Monday, April 9, 2012

A beautiful Easter Weekend

Cherry Blossom picking. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, April 9, 2012. A beautiful Easter Weekend. Sunny and bright, cool but comfortable.

The City was quiet, as if the religious holidays had lent a calm. On Saturday night I went over to Café Luxembourg to have dinner with an old friend. Café Lux is on the other side of town for me and it was an eight minute cab ride – usually twice that, because the streets were clear, almost empty of traffic uptown.
Easter Sunday along the John Finley Walk in Carl Schurz Park.
This stage is the Impressionist one where many trees are new and in transformation.
A bed of lavender flowers underneath a flowering tree.
A father pitches a ball to his son in the plaza of the park at the foot of East 86th Street.
The north side of the plaza. Gracie Mansion sits just beyond.
The south side of the plaza. That's 120 East End Avenue in the background, built by Vincent Astor, who developed much of the avenue in the 1920s.
Zooming in on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island just cross the river.
Two Degrees of Separation. Liz Smith’s column last week about the new Lillian Hellman biography, “A Difficult Woman,” reminded me that I met Hellman when I lived in Los Angeles; and although I was never in her company more than two or three times, it was entirely memorable.

The first time was a Sunday when Lady Sarah Churchill invited me to join her at a brunch that Marti Stevens was having at her house in the Palisades. The lure for me was that Lillian Hellman would be there. Marti's father, Nick Schenck, ran Loew’s, Inc. which owned MGM, and her uncle Joe Schenck founded what became 20th Century-Fox with LB Mayer for Darryl Zanuck and Mayer’s son-in-law Bill Goetz. Marti was a real child of Hollywood.

Paul Harris and Marti Stevens in All Night Long, 1962.
Lillian Hellman.
She was also an accomplished actress, especially on the musical comedy stage here and in London. Having grown up in the business and then having a career, she had a great variety of friends who were actors, authors, directors, composers, and lyricists as well as society people.

Lillian Hellman by then (about 1981) was in her late 70s and something of a legend as well as a best-selling author, if somewhat too nettlesome for some people (namely fellow authors). I had read her books and had seen a couple of her plays when they were made into films. She was her own woman and she was good.

Her face was famous by then, as she was not infrequently a guest on television talk shows and interviews. Naturally I was curious to meet her.

Marti’s house in the Palisades, had once belonged to the English actress and musical comedy star, Gladys Cooper, and was on the Riviera Country Club golf course. It was a small but rambling clapboard house that had probably been built earlier in the century as someone’s country cottage. It reminded me of the lakeside cottages in New England -- painted rustic, minimal but cozy, and comfortable with lots of paned windows, which in this case looked over the golf course.

There were about ten guests including Anthony Andrews, who had recently become famous in the PBS production of “Brideshead Revisited.” First meeting Lillian was uneventful. I don’t recall much conversation with her personally, but it was a small group and everyone was chatting with everyone else. Brunch was improvised after the guests had arrived.

Lillian, whose eyesight was failing, volunteered to do the scrambled eggs, claiming that she was very good at it. No one would argue with her although I noticed that Marti and Sarah were concerned about her ability to see what she was doing. She also smoked a lot. Frequently. Almost all the time. Like those photos of people in the 30s and 40s and 50s, she often had a cigarette in her hand. And in these days, the cigarette was usually a marijuana joint. I don’t recall anyone being surprised or taken aback by it, but then she was Lillian Hellman, older than the rest of us and clearly didn’t care what anybody thought anyway.

Nevertheless at the stove with the frying pan in front of her with the eggs scrambling, she was smoking a joint and occasionally flicking the ashes in the garnishes for the eggs that Sarah had chopped up and put on the side of the stove. This caused a greater alertness over Lillian’s movements although no one said anything (and those who were watching got a good laugh out of it).

Breakfast/brunch was great with everyone around the table on this particular bright sunny Sunday noontime.
Elizabeth Taylor and Lillian Hellman.
The second time I saw Lillian was at a dinner party Lady Sarah gave one Saturday night at her house in Beverly Hills. Lillian came with her great friend, the writer Peter Feibleman (who later published a memoir about her: “Lilly”). She quickly settled comfortably into one of Sarah’s bergeres, pulled out a joint, lit up, and conversation flowed. I loved talking to her because she had no airs about her, was very responsive to any question and had well-defined and authoritative opinions on subjects that interested her. She also had an obvious fondness for tweaking the conventional.

