disappears, the aunts will not look for her. They ask why Lillian is concerning herself: her answer is “Love, I think, but I’m not sure.” 11 years later she marries the husband her family approves of and is good to her, but declines to wear the pretty dress set out for her when she hears talk of Arneggio (the mafia man who was murdered and Bethe). Later again after she had left this man and was sleeping with Hammett, a valise of Hellman’s father’s letters turns up and she asks if an explanatory letter from Bethe is still in there. They want all that happened to be dismissed as not important and meaningless. She accuses them of not approving of Bethe – or herself now. Jenny the supposed strong one asks Lillian how she can know the difference between fear and approval.
Do they fear for her? Fear for Bethe? Or were afraid. A huge fight ensues between Jenny and Hannah that night and it seems that Hannah the supposed weak one wins. The two aunts take Lilian to a bad neighborhood and in a very mean cottage living there with a plumber she finds Bethe. Bethe really wants nothing to do with Lillian as she is making dinner for her partner (or husband). Hellman must go, Two years later she is told Bethe died of pneumonia; the aunts found out from a note by T.R. Carter who we are left to surmise was that plumber. Lillian vows to tell the news to relatives the next time she is in Germany but she never returned. But that night she had a quarrel with Hammett because he did not understand what she kept repeating that Bethe’s story has a lot to do with her relationship with Hammett (why she went into it, why she stayed).
She identifies utterly with this outcast — though Hammett was not that she sees a parallel. The story is also about how women who don’t make it into conventional respected roles are treated and react in our society from the old maid aunts to this pariah.
She’s an astonishing writer: this is a little “Heart of Darkness.” Willy the central but elusive male is running an organization as violent, amoral, ruthless and money making as anyone in Conrad’s tale. It’s told from the point of view of a child watching the man’s wife with her fancy absurd jewels as she tries to compensate by these silly accoutrements of wealth for what she doesn’t have: a decent inner life. What’s particularly striking is how this underlying scenario is left to us to get; it’s not emphasized; we are told as a child Lilian admired her aunt intensely; then she had the turn round when she found everything about her repugnant, but that was as wrong as the first impulse. But what was the accurate understanding to have is not made explicit — as it certainly is in Conrad. Moreoever by having the ordinary oppressed people about with all their troubles, the blacks too, we see that this parable is not something occurring just thousands of miles off but it an open version of what we experience in the US and supports the US way of life.
I wondered if she chose “Willy” because the man in Colette’s books is a Willy and he’s a total shit — predatory in a different way, on women directly, on such a woman as this aunt if she had any talent he could exploit (which she does not).
This is powerful from the get-go. She’s going to use fake names because, then she lists all the people involved still living, obviously omitting Julia. The method of moving back and forth in time swiftly creates suspense and intriguing glamor: Julia lives like she is very poor but came from super-rich home and we switch to their intense friendship as girls and how Lilian reacted to the upper class mannered luxurious home. This interwoven with the frightening attempt of Julia from Berlin to through mediaries get mysterious boxes to Lilian. Filled with thousands of dollars, bribes to get people out of prison and camps. Dottie”s (Dorothy Parker) husband plays heavy getting in the way and almost spoiling everything by asinine questions: she did dislike him.
And assertions that her memory often faulty in this case utterly true. Because it does read like a romance.
So from outcast, Bethe, to thug-criminal type providing the money for everyone, Willy, to super idealist, Julia, also though on the outside of conventional life, at risk from its defenders.
The memoir becomes particularly intense and powerful as Julia virtually disappears from the stage. Hellman is living with Hammet and both having successed, but as the war progresses he tells her to go to Europe. Early on Julia writes Lilian telling her how criminal the countries are who are letting Hitler and Franco grow into power (she calls Mussolini a peacock) and Hellman adds that by the early 1940s it was understood horrifying pogroms were going on and nothing done. We then hear of Julia beat the hell out of at a hospital. In the form of notes, letters, people coming to tell Hellman: Julia says her phone is tapped and Lilian is for the first time aware of a network of gov’t and military spies. She says she had not thought of this.We worry for her because the tone of the people at the hospital (which Hellman visits) are hostile and she is removed from there. She is a fugitive from the Nazis in effect.
It seems to me all these characters are dream versions of Hellman’s self – except her self is such an independent and integrated one, fighting her way continually. This is a hidden self which cannot – and shows her intense empathy for those unlike herself. Maybe this is why I find I am intensely drawn into her book. If these people are not versions of me, I have either been luckier or not as brave.
