Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2002
It’s one of the most famously vitriolic insults in literary history. Writer Mary McMarthy went on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980 and called fellow writer Lillian Hellman a fraud. “Every word she writes is a lie,” she said, “including and and the.”
“I was completely mesmerized,” confessed Nora Ephron. “You couldn’t help but think it was one of the greatest sentences ever uttered in a bad mood, ever.” Ephron, award-winning essayist, novelist, screenwriter and director, was so fascinated by the legendary rivalry that it inspired her to write her very first stage drama, a “play with music” entitled “Imaginary Friends,” which premieres at the Globe Theatres (through November 3), before heading directly to Broadway.
“I’d always been fascinated by this fight between them,” said Ephron, who’s known for her blockbuster movies (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally”) and best-selling books (“Heartburn,” “Crazy Salad”). “Then I read a couple of very good biographies of Mary McCarthy and began thinking, ‘Was there anything worth writing about her? And I thought, ‘No, the really great thing is about the two of them.’ …. But I kept thinking ‘This is very tricky, because they were barely together’… But then I thought, ‘But now they are! Now they’re both dead. The two of them are now together, and I could have quite a lot of fun with that in a play.”
Ephron had a great deal of fun indeed. She didn’t have to invent too much, because the two led very rich, flamboyant lives. Both were married, multiple times, to high-profile writers. McCarthy (1912-1989), was a Catholic orphan who graduated from Vassar and wrote fiction and non-fiction that closely paralleled her life (e.g., “The Group,” “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood”). Her most famous husband, critic Edmund Wilson, had her committed to a mental institution. She tried to set fire to his office.
Hellman (1906-1984), who came from an upper middle-class Jewish intellectual background, dropped out of NYU. She wrote provocative plays such as “The Little Foxes,” “Toys in the Attic” and “The Children’s Hour,” as well as the memoirs “Scoundrel Time” and “Pentimento,” whose veracity was later questioned. Part of “Pentimento” was made into the movie “Julia,” with Jane Fonda as Hellman. She had a long-term, tempestuous relationship with detective writer Dashiell Hammett. After the scathing, televised affront, Hellman sued McCarthy for $2.25 million, but she didn’t live to see the case come to trial.
Ephron herself has led a pretty fascinating life. She attended Beverly Hills High School and went on to Wellesley, majoring in journalism. Her parents were screenwriters and two of her three sisters are writers. One of her sibs once compared dinnertime in their literate home to the Algonquin Round Table.
Ephron was married to writer Dan Greenburg before she hooked up with Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, a rocky relationship she immortalized in “Heartburn” (the book and movie). In 1987, she married journalist/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote “Goodfellas”); they currently live in New York. A multiple Oscar nominee, she is considered one of the film industry’s most respected screenwriters, and a valued director (“Sleepless in Seattle” and “This is My Life,” co-written with sister Delia). She’s had Hollywood’s best in her films, and scored a pretty high-powered team for her first play: Tony winners Cherry Jones (as Hellman) and Swoosie Kurtz (as McCarthy) star; Jack O’Brien directs, and Marvin Hamlisch wrote the music.
Ephron actually met Hellman, when she interviewed her in 1973 for the New York Times Book Review. Hellman was 67, Ephron, 26. “We became friends,” she recalls. “She was a blast. So much fun to be with. Lillian was a life force. I never met Mary McCarthy, but when they collided with such force… I was fascinated.”
One of the most revealing lines in the play is a wonderfully symmetrical invention, first Lillian speaking, then Mary: “You wrote fact and called it fiction. You wrote fiction and called it fact.”
“What I think is so interesting about them,” says Ephron, “is that two such smart women, such wonderful writers, might both have been wrong about each other and about the issue. Mary really believed that there was a difference between fact and fiction. She basically made a religion out of the truth. I don’t think she really understood that even when you tell the truth, you’re telling a story. And I think Lillian never realized that she’d gone way further than you could in telling a story and pretending that it was true. So it’s really very delicious, when you have two people who are absolutely sure they’re right, for different reasons, but is either of them right? That’s part of what the play is about.”
The question of truth in storytelling has threaded through Ephron’s career. “When I was working on the movie ‘Silkwood,'” she says, referring to her first film (1983) about a nuclear chemicals activist who died under questionable circumstances, “that’s one of the things we went through over and over again. You know, how do you tell the story? Depends on who’s telling it.”
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.