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A Summer With Lillian Hellman

Nell Mohn (center, rear, wearing a t-shirt promoting Hellman's last book) with Lillian Hellman (front, center) and friends at "Chip Chop," Katharine Cornell's former home on Martha's Vineyard in 1980.
Thirty years earlier, on the same steps Nell Mohn took with Hellman: Katharine Cornell (fifth from the left) at "Chip Chop" in 1954. Beside Cornell are Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller. Here, Cornell once coaxed a despairing Vivien Leigh back into the house from the ocean's edge, and the two great actresses performed the mad scene from Hamlet for a tape recorder. The autographs of the Lunts, Rex Harrison, Noel Coward, and Laurence Olivier still grace the walls.

Nell Mohn reminisces about the author of The Little Foxes

Nell Mohn, director of strategic development at MusicalFare Theatre, has a photograph of herself taken during the summer of 1980, when she was a young Wells College student. She’s crossing the front yard of a Cape Cod style home on Martha’s Vineyard with three other women. Mohn is third from the left. The older woman, front and center, is unmistakable. She is a literary icon and a titan of the American theater, the great Lillian Hellman.

The current production of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play, The Little Foxes, at the Irish Classical Theatre Company, once again reminds us of its contentious author and her fantastic imagination. It is often said that the play is based on the two sides of Hellman’s mother’s family, one from the merchant class, the other aristocratic. Divisiveness was to be the hallmark of the playwright’s entire life and career.

Recalling that Mohn had known Hellman personally, I asked her to share her memories of that remarkable summer.

“This is the only photograph I have of myself with Miss Hellman,” says Mohn. “I worked for her that summer as a live-in companion and assistant. The girl holding her hand in the photo is my friend Heather, another Wells student, who helped me get the job. The photo was taken on a remarkable day. We had driven Miss Hellman to the spectacular home of Milton Gordon. The house [on an 18-acre peninsula] was built for First Lady of the American Theater, Katharine Cornell [in 1937]. It was a big complex on the top of a hill overlooking the ocean on one side and next to a lake on the other. Gordon had built a saltwater pool overlooking the ocean. The pool was lined with tile; saltwater was pumped in and then heated! It was the most amazing place to swim. The other girls and I used the pool while Miss Hellman went in to visit with Milton and his friends.”

In her book, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Time of Lillian Hellman (2012, Bloomsbury Press), Alice Kessler-Harris describes a parade of college students employed by the great American author in her later years:

As she became older, sicker, and more needy, Hellman’s irascibility and her specificity increased. So too did the speed with which a succession of college and graduate students came and went. She needed these students to read to her, take her to doctor’s appointments and to help around the house…Her abrupt and angry manners offended more than a few. For several years in the late seventies and early eighties she did not scruple to ask student helpers to make their homes in a tent on her Martha’s Vineyard lawn…

Nell Mohn, a Wells College student, chose to do so in the summer of 1980. After some negotiation, Hellman hired her as a “general housekeeper and assistant secretary” in the spring of 1980…[Hellman] suggested Mohn start work in the kitchen, “giving the ice box a thorough cleaning, the floors and counters a thorough scrubbing, and do the same in the room that contains the freezer and the washing machine.”

Kessler-Harris reports that Mohn was not among the student employees who were offended by Hellman’s demanding nature and quick temper.

“Mohn turned out to be a great success,” Kessler-Harris writes. “When she left that fall, Hellman gave her a letter to take with her. In it, she described Mohn as a ‘young woman of extraordinary intelligence of serious education…of conscience, of dignity,’ concluding that this was ‘not only a letter of recommendation for Miss Mohn, it is a letter of admiration.’”

A copy of Hellman’s letter to Nell Mohn is in Lillian Hellman archive at the University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Before this interview, Mohn was unaware that she was mentioned in the biography or that the letter was housed in the archive. She was startled when I quoted it to her.

Other former student-companions of Lillian Hellman have written books. Mohn has not. Indeed, she was even unaware that she had been discussed in the Kessler-Harris biography.

“I knew that at least two Lillian Hellman companions had written books which were published and reviewed,” confirms Mohn, “but I haven’t read them. I didn’t want someone else’s story to tarnish my own memories. Some day, I hope to present my own experiences—whether through a story, a book, or a play.”

At least one of the student-companion stories is spectacularly unflattering. A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman by Rosemary Mahoney is a veritable hatchet job written by a woman who imagined herself sipping cocktails with Hellman and becoming her best friend, while the literary greatness of an American icon rubbed off on her. Mahoney seemed to resent being called upon to do the household chores for which she was hired, and early in her book actually celebrates Hellman’s death with glee.

Mohn’s reaction to this description of the Mahoney book does a lot to explain why she was successful as a Hellman employee, where others were not.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” says Mohn. “Miss Hellman was demanding, but she truly did need help at that point in her life. I guess I had my fantasies about her too, before I got to Martha’s Vineyard. I went into it young and idealistic. I imagined Lillian Hellman as a positive, even poetic person, like the character Jane Fonda played in the film, Julia. I knew she was the woman who stood up to Joseph McCarthy: ‘I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion.’ I was hoping to see the great literary figure at work.

“I quickly discovered that the Lillian Hellman of my imagination was gone. She did very little writing that summer. That disappointed me, I suppose, but I had a choice. I could either continue to be disappointed, or I could embrace her and accept the woman she had become. Yes, it was thankless work in a way, but I was glad that I was able to help her. I think she appreciated the work I did for her and I took great satisfaction in that.

