For roughly half the years of this century, playwright, memoirist and political street-fighter Lillian Hellman was one of the more riveting figures on the American scene. That late in her life she was proven to have embellished her distinguished record with a number of self-serving fictions may have diminished her honor but not her power to fascinate.
For whatever reason, she won’t stay dead. Now her close friend and chief beneficiary, Peter Fiebleman, who has already written (with Hellman) one book about their friendship, has written another. As a rule, chief beneficiaries are not the best sources for accurate likenesses, but the problem here is the reverse of the expected valentine.
Fiebleman, 25 years Hellman’s junior, first encountered her when he was a child and she was a celebrated friend of his parents. They met years later, became sporadic lovers and remained close for the final decades of Hellman’s life. We are given good measure of the expected: glamorous travels, hob-nobs with the famous, sassings of the mighty. We are given a lot more of the sex banter and affectionate bickering of most couples, more amusing here thanks to Hellman’s Daffy-Duck logic which Fiebleman relishes to the fullest.
In telling his simple, gossipy story, Fiebleman strains for literary effect as though, not content with her rarefied social preserve, he wants to write his way into Hellman’s literary league. A circling osprey in the book’s first sentence is a portent of poetry to come, and the fear is confirmed when we learn in the second paragraph that Martha’s Vineyard has “witty little blades of dune grass” and a dead swan on a beach is later pressed into service as a symbol of sensitivity and mystery. We are also treated to jarring asides: Egypt’s pyramids are “big suitcases” and Shakespeare’s “Othello” is not a play about jealousy.
Disappointingly, he does nothing to clear up Hellman mysteries that he was in a rare position to elucidate: the degree of pathology behind the fantasy companions like “Nursie” and “Madame” that Hellman spoke of in connection with Fiebleman (they aren’t mentioned); did she know she lied and if so why did she do it; and most perplexing of all, how a woman of her physical attributes seems to have been able to bed down any man she chose. Fiebleman’s frequent reiterations of her great sexiness are little help; the women of America would surely have appreciated a secret or two.
Despite these lapses, the book is quite entertaining for a time but gradually a strange nastiness begins to intrude and won’t leave. It is understandable that Fiebleman takes shots at those he considers Hellman detractors (including this writer) and one can almost forgive on rivalry grounds his efforts to belittle the legendary Hellman-Hammett romance (and unabashedly commandeering for his own climax the line Hellman movingly used in her “Unfinished Woman” portrait of Hammett: “We did come out fine in the end, didn’t we?”)
What is surprising as we chuckle our way through the anecdotes is the manner in which Hellman is steadily diminished and demeaned. We are given a very funny lady, but the laughs are too often at unfunny Hellman foibles: her ignorance, her bullying, her vindictiveness and her duplicity. Even her much lauded rigidity on matters of high principle is revealed by Fiebleman to be used frequently as a business ploy.
His single attempt to resolve in her favor one of the many Hellman controversies, the untruth of the Julia story (it never occurred to him that anyone would take it as fact) knocks the pins from Hellman’s own unwavering insistence that the story was true. He speaks of fictionalized “details,” but whether or not she ran a dangerous anti-Nazi mission to Berlin in 1937 can hardly be called a detail. His alibi also shows an unwillingness to allow a distinction between fiction and nonfiction that is unbecoming in a writer of both.
Many of the book’s tastiest stories come from Hellman through Fiebleman. Considering his source, he is, in the touchy matter of veracity, no better off than the rest of us. For instance, his horse’s-mouth version of Hellman’s falling out with Sam Goldwyn is totally at odds with this horse’s published account in “Unfinished Woman.” How many chances is she to be given to arrive at a version that suits her?
Oddly, it is in the area where the author’s authority is unquestioned--the Fiebleman-Hellman friendship--that the book takes its most unpleasant turn. Hellman is spared nothing.
We see an ugly old woman achingly in love with a far younger man, a man unwilling to be limited to one person or, by his own assertion, one gender. Considering the disparity in their talent, wealth and success, the suspicions of opportunism are inevitable and this book only strengthens them. That Fiebleman himself voices this concern (but doesn’t allay it) can be seen as a sly attempt to defuse with one page the impression instilled by most of the others.
We are presented with Hellman’s pathetic love letters in which she tells Fiebleman (and nobody else, she surely assumed) that she never loved anyone so much, never found anyone so handsome, so talented--inevitably begging forgiveness for being a nuisance. It is doubtful this exposure would please Hellman nor is it likely she would be grateful for his cataloguing her routine blemishes of old age--not recognizing friends, snoring at dinner parties, making rude stomach noises and the rest. Fiebleman’s intention in this book was, he states, to rescue Hellman from her critics. Save us all from such champions--and from our chief beneficiaries.