Two rarely seen stories by Lillian Hellman
Ms. Hellman wrote these when she was 23-24ish. I think at that time she was divorced, working at MGM as a reader, and had just met the love of her life, Dashiell Hammett. The stories are the first flexing of her literary muscle. They were published once, in a magazine called The American Spectator in 1933 and 1934. A friend of mine told me she disparaged these initial works in her memoirs but they cracked me up, and I loved the references to Los Angeles.
I CALL HER MAMA NOW
by LILLIAN HELLMAN KOBER
I call her Mama now, but when I went to the De Guinzberg School for Modern Advanced Children I had to call her Clem. Madame Cecile De Guinzberg — she supervised our lack of inhibitions — often used to say, “Eden, you’re a problem child. You can’t call your mother Mother or Mama. You’ve got to call her by her first name. The other is so antimacassar.” (That was the time I made answer, “Thank you, Madame, the agony has never abated.” Madame De Guinzberg is notably not bright and she never knew I got it from Macauley. I had been reading Macauley behind a copy of “Venus in Furs,” which was prescribed reading for the Fall term. I like inhibited writers.)
Well, anyway, when I was ten — in 1929 — Pa, who had never been around much anyway, disappeared. I didn’t care much for Pa and I didn’t pity him, because I had always thought he was a little silly. He’s out in Tacoma now mixing blood and bone for cattle feed, but he wrote right away to say he was quite happy and Mama could keep the money — he had plenty on his twelve bucks a week. Mama gets a thousand a week alimony, but I think that’s going to the other extreme. I don’t believe in extremes.
Well, anyway, the day after Pa left, I came home from school after a particularly nasty row with Madame De Guinzberg. During our French lesson — in three years we had never gotten further than Sims’ “First Reader” — Madame said, “As de Maupassant would have said…”
Well, sir, that got me riled. I’m usually pretty calm but, my God, there are some things you just can’t stand. Anyway, I said, “Look here, Madame, I’m tired of your inaccuracies. It isn’t de Maupassant unless you put his first name in front of it. When referring to him hearafter kindly say Maupassant, just plain Maupassant.”
Madame flew right off the handle. “You’re a throw-back,” she screamed, “a lousy, pedantic throw-back! This is the new way to raise children and you might as well get that through your fin de siècle head!” (That’s the only French phrase that Madame could pronounce without sounding as if she had the telephone directory in her mouth.)
Well, anyway, Putzel Angus, a cretin of twelve, who sat on my right, began to throw books at Madame De Guinzberg, and Madame threw a bottle of whiskey at Putzel, and everybody began spitting, and the usual afternoon row was on. I was disgusted, finally, and I made up my mind then.
Mama was lying on the couch when I got home. Mama looks like an adagio dancer and, although she comes from a good enough family and has published a volume of poetry, “Chaos in Taos,” her table manners are vile and she’s silly, too. (I treat her as if she weren’t quite bright and I think that’s the best way to treat people like that.)
Well, anyway, I had to go in for my “five-thirty companionship” talk with Mama. I sat down, and, being ever desirous of having to listen to Mama as little as possible, I began to read the second volume of Spengler. (Of course, I realized full well, even then, that in the Marxist sense he hadn’t the proper historical balance, but then it’s quite nice stuff.) Mama immediately asked: “What are you reading, honey?” I said Spengler, and she wanted to know if there was any cohabitation, any frank meeting of problems, in it, because otherwise Madame De Guinzberg shouldn’t allow…
Well, sir, that set me off. I said, “Look here. Pa’s left home and now I’m leaving, too, unless things get a lot better! Moreover, from now on you’re not Clem to me, you’re Mama, or you’re nothing at all.”
“Moreover,” I said, “a decade is ending.”
“That’s it,” Mama said, “you’re decadent.”
Well, anyway, what can you do with a woman like that? I said, “Look here, Mama, I am sick of all this. I won’t hear any more about your lovers and I want every book by Stekel thrown out of the house. Tell your brother he’s Uncle Wallace to me after this, and I don’t want to see him naked anymore. Tell your sister she’s now Aunt Minnie to me and to stop giving me those talks on the new sex freedom.” (Aunt Minnie’s a nasty flat-chested woman and I want to grow up to be the full-bodied type that Grandpa used to have on the old Erie.) “It’s not going to make my attitude toward sex any more beautiful; and tell her to stop saying that, too. I want to pick sex up in the gutter and I’m not going to any more speakeasies with you. You and your friends are very, very bad drunks.” (I myself am an excellent drinker, preferring a little wine always.) “And I eat no more sauces and no more crêpes! In short, Mama, although I realize this isn’t coherent, I want an old fashioned home.” I stalked out.
Well, Mama and I never did come to a compromise, and I got tired of Aunt Minnie telling me I was just like Grandpa, just as old fashioned. She said I was a throw-back.
Well, anyway, as I say we just couldn’t get along. I haven’t seen Mama since 1930, though I hear that this year she has taken up dogs and Jews and has them in on Sundays. Last week she wrote me that “the future of the country is in Union Square — if only you could see those rapt, englamouring faces.” That’s Mama.
Well, anyway, I came out to Pa in Tacoma — though I don’t see him much either, because I don’t believe in extremes — and now I go to a very strict convent school and I’m translating the sixth book of Virgil into Hebrew. I think I’m going to marry a man called Morton. Morton used to be a waiter in Bullock’s Los Angeles roof-garden restaurant. He likes good, plain food and he’s ashamed of sex, which is swell.
Published in The American Spectator, September 1933.
