It takes a certain kind of courage to write a fan letter. If the letter is directed to a writer, that courage must be fortified; the letter must make an impression, in words, to someone who lives by and with words. Perhaps it reflects a long-held admiration, a sense that the writer understands us better than we know ourselves. But what if our letter asks for something? Then this courage must be fortified tenfold: How dare we presume that someone who has given us so much might be willing--and able--to reward us yet again?
Rosemary Mahoney is someone who dared. At the age of 17, this budding writer read Lillian Hellman and felt a kinship: "[W]hen Hellman wrote about her smallest experiences, they had the feel of epic adventures with epiphanic endings. . . . Her life, even in its smallest details, meant something. . . . She lived her life; I merely walked along beside mine, keeping an eye on it, reining it in.”
In 1978, desperate to find a summer job more interesting than waitressing at the local Howard Johnson’s, Mahoney addressed a letter to “Lillian Hellman, Vineyard Haven, Mass. 02568, certain that it would find her,” told the writer that she had read her work and asked whether she needed someone to work for her--"in any capacity.” Hellman responded that she was looking for a summer housekeeper-cook, and Mahoney, who had no cooking skills at all, took the job without a second thought. “A Likely Story” is the result of that risk, an expanded “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” that reads like a dream and sounds like a nightmare.
Mahoney has secret goals for her summer that extend beyond take-home pay: “Hellman and I would become great friends. She would be so pleased by me, my interests, my personality, that she would forget about all those petty things I didn’t know how--or didn’t want--to do.” She dreams that Hellman will lift her out of her ordinariness, make her into someone more refined than the girl who wears a 6-year-old chipped yellow raincoat and sneakers with a skirt. But the problem with hero adoration is that too often the image we hold is not the reality. The brave, generous, free-spirited Hellman of memoirs such as “An Unfinished Woman” and “Pentimento” no longer--or perhaps never--existed. Mahoney finds in her place an angry, vindictive, mean-spirited old woman so caught up in herself that she fails to recognize humanity in others.
“A Likely Story” touches on many wonderful themes, by contrasting Hellman’s sophisticated circle of friends--a group that includes William and Rose Styron, James Taylor, Carly Simon, John Hersey and Mike Nichols (“That these people were so casually accessible to Hellman made her seem powerful to me”)--with Mahoney’s pitiable family life, her widowed, crippled alcoholic mother and six brothers and sisters; by highlighting what it means to serve someone famous, to be subject to their whims and foi-bles; and by depicting how a bright girl is made to feel when she constantly seeks--and rarely finds--validation from an idol.
Mahoney desperately wants to cast off her role as a housekeeper and pretend that these are her friends, that she is someone who matters to them, that Hellman sees her as an intellectual equal. Crippled by her own fear and Hellman’s imperial rule, she has but one conversation with Hellman in which they talk about writing and reading. Yet even here it is clear that Hellman has the upper hand: "[S]he had noticed me. She saw what I read and knew that it was about France even before I did. Suddenly I felt stupid and nervous. I felt she was looking through my clothes. . . . It was like sitting in front of a teacher who had all the answers while you had none. . . . The level platform we had been sitting on was tilting now to tip me back into my place.” And though a few of Hellman’s friends treat Mahoney with a modicum of dignity--Hersey is happy to meet her and remembers her name; Nichols hands her an envelope before he leaves, the green of a bill peeking out--most treat her with the same dismissiveness that Hellman exhibits, noticing her only when she spills coffee or sets the table incorrectly.
The older, wiser Mahoney who narrates this memoir has had years to reflect upon her foray into Hellman’s world, and perhaps this is why her characterizations are so masterful. She impeccably re-creates Hellman’s friends and the emotions they summoned up in her younger self; Rose Styron, for example, “kept turning her pretty peach-toned face to me and smiling indulgently, as though I were a famous imbecile miraculously able to perform simple domestic tasks under close watch.” That these people are celebrities, rendered larger than life by the very nature of celebrity, makes Mahoney’s simple descriptions even more engaging.
At the end of the summer, Mahoney leaves Martha’s Vineyard and Lillian Hellman for adventures of her own. Hellman wishes her goodbye, saying “Next summer, well, perhaps . . .,” ending their relationship with the indecisiveness so evident in Hellman’s memoirs. Mahoney returns to the family she had been all too willing to cast aside for the famous Miss Hellman, the innocence of her youthful adoration damaged beyond repair. In her mother’s arms, she feels a support and safety she never knew with Hellman, and the physical illnesses that plague her mother seem a refreshing alternative to Hellman’s emotional infirmities and profound animosity.
In the years that followed, Mahoney says, she “supposed that Lillian Hellman was already dead, perhaps because for years I had been killing her off in my imagination"--until she reads official confirmation in an obituary announcing Hellman’s death on June 30, 1984. At Hellman’s funeral four days later, John Hersey was the last to speak: “I’d like to say a few words about Lillian’s anger. Most of us were startled by it from time to time. Anger was her essence. It was at the center of that passionate temperament. It informed her art: the little foxes snapped at each other, we could see their back hairs bristle, we could smell their foxiness--they were real and alive because of the current of anger that ran through them, as it did through so many of Lillian’s characters.”
Perhaps anger made Lillian Hellman a better writer, but as “A Likely Story” suggests, it may have failed to make her a better person.