Lillian Hellman has been a literary institution for nearly 50 years–long enough, as she put it, to undergo a revival within her own lifetime. She was 27 when her play The Children’s Hour was proclaimed a smash success in 1934, and she almost immediately acquired the label “America’s foremost woman playwright.” (Her reaction to that honor was typical: she was quick to point out the discrimination of the phrase.)
She survived the failure of her second play, Days to Come, and went on to write such major dramas as The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, Watch on the Rhine, Toys in the Attic and The Autumn Garden.
She has relished her many successes (after The Little Foxes opened, she carried some mink skins for a coat she had just ordered to a cocktail party in her honor to prove she had made it; last year she modeled a fur for a Blackglama ad which has appeared in several magazines and which is reproduced on page 54.)
A woman of fierce temper and fiercer loyalties (the most remarkable thing about her stormy 30-year relationship with writer Dashiell Hammett seems to be that it endured), she dared to lecture Joe McCarthy and his cronies about the immorality of their actions when the most likely consequence was her own imprisonment. As Hemingway once told her, she had “cojones.”
Perhaps most impressive, she started a new career at the age of 62 and wrote a string of memoirs–An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time–that became instant classics. Lillian Hellman has become, in short, an icon in an age of iconuclasm. But she resists becoming a standard-bearer for any movement.
When I asked her how it felt to be adopted as a matron saint by the women’s movement, she laughed and said she wasn’t sure she was, but if she was she guessed it was fine. At times she has been more caustic: in a recent article she referred to “the new army of lady journalists who have chosen to interpret women’s liberation as the freedom to attack other women.”
She’s a self-proclaimed rebel (“I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” were her now famous words to the House Committee on Un-American Activities). It’s a role that she obviously enjoys, but one that’s given her the reputation of being a “difficult woman”
So it was with a mixture of fear and admiration that I first approached her. We had a series of rather ill-fated phone conversations over a period of a couple months trying to arrange a time for the interview. Some of these calls left me feeling I had been through an intense sparring match and would never reach the main event. It seemed I was never able to satisfy her–I either called at the wrong hour, or at the right hour on the wrong day, and once made the mistake of addressing her in a letter as “Ms.” rather than “Miss.”
But we finally met over last July 4th weekend at her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. The house faces the harbor of Vineyard Haven, and next door is the Revolutionary War-era house where she and Hammett spent several summers before his death in 1961. Hellman was watering her rose garden when I walked up.
We shook hands and she greeted me warmly in her inimitable wire-rake-on-gravel voice. She’s smaller than I expected–about 5’2″, energetic, tough. Her face is deeply lined with age; her eyes are intelligent and engaging. We talked for several hours that afternoon on the patio overlooking the harbor, then later over dinner. The furniture in the house–mostly antiques, including the early-Victorian sofa from the original set of The Little Foxes – came from her beloved farm in Pleasantville, New York, which she was forced to sell when she was blacklisted.
She loves the island (“I’m crazy for salt water and boats”) but her doctor won’t let her spend more than summers there because the dampness is bad for her emphysema. Nonetheless she chain-smoked during the entire interview, interrupted only by coughing spasms.
Throughout our conversation she projected the sense of control that comes across in her writing. There were certain topics she adamantly refused to discuss, and gossipy anecdotes were not forthcoming (doubtless a matter of instinct to a writer whose own life is her best material). At a certain moment she announced that our conversation was over for that day (“I get bored talking about myself”). The next day, as we finished up our conversation, she was impatiently waiting to go for a boat ride with her old friend and neighbor John Hersey, and once his boat came into view I knew the interview would be terminated.
Typically, the grande dame had arranged a proper exit. When I spoke to her in Los Angeles last week, Hellman said she had no current plans or projects–but that’s what she said last summer. Since then she’s traveled around the country with Rosalynn Carter for a magazine piece, taken a trip down the Nile and negotiated for various film projects based on her memoirs. And the day we spoke, CBS was about to film an interview with her for their program Who’s Who. At 69, Lillian Hellman stubbornly refuses to act her age. Clearly, she is still an unfinished woman.
Why did you turn to memoir writing after a long and very successful career as a playwright and screenwriter?
