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Lillian Hellman Remembered by Jules Feiffer

Photo of Lillian Hellman by Lynn Gilbert
Lillian Hellman in her apartment, as photographed by Lynn Gilbert 1977, New York

Lillian Hellman Remembered by Jules Feiffer

Dramatists Guild member, Lillian Hellman, passed away August 30, 1984. She was 79. A popular and prolific playwright of the mid twentieth century, Lillian Hellman served her colleagues as a member of the Dramatists Guild Council from 1942 to 1976, and as a Dramatist member of the Authors League Council from 1956 to 1965.This tribute originally appeared in the Summer 1984 issue of The Quarterly. She is remembered here by DG Council member Jules Feiffer.

On National Public Radio last Saturday night, they played pieces of an old interview with Lillian, and as I listened to it I came up short, thinking, “Oh, my God, that voice.” It had been a while since I heard Lill’ s voice in full-throated rasp. She had been too weak over the last year to belt out her rasp with her usual resonance. But that and her presence-even her thin-waisted presence-was still enough to dominate dinner parties. I have often found myself marveling in baffle­ment, envy, and awe at Lillian’s ability to hold the attention of a room with a story which when examined later had all the importance of a marketing trip to the A & P.

She could take a marketing trip to the A & P and string it out into three well-made acts: quietly dramatic, surprisingly suspenseful. Who did she run into that she wanted to avoid? What slight would occur? What mishap at the check-out counter? The crisis of the meat counter. The incident of the vegetables. The adventure of the shopping cart. And all of this told in a drawling, cigarette-gutted, booze-burnished croak, interrupted only by her own editorial asides. “Isn’t that extraordinary?” “Have you ever heard of such a thing?” “Have I gone mad?” “Maybe it’s me; I’m sure it’s me.”

How the hell does she do it, I must have asked myself thousands of times over the years as I sat at her table, smiling, nodding, and smoldering with envy. And in what were alleged to be the more critical aspects of life – war and peace, the arms race, civil liberties, the rise and fall of the American Left – Lillian’s voice was no less conversational, never polemical, never righteous except for an occasional “Forgive me,” pronounced softly, but which meant that the person speaking didn’t know what he was talking about.

When the talk was politics, Lill became more reflective, more quiet and more amused. She was drawn by irresistible instinct into public affairs, it didn’t seem to be within her grasp not to take a position. I don’t believe it was ever a matter of choice with her to play it safe or not play it safe, to defy the Un-American Activities Committee or to cave in. Others saw her as courageous at these times in her life. I don’t think she ever saw it that way. She honestly knew of no other way to behave.

What made her angry, and continually angry, were the sorts of things that other people, including fellow radicals, learned over a time to accept. Not to like, never that, but to get over, to let pass, to live to fight another day. Lillian never learned to get over things, and she was very bad at letting things pass. Her toughness was a matter of pride, principle, ego and a hardnosed vision of the way things ought to be, and she didn’t mind a fight. She complained about trouble, but as all of us who loved her know, a sizeable part of her thrived on it.

And the influence she brought to bear on these troubled times was extraordi­nary. This is not a country that listens gladly to literary types. We listen to lawyers, we listen to lobbyists and journalists and other officially signified experts. But Lillian found a way of making herself heard. When she and I met in the early 1960s, I was startled that someone that old could speak with such familiarity and fluency on issues that concerned my generation. Ten years later, I was startled that she could speak with equal familiarity and fluency with student revolutionaries who by and large had stopped speaking to me because of the generation gap.

In fact, she was cross generational, and could effortlessly engage the old, the young, the middle-aged, the left, the middle, the right, and just about anyone except, on occasion, the women friends of the men she admired.

Over the last ten or twelve years of her life she was most concerned with the government’s assault on civil liberties, and rather than write outraged articles on it, she got on the phone and brought together a group of lawyers and professors and writers and statesmen and a millionaire or two and formed the Committee for Public Justice. She chaired the meetings, helped raise the funds, helped get others to raise more funds, thrashed out agendas and set up across the country a series of well-covered public meetings which described in detail the calculated erosion by the FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department on the First Amendment and our other constitutional rights. No other writer I know would begin to know how to do this, and she went about this work in a manner no radically different than the way she organized menus for her dinner parties.

Much has been written about her enemies. She picked them with care, and God knows they deserved her, but people who don’t know her don’t know about her friends. They were everywhere, had every kind of job, and every kind of politics, and found her in one way or another to be quite important in their lives. There is much to miss. I will miss the talks, the arguments, the extreme loyalty when it was called upon, and as much as anything else, the girlishness, the brattishness and the incredible sense of fun.

JULES FEIFFER is a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and an Academy Award winning screenwriter. His Broadway credits include Little Murders, Knock Knock, and Grown Ups. Jules is a longtime Council member of the Dramatists Guild.