Lillian Hellman, one the most prominent playwrights in the history of American theater and author of The Children’s Hour, Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest talks about her complicated life and her intellectual and political concerns.
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LILLIAN HELLMAN: (Reading)… “Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it’s possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”
BILL MOYERS: In the next hour, Lillian Hellman looks at the canvas of her own life and talks about what was there once, and what is there now. I’m Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: This is the definitive edition of Lillian Hellman’s plays. The first, “The Children’s Hour,” was written forty years ago, to be followed by a succession of major works that twice won her the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Prize for the best play of the year: ”Watch on the Rhine,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Another Part of the Forest,” “The Autumn Garden” and, of course, “The Little Foxes.” This is her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman, winner of the National Book Award in 1969.
And this is her most recent triumph, Pentimento, portraits of people who have touched her life with indelible results. Her life has been filled with people — anonymous people, celebrities, some fools, and not a few of the great — people like Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, and the man she loved and lived with so many years, Dashiell Hammett, who created Sam Spade and wrote, among others, The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. In recent years, Lillian Hellman has been Regents Professor at the University of California in Berkeley, and Distinguished Professor at Hunter College in New York. I found her in Florida, where she’d rented a house for the winter months, in one of those occasional retreats into privacy that have always marked her life. There’s one question that I have wanted to ask you for a long time and it has to do with why, when you had a chance in 1945, on the front with the Russian army, to go at the invitation of the Russian General with his army into Warsaw and then on to Berlin, you said no.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I’m afraid the answer is too simple. I was too frightened. I had been on the Russian front, by that time, about two-and-a-half, three weeks, and I was already frightened enough. But the idea of moving into Warsaw — the Russian army, as you know from reading the book was, at that point, on the other bank, about to go into Warsaw. And then they were absolutely certain they were going through to Germany — which indeed, they were right about. And I used every excuse I could find such as: I didn’t have enough clothes and I couldn’t go. And he would say: “Never mind, we’ll liberate some clothes for you.” It just was plain fear. It was nothing else.
BILL MOYERS: Fear of death — of conflict?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know if I thought so much about death. In my belief, you don’t think that much about death. Fear of the hardships of the trip, I think — that I wouldn’t be able to do it…
BILL MOYERS: It would have been an historic passage.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: It certainly would have been and it’s been the regret of my life.
BILL MOYERS: You do regret it.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh, deeply, deeply regret it. Two years later, if it had happened, I would have been able to make the trip, but I was so frightened of my own reactions, my inability to stand deprivation — the deprivations were very great, even at the ‘” front.
BILL MOYERS: You always wanted a certain degree of comfort, didn’t you?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I evidently thought I did, anyway. I found, at the front, that I was not as uncomfortable as I thought I would beo It was much easier for me to take it, but I somewhere had in my head that a day’s long journey in a truck or on a h9rse, was going to be too much for me and that I’d start complaining. And I’m sure I was also frightened of death, l:]ut I think most people, particularly in a war, can’t afford to think about death. I couldn’t afford it on the Russian front. I stopped thinking about it after the first day.
BILL MOYERS: They didn’t want you at the front at first, and yet they then turned around and invited you.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know whether they wanted me or not. They had never allowed a foreigner at the ‘front. And when I first got to Moscow, I went — it was a great secret for years, because I don’t think either Mr. Hopkins or Mr. Roosevelt wanted it known. I really went because they wanted me to go. The Russians had said that they would accept somebody and Harry Hopkins and Roosevelt, I think, both wanted me to go. And I went with very great reluctance.
BILL MOYERS: What was the purpose of the trip?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, they wanted somebody in the so-called cultural world. You remember Eric Johnson had gone, I’d forgotten why Eric Johnson went — even forgotten Eric Johnson. And they were accepting people from various worlds. And since they’d done a number of my plays, I was the obvious cultural choice, I suppose. And I didn’t really very much want to go at all. But I did go, and when I first got there, the Foreign Office called me in and asked me what I’d like to see and do. And I said I didn’t care. It didn’t matter if I didn’t do anything. And that sort of shocked them. I was meant to ask for things. One of the things they asked me whether I wanted to do was going to the Russian front. And I said oh no, I didn’t want to go to the front at all. It wasn’t necessary. I wouldn’t know what I was seeing. I didn’t want to go. That was paid no attention to. So when I’d been there about two months the news came that they would very kindly allow me to go to the front. And this caused a sensation among the journalists in Moscow because nobody had been allowed to go — such a sensation that they finally arranged a trip for the rest of the journalists to go in another direction, to the Polish army. My old and dear friend, John Hersey, to this day makes bad jokes about why he wasn’t allowed to go to the Russian army and I was allowed to go to the Russian army.