“She had certain affection for us, but it was clear that we were servants. Her health and eyesight were failing. I remember helping her put on her lipstick, clipping her fingernails and her toenails. It was that intimate. I developed a servant’s discretion. I didn’t talk about her in the local community. There are still aspects of her life and privacy that I am uncomfortable discussing. I still cannot call her anything but ‘Miss Hellman.’ I think I never will.”

Having the right mindset seems to have been critical to successful employment in Hellman’s home. Mohn recalls that Hellman would have her girls vacuum the house from top to bottom and then the next day she would insist that she saw dust. “We’d have to do the whole thing again,” says Mohn, matter-of-factly. “Her eyesight was failing, but if she said she saw dust, we’d just vacuum again.

“In the kitchen, she had a drawer where she would put all of her bills. She was terrible with vendors. She never paid until they called and begged, and then she’d make some story and carry on until they lowered the price. She could be very dramatic.

“Of course if there was anything that Miss Hellman needed at the moment, we would have to deal with these same vendors. One time when we were barbecuing late at night the electric lamp went out. Miss Hellman had me walk down to the hardware store to get it fixed. The place was run by two sisters, Shirley and Ruth. The town was small enough that the year round people who ran the stores knew everybody, especially the summertime celebrities. Well, I had to identify myself so I could run a tab, because Miss Hellman certainly wasn’t going to pay cash right away. So when I said I told them I worked for Miss Hellman, the more venerable sister said to me, ‘Oh honey, they’re going to carry you out of here in a plastic bag!’ I just laughed.”

What else was satisfying about the job?

“Miss Hellman was a larger-than-life personality,” she says, “and she entertained friends all summer long. Running her house was like running a big bed-and-breakfast. During that summer, her great feud with Mary McCarthy was in high gear.”

The McCarthy feud. In January of 1980, in response to a question from Dick Cavett about what writers she thought were overrated, McCarthy had offered the names Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, and Lillian Hellman, adding of Hellman, “I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Hellman, who was watching the television program, was livid. She called her pal, writer John Hersey, and announced her intention to sue. She did, for $2.25 million. The case was still unresolved at the time of her death in 1984—though much of McCarthy’s claim was, by then, substantiated. Both Lillian Hellman and her lover and mentor Dashiell Hammett had a tendency to burnish their legend through a form of fictionalized or appropriated autobiography.

Mohn recalls that Hersey (author of Hiroshima and one of the early proponents of the “New Journalism”) was a frequent visitor that summer, along with his wife Barbara (the former wife of Charles Addams and the model for Morticia Addams).

“She did not discuss the McCarthy dispute in front of us, but she would reminisce. She talked about Dashiell Hammett quite a lot, and she had many famous friends. Art Buchwald came up. James Taylor and Carly Simon. The writer Maureen Howard. Drama critic Robert Brustein. [Critics] Richard Poirier and Wayne Warga. Edward Said. [Hellman’s longtime friend, companion, biographer, and heir] Peter Feibleman came up. Claudette Colbert was supposed to come up, but she canceled.

“She owned a fishing boat that she would sometimes rent out. I remember once going out on the boat with her and with the Herseys. She’d hold court while we handed out the lunch and the beer. There were times when nobody was visiting and we would all go down to the beach with her. There she’d be in her bathing cap and bright green goggles—smoking all the time.

“She was a wonderful conversationalist with a proclivity for exaggeration. Yes, she could be sharp-tongued and nasty, but she could also be wonderfully funny and enormously generous. Her eyesight was almost gone. She needed very large print, and she would often ask me to read to her. In fact, her last book, Maybe: A Story, came out that summer. I had to read the New York Times review to her, and it was not positive. She took it very well. She just listened, and then she took a copy of the book and inscribed it to me. I was very touched by that.”

How did Mohn feel about being relegated to the tent outdoors?

“I liked it,” she says. “It was nice to have a place of my own where I could escape at the end of the day. When I first got to Martha’s Vineyard, before Miss Hellman got there, I stayed in the house. Jacob Epstein was staying there too; he was the son of Jason Epstein, a vice president at Random House, and his mother was an editor at the New York Review of Books. He was an aspiring writer and he helped himself to a guest room! I didn’t dare.”

“Eventually Miss Hellman asked me to stay on, as a more permanent arrangement, and to return to Manhattan with her,” says Mohn, “but I wasn’t interested to do that. We did correspond and I returned to work for her in 1982. She needed someone to go to the Vineyard to get her house up and running. That was quite an undertaking, but I knew how to do it and was happy to help.”

Mohn recalls hearing the news of Hellman’s death with great sadness and regret.

“She died in 1984, just two years after I had last worked for her,” says Mohn. “I felt very sad, but I think I also felt guilty. I had not been in touch with her and it was my fault. I guess with a young person’s lack of awareness, I was the one who let our correspondence fall off. Miss Hellman was very good about staying in touch.”

The Irish Classical Theatre production of Hellman’s The Little Foxes features a delicious star turn by Josephine Hogan as ruthless and ambitious Regina Hubbard Giddens. The mostly pleasing production, under the direction of Greg Natale, also features superior work by Eric Rawski and Robert Rutland as Regina’s odious brothers, and Gary Darling as her contemptuous husband. The Little Foxes continues through November 17 at the Andrews Theatre. See the “On the Boards” section for details.