I don’t know. I decided I didn’t want to do another play for a while. I’d been thinking about this kind of writing for a long time, wondering whether I could do it. I had started off as a short-story writer but never liked the stories very much. I had to find some other form to write in.
Did you find it very difficult to shift gears at a late point in your professional career?
No, I didn’t find it too difficult. I had no plans. I knew that I didn’t want to write a play, but I knew that I wanted to go on being a writer. I had no intention of publishing. I didn’t make a contract for An Unfinished Woman until the book was a third finished. And then I made the contract with a clause that I could give back the advance if I chose to, and have no further ties. I was worried that I wouldn’t like it when I finished it.
You seem to use a lot of the principles of fiction in your memoirs.
Yes, I wouldn’t have chosen the people I chose without a feeling for fiction, some belief that what I was writing about was interesting or dramatic. The structure was difficult because I didn’t want to alter facts, and since in none of the portraits did I go steadily through a life, then it became a way of finding out how to tell it. In no portrait except Hammett’s and Dorothy Parker’s did I know any of these people over many years. So there were long gaps: I had to make use somewhere of the gaps and had to find some method of doing it. Julia was particularly hard. But nothing on God’s earth could have shaken my memory about her. I did finally look at whatever notes I had left, but I didn’t need to.
Is there any particular pattern to what you find you remember easily and things you have a bad memory for?
I remember what people say fairly accurately, but I don’t remember where they said it or when they said it.
How much of the dialogue in your memoirs is reconstructed?
Well, much was reconstructed but I have a good memory for the way people talk. That was my job for many years, that’s what the theater is. If you sit through enough rehearsals, you get trained. I remember most rooms I’ve seen. But I very often can’t place what city the room is in. Everybody’s memory is tricky and mine’s a little trickier than most, I guess.
What kind of research do you do when you’re writing? Do you call up friends and acquaintances to help you remember?
Sometimes. Very seldom. When I was doing the piece about Hammett which I used in An Unfinished Woman, I wrote to 11 people about his stay in the Aleutians and I got back eight answers. Seven had him in places he could never have been, and the years were all wrong. I’m sure something remained in their head of the truth, but it was checkably inaccurate. I heard last night someone repeat the Henry Wallace story in Scoundrel Time and do it completely wrong, completely wrong. And he said he’d read the book only last week.
The critics of Scoundrel Time have argued that the issue of who cooperated with the House Committee on Un-American Activities was a lot more complicated than you allow in your book, particularly for disillusioned former members or sympathizers of the Communist party.
If you were a member of the party, you could have had good reason for leaving the party. That certainly must have been a complicated situation. But that doesn’t have anything to do with supplying people like HUAC with information. No sane person can doubt what HUAC was out to do. It’s comedy even to discuss it. It’s there on the record.
Nathan Glazer suggests that if people like you had spoken out at the time about the evils of Communism there might have been no McCarthy.
Oh, nonsense. McCarthyism came from powerful places; the famous China lobby and the anti-Red scares had nothing to do with people like me–nothing whatever. McCarthy is a very inaccurate name for a shameless period. McCarthy only summed up the angers and fears of a great many people.
Several reviewers, including Rolling Stone‘s, have taken exception to the tone of the passage in which you talk about American intellectuals finding in the “sins of Stalin Communism” an “excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies.” The passage continues: “Perhaps that, in part, was the penalty of 19th-century immigration. The children of timid immigrants are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hardworking; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost.”
I meant nothing snobbish. My family were immigrants once upon a time, too; everybody’s were. I didn’t mean that the oldest Wasp wouldn’t have acted just as badly, but not so many of them were involved. And because Jews have always been persecuted, it is my belief they should fight it anytime, anywhere.
So you were referring primarily to Jewish immigrants?
No. I’m a Jew and I don’t know how they could have thought a Jew could be snobbish about other Jews. Perhaps I worded it badly. I don’t know.
You’ve never really dealt specifically in your writing with what it was like to be Jewish in the South.