BILL MOYERS: Certain things that always seem to happen to you against your will — and yet you were drawn to them ineluctably.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I suppose so. I suppose one makes one’s own dramas and doesn’t know it.
BILL MOYERS: Did those experiences on the front affect you as much as, say, your experience in the Civil War in Spain, when you visited there?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t think they affected me as much emotionally as the Civil War in Spain did, because it was such a sad and moving war. It affected me far more in terms of watching an army, and watching a fighting army — the details of a fighting army. They were very important weeks in my life.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean, the details of a fighting army?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, in Spain, while we were all under bombardment a great deal, I was only for one half of a day anywhere near the Spanish front and then I wasn’t that close. Here, I was really very close. The Germans were shooting, perhaps five hundred yards away. We were really in dugouts. And I was put up in a small village, I think called Ania, although they had taken down all the signs so that I wouldn’t recognize where I was. But we were very very close to the front and every day we moved forward a little bit, and I would move forward with the army.
BILL MOYERS: So-many people had moved through and in and out of your life, obviously having left a part of themselves with you. In memory, are there any heroes left?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know. I’m not sure I think of people in terms of being heroes or not. There are people who are sort of better in my mind than other people, but whether they’re heroes or not, I — it’s such a large word, isn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: It is a large word, and yet so many of the figures who moved through your life were large people — Hemingway…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I’m not sure I’m capable of judging heroism or heroes. I wish I was, because I think they’re very badly needed. They’re particularly badly needed in this country now. I don’t know what you feel, but one is almost dying to see a hero rise up in America now. It’s a terrible lack, to me. There’re certainly many decent men, but — that’s about where it is. There’s no large figure to say anything for any of us anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Other than Norman Mailer, who is as much actor as writer I think, there aren’t any writers today who are as dominant in the personality sense as there were in that gang you knew so well. How do you account for that?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know and maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe the personality of the writer doesn’t matter quite as much as all those people thought. Maybe it’s just what you write. I mean, it was a wilder time, one mustn’t forget — a wilder period. They were all cutting up about society, or about themselves, or about women, or about men, much more than people are now.
BILL MOYERS: Were they conscious of being personalities, celebrities?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I think so, I think so. I’m not sure that I don’t think it’s better now. I’m not sure why writers should have remarkable personalities. They’re not actors. They’re not society people. They’re not automobiles. There’s no reason for them to be seen so much, to be so interesting. Most very good writers, I think, are rather uninteresting in a room.
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever make up your mind about Hemingway? I remember your writing that you weren’t sure he liked you and you weren’t sure what you thought of him either.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No, I wasn’t very sure what I thought of him. I suppose if I had to be truthful, he was an extraordinarily attractive and interesting man and I was very impressed with him. I don’t really think I liked him entirely. He was a difficult man to like, I think, but he was an extremely impressive man and I don’t mean the talent. He just was an impressive figure. Not only in what he looked like, which was very remarkable, but there was a power in the personality which was enormous. And I don’t think it. was the power that came from fame. Many famous people are not very impressive. He was a man of extraordinary instincts. I saw him one night, do a very interesting thing in Paris. ‘We were sitting at a table in a cafe and gradually, through the evening, two or three people joined us. Two of the people I knew and two of the people I’d never seen before. And within about three or four minutes, he leaned across the table — he’d never seen any of them before — to tell me what he thought of them. And he was not only right about the people I knew, he turned out to be absolutely right about the people I didn’t know. It was the most extraordinary sort of instinct I’d ever seen operate.
BILL MOYERS: But the two of you seemed to have a kind of tension between you.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I think there was a sort of tension. As you know, I told a story in Unfinished Woman about reading a manuscript of his. And Dorothy Parker said a very wise thing. I read the manuscript and said: “There’s a part missing here.” I was reading the galleys of the manuscript and I put the manuscript down and said: “There’s some pages missing, aren’t there?” And he said: “No, there’re no pages missing at all. Just go on.” And the next day, when I told Dorothy Parker about this, she said: ‘you’ve made an enemy for life. That was the place that the editor cut. And you never should have guessed it.” But it wasn’t an enemy for life. I don’t think he ever really liked me. But he was kind to me in Spain. He was thoughtful to me in Spain.
BILL MOYERS: What about Thurber? There’s a mention in the book about his throwing a glass at you in a speakeasy.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, he threw glasses at everybody. I don’t think he cared about me one way or the other. He just threw a glass at me.