PERBERTY IN LOS ANGELES
by LILLIAN HELLMAN KOBER
Well, about three weeks ago I wrote to Pa asking him if he couldn’t please call his dogs off. But Pa couldn’t do anything — he hasn’t seen Ma since 1929. Anyway, he’s married to a stout milliner now, and he lives in Butte, Montana.
Well, sir, here I’ve been happy in Tacoma, glad to be away from the De Guinzberg school, glad to be…well, anyway, I’ve been glad. All of a sudden comes this letter from Mama saying that it is very important that she and Aunt Minnie and Uncle Wallace see me right away and that they’d be out to Tacoma, if they could find it.
Well, I wrote Mama right away and said not to come here, for God’s sake — this is a convent school and they might not understand Mama — and if they had to come, I’d meet them in Los Angeles. I figured Los Angeles wouldn’t be surprised at anything.
Well, last week they arrived and I went down to meet them. They had rented a house on Cedar Drive. The man who owned the house was an Armenian theatrical producer and the costumes from several of his old chorus numbers were hung on the living-room wall. Mama said she thought the house was drab and decadent.
When I arrived the three of them were sitting at the bottom of the swimming pool. (Mama recently organized something called The Society For Atonement and she figured that was atoning for something.) It took me about ten minutes and a fishing pole to make them understand I had arrived. When they had had four cocktails, evil smelling, and I had had a little elderberry wine, I said, “Look here, Mama, I’m very glad to see you and all that, but is it that is so important?”
Mama smiled: “We thought you needed us, darling.”
I said that was kind of foolish on the face of it, but Mama said, no, to please remember that I was past fourteen now and would need expert guidance. I said I didn’t understand and they all smiled and looked at the sky for about five minutes. Finally, Aunt Minnie said dreamily, “You’re coming into the age of perberty, darling.” After I had corrected her pronunciation, I said I knew it and so what? Then Uncle Wallace told me that it must be a beautiful time for a woman, a beautiful awakening. I asked him whether he hadn’t ever come into anything like puberty but he said it wasn’t exactly the same thing. That gives you an idea of Uncle Wallace.
“Well, for God’s sake,” I said, “don’t tell me you got me all the way down here to tell me about puberty?” (Four weeks ago I had started to translate Xeophon’s “Memorabilia” into English and I resented this time lost.)
Mama put her hand out and picked one of the Armenian’s roses. She held it to her nose and looked at me over the thorns. “Now, darling, even though you saw fit to leave the modern, intelligent life that I struggled,—sacrificed, I might even say,—struggled to give you; even though you saw fit to leave Madame De Guinzberg’s excellent guidance, preparatory to life, I might say…”
“Start that sentence over again, Mama,” I said, “I can’t follow you.”
Uncle Wallace shook his head: “If you’d pay more attention to life, Eden, and less to grammar, you’d find yourself a fuller, richer person.”
“I like grammar,” I said, “and I think you don’t like it because you don’t know any.” (Uncle Wallace eats lunch at the Colony every day and occasionally publishes a little prose which is always copied from “A Night in the Luxembourg.”)
Mama threw her rose in the pool and seemed to find some significance in the fact that it floated. She sighed about that for a while and then turned again to me. “Eden! Please realize that it is now, at this age, that your first desires awaken, that your emotional life becomes, becomes”…she waved her arms and Aunt Minnie said, “Becomes something to be reckoned with. You must meet these problems frankly and we are here to help.”
I said, “Why don’t you stop going to those doctors, Aunt Minnie, and talk some sense!”
“You see,” Aunt Minnie screamed to Mama, “you see how unreceptive she is! She has no feelings, no emotions.” Aunt Minnie started to cry.
Mama leaned over. “Eden! You are hurting us very much. We have made this hot, fatiguing journey”—they really came out with three servants and four drawing-rooms—“trekked across the continent, because after all you are my child, and I must see that your life, sacrifice myself, I might say and certainly the mother instinct.”… Well, by this time I had my eyes closed. I was thinking of the severe prose of Xenophon.
“Mama,” I said, “try to collect yourself.”
Aunt Minnie stopped crying to say, “There she sits, there she sits, talking of ‘collecting oneself’! Our generation which sent through the war with high disillusionment, struggled to tear these things down, to establish a new freedom for the man and the woman — and there she sits telling us to collect ourselves!”
“Minnie,” Mama said, “you are incoherent. Let us deal with this more calmly. Now, come, dear, confide in your mother.”
“Mama, there is very little to confide. My year has been pleasant; I arise at seven and retire at nine. For the last four weeks I have been translating the ‘Memorabilia’ and Father Coughlin — a Jesuit and an educated man — thinks that it is not without merit.”
“But Eden,” Mama said, “have you no stirrings?”
“Stirrings, stirrings! Aunt Minnie screamed. “You are mincing words. Have you felt no yearnings to embrace the boys in the fields, to tell your secrets to the skies, to lie in the dells and crannies?”
“Mama,” I said, “make Aunt Minnie shut up.”
“But, my dear,” Mama said, “you are coming into puberty and we must get that settled.”
“A big, handsome animal,” Aunt Minnie sobbed, “certainly that is normal.”
“It is normal,” said Mama, “and of course we will forgive you and assist you.” Mama suddenly arose and took me in her arms. “Minnie,” she said over my shoulder, “you have never been a mother.”
Well, she cried for about fifteen minutes and Uncle Wallace told me that he thought it was one of the most beautiful moments of his life. “A huge, cloudy symbol of a high delight,” but of course he misquoted. Then he said it was like the bleeding of an inner heart.
Well, I finally got away. I don’t think they noticed because they were going to a party for a prize-fighter. A big, handsome animal, Aunt Minnie called him. I wanted to get back to Tacoma to see an outdoor production of “Il Penseroso.”
Published in The American Spectator, January 1934