I’m sorry I had no religious upbringing. Maybe it would not have mattered but it might have been interesting to have it. Southern Jews, particularly New Orleans Jews, had different histories than Northern Jews. New Orleans Jews, just as New Orleans people, were a breed apart. They had a pleasant community of their own and in turn the community allowed them to have it, although they never accepted them into their own circles. No Jew has ever been allowed in the best Carnival balls, as far as I know, to this day. But it never seemed to worry them. I heard about one Jewish family–they used to be a joke–who left town during Carnival balls. But everbody laughed at that.
Are you very conscious of being Jewish now; is that a part of your identity?
Oh yes, sure. I don’t clearly know what it means to me, I just know that I would rather be a Jew than not be. I think Nazism had a great deal to do with that. It suddenly became very important to me. New Orleans had a live-and-let-live quality about it. That was rare in the South.
Were you conscious when you were writing The Little Foxes of incorporating parts of your family into it?
Oh yes. Part of my family threatened to sue after they saw the play. They never did. I think The Children’s Hour worried my mother a little bit. She was puzzled by me anyway–I turned out to be a writer. And then my father scared the daylights out of the poor lady. She was a very naive woman. He told her that he’d never read the play and didn’t know anything about it, but he was shocked to hear that I’d put a toilet onstage and somebody actually used it in front of the audience. My mother was a wreck the opening night and for a long time after.
How did your plays fare in film adaptation?
I think Little Foxes turned out very well, and Watch on the Rhine; I think the first Children’s Hour was better than the second.
What about The Chase?
It wasn’t the picture I wrote and I was upset by it. Its accents were totally different than what I wrote. I didn’t mean that kind of violence: I meant a Texas town gone wild on a Saturday night. Evidently the film is quite well thought of in Europe.
What do you think of having Jane Fonda cast as yourself in the film version of Julia?
I was very pleased to have her, but I wasn’t involved in the casting.
Do you feel any apprehension about seeing yourself portrayed on screen?
I know it’s hard for anybody to believe me, but when I sold the rights to Julia, it never occurred to me that my name would be used. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me; it was very stupid of me. But there it is. The first I knew of it was when I read the script of the picture, when of course it was too late to say, I don’t want my name used. They were–and are– perfectly within their rights to use it. But I would like to have seen my name changed. I don’t want to be represented on the screen as me.
Do you think Hollywood scripts were more interesting in the Thirties and Forties than they are today?
The age of comedy certainly was better. Except for the great Woody Allen, pictures today don’t seem to have much sense of comedy. You think of the great comedians of that time–they were remarkable.
In Scoundrel Time you said of movie executives like Louis Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn and Harry Cohn that they didn’t have interesting natures. Didn’t they nonetheless have a kind of appealing vitality?
Once somebody is powerful or rich you see vigor where it might not exist, or where it might have existed once long ago.
You didn’t find them creative?
Not creative…daring, maybe. And also very timid and often cowardly. Gamblers is a better word. They were good gamblers. But then I’m no great judge. The longest I ever stayed in Hollywood was six months, I think. I knew it well in the sense of work but not in a sense of who was who, or why.
Why do you think F. Scott Fitzgerald was so taken with a guy like Irving Thalberg in The Last Tycoon?
I think Fitzgerald was a romantic man. I only met Thalberg once and he didn’t appeal to me. Fitzgerald was a very good writer but I think he was overromantic about many people and places.
What films do you like today?
Besides Woody Allen, I like Altman very much. I like some foreign pictures.
With reservations. I like certain parts of her pictures. I like some Bergman.
What about writers?
I won’t talk about other writers. I’ve always believed writers have a tough enough time without my making it tougher.
Anaïs Nin said she always consulted people before including them in her published diaries. What are your rules about what you exclude in your memoirs?
A great many of the people quoted or included are dead. I change names if I think the story is going to be painful to the person. I don’t think you can injure the dead very much, unless they have wives or children who might be harmed. I haven’t changed the dialogue as I remember it but I’ve sometimes changed the circumstances or the place. Sometimes lawyers wanted changes. I had to change names and places in “Julia.” Because her family is still living, I could have had a lawsuit. I was really saying they had never wanted to find her baby.
Do you find things you once didn’t consider important become important as you’re writing about them, or vice versa?