BILL MOYERS: Did you know him well?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, I knew him better than I knew Hemingway. We all used to hang out at a famous speakeasy called Tony’s. I was much younger than anybody else, but everybody else was very famous. I wasn’t. I used to go with Hammett. And everybody, when they got drunk enough, was very often bad-tempered, and Thurber was certainly bad-tempered when he got drunk. Later on, when we saw each other — years afterwards — we got along perfectly well.
BILL MOYERS: Was he as witty, say, as Dorothy Parker was in conversation?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. But almost nobody was. That’s not a fair — she was an extraordinary wit.
BILL MOYERS: And the two of you had an extraordinary relationship.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, we did have an extraordinary relationship.
BILL MOYERS: How did that happen? Because the two of you seem to me, from a distance, quite different people.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: We were. Maybe that’s why we managed it. I really don’t know how it happened. We had met in New York, just at a party. And we weren’t to see each other again until four or five years later. And then we met in Hollywood. And I really don’t know any longer how we got to know each other. I certainly don’t know how we got to like each other. But it was a long-lasting and very good relationship. I think she was as devoted to me as I was to her. And it was strange that two not very easy ladies got along so well.
BILL MOYERS: Did your occasionally infamous temper explode at her as well as it did at… .
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No, never — never. We never had an unpleasant word…
BILL MOYERS: That was unusual for you, or are the stories about your temper exaggerated?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. I don’t think they’re exaggerated. They’re exaggerated — I only had tempers at work, really. Once in a while, there would be tempers outside of work. There were usually tempers in the theater, tempers that had to do with my own work. I couldn’t bear anybody interfering with it. Once in a while, they would explode in social situations, but not very often. I’d like to have some of it back again.
BILL MOYERS: You once wrote: “I used to have silent angers.” What were they, and do you still have them?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I shouldn’t have really said that I suppose, because they weren’t always so very silent. They’re much more silent now than they used to be. Yes, I still have them. I don’t have them with the force they used to come. But I don’t have anything with the force I used to have, I suppose. I was very ashamed of temper because I’d been taught to be ashamed of it. In looking back, I think it had’ certain — it had great troubles, and caused great troubles — but I think it had certain virtues.
BILL MOYERS: What were they?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, it kept you from doing certain things. It carried you in bad situations very often that you might have collapsed under. I didn’t know any of this when I had them but now, in looking back, I think that, for example, before the House Un-American Committee, I was so silently angry that it carried me through the whole day. And I might not have. I might have collapsed otherwise.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t think it would have been better, in retrospect, to have expressed that anger?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: There? No. I think it would have been very dangerous to express it there. It didn’t really matter — about expressing it. I was so angry, anyway. It was for me, that anger. What I mean is that I might have taken a totally different position if the anger about the whole thing hadn’t carried me like a lifesaver.
BILL MOYERS: You don’t want confrontations? I assume that, because you used to rush from rooms — you even fly out of cities to get away from.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t like confrontations I can lose…
BILL MOYERS: Well, welcome to the human race…
LILLIAN HELLMAN:… if I can win them I don’t mind them at all.
BILL MOYERS: What was behind this often indescribable lure of just moving on, of just getting away from some place in a hurry?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I think perhaps, in a sense, the fear of anger — that if I stayed, I’d be out of control and that, I’d better move as fast as I could and as far as I could and forever as I could . .
BILL MOYERS: Did you ever lose a good friend because you fought with him or with her?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I think so. It wasn’t one fight, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t dramatic. But I think, a couple. I have regrets for one. I don’t have regrets for the other. But when — it’s easy when you reach my age. That kind of regret is nonsense. There’s nothing to be done about it.
BILL MOYERS: Is it too personal to ask which one you regret?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I can’t name him because I think it would pain him. But it was an old friend, a rather distinguished literary man whom I grew up with. And I’m sorry that we don’t see each other anymore. But I don’t think that it was all my fault by any manner of means. We just had been very young together, very fond of each other. Times changed. It’s very hard now, perhaps. Having spent most of my younger life blaming myself too much, very probably i don’t blame myself enough now.
BILL MOYERS: You wanted success. You’ve admitted that. But you snarled at it when you got it. Why?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know. I’ve asked myself this many, many times. I can’t answer that question. I wish I could. I spent my life wondering about it. I don’t know that I snarled at it. I had a sense of disappointment, I suppose; or maybe just a sense of fear that it would never happen again and what was I celebrating so much.
