A FEW WEEKS AGO, a friend from my old Newsroom days at Channel 13 called to say that she had some files I might want to keep. It was Patsy Swank, now a commentator for WRR Radio, and she was talking about a bundle of transcripts taken from three days of taped sessions with Lillian Hellman done in the spring of 1979. Hellman was almost 74 at the time, and her health was badly broken. But with astonishing courage for a woman who was beset by eye troubles that had left her nearly blind, the playwright traveled to Dallas and submitted to intimate questioning by New York journalist Marilyn Berger, who flew in to do the interview.
The idea of a television profile to run on five consecutive evenings had come from then-station president Ed Pfister, but the choice of Hellman was mine. I had been obsessed with her ever since I had seen the film Julia, which had prompted me to race to the bookstore to buy all her works to that date: three memoirs and The Collected Plays.
I immediately began making notes from her books-things such as: “A defeat for an only child can always be turned into a later victory” and “I found out something more useful and more dangerous: If you are willing to take the punishment, you are halfway through the battle.” Both are from her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman.
As I read, I realized that an important part of Hellman’s appeal is that she has been a woman not for all seasons, but for the middle and later years. Her youth, while turbulent, flamboyant and successful, doesn’t draw us back; one look is enough. But she brings special acuity to the plight beyond 40. “You come to a place in your life,” she said, “where what you’ve been is going to form what you will be. If you’ve wasted what you have in you, it’s too late to do much about it. If you’ve invested yourself in life, you’re pretty certain to get a return. If you are an inwardly serious person, in the middle years it will pay off.”
My notebooks were growing with quotations from Hellman when the opportunity came to do the series with her. It was a long, arduous process, plagued by stops and starts and more than the usual internal tensions that accompany creative projects. As we took longer and longer to edit the tapes at Channel 13, Hellman grew more and more restive and justifiably irritated by our reluctance to tell her about the hole we had dug for ourselves and how feverishly we were trying to work our way out. Perhaps some of these excerpts from her letters will explain how it went and why I still treasure her.
May 11, 1978
Dear Mr. Clark [in those days I was Lee Clark]:
No time during the summer could I possibly come anywhere. I am trying very hard to work, and any interruption would be disastrous for me.
But I would like to do such a program. .. If any time in November or early December (or even perhaps late October) would suit you, then do write me again. But if it has to be this summer, then I am afraid it is totally out.
My regrets, and warm regards and thanks.
October 9, 1978
Dear Mr. Clark:
I am sorry the contract was held up. I had a bad few weeks of running to eye doctors and having the not pleasant news that an eye operation will be necessary, probably toward the end of the winter.
Now to some practical questions based upon my very strange eyesight.
Somebody here, of course, will take me to the airport, but airports are holy hell for me because of all the glass. It is thus necessary to pull all the VIP strings so that somebody meets me either at the ticket counter or at some given place and takes me all the way through to the plane itself. The same will be true on my return, since no stranger, as you know, is allowed to go through the personnel checkpoint.
I don’t think there will be any trouble with the television cameras because, of course, if there are any steps or wires, there will be somebody to help me through.
My warmest regards and good luck to all of us.
November 10, 1978
Dear Miss Clark:
Thank you for your nice letter of this morning. As you know by this time, my secretary cannot come with me, but I am sure we shall do splendidly, although it may be necessary that I have a car from time to time.
And this morning brought a very nice note from Betty Marcus setting the dinner for December 8th.
We will just have to trust Braniff, and, if you will, in time, send me the name of the man who will meet me here.
In any case, you will hear from me and I will hear from you. And I send you my warmest thanks and regards.
December 11, 1978
Dear Miss Clark and Mr. Howard [Brice Howard, then creative consultant at KERA]:
I am home now and was vastly cheered up by the kindness and generosity of your flowers. I do thank you most warmly.
The operation itself was technically a great success. The results of it-that is, whether the eyesight will be improved, totally the same or lessened-will not be known for another three or four weeks. But I had been warned about that, so it is just a question of getting through them.
When that is known, I will telephone you to find out if you have made up your mind about the program and the possible times.
In the meantime, my very warmest regards and thanks for your most generous thoughts of me.
February 27, 1979
Dear Miss Clark:
As far as the dates go about shooting in New York or Martha’s Vineyard, I am afraid I will have to continue to say that I cannot now, or perhaps even in the near future, make anything definite.
I hope it isn’t rude of me to remind you that I only heard about shooting in New York or Martha’s Vineyard this January, a month ago. No such suggestions were made originally, because then they would have seemed even less possible.
In any case, within the next 10 days you will have a call from me, and we will then arrange for the airline representative to meet me in New York and at the plane’s ramp in Dallas. I can tell you from experience that the only possible way to arrange anything with those kiddies is to go directly to the chief press representative and to nobody else. Otherwise, a most inefficient mess ensues.
I have written to both Mrs. Marcus and Howard [Meyer, a Dallas architect whom Hellman knew as a young woman], and I look forward to seeing them and you.
With my warmest regards,
April 3, 1979
I know that you will be away when this reaches Dallas, but I am sure it will be there waiting when you return. April 26th will be fine for you to look at the pictures.
I hope the transcript looks well, and I’ll be very anxious to have news. My wannest regards, and once again my thanks for all the courtesy in Dallas.
May 23, 1979
We are running into strangely bad luck. One of the days you chose is my birthday, and usually two friends come for a four- or five-day visit.
Would it be convenient for your photographers to come anytime between the 13th and the 20th, or any time after the 26th of June? I am sorry about this. I should have, of course, told you in my letter. But I am afraid that the year has been such a messy one that I wanted to forget my birthday.
I am now going to have to say most reluctantly that after this, I am afraid my duties to the program, except for the reading of the transcript, will have to be over. I think you know that I have worked very, very hard, and that a great deal has been demanded, although you have done so with my respect and admiration because of your wanting to do a first-rate job. But I also know that unless something has gone extremely wrong, time is time and has to be watched.
My warmest regards, and I hope it is a happy summer.
September 27, 1979
Thank you for writing me about the progress of the television show. It seems to me that it is getting to be as big a production as Apocalypse Now. I must tell you in absolute brutal frankness that fiddling around with things too long is sometimes dangerous, and this has been a very long pull.
I am going into the hospital for another eye operation on the 8th of October. If the operation works, I should be able to see something by October 15th or 18th. If it doesn’t work, God forbid, then of course the script will have to be read to me.
My warmest regards,
November 13, 1979
Dear Miss Clark:
I am going to California for a couple of months and hope that sometime before I die you will send Mrs. Wade [Hellman’s secretary] some news of our great mystery. It must be a quite involved and interesting story, although, of course, I never expect to hear it. But something is owed me, isn’t it? I mean some minor explanation, let us say.
My warmest regards and my expectations of minor explanations.
April 9, 1980
Rita Wade tells me that you called while I was away, but I haven’t heard anything from you since then.
It is hard to believe that over a year has gone by, and it convinces me that something is very definitely wrong. Wouldn’t it be wise if I knew the secret of what it was, as well as other people? Most certainly it would be kinder.
In any case, my wannest regards to you.
November 19, 1980
Rita Wade gave me the good news yesterday.
I had given up all hope and decided not to worry you anymore with questions. I hope you are pleased with what happened, and I will be looking forward to it with the pleasure that I hope will be there.
How are you? And I hope you are happily busy.
My very wannest regards and thanks.
THE FIVE-PART series on Hellman-after countless vexations and a lot of hard work by Brice Howard and producer David Dowe-aired on public television in 1981 and was nominated for an Emmy. Hellman celebrated her 79th birthday this June.