Yes, I think so. You see or hear something you know will be useful to you, and you will use it. Some of the time it sails by you or you put it in a third compartment, which is the one you don’t know anything about. It’s very probable that “X” is the compartment you most use. As you get older, you more easily recognize the people or the events that will interest you, that you think you can handle.
I often find myself bewildering people. They talk about one thing and I make an immediate connection to something entirely different. I would have to write it to make clear what had happened. If the word creative means anything, that’s perhaps what it means.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what comes out on paper?
Sometimes you can make discoveries. Things you didn’t think you knew anything about. When I did An Unfinished Woman, which was the first time that I’d ever fooled around with the memoir form, I had no idea where I was going. I just thought, I’m doing the book for myself. In the opening story of Pentimento, for instance, called “Bethe,” I don’t think I’d thought about Bethe in 25 years. And why I did at that minute–I was lying on a bed half asleep–I have no idea. That certainly is the “X” part of the mind. Then every time I finished one section I’d say, “what’s next, I don’t know what’s next.”
I certainly don’t say that the people in the books are the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I don’t even remember many of them clearly. Very tricky business, the business of oneself, plus memory, plus what you think you can do plus what has moved you, sometimes without your knowing it. Very often the things that you think have most moved you, you find have not moved you very deeply at all. They may have been sharply painful when they happened. And very often they are the first to pass.
Memory, of course, is not the same thing as what really happened in the real minute of pleasure or pain. Pain can almost totally fade. And another much lesser pain is much more easily remembered and more important to you. What is intensely important can, when the years have passed, fade, disappear.
Can you give an example?
Examples are too dramatic. “The failure of work,” or the “success of work” or the “loss, the disruption of a great love affair,” too arbitrary, such things. They are not really the necessary stuff of life. We all lead more pedestrian lives than we think we do. The boiling of an egg is sometimes more important than the boiling of a love affair in the end. I had a very comic example of that recently. A very old friend of mine was divorced about eight or 10 years ago. He was telling me he wished he’d gotten divorced 10 years before he did. I said, “You almost did.” He said, “No, never.” I said, “Yes, you did. You told me that you were leaving your wife, that you’d fallen in love with a woman and what did I think because you were worried about your two little boys.” My friend said, “What are you talking about? That never happened.” I said, “You’re a nut! Of course it happened, the girl’s name was Dorothy.” He said, “What was her last name?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure I ever heard her last name, but her name was Dorothy.” He said, “I know you’re not making it up but you’re mixing me up with somebody else.”
A few months later I found an old diary. Her name was Dorothy, and her last name was also there, incidentally, I called my friend and said, “Her name was Dorothy Smith.” He said, “My God. I wonder whatever happened to her.”
He had totally forgotten the importance of this woman to him. It’s a comic example; most people aren’t that nutty. I suppose the woman wasn’t of any major importance. What was important to him was leaving his wife.
You seem in some ways a reluctant memoirist. The reader senses your control over your presentation of your life.
Well, I don’t always like writing about myself or talking about myself. You’ve probably sensed that in this interview. I don’t ordinarily talk about myself very much. That’s why I try to write memoirs without being a central part of them. I get bored with talking about myself and with people who talk about themselves a great deal.
Boredom is one, thing. Do you think you find personal revelation difficult?
Yes, I find some kinds of personal revelation difficult. I’ve never been through the experience of spending nights talking about myself with anybody, or listening, because nobody’s ever done it with me. It seems to me that summation of what you feel, not of what’s happened but of what you feel, is a dangerous game to play. The words become too simple.
Did you find therapy very difficult for that reason?
Yes, I had a very hard time. The man who analyzed me once said I was the only patient he’d ever had in his life who talked about herself as if I were another person. He meant no compliment. He meant that I had too cold a view of myself.
Could you talk about what analysis meant to you?
It’s a very private business even if one wanted to talk about it. I suspect people who talk about it when they’re having it and I suspect the people who talk after it because it’s a stew, the details of which should be forgotten. Things are changed without your knowing exactly how. It’s an evolutionary process, not an operation on the appendix. I wouldn’t know how to talk about it. It cured me of heavy drinking, that’s enough. I used to talk a little bit about it with Hammett, not very much but a little bit. Hammett used to say he learned more about himself through my analysis than I learned about myself.