BILL MOYERS: But you didn’t feel at home in the world of theater, did you?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. I didn’t feel at home even in the world of success, I think. I’m not. sure I was made for what people thought — I’m spoiled enough, I don’t mean that. But I don’t think I was made for the world of very successful people, or the houses, or the cars, or the boats. Not that I don’t like them — I do. It’s just that I’m not entirely comfortable.
BILL MOYERS: You write most movingly about simple, anonymous people, although you knew so many of the great figures. Did you feel more comfortable with them?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I think I must have. I think, in some way, I possibly still do. I know a great many famous people and really like most of them. But I think — I’m making this too simple. I’m sounding as if I don’t like success, when of course, I like it very very much and like all the benefits and money and the rest.
BILL MOYERS: What about the requirements of getting there? The discipline, the loneliness?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I never thought of it that way. I thought of it as just work. And since I worked all my life, I go on working.
BILL MOYERS: Well, the puzzle is that you did question glamour, at least.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes. That I certainly have questioned. It’s kind of comic to me — glamour.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you work in a world of glamour- Hollywood, and then Broadway.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, I was. I guess I still am, to some extent. But it’s always been faintly amusing to me, glamour. It’s such a funny word, isn’t it? .And it passes so rapidly. I don’t mean I wasn’t impressed by it an enormous number of people — and still aren’t. But it’s such a childish word, really. It’s a childish state.
BILL MOYERS: What moved you to write the first play?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: It’s a long dull story. I don’t think you want to hear it .. To be as brief as possible, I started out — I’d gone from college to work for a publishing house. And then I wanted to be a writer all my life and I had written short stories. And one or two of them were published in unknown magazines and they weren’t very good. I’m not being modest. Even I knew they weren’t very good. And then I stopped writing and thought: “Well, this isn’t any good. I’m not meant to be a writer.” And I was married then and went to Hollywood with my husband, and got a job reading in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reading department for the magnificent sum of fifty dollars a week, where you had to read in two languages or you didn’t get the job. You worked from nine to six at night. And then I got a: divorce and I went to live, as you know, with Dashiell Hammett. And I suppose, I don’t know, he encouraged me I think, to start again — although I don’t remember any words of it. And why I chose plays, I don’t have any idea, since I really didn’t know very much about the theater, except that I had gone to it during my lifetime and had worked in very cheap jobs in the theater. I had worked in a Rochester stock company I taking tickets at a box office, and press agent. They were all very shabby jobs. I think I just started to write plays because I didn’t know what else to write. I knew I wasn’t a short story writer.
BILL MOYERS: But the glaring paradox is that your plays, the early plays, were preoccupied with the terrors in the human heart — with evil. And yet, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, both deal with people with the recognition of civility and decency — even among those people you didn’t always like. How do you explain the preoccupation with evil in the early plays and the reflections that seem more encouraging about the race?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I’m not sure I agree with you. I do know what you mean, of course. I would say — it doesn’t mean I’m right, because I don’t think one ever looks at one’s work very accurately or even perhaps, .has any right to — that I’m still looking at evil, but perhaps, through another set of glasses. I don’t think all the plays did look at so-called evil. But some of them certainly did, you’re quite right. And I think both books, in a sense, look at it but through totally — perhaps a different age, perhaps not glasses, perhaps a different time of life.
BILL MOYERS: You seem to be looking in Pentimento in particular, at the people who passed before us, at the hopeful qualities — at the encouraging attributes. Whereas in ”Little Foxes,” for example, you seemed to be looking for whatever it is that lurks inside of us that is danger and awful.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Because from my viewpoint, which doesn’t — as I said before — doesn’t at all mean anything — I think I said once: I think I’m a moral writer. And looking at evil is a form of morality, isn’t it? “Little Foxes,” of course, were people I knew to some extent. And I was in an angry period of my life, in any case. I was very angry at such people. I still an angry about such people. But I suppose it would have a different form now. If there’s any hope for a writer in the end, if there’s hope, there can only be hope for some sort of change. Otherwise, you do exactly what you always did.
BILL MOYERS: Your last play was when — 1960?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: 1962!
BILL MOYERS: “Toys in the Attic”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No — it was an adaptation called “My Mother and Father and Me”. It was a failure.
