Anyone who spent any time on the Vineyard before 1984, the year Lillian Hellman died (she was born in 1905), has a story to tell about the writer’s mean-spiritedness, from the number of nurses’ aides she fired in a single week, to her scowl at the Helio’s waitress who complimented Ms. Hellman on her mayonnaise, to the slightly ghastly sight of her shuffling down Main street, Vineyard Haven, leaning on the arm of a white-uniformed caregiver, a cigarette dangling from the famous writer’s grimacing lips.
My own Lillian story: Marty and I once bought a pair of wing chairs of Hellman’s, the deal brokered by Bruce and Brandy at their Red Barn on Old County Road. Ms. Hellman charged us $500 apiece for the chairs, about $400 more than each of them was worth but, what the heck, they had belonged to the author of The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, and Scoundrel Time, among many other celebrated works. When Bruce and Brandy told Ms. Hellman they had just sold her chairs to Marty, staff writer on Happy Days and Chico and the Man, and would she like to meet him?, she sucked on her 60th ciggie of the day and drawled, “He can meet me but it’s going to cost him another thou.”
Even one of her grave diggers had a last story: His backhoe clanged on a rock and he muttered, “Just like her.”
In short, Ms. Hellman was a profoundly talented writer whom everybody who knew her personally loved to hate.
Another writer with a long list of detractors was Mary McCarthy, (1912-1989), author of the best-selling The Group (1963) about her classmates at Vassar. Her communist sympathies and barbed essays and book, art and theatre reviews put a number of noses out of joint. In her most controversial essay, America the Beautiful, she wrote that “consumerism has created a pseudo-equality, an equality of things rather than of persons ... We are a nation of 20 million bathrooms with a humanist in every tub.”
Never hesitating to speak her mind, when David Cavett asked Ms. McCarthy during a taped interview in 1980 to itemize her “favorite” overrated authors, she included Lillian Hellman, adding, “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.”
Lillian Hellman sued Mary McCarthy for slander, and the three years of litigation was halted only by the inalterable fact of the plaintiff’s death. In the process, another intriguing literary figure arrived on the scene: psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner, whose WWII involvement in anti-Fascist resistance activities curiously matched the supposedly true story of Hellman’s glamorous, revolutionary girlhood friend, Julia, from Hellman’s memoir Pentimento.
Now playwright William Wright, Philadelphia native, Army security agent, magazine editor, and author of 10 books, five of them biographies, one of them devoted to the life and works of Lillian Hellman, has brought together an intriguing, catty, thought-provoking drama, The Julia Wars, which this past Monday night at the Vineyard Playhouse was presented as a staged reading, directed by M.J. Bruder Munafo.
New York Circle East Theatre Company actress Jan O’Dell plays Ms. Hellman, with a glass of gin in one hand and a cigarette in the other. On the telephone, her voice drops to throaty, boozy seductiveness when she’s needling someone for a favor, but her smart, vicious perspective on life is always apparent just beneath the surface.
Broadway actress Marya Lowry, currently starring in the playhouse production of Walking the Volcano, here as a raucous, sexy, unabashed Mary McCarthy allows the writer’s own considerable ego to be engaged by the massive ego-verging-on-Super-ego of Lillian Hellman’s.
In the middle of the wrangle is the sweet, noble, reasonably magnanimous Muriel Gardiner, played by playhouse veteran Jill Macy, who is unwilling to identify herself as the real Julia yet who nonetheless publishes her own memoir which demolishes any chance of Hellman’s Julia being anything but a figment of the famous author’s considerable imagination.
Truth in nonfiction, fantasy in fiction, and the overlapping of each, form the thematic content of Mr. Wright’s fascinating new work. For several summers now the playhouse has specialized in these Monday Night Special readings of new plays. The originality of the material, the exceptional abilities of the actors, some of whom are culled from whatever is currently being mounted on the stage from Tuesdays through Saturdays, have made this almost-weekly event a popular item on theatregoers’ summer calendars.
The series is sponsored by Caroline Sharp and The Liman Foundation. For information on the next staged reading, call the box office at 508-696-6300.