Do you think it affected your ways of analyzing relationships?
Oh, yes, all the rest of your life you apply it, but I don’t know whether you apply it to other people. If it’s been a good analysis, you apply it a second before something happens, rather than the second after. That’s a big step forward. It took a very long time in my particular case. I started it in the days when I was working in Hollywood so I used to leave it often for four or five months at a time. And for a long trip to Russia during the war. So it was constantly being interrupted, which is not the best way to be analyzed.
Drinking was the main reason you entered therapy?
It was the main reason. It wasn’t the only reason. It never is the only reason because you have to say, what am I doing the drinking for? Somewhere, by instinct, I had sense enough to know that I was going to have a crackup. I don’t know why that was, because Little Foxes had just opened and was a great success. The doctor I went to said I didn’t have the stamina of my drinking friends, even though they were much older than I.
It seems like a lot of that generation grew old rather gracelessly. You say they had stamina but in fact a lot of them died quite young.
Well, Fitzgerald, of course, died very young, and Lardner…Faulkner died too young but not that young. Hammett died too young but he wasn’t that young, either…neither was Dottie Parker…and all three of them had given themselves bad beatings for a great many years. Yes, many of them did die young.
Why did they live so self-destructively? Were they fighting off fears of aging and death or of success?
No. I think it’s Woolworth Freud to make such guesses. I’m not sure you ever know more than a few people well enough to know why they do what they do. Maybe experts do; I ain’t no expert. I knew Dorothy Parker very well. I wouldn’t possibly know why she drank. I always thought that the reason Hammett drank so much was that he was basically a shy man and the drinking made him less shy. But I don’t know whether it’s true or not.
Do you think the generation of the Twenties and Thirties romanticized drinking in a way that the generation of the Sixties and Seventies romanticizes drugs?
Oh I don’t know. There were drugs in the Twenties and Thirties too. I tried smoking grass several times. It never did anything to me. I found myself always getting sleepy. I still do when I try it.
You talk in Scoundrel Time of your disappointment with what “the good children of the Sixties have come to.” What has survived of that decade?
Most of those kids have retired to communes or taken on one of those dopey California…whatever you have out there…some of your semi-religious crap. I don’t understand personal salvation. It seems to me a vain idea. Conscience includes the fate of other people. In the great movements–the early Christian movements or the early Jewish movements– there was more than personal salvation involved. But there were mysteries then, inexplicable mysteries in the world which are no longer so mysterious. You can understand man turning to mysticism for what he couldn’t understand. Very hard to understand it in an age of reason. And this would certainly seem, scientifically, to be an age of reason.
You’ve said that you have enjoyed men more than women. Did you have difficulty forming friendships with women?
Oh, no. I’ve had a number of women who were close friends. I like women. I think men are frequently more interesting than women, that’s all. That’s quite different–liking and finding interesting. I’ve never felt very competitive. I’ve felt jealous of certain women but that is quite different. I was always jealous of great beauties. With jealousy you can feel upset, angry, but you give up when you know you’re not in the same class. But competitiveness means you’re in the same class.
You never felt any sense of competition with Dorothy Parker, say?
Never. And I don’t think she did with me. I’ve never felt competitive with anybody. Men or women. Maybe I am too arrogant. The only times I’ve ever felt it was when somebody very second-rate got praised and I had just taken a beating.
What kinds of battles–professional and otherwise–have you had as a woman?
I don’t think I had any battles as a woman. I know I didn’t get paid the same sums for jobs as men. That was an economic fight, not a battle as a woman. I didn’t run into men who put women down. It was not the kind of man who attracted me.
You wouldn’t classify Hemingway as that kind of man?
Oh, I don’t mean people I bumped into. Yes, of course I would classify Hemingway that way. He didn’t worry me, who worries about people you bump into? I meant men with whom I had real relationships. I was lucky. I was successful early, I was 27 years old. Women have been put down, there’s no question of that. For centuries and centuries.
In a speech you said of the women’s movement: “Some of its cries are empty cries.” You talked about someone who was complaining about carrying out the garbage.