BILL MOYERS: Why haven’t you written a play since then? Why did you turn to memoirs?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, not with that play but long before that play, the Broadway theater began to be sort of sickening to me. I got tired of the talk about money and tired of the fact that the New York Times, without any evil intention, at all — it can’t help it, it’s not its fault by any matter of means — simply control the success or failure of a play. You get a bad review; you might as well close the show. It began to seem like nonsense to me — such pressures and so much money spent. I think it really began — my leaving the theater — long before I left. It began with “Candide”, which Leonard Bernstein, Richard Wilbur and I did as a musical and somewhere in the middle of those rehearsals in that time in Boston, I thought there’s something crazy about a show that can’t stay on the road because it hasn’t got enough money to. And it’s coming into New York before it should, and everybody’s staying up ’til six o’clock in the morning and then going to work at ten, and making wild decisions, and I don’t want my life to be this anymore. I don’t know where I am and I don’t know whether I’m saying something is good because I think it is or just to please other people or…
BILL MOYERS: Have you seen a good play lately — one that moved you?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. I’ve seen, you know, plays that I liked to some extent, but no, I haven’t. I don’t go to the theater very much anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t think it’s very good any more. I much prefer going to movies. I’ve seen things that I like and was interested in, but not…
BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose there are not more women writing plays, or writing for the theater today?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, of course, there always should have been. God knows why there weren’t early — I think there are more women writing now, but that’s probably it. It’s not only for the theater. There’re a lot more women writing than there were when I began, or certainly fifty years before me when there were very few women writing anything. There’re more women poets. There’re more women novelists, aren’t there?
BILL MOYERS: You .once said, I think, that women’s’ liberation is a matter of economics. Would you elaborate on that?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes. I was misunderstood when I said it in a forum. You know, I don’t have to tell you how deeply I believe in women’s’ liberation. I think some of its cries are rather empty cries, because I think it all comes down to whether or not you can support yourself as well as a man can support himself — whether there’s enough money to make certain decisions for yourself, rather ‘than a dependence; In that particular discussion that was quoted, one of the ladies brought up the point that she was not willing to do the cooking and lift the garbage cans. It seems to me it’s not a question of who lifts the garbage cans, but whether you have enough money to get somebody to lift them for you, or enough money to say to your husband: “Look, I’ve worked as hard as you’ve worked today. Please lift the garbage cans for me,” or “Please do the cooking, I’ve worked perhaps even harder than you’ve worked today.” I doubt if there’ll be any true women’s’ liberation until women are capable of even being paid for bringing up children, which I think should carry a salary with it.
BILL MOYERS: God knows, you were liberated before, in the current sense of that word, it was ever in currency — a rebellious girl — a rebellious woman. Where was that rebel born?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know where rebels are born. I was rebellious when I was four years old I think, and a nuisance too. All rebels are nuisances. I must have been the prize nuisance child, I guess. I often wondered how anybody put up with me. One asks oneself that always — how were rebels born — how were non-rebels born, equally?
BILL MOYERS: But were you aware at an early age of wanting to be on your own, of wanting to be dependent upon no one?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. Because I think I was very dependent. I think I’m very dependent now. I was conscious of not liking it — that I prefer to be left alone. I also think I knew early that I wasn’t going to be. But I don’t think that’s the only kind of rebellion. I was very rebellious. And then I think, in part I inherited — you knew that I grew up in part in the South and I was very rebellious in a way.
BILL MOYERS: New Orleans…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, the way negroes were treated, it seemed to me, was very unjust and ugly. I wasn’t only rebellious about myself. I suppose I got that to some extent from my father, but not entirely. Maybe because I early fell in love with a negro nurse, and stayed in love almost all my life, I guess.
BILL MOYERS: You said you were dependent and yet you strike me as always being a fugitive from commitment. I know you lived with Dashiell Hammett for thirty years, off and on…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes…
BILL MOYERS: I guess one could say that’s a commitment. And yet in your writings and in your life, there seems to be a hanging back from commitment.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t think from commitment — I think you mean from marriage… (laughs) don’t you?
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t mean it, but I’ll accept that amendment. Why from marriage?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I’ve been as a matter of fact, I think, a little too committed. I don’t know, I don’t know. It isn’t even that I had a very bad first marriage. I had a very pleasant first marriage, to a very pleasant man, called Arthur Kober. It wasn’t at all a mean marriage and we still see each other and are very fond of each other. It’s that somewhere, I suppose, I decided that it wasn’t right for me. I don’t mean that so many people urged me into it. I thought I was better with no formalities, that I was better — that I would stay longer if I felt free to go any day-I suppose that was it.
BILL MOYERS: What did your father mean when he said that you’d lived with a question mark?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh, I think he didn’t mean anything more than I was just a damn nuisance with the questions. I talked, when I was young, in nothing but questions — absolutely nothing. I never said a declarative sentence. I formed everything in the form of a question. And I would pull at everybody’s coats or dresses to tell me what I wanted to know along a street. I don’t know whether my father got it right or not, but there was a play long before I was born called “Jimmy Valentine”, and he evidently was a question-asker. My father used to refer to me as Jimmy Valentine. “‘Let’s leave Jimmy Valentine alone for a while, ’til she stops asking questions.” I still ask a great many questions.