Perhaps the power of this tale (it’s a tale) resides in its evasiveness. As our heroine, Lilian travels with this hat and candy box she gradually realizes around her are helpers of Julia and not far from them great danger. Achieving her mission, she goes into a café and there is Julia and we are told it was the last time they saw one another. Julia is much the worse for wear, and then fast forward to her in learning Julia now dead and where her body is. WE get the usual throw away line about Hammett (“Dash who never wanted me to go anywhere because he never wanted to go anywhere …” who agrees ot her going to London to see the body.
Nothing is left of her. The funeral home was bombed to pieces; lawyer jargon of fancy law firm (fancy Nam) doubting there was a child (“in this strange case,” “a child only I believed existed?), only we know from this text and others by Hellman what happened to Julia was multiplied a thousand thousand fold in WW2 at the hands of the fascists. Relatives deny and we end on a “third cousin” (again the turns of remoteness) who never heard of one.
A bitten off piece far more about the circumstances surrounding her play-writing, the social ones especially (like censorship) ratherthan the content of the plays themselves, much less the writing or process of production. How she soared with Children’s Hour (her parents shocked) and then kicked herself and made her second play, a failure, a far worse experience than it needed to be. Pen portraits of Goldwyn: how he made himself powerful through ways of talking. Again at crucial points there is the apt utterance by Hammett …
As she goes on, this becomes as powerful as the others – and as the others we are led to see the events from a point of view to the side of the events, rather than the events themselves – meaning say the content of the play, its relevance to the era: the surrounding circumstances become more powerful as her career proceeds and becomes more complicated, again she is often an outsider. We get these succinct persuasive portraits of then well-known people.
A long interesting section on Candide whose subtexts I probably missed because she does not tell about say Bernstein’s politics and her own and those of the people involved. How it was a flop is not therefore made clear or why.
Of particular interest are her comparisons of the ways theater works and film: few dramas can “stand up to an assertive talent, even if original creator distinguished;” “movies solve this problem” by the director and the writer collaborating with the actors; in film the producer takes a central role. She reminds me of Doris Lessing when she says in effect how what she writes is misunderstood continually: what she means to be seen as ironic is seen as straight; there is a continual misreading of her plays as sentimental and melodramatic – partly they are played that way.
Axioms thrown out: “fear infects and corrupts what it touches.” Yes. “It is best in theater to act with confidence no matter how little right you have to it.”
I was chuffed to discover how highly she and Hammett both regarded Autumn Garden. Mailer much admired Autumn Garden but said Lilian had “lost her nerve,” to which Hammett said “Almost everybody loses their nerve. You almost didn’t and that’s what counts, and what he should have said.
Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer in a summer where we saw a large number; it was written during the “best” period of her life, when she had “found the right place to live for the rest of my life,” where she and Hammett had been together for 20 years and made a “lot of money” and didn’t care how they spent it; they had stopped drinking so heavily and “early excited years together had settled into a passionate affection so unexpected to both of us we were as shy and careful with each other as if we were courting children. Without words we knew hat we had survived for the best of all reasons, the pleasure of each other” (p. 163-64). I am charmed how they never had plans for the future. Hammett never believed in any kind of permanence (p. 171). Jim said he didn’t said he didn’t plan but now I realized he did, and expected a future for which he was holding out the money we had – so he was not the deep sceptic that Hammett was until he became terminally ill and then this hopelessness did him a disservice however I understand it.
She has strong praise for the meaning of the character of Joan of Arc as she sees it, and has trouble translating and adapting Anouilh’s play and here makes an important admission:
“I can write about men, but I can’t write a play that centers on a man. I’ve got to tear it up, make it about the women around him, his sisters, his bride, her mother said ..
Again briefly how she and Hammett were destroyed by the McCarthy era, his emphysema became too strong and the poignancy of his not being able to climb up to a favorite place. She did have a hot, Toys in the Attic and its money provided for his last months during which she didn’t sleep.
A. W. Cowan
Cowan was another — besides Hammett — of Hellman’s long-time lovers. She met him at a poetry reading (by among others Lowell) and he did not act in the smooth socially acceptable way most others did. Abrasive, disjointed in his responses, a disjunctive life, she was attracted to hiim. When she showed him the farm she and Hammett had had together, and expressed the idea she had had to sell it due to the McCarthy years, he denied and it made her cry. His bitterness matched hers. She suggests that those who kowtowed to McCarthy were worse than open McCarthy and his acolytes, and for her this was that her belief in tribal safety was forever destroyed. The one satisfactory explanation for what happened was given by Richard Crossman, whose diaries Jim read. He was highly placed in successive labor gov’ts.
