Apr 10, 2006

Every word she wrote was a lie

Marion Meade writes about Lillian Hellman's executorship of Dorothy Parker's literary estate. Hellman, who famously sued Mary McCarthy after the latter said of Hellman "Everything she wrote is a lie, including "and" and "the," was seriously steamed that Parker left her money to the NCAAP.
That goddamn bitch Dorothy Parker. . . . You won't believe what she's done. I paid her hotel bill at the Volney for years, kept her in booze, paid for her suicide attempts—all on the promise that when she died, she would leave me the rights to her writing. . . . But what did she do? She left them directly to the NAACP. Damn her!
This despite the fact that Hellman had money of her own and was also profiting from her position as literary executor of her lover Dashiell Hammet's estate, which goes to show that there's no one quite so grasping as a commie sympathizer.

But while Hellman couldn't get her hands on Parker's money, she made it very hard for other writers to have access to Parker's work. As Meade shows, this was partly out of pure orneriness and partly because Parker's papers would have contradicted some of the incidents Hellman included in her own memoir.
The chapter devoted to Parker reflects the ambivalence of Hellman's true feelings, a complex mixture of affection, condescension, jealousy, and resentment, and relates selected incidents from her thirty-six years with Parker. As for the rest of the book, certain sections were discredited as fictitious—for example, the stories of her experiences in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Publishing the memoir before Parker had died would have been impossible, not because of any reluctance to hurt her feelings, as Hellman was later to claim, but for reasons of self-protection. Parker, who had also been in Spain, would have been in a position to contradict the account and note incidents that never took place. As Martha Gellhorn put it, Parker "might as well have left her papers to Fort Knox. Until Miss H. releases Mrs. Parker's papers, there is no way to prove how long Miss H. stayed in Spain." (Neither could Hellman have concocted the heroic "Julia" story in Pentimento, as that trip to Europe had taken place in the company of Parker and Campbell.)

The passage of time would make clear the reason Hellman insisted on Parker's objections to a biography. Hellman feared that Keats—or any intrepid biographer—digging through Parker's life might expose her own deceptions, and that was something she could not risk.

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