BILL MOYERS: What was there about Dashiell Hammett that enabled you, the question-asker, to really give yourself to him?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: That’s a very complicated question. What enables anybody to love somebody else, God knows. He was a very remarkable man, no question, and he was also a very difficult man. Maybe, probably, he was willing to answer questions. I don’t know. It’s a very hard question isn’t it, to ask anybody why they loved one person and didn’t love another?
BILL MOYERS: Respect often cancels our romance, as I think you said of Dorothy Parker’s marriage.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes…
BILL MOYERS: But in your case…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Now in my case, it didn’t…
BILL MOYERS: There was respect and romance?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, there was. I had great respect for him. I hope I didn’t ever write that we had an easy life together. We didn’t. We had a very difficult life together. Nor did we ever live it twelve months a year together — very, very seldom, except the last four or five years of his life, when he was very ill. We usually skipped places, and I went away a great deal- went to Europe a great deal. Hammett would never move — never went out of America.
BILL MOYERS: Why was that?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t know. I have a feeling — he was an extraordinary American kind of man, in an almost provincial sense. For a radical, he had a very great dislike of foreigners and people who accused him of having sympathies for the Soviet Union didn’t quite know what they were talking about because, while he was interested in what they were doing, he had a sort of feeling that no foreigner equaled us, really, in the end.
BILL MOYERS: Did he help you with your writing?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh yes, enormously, enormously. I can’t ever pay him enough gratitude for what he did, beyond the obvious things that writers can help with. He was so enormously patient. And more than patient, he was honest — sometimes rather sharply and brutally honest. But without that, I don’t think I would have done very much.
BILL MOYERS: Did he tell you: “This is no damn good.”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh yes, indeed — in stronger words than that. In very strong words.
BILL MOYERS: Did you take it from him?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh yes, I took it. Once in a while, I would be terribly pained and miserable about it. Yes, certainly, I took it, because I recognized that it had I think you can always take what people say if you know there is no malice in it, or no self-seeking in it. Then, whether they’re right or wrong, they’ve shown that amount of love to take the chance on your hating them, which has always impressed me in people.
BILL MOYERS: Why did he ask you to stop reading “Little Abner”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: He hated “Little Abner”. He thought it was a fascist comic strip. He hated it. I used to be very amused at his violence about “Little Abner”.
BILL MOYERS: I wonder what he would think today about Al Capp?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, he sure guessed it, long before — because this was years ago. I was a great comic strip reader and he used to be violent about my reading “Little Abner”. How could I stand it? How could I stand the picture this was of people? It was a low-down mess. And he wasn’t a violent man. He was a rather good-tempered man.
BILL MOYERS: Did you keep your promise to him to stop reading “Little Abner”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes. I never read “Little Abner” again. Once in a while, I try to sneak back, and then I get so inhibited and so superstitious that I don’t read ft. I took to reading “Orphan Annie” instead.
BILL MOYERS: I guess that’s the ultimate tribute to commitment. I was wrong all along about you- you’ll give up “Little Abner” for your…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh, I love “Little Abner”. I was crazy about him. I didn’t remember what he was talking about. I think I know what he’s talking about now.
BILL MOYERS: But Hammett saw politics in it.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, he did. I was amazed that he did. It turns out that he was right, doesn’t it?