A jagged portrait. The point she made about the McCarthy period that made it so searing is that she cared about those who allowed the persecution, those who joined in, those who sprinted to demean themselves and invented lies is this is the core of evil’s start: the only reason these people objected to McCarthy was he was not “a gentleman.”
She likes Cowan because he helps those he theoretically despises and sees through most people as posturing and phony: but this is asking too little of someone. Surely Hammett would have told her that.
Trying to explain to Cowan why she is broke, or feels broke and was forced to sell her farm, she mentions that the Internal Revenue Dept of the USA so calculated Hammett’s taxes that he was not able to keep any of his royalties. In other words, McCarthy was the showman, the people who were eager to cave in the bellwethers, but what was most important was the gov’t apparatus going after her and Hammett at full throttle force. I’ve spent lots of time reading about my eligibility for a widow’s benefit, the insurance and other policies Jim paid into for years to make sure I was would all right if he should pre-decease me: everyone of them has a clause which say the US gov’t has the right to withhold all these funds from the person if they are deemed — I don’t remember the cagey word, it was not subversive as that is too open or concrete but it’s what was meant. Small details like this are scattered everywhere in this portrait of Cowan, an arch conservative politically who apparently became Hellman’s lover and helped her financially.
By the end of the tale Cowan becomes a curiously pathetic creature in a moving portrait, 3/4s lies, 1/4 great decency, perhaps a reactionary spy for the US gov’t set to watch Hellman, perhaps not. He keeps tying to win people over by telling them he’s leaving all his money to them, but when he dies, there’s no will and no money. He’s a much a wild outsider as Julia and dies obscurely with nothing known about him for sure. Here’s a site that tries to capture some of this period and has various replies. Telling to me is how Hammett will simply not stay in the same room with him: Hammett does not trust Cowan to breath honestly.
This relatively short penultimate piece reveals more than any other thus far how much this book has been about Lilian Hellman, that central to it no matter how marginal he appears is Hammett, and its great disaster only approached indirectly the McCarthy era persecution.
She begins by telling how she nearly drowns when she went out alone to fish one day. It is astonishing to me how alone she lives in her way: yes she is often with others socializing and yet she is fundamentally living within herself and doesn’t mind living alone, traveling alone for long stretches. Here she remembers yet another fragment of conversation between her and Hammett where she asked him about a turtle and if the turtle and Hammett were survivors, and now is she? He said “I don’t know .. maybe you are, maybe not. What good is my opinion” (p. 220). She realizes holding onto piling she is conversing with a man dead 5 years and a turtle dead for 26.That brings home to me that I do converse with Jim, and have ever conversed with him on my blog. By remembering what he would say or a scene.
The rest is a savage account of a primitive kind of snapping turtle that cripples Hammett’s favorite dog by biting his leg, and how Hammett in response studies many books, and decides how to murder a snapping turtle in reaction and does it. It’s not easy. It does seem fictional, mythic and half-crazy for after all the turtle that hurt the dog is not the turtle first tries to kill with an axe, then burn to death. It somehow survives by using it shell as protection, but finally they destroy it.
This phase of this portrait is embedded in an account of her buying the farmland it was on: how she made enough money from Little Foxes to buy this vast undeveloped land and how she farmed it, in Westchester County. No one but her interested in it. She really didn’t have the money, it was an estate and she did without food for a week (she says). So again we are telling of her idyllic time with Hammett in a raw way. The happy time ended 1952 she says again and it’s just after this statement she tells of the snapping turtle.
And the piece ends on Hammet’s words to her, She had insisted on burying this savage turtle out of respect for its ferocious fight back, and Hammett then dubbed it a version of herself and felt the moral emotion she’d had showed a religious sensibility and there was (at the time of writing? When she nearly drowned) a wooden sign over this turtle’s grave: “My first turtle is buried here. Miss Religious L.H.” Hammett’s words.
I thought this last unnamed piece would be about Hammett’s death since a reference to it opens the piece. But no it’s a return to Helen, and a young black man she seems to be nurturing (in her hard bitten way) who shows enormous promise, wins scholarships, goes to highfaultin places, and yet in the end somehow drops out of it all, or doesn’t get anywhere people think he will, and marries and lives an obscure life in Oregon. Helen dies and he returns for her funeral. Intermittently we hear about the student riots and how the universities handle them badly. He rejected the world which probably didn’t want him after all.