A Political Friendship

I remember where I was on the night Kennedy chose Johnson as his running-mate to the immense disappointment of my liberal friends. I was of course later to remember where I was when he was assassinated. On the night of Johnson’s selection I was staying on the island of Martha’s Vineyard with John and Sue Marquand, and that night I was rushed to the local hospital with acute symptoms of appendicitis. At the same time my host received the news of the death of his author father J.P. Marquand in Boston.

The acuteness of my condition required a very large surgical wound. As I emerged from the anaesthetic I opened my eyes to see a large, black, smiling face bending over me. Before I could grasp where I was and who she was, she exclaimed, smiling, ‘My grandfather caught Moby-Dick!’ I finally confirmed to myself that I was not in some writer’s heaven but in the hospital of a whaling island off the Nantucket coast. The recovery was slow, but one day the same nurse who had been bringing me books to read every day mentioned how nice the lady was who brought the books and sat every day waiting for permission to see me. Longing for company I begged to meet this generous hospital visitor. The nurse explained, ‘It’s a Miss Lillian Hellman.’ The Marquands had asked her to look after me in their absence. The long convalescence from hospital to house became transformed by the presence of this woman whose dynamism, generosity and wisdom were to form another element in my political education.

Lillian came daily to see me, travelling between two sick-beds, from the converted windmill which she shared with Dashiell Hammett, who lay in the last stages of his life, his body broken by the imprisonment he had suffered at the hands of the Senate sub-committee headed by Joseph McCarthy, to where I lay eagerly awaiting her visits. At our first meetings she referred to her dying partner as Mr. Hammett, and only after a time did she feel at ease enough to speak of him as Dash. It was her Southern version of the ‘Tutoyer’ rule.

The value and meaning of this friendship was to mature over the coming years, for it was fundamentally a political friendship. With astounding clarity Lillian Hellman demonstrated for me that two realms which up until then I had seen as separate were fatally connected, I mean the realms of political event and personal experience. It was only because she had lived this that she knew it.

In March 1949 Shostakovich and Hellman sat side-by-side as guests of honour at a Conference for World Peace held at the New York Waldorf. The terrified composer, saturated with the fear that was his daily condition as a Soviet artist both pampered and despised by Stalin, was now being lionized in the capitalist state while outside pickets marched with placards declaring ‘Hold your communistic propaganda meetings in Russia. We don’t want you here!’ And, ‘Shostakovich jump thru the window!’ At the same time that one regime was shattering the life of its leading composer, another regime was shattering the lives of a famous literary couple. She was in no doubt that the persecution of the House Committee on Un-American Activities that began in 1948, jailed Hammett in ’51 and pursued its inquisition up to 1953 when he was still testifying before the Senate Internal Security Sub-committee – that all that was merely to serve the relentless climb to power of Richard Nixon. In a way, she stood on an intellectual version of the Gun Lobby’s case, ‘Guns don’t kill people – people do!’ However complex the political and financial structures, Lillian insisted that the activation of events, and their culpability, lay in the hands of men. It was Faulkner’s theme. It was Hellman’s theme. On the night she drove me back from the hospital to the Marquands’ there was a ferocious Atlantic storm over the island. She told me how, on a similar night, with Storm Warnings telling people to remain indoors and all the phone-lines down, the producer of her play ‘Toys in the Attic’ begged her to drive him into the town as he had to make an urgent phone call. She refused, saying it was far too dangerous. He begged her. He said his son was in hospital dying and he had to have news of him. Obliged, she drove him to the town. As she waited outside the booth in the post-office, she heard his voice. He was ringing the New York Theatre’s box office and asking for the figures of the week’s returns. On the way back, a tree that would have killed them crashed right in front of her car.

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