BILL MOYERS: He was right. You’ve never written extensively about your own political beliefs or activities and yet you say that the McCarthy era changed your life.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes. I’ve tried to, Mr. Moyers, a number of times. I tried for Unfinished Woman. I tried long before Unfinished Woman. I tried for Pentimento. It seems to be something that, at least in this period of my life, I can’t do. I write ten or fifteen pages and then I tear them up and they seem to me the wrong tone and the wrong — I can’t seem to say what I want to say.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that? You’ve expressed yourself on the stage. You’ve expressed yourself precisely in two memoirs. And yet, when it comes to political views, this hesitation.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, of course, the McCarthy — it was so, it’s such a complicated period. In my mind, at least — because it simply wasn’t just McCarthy. Everybody now uses this word to sort of blame one man or ten men or fifteen men. It was much more pervasive than that. And it even includes many, many liberals — many liberals still living. And I suppose, perhaps, I feel more sharply about them than I do about McCarthy.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I had foolishly told myself that they would stand up in such a period and most of them did not. And that, evidently, is still so difficult ” for me to understand. So many of them were my close friends. I suppose that’s so difficult for me to understand, and I don’t. And I’m so frightened of it happening again in some form that I can’t — it’s also difficult because many of them now deny it. Maybe they believe what they’re saying. I don’t think they do. And perhaps that isn’t my only reason. I was very ruined in that period, financially .very ruined, I mean…
BILL MOYERS: When you were black-listed?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes. And, you know, what money we both had, went. And I don’t think I like to think of — I don’t enjoy periods of pain and I find it a little embarrassing to talk about it, particularly since I did alright afterwards. Maybe if I never had, it would have been…
BILL MOYERS: But the country’s recovered from that period. Your own recovery from that period is a sign of hope, isn’t it?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, indeed — indeed. Indeed it is — indeed it is. I hope we’re not entering another one, but it never could be the same. It could be much worse, but it could never be the same. But of course it is. I think I sort of always knew that when I lived long enough and had any kind of break — and I did have a break, many people didn’t, of course. It depended on what age you were and what talents you had, I suppose, and what health you were in. Many things. Many people didn’t survive. I suppose I always thought that if one just could hang on long enough, one would survive. I wish I knew why I couldn’t write about it. If I knew it, I could do it.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve said it in snippets here and there. You said, for example, that Hitler had shaken so many of you in the Thirties into radicalism. And I remember your describing staying in a London hotel after you came out of Spain and saying that those were the root days of your radicalism. Yet, did you really become a radical?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No. It’s a loose term. No — I never belonged to any political party. No — I didn’t become a radical, I’m afraid. Since I admire many radicals, I’m rather sorry to say that I don’t think I did have either the interest or the commitment. But — no, I didn’t and I don’t want to ever fake that I did.
BILL MOYERS: That’s another difference between you and Dashiell Hammett, because he was very committed…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, indeed, he was. He was certainly, the last fifteen or twenty years of his life, totally committed. And we had frequently bad times about that.
BILL MOYERS: Arguments?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, sometimes arguments. But more often, I think, my fears — once he went to jail, I was terrified he was going back again.
BILL MOYERS: He was sent to jail because of his radical activities.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: He was sent to jail because he refused, quite honorably, to supply a court with the names of people who had contributed to something called “The Civil Rights Bail Fund”. As I’ve written before, he never in his life, had seen the names. He never had even been in the office of the organization. He didn’t know where the office was. But he agreed to be a trustee and decided he was not going to turn over the names and he went to jail. Once he got out of jail, I was always terrified he was going back. He was, by this time, quite a sick man.
BILL MOYERS: So that was a source of tension…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: We used to clearly that he intended to do too bad, but he’d understand it was some danger to me too, to leave. And I didn’t choose have arguments about it. He finally said quite what he wanted to do and if I didn’t like, that was. And we’d move away from each other. He understood and he wouldn’t have any feeling about it if I chose to leave.
BILL MOYERS: You said once: “I think we were younger in our twenties than people are today.” Why?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I think education is better today, for one thing. I think the average parent is better informed, less stuffy about what children can or cannot know. But chiefly, I think education is better today than it was. I still don’t — as somebody who teaches very often — I still don’t think it’s the dream. But it’s better than it was with me. And customs and manners in America are less stuffy and inhibited than they were.
BILL MOYERS: Particularly than they were in New Orleans, when you were…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, exactly. Or even in New York, by the time we moved to New York. I came, of course — it’s perhaps not fair to say — but from a very middle-class family and maybe they were. My mother and father weren’t, but everybody else was. Maybe they were stuffier than most. But I think people don’t hide from children and know more about children and Freud.’ s had a great deal to do with this too, don’t you think so?
BILL MOYERS: Yes. Do you fear age — old age?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh yes… Yes, indeed. I’m furious about it. I’m not furious, I’m so angry…
BILL MOYERS: Angry?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, I hate not being — and I’ve seldom been really sick — I hate not being able to do everything I could do, or getting tired, or having to think about my body, or myself. It’s childish of me. I just can’t possibly get it through my head, that it’s happened to me.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a common ailment. How do you deal with it? How do you come to terms with it?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Go to bed… (laughs)… that’s about all one can do — lie clown- just tell myself there’s nothing to be done about it.
BILL MOYERS: Where do you go from here?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: From here in age? Getting older…
BILL MOYERS: Wherever you are — intellectually…
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh God knows- God knows I hope O.K., but who knows? I go around telling myself that my memory is going, you know I give myself a little talk every day about it, but so far I suppose it’s better than I could have expected.