It happened that that night was also the pre-Broadway opening night of Elizabeth Taylor’s first stage appearance in a revival of Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” at a theater in Florida. By the time we finished the first course at dinner, Sarah’s butler informed Miss Hellman that she had a phone call from the producer with his report of the performance. This was an exciting moment at the table. Lillian came back and told everyone that Taylor was a big hit (surprise, surprise), and she was very pleased.

Elizabeth Taylor, Novella Nelson and Ann Talman in The Little Foxes, 1981.
She pulled another joint out of her pack (they had all been pre-rolled for her) and lit up.

In those days, thirty years ago, people still smoked cigarettes at the dinner table, even at dinner parties. Usually they waited until a course was finished, or the dinner was finished, but there were those who couldn’t and didn’t wait. Lillian Hellman was one of them. She never seemed to be “high” or out of character, and she wasn’t one to deeply inhale as if it indicate that she was having a toke. She claimed that she smoked marijuana because it was helpful with her glaucoma. She was a very serious woman in her natural demeanor and it would never occur to anybody to (dare to) question her explanation.

Dinner conversation that night eventually came around to politics. People could still discuss politics in a non-partisan way in those days, and Ronald Reagan had recently been inaugurated President. Among the guests that night were well-known Reagan friends and supporters such as the Alfred Bloomingdales and the Armand Deutsches. At the point where the subject was active Lillian, who up until then had refrained from expressing her opinion, put out her cigarette and said to nobody in particular: “It doesn’t matter, the whole world will be communist in fifty years.”

Lillian Hellman’s relationship to “communist” was a major bugaboo during the Cold War witch hunts of the 1950s.  But I got the feeling when she put that out to the table, which was occupied by several people with close ties to the British and American governments, that she was being not provocative so much as “bratty.”  Tweak tweak. She knew what she thought and wasn’t perturbed by it, but she knew it could annoy others. Whether or not it did that night in Beverly Hills was unknown to me. Everyone treated Lillian Hellman respectfully, or discreetly ignored her. It didn’t seem as if she cared how they felt one way or the other, however; she was just enjoying herself.
Lillian ready to light up (I think it's a real cigarette).
Despite her potentially dogmatic way of thinking, she was an entirely charming woman to share company with. She was friendly and loved a good laugh. She was smart and hip. She treated everyone including her much younger dinner partners like friends. She was self-assured the way you expect a distinguished, accomplished artist of a certain age might be.

I don’t recall ever seeing her again after that night at Sarah’s dinner. She was already in failing health. Peter Feibleman was more than a friend but like family, a generation younger, as if a son. Despite her physical infirmities, she was a gregarious woman who loved good company and, no doubt, by then, a good joint for her glaucoma.

This past weekend I was telling Peter Rogers about Liz’s review of the new Hellman biography when he told me that he’d used her in one of his “What Becomes A Legend Most” Blackglama ads, and how it came about last minute.

Ginger Rogers was to be the subject. The shoot was set up with photographer Bill King, makeup artist Way Bandy and Ginger never showed up. Peter didn’t want to cancel because he had already contracted the expensive talent for it. He called Rogers’ cousin, Phyllis Cerf Wagner asking if she knew how to get in touch with her, or where she was. Wagner said “Ginger was always undependable about these things.” She had no solution.
Peter Rogers having a laugh with Liz Smith. The lady who never showed that day: Ginger Rogers.
Peter then called his friend Claudette Colbert who had done the ad long before. Did she have any ideas? She said she was having lunch that day with Lillian Hellman; should she ask her if she’d be interested? Yes, but it had to be immediately.

So when Claudette Colbert met Lillian Hellman for lunch she asked. A car would pick her up and deliver her. All she had to do was be made up and wear the coat – and in exchange be given the coat.

Hellman said yes immediately. Colbert called Rogers and said: “I’ve got your next Legend.” After lunch, a car picked up Lillian Hellman and took her over to the studio where she demonstrated What Becomes a Legend Most.
Lillian Hellman poses impromptu with some help from Way Bandy in Peter Roger's "What Becomes a Legend Most?" Blackglama ad.

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