I don’t think it’s of any great moment who carries out the garbage. I think it is important that people be economically equal. So that if somebody feels like walking out, there’s a way for her to earn a living rather than suffering through a whole lifetime because she can’t. Most people of decent manners, living together, automatically divide the jobs anyway, whatever they are. My own nature would have forbidden anybody depriving me of what I thought were my rights. I would have walked out.
Isn’t that an extreme way of resolving a problem? Suppose you don’t want to walk out over who carries out the garbage?
I would think in a decent relationship you don’t have to keep a daily score of who does what. It doesn’t matter who washes the dishes. It seems to me a thoroughly middle-class argument and I have no interest in it. Are you going to legislate this? Is every mother in the world going to bring up a son who says, I won’t put my wife down? And is every mother going to bring up a daughter who says, I don’t dislike men and won’t make them pay? A great many women put men down very badly. Particularly upper-class ladies.
Do you think some women use the women’s movement as an excuse for letting out hostilities which are really a lot more complicated?
I guess many do. But I don’t know any. Most women want everything. They want “leadership,” they want to be darlings, they want to be Marilyn Monroe and they want to be Madame de Maintenon. At the same time they want to be president. There is no oneness about any movement.
Does the fact that young women have an easier time of it today than 50 years ago make you unsympathetic to their concerns?
I’m not sure young women do have it easier. Yes, there are more jobs available, but for whom? I’m not sure Negro women have it any easier than they did when I was growing up. I’m not sure poor women have it any easier. As a writer and a woman, how do you feel about the alterations in language that many feminists advocate?
I hate “Ms.” There really isn’t anything like making small battles in order to lose big ones. That’s what the whole women’s movement has been about to me. The big battle is equal rights, whether one likes to face it or not. Even that may never solve it, but the small battles just won’t do. These are diversionary movements. Nobody can argue any longer about the rights of women. It’s like arguing about earthquakes.
Do you think there’s such a thing as feminine sensibility in literature?
Sure. I think sometimes it’s extraordinarily good and sometimes it’s awful. The present crop of feminine porno writers is below contempt. Masculine stuff is very seldom porno in quite as nasty a fashion.
Erica Jong, for example, is somebody who…
I’m not going to discuss people by name. Whoever thought sexual liberation had anything to do with liberation?
Anaïs Nin talked about how a lot of her creativity had been taken up by personal relationships. Have you ever experienced that as a conflict?
Oh Christ, what a silly thing to say. That’s like saying a lot of creativity has been taken up by drinking or going swimming. It’s your choice. Silly, self-pitying remark. You chose it, you wanted it.
What was it like for you and Dashiell Hammett, as two writers, to live together? Was there any sense of competition?
There was no competition whatsoever. He was proud of me and I was proud of him. There were other kinds of trouble, but never that. That’s why I’m always bewildered by competitiveness between people who live together. I don’t think I could stand it.
There were no ego problems from the fact that your career was on the rise while his was on the wane?
If there were, I never recognized them, and I don’t believe he did. He was very sharp with me about what he didn’t like and terribly pleased when he liked something. Nobody ever gave more aid to anybody than he gave to me, and you can’t do that if you feel competitive. You can start that game but it breaks down very quickly if you feel any anger or competitiveness.
During that long period when he wasn’t writing did you ever try to get him to write?
No. We didn’t have that kind of relationship. He was a quite forbidding man, Hammett. Writing was one of the things you didn’t talk to him about. I wish I had. I don’t think it would have done any good, but it seems now to have been cowardly of me not to.
Did you in some ways find Hammett’s harshness appealing?
No, I found it sometimes awful and I found it sometimes admirable and brave. If you mean was I a masochist, I’m not. The harshness wasn’t ever about anything but my work. And there, if you ask for help or opinions, you have to take what’s coming.
You said that he was very important to the writing of your plays but you also said that there was a chance that you made the dependency greater than it was. Do you ever have moments of doubt that you haven’t got the nuances of that relationship exactly right on paper?
Of course. When you come to feel dependent upon people it may be that you exaggerate the dependency–it blinds you to what you could have been without it.
Was that a question which haunted you in your relationship with Hammett?
