What becomes a legend most?
For the title of her book about the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, the historian Alice Kessler-Harris chose the term “difficult”, respectfully signalling the complexity and contentiousness, perhaps even intransigence, of her subject. Hellman would have been pleased. She was proud of being a difficult woman. As she explained to Nora Ephron in an interview in 1973, being called “difficult” was a badge of honour and independence: “You’re always difficult if you don’t do what other people want”.
Hellman was the queen of contradictions; but she refused so consistently to do what other people wanted that many would have called her obnoxious rather than “difficult”. Wherever she went – New York, Hollywood, Martha’s Vineyard, Moscow – she made enemies and pushed her friends to the limit. The novelist Peter Feibleman, her caretaker, heir and sometime lover, said she “had the sense of justice of a very small child”, seeing the world in simplistic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, and throwing tantrums if things didn’t go the right way – her way – all the time. Collaborators, in Hollywood or Broadway, had to follow her orders. “No-one,” she wrote imperiously to the director of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, for which she wrote the libretto, “I repeat, no-one ever changes a word that Lillian Hellman writes.”
Sexually, Hellman was just as fierce. She flirted aggressively and pursued men all her life; in Elia Kazan’s words, “She went after what she wanted the way a man does”. Never beautiful – one man said she looked like “the Ancient Mariner in drag” – Hellman compensated by lying about her age, dressing expensively and well, entertaining lavishly, and acting girlishly. On the beach she was the first in every party to swim nude. But she also posed as a tough broad, “the kind of girl who can take the top off bottles with her teeth”. Her vocabulary ranged from the kittenish to the high-minded to the repellently crude; she spoke mock baby-talk to her lovers, but liked to shock people by using ethnic slurs like “kike” and “Chink” and “goy”.
Years of heavy drinking, smoking and sunbathing made her a leathery and wrinkled old woman; when she posed jauntily in an advertisement for Blackglama mink coats in 1976 (“What becomes a legend most?”), she looked a lot more like W. H. Auden than Elizabeth Taylor. In old age, strokes, emphysema and eye problems left her a “bedridden Job imprisoned inside a broken bag of bones”. Undaunted, she continued to appear in public and go to parties heavily made up, even if she had to arrive in an ambulance. According to one rumour, she propositioned a young dinner partner the night before she died.