BILL MOYERS: You accused yourself once of making larger symbols out of things than should be made out of them. And I’m guilty of the same thing, which prompts me to ask you: do you remember the fig tree?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, indeed, indeed.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the fig tree.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Well, I think you mean the fig tree I wrote about in Unfinished Woman, where I spent a great deal of my New Orleans childhood, when the weather would allow it. My aunt had a boarding house and the boarding house had a fair amount of grounds and there was a quite large — exceptionally large — fig tree. It was sufficiently removed from the house and heavy in limb and leaf, that you couldn’t be seen. So I rigged up a seat for myself from baskets that I used to put on pulleys and books that I kept up there and food that I took up there. I lived many a day and sometimes part of a night in that fig tree. I would skip school. Since I partly went to school in New York and partly went to school in New Orleans, I was behind my class in New York and way ahead of my class in New Orleans. So in New Orleans they really didn’t care whether I showed up or not. Nobody minded. If I showed up two or three times a week, nobody said anything. . So I would frequently take all my school books and go around the block and get on the streetcar and get off, and come right back to the fig tree.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’ll show you what I mean when I say I make, perhaps, too much of something, but this is the way you described the fig tree in Unfinished Woman: “The fig tree was heavy, solid, comfortable and I had, through time, convinced myself that it wanted me, missed me when I was absent, and approved all the rigging I had done for the happy days I spent in its arms.” And the question becomes: Has Lillian Hellman spent the rest of her life looking for another fig tree?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes, of course, all of it — whatever that fig tree has been in everybody’s life. I’m not sure one finds it after childhood. One is very lucky to find it in childhood, isn’t one? Most children don’t find it. I was at one with that tree.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever felt that way about anything, or any place?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: I don’t think to that degree. I felt it, in a large measure, about the farm that I owned before the McCarthy period and had to sell because of it. I felt very comfortable and at home, as if I had worked hard on it. I did work physically very hard on it. But I don’t think in the sort of mystical way that child felt about that tree.
BILL MOYERS: Do you miss those fast, loose wild years that you once described and lived?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I do — yes, But now, of course, it would be almost impossible. Every once in a while I have a great dream of it. I don’t drink very much anymore and once in a while I get great feelings about the days when I did and then I think: “How silly”, when I don’t really want a drink any more — “what nostalgic foolishness that is”. I couldn’t in the first place and don’t want to in the second.
About four or five years ago, I guess, I was in the Vineyard, by myself, in the autumn, and I thought I hadn’t been drunk in twenty — twenty-five years, I guess. I’d really like to be very very drunk again. And I was by myself. And I got very very drunk. And I started up the stairs — my house had a rather large landing in the middle of the stairs — and I thought: wouldn’t it be nice to — not go to bed in the sort of formal way I go to bed every night now, and go back to just going to sleep where I was, which is what I used to do. So I went to sleep on the landing- had a very bad cold in the morning — was terribly uncomfortable and the back ached — and thought: well, that’s enough of that nonsense forever, now I’ll go to bed for the rest of my life.” It was a very good night for me… I felt awful for a couple of days.
BILL MOYERS: Worse than giving up “Little Abner”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Much worse.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote once: “we were suspicious in those days of words of love.”
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Did you get over that suspicion?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No, I still have it. I think I’m still doubtful about all statements of emotions. I have some feelings that they’d better be proved before the words are used. I like the words. I like — would, of course, like to be told words. And I think one can make too much fuss about not saying them. But it seems to me we talk too loosely about the way we feel — I’m a little frightened of that, I must say — rather than acting it out in some say.
BILL MOYERS: Was Hammett reluctant to use the word “love”?
LILLIAN HELLMAN: Oh, terribly reluctant. Hammett was a very taciturn man — very reluctant. He had far greater suspicions than I had of emotions.
BILL MOYERS: But the two of you never seemed, as far as I can discern from reading, to have great deal of doubt about the vitality of the relationship.
LILLIAN HELLMAN: No, I don’t think we did. I think we both knew — well, it look a long time to find out, but we both knew in the end, long before the end, what we felt. We didn’t talk about it a great deal. I think we were good to each other, I think. I’m sure. I think I would have liked far more words. All women like far more words. I would have liked poems written to me, but I wasn’t getting them, so I did without them. I still would like a poem written to me, if you know anybody who’d like to write it.
BILL MOYERS: A poem? — Lillian Hellman’s life has been its own poem, with its special cadence of love and loss; poetry acted out, rather than merely written and, like the woman herself, still unfinished. However…
This transcript was entered on April 28, 2015.