No, it didn’t worry me at all. I was perfectly willing to have the dependence. He said he never agreed with my formulation of it. I’ve been told by other people that maybe I’d have been okay without it. I don’t know–I liked it. I think between men and women there should be dependency, even between friends. Dependency has very little to do with independence. Independent natures aren’t worried about dependency. It’s a ridiculous thing to worry about anyway, because you’re dependent on some things all your life.
Do you ever feel that you romanticized that relationship with Hammett?
Yes. Then sometimes I feel that I haven’t romanticized it enough. It’s very hard to tell, when a relationship is over, what you saw and what was fact. If by romantic one means invention, then I didn’t invent it. If by romantic one means maybe time has dulled the bad parts, then I don’t know.
How much of yourself do you see in his character Nora in The Thin Man?
Some of the dialogue is almost direct quotation from me, but she is Hammett’s picture of me. I don’t see myself. Some of the dialogue is exact because it amused him.
Do you like her as a character?
Yes. It’s an affectionate portrait of a woman; but what pleased me more than anything else was that it was an affectionate pair of people. A man and woman who amused each other and got along.
Nora often tries to get Nick involved in various detective cases and I think he once said she was always trying to get him in trouble.
He used to accuse me of doing that. I was interested in his past detective career and I was anxious for him to go back to it occasionally. He never went back to it.
Why do you think Hammett has become so voguish these days? Do you think you had anything to do with it?
I had nothing to do with it at all. The Hammett renaissance was long before I wrote a word about him.
You talk about how much Hammett influenced your life. Do you think that you influenced his life to the same degree?
No, I don’t think so. He thought so, but I don’t think so. There can be all kinds of reasons for that–he was a different age than I was, different kind of nature. He was a man, I was a woman, the old business. He wasn’t a very easily influenced man. I was a rather easily influenced young girl.
Did Hammett have many close friends other than you?
No, he had none that I know of.
You talk about your fear of marriage…do you think that was an outgrowth of the kind of relationship you had with Hammett as much as a fear of marriage itself?
No, I don’t know why we didn’t marry. We thought of it but then after a while it became silly even to discuss it. Well, my guess is that neither one of us could have deeply wanted it or we’d have done it.
Is the fact that you’ve never had children been an experience that you miss?
Oh, sure, of course, very much. And I don’t know why I didn’t but…it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late to cry about it now. Of course, I should have; I like children very much.
You said that you only realized that you loved your mother five years after she was dead.
I began to see that I had liked her very much and had more respect than I had thought. I was far more touched by her than I ever thought I was. Too bad I didn’t know that when she was alive.
Do you know what helped you to see that?
I suppose the classic business of when the rival is gone you really don’t want your father. Classic Freudian sense. After she died, I was able to see what a really interesting and moving character she’d been. But if she came back tonight I would probably find her a difficult lady to take. She was an odd woman, and her oddities were difficult to accept. I think she loved me too much but I don’t think she had any real understanding of what a child was. But there comes a time when you must put aside your parents. You can’t, of course, ever, but you must make an effort to. If you stay with them and your grievances too long, then–well, it’s destructive.
Do you ever find your celebrity a mixed blessing?
I don’t think about it. You see that I live quite simply and I don’t very often see people I don’t want to see anymore. People who want to meet famous people have asked me places and then quickly found themselves rather bored and disappointed by me. I don’t fit in with what they expected. I suppose you’re meant to be interesting or funny or something. That’s amused me for years. Once in a while I get a feeling that my life is too limited and I go clumping off for a week and then that feeling is over with. But there’s just so much energy by the time you get to be my age. I had enormous energy once…
How do you come to terms with aging?
Best I can. The only thing good about it is you’re not dead.
Do you think about death very much?
Sure, everybody does and everybody forgets it. I haven’t had any tendency to stay with it very long. I deeply resent the idea that I physically can’t do certain things I used to do. I told this to a doctor recently, who said, “I have news for you, Lillian. The only difference between you and other people is it happened to you 15 years later.”
You’re still very active physically? You used to garden an enormous amount…
I don’t think I am anymore. I used to do everything an enormous amount. Hammett’s most often used sentence was “Please sit down, will you?”