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Tennessee Williams & Lillian Hellman

A few years ago I was browsing in the stacks of a school library outside of Great Barrington, MA. I should have been working. I probably told myself I was resting. I picked a volume of Tennessee Williams's letters off the shelf. I opened it at random.

There was a young man in 1949, fresh off a great Broadway hit, a play that was to become immortal. He was frightened that it was all about to be taken away from him. Tennessee Williams was living in Rome that summer. He'd received a letter from the producer of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Irene Selznick. They all anticipated a sale of the film rights of Williams's successful play to Hollywood. There were problems, however. The Hollywood censor was unhappy. Tennessee's play included a rape. Blanche Dubois's husband was gay. The censor wouldn't allow those things in a wholesome play for an American audience. Irene told Tennessee she'd discovered the solution. She was handing his play over to an ace screenwriter who'd fix things to please the censor. Lillian Hellman.

He was terrified. He was indignant. He fired off a letter to the play's director, Elia Kazan. He wanted to try and stop Hellman from touching his play.

In that moment was born my idea for a book about them.

Here were two giants of the American theatre facing off at the peak of their career. I'd always loved them both. I think I first wanted to be a writer after seeing the depiction of her writing life in "Julia," the Jane Fonda film made from Hellman's memoir, PENTIMENTO. I'd always admired his bravery as a writer. He was openly gay in an era when almost no one else was. He dared write about this not only in STREETCAR but also in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

Her first hit, in the 1930s, was also a kind of gay play. A mischievous schoolgirl tells a lie about her two teachers, they're lesbians. This lie turns out to contain elements of the truth. The same could be said of the modern day controversy over Hellman's memoirs. Are they bald lies that contain elements of the truth? Or are they emotional truths? Are they fictions she longed to represent as faithful depictions of fact, for example, her difficult relationship with Hammett?

Those are some things I'm playing with, dear reader, as George Eliot liked to say. Comments welcome. They help me more than you know. Read More 
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