Any fool or friend could tell Jackie Onassis, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen and Mike Nichols to shut up. Only Lillian Hellman could get away with it.
The 69-year-old writer simmered during a $100-a-ticket benefit dinner in her honor at Gallagher’s steak house in New York. When a banquet speaker, MIT President Jerome Wiesner, approached the microphone, most of the 250 guests continued to babble, and Hellman boiled over.
“Shut up, shut up. Be still. Quiet!” she shouted. The audience, stunned and silent, broke into cheers and applause.
It was, after all, vintage Hellman—she once had tried to hush magpie Tallulah Bankhead by smashing a chair against a wall. This latest show of temper was quickly lionized. “That for me was the high point of the evening,” gushed composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein. “It was the old Lillian, the real Lillian, au gratin.”
For her less intimate friends, the night’s entertainment was limited to the small Circle in the Square Theatre, which was jammed to capacity. The audience heard stars like Fonda and Maureen Stapleton give dramatic readings from such Hellman plays as The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine and from her two memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento.
The tribute raised about $35,000 for the Committee for Public Justice, a civil liberties group Hellman started five years ago. Her partisans recalled with pride Hellman’s refusal to furnish names of suspected Communists during the congressional witch hunts of the 1950s. “She was in the forefront and she suffered enormously,” said actress Jane Fonda, who endured some vilification herself during the Vietnam war. “She’s a model to us all.”
Hellman’s refusal “to cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion”—as she told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952—cost her eight hungry years on the Hollywood blacklist of screenwriters. It has taken her more than two decades and four attempts, but she has finally finished a book about those painful years called Scoundrel Time, to be published in April. She now plans to go to a sunny climate, probably Barbados, for six months’ “vacation. I only call it that,” she confesses, “because I don’t want to hear myself say I am sick. I have a lung ailment, and the doctor wants me to go away.”
It did not prevent Hellman from smoking and playing games with Warren Beatty, who returned from Paris too late to act in the tribute.
“You didn’t offer to play a single part,” Hellman complained with mock scorn. “I offered to play you,” Beatty grinned.
America’s most famous woman playwright had the last dramatic word when ladies’ man Beatty, 38, scooped her 5’4″ frame off the floor in a gorilla embrace. With the inflection and timing of a stage veteran, Hellman rolled her eyes toward the ceiling in feigned ecstasy and purred, “Warren, I can’t tell you what it means